Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Catching up on Pathfinder: a Review of Ultimate Campaign

Realizing my Pathfinder backlog had grown to terrifying proportions, I decided it was time to forge deep into to the miasma of Paizo and Third-Party goodness that festers upon my shelf like a pixie wizard trapped in a troll's nether regions. There's a lot on the shelf...frankly, an enormous number of books that, in the tradition of whatever dominant mass-market D&D-like is in full bloom, populates book shelves across the nation with endless scenarios and splatbooks of incredibly pretty but sometimes dubious usability. Of these books I decided to first delve deep into...Ultimate Campaign.

Ultimate Campaign is a thick book with a lot of systems, ideas and mechanics to try and fill a bewildering variety of gaps in any given campaign. If you utilized every idea in this book then I would predict that your players will dive deep into combat and dungeoneering just to avoid the intensely tedious slog of book-keeping that adventuring downtime could end up taking.

If, however, you take each system in this book as a single enhancer for your campaign and choose only the ones that are likely to benefit your group's play styles then you will find Ultimate Campaign to be most welcoming and useful.

The first range of options provided is the one I immediately warmed up to the quickest: Backgrounds are presented in great detail, a way of creating interesting prehistories for your characters at the start of a campaign, or for any newly introduced character. The system is fairly simple, and can be randomized, answering questions such as the homeland, parents, siblings, and othere details, focusing first by race then later by another set of parameters for class, which expands the background to look at how your character came to be what he is, followed by influential associates, moral relations, the full traits system and much more. It's got a lot of detail but it's all designed to add flavor to your PCs and give both player and GM something to riff off of for new adventures, ideas and hooks that bring the PCs into the story.

Backgrounds like this have appeared in many other games in different forms, from the 3rd edition Campaign Book that was released with D&D 3.0 to the Cyberpunk lifepath generator and beyond, but what Pathfinder offers here works well for 3.75 with custom concepts and ideas for Pathfinder's specific take on classes and races. Take note that this material is all generic, designed for any fantasy campaign; a separate tome was released with Golarion specific content.

With backgrounds behind us we're 73 pages into this book. I give backgrounds a big thumbs up.

Part two is all about Downtime. The last time I can legitimately recall an RPG providing a set of mechanics to figure out what happened to the PCs between adventures was Cities, a supplement originally published by Midkemia Press as a generic sourcebook for RPGs, and later bought out by Chaosium/Avalon Hill and reissued, ultimately, as a sourcebook for Runequest 3 that was also coincidentally fairly usable with any game system.

The downtime mechanics in Ultimate Campaign are nothing like the Cities supplement, which I still use to this day. While Cities focused on personal events, random occurences, and a few modest choices for the players to decide on, the bulk of it was aimed at creating an odd narrative for your players to enjoy, in which they gained some unexpected insight into what their characters are doing in the fantasy world when no one's looking, essentially. You could start the process post-dungeon delve and end up married to a halfling social climber while being hounded by the local thieves guild due to unexpected gambling debts.

Downtime in Ultimate Campaigns has some fun random events, but you have to play this strange property management and investment minigame to get there first. It's very off-putting to me, though I am sure there are gamers out there who would love this thing. If an adventurer decides to spend his wealth acquiring a tavern, for example, I am prone to looking at or inventing a price sheet, building a narrative around it and making the acquisition part of that PC's story over time. Downtime here is about applying build points and designing the structure, managing it like an accountant, real estate agent, broker, or merchant would. It probably rubs me the wrong way because that's something I deal with on a certain level in real life (business management) and I want none of that garbage in my gaming. It's probably nowhere near as bad as I am making it sound....and the events listED later on intrigue me....but if I use this I will need to simplify it and/or make the process more holistic to the roleplay process and less of this whole build point mechanic nonsense.

You know, Downtime reminds me of the side quests in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood where you gradually buy up old properties in Rome and renovate them, invest and basically prop the city up on the ill-gotten blood money of the Assassin's secret cabal. Except in the video game it's fun and here it's just god awfully tedious.

We are now passing page 131. I'm going to give a thumbs down to Downtime, with the conditional that I may pillage it for events and ideas on doing this in a more holistic fashion.

Part three is labelled Campaign Systems, and it's all about a metric ton of little add-ons you can plug into your campaign to enhance the experience in ways you may never have realized you didn't care about in the first place...or never knew you couldn't live without. Here are the systems in a quick rundown:

Alignments: this is basically an elaboration on the alignment system, with a focus on how to make incremental changes to alignment over time. If you, like me, have had no problem over time telling someone, "hey it looks like Fred is acting chaotic evil these days, so I think he is now chaotic evil," then this system is going to seem fairly useless to you. If, however, you have always felt uncomfortable with such declarations, wanting to know just what gradient on the axis of chaos and evil you fall along, then you may find this worth your time. I rank this one: Neutral.

Bargaining: If this happens a lot in your campaigns (as it does mine) these short two pages are a nice addition to give you some additional ideas on making the next bargaining session more interesting. Surprise your players with some extra layers of goodness! If your players are decidedly not into lowering costs and improving earnings on stolen loot at the marketplace then this may be less useful to you. Thumbs up to this system for me!

Companions: a long fluff piece on adding life (and also returning to life) companion characters, chiefly eidolons, familiars, animal companions and such. Call me neutral on this, but to someone who is mystified as to how to approach companion creatures to PCs this might be useful.

Contacts: this system reminds me of contacts in Traveller, in that it codifies them and provides some mechanics for what to do with a contact when a player tries to take advantage of it. When your campaign lets these things grow holistically out of play rules such as this may be less useful to you, or provide a modest bit of structure. Still...I like the approach, and it's fairly rules-lite, just offering a bit of structure. So...thumbs up!

Exploration: It's only 6 pages long but damnit, this book should have spent half its content on the subject of exploration. The good news is lots of stuff in the Gamemastery Guide and other tomes lend to the subject of exploration, but Paizo could easily do an "Ultimate Explorers" or "Ultimate Hexcrawl" and they'd get my money.

Exploration provides a suitable framework for those who don't get outside much on how to guage travel times while hiking or riding, a bit about hex mapping, sandbox style campaigning, and randomly generating maps. The thought that they put 6 pages in here on this and did close to 70 pages on that god-awful downtime system (plus see more later) sickens me. A Huge thumbs up to this section with the caveat that most of the book should have been about this stuff.

Honor: a short system for handling honor points if you're into that stuff. I am exceedingly "meh" about it but these systems have their use and this one is easy to add on and use.

Investments: what is it with Paizo's writers and adding financial witchery into their swords & sorcery fantasy game?!?!?! I deal with investment management all the time at work, and I am not so enamoured with the subject that I want to deal with an abstract and painful sub-mechanic in my fantasy games. Huge thumbs down and also not detailed enough for anyone who might actually want this stuff, imo.

Lineage: lots of ideas and fluffy exposition on setting up family lines and histories, compliments the first chapter a bit and has some interesting ideas for those who are into building lengthy family backgrounds for their characters (presumably in campaigns where the GMs flinch and hide crit rolls behind a screen so they don't accidentally kill any of the level 1 characters with seventeen page long family histories). Interesting read though so thumbs up.

Magic Item Creation: I liked this section, as the subject rears its head periodically in my campaigns, and this part provides a lot of useful ideas for expanding on the subject of creating, selling, altering and bartering for magical devices. Thumbs up.

Relationships: this is just some interesting rules-lite ways to add more elaborate PC-NPC relations to your campaign, and had some interesting ideas. Thumbs up.

Reputation and Fame: another point-based system for tracking PC infamy as they advance in level. An easy enough system to use, but pointless in holistic games where this sort of stuff grows organically out of PC actions anyway. I rest neutrally on this. on.

Retirement: a couple pages of discussion on the subject, and while fun reading for a moment it sort of missed a golden opportunity to consider the idea of really integrated retired PCs into the narrative framework of future campaigns as NPC patrons for new adventurers, just to think of one random idea that comes to mind.

Retraining: a few pages, but well worth looking at. In the 3.5 era the Player's Handbook II introduced the idea of retraining as you leveled up, and swapped out certain features for others in a system that made such actions legal instead of a fudge. Here we have a decent system for the same in Pathfinder, even including training time to change things in-game. Cool stuff, and my players will take right to it. Big thumbs up.

Taxation: a couple pages on some interesting ideas on the subject that GMs can torture players with. Modest thumbs up.

Young Adventurers: two pages on playing kids as characters. The core nugget of an entire specialized campaign rests in these two pages, waiting to be exploited, probably in some future Paizo tome if I'm lucky. Thumbs up but not enough to do much with here beyond provide some rules for that special snowflake in your group who has to play the young princess.

So ends the various little systems. We rest now at page 196, facing the largest system in this tome...

Kingdoms and War. This stuff will look familiar to those who played one of the Adventure Paths (name escapes me). Let me get this out of the way: it's got build points, and alignments for your kingdom and locales, event phases and distinct wargame mechanics. It has it's place in the right campaign with the right batch of players, but that is not my group and I definitely lack the temperament for this sort of structured approach. Kingdoms under the control of my players grow organically, out of the dust of a lengthy history of adventures and tales.

Now, in defense of the kingdoms system I could see it working very well with the right group, probably a smaller group, of players who find the idea of true wargaming blending with role playing to be tantalizing. I think I've had a group in the past that could not only handle this approach, but even relish in it. Alas I am still the wrong GM for this sort of thing, but I suppose I could try it if prompted, and the mechanics do look quite sound. The mass combat looks interesting, and I like the concise stat blocks, including the Tarrasque if you want to field a particularly large miniature on the map.

In the end, I will remain cautiously neutral on this system, with the caveat that it ends on page 250 and takes up 52 pages of the book. Not a deal breaker as I see it, unless more than half of the previously described optional systems also sound bad to you, in which case I suggest passing on Ultimate Campaign and looking elsewhere for inspiration.

So for me I found a variety of small systems plus the Backgrounds to be most tantalizing. The warfare and kingdom mechanics look like something I could find use for with the right group, but that group doesn't exist in my current continuum. The downtime mechanics just make me feel tired and deflated. Everything else is of variable interest but only Retraining, and Exploration were absolutely essential to my core needs as a GM and players, so that means that in this tome roughly 100 pages is content I will definitely use, and the rest is either suspect, anathema, or extremely particular to the right conditionals.

So can I recommend Ultimate Campaign? Sure, if you think that it speaks to you with enough of what is offered to enhance your Pathfinder experience. It is decidedly a Pathfinder tome, and while many of these systems can readily be used with any D20 game or D&D-like, the truth is many of those other games work just fine without these mechanics...and to be honest, so does Pathfinder; so I'd have to say that Ultimate Campaign is probably only worth it for the hardcore and those who see pure gold in the Background, Downtime and Kingdom/Warfare systems, which comprise most of this book. Take note that the PDF is only $10, so at that price you may feel that even if only a few of the optional systems on offer are worth considering at that price point they're worth checking out.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. I just bought this book and am slowly working my way through it. It's not a quick read and your chapter-by-chapter approach will help me get a handle on it.