How Pathfinder creates a Troubling Worldview

Promotional Image for a Pathfinder product.

When Wizards of the Coast published Dungeons and Dragons: 4th Edition back in 2008, there was no small backlash from fans of the relatively fresh 3.5. 2009 then saw the formation of the company Paizo and their tabletop roleplaying game Pathfinder. As of 2017, the game has garnered a dedicated fanbase and is still widely played in game stores around the world. But rarely do its players stop to consider the social and political messages baked into the character sheets..

1. Self-Improvement

I wanted to start with something positive. Central to the idea of most RPGs is Experience, a system that measures personal achievement in abstract “points.” As you accumulate points you reach new levels of personal power, which grants access to new abilities. By actively participating in this world, you are teaching yourself to be a better person. That sounds very positive, but we’ll come back to this idea at the end.

2. Some Things are Inherent

There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in, whether it’s a fantasy game, the Wild West, secret agents or whatever else. You get to sort of vicariously experience those things.
-Gary Gygax

This is where we start getting into negatives. In Pathfinder, part of creating a character is choosing your species. Human, Elf, Dwarf, they all have different traits and abilities- which is part of the problem. Your species affects your Ability Scores, which determine a character’s capabilities.

So when the game starts saying that all gnomes have improved Charisma and reduced Strength, that communicates a worldview. It says that there are limits to how you get to define yourself, a dangerous perspective that forms the foundation of prejudice in our own society.

It’s disheartening to see a game subscribing to archaic ideas about the inherency of ability when its primary stated purpose is to provide an escape. Why do we persist in creating fantastic new worlds just to populate them with the same old ideas?

3. Violence is what Matters

Speaking of dangerous worldviews, this is something deeply troubling about the majority of role-playing games. The primary mode of engagement with the game is violence, This is far from unique to Pathfinder, but it is troubling that so much time and effort has gone into a single aspect of the world.

Remember the Experience that I talked about? A character’s primary way of earning experience is through killing monsters. What that tells the players is that the way to make their characters more powerful is to act violently. I’m not saying it’s bad to have violence in your game, but after almost a decade it may be time to add more nuance to the experience.

Happily, Pathfinder has introduced what’s known as the “Downtime” system, which provides avenues for players to join or create businesses and settlements in between adventures. But there’s more that can be done. Perhaps a more robust system for talking to non-player characters, or a substantial puzzle generator for creating more cerebral dungeons. As Anita Sarkeesian has discussed in her series Feminist Frequency, when all the ways of representing someone are through one specific lens, it communicates a message limiting what the represented groups are allowed to be. Give us ways to play characters that are painters, poets, bakers, and toymakers in ways that feel rewarding. Yet there is still one important and dangerous message hardwired into the Pathfinder system

4. This is Complicated and You are Smart.

Neither of those points sound like an issue, but they promote a culture of elitism that permeates the Pathfinder community. So many of the game’s mechanics are buried under obtuse indexing and complicated terminology that many players feel incapable of participating in the games. Many of these players give up on the game entirely, which has an effect on those who stay with it. For a small but insidious percentage of Pathfinder fans, the fact that they stuck with it when others gave up makes them feel superior. They overcame the challenge and earned the experience, and now they get the benefits.

There’s a dark trend in human behavior that Pathfinder unintentionally exploits. People stop questioning the decisions of those who give them rewards. And if someone has based part of their identity on being intelligent, it can be incredibly difficult to persuade them of anything. Fans of Pathfinder are unlikely to accept criticism of the game and will seek to defend it from a perceived threat.

I don’t expect this essay to turn many heads, but it’s worth saying: Nothing should be above criticism. Pathfinder has elitism, prejudice, and violence-as-victory in its mechanics, and that is a detriment to the players and to the game.