Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
Lini paused at the mountain’s peak, bracing herself against the biting, incessant wind. She stared up at the cloud-capped citadel known as the Pinnacle of Avarice, stronghold of Karzoug the Claimer, awakened Runelord of Greed, practitioner of ancient sin magic. This was where her journey led, her and the other heroes with which she’d shared the adventures of the past year. Somewhere within the vertiginous tower lurked the Runelord himself, a being so ancient and powerful that none of them were sure he could actually be killed. Yet kill him they must…for if they failed, all of Varisia, possibly all of Golarion, would be doomed.
They weren’t going about this recklessly. They knew that, before they could face Karzoug, they would have to deal with Most High Ceoptra, his general, a lamia harridan of unparalleled strength. She had the benefit of familiarity with the battleground, and could easily hide to recover her strength, lashing out at them when they least expected it, unless they systematically cut off all exit. That meant defeating Ceoptra’s minions, which was why Lini and Lem, her closest companion among the party of heroes, were standing out in the cold at the spire’s base. Ezren, the human wizard, had already entered the tower itself, and was working hard to secure its dungeon-like interior.
Survival on a freezing mountaintop takes more than a little cunning, but Lini was a druid, wise in the ways of nature; besides, she wasn’t alone. With the help of a friendly crow, she found a spot that was protected from the worst of the freezing wind, then set about the task of exploring the tower’s base. A side entrance was closed off by a corroded lock; easy enough, the green-haired gnome though, leveling her venom-tipped crossbow at the rusted metal. However, even with the magical assistance of her Belt of Physical Might, Lini was unable to blast through the deceptively solid lock. Sighing in frustration, she whispered a few words to her crow companion in the language of birds, and he flew off to explore the path ahead.
A few minutes later, the crow returned, cawing excitedly. Lumbering behind him came a Warden of Runes, the ancient race of manmade giants who guarded over Xin-Shalast, capital of greed. With a bellowing roar, the giant discharged a jolt of pure electricity at Lini and Lem. Even with the aid of her Belt of Physical Might and a courageous eagle who absorbed the worst of the blast, the little gnome wasn’t built to withstand such torments, but at the last moment, she raised her Reflecting Shield to divert the ruinous bolt. Beside her, she could see Lem crumpling to the ground in pain. However, rising on one knee, the brave halfling aimed his Wand of Enervation at the ferocious rune giant. With her foe physically weakened, Lini leveled her venomous crossbow at the giant, firing it with all she had. The crossbow’s firing mechanism snapped off, but not until after the bolt had passed straight through the Rune Warden’s skull, strong and true. With the eagle’s aid, Lini performed the rest of the steps necessary to close off the tower’s exterior, then she dispatched her feathered friend to check on the situation inside the tower.
Exciting times are ahead for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Following the success of its initial Adventure Path, Rise of the Runelords, publishers Paizo have switched to a biannual release format, launching a new Adventure Path every six months. The first of these, the swashbuckling Skull & Shackles, left port this month, while early 2015 will bring the Wrath of the Righteous, a reflection on the eternal struggle of good versus evil. Concurrent with this increased pace, Paizo is launching an Organized Play program made possible via the release of Class Decks, which also exponentially expand the playable characters within the Pathfinder ACG universe. (Organized Play denotes community events, such as tournaments, usually sponsored by a local game store—a key factor in the lasting success of games like Magic: the Gathering.)
This is the time, it would seem, to get into the card game based on Paizo’s wildly popular line of RPG products (for those in the dark about the Pathfinder RPG, as I was before I delved into the ACG, it’s a modification of the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset that focuses on developing the fantasy setting of Golarion, featuring, among other things, regularly released Adventure Modules that provide gamemasters with a tightly constructed, exhaustively playtested ongoing narrative). However, given the card game’s steep barrier to entry—as will be described below, it’s just not worthwhile picking up a single Base Set and calling it done, although you will find 8-10 scenarios within the box to whet your appetite for adventure—I felt that it was also the perfect time to demonstrate the payoff for the months of play and triple-digit investment Pathfinder ACG demands. While video playthroughs of the game’s initial scenarios can be easily found online, but it’s rare for anybody to show you the other side of the coin, the culmination of dozens of hours of persistent, dedicated play in the world of Golarion.
This session report records the Scenario “Assault on the Pinnacle,” the penultimate session in Pathfinder ACG’s Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path. By the time I played the game recorded here, I’d dedicated over 50 plays to Rise of the Runelords, slowly elevating a party of six characters from their humble origins to the undeniable status of legendary hero. I’d lost one of them, Sajan the Monk, along the way, and I knew that tragedy could easily strike again. There was a history behind every card played, every power used. When my characters risked their death, there were dozens of hours of investment hanging in the balance. The only thing that remained after this Scenario was the final do-or-die faceoff against Karzoug, the titular Runelord himself. It’s a fitting finale, one that removes any opportunity for escape: either your heroes defeat the corrupt arcanist, or they die at his hands. But that’s another story.
Meanwhile, Ezren stood at a junction of the tower’s dungeon-like interior. An eagle alighted on the old man’s shoulder—no doubt one of Lini’s friends—warning him of a brutish ogre lying in wait ahead. Nothing the experienced wizard couldn’t handle; his already considerable intelligence was enhanced by a Thassilonian Robe of Runes, the staff of Ordikon the Transmuter, and a Headband of Epic Intelligence, lending the wizard a razer-sharp intellect and a truly fearsome command over his magical repertoire. As the ogre lumbered into view, Ezren fired off a Frost Ray, easily felling the beast. The runes carved into the tower’s walls resonated with Ezren’s magic, giving him a surge of adrenaline.
At the next junction, the old wizard encountered an arcane lock—clearly, Karzoug had not anticipated another arcanist in his midst. Effortlessly disabling the magical lock, Ezren peered into the room ahead, finding a bugbear hunched in wait near the entrance. Luckily, the creature did not spot him, and Ezren was able to avoid the clumsy attempt at ambush. Before his energy could flag, he caste a spell of Haste on himself, but the next few passageways yielded nothing more exciting than an ordinary longbow that the wizard disdainfully ignored.
It was around this point that Lem, the halfling bard, caught up with the human wizard, having secured the tower’s exterior alongside Lini. His timing couldn’t have been worse, for just around the next corner, the pair discovered another of Karzoug’s fearsome Rune Wardens! Like the first one, it discharged a jolt of electricity at the pair as it approached. A well-timed Mirror Image spell allowed the bearded wizard to avoid the damage, which arced away toward one of his illusory doubles, but the unfortunate halfling once again absorbed the full force of it. Brandishing the Staff of Hungry Shadows that he had acquired from the lich lord in Runeforge, Ezren weakened the monstrous giant as Lem fired off his crossbow with the last of his remaining strength. It was only due to the giant’s weakened state the he was able to defeat it. With the aid of the spell-boosting energies surging from Ordikon’s Staff and Ezren’s Headband of Epic Intelligence, the halfling was able to cast a charm to close off this location, as well. As the pair proceeded up the stairs, the exhausted halfling muttered the words to a Mass Cure spell, patching up his and his companion’s worst wounds.
Let’s talk about compulsion.
We’ve all read about video game addiction. It would be a fallacy to claim that video games are addictive, per se; rather, they offer all sorts of enticements to those who are already addiction-prone. “Video games are built to exploit this part of our brain,” Jack Flanagan writes for The Week in “The Psychology of Video Game Addiction,” the article linked at the start of this paragraph. “Kill monster, get points. Complete level, get happy music. Win game, feel satisfied. It’s a very simple and primitive part of who we are. We react the same way to everything, from food to sex, in education and even in our relationship with our parents, who, if they are good parents, scold bad behavior and reward good.”
Flanagan goes on to describe PRE, or Partial Reinforcement Effect, which is how games like World of Warcraft and Diablo, as well as traditional casino games, sink their hooks in. Partial Reinforcement Effect occurs when the reward pathways of our brain, as described above, aren’t triggered consistently. We get that feeling of accomplishment just often enough to keep us playing, but not enough to allow us to feel satisfied. We are always looking for “one more game,” hoping for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (or the rainbow loot drop, as the case may be).
This phenomenon isn’t limited to video games; as mentioned above, traditional casino games exploit the exact same principles, to historically proven effect. And in 1993, game publisher Wizards of the Coast figured out how to release a card game that people could buy in toy shops and play at home, but that would trigger the same compulsive spending impulses as gambling. This game was Magic: The Gathering, swiftly followed by other trading card games following the same wallet-draining formula. In this respect, the actual game mechanics of Wizards’ perennial CCG are unimportant, except that they are strong (and flexible) enough that players will be driven to keep playing—and keep buying.
More important to the game’s success was Wizards’ ingenious plan to inject artificial scarcity into the player ecosystem by way of randomly-assembled booster packs and tiered printing runs, with some cards being produced in excess and others in extremely limited quantity. Like the concurrent Beanie Baby bubble, this deliberate scarcity acted as a trigger for people already given to compulsive tendencies, encouraging them to buy more and more random sets in the hopes of acquiring that legendary rare card, while simultaneous incentivizing a thriving speculator/reseller market. This, in turn, encouraged cross-promotion on the part of retailers, who could act as intermediaries for aftermarket transactions and supplement their business with a steady stream of booster sales. Weekly or even daily Magic tournaments became a regular staple of toy, game or comic book shops—the Organized Play I mentioned in this article’s introduction. The inherent value of carrying and promoting a product like Magic was all too apparent.
While the silver-haired wizard and the flaxen-haired bard were closing off the tower’s lower passages, the green-haired druid was exploring its upper reaches. Dispatching her eagle ally to scout the Runewell, a well of souls from which the Runelord drew his power, Lini herself headed straight for Karzoug’s throne room on the tower’s topmost level. In a display case made entirely of immovable diamond, the gnome discovered a Belt of Giant Strength. Drawing on the power of her own Belt of Physical Might, and with a little help from her crow companion, she managed to crack the case and acquire the belt for her own.
Next, she sent one of her toad familiars hopping along ahead. The oversized amphibian located a cryptic message carved into the wall. Drawing on the mind-enhancing energies of Ezren’s staff and headband, accessible even at this distance, Lini was able to decipher the message, which warned of the guards that lay ahead: a dwarven scout and a living shadow. Lini sent her crow to bring the scout to her, then case a Dominate spell to overpower his mind—in a daze, the dwarf wandered harmlessly away, but not before depositing an Amulet of Fiery Fists into the druid’s tiny hands. More importantly, he warned her that Karzoug’s general, the lamia harridan Most High Ceoptra, was lurking somewhere within this room!
The wizard Ezren, in the meantime, had discovered a more ominous threat: a room filled with bizarre whirling and beeping contraptions being manipulated by the insect-like Denizens of Leng. Their efforts appeared to be centered on activating some kind of interplanar portal—the elderly wizard didn’t know what was waiting to come out of it, but he knew that it couldn’t be good.
I don’t want to villainize Wizards or Blizzard here. The link between games and addiction is similar to the link between video games and violence in that it demonstrably exists, but there is no evidence to equate correlation with causation. Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for creating Magic addicts in the same way that (one might argue) Philip Morris are responsible for creating nicotine addicts. The Partial Reinforcement Effect utilized by casinos and Magic does not lead to physical dependence. I would argue that it does not even lead to addiction; rather, it serves as an expression of addiction in those already prone to it.
I would also argue that most of the gaming population falls into the addiction-prone bucket—not dangerously so, but it is one of the personality traits that draws us to games to begin with. Most gamers manage to stay well south of that line beyond which addiction becomes unhealthy, but compulsive behavior and gaming go hand in hand. After all, if gaming nourishes the part of our brain chemistry that is responsible for addiction, it stands to reason that people in whom that part is more active will be drawn to the activity.
I’ve drawn this correlation, in part, from direct observation of the prevalence, among gamers, of completism or completionism: that drive that goads us to get every achievement, fill out every heart container, get that fabled 100% save file. It’s been around since the dawn of electronic gaming, the Last Lousy Point that has dogged gamers since Colossal Cave in the mid-’70s. The very concept of a “completion percentage” provides evidence that video games are and always have been marketed toward those with compulsive personalities. (I battle completist tendencies in my own gaming life; it’s only recently that I’ve been able to “let go” of the urge to investigate every nook, cranny, and side option before progressing in the main storyline. In some cases, this had made what should have been a leisure activity burden, turning otherwise enjoyable games into nightmare-inducing chores. As a story-holic, my poison of choice was wanting to see every dialogue option from every NPC in every town in every RPG, something that has become unfathomably time-consuming as video games have progressed in scope.)
Then, too, there is the game collector, he who plays the meta-game of buying games, not just to play them, but simply to have them. Although YouTube has seen plenty of walkthroughs of “my gaming collection,” this type is particularly prevalent in board gaming—a trailer for the 2012 documentary Going Cardboard shows that an “average” board game collection is counted in multiples of 100, with serious collectors pushing well past 1,000 games. Given that the average box size of 12″x12″x4″, this is a significant commitment not just of time and money, but also of space. (Full disclosure: my own board game collection, started only two or three years ago, currently sits at just over 100 games, including expansions; I’ve got 122 more games in my active Wishlist.)
This tendency toward collection compulsion isn’t too surprising when one looks at the content of modern board games, which overwhelmingly involve accumulating and managing pools of resources, whether those resources are represented by cards, wooden cubes or points on a scoresheet. Days of Wonder’s Five Tribes, the hottest game out of the recent Gen Con convention in Indiana, revolves around a mancala-like mechanism that almost perfectly parallels the tetrising and cataloging of game boxes, with secondary elements featuring collecting diverse sets of goods (no duplicates!) and some “trading up” in the form of sacrificing elders for control over powerful djinns. The same types of people who enjoy these activities in play are likely to derive pleasure out of the real-life accumulation and management of resources—in this case, the games themselves.
Having secured the bottom floor, Lem the bard moved on to the level of the tower containing the enigmatic Runewell. Exploring the room thoroughly, he discovered a Longsword +2 tucked into a crevice in the wall, but even with the aid of his strength-bolstering songs, the halfling could not pry it loose. Muttering a prayer to Norgorber, god of thieves and assassins, the bard noticed another object glittering within the crack: a Ring of Protection. Humming another tune to himself, he mustered up enough endurance to wedge his fingers into the narrow crack and retrieve the ring, then cast a spell of Major Cure on himself to remedy the scrapes and bruises on his wrist. Drawing an ancient tome from his pack—the Emerald Codex of the Therassic Order of the Peacock Spirit—Lem consulted the archaic scrolls in the hopes of discovering a useful divination.
Lini, meanwhile, continued exploring the Throne Room. In a hidden alcove, she discovered a magic half-plate; aided by her eagle ally, the little gnome had no trouble prying it loose. Sending up a prayer to Gozreh, the god of nature, she pressed onward, and soon stumbled upon a Deathbane Light Crossbow stashed upon a high shelf; it would certainly prove useful in the fight ahead. Aided once more by her avian friend, she recovered the crossbow, then sent her eagle to scout ahead. It returned a minute later, reporting that the dwarven scout had recovered from her Dominate spell and was awaiting her around the next corner.
While his pint-sized companions were thus employed, the grey-bearded wizard Ezren continued exploring the room containing the ominous Leng Device. As he searched the room for some way to disable the device, he made a startling discovery: Khalib, Karzoug’s apprentice and a powerful transmuter wizard, was aiding the Denizens of Leng in their attempts to open the portal! Khalib noticed Ezren at about the same moment, and fired off a blast of force damage, which the wizard barely avoided by means of another Mirror Image spell; unfortunately, the transmuter saw through the illusion and proceeded to blast the old man with a fireball spell. The hero’s runeforged weapons, enchanted within the heart of Runeforge to serve as bane against transmutation magic, glowed with power, and Ezren countered with a Poison Blast. Enhanced by his intelligence-boosting garments and staff, the poison sunk into the transmuter’s skin and delivered a mercifully quick death. With their apparent leader vanquished, the Denizens of Leng fled in a panic; with a prayer to Shelyn, goddess of beauty and love, and with the aid of his enhanced intelligence, the elderly wizard managed to disable the portal device, securing another floor of Karzoug’s Pinnacle of Avarice. Only the life-draining Runewell and the Throne Room, containing Karzoug’s most powerful minion, remained. The assault had been miraculously successful so far…but how long would the heroes’ luck hold out?