Core Principles: Rethinking Complexity in the Pathfinder ACG, Part 1

Friday, January 25, 2019

Last week, perhaps you heard a great exhaling from here in the Pacific Northwest: We shipped the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Core Set and the Curse of the Crimson Throne Adventure Path to our printer Cartamundi for production.

I've said before that each set takes on the personality of one of my talented co-designers—Chad Brown for Rise of the Runelords, Gaby Weidling for Skull & Shackles, Tanis O'Connor for the Class Decks and Organized Play, Paul Peterson for Wrath of the Righteous, and Liz Spain for Mummy's Mask. Curse of the Crimson Throne is Keith Richmond's set. He came to Lone Shark in early 2015 specifically to work on that product. Four years later, he waved it out the door. I'm sure he'll tell you lots more about it soon.

However, after many months of design from the whole team, the Core Set ended up taking on my personality in a very different way. As part of our goals for these sets—which have already included adding more story and providing more variability—we wanted to subject the game to a withering assault of streamlining and clarification. The game needed to become less complex so you just get it out of the gate.

Developer/editor Aviva Schecterson and I form the editing core of Lone Shark. When we made the decision to remold—not reboot—the game around a new base set, Aviva and I pledged that we were going to clean up everything. All the rough edges, all the open bug-tracking issues, all the holes in the timing sequence, all the terms that didn't quite mean what we wanted them to mean. All of it was going to be exactly right. For one moment in time, before we found new things to complicate it, this 10,000-card game was going to be smooth.

I don't think Vic was quite ready for how far we were willing to go. Vic and I spent a solid six months in editing and polishing the two sets, renaming and rethinking concepts as we went. When we were done, we had a very different but wholly compatible set of cards—996 of them, to be exact—that continue the legacy of this deep and evolving game line.

There's one thing we knew we wouldn't change: the name of the game. The words "Pathfinder Adventure Card Game" are on the card back, and we want you to be able to mix and match generation 1 cards with generation 2 cards, so the card back can't change, nor can the name. (Also, can you tell we play a lot of Pokémon Go in the office?)

But the card fronts... man, just look what Sarah and Sonja made you.

I now wish we'd thought to give the Riding Allosaurus Wyrmsmite to chew on.

Here are a few Loot cards from the Core Set. First off, there's that Loot word. It's in a trait box in the lower right (things moved a bit, because sometimes things move a bit). And that means Loot is a trait, not a card type. It's got a check to acquire, which means that if you decide you don't want to keep it after you earn it, you can still find and acquire it later.

We also eliminated most of the "objects" in the game. No, I don't mean items like Caltrops and Compass. I mean the grammatical objects like "this card." Instead of saying "reveal this card," Wyrmsmite just says "reveal." You're holding it in your hand as you're reading it, so it's not going to be any other card. (When we need to differentiate between the card you're reading and another card, we do so explicitly, like in "Recharge this card and another card.") The display template also went through some radical changes to make it more intuitive and less of a dense wall of text.

Sometimes we changed a long phrase to a single word. The word reload is an Apocrypha term that's new to PACG, but it's a concept that has been in the game since the beginning: it just means "put on top of your deck." One word instead of six. But also, we needed that word. That's because we really wanted to use that concept. Here's how often the concept appeared in each of the Adventure Paths we've created to date:

  • Rise of the Runelords: 7
  • Skull & Shackles: 9
  • Wrath of the Righteous: 15
  • Mummy's Mask: 9
  • Core/Curse of the Crimson Throne: 111

When you want to use a concept nearly three times as often as you've used it in all the Adventure Paths you've created so far, you need a new term for that. Enter "reload."

"At your location" and "at another location" went through a similar transition. We introduced local and distant to mean those things. All of a sudden, our vocabulary opened up. "A local character" was obviously better than "a character at your location," but also "a local check" was far better than "a check by a character at your location."

Rovagug gets TWO different blessings in Core. Pray he does not eat the rest.

The name "blessings deck" changed for a deeper gameplay reason. In Rise of the Runelords, the name made perfect sense because it only ever contained blessings. But in Skull & Shackles, we shuffled in the villain Brinebones. In Wrath of the Righteous, Khorramzadeh got the same treatment. In Mummy's Mask, all sorts of things—Sandstorms, Conflagrations, Forgotten Pharaoh Cultists, Sun Falcons, even scourges—ended up there. So we needed a name for that deck that didn't imply that everything in it was a blessing. We decided to focus on the deck's function as a timer, so we named it the hourglass. Once we had that, it became much easier to talk about the hour rather than "the top card of the blessings discard pile." And now nearly every blessing has a power that affects the turn while it's the hour.

Once we got rid of "blessings deck," the word deck itself got an overhaul. We simplified "location deck" to just location. (When we say "examine the top card of your location," we don't think you'll think of the card with the name of the location on it.) With those changes in place, that means the word "deck" now refers solely to character's decks.

The concept of the "adventure deck number" has also been rethought. It used to mean either of two very different things: "the scenario's adventure deck number" has been replaced with the symbol #, while the number in the upper right corner of a card is now the card's level. For example, the Veteran bane Traitor has a difficulty to defeat of 9+##, meaning 9 plus twice the number of the adventure you're playing. And his power increases the difficulty of his check by the level of the ally you discard. Tricky guy.

And now we can say things like "if the hour's level is 0, reload," which is so much better than "if the top card of the blessings discard pile has an adventure deck number of 0, put this card on top of your deck."

We've also borrowed some tricks from Pathfinder Society Adventure Card Guild and from Obsidian's Pathfinder Adventures app. We cull cards adventure-by-adventure, as we've been doing in PFS, and we do so by removing them from the vault, a Pathfinder Adventures term that describes the subset of cards in the box you're playing with right now.

And because we cull by level, we are able to make a sweeping change: removing the traits Basic and Elite. These have been on my hit list for a long time. New players would conflate Basic with "Base Set" too often for my taste, and Elite never pulled its own weight. Now when you build your starting deck, you do it with Level 0 cards. Easy.

We're aware these changes will alter a small number of past cards on more than a cosmetic level. Cards like Vestments of Authority and Named Bullet care about the Basic and Elite traits, and now need to care about something else. Adamantine weapons ignore powers that increase the difficulty of checks, but since the # concept moves the difficulty increase out of the powers box and into the check itself, those cards need a tweak to function properly. The rulebook includes brief conversion notes that cover a lot of these cases, such as explaining that level 0 is the new Basic. We are working on a short list of cards that need attention beyond that, and we'll happily accept your help ferreting out any more.

Speaking of new features in the rulebook, we've added a glossary that lists all of the important game terms (more than 100 of them, can you believe?) along with page references to tell you where to find the related rules. And when one of those game terms is introduced, we bold it—just like we've done in this blog post—to let you know it's a game term and to help you find it again later.

I've run out of pixels for this blog, but I've still got a lot more to show you on this subject. Next time I'll show you what we did with cards like characters, spells, items, banes, and locations. I think you'll like what you see.

Mike Selinker
Lead Designer, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

P.S. Though the name of the game isn't changing, there is an important change to the front of the box: In addition to "A Game by Mike Selinker," each box now features the names of the designers of that set. For Core and Curse, it's me, Chad Brown, Aviva Schecterson, Liz Spain, and of course Keith Richmond. Credit well deserved, says me.

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I don't think they wanted to put a bunch of swirls and this is what we got. What they wanted was seperation of relevant data, so we don't have cards with rules for encountering and using in the same block of text etc. This means putting space between the text elements and then they needed to fill that space, hence swirls.


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Jon Larsen wrote:
Card layout is not good.

I'm trying to withhold judgement until I get the set in my hands, but of all the changes I've seen, this seems the least felicitous. At the very least, it's extremely jarring to old-time PACG players like myself.

I have to wonder if the main driver of the new layout is simply reducing the need for scads of high-quality art.


Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber
Quote:
I have to wonder if the main driver of the new layout is simply reducing the need for scads of high-quality art.

I can only interpret this as a throwaway statement because it makes zero sense. We've seen a number of cards so far, and they all feature art of the same level of quality as that used in the previous card layout. Some of the cards even have the exact same artwork as before. All that has changed is that many of the images are simply zooming in, getting more of a focus on whatever focal point the subject has (with entities, we're seeing more of the chest/neck up instead of waist up or even the whole body). In short, the quality of the art hasn't decreased by any stretch of the imagination.

I'm still not personally a fan boy of the swirls, but as I said before, the overall layout has been growing on me. I've also noticed a pattern in that different types of cards have different shapes for the artwork. Banes, allies, and blessings, for example, use an oval; whereas weapons, armors, and items use rectangles with rounded corners. Locations and spells use an irregular shape. I don't know if this is consistent across all cards of these types, but it appears to be a visual cue (perhaps for those that have problems discerning colors?).

I think that the thing that still bothers me about the swirls is the colors of the swirls, especially the green swirls on the red story banes. Beyond that, the swirls themselves wouldn't be a big problem for me if they were a lot more subtle.


2 people marked this as a favorite.
Brother Tyler wrote:
Quote:
I have to wonder if the main driver of the new layout is simply reducing the need for scads of high-quality art.
I can only interpret this as a throwaway statement because it makes zero sense.

I cannot speak to what Elcoderdude meant but I agree I also feel this way. I believe its because we get so much less of the art of the banes. You say they are zooming in, but there is so much wasted space that could be use to show the situation. I feel like the spells did it right, not sure why our banes cant have the same freedom of card space for the art work.


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There's no situation to show in most cases. The art still comes from the same pool as the RPG and the RPG uses busts or solo full-body pictures for the NPCs that get a picture.


Slacker2010 wrote:
Brother Tyler wrote:
Quote:
I have to wonder if the main driver of the new layout is simply reducing the need for scads of high-quality art.
I can only interpret this as a throwaway statement because it makes zero sense.
I cannot speak to what Elcoderdude meant but I agree I also feel this way. I believe its because we get so much less of the art of the banes. You say they are zooming in, but there is so much wasted space that could be use to show the situation. I feel like the spells did it right, not sure why our banes cant have the same freedom of card space for the art work.

I'll agree I choose the term "high-quality" poorly - I didn't mean to disparage the art we've seen, but was trying to get at what Slacker2010 mentions - because the art image is smaller, I'm speculating (wildly) that less effort will be needed to create the art necessary for 500+ cards going forward. (Although, I do realize the art is primarily re-used from the RPG; I am suggesting 'primarily' doesn't mean 'entirely'.)

I could just be off-target about this. I'm really puzzled about why the new layout seemed desirable.


elcoderdude wrote:
Slacker2010 wrote:
Brother Tyler wrote:
Quote:
I have to wonder if the main driver of the new layout is simply reducing the need for scads of high-quality art.
I can only interpret this as a throwaway statement because it makes zero sense.
I cannot speak to what Elcoderdude meant but I agree I also feel this way. I believe its because we get so much less of the art of the banes. You say they are zooming in, but there is so much wasted space that could be use to show the situation. I feel like the spells did it right, not sure why our banes cant have the same freedom of card space for the art work.

I'll agree I choose the term "high-quality" poorly - I didn't mean to disparage the art we've seen, but was trying to get at what Slacker2010 mentions - because the art image is smaller, I'm speculating (wildly) that less effort will be needed to create the art necessary for 500+ cards going forward. (Although, I do realize the art is primarily re-used from the RPG; I am suggesting 'primarily' doesn't mean 'entirely'.)

I could just be off-target about this. I'm really puzzled about why the new layout seemed desirable.

I'm pretty sure they worked out what the maximum amount of information each card space will need to convey, and wanted to keep the layout the same for all cards of the same type. We've not yet seen overly complex or high level cards but I bet once we see one with abilities in multiple phases the space will seem less wasted.


Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber
Malk_Content wrote:
elcoderdude wrote:
Slacker2010 wrote:
Brother Tyler wrote:
Quote:
I have to wonder if the main driver of the new layout is simply reducing the need for scads of high-quality art.
I can only interpret this as a throwaway statement because it makes zero sense.
I cannot speak to what Elcoderdude meant but I agree I also feel this way. I believe its because we get so much less of the art of the banes. You say they are zooming in, but there is so much wasted space that could be use to show the situation. I feel like the spells did it right, not sure why our banes cant have the same freedom of card space for the art work.

I'll agree I choose the term "high-quality" poorly - I didn't mean to disparage the art we've seen, but was trying to get at what Slacker2010 mentions - because the art image is smaller, I'm speculating (wildly) that less effort will be needed to create the art necessary for 500+ cards going forward. (Although, I do realize the art is primarily re-used from the RPG; I am suggesting 'primarily' doesn't mean 'entirely'.)

I could just be off-target about this. I'm really puzzled about why the new layout seemed desirable.

I'm pretty sure they worked out what the maximum amount of information each card space will need to convey, and wanted to keep the layout the same for all cards of the same type. We've not yet seen overly complex or high level cards but I bet once we see one with abilities in multiple phases the space will seem less wasted.

Yes, just look at Voidglass Armor in the blog post. It's powers extend up into the card art. It seems the "Powers" Box no longer has a fixed amount of space it takes up. They could at a minimum extend it vertically, and in really complex cases, may also extend it horizontally (and make the "Traits" smaller). This could open up design space since not every card needs to have it's powers listed in the same fixed space.


redeux wrote:
Yes, just look at Voidglass Armor in the blog post. It's powers extend up into the card art. It seems the "Powers" Box no longer has a fixed amount of space it takes up. They could at a minimum extend it vertically, and in really complex cases, may also extend it horizontally (and make the "Traits" smaller). This could open up design space since not every card needs to have it's powers listed in the same fixed space.

Then why do the spells have extensively more room to show the scene?


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Slacker2010 wrote:
Then why do the spells have extensively more room to show the scene?

Because Spell effects (like Locations and Barriers, which also use that framing) are less likely to have a portrait oriented picture in the Paizo art pool that shows them well. Character types (Allies, Monsters, Cohorts) and object types (Weapons, Armors, Items) are good fits for portrait orientation (oval and rectangle, respectively).


3 people marked this as a favorite.

I'm a little late to the party here but Mike, I just wanted to tell you how excited I am about this revamp you guys have done. I have literally dozens and dozens of games but Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is my favourite. I jumped all over Apocrypha and thought to myself, man, I really love PACG, but imagine how much better it could would be with better stories, better expansion strategy, a little better terminology.

I am absolutely thrilled to the moon and back that you guys thought the same thing and I sincerely hope you continue making expansions for, well, ever.

Cheers, Mike and the team. Keep up the fantastic work.

Lone Shark Games

Ithaqua47 wrote:

I'm a little late to the party here but Mike, I just wanted to tell you how excited I am about this revamp you guys have done. I have literally dozens and dozens of games but Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is my favourite. I jumped all over Apocrypha and thought to myself, man, I really love PACG, but imagine how much better it could would be with better stories, better expansion strategy, a little better terminology.

I am absolutely thrilled to the moon and back that you guys thought the same thing and I sincerely hope you continue making expansions for, well, ever.

Cheers, Mike and the team. Keep up the fantastic work.

<hat tip>

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