Soundtrack for this: Book of Eli – Panoramic
Last month, I was a guest player in a Pathfinder campaign I had played in a couple of years ago. The campaign was nearing its end, and the group that I had left around Level 7 had now become a powerful Level 15/16 warband. The epic conclusion to I believe more than 3 years of adventures was on the horizon.
The characters prepared themselves to venture into the lion’s den and face their archnemesis in a final confrontation. However, as dramatic as that sounds – and it was really quite dramatic – this high-level play sadly felt, for me at least, a bit lacking. It’s not that the fights weren’t thrilling, or the enemies not interesting, or the locales not amazing… It’s that almost everything we encountered and every obstacle in our way more or less came down to “Which spell do I cross off my list to circumvent this?” Specifically, the spell Teleport became an invaluable asset to the group.
While a lot of players probably don’t have any problem with that sort of thing, or might actually enjoy just figuring out the back doors to an adventure, I myself did not feel incredibly adventerous. By using magical teleportation, the group basically jumped from dungeon to dungeon to town (for supplies) to boss fight to dungeon. This killed not only the chance for random encounters in the wilderness, but also almost any sense of exploration – with the exception of delving into the dungeons themselves. The frequent pit stops in town for new supplies and trading all the useless crap from the dungeon vaults reminded me of those instant merchant systems you often find in video games, like when you send 100 staves and a couple of full plate mails via pidgeon to the next trading post in Guild Wars 2.
So basically, once your spellcaster hits the mid-level range in Pathfinder, you pretty much unlock fast travel: just click on the map where you want to go, wait for the quick loading screen and BAMF!, there you are. While that might be very convenient in video games, where you otherwise just run through the same areas, fighting the same enemies, over and over again, in pen & paper RPGs you completely miss out on the chance of anything unexpected happening. Now that’s not to say that frequent teleportation doesn’t have it’s own array of possible randomness, from appearing in a different place than you expected to actually stumbling into some kind of magical vortex that distorts your teleport – that’s all well and good. However, as a Gamemaster, you can do something like that only so often before your players either get bored or find easy ways around those problems.
It also doesn’t feel very heroic to me.
So there we were, finally having reached the bad guy’s hideout. However, a huge ruined city sat between us and his fortress – a ruined city crawling with powerful giants, lamias and all other kinds of nasties. What do we do? Do we try to sneak through, careful with every step not to alert the legions of patrols all around us? Do we fight our way to victory, taking on hundreds of monsters at a time, or maybe using clever guerilla tactics to weed them out one by one? …No, none of that. Much too time consuming. One Fly spell, one Teleport, and hey, there’s the fortress right in front of our noses. And none of the guards were any wiser. Sure, it was an incredibly handy shortcut, but still… it seemed pretty anticlimactic.
But, as a Gamemaster, what do you do in those situations, what can you do? Most of the GMs I know more or less just accept it as part of the game, and sure, that’s pretty much true. Still, I knew I didn’t want that in my campaigns, as I’m a staunch defender of the equation Travel = Adventure. In my own campaign, I introduced an effect that basically prevented any kind of teleportation, globally, by inflicting damage on the travellers relative to the distance they try to teleport. There was an in-game explanation for this, which I don’t want to bore you with at this point. Suffice it to say, the adventurers had to look for other means of travel, whether it be on foot, by hiring a caravan, going by boat or riding their undead pet polar bear. Here’s the thing though: As far as I noticed, they didn’t really mind. At least, they didn’t complain at all and I think actually enjoyed seeing more of the world this way. I mean, the biggest part of that campaign was just travelling to a specific destination – something that would have been done with in 5 minutes had they been able to use their teleportation magic. And they enjoyed stumbling into unknown territory, finding themselves on an abandoned island, finding a way to cross that mountain range…
Personally, I know I won’t be using teleportation in my fantasy campaigns any time soon. At least not as that cheap of a commodity as it is in Pathfinder and several other systems. Is that considered “railroading”? Even so, I don’t really care, as long as it helps the players’ immersion, sense of adventure and overall fun… which I’m pretty sure it does.