Shadowrun vs. Pathfinder: Complexity and Cognitive Load

I recently wrote about my disaffection with gaming – something that’s been creeping over me for a while. There has been a more tangible example recently of my struggles to enjoy my at-the-table experience and how it manifests in game systems.

We’ve been playing the Pathfinder 2e playtest. Now, I played a lot of Pathfinder a while back. Ran a campaign or two of my own, ran the Kingmaker AP, played in the Carrion Crown AP. And it was okay. I’ve written before about my doomed attempt to run the Kingmaker AP as close to the “canon” established by the adventure path as possible and how that didn’t really work out.

But having recently run a Shadowrun campaign and then shifting gears into Pathfinder 2e, I’ve had this uncomfortable phenomenon where I don’t feel quite sane when I discuss how I don’t like fiddly, complex games when talking about Pathfinder 2e. Because people often look at me like I’m insane because in the same breath I can tell you how much I enjoy Shadowrun. And I got to thinking about this disconnect because, well, I really don’t like Pathfinder. But I do enjoy Shadowrun.

The two games are both complex, with encyclopedia-sized core rulebooks and lots of systems and subsystems. Shadowrun even has the added complexity where players can effectively be adventuring in three separate realms at once – the physical world, the astral plane, and the Matrix. Both games feature complicated character creation and a weakness toward min-maxing. Both games feature elaborate gear selections which require knowing what your stuff does in play. On the surface, they seem very similar in their level of complexity and difficulty.

I’ve realized though, for me, what the difference is. When using a descriptor to try and explain my dislike of Pathfinder 2e, I used the word, “fussy.” And at the time I was talking about action economy and the danger of false choices like the 3 action system and how it spawns dashed hopes with the false promise of multi-action spellcasting and the wackiness of spending an action to “raise your shield.” The problem is a little more nuanced than those things though.

What it really comes down to for me is the difference between having to remember what my shit does when I generally use the same shit all the time vs. having a million little modifiers taking place across every single turn and action during a sequence of events.

In Shadowrun, there is a steep barrier to entry in terms of a complicated character creation process. You make a lot of decisions, spend a lot of points, and spend a lot of money. But at the end of that process, you have a character that works a certain way. Very little of what happens – in game – is going to significantly alter the stats and rolls you need to process. And the process of advancing your character is fairly simple, you just spend from your pool of Karma (experience points) or your pool of money to make changes and integrate those changes into your overall stat/roll scheme.

In Pathfinder, especially as you reach the higher levels of play, the game becomes a juggling act. On a single roll I might have to track modifiers from every source at the table. The bard gives me inspire courage, the mage gave me See Invisible, the monster made me enervated and frightened, and the ranger gives us all a plus one to initiative and my fighter attacks can inflict flat-footed, and… well, that’s just one combat round. The spellcasters might be tracking two or three different spell durations at once and who knows how many effects the GM has to keep up with.

And that’s where the difference really started to come home. When I have to sit there before every roll and ask how many bullets are still in the gun (1+2+2+1 vs. 1+1+2+1)? And it’s not as funny as it was in Clue.

Both Shadowrun and Pathfinder (1e and 2e) are complex games with lots of rules. Both tend to reward initial system knowledge and system mastery. But one of them tends to dispense the cognitive load up-front – allowing the player to understand what they need to understand and then get on with play. That’s Shadowrun.

The other has a nearly equal initial cognitive load (though still probably less) but really puts a huge emphasis on nickel-and-diming modifiers throughout play and giving players an absurd number of things to keep track of all at once. That’s Pathfinder. And for me, that’s a difference that really mattered.

Thanks for reading.

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