Monday, October 31, 2011

The Problem with Feats

In both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, feats are special abilities which are gained once every few levels. They are roughly equivalent to a minor class ability. And, in fact, several feats are simply repackaged class features. The idea behind the system is a good one for a game which favors in-depth character building. While a character's class controls their general progression, and the selections they make for their skills determines their effectiveness with mundane tasks; feats offer characters the opportunity to excel at something special.

Based on the title of this post, however, I'm sure my readers know there's a 'but' coming. So lets get it over with: BUT, individual feats often suffer from poorly considered design. By which I don't mean that there is poor balance between feats (though there really really is, it's just not my point.) The problem is that some feats allow characters to perform tasks which they should be able to perform whether or not they have a feat.

The damage this causes may not be readily apparent, but it weakens the very foundation of the entire game. Anytime something which should be available to all players becomes a feat, it arbitrarily steals that ability from everyone who doesn't take the feat. Such arbitrary theft of possibilities dulls the most potent edge tabletop role playing has over video games: a limitless amount of options.

I first noticed this problem years ago, when I was rolling a character who would go on to be named Zalekios Gromar. Among the many horrifying things I wanted this dark and evil character to be, was a self-mutilator. And, as it so happened, I knew that a feat existed in the Book of Vile Darkness called Willing Deformity. It was accompanied by a whole host of deformity feats which could be selected after you had Willing Deformity as a prerequisite.

I spent some time weighing whether or not the feat (which didn't have a mechanical effect I was interested in) was worth it, or whether I should just give up on being a self mutilating character. It took some time before I realized that there was no reason a feat should determine whether or not I could take a knife and cut on my face. The act requires no great skill, it is not a feat by any stretch of the definition. Why should the game disallow me from mutilating myself simply because I don't want to waste a feat on doing so?

I started noticing the same issue elsewhere after that. Feats which shouldn't be feats, but should instead be handled on a case by case basis by the GM. Fortunately for me, Zalekios' GM not only allowed him to mutilate himself, but gave him a mechanical benefit for it in the form of a +2 to intimidate, -2 to diplomacy. That was a pretty clear cut situation, though, and other players might not have such understanding GMs. One might point out that the Book of Vile Darkness is a D&D 3.0 book, but even the Pathfinder update did not fully address this issue. To illustrate that fact, I've included several samples of gameplay below. Each demonstrates a player doing something which would not require any special ability on the part of the character, and the GM granting them a benefit for that. Each of these will also represent a feat from either the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, or the Advanced Players Guide.

Player: "This giant slug monster can't dodge for anything. My fighter is just going to swing at it wildly and as hard as he can, rather than attempting his usual finesse."
GM: "Very well! Your fighter will take a -1 penalty on attack rolls for as long as he attacks this way, but will gain a +1 to damage on any successful hits.
Feat: Power Attack

GM: You've saved the Orc's life from certain death at the hands of the grotesque mistress of webs. He falls to his knees and thanks you for helping him. He offers you anything you desire as a reward.
Player: "My cleric speaks Orcish. I would like to ask that the orc reward me by aiding me in my adventures henceforth. In exchange, I promise he will always be granted the fullest benefit of my healing ability.
GM: Make a diplomacy check.
*clatter clatter*
Player: "A twenty seven!"
GM: "The orc agrees to follow you henceforth, so long as you always treat him with the same kindness which you have shown today."
Feat: Leadership

Player: "Since I use a rapier, which doesn't really lend itself well to strong-armed attacks, I'd like to focus my weapon fighting style on quickness and style, rather than brawn."
GM: "Sure, just add your Dexterity to your attack rolls rather than your Strength."
Feat: Weapon Finesse

Player: "Geeze, there's a lot of guys here. Um...hey! I've been using a Halberd for a long time now, and even have some feats to improve my ability with it. Do you think I could do a bunch of fancy moves with it to try and scare some of them?"
GM: "Make an intimidate check."
*clatter clatter*
Player: "A 17."
GM: "You've successfully intimidated those who can see your display. They seem demoralized."
Feat: Dazzling Display

Player: "Since the humans in this city are xenophobes, my halfling rogue would like to disguise himself as a human child.
GM: "Alright, you can have a +2 circumstance bonus on that disguise since you picked one which isn't far off from your current appearance.
Feat: Childlike

Player: I'd like to attempt to protect the wizard from the goblin's arrows while he casts. The last thing we need right now is this spell getting interrupted!
GM: Sure thing. You've got a small wooden shield, so I'll give him a +5 bonus on concentration checks while you protect him.
Feat: Shielded Caster (Teamwork Feat)

I could go on, but I think the above examples sufficiently illustrate the point. The players and GMs above were doing things right. The player was coming up with responses to situations, and the GM was altering the mechanics of those situations based on the efficacy of the player's responses. There's no reason any of those actions, or many others within the Pathfinder game, need to be feats. And yet they are.

Before you go thinking feats are all bad, though, I didn't just pull these off the top of my head. I had to sit down with the books and carefully consider which feats made sense and which did not. The fact of the matter is that most feats do work. Feats such as Two Weapon Fighting allow players to handle a difficult task more easily, but it does not prevent them from attempting to fight with two weapons unless they take the feat. Skill Focus allows players to become unusually skilled at a group of mundane tasks such as diplomacy or wilderness survival. These types of feats improve characters which take them, but do not imply a restriction upon characters which do not.

The fact that most feats are good does not excuse those which are bad, though. As gamers, we have to point out failures such as this. Role Playing games are essentially nothing more than rules and imagination, so the rules must be well crafted. If a rule can't be well crafted, then it should be left to the players and the GMs to work out for themselves.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

My GMing Methodology for The Ascendant Crusade

Me: "The mass of shambling undead have been largely dispersed, and the townspeople have taken refuge in the buildings which Morrie didn't set on fire."
Morrie: "I said I was sorry!"
Me: Jashel has managed to fell the strange creature which appeared to lead the attacking force.
Jashel: "I loot the body."
Me: Aside from the greatsword which it used to attack you, there's nothing here but bones, meat, and a white tabard depicting two hands holding an eye between them. Jashel, do you have the Knowledge(Religion) skill?"
Me: "Then roll a wisdom check, please."
*A twenty sided die clatters across the table*
Jashel: With my wisdom modifier, that's 12.
Me: "That's enough for Jashel to recognize this symbol as similar to one which you've encountered in the past. The Cult of Vecna uses the same hand-and-eye motif. However, they only use one hand while this uses two. You also notice that one of the hands is distinctly smaller than the other."
Morrie: "...fuck."

The skills which a game master must cultivate are many. At the table they must be quick improvisors, skillful arbitrators, cunning liars, and more descriptive than an erotic novelist; among other things. But it is when a GM is away from the table that they must become the architects of whatever fiendish danger their players will soon face.

There are countless approaches to constructing a game session. I would guess that there are at least as many as there are Game Masters, and probably more. I've never met a GM who didn't have his own thoughts about how things should be done, and I've rarely met a GM who used the same methodology every time. The task requires an ambitious and creative individual. Most just aren't interested in doing things any way but their own. Nor should they be.

One of the two major campaigns I'm running at present is titled The Ascendant Crusade. Not everybody titles their games, but I do just so I can label my binders with something. The Ascendant Crusade has been running since about 2009. It started as an online game played with members of my World of Warcraft Guild. After a hiatus lasting through 2010, half the players didn't want to return to the game, and the other half lived near enough for us to start playing around a table.

There are a number of different facets to the way I approach The Ascendant Crusade, so I'll begin with the one which has the most affect on session-to-session design: the big bad evil guy, or BBEG for short. I won't say too much about the specifics of my BBEG, because my players read this blog, and as of now he's still an unknown player. And I use the word "player" very deliberately.

From the very first session, I had a plan for what I wanted the players to come up against in the final encounter of the game. However, as all good game masters know, guiding your players towards a specific end point is one of the cardinal sins of running a game. So I didn't treat the endpoint as my goal. But, rather, I made it the BBEG's goal. Ever since the first session, I've treated the BBEG as though he were a hidden player. He succeeds and fails in the background of the game, and I make sure that his plots never exceed his current resources.

Even in that very first game, back in 2009, my players lives began intersecting with his plans in ways which I did not foresee. Largely because my players forced me to continue the game for four hours after I ran out of planned material, and I had to quickly improvise something interesting for them to stumble into. Let that be a lesson for anyone who thinks improvisation skills are overrated. The group continued to encounter his plots as they traveled through the world, but thankfully never uncovered the grand scheme which wove everything together.

Which isn't to say they never had a chance. I've left dozens of clues and dropped several large hints over the years. Sometimes I thought I was being so transparent and obvious that they would surely find my BBEG out, but he always remained safely outside of their awareness. Once, the PCs even encountered the BBEG in the middle of something extremely incriminating. I thought I was caught, but I made up a feeble and obviously false lie to try and get out of it. And it worked.

Let that be a lesson to any GM who plans an entire game around their players finding and correctly interpreting a single clue. Players need a little more help than that.

Being discovered is not a problem anymore, fortunately. The snippet of gameplay I began the post with occurred two sessions ago. It was the BBEG's little way of saying "you missed your chance." After years of planning, he doesn't really need to hide any longer. From here on out their only hope is to disassemble the infrastructure he already has in place, if they can even find it.

Corruption is another theme which has played a major role in my adventure design throughout The Ascendant Crusade. Dungeons and Dragons is a game of very clear ethics. Good and evil are active forces which drive the actions of those devoted to them. Villains are rarely nuanced and complex characters with understandable justifications for their evil deeds. They're just plain evil. However, evil being obvious, and evil being attractive, are not mutually exclusive. Attempting to corrupt the PCs by making evil attractive to them has been a hallmark of this campaign.

My notes for the first adventure are actually split into two parts. At the start of the game, a bandit approaches them and offers them a fair share of the booty if they help his gang attack a wealthy caravan. After that, half of the notes are for if the players accept the offer, and half are for if they refuse. As it happened, most of them refused the bandit's offer (long story), and eventually killed him and disbanded his band. But I made it clear from the outset that the path of the hero was not the only one open to them.

In later games, I tempted them with magic items. My favorite among them was when I allowed the chaotic good cleric to find a greatsword (her weapon of choice) which was far beyond her level in power. It was called "The Bite of Reason," and aside from its attack bonus, it could be used to instantly rust away many common metals. The drawback was that the item was intelligent, and strongly lawful neutral in alignment. So in exchange for this powerful weapon, the cleric was forced to engage in a battle of wills anytime she wanted to subvert the law in the name of good. If I recall correctly, it was one such battle of wills in mid-combat which caused her to lose an arm whilst fighting a lich.

This is just how I run The Ascendant Crusade, though. I'm also running one other major campaign and a third campaign which is relatively low key so far. Each one of them uses a completely different approach. Not so much because my players need it, but because it's fun for me. Trying new things is one of the best parts of being a game master.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

GMing For The Holidays

Just a few hours ago, my old friend and I got together for a Zalekios game. For those who didn't read my post on evil in games, Zalekios is my character in the only game I'm currently in which I don't GM. He's a chaotic evil psychopath with a penchant gratuitous violence. The game is just me and the GM, though other players have cycled in and out during the six years this campaign has gone on.

As of late, Zalekios has been seeking a kingdom to rule. Nothing too grandiose. The plan was to subdue a tribe of goblins beneath my level 12 gestalt heel, then march those goblins on an unsuspecting settlement which I could reshape in my own image. To his credit, my GM has made me work for every inch of this goal. I had the good luck to happen upon some fire breathing goblins, only to learn they would freeze to death in temperatures below 100°F (38°C). And when I found a wizard who could fix it, he needed me to get the blood of an adult white dragon before he could cast the spell. It's been nothing but work, work, work, and I don't even have a village yet!

Anyway, one of the first events in this session was the report from one of my goblin scouts that a village had been found. It met all of the qualifications I had insisted upon: it was on the outskirts of civilization, with a population of about 100 people. Small enough to rule, small enough not to be noticed, but large enough to satiate Zalekios' desire for power over others. At least for now.

I rode south for a day until I came upon the small village. My initial scouting revealed that the village was ripe for the picking. I wasn't able to spot any exploitable land formations which would provide me an advantage in my attack, but that's just as well. I wouldn't want anyone to use it against me once I'm in control of the thorp. With my scouting complete, I took a room at the inn for the evening. Zalekios was enjoying his sleep, when he was awakened by a knock at the door. Angered, and ready to stab whoever was standing there, he flung the door open. And before he could say anything, a chorus of little voices shouted;

"Trick or treat!"

Yes, my GM had thrown me in the middle of Halloween within his game world. It's not the first time he's done this, either. A few years ago, I hunted down and killed Santa Claus right around Christmas time. I don't actually recall why I did that, though I think it was one of the few times Zalekios actually did something which benefited people. The game world Santa Claus was an asshole for some reason.

Some might find this overly goofy, or even be angry at the break in the 'fourth wall.' People can take their gaming pretty seriously, and even those who don't often prefer things don't go completely off rails. But I, for one, have always enjoyed the sessions where a GM steps back and lets things be goofy for an adventure.

So what did Zalekios do? First, he scared the children off by exposing his mutilated features, and his fleshless skeleton hands. And for the rest of the evening he played along with the goofiness. Thanks to some magic items and a few Wish spells, he's a ghost when it comes to moving silently and hiding. Houses had their candy stolen while the family's backs were turned, children had bags snatched right out of their hands without noticing, and Zalekios ATE ALL THE CANDY!

Sure it was out of character. On a normal day, Zalekios would have been more likely to eat the children than to eat their candy. Seriously, he's done that before. But the game was a fun departure, with the operative word being fun. A GM should never be scared to completely break with convention and be silly once in a while. It pays off. One of Zalekios' most memorable fights was when he was chased by a dragon which had a breath weapon of bubbles. And despite being mostly a silly, out-of-character session, the evil (read: good) twin of Zalekios I fought today actually got me down to 9 hit points before I killed him.

I've never done it myself, but I think my friends can expect a Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas themed adventure in the near future.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Colorful Characters 3: Cohen Strauss, The Town Blacksmith

Cohen Strauss was born far away from where he lives now, in a small farming community. When he was seven summers old, a party of adventurers came through his town. He was fascinated by the fineness of their arms and armor. Having lived all his life amongst poverty, he was amazed to learn that items of such beauty could exist. When none of the adults were looking, he bravely strode up to the dwarf and asked where he got such wonderful armor. In typical dwarvish fashion, the adventurer responded that only the greatest dwarven smiths could craft such armor and weapons.

Cohen never learned where they were going or why they stopped in a community so far off the main roads, but he never forgot his fascination with the fine armors of the adventurers. As soon as he was of age, he apprenticed to the village blacksmith, where he learned the basic skills and tools of the craft. But sodding horses and constructing crude farming implements did not satisfy Cohen. Whenever a traveling merchant came through town, or some farmer went to market, he put up all of his meager earnings to buy books on the crafting of arms and armor, and on the dwarves who were known as the finest of all craftsmen. He taught himself to read using these books, and by the age of twenty he had surpassed his master in skill.

Realizing there were no opportunities for further advancement in such an out-of-the way town, Cohen resolved to seek out the dwarves. He bid goodbye to his family and his friends, and began the long trip to Gorren'Vor Mountain, stronghold of Moltenforge clan. There were other dwarven clans nearer his home, even clans who were renowned as craftsmen amongst dwarves. But the Moltenforge clan had a reputation for being welcoming to outsiders who wanted to commission their craft. Cohen hoped they would be as welcoming of a student eager to learn from them.

It took the eager young smith over a year to cross the distance to Gorren'Vor, stopping occasionally along the way to earn pay as a blacksmith as needed, and to pick up new knowledge and skills. He never lingered too long though, eager to reach his destination. When he finally arrived, feeling as though his entire life had been one long journey to the mountain which stood before him, Cohen eagerly requested to be granted an audience with a dwarven smith.

His audience was granted. And, after hearing the young man out, the smith he was taken to refused to accept him as a student. The one which Cohen saw the next day refused him as well, as did the one he saw the day after that. Day by day, Cohen saw his dream crumble as he was rejected by one potential teacher after another. Most had been kind to him, but none were interested in passing on their skills to a human.

"Why trust me legacy and me teachings to a boy who'll be dead before me beard's gray?" one dwarf had said. After a few months the guards simply stopped allowing Cohen to enter the dwarven city. Crushed, the young man found a bar in the human settlement of Taire at the base of the mountain. He sat down, ordered a drink, and didn't stop ordering drinks until he had to find a job.

It wasn't hard for a skilled blacksmith to find work in town. And with the constant flow of adventurers stopping on their way to Gorren'Vor, Cohen had many more opportunities to exercise his craft than he would have ever had in his home village. So for fifteen years he has made his life in Taire. He has become well respected in the town as a reliable smith, though most agree that he drinks too much. It never seems to affect his work.

When not working or drinking, Cohen makes arms, armor, and jewelry of remarkable quality. It easily matches the dwarves' work in quality, which is why most assume he purchased it from them. After awhile, Cohen just stopped correcting them.


Cohen Strauss is dour, and not terribly friendly. When dealing with dwarves he can be particularly spiteful, often openly ignoring them, or using racial slurs. In truth, Cohen suffers from a severe inferiority complex. Despite the high quality of his work, he feels completely inadequate after his rejection by the Moltenforge clan. Years of demeaning labor as a common blacksmith, as well as the lack of recognition he's received for his more finely crafted items, have not helped matters in the slightest.

Thoughts on Use

Cohen Strauss could be used as a simple smithy if that's all the game requires. The players could also be told that he's a good person to commission work from by a local who knows of Cohen's largely hidden talent. If the GM was so inclined, the lack of recognition for Cohen's work could make it difficult to learn that he's a skilled craftsman, and as a reward, Cohen's lack of self-worth might cause him to sell his items below their market value.

Particularly altruistic characters could be enticed into a political/role playing adventure wherein they try to get the dwarves of Gorren'Vor to accept the talented Cohen as a student.


Cohen keeps a number of scrolls available, and has a good working relationship with the same wizard who provides magical assistance to the Moltenforge clan smiths. He has studied enough of magic and scroll use to be able to use the scrolls to imbue his creations with powerful dweomers.

Much of his work is improvisational in nature. Rather than engraving a scene from mythology on a shield, for instance, he largely plans what engraving he makes as he goes along. Oftentimes the patterns and designs on his work seem random, or have no definite shape.

Interesting Facts

*Despite being relatively well settled, Cohen's demeanor does not endear him with women. Most of the women in the local bawdy houses know him as a somewhat unpleasant customer who pays well.

*Years of heavy drinking, as well as other vices, have caused Cohen's voice to develop a rasp.

*Cohen is completely clean shaven, never allowing the hint of a beard to remain on his face.

Cohen Strauss (CR 9)

XP: 6,400
Human Expert 12
LN Humanoid
Init +0; Senses Perception +0

AC 10, Flat Footed 10, Touch 10 [10 + Armor(0) + Dex (0)]
hp 70 (12d8 + 12)
Fort +9 Ref +4 Will +4

Speed 30ft
Melee Masterwork Blacksmith's Hammer +12/+7 (1d8 + 3/x3)

Str 15 (+2) Dex 11 (+0) Con 13 (+1) Int 16 (+3) Wis 11 (+0) Cha 6 (-2)
Base Atk +9/+4; CMB +11; CMD 21
Feats Craft Magic Arms & Armor*, Craft Wondrous Item*, Master Craftsman(Craft Weapons), Skill Focus (Craft Weapons), Skill Focus (Craft Armor), Master Craftsman(Craft Armor), Master Craftsman(Craft Jewelry)
Skills Appraise +18, Craft(Weapons) +26, Craft(Armor) +26, Craft(Locks) +18, Craft(Jewelry) +20, Intimidate +13, Knowledge(History of Dwarves, Arms, and Armor) +18, Profession (Blacksmith) +15, Spellcraft +18, Use Magic Device +13
Languages Common, Dwarven
Gear Heavy Leather Apron, Masterwork Blacksmith's Hammer, Masterwork metal crafting tools, 500gp

*Technically, according to the rules in Pathfinder, one must be a caster of level X to take these feats. However, I not only find that silly, but downright offensive to the proud history of the Fantasy genre. If this rule were to be enforced, then every master smith in fantasy literature would need at least a few levels of wizard. How many dwarven smiths seem like wizard types to you?

Edit: -C of Hack & Slash pointed out in the comments that I overlooked the Master Craftsman feat, which allows non-casters to qualify for Craft Magic Arms and Armor, and Craft Wondrous Item. I also notice that I forgot to increase the benefit from skills focus from +3 to +6 after 10 ranks. Both issues have been corrected. Sorry about the mistake everybody! -LS

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons

A few weeks back, whilst perusing the shelves at my local gaming/comic shop, Fantasium, I saw this book sitting next to the small selection of RPG-based fiction. "Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons," by Shelly Mazzanoble. Ostensibly, it's a parody of self-help books. Everything I need to know... points to D&D as the source of "all the answers™." I thought it was a pretty amusing idea, but being on something of a budget I wasn't sure if it would deliver. The whimsical doodles of adventurers on the back cover, though, convinced me to give the book a shot.

I took it, along with my other purchases, up to the counter, and started chatting with the store's owner. I learned that the book had only been released that very day. The owner mentioned that copies had been flying off the shelf so quickly, she was concerned she wasn't going to have an opportunity to snag one for herself. Apparently the author's previous book, Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress had been quite good. I also learned, to my delight, that the author was a woman. Women are so extremely underrepresented in this hobby that I was thrilled to find a book written by one. Since I wasn't driving that day, I cracked it open as soon as we were on the road.

As is often the case, the back cover somewhat misrepresented the book. It becomes obvious within the first chapter that it is not a parody of self help books. Rather, it is a series of personal anecdotes from the author's life in which Dungeons and Dragons helped her solve problems. None the less, the book gets off to a good start. Ms. Mazzanoble has a very conversational style of writing which serves her well. There was a paragraph in the first chapter where she describes her first encounter with D&D players, and the passion they have for their hobby. It was so well written as to be legitimately touching. Not only does she have the ability to be poignant, but the author is legitimately funny as well. The humor didn't often make me laugh out loud, but it did keep me turning pages through the first few chapters. After that, though, the whole facade starts to wear thin.

Each of the stories contained within the book seem to fall into one of two, equally insulting categories. First, there are the stories which seem entirely contrived. For example, in one chapter Shelly decides to spend each day of the week 'worshiping' a different deity from the Dungeons and Dragons mythos. She writes that she did this to help herself explore spirituality. But if I had to guess, I'd say her motivation was to fill 181 pages. Second, there are the stories in which D&D's involvement seems to have been added retroactively. Such as when she's wondering if she should ask her boyfriend to move in with her. She asks herself "what would my character do." When she decides that her character wouldn't sweat the small stuff, she resolves to be more spontaneous. This culminates in a spur-of-the-moment day trip with her boyfriend, which goes just well enough for her to feel comfortable asking him to move in. I hate to call anybody a liar (honestly, I do) but that just reeks of retcon. The story functions perfectly well if you remove all mentions of D&D from it. And when your book is about D&D, that's a problem.

Perhaps what bothers me most about the pervading aura of contrivance which surrounds these stories, is that I could actually write a book about how D&D changed my life. How it helped me see that the strict religious cult I was raised in was overly controlling. How it taught me the importance of establishing systems and impartial arbitration. How it made me a better writer, and gave me an outlet to explore my creativity before I had the confidence to write stories. I imagine many or most players would have similar experiences to share. In fact, an anthology of essays about how RPGs changed people's lives is a fantastic idea...but I'm getting off track.

It is a slap in the face just how little D&D is actually present in this book. Each chapter generally contains two distinct parts. "The Problem," which takes the form of an extended story from the author's life, culminating in an obstacle which must be overcome. These are generally engaging tales, told in the author's amusing style. The second part is "The (Attempted) Solution." This is where D&D comes into the picture, with the author making a hair-brained attempt to use the game as a problem solving device. Generally the chapters are split about 50/50 between the two parts. That means that D&D is featured in about half of the book. This is despite the fact that D&D is almost certainly the reason people bought the book in the first place. If I had to identify the true subject matter of Everything I Need to Know..., it is really more about the Shelly Mazzanoble's relationship with her mother than it is about Dungeons and Dragons.

I get that this book was not written for me, but I can't for the life of me figure out who it was written for. It's marketed to people who play tabletop RPGs, so whoever the target audience is, they must be some subset of tabletop gamers. Considering how infrequently D&D is actually talked about, and how every reference is explained in excessive detail, it must be aimed at very casual players, or perhaps potential players which Wizards of the Coast is hoping to ensnare with this book. Finally, add in the fact that the book includes more references to reality television than to gaming, and it becomes clear what this book actually is.

This book is marketing. Hell, Shely Mazzanoble even works in Wizards of the Coast's marketing department. The idea is clearly for the book to be a handy gift for gamers to give their girlfriends, as a means of enticing them to play. And, honestly, I wouldn't have a problem with that if not for how it was done. Women are underrepresented in our hobby. We've alienated them, and it's good to reach out to them. But apparently, WotC thinks that women are some kind of mysterious creature which can only be coaxed into buying a product if the sales pitch contains numerous references to shoe shopping.

Since WotC doesn't seem to understand this, allow me to spell it out: women gamers are gamers. When a woman buys a book about gaming, she's looking for a book about gaming. She doesn't need you to take the edge off of the "scary boy's game" by interspersing it with references to Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City.

With all of that having been said, I want to add once more that Ms. Mazzanoble is not a bad writer. If the book were truly abysmal, I would not have finished it. The stories would have been very enjoyable had I not been tricked into purchasing the book under the pretense that it was about D&D. But that kind of thing is often a decision of the publisher, not the author. I'll probably still read the author's first book, Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress. Based on what I've read, it sounds like a far superior book.

I'd like to close this post by talking about my favorite part of the book: the last chapter. No, I'm not being glib. The last chapter is the only one which struck me as being real. The only chapter where I felt Dungeons and Dragons was essential to the story. If the rest of the book had been of the same quality as the last chapter, you would have read a very different review just now.

The final story in the book presents the problem of children. Shelly's mother wants her to have some, whilst Shelly is downright opposed to the idea. None the less, when a minor emergency leaves Shelly in charge of her friend's two kids, she needs to find a way to connect with them. Otherwise the entire evening will just be a lot of awkward staring. She suggests a few kid-friendly activities like watching a movie, but nothing engages the two until she recommends a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The experience is new and different, and the children excitedly play their roles and roll their dice. Shelly even lets them keep a D20, and learns from the children's mother later on that she's now their favorite person in the world. The whole experience leaves her feeling less terrified of children, and it wouldn't have been possible without Dungeons and Dragons.

That's a D&D story.

Monday, October 24, 2011

On Character Generation V.S. Character Building

Yesterday I wrote regarding the general consensus I've observed in the OSR community regarding player agency and game master guidance. On that issue the OSR community is very much opposed to the emphasis on GM guidance they perceive to be more present in modern games than in older ones. And, while their criticisms have merit, I ultimately disagree.

Today's post is similar. It again relates to the OSR community, this time relating to character creation and progression. The consensus is that the forms of character generation used in older role playing games are superior to systems of character building present in more modern RPGs. I'll explore this in more depth below, but first I'd like to define these two terms as I understand them.

Character Generation is quick, simple, and requires a minimum of knowledge on the part of the character. Many character generation systems actively discourage GMs from allowing their players too much access to the rules, because knowing what the rules are will limit what the player thinks they can do. Often these systems are not much deeper than rolling dice for your basic statistics and picking a class. Generating a character is a great way to get into the game quickly, with a minimal amount of time spent on other things.

Character Building, by contrast, can be a very intensive process. Ability scores tend to be generated less randomly, with many of the most modern systems simply using a point-buy as the default. Players have a multitude (some might even say a deluge) of options available to them to customize and specialize their character's abilities. Character building systems offer greater depth to a player interested in customizing their character.

These are less dichotomous than simple labels would imply. There are gradations between the two, as well as alternatives to either system. Traveler's 'lifepath' system is both amazing, and unlike anything described above. However, in most games (particularly those closely related to Dungeons and Dragons) some variant of character generation or character building is used.

As a matter of personal preference, when I'm a player, I'm very attached to the character building model. That isn't to say I don't enjoy the speed, simplicity, and unpredictability of character generation. However, when Zalekios finishes a hard day's work being a horrible person, and the GM goes home, I'm still on a role-playing high. I want more. Unfortunately, as a player, there's not a lot more for me to do. The only thing I have control over is my character.

Which is why Zalekios often has written and diagrammed plans prepared for the next gaming session. It's why I designed my own character sheet layout for him, I've made character sheets for NPCs in his backstory and sent them along to my GM in case he ever wants to use them. It's why I'm level 12, but already have my character sheet ready-to-go for when I hit level 13. The fact of the matter is that I enjoy fiddling with my character.

Having said that, the OSR community is correct. Character building is harmful to RPGs.

When I think back over my career as a game master--a great deal more extensive than my career as a player--I have a hard time coming up with any of my players who enjoyed building their character. Many, if not most, have needed me to help them with updating their character sheet for every successive level. And that includes the group in which I purchased Player's Handbooks for the entire party. Most people are far more interested in playing the game than they are in deciding where to put their skill points. Or at least most people I've played with feel that way. Anecdotal evidence is not hard evidence, after all.

This doesn't mean that complex character building needs to go away. I enjoy it, and I know for a fact that many others enjoy it as well. But if we want our hobby to grow, then we need to make our favorite games more accessible. We need to engage people who are less interested in putting points into acrobatics, and more interested in leaping across a gaping chasm without caring why they landed safely. This is too big to house rule. It needs to be built-in to future systems.

I propose a theoretical system which offers players a choice between character generation and character building. Those players who want to spend their evenings pouring over rulebooks looking for the perfect combination of skills and talents should be able to do so. While players who don't want to, shouldn't have to. They should be able to roll their character ten minutes before the game and be ready to go.

This is a difficult, if not impossible task. In order for such a system to function, characters rolled using the shorter method will need to be just as effective overall as other members of the party built by dedicated players. Yet simultaneously, players who spend hours building their characters must not be made to feel as though their efforts have gone to waste. I think this would be best achieved by making a "general purpose" and "special focus" distinction. Whilst a generated fighter would be good at all the things fighters are good at, a built fighter might excel in fighting casters, or taking damage, or sundering weapons, while being less adept in other areas.

Considering the fact that games such as D&D and Pathfinder are unable to maintain class balance in the systems they've already got, my theoretical system seems like a pipe dream. I'm confident, though, that with sufficient ingenuity it can potentially be achieved. I fully intend to devote some of my attention to the problem. Until this magical system makes itself manifest, however, we've got to make due with what we've got.

I'm presently working within Pathfinder to try and devise a stopgap solution. I want to work out a method of character generation & leveling which functions quickly and simply. My current criteria for the system are:

-Characters created using this method must be reasonably well balanced with characters who are built within pathfinder. I'm never going to be able to make a formula for creating Pathfinder characters which will be able to rival min-maxed characters, so I won't try. All I want is for a party of casual players to be able to contain both built and generated characters without there being an obvious disparity in power.

-The method must be able to easily create a character of any level, not just first level. And it must maintain its ease of use throughout the leveling process.

-Any mechanisms used in this method of quick character generation should be easy to commit to memory. At the very most it could require a single page printout to run effectively.

I've made some minor progress. The difficult items like feats, spells, and class abilities such as rogue talents are still hurdles for me to make a jump check at. However, I did come up with a quick method of generating skills that I like.
Each class grants x + Int Modifier skill points each level. Select a number of class skills equal to x + Int Modifier. These are the character's skills. The modifier for any check is Level + 3 + Relevant Ability Modifier.

It's a start.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On Player Agency, and GM Guidance

In an effort to educate myself further on the variety and subtlety of the role playing hobbyscape, I've spent the last few weeks trolling for good blogs. Many of the ones I've gravitated towards affiliate themselves with the OSR sub genre of role playing. To sum OSR up in a single sentence, it's essentially a group of people who think RPGs reached their zenith with older games like first edition Dungeons and Dragons, or Hackmaster. And while I doubt you'll hear me espousing a return to treating elves and dwarfs as classes rather than races, I firmly believe that history is an excellent teacher, regardless of the subject.

One issue discussed frequently is the conflict between what is called Player Agency (D&D's version of ethical agency, for my fellow philosophy majors) and what I'll call GM Guidance. This issue is particularly well illustrated by a post over at Hack & Slash. Stated simply, a player has agency when he or she is able to control their own in-game destiny. Any circumventions of a player's choice, or arbitrary restriction placed on the choices available, reduces player agency.

The general consensus I've observed among the OSR community is that modern games fail at creating sufficient player agency. At best, this failure is the result of a failure to communicate the importance of player agency to gamers. At worst, it is argued, modern games actively discourage or prevent an acceptable degree of player agency. The examples given in the post linked above deal primarily with how fourth edition D&D discourages player agency. Any game, though, can suppress player agency if the GM fails to recognize how important it is to preserve.

On this matter, the OSR community has a point. Any game master of quality will warn new GMs of the temptations and dangers of railroading. And I've often told new players that the most remarkable thing about this hobby is that you can do anything with it. That freedom, that player agency is what makes these types of games so worth playing. To harm that freedom by telling a player who just wants to hunt for treasure "No, the king wants you to go on a diplomatic mission!" is bad game mastering.

Where I start to disagree with the OSR community is when they espouse unrestricted player agency. The idea that the GM should place no limits whatsoever on player freedom. It seems that many view the role of the GM to be one of world total world creation. NPCs may plead the players for help at a village to the north, and a sage may hint at a long forgotten dungeon to the east, but if the players want to go South West the GM damned well better be able to keep up. As fun as that sounds, I cannot accept it as the 'correct' way to play.

The work which goes into simply running a pre-written adventure for your players warrants some guidance from the GM. At a minimum, published adventures are thirty or forty pages long. That's an evening's worth of reading, plus any additional time the GM would need to create reference sheets, handouts, maps, or to integrate the module's locations into the campaign world. And as much time as that would take, it is easily the least work-intensive method to prepare a game. Designing a high quality adventure from scratch requires creativity, and hours of preparation detailing locations, challenges, and so forth.

I always hesitate to use my own experiences as an example in an argument, because that's simply anecdotal. However, in the years I've engaged in this hobby, both as a player and as a GM, I've never felt as though fun was lost due to the guidance of a game master. As a player, I make sure the GM knows what my player wants. If I want treasure, I'll try to find a treasure map, or even just tell the GM that I'd like to go looking for some treasure. As a GM, I ask my players after each game what they liked, what they didn't like, and if there's anything they want to do moving forward. Much to my delight, they're often too busy talking about how awesome it was when they ran away from the tribe of goblins to pay much mind to my probing.

That's what's really important: engaging your players. It doesn't matter if you nudge them along a vaguely linear progression, or simply drop them in a sandbox. So long as your players are engaged and having fun, you're doing it right. There is no excuse for half-assing your plot hooks and expecting your players to fall in line. Nor is there an excuse for dropping your players into a finely crafted campaign world and being frustrated when they want someone to give them some direction.

I don't want anybody to think I dislike sandbox style role playing, however. I actually prepared a campaign world for one once, several years back, which I was going to play with members of my World of Warcraft guild. That game fell apart, but the more I learn from the OSR community, the more I want to give it another try with the tools and knowledge I've gained in the years since that first attempt. Both styles of play are an excellent way to spend time with friends, or to make new friends.

Above all, Game Masters should remember: players will always defy your expectations. It's their job to break your game, and if you don't know how to handle it, you're doing it wrong.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pathfinder House Rule: Simple Experience Points

As a Game Master, I have always hated experience points. It is one of the most frustrating and poorly designed aspects of many role playing games. Including my beloved Pathfinder.

I understand function of EXP, and why it's valuable. Players enjoy being rewarded for their work, and (along with treasure) experience points are the most direct and tangible form of reward in an RPG. Watching the number of accrued XP grow larger and larger, bringing a character ever closer to the threshold of the next level, is not only encouraging, but it gives players a sense of control over their own progression

For the GM, though, it's nothing but a pain in the ass. Every encounter in the game needs to have an encounter level applied to it. Each encounter level is modified by the variables in combat. If the giant slime had a challenge rating of 6, and each of the two dozen skeletons had a challenge rating of 1/2, what was the encounter level of the combat? Should the characters gain more experience because the floor was covered in pit traps? Should they gain less because they have that powerful magic item which kept the giant slime pinned down for most of the combat? Should the total amount of experience gained change if the players find it unexpectedly more or less difficult than the GM expected they would?

I don't shy away from using a complicated system if I can be convinced it needs to be complicated. But experience gain never struck me as having that kind of need. Almost every game I've run as a GM has used a kind of ad hoc experience distribution system. I look up how many experience points are needed for the characters to reach the next level, and I give them whatever percentage of that number which I feel like they've earned. Most of the time I base that percentage on what speed of progression is optimal to keep the players in-step with events in my game world, rather than basing it off of challenges they have overcome.

At best, the method I've been using make experience points redundant. At worst, my method reduces player agency. It's an arrangement I've never been happy with, but not one I never thought of a good solution to. Maybe I was just being dense about it, though, because the solution seems damned obvious now.

Last week during my morning blog reading. I found this post over at Blog of Holding. According to Paul, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition is normalized so that each level requires roughly 10 encounters to reach. So, instead of bothering to calculate large XP numbers, Paul simply gives his players 1 experience point for every encounter, and once they reach 10xp they get to level.

I immediately fell in love with the simplicity and elegance of the system. But, not wanting to rush into things headlong, I ran the numbers for Pathfinder's own leveling graph. My formula was simple:
[(Amount of XP required to reach next level) - (Amount of XP required to reach previous level] * (XP awarded to a character in a party of 1-3 when overcoming an encounter with a CR equal to the Average Party Level.)

This should produce the rough number of combats required to reach each level. While it is possible to raise or lower this number by having more members in the party, or dealing with encounters with a CR above or below the APL, this should provide a reliable average.

Since Pathfinder provides groups with slow, normal, or fast leveling progressions, I punched in the numbers sixty times, and lo and behold, the numbers are consistent.

Slow progression levels every 22 encounters, normal progression levels every 15 encounters, and fast progression levels every 10 encounters. I have to admit, as the results started to become apparent, I started to get angry. It seems ridiculous to me that leveling is actually based on such an exceptionally simple system, which is hidden behind needless layers of complexity. I can understand that large XP numbers are perhaps more fun to talk about, but couldn't they have let GMs in on this? Knowing would have saved me a lot of work.

Having now shown that leveling is simply a function of the number of encounters players have overcome, I will now be using a modified version of Paul's Simple XP House Rule in all of my future Pathfinder games:

At slow progression, each level requires 44 experience points.
At normal progression, each level requires 30 experience points.
At fast progression, each level requires 20 experience points.

Characters receive 1 experience point for: overcoming an easy battle; escaping from a difficult battle or boss battle; overcoming a non-combat challenge such as a trap, or diplomatic negotiation; other misc tasks the GM would like to offer rewards for.

Characters receive 2 experience points for: overcoming an appropriately leveled combat encounter.

Characters receive 3 experience points for: overcoming a very difficult encounter or boss battle, or completing a major task such as saving a kingdom.

The major difference between my system and Paul's is that while his system converts the number of encounters into the total amount of required XP, I doubled the number of encounters to get the amount of required XP. This allows for more more nuanced experience rewards. The baseline for most of the experience most characters will receive is 2, which means that the average number of encounters will remain unchanged. Characters who only fight monsters appropriate for their level will still reach a new level every 22, 15, or 10 fights.

However, with my variation on the system, a GM is better able to reward players for more minor actions. Something like successfully disabling a complicated trap, using stealth to avoid a ferocious band of orcs, or convincing a band of marauders that it's not in their best interests to raid the village which is under the PC's protection. I've never liked RPGs which punished players for skillfully avoiding combat. As a guy who likes to play rogues who rely heavily on stealth, I've experienced this in essentially every class based video game I've ever played. It's just poor design.

Let me know what you think. I haven't actually play tested this system yet, so I'm sure I'll have cause to update it eventually.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Colorful Characters 2: Spyri the Trinketeer

(NOTE: The Witch class is from the Pathfinder Advanced Player's Guide. If you don't have that available, the stat block below will not be of much use.)

Spyri comes from a gnomish merchant family of modest means. Truth be told, her youth was positively normal. She learned her parents' trade well, and helped acquire and sell goods. She had a knack for the work, and in particular for finding more unusual items. She often came to her parents with some arcane bauble or other, which rarely seemed like something they would be able to find a buyer for. Luckily, Spyri had as much of a gift for selling oddities as she had for finding them.

One evening, when Spyri was perhaps 37, she was contacted by someone who had been a reliable source of goods to her in the past. He wanted to meet after dark in the stables of a nearby inn. Not unaccustomed to unusual behavior in her associates, Spyri agreed. The two met, and after some negotiation, Spyri made a good deal for a tiny sundial which functioned even without light. Just as the gold changed hands, however, torches of the town guard appeared around a nearby bend in the streets. Apparently Spyri's associate had some reason to fear the law, because he quickly leaped onto one of the horses in the stable and sped away from the place as quickly as he could--trampling Spyri in the process.

The gnome woman faded in and out of consciousness throughout the night. Even now, a lifetime later, Spyri seems to become tongue tied when attempting to describe the experience. She claims to remember nothing at all, and yet to remember a detailed conversation with an unknown entity she refers to only as "Whispers from Lightless Corners." This conversation which she seemingly does not recall changed her life. She awoke in the wee hours of the morning with a pony nudging her with his snout. And, without entirely knowing why, she led the pony away from the stable and went out into the wilderness for a year.

When she returned, her parents were jubilant. They had thought their daughter dead. Their joy was short lived. Spyri told her parents that she was leaving, did not know where she was going, but that she might return someday. She then left, again leading the pony (which she named "Shade Tender"), and taking nothing else with her.

Spyri was changed by her encounter with the unknown force she named Whispers from Lightless Corners. Not only did she act more erratically, and seem somehow detached from the world around her, but through her connection with that force she began to learn witchcraft. By communing with Shade Tender--witness to that first fateful meeting with Whispers from Lightless Corners--Spyri could reconnect with that power. Could draw knowledge from it, and learn powerful spells.

In her travels, Spyri met a group of adventurers traipsing through the woods. They asked her:

"Who are you, and where are you headed?" Spyri looked at them a long moment before responding by repeating their question. Somewhat confused, but willing cooperate, the adventurers introduced themselves, and added that they were trying to find the Crypt of Anakhot, which was rumored to be nearby.

"Now," said a well dressed halfling bearing an instrument, "What about you?"

Without pause, Spyri responded "I am Spyri, and I seek the Crypt of Anakhot, which is rumored to be nearby."

Confused though they were by her oddity, the party allowed Spyri to tag along on their adventure, and many others which followed it. The gnome was capable in a tight spot, and as she socialized more with the group, she seemed to become more lucid. Though she still had some difficulty dealing with strangers or acting whilst alone, Spyri found she was able to be much like her old self whilst around her new friends.

One day, while raiding the treasure horde of a goblin who had fancied himself a king, the party found an unusual deck of cards. One of the party members excitedly identified it as a Deck of Many Things. An item of rare power which they were fortunate to have found. Without a thought to the danger, each party member in turn drew a card. Defying the odds, each received some boon from the act.

When it came time for Spyri to draw, she did not think twice. She pulled her card from the top of the deck. It was The Demon's Laugh, a card unique to this deck. As soon as it was drawn, all those whom Spyri most loved--the entire party--blinked out of existence, leaving her alone. The etchings on the card promised that her friends would return again once the card was drawn a second time. Unfortunately, a Deck of Many Things never lets the same person draw twice.

Grief stricken, Spyri now travels the world with Shade Tender. She's taken up her family trade as a merchant, buying and selling oddities along the roads. She asks every customer if they would like to draw a card from her deck, hoping to someday be reunited with her friends. Even after 100 years of traveling, Spyri is still hopeful that she will see them again.


Spyri is an oddball. While not mad, she is certainly eccentric in the extreme. She will often Hex those who are kind to her with Fortune and those who are unkind to her with misfortune. If ever asked about her past, she will make up a lie, which will probably not match up with earlier lies she has told.

She can be pushy as a merchant, attempting to convince characters that they cannot go on without whatever bauble she's decided she wants to sell them. And, after every transaction, she always offers to allow a customer to draw from her Deck of Many Things.


Spyri does not like to fight. If forced, she will attempt to use spells like Cause Fear or Fog Cloud to escape as soon as possible.

Interesting Facts

*Spyri has a facial tick. Her left eye and check twitch and quiver while she talks.

*Spyri talks in her sleep, often directly to Whispers from Lightless Corners

*Spyri's hair has gone prematurely stark white.

*Spyri will often show unusual kindness to adventurers, as they remind her of happier times. If, however, adventurers ever treat her poorly, she becomes vindictive.

Thoughts on Use

Spyri is a great character for players to meet out in the wilderness, or while traveling along the road to a destination. She will try to sell them a number of very odd things, and the party might even buy one or two of them. If they do, she will offer to allow them to draw from her Deck of Many Things. If they do, roll a d% before each card drawn. If 100 is rolled, then the card drawn is The Demon's Laugh, and Spyri's friends suddenly appear, having aged not at all since their disappearance. Otherwise, treat as a normal Deck of Many Things. Spyri, like the deck itself, is intended to add spice & an unusual twist to a gaming session, rather than define it.


Spyri travels on her merchant cart, drawn by Shade Tender. Among many other oddities, it contains the following items which she will attempt to sell to the PCs.

-50ft of rope which unknots when the slightest pressure is put on it; 1gp
-A brown bag. 2lb of sand can be poured out of it every day; 2gp
-Gloves which make whatever they touch slightly colder; 5gp
-A working divining rod; 10gp
-A ball of yarn which will attract the nearest cat, up to 5 miles away; 1gp
-A stick enchanted to cut & stab like a normal shortsword. AC: 5, Hardness: 1, HP: 4; 2gp
-Ring which causes anyone who wears it to speak only the truth; 1,000gp
-Leggings which allow someone to be comfortable no matter where they sit; 10gp
-A torch which never goes out--no matter what you do; 10gp

Spyri, the Trinketeer (CR 3)

XP: 800
Gnome Witch 4
CN Small humanoid
Init +1; Senses Perception +6

AC 14, Flat Footed 13, Touch 14 [10 + Armor(0) + Dex (1) + Ring(2) + Size(1)]
hp 32 (4d6 + 8)
Fort +3 Ref +2 Will +8

Speed 20ft
Melee Masterwork Dagger +2 (1d3/19-20 x2)
Ranged Masterwork Dagger +4 (1d3/x2)
Witch Spells Prepared (CL 4th; Concentration +7)
2nd--Detect Thoughts, Fog Cloud
1st--Identify(2), Cause Fear
0(at will)--Touch of Fatigue, Dancing Lights, Daze, Light
Patron Shadow

Str 9 (-1) Dex 12 (+1) Con 14 (+2) Int 17 (+3) Wis 15 (+2) Cha 11 (+0)
Base Atk +2; CMB +0; CMD 11
Feats Iron Will, Brew Potions
Skills Heal (+9), Perception (+6), Profession(Traveling Merchant)(+9), Spellcraft (+10), Use Magic Device (+7)
Languages Common, Gnome, Draconic, Celestial, Abyssal
SQ Hexes (Save DC: 15) Fortune, Misfortune
Gear Simple grey robes made for traveling, Masterwork Dagger, 3 potions of Cure Moderate Wounds, a Ring of Protection +2, Two silver rings worth 5gp each, 6gp, a Deck of Many Things.

Familiar; "Shade Tender"
See "Horse, Pony" on page 177 of the Pathfinder Beastiary for stats.
Familiar Bonuses +2 Natural Armor, Intelligence raised to 7, Alertness, Improved Evasion, Share Spells, Empathic Link, Deliver Touch Spells & Hexes
Stored Spells
Level 0 - All Cantrips are stored.
Level 1 - Identify, Cause Fear, Command, Comprehend Languages, Cure Light Wounds, Hypnotism, Mage Armor
Level 2 - Detect Thoughts, Fog Cloud, Spectral Hand, Silent Image

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Exploring Crime in a Fantasy Setting

Party Leader: "Once we get the loot from that last dungeon back to our townhouse in Kilesh, I'd like to go talk to Knight Captain Martet. If we help him out with something here in the city then maybe he'll give us a letter of introduction to the Duchess.

GM: "The Knight Captain is happy to see you. He's got a job that none of his men can handle, because half of them are in lockup! Turns out they've been taking accepting bribes to ignore shipments of Devil's Leaf coming off the docks. Martet is positive he's thoroughly cleaned up the city watch, but somehow the illegal substance is still making its way into the city. He needs you and your compatriots to investigate.

A better GM would have shown, not told. It's not good GMing if you're not doing voices.

Almost by definition, any rule will be broken. Whether that rule be personal, religious, cultural, social, or legal; someone will break it. Because of that, crime is an inescapable part of any civilization. Assuming the laws are just and the PCs are good aligned, criminals make excellent foes for PCs. It also works if the laws are unjust and the PCs evil aligned, but I'll be focusing on the former in this post. Most of the time, the civilization where the PCs make their home will have the same kind of laws and crimes which our own societies typically have.

But what happens when those criminals are able to take advantage of living in a fantasy world; monsters, magic, and all?

Most criminals simply won't have the resources to purchase an extradimensional safehouse of course. Nobody turns to crime because they have piles of money lying around, and they don't normally accumulate piles of money picking pockets and burglarizing homes. There are, however, exceptions. The Duchess whose family has secretly ruled a city's criminal element for generations; the charismatic leader who was born poor but learned how to manipulate others into doing his dirty work; the Illithid who provides a city with vices, then controls it's leaders through blackmail; all of these would have the means to hire a wizard, or to outfit themselves (and their minions) with magical crime-aiding items.


Theoretically, a wealthy city could pay some decently leveled wizard a sum of money to research a Detect Contraband spell. That spell could then be permanently affixed to the city gates. Which would cause anyone walking through the gates with a condom full of cocaine in their large intestine to suddenly start glowing a bright red color. While most cities are unlikely to need a precaution like this, those with active smuggling problems may try it.

Unfortunately for the city watch, any city wealthy enough to have an organized criminal element, probably has an organized criminal element wealthy enough to afford a teleport spell. And short of creating a city-wide ward on teleportation spells, there is no simple fix for this issue. And even a city-wide warding spell would have untold complications. No wizards would want to live in the town, for one thing, which I can only imagine is bad for the economy. Not to mention the fact that the myriad of types of teleportation would require a myriad of (very expensive) warding spells.

I suppose a GM could surround a city with four towers (or six, or eight, or however many he or she feels is necessary) which block any travel other than through the material plane. This would allow teleportation to function within the city, as well as just outside of it, blocking only non-material travel past the city's walls.

Criminal ingenuity wouldn't be foiled by even this elaborate setup, though. While relatively expensive, any crime boss would be able to afford a few Portable Holes. And since anything stored in a portable hole is technically in extradimensional space, it would be undetectable.

Any player tasked with stopping the flow of contraband into a city is either going to need to become very creative, or just try to stab everyone involved until they die.

Illegal Commodities

The most obvious type of illegal commodity is drugs. If drugs socially accepted in the GM's setting, then they probably won't be illegal. Otherwise, though, drugs serve as a useful segue into a criminal underground adventure. And regardless of whether they're legal or not in your game world, they have the potential to be endless amounts of fun. Here are a few a dealer offered to my players in a game a few years back:

Magic Dust Residue collected from the creation of magic items. When inhaled through the nose, causes euphoric effects. Can cause spells to malfunction, but only mildly addictive.

Corpse Motes Are detailed thoroughly in an older post of mine.

Speedy Grease When rubbed on the chest, this causes the character to feel incredibly sharp, and aware. Grants initiative +1, but if anyone startles the character they must succeed on a DC: 15 will save or perceive that person as a danger. Non addictive.

Underskin Crawlers One dose includes four of these gnat-sized bugs. Cutting ones self and allowing the insects to get into the wound gives random shots of adrenalin to the character. Anytime the character makes a strength based check, roll 1d20. On 15 or higher, the character can add a 1d4 bonus to that check. Underskin Crawlers are highly addictive and prolonged usage can cause death.

Mother's Butter A pad of a soft, semisolid substance extracted from subterranean fungus. When placed under the tongue, causes characters to wildly hallucinate. Non addictive.

Sharkskin Happies The skin of a dire shark. When rubbed on the stomach, it causes a number of cuts. Sharkskin Happies are a powerful aphrodisiac. These are highly addictive, but have no ill effects save stomach scars and an increased risk of venereal disease.

Drow Eyes Eyedrops which grant the user darkvision for 3 hours. Often used by criminals for burglary. Addictive if used frequently. Can cause blindness after prolonged exposure.

These are all from old game notes of mine, but it's easy to come up with new ones. The most fun ones are the ones your players might actually take, forcing them to deal with issues like addiction and the consequences of prolonged use.

Illegal Services

Brothels, opium dens, gambling dens, speakeasies, or even certain types of religions have often been the subject of government bans throughout history. And whenever a government bans something, criminals will be quick to provide it to those willing to pay the price.

The traditional methods of concealing an establishment like this still work great in D&D. A sliding shelf in the back of a shop; a heavy, barred door; a man who asks for a password through a sliding window in the door which only reveals his eyes? It's charming and flavorful, and is great to include in a game. However, it's also mundane, and this post is about the fantastic.

Enter the extradimensional space. A room or building which exists nowhere in particular, but is none the less real. It is a dimension unto itself, created by a wizard. Every evening the doorkeepers wander the streets, perhaps wearing some subtle symbol to indicate their purpose. If you can tell them the password, they take you somewhere private, and use a magic ring to cause a door to appear in the nearest wall. And once you pass through it, your every pleasure is at your fingertips.


The classic example of fantasy counterfeiting comes from the atrocious, fear-fueled film "Mazes and Monsters." In the final scene, Tom Hanks (who went crazy, and now thinks he lives in a fantasy world) tells his visiting friends that each night he gives a coin to the tavernkeeper's wife (his mom) to pay for his room, and each morning it appears again in his purse.

Terrible as the movie was, this is a pretty killer idea. But what else can we do?

Illusory magic is common in the fantasy worlds of D&D/Pathfinder. Even a novice illusionist could enchant a copper coin to appear to be a gold coin. A more experienced illusionist may even choose to permanently enchant a copper coin, so that when a command word is spoken a temporary gold coin illusion is activated.

Money isn't the only thing which could potentially be counterfeited with illusion either. What about a ring which creates a solid illusion of a small piece of jewelry when the command phrase "Absolutely exquisite!" is uttered. A quick fingered rogue with a knack for blending in with high society could potentially steal the jewelry of every woman in the king's court without anyone realizing anything had been taken.

This post is not exhaustive. "Crime" is a rather broad topic. The crimes above are merely the ones which I felt a player might most commonly encounter when dealing with a criminal element. Of course by far the most common would probably be simple theft and assassination. Those are covered so extensively elsewhere, though, that I thought it would be redundant of me to bother with them.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spicing Up The Battlemat: Forests

In the first RPG-related post I made on this blog, I wrote about the importance of adding variety to any battlefield. Even as I posted it, however, I knew it wasn't enough. The topic is not only rich with detail to be discussed and dissected, but it is essential. Combat is one of the most exciting elements in an RPG, and for D&D/Pathfinder in particular, it plays a central role. Skimping on the options available to our players in combat is not a good idea, and environments provide a great deal of those options.

I think the best way to approach this subject is environment-by-environment. I'll be starting with one of my all-time favorite environments: forests. These are nothing if not filled with diverse forms of plant life and other obstacles to make combat more interesting. I spent most of the evening making a random chart for my own use, which anyone is, of course, free to use. And below, I'll discuss each of the elements more in depth, giving some of my own thoughts on how a player might use the items presented to his or her advantage.

Meadows are large grassy areas which can sometimes be found in or around forests. They normally form around water, and are often filled with flowers and bees. If nothing else, a battle here is dramatic, with violence being juxtaposed with flowers. And, for those less interested in poetry, there's always drowning your opponent in the nearby water source.

Clearings Similar to a meadow, but smaller. Often the result of an old forest fire which opened up an area which the forest has not yet fully reclaimed. More typical forest elements will be present here than in a meadow, and after enough fights amidst trees, the lack of them can seem like a good change up.

Sparse,Medium, & Dense Trees These gradations of tree size and frequency allow for different tactics. While even sparse trees might force a bullrushing fighter to change his tactics, a rogue with intent to hit-and-run through an entire combat will only become more effective the denser the trees become.

Exposed Roots Everyone whose ever gone walking in the woods has tripped over exposed roots now and again. A trip hazard like that could be a detriment--or a boon--in combat.

Fallen Logs Nature's handy half-wall, ready to protect a diving character from the evil wizard's Cone of Cold.

Fresh Fallen Tree Nature's handy half-wall, still covered with protruding branches to make getting over it more difficult.

Low Hanging Branches My ladyfriend informs me that trees with low hanging branches are more rare than I had originally thought. However, as I understand it, they do exist. And aside from making climbing easier, there's always the opportunity to take some inspiration from slapstick comedy and bend a branch back so it can spring back into position and potentially deal bludgeoning damage to a foe.

Hollow Trees I suppose that once a tree is hollow it's normally more of a stump than a tree. However, they still make excellent hiding places from which to launch an ambush mid-combat.

Stumps Instant higher ground!

Stream/Pond/Spring Small bodies of water offer a number of tactical choices. Not only can you potentially drown a foe in them (handy for getting rid of spellcasters with low strength, who could turn you into a toad if you let them speak) but if you can cross them more quickly than your opponent, you force them to put themselves at a temporary disadvantage whilst they cross it.

Waterfall Like the meadow, this is great for drama. However, for characters with excellent balance, it also provides them with slippery rocks to fight on. If this lures less-graceful foes onto the treacherous footing, the more well balanced character gains a significant advantage.

Dry Creek Bed This provides an excellent means of stealth for players with a surprise round. Just drop into the creek bed, move along it until you're positioned favorably compared to your foes, then pop up and strike! Just be sure you're stealthy enough that you don't end up fighting from the low ground.

Gradual/Steep Slope While the Pathfinder core rulebook does not list slopes as potential forest elements, every environment has some variations in elevation. Slopes are the most basic element in creating a tactics-rich environment, and should not be neglected.

Boulder/Rock Formation In addition to providing the same benefits as any high ground, some special circumstances may even allow for a powerful barbarian or fighter to move the mighty boulder, dropping it off a cliff or down a hill onto his or her foes.

Ditch/Cliff With a potential depth of 2d6 feet, knocking a foe into a ditch or off of a cliff may deal worthwhile falling damage.

Thorn Bush There are so many uses for the thorn bush. Not only is there the potential to deal damage to unarmored foes, but a particularly tangled bush might require an escape artist check to get away from.

English Ivy This prolific and fast-growing ivy wraps itself around everything, especially trees. And can grow strong enough to provide hand and footholds for climbing.

Irritating Plant While not likely to turn the tide of battle, it felt wrong to ignore the potential amusements offered by poison ivy, oak, or any other poisonous plants.

Wasp nest / Ant Hill While I avoided including animals in this chart, insect nests are too common to leave out. The benefits of using these against your enemies, and the dangers of not being mindful of them, should be obvious.

Once again, if you're interested, check out the PDF I made, detailing a method to randomly generate forest elements for your battlefield. While it is functional and, I believe, very useful; it could certainly use improvement. I'll take any criticism into consideration.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

On Zalekios Gromar, and the Undervaluation of Evil Campaigns

Everybody who plays RPGs is familiar with the harm that religious zealotry can cause. Thankfully, the general populace's opinion or role playing has largely shifted from "satanic" to "dorky" in recent years. But as a person who had to hide his Player's Handbook from his parents as a teenager, no one is more aware than I that this prejudice still exists. There are people, a lot of people, convinced that role playing games are the first step on the road to virgin sacrifice.

I suppose they've almost got it right. But it's not "virgin sacrifice," it's just "virginity," amirite?

Taking that into consideration, it's only prudent that Dungeons and Dragons has spent a long time avoiding the subject of evil PCs. Player Characters are good almost by definition, and the evil alignments only exist as labels for NPCs. There are other games which are not quite so shy about evil, such as World of Darkness, but they have that luxury only because most people are unaware that there are pen and paper rpgs other than Dungeons and Dragons.

Even the excellent Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 book "The Book of Vile Darkness," which was labeled with a sticker marking it as containing mature content, skirts the issue of evil PCs. It presents itself solely as a tool for GMs, to help them create truly vile villains for the truly heroic heroes of their gaming group. Though, to give credit where credit is due, I still think publishing the book was a courageous move on the part of Wizards of the Coast, and I applaud them for that--even if they did avoid a few issues I would have liked to see addressed. Publishing a book which covers topics as controversial as cannibalism, slavery, and incest had the potential to generate a lot of bad press. I like that Wizards of the Coast had enough respect for their product, and for their customers, to risk that.

Yet still, the very concept of evil PCs is relegated to a three page appendix in a 191 page book. Which saddens me, because I love evil PCs.

Who hasn't imagined what it would be like to break the rules? To take what you want, eliminate those who frustrate you, or even force the world to march to the beat of your own drum? It's only natural to think about these types of things. Musing about how nice it would be to punch a cop in the face while he's giving you a speeding ticket does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person. If anything, it's a coping mechanism to deal with the sense of powerlessness being at a cop's mercy can cause.

There is nothing wrong with playing the bad guy in a pen and paper role playing game. Nothing wrong with capturing damsels (male or female) rather than saving them. Nothing wrong with stealing the quest reward rather then earning it. Nothing wrong with constructing a fortress of evil, rather than raiding one. Of course, it's important that everyone at the table be comfortable with the content of the game. Topics like rape, slavery, or racism should be verboten in groups where they would make others at the table significantly uncomfortable. However, villains exist in any D&D game, so any table should already have an acceptable level of villainy established.

Allow me to introduce you to Zalekios Gromar.

Zalekios is a level 12 gestalt character, with four levels of Hexblade, ten levels of rogue, and ten levels of warlock. He is the most chaotic evil motherfucker in the room, and that's true even if he's in the same room as Orcus. He's committed every depraved deed you can think of from conceiving a child with the same succubus which gave birth to him, to using that child's bones to fashion a sword. He is a murderer, a slaver, a cannibal, and a rapist. He is a highly intelligent sociopath with a penchant for taking unnecessary risks just to further pain those who cross his path.

He's been my player character for half a decade now.

I was in Highschool when I first rolled up his stats. I only had one friend who shared my interest in D&D at the time, and as the more experienced player he did all the GMing. Sometimes his girlfriend would join the party, but most often it was just him and I. After playing several of the traditional hero types (like Tarin the Half-Elf rogue, or Xunil'Nerek Sharpedge the Illumian Fighter), I got it into my head that I would very much like to play an evil character. I had read about the Vasharan race in the Book of Vile Darkness--an entire species of pure sociopaths intent on killing the gods themselves--and I wanted in.

I won't bore you with the details of a campaign which has lasted five years or longer. To be honest, a summary wouldn't sound all that different from the summary of a normal D&D game. I fought an ancient civilization of phase-shifted trolls, infiltrated a magic college, explored a castle which sank beneath a lake in ages past, foiled a plot to trick two nations into going to war with one another, killed a dragon, and established a stronghold. Zalekios has even been taken through at least one published adventure (the Standing Stone) without completely breaking it. The only thing which really changes is an evil game is the motivation and the methodology.

Allow me to use a recent game as an example. For reasons unknown, the plane of fire intersected with the prime material plane. A rift was torn between the two dimensions, and now a large area of land which was once peaceful planes is a flaming hellscape. I don't know yet how it happened, but when it did happen it burned down my secret apartments within the city. So, thus enraged, I set out to see what was up, and what I found was a tower filled with fire-breathing goblins.

Now, Zalekios had decided recently that he wanted to acquire some minions. Conquest was starting to sound good to him in his old age, and subduing a tribe of goblins seemed like a good first step. So what did Zalekios do? He kicked in the tower's doors, melted the faces of the goblins which got in his way as he ascended to the top of the tower, and confronted the goblin king. Zalekios waited until a large number of the goblins had rushed to their king's aid before cutting the king's head off, picking it up, and taking a bite out of it as though it were an apple.

I then stood up at the table, and (blatantly ripping off a game I've never played) shouted "I am the blood god! Bring blood to the blood god! Brings skulls for his skull throne!"

This serves as an excellent example of how an evil game can function. Allow the player's to revel in their bloodlust. Give them motivations like rage and vengeance to get them started on their adventures, and allow them to further their own evil schemes within the context of the greater storyline. The GM which runs Zalekios' game does a good job of this, even if he does constantly complain about how difficult Zalekios is to plan for. I've promised him my next character in ones of his games will be a paladin named Kronus Mountainheart to make up for it.

Despite spending five years inside the head of an imaginary sociopath, sometimes to the point of excitedly shouting his evil proclamations at the table, I think I've become a better person rather than a worse one. It's difficult to point to moments in time and identify them as when you became 'more ethical.' However, it's only since I started playing Zalekios that I came to acknowledge and confront the fact that I carry a lot male/white/heterosexual/cisgendered privilege. I would call that an ethical step forward.

In closing, I'd like to offer a lists of "evil campaigns" which I've come up with. I've actually got a notebook filled with potential plots for future campaigns which I'd like to either run or play in someday. Evil ones probably make up about 25% of those. (Note that all of these below are for D&D/Pathfinder unless otherwise noted)

Band of Thieves The PCs would all play the role of thieves, and each adventure would be focused on stealing some item or items. At low levels they might simply be knocking over taverns or shops for money, but they could eventually build up to stealing great pieces of artwork or even the crown jewels.

Band of Assassins Much like the band of thieves idea, but rather than the object being the theft of items, the adventures would focus on killing people. At first perhaps they're merely contracted by a jealous wife eager to have her cheating husband out of the picture. However, as their levels rise they could find themselves in the middle of political intrigue, or plots to usurp the throne.

Urban Vampires There are games specifically designed for the players to be vampires, but I would very much like to try it in Pathfinder. Vampires have such a unique blend of limitations: inability to go into sunlight, inability to cross running water, inability to enter buildings without an invitation, etcetera. I would love to throw all those restrictions at players, and watch them try to survive and flourish in a town. Particularly one in a setting where everybody knows monsters exist, and there are many out there eager to fight them.

Slavers Touchy as the subject may be, slavery is a reality in many D&D style games. And where there's slavery, there is the slave catcher. Someone who needs to find people which can be taken without being missed--or who needs to be able to fight off those who miss them. Adventure variety could come from certain kinds of slaves being needed (such as ogre slaves for a large construction project) or re-capturing a specific slave which has escaped.

Pawns on the Overlord's Chess Board I actually did start running a campaign based on this idea once. The PC's boss is Dark Lord Evilguy, and he needs them to further his goals so that he might achieve the world conquest he's so long desired. What's great about this is that it's just as open-ended as a standard campaign. While good heroes fight goblins to save small villages, these PCs would fight the small villages and tell the local goblin tribe to start sending tribute to Mount Scaryhorror.

BBEG* in training The PCs start at level 1. Their only task: to conquer the world. They could choose any method they find preferable. Perhaps they'll construct an elaborate plan which is undetectable by the forces of good until its too late. Or, perhaps, they'll immediately set out to conquer one small village at a time.

Imperial Navy This is for the old West End Games D6 Star Wars game. I don't have much of a plan for it really, but I would really love it if all of my PCs were members of the Imperial Navy. TIE fighters, Star Destroyers, and greasing rebel scum. That's the life!

There are more, but I think that will do for now. Thanks for reading.

*(You may see this on the blog from time to time. It means Big Bad Evil/End Guy)
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