Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Puzzling Obstructions

A Pathfinder GM has any number of time tested challenges to present his players. The most common is combat, but to focus on combat exclusively is to lose much of the flavor which makes fantasy role playing so entertaining. Bargaining with an NPC, planning a raid, exploring the wilderness, crossing a river of magma, or any one of innumerable challenges can be utilized by a skilled GM to provide players with engaging games that keep them coming back to your table for more. One of the most maligned, and most poorly implemented, types of challenge is a puzzle.

I'd like to define precisely what I do, and what I do not mean by 'puzzle' before proceeding further. Note that these are not common definitions, simply terms which I find useful to facilitate clarity of discussion.
An obstacle is anything which hinders a character's progress towards a goal. A lock would be a very basic example of an obstacle.
An obstruction is a simple, or even natural, type of obstacle. Obstructions are general-purpose, and likely identical to any number of similar obstructions of the same type. Examples of obstructions would be locked doors, walls, pits, or even most traps.
A puzzle is a more elaborate form of obstacle than an obstruction. It is almost always created by an intelligent force, and is likely unique in its design. Examples of puzzles would be riddles, a door which only opens when four statues in a room are turned to face each other, or a box with no visible lid which opens only when submerged in holy water.
Puzzles are some of the most difficult obstacles to manage successfully, and should be used sparingly. In fact, a great many GMs I've spoken with over the years believe that puzzles should be considered verboten. And they have an excellent point! Puzzles can stop a game in its tracks. Almost by definition, puzzles have only a single answer. So instead of the players attempting to concoct their own solution (a great strength of tabletop RPGs) they're attempting to figure out what the GM's solution is. And if they get stuck when trying to figure that out, then the progress of the game can come to a screeching halt. And that's when people start looking for a new GM.

But I hold that puzzles have their place. Maybe it's it's simply because the early Legend of Zelda games are near and dear to my heart. No dungeon, temple, or crypt seems quite complete without a puzzle. Recently I ran a game where the players faced several puzzles crafted for them as a test by a master illusionist. All of the puzzles challenged my players, without becoming game-stoppers. I'll use those puzzles as examples.

Puzzle The First
GM says: "You enter what appears to be a small grassy field within the tower. The walls and ceiling are made of dirt, and a dirt path at the far end of the room leads down. There are [number equal to the number of characters present] horses present, docilely grazing."

Additional Information: The horses were very friendly, and could be ridden easily. If any character attempted to walk down the dirt path, they were asked to make a reflex save. Failure meant they fell into the path as though it were water. A round later they fell out of the walls or ceiling of the room, taking one point of damage. After one player did this, the voice of the wizard filled the room with "Your feet won't work there! You'll need these!" and as he speaks, clovers sprout from the grassy ground.

Intended Solution: The players were supposed to ride the horses down the dirt path. If they did, they would suffer no adverse affects. The clovers were a hint about cloven feet, but if they'd strapped the clovers to their feet somehow, I would have allowed them a half-success. They would sink up to their waist, and be able to slog their way down the ramp. I also would have accepted simply jumping off the edge, down to the bottom of the ramp. Though though as it was a 20ft drop, falling damage would apply if they didn't make a successful acrobatics check.

What they did: My players were, at first, very wary of the horses. Just outside the tower they had been dealing with a stampede of horses, and didn't want to get thrown off another raging horse. They did attempt to walk down the ramp, and triggered the hint. Someone suggested strapping the clovers to their feet, but before anyone tried that, one of my players decided to mount a horse and go for it. It worked, so everyone followed suit. The entire puzzle took perhaps 3-5 minutes to solve.

Puzzle The Second
GM Says: "This is a small room with a stone floor. There is a line on the floor ten feet away from a door opposite where you entered. The line is painted on a single, long piece of stone, and beneath it is written in common 'You must stand behind this line to open the door.'"

Additional Information: The stone which the line is printed on is 12ft long, and loose. Characters can pry it up easily, and beneath it is a 15ft coil of rope. The door is on on hinges which allow it to open both in or out. Pushing on the door while between the line and the door will be next to impossible. However, the door will open easily to even small amounts of force, so long as the originator of that force is behind the line.

Intended Solution: None, really. Though I did have three expectations of how the puzzle might be solved: The 12ft long piece of stone might be used to push the door open, the rope might be tied to the door, and pulled from behind the line. Or, alternatively, the players might throw heavy objects (or even each other) at the door.

What they did: My players really surprised me with this one. Rather than doing what I expected them to do, they first tried to open the door by taking the rope they found beneath the stone, and laying it out right next to the door, then trying to push the door open. When this didn't work, they tried the same thing, but this time they moved the stone with the line on it. Given the way I worded the rules, I decided that this should work, and allowed them to open the door. However, if I had decided that the line was somehow intangibly tied to its original spot, I think my players still would have figured the puzzle out promptly. This one was quick. Perhaps 2 minutes tops.

Puzzle The Third
GM Says: "There are 5 buckets hanging on the wall with labels on them. Each apparently has a different color of paint in it--red, blue, green, yellow, and black. Across the small room from the entrance is a plain door.

Additional Information: Behind the door is a stone wall. However, when the door is painted, opening it creates a portal based on the color used. The color/portal associations are as follows: Red opens a portal to the doorway the PC's entered this room through, Blue successfully allows the PCs to progress to the next room, Green opens a portal to the first layer of hell, yellow causes those who pass through the portal to simply come back out of the portal again, and black opens into space looking down on the planet (a wall of force stops any air, or players, from going through the black door.) The labels describe these locations, but are written in gnomish (the language of the illusionist who created this trial). This was intended as a hint to the illusionist's identity. He had thus far presented himself as a 9-ft tall humanoid.

Intended Solution: To paint the door blue.

What they did: My players probably struggled with this one the most. I probably should have provided better clues. Rather than paint the door, they painted the stone wall behind the door, but I decided to allow it. It took them perhaps 5 or 6 minutes to progress past here.

Puzzle The Fourth
GM says: "There are three iron doors exiting this room. High on the wall is a window made of grass. A green light filters into the room, the blades of grass creating a collage of lines and edges over every surface the light touches. In the center of the room is a large lens mounted on two axes so it can be turned in any direction. It is presently focusing a small beam of light onto the floor, warping the lines and edges created by the grass window's light."

Additional Information: All three doors open easily, with no trouble. This is the first puzzle the players encountered which was truly dangerous, as two of the doors led to particularly deadly traps, the natures of which are not important to the puzzle. If the characters examine the area of distorted light, they will notice that the lines & edges of the light form the word "look" in common. Directing the lens toward the doors will identify them either as "Death" or "Forward."

Intended Solution: To go through the door which reads "Forward" when the light is directed at it.

What They Did: I must confess, my memory is somewhat fuzzy on precisely how this final puzzle played out. I do recall that they were somewhat confused by the lens at first, but they did notice that it said "look." (I allowed them a passive perception check to notice it.) After that they made the leap to directing the lens at the doors, and found the correct way out easily. The entire process was brief, perhaps 2-4 minutes.

I view all four of these puzzles as successes. The players enjoyed themselves, and had some good discussion about what solutions they should attempt. Up until that point, these players had participated in sessions which focused on exploration and combat, so it was a good way to give them a new type of challenge. As mentioned before, setting up a good puzzle can be extremely difficult, so it's important to proceed with caution if you're planning to use one. While hardly exhaustive, I find these tips very useful in designing my puzzles.
  • Puzzles should almost never be required for progression through the adventure, and if they are, they should be easier than normal. You might notice that the four above puzzles were in fact required for progression, since the characters were after the illusionist for help. But neither were any of them particularly difficult to sole, and I was flexible with my solutions. If you do make solving a puzzle a necessary, then you risk the players becoming stuck. And if they get stuck, the GM is left with two options. One, the GM can give them out-of-character help, or somehow allow them to bypass the puzzle. This steals player agency, and makes players feel as though they're being railroaded. The other option is simply to allow them to remain stuck for as long as it takes, even long after they've lost interest. Both responses suck the fun out of a game. Since the GM is the fun facilitator (or the funcilitator!), sucking the fun out of a game is a pretty severe failure of GMing.
  • Make sure there are clear hints to help players succeed. Looking at the puzzles above, the first one had the four leaf clovers, the second had its conditions spelled out, and the fourth had the spot of light which formed the word "look." Only the third puzzle lacked a clear hint, and that was the puzzle which stymied the players longest.
  • Allow "half solutions" which help the players get there. If the players try something that doesn't work, they'll rarely attempt subtle permutations of what they've already tried. So if they attempt a solution which is close to the answer, but not quite, then after they fail they're likely to try something completely different, rather than try something similar to what has already not worked. If the solution your players come up with is near the mark, give them some indication of that. If it's a door they're trying to open, have the door open just a crack, but no further. In the first puzzle above, I would have allowed players to have some success by putting the clovers on their feet, even though this was not the "correct" answer.
  • What is obvious to you as the designer of the puzzle will never be as obvious to the players as those challenged by the puzzle. This rule is absolute. Err on the side of caution. It's better that your puzzles be too easy, than too hard.
  • In order to help with that previous point, confer with a third party before the game. Asking a friend who won't be playing in the game to solve your puzzle will give you a better sense of what works and what doesn't.

Pathfinder: Pillars of Motherfucking Salt

Click the comic to go to's high res version.

Pathfinder made an appearance in today's Penny Arcade! You may want to click back a few comics to read the rest of the storyline. Essentially, Gabe (the fellow in yellow) is GMing a 4th edition game, but he's lost control of it. He's allowed his players to become overpowered, and is no longer capable of challenging them. Tycho (the fellow in blue) is a much more experienced GM, and has resolved to help his friend teach his players a harsh lesson.

Because GMs are all about the harsh lessons.

Regular Wednesday post will come this evening.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Wizard Spell Research Variant

Wizards are the scholars of Pathfinder. Other spellcasting classes, such as the sorcerer, cleric, or druid, draw their powers from their ancestry, their gods, or nature itself. The unique flavor of wizards is that they are the scientists of a magical world. Their power comes from hours of study, and dutifully logged research. At each level, wizards automatically learn two new spells which represent research performed between adventures. A wizard can also learn new spells by studying the spellbooks of other wizards. The only real limit on the number of spells a wizard can know is however many books the GM will let him get away with carrying.

This versatility is one of the great draws of the wizard class. Unfortunately, the nearly limitless ability to expand their spell repertoire also allow wizards to completely overshadow the other classes. This uncontested dominance has plagued the game ever since D&D 3rd edition's release. Over time, balance has improved through lowering the effectiveness of some spells, and increasing the abilities of other classes, but wizards are still considerably overpowered in Pathfinder.

Editions ago, when wizards were still called magic users, this was not as much of an issue. I'm not exactly an expert on older versions of D&D, but my understanding is that not only did wizards level at a slower rate than other classes do, but their abilities were also significantly less comprehensive. In Pathfinder, the idea is that anything which can happen in the game world can potentially be achieved by players. If there are mighty magic users who can cast spells powerful enough to raise continents out of the sea, then players should be able to look forward to similar abilities at some point. Obviously this creates much more powerful casters, but I don't think I would want to give either of these things up. I like that ever class levels at the same rate, and I like that nothing is ever completely out of reach of player characters. I would, however, like to see wizards brought more in line with other classes. It's a problem which is often floating around the periphery of my awareness. I haven't come up with a solid solution, but recently I struck upon an idea which I think is flavorful, interesting, and goes a small way towards helping with balance issues.

As I've posted about before, I've been reading a few first edition D&D modules. Alas I've been too busy to really make a dent in the small stack of them that I have, but one thing I've noticed is the big to-do which is made about NPC spellbooks. Any time a magic user appears in a module, the author makes note of where the magic user keeps his or her spellbook, and what spells are in it. Magic users often seem to go to great lengths to hide their books. It seems that in 1st edition, stealing finding and stealing a spellbook was considered a great prize. And why shouldn't it be? In first edition, as in Pathfinder, getting your hands on someone else' spell book means that--after a little study--all of that person's spells can be added to your own collection.

I toyed with this idea for awhile, not really sure what I wanted to do with it. I could start making spellbooks a bigger part of my games, but all that would do is make any wizard players more overpowered than they already were. I jotted the idea down in one of my notebooks for future reference, and promptly forgot about it for a few weeks. That's when I read a post by Paul over at Blog of Holding called 4e Spells as Treasure. I find it amusing that many of my best ideas come after reading Blog of Holding, since it most often focuses on 4th edition D&D, a game which I find personally quite distasteful. In this post, Paul discusses the possibility of including scrolls which have improved versions of spells in treasure hordes. Wizards could transcribe the spells into their books, and forever be able to cast a slightly better version of a common spell. This set me to thinking:

What if wizards only learned spells by finding them?

It wouldn't be difficult. Simply drop the 2 spells wizards learn automatically with each new level. Since those spells are explained as research performed between adventures, all a GM need say is that spell research in the game world is significantly more time consuming and difficult than in the standard Pathfinder game. Players could still research spells on their own, but doing so would need to be handled with the GM, and would probably have significant costs associated with it. As Paul writes, "DMs and players can go crazy with rules for spending money on research, libraries, and labs."

Using this house rule, characters would no longer be able to learn spells independently from the game world. Players never like to see their characters become weaker, but once they accepted this way of doing things, I think it would make spell acquisition a much more involving and entertaining process. Gaining two new spells instantaneously with each level is fine, but it's an abstraction which reminds everyone that they're playing a game. Instead, every time players encountered a wizard, they would be engaged in trying either to befriend her so they could learn from her, or defeat her so they could steal her secrets.

This house rule also provides the GM with useful tools for controlling their game world. Many spells make a GMs job significantly more difficult, such as the various permutations of polymorph, flight spells, teleportation spells, invisibility spells, and worst of all, divination spells. And while I think it would be inadvisable to simply block players from ever finding these spells, this rule does give the GM a throttle with which to control their inclusion in the game. Overland Flight, for example, might never appear in the game until an enemy wizard uses it in a level 14 adventure. If the players then earn the spell by defeating their foe and finding his spellbook, it's still just a 5th level spell. But the GM is able to prevent it from effecting the game until they're ready for it, 5 levels after it would normally be available to characters.

Another benefit of this house rule is that treasure hordes become much more interesting. My experience with D&D is that most GMs include two things in treasure piles: coins, and gear they want their players to use. I did this myself for many years, so I understand the desire to simplify player rewards. Artwork, weapons which won't be used, and even gems seem like they're simply obstructions to game play. All the player will want to do is find out how much gold he can get in exchange for these items, and sell them as soon as they can. But simple treasure hordes become boring very quickly. Players can only get excited about a pile of coins and a replacement for their weapon with an extra +1 on it so many times. Including the spellbooks of long dead magic users, or even just scrolls containing a new spell, will go a long way towards getting players more excited about what they find.

It's just a thought at this point. I haven't had an opportunity to implement this rule in a game yet. When I do I'll be sure to take copious notes on player reactions and update the blog on how it went.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Paizo's New Venture: Pathfinder Online

The Internet has been abuzz of late with news of Pathfinder Online. At least, the parts of the Internet which take note of tabletop RPG news have been abuzz. In case you haven't heard, Paizo (publisher of the Pathfinder RPG) has spun-off a new company called Goblinworks, and tasked Goblinworks with creating an massively multiplayer online role playing game based on the world of Golarion. Details at this point are scarce. Goblinworks won't even open its doors officially until 2012. But considering how early it is in the process, we've actually been told a great deal.

Truthfully, my initial reaction to this news was not favorable. The concept itself breaks two of my fundamental rules of video games.
  1. Tabletop RPGs never make good video games. They may have some moderate success, such as Neverwinter Nights enjoyed, but they're still bad games. Every one I've ever played makes the fundamentally bad assumption that the video game needs to emulate the rules of the tabletop game it's based upon. What never seems to be taken into consideration is that video games & tabletop games are different. The greatest strength of tabletop games is tactical infinity. When you're dealing with a GM rather than a computer, you can attempt to solve a problem using any kind of solution which comes into your head. Video games are incapable of that, it is their great weakness. One of the great strengths of video games is that computers can automatically keep track of the rules, and perform complex calculations instantly. Since humans can't do either of those things, tabletop games (even the most complex ones) use mechanics which are simple in comparison with most video games. So by forcing a video game to comply with the rules of a tabletop game, you end up with a game that takes the worst parts of both mediums, and ends up with the best parts of neither.
  2. MMORPGs fail. I know World of Warcraft is going to falter eventually, but after seven years of completely unchallenged dominance, is Pathfinder Online really going to unseat it? I've started playing a little game with myself every time an MMORPG is released. I estimate how long it will be until the publisher excitedly announces that their game is now "Free to play!" An announcement which essentially means "so few people are playing our game that our only hope to make money off of it is to abandon the subscription model." The announcement never requires more than a year after the game's initial release.

That being said, I do have a certain amount of faith in Paizo. To use a ham-fisted simile, Paizo is kinda like the Blizzard of tabletop. They release exceptionally polished products, are an independent company* with a powerful fanbase, and both companies were founded by a bunch of D&D nerds. In fact, both companies also ripped their primary intellectual property off of another company. Warcraft is just a ripoff of Warhammer, and Pathfinder is just a continuation of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. So given the faith that I have in Paizo as a publisher of quality products, I decided to look into the project a little more, and find out what there is to know about it.

Goblinworks FAQ page provided a great deal of information. Unfortunately I don't qualify for a job with the company, but there is a lot which serves to allay my concerns. For example, "almost every Paizo employee that works on Pathfinder will be involved to some degree with Pathfinder Online." That's encouraging. Too many projects are ruined when the people working on the project don't understand their source material. I suppose that's one of the benefits of starting your own publishing studio.

I also find it very encouraging that Goblinworks is promoting feedback from the community. I have no illusions about it. There's a good chance that Goblinworks is using the suggestion forum the same way Blizzard uses their suggestion forum: as a convenient way to keep people who want to bother them with suggestions busy. However, one of the things which makes Pathfinder a milestone game in the RPG industry is the massive "beta test" which took place in the months leading up to the game's release. Paizo made PDFs of the Core Rulebook freely available online, and asked players to play the game, test it, and tell Paizo if they had any problems. I have a copy of the original Core Rulebook download on my hard drive still, and I can assure you that a lot changed between it and the print edition of the book. So it's always possible that Goblinworks will actually keep an eye on the suggestions forum. Tabletop RPG players are creative people, so it certainly can't hurt to listen to what they have to say.

And then there are these two quotes:

Pathfinder Online's innovative archetype system includes specific paths of development that reflect the classes in the tabletop game, so if you want to play a character that mirrors a classic tabletop class, you'll be able to do it. However, Pathfinder Online is driven by more diverse player activity than the classic adventurer-focused tabletop experience; Pathfinder Online players will be able to act as merchants, farmers, miners, teamsters, caravan guards, spies, and explorers, and in any other role the players choose to create. Characters will have a wide variety of skills to develop, allowing them to be highly customized to the player's preference.


Characters in Pathfinder Online don't have levels in the classic sense. They develop skills over time, and as their skills develop, and as they meet various prerequisites, they unlock new abilities similar to class features or feats from the tabletop game. Characters following an archetype path will be able to unlock a capstone ability much like the 20th-level capstone abilities in the Pathfinder RPG.
This is hugely encouraging to me. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic in saying this, but it sounds like Goblinworks is not only aware of the issue I discussed above in point 1, but has resolved to fix it. PFO sounds like it will be a delightfully complex game, which works for me. The gradual simplification of World of Warcraft is part of what turned me off to that game.
We are planning a hybrid subscription/free-to-play model. Players will have the option to pay a flat monthly fee for complete access to all standard game features, or to play for free with certain restrictions, using microtransactions to access desired features and content on an a la carte basis. Pricing details have not yet been finalized.
While this is not particularly interesting to me, it seems like an unusual payment system. Perhaps helpful in staving off the "NOW FREE TO PLAY" announcement a few months after the game's release.
Yes. Several types of premium content can be purchased using microtransactions. This content includes "bling"—visual enhancements to the character or the character's property that have no mechanical effect; a wide variety of mounts that let you customize your ride and show your personal sense of style; and adventure content packaged like classic adventure modules that you and your friends will be able to play through as a group.
I find this somewhat worrying. Microtransactions for bling doesn't bother me. If somebody wants to spend a few bucks on a special hat, I'm fine with that. In WoW, I'm quite happy with my Lil' KT minipet which cost my girlfriend $10. However, actual adventure content being purchasable skirts dangerously close to being a dealbreaker for me. I'll be keeping an eye on that as the game's development goes forward and we learn more.

The final line in the FAQ provides some of the most interesting information:
Most fantasy MMOs, including World of Warcraft, are "theme park" games. In theme parks, you're expected to work your way through a lot of scripted content until you reach the end, and then you play end-game content while you wait for the developers to release more theme park content so you can continue to advance your character.

The other end of the MMO spectrum is the "sandbox" game. In sandboxes, you're given a lot of tools and opportunities to create persistency in the world, then turned loose to explore, develop, find adventure, and dominate the world as you wish. You and the other players generate the primary content of the game by struggling with each other for resources, honor and territory. There is no "end game" and no level cap.

Pathfinder Online is a sandbox game with theme park elements. You'll be able to create your own place in the world of Golarion, complete with complex social and economic systems. You'll form ad-hoc or permanent groups ranging in size from small parties to large settlements and even huge nations, and interact with others in your world in a realistic, unscripted fashion. You'll also be able to participate in scripted adventures, though, with the outcome of those adventures helping to determine the shape of your world.
This all sounds pretty awesome to me. But as a more experienced MMO player pointed out to me: it sounds like a game which will be rife with griefing. I like to think Goblinworks will be aware of this issue and make sure they have a fool-proof solution in place before the game goes live, but we'll see.

That's essentially my outlook on the entire project right now, actually: we'll see. Truth be told, there aren't many reasons to believe that Pathfinder Online will have any more success than Warhammer Online or Age of Connan did. Every video game sounds good when the only thing we can talk about are concepts. However, I choose to have faith in Paizo, and through them Goblinworks. They've done right by me up to now, and I want to see them succeed.

I'll see about examining the game & the people behind it more in depth as details emerge.

*Technically Blizzard is no longer independent, but their acquisition by Activision didn't come until after the release of WoW's second expansion. And the third expansion bombed so hard that subscriptions have plummeted. Coincidence? Probably.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Goblins Redux

My friend Jeremy, his family, my ladyfriend Morrie, and I have a half-assed Thanksgiving tradition which we started three years ago. In that far off year of 2009, I was doing quite poorly financially, and Morrie (not yet having met either Jeremy or myself in person) wanted to come up and visit the both of us. So during the time off, Morrie and I both spent the Thanksgiving vacation staying with Jeremy and his family. We spent the week having all manner of fun with one another, and among other things, we spent one very enjoyable evening playing an extended session of D&D. It was the Zalekios campaign, which Morrie made a character for. Since then, we try to get together over Thanksgiving to enjoy each others' company, and wreak some havoc with some chaotic evil role playing.

This afternoon, while Morrie and I were getting ready to head off to Jeremy's home, we realized something annoying: neither of us had the slightest clue as to where her character sheet for "Jerry the Chaotic Evil Halfling Barbarian" was. We were already late, and had no idea where to look, so Morrie suggested something which would end up teaching me several valuable lessons before the day was done:

"Why don't I just play the four Goblins?"

I blinked. The idea was twofold odd: I've never been in a game where a player played more than one character, and I've never been in a game where a player's character is so drastically lower in level than the other players. Truth be told I've been interested in trying both of those things for a long while now, and Morrie was willingly taking on the task of guinea pig. "Sure," I finally replied. "I'm sure Jeremy won't have any problems with that." So we show up, pumpkin pie in hand, and I tell Jeremy about Morrie's idea. As I suspected, he's fine with it, and we begin play.

As play began, Zalekios was standing over the body of his good twin, and the GM gave me space to come up with a plan. Seeing that I was trying to take over the town, I decided to assume the role of my twin. After all, we were twins. The only problem was Zalekios' rather horribly self-mutilated face. Fortunately, I had a dead twin on hand whose face I could cut off and wear temporarily. I then promptly chopped up my twin's body, and spread his remains about town. When the townspeople became frightened, I told them that I would go off and gather a fighting force to protect us from "these vile acts." Having a charisma of 23 comes with distinct advantages; such as being able to dupe 377 villagers into believing you're not wearing their dead mayor's face as a mask.

So off Zalekios went to fetch the small group of goblins which he had conquered in a previous game. A few days later he returned, no longer wearing the dead mayor's face, and with the 33 goblins in tow. When asked about his "injuries," he claimed that he had been cut viciously while defeating the goblin tribe's chieftain. But now that chief was dead, and the tribe owed him their absolute loyalty. Again, 23 charisma can be damned helpful in duping level 1 commoners. Once I had everyone convinced, I began directing them in constructing better "defenses." A phrase which I've placed in quotation marks because only Zalekios knows that the pits and walls won't be used to keep anything out. The purpose of those obstacles is to keep the villagers in once Zalekios begins to establish the new order of things.

The whole thing was done in a very rules-light way, because there aren't really any rules on the subject. Essentially, Zalekios' role in the first half of the session was that of director. I told the GM what I wanted the villagers to do, and he told me what worked, what didn't, and what complications presented themselves. I was really very happy with the way this played out. I tried something almost exactly like it a few months back which failed miserably, so I'm glad to see it can work if done properly. I may need to give it another try soon.

Morrie, playing the goblins, really shined during this part of the game. Building on the role playing the party (especially Poog) had done the last time these goblins were in play, she set about to cause goblin mischief, and generally make Zalekios' life more difficult. When Poog cut off all the pig tails in town "for his collection," Zalekios had to quickly spin some lie for the population about pig tails being a necessary reagent in a spell which would ward the town against evil. Even my 23 Charisma was strained getting them to accept that one, and I had Poog flogged for the nuisance.

The town needed lumber for its walls, so I sent Rita, Chuffy, and 3 other goblins to protect the humans who were gathering it. The GM used this as an opportunity to run an ad-hoc 1st level adventure. He sent a couple bears to terrorize the commoners, and Morrie took control of Rita & Chuffy, while I played as the three Monster Manual standard goblins. It was a genius idea, nestling a 1st level adventure within a 13th level adventure. It worked fantastically, and everyone had a great deal of fun.

Once the goblins returned with the lumber, it was starting to get late in the evening, and we still wanted some time to play Magic before Morrie had to go to work. To speed things along, we decided to put off furthering the construction for a later date, whilst Zalekios, with all four goblins in tow, answered a persistent call from Al'Kim. Al'Kim is a high level government official with the nation of Mulgran who believes Zalekios is a loyal compatriot. And while the two do share goals, Zalekios is also the second-in-command of an organization seeking to overthrow Mulgran. I hold that it is Al'Kim's fault for making Zalekios sit in a waiting room for 30 minutes once. But I digress. Al'Kim wanted Zalekios to investigate some unusual goings-on at a port town a few days' travel away.

On the road, the five characters were attacked by three wyverns. This is what I had been waiting for: a chance to see how well level 1 characters survived combat geared for my level 13 powerhouse. I began combat by casting Fel Flight, granting me wings, and flying up into the air. This left most of the goblins somewhat helpless, but Rita managed to hit one of them with an arrow, and Mogmurch successfully threw an alchemical explosive at one of them dealing a few damage. On the wyvern's turn, they mostly ignored me and went straight for the goblins. Poog was reduced to -3 in a single bite attack, and none of the goblins managed to make any hits.

Zalekios, with his lowly 10 wisdom, decided to dive bomb the Wyvern laying atop Poog, and attempt to pin it to the ground with a slam attack to the neck. I rolled my Combat Maneuver roll against the wyvern's Combat Maneuver Defense (Zalekios' game hasn't switched fully to Pathfinder yet, but we have house-ruled in a few of the better rules) and Zalekios succeed. The three wyverns failed to make any progress that turn, but Rita did manage to pull Poog aside and feed him a healing potion. In the following round, Zalekios channeled his Eldritch Blast ability into the Wyvern, killing it. And, as a bit of theater for my goblin minions, Zalekios used his move action to take a big bloody bite out of the dead Wyvern's head. They cheered for their Blood God.

By then, though, a second wyvern had landed and made a bite attack against Zalekios, which fortunately missed. Still riding the high from his utter domination of the previous wyvern (and still suffering from 10 wisdom), Zalekios used his clawed hands to grapple the offending beast's head, digging his sharp fingers deep just behind the jaw. He was again successful. I jokingly asked the GM what the DC would be to rip the dragon's head off. Truthfully, my plan was to try snapping the creatures neck, but I never expected what happened on the goblin's next turn.

First, Chuffy managed to make a devastating sneak attack on the wyvern's underbelly. But even more spectacularly, Mogmurch successfully threw his last alchemical bomb of the day into the snapping maw of the grappled wyvern. The GM allowed this as an automatic crit, and Mogmurch rolled just below max damage an all his dice, blasting the mighty CR6 creature with a fiery explosion which left it reeling. This left me wondering just how plausible my earlier joke was. So when my turn rolled around, I asked the GM what the explosion's visible damage had done. He confirmed that numerous muscles and tendons had obviously been severely damaged or even destroyed. So Zalekios looked the monster in the eyes, set his legs against it's shoulders...

...and pulled.

I think Jeremy was a little flabbergasted. He asked me for a strength check. I rolled the twenty-sider in my hand for a long while. This was the kind of roll which could make-or-break a game session. For all my philosophical skepticism, I tried to force the die to roll high through sheer will. Finally, I threw the die, and a 19 came up. I think Jeremy had been hoping for something low so he could simply ignore the question of how to adjudicate such a ridiculous plan. He settled on making an opposed strength check for the wyvern, and I kid you not: he rolled a 19. I thought for sure I was finished. No way was Zalekios stronger than a fucking dragon.

But as it turns out, Zalekios is just strong enough that his roll was 1 higher than the wyvern's. The bones cracked, the skin tore, and Mogmurch and I were bathed in the blood of our victory. The final wyvern fled.

We ended the session there, and I came away having learned 3 very important lessons which I will take with me into my future GMing:
  • Anyone who says 'playing characters of vastly different levels sucks' doesn't know what they're talking about. Based on how much she was smiling, I would say this ranks among Morrie's top five gaming sessions ever. And I say that as as someone who has been gaming with her for 3.5 years. In RP, the goblins were providing a lot of the game's entertainment and challenge. And in combat, never once did they feel useless.
  • At least in some circumstances, a single player can play multiple characters without being overwhelmed.
  • Adventures where the PCs simply direct others in performing tasks (finding lumber, digging trenches, etc.) can be a lot more fun than you might think. I'm starting to ponder a game where each party member is given a task: one to build the defenses, one to train the villagers to fight, etc.

For the record, all of Morrie's goblins survived the game, and everyone agrees they should return. But Morrie, wisely I think, has decided that she does not want these characters to level. She thinks it's more entertaining when they're low-level goofballs who get on Zalekios' nerves and sometimes manage to help despite themselves.

We have decided, though, that Mogmurch deserves something special. He has been granted the title of "Dragonboomer," and from now on will always receive a +4 when attempting to throw objects into a small space.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Colorful Characters 7: Hiles Gorefeet AKA "Speak No Evil"

Though Hiles does not know it, he is the last in a proud line of halfling leaders. Hiles grandfather led a large band of nomadic halflings for many years. The band flourished under his leadership, and he was well loved. As was his daughter, Iyllia, whom he was grooming to replace him. Iyllia was with child when the band arrived at the tower of Gasner The Blue, a wizard with whom they had often traded in the past. Hiles grandfather entered the tower to greet the wizard, but within he found only carnage, and demons.

Gasner, no great practitioner, had intentionally summoned these demons. And while Gasner successfully brought these creatures onto the material plane, his skills were insufficient to hold them captive. His entrails decorated the tower's interior like streamers. The halfling leader fled the scene, and ordered his band beat a hasty retreat, but the demons were too quick. The fiends had the halflings surrounded before the last cart had fully rounded about.

The demons took pleasure in torturing some of the halflings, releasing or killing them only after the poor fool had offered his soul in exchange. Those who would not relent were tortured for days before finally succumbing to death. Those halflings who avoided torture, though, suffered the most dire fate. The demons took them back to the Abyss, and sold them as slaves in the Abyssal city of Dis. Among these was Iyllia, sold to a mighty Balor called Tarro'Ghk'Zheir. Two months later, Iyllia died as she was tortured during childbirth. She survived only long enough to name the child Hiles, and apologize to him for the life she was bringing him into.

The other mortal slaves of the demon kept the child alive, though none were willing to take on the responsibility of "raising" him. That level of caring is too dangerous in the Abyss. They were able to tell the child his name, but none knew his family name, and so for many years Hiles did not have one. It wasn't until Hiles was five, when he was stamping the corpses of the damned to mush in an abyssal winepress, that Tarro'Ghk'Zheir mockingly gave him the name "Gorefeet."

Tarro'Ghk'Zheir grew somewhat fond of Hiles, insomuch as demons can be fond. He found the little halfling's cowardly nature amusing, and often passed time by finding creative ways to terrify Hiles. And despite his cowardly nature, Hiles did prove himself useful as a servant. Which is why, when Tarro'Ghk'Zheir traveled to the material realm to wreak havoc there, he brought Hiles with him. For his own part, Hiles never really knew much about his master's schemes, concerning himself only with avoiding the demon's wrath. He didn't know what the strange underground complex was, or what the cultists in red robes were for. Then the adventurers came. They scattered the cultists, raided the underground complex, and killed Tarro'Ghk'Zheir.

All without noticing little Hiles.

Never having been free, Hiles didn't know what to do. And he was far too scared to experiment, at least at first. He carried on with his assigned duties, believing that this was merely another game being played by his master. One which would end as soon as he strayed from his duties, and the mighty demon could threaten to flay his skin from his bones. As his supplies dwindled, and the corpse of the mighty demon began to decompose, Hiles began to wonder if it was a game after all. Perhaps, for whatever reason, the cruel demon was gone...a concept which terrified Hiles nearly as much as invoking the demon's wrath. Hiles had never known life without Tarro'Ghk'Zheir, and couldn't imagine how to function without him.

Fortunately, the comforting voice of Tarro'Ghk'Zheir came to him. It berated him for being a fool and believing for even an instant that any harm could befall the great Tarro'Ghk'Zheir. The voice then demanded that Hiles bring it a meal of freshly dead humanoid. Hiles ventured out of the dungeon for the first time, found a nearby village, and knocked out a young human man in the dead of night, bound him, and dragged him back to the dungeon in a bag of holding. He set the young man loose there, to be hunted down. Tarro'Ghk'Zheir likes his meat to experience terror before death.

Tarro'Ghk'Zheir's voice has continued to speak to Hiles, and for twenty years the halfling has fed his master from dozens of villages and cities both near and far. More recently, the urban legends which tell of the halfling murderer call him "Speak No Evil," because of the phrase which Hiles now repeats over and over again.


Hiles is cowardly and uncertain of himself. He will often apologize to his victims even as he murders them. Extended conversations with him are next to impossible. If he's not murdering you, he's fleeing from you. And if PCs manage to force him to do neither, anything he says will be incoherent. If captured outside of his dungeon, GMs may choose to insert clues to the location of his dungeon into his ramblings. No matter what, though, the phrase "Speak No Evil" should pass his lips frequently. It is his mantra.


Hiles is motivated in everything he does by terror. It is likely that he would flee if forced into a direct confrontation with anyone who seemed confident enough to stand up to him. He prefers to prey on those who are just as scared of him as he is of himself. If forced to deal with a capable foe, Hiles will attempt to separate that foe from any allies, and will always prefer to strike from the shadows.

If reduced to 50% health, Hiles will beg not to be hurt anymore.

Thoughts on Use

Hiles is designed as an encounter for characters levels 6-8. He's a much more grim encounter than often comes up in D&D games, and should be used only with a group which is comfortable with high levels of violence and other disturbing content.

The encounter might come about when the players are hired to look into "Speak No Evil" by a city Hiles was recently hunting in. A more interesting plot hook might be Hiles capturing an NPC the players know personally. The player characters would then need to hunt Hiles down, hoping to save said NPC. If your group is amenable to being split, you might even have one of the PCs be captured by Hiles.

Interesting Facts

-Immediately after being killed, Tarro'Ghk'Zheir reformed in the Abyss. He raged at having been defeated, then returned to his citadel to carry on his affairs. He has completely forgotten about Hiles, and has never contacted him or even bothered to wonder what happened to him.

-Hiles once heard the phrase "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil." Being as uneducated as he is, the halfling believes this to be a prescription for creating wards against evil. For reasons unknown, he latched on to the last part, and believes that tongues can be used to protect against evil. Once Tarro'Ghk'Zheir's corpse is completely surrounded by tongues, he thinks, then the demon will never be able to hurt him again.


Every room of this twisted maze is essentially identical. Old and broken items lie in piles scattered randomly through each room and corridor. From simple items like benches, barrels, and shelving; to more distinguishing items such as torture equipment, sacrificial altars, and demonic statues. It is possible that some forgotten treasure is buried under a few of these piles. The blood and scraps from hundreds of humanoid creatures are scattered randomly throughout the dungeon as well, though no tongues will ever be found.

If the players enter the room marked with the pentagram, they find the rotting, still-flaming corpse of a Balor Demon, (Tarro'Ghk'Zheir). On the walls of this chamber are tongues. Dozens upon dozens of tongues, each one nailed to the wall, forming something which resembles a grotesque set of scales. If the characters take the time to count thoroughly, they will find three hundred and twenty eight tongues on the wall. Some of them appear to be as much as fifteen years old.

Note: I notice now, too late, that there's a small portion of the map which I forgot to fill in. I apologize for that.

Hiles Gorefeet, AKA "Speak No Evil" (CR 7)

XP: 3,200
Male Halfling Rogue 8
CE Small humanoid
Init +8; Senses Perception +12 (+16 v. Traps)

AC 21, Flat Footed 16, Touch 16 [10 + Armor(5) + Dex(4) + Size(1) + Dodge(1)] (+2 v. Traps) (Can't be Flat Footed)
hp 73 (8d8 + 24)
Fort +6 Ref +11 (1/2 damage on save)(+2 v. Traps) Will + 2 (+1 vs. fear)

Speed 25ft
Melee Wounding Dagger + 11/+6 (1d3 + 4/19-20 x2)(+1 bleeding damage, -1 HP each round, cumulative)
Ranged Dagger + 11/+6 (1d3 + 1 /19-20 x2)(10ft Increment)
Sneak Attack 4d6
Vital Strike When using attack action, may make one attack at highest BAB. Damage dice are rolled twice for this attack.

Str 16 (+3) Dex 19 (+4) Con 16 (+3) Int 8 (-1) Wis 8 (-1) Cha 10 (+0)
Base Atk +6/+1; CMB +8; CMD 16
Feats Improved Initiative, Dodge, Weapon Finesse, Fleet, Weapon Focus (Dagger), Quick Draw, Vital Strike
Skills Acrobatics +17, Climb +8, Escape Artist +15, Perception +12 (+16 v. Traps), Sense Motive +12, Sleight of Hand +15, Stealth +19,
Languages Halfling, Common, Abyssal
SQ May move at full speed while using stealth, can draw weapons as a free action
Gear +2 Studded Leather Armor, 10x +1 daggers for throwing, +1 Wounding Dagger, 10ft of chains, 2 meat hooks, 20ft of demonshair rope (+5 to escape artist DCs), 5lb of caltrops, bodybag of holding, 80 gold pieces

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My GMing Methodology for ToKiMo

Me: "Shortly after mid day, you hear some noise coming from behind a nearby shrub covered ridge.
Gibbous: "Doubtless more of those cowardly Kobolds we faced earlier!"
Rosco: "Probably. We should take a loo-"
Gibbous:"Ho there you cowardly lizards! Show yourselves, and let the might of St. Cuthbert judge thee!"
Me: *blink*
Me: "Um...the tribe of Kobolds is now alerted to your presence...
Gibbious: "Wait...what?"
Phoenix Dark: "I knew we shouldn't have brought the cleric."
Gibbous: "Nothing we can do about it now. Charge!"
*Gibbous charges over the ridge into the Kobold camp.*
*Roscoe and Phoenix look at one another.*
Me: "Don't worry. You two both have abilities which work from range.
Phoenix: "Phew!"

A little less than a month ago, I wrote about my GMing methodology for The Ascendant Crusade. In that post I mentioned that I run a few other games as well, including one other major campaign which I've dubbed ToKiMo for my notes. The title is a portmanteau of the players names: Todd, Kiersty, & Morrie. ToKiMo has developed very differently than The Ascendant Crusade did. When I started TAC, I had a great deal more time to devote to gaming than I do now, and in fact I still rely on many of the notes I made back in 2009. ToKiMo, by contrast, started during a very busy time in my life, with a very different group of players than TAC has.

In this post, I'd like to detail. the process I undergo in preparation of a ToKiMo game. Bear in mind that ToKiMo has only had a handful of sessions to grow and develop, so in many ways I'm still experimenting with each game. Bear also in mind that I got Batman: Arkham City yesterday, and I'm god damned shocked that I'm writing this post rather than playing it right now.

With the first session of ToKiMo, I pulled one of my favorite tricks to pull on new players. I call it the "Generic Fake Out." When I've got a group of mostly new players, I often present them with a task which is completely formulaic. The kind of task they're expecting to see: attack the goblin tribe, attack the kobold tribe, attack the orc tribe...essentially they attack a tribe of something, normally on behalf of a village which is too weak to defend itself from that tribe of something. For ToKiMo it was Kobolds, and the village was weak because an ancient red dragon had bathed it in flame on a lark.

The players were then able to buy equipment, explore the world around them, and eventually decided to hunt down the Kobold village. And, just like every other group before them, once they found said village, they charged it with swords out, arrows notched, and spells on lips. Here's the fake-out part: whatever kind of creature I pit my new players against in the Generic Fake Out, diplomacy is always an explicitly stated option. The quest giver always mentions that they'd accept a peaceful resolution, but players never go that rout. New players always have a predetermined notion of what adventure gaming is, and they stick to their script.

Once the deed is done, and the players are covered in the blood and gore of the fallen monsters, I step out of character for a moment to point out to them that diplomacy would have been an option. And that while attack the village was not necessarily wrong, it was a more "neutral" act than it was a "good" one. Most often the players are surprised, having ignored the hints about diplomacy because they assumed it was just flavor text. In the future they approach the game with more attention to detail, and a realization that they have more options than the first one which pops into their heads.

I employ the generic fake out tactic for three reasons. The first reason is to give players a taste of what they expect from adventure gaming. As a GM, it's important that I'm running games for my players which they will enjoy, but when someone has never played before, I have no idea what they'll like and what they won't. Giving them an adventure which (likely) fits their preconceived notions of what D&D / Pathfinder will be like is a good starting point for me to judge what works for the group, and what doesn't. The second, and primary reason for the generic fake out, is to help new players break bad habits before they start. Tactical Infinity--the ability to attempt anything you can conceive of--is the greatest part of RPGs, but many new players don't even realize it exists because they're applying the same logic to tabletop games that they apply to video games. And video games always have a very small, very specific set of tactical options for any given situation. By letting them go down the beaten path, then showing them that there was an easier & better option available to them, I help open their minds to the innumerable possibilities that await them. The third and final reason is that nobody expects the handful of Kobolds who escaped to show up in a later session. And they certainly wouldn't return with class levels, hungry for vengeance. (Spoiler: that's exactly what happens).

Since the first ToKiMo session, I've tried to give the players a completely different experience every time we gather around the table. With the second game, I wanted to give Roscoe, the party's hunter, some time in the limelight. I also wanted to introduce the party to the concepts of puzzles and traps, as well as give them another opportunity to creatively handle a village of hostile foes. So the mayor of the town they'd rescued in the first adventure came up with another task for them: seek out the wizard Mahudar Kosepske, and beg him for aid on the villages behalf.

The mayor was not certain of the wizard's precise location, but knew that a certain herd of wild horses would run non-stop to the wizard's location if they heard his name. This gave Roscoe an opportunity to make use of his tracking ability, first to find the herd, and then to follow it when it outpaced the party. Once arriving at the tower, Mahudar insisted on testing them before granting them an audience. The players were forced to make it through five puzzle rooms before they were able to proceed to the wizard's chambers. I must admit, I'm always worried when I make puzzles a requirement for forward motion. If the players get stuck, the GM is forced into the position of either giving them the answer (stealing their player agency, and their sense of accomplishment), or allowing them to beat their heads against the wall until they don't want to play anymore. Still, I decided to risk it, and the players easily made it through all 5 puzzles by coming up with some very satisfying solutions. Everyone seemed to enjoy the change of pace, so I'll probably be including more puzzles in the future.

Finally, once Mahudar was reached, he revealed that the spell the players needed would require a specific reagent. One which would be difficult to obtain: the branch of a tree which was struck by lightning, but did not burn. He directed the towards one, and even teleported them near its location, but warned them that the goblin tribe which surrounded it viewed it and it's fire-immune wood as a gift from their god. And also that said goblin tribe had been at war with a neighboring human settlement for generations. To their credit, my players did attempt diplomacy. They just didn't do a good enough job of it to convince the extremely prejudiced goblins to help them. And with stealth being out the window, the players opted to simply run into the village, grab a branch of the tree, and flee like the dickens.

Shockingly, through some of the most hilarious antics I've ever seen at the game table, the players managed to survive.

In our upcoming game, I'm continuing the trend of giving the players different experiences with each session. While I'll not go into specifics, the upcoming adventure includes some hex crawling, small scale combat, a mystery, a few role playing encounters, and the largest dungeon I've ever made for level 2 characters.

Should be good times!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stuff Which Never Works

I love RPGs. You probably figured that out by now, given that you're reading the RPG blog which I update five times a week. I think they're a fun, community-building form of entertainment, which offers nearly limitless possibilities for those who play. But for all that is good about RPGs, there are some things which simply do not work within the medium. At least I've never seen them work, but maybe I'm just missing something. Thus, in the interest of exploring these failings of the medium, I've gathered three elements of gameplay which have never been anything but a game-slowing nuisance for me. I'll detail why it would be nice if they did work, why they don't work, and if I can think of one, I'll offer a possible solution.

I'd really like to encourage readers (no matter how old this post is when you read it!) to chime in on this one. What game elements have you encountered which never seem to work well? Do you have any solutions to the three outlined below which I didn't think of? Is there a system which actually handles any of these well?

Ammunition is an easy one to start with. In the real world, any projectile weapon has a limited number of uses based on how many projectiles are available. Once you've fired your revolver six times, you either need to reload, or come up with a new plan. In a medieval fantasy game like Pathfinder, arrows and crossbow bolts take the place of bullets, and the threat of running out adds an exciting depth to the game. Not only does limiting a player's ammunition force them to use it more intelligently, but it also forces players who favor ranged weapons to have a plan for how they'll contribute to the battle once their quiver is empty. After that happens once or twice, players will start to understand the necessity of scavenging for unbroken arrows after a battle. And eventually, when the GM chooses to include a Quiver of Unending Arrows in a pile of treasure, it will become a player's most precious possession.

But keeping track of ammunition is a pain in the ass. Amongst the player's starting equipment, they purchase fifty or a hundred arrows. And then what? Every time they fire their bow they're supposed to take the time to erase that number and replace it with one number lower? Players are focused on whether or not they hit what they were shooting at. If they did, then they're concerned about damage, and if they didn't, they're concerned with muttering to themselves about how badly they're rolling today. Keeping track of ammo is even more burdensome if the GM tries to handle it. GMs are the center of everyone's attention during combat, and they need to ration their time carefully in order to keep things moving. Giving their attention to minor details like how many arrows a player has left would kill combat flow. Every group I've been in has just house ruled it so that once you purchase arrows once, you have a full quiver for life.

Truthfully, I haven't thought of a good solution to this one yet. I did consider making ranged weapons usable only a certain number of times per combat / certain number of times per day, but that's just lazy game design. Fortunately, Telecanter of Receding Rules came up with a solid alternative called simple ammunition tracking. Rather than reduce the total amount of ammo by one each time it is used, players using projectile weapons each get a stack of poker chips. After each encounter during which the projectile weapon was used, the player gives up one chip to the GM, regardless of how many or how few arrows they fired. Once they're out of chips, they're out of arrows. It's a good house rule. It doesn't suffer from the inane number tracking problems that the core game's method does, and it grants most of the benefits of keeping track of / running out of arrows.

To be honest, though, it doesn't seem like a good fit for my games. Solid as Telecanter's simple ammo tracking rule is, it doesn't allow for the possibility of running out of ammunition in the middle of combat, which is the most interesting time to run out! For the present, I'm still looking for a better system of ammunition tracking.

Encumbrance is a problem which goes hand in hand with ammunition. Including a good encumbrance system in your game places reasonable & interesting limitations on the player characters. It rewards strong characters for being strong, which helps take the edge off how overpowered casters can be. It also provides the GM with a multitude of adventure options which wouldn't be available if characters could carry whatever they want. Removing treasure from a dungeon, and finding a place to store that treasure, become adventures in themselves. And like the Quiver of Unending Arrows, an encumbrance system turns items which have become commonplace and boring, such as exceptionally light armor, or a bag of holding, into treasures worth questing for.

Unfortunately, encumbrance suffers from the same problem of excessive calculation that ammunition systems have. When a player is looking through the equipment chapter of the core rulebook, and they see that each and every item has a weight calculated down to ounces, they can't help but balk at the idea of keeping track of it all. Every time anything is added to a pack, or removed from it, its weight must be added or subtracted from the grand total amount of weight being carried by the character, and then checked against the character's maximum load to determine whether or not that character is now encumbered. I've never met a single GM who bothers with such rules. I have met a few who use simplified versions of those rules, but even those simplified rules often seem overly complicated to me.

I discussed this issue with a friend at length last night. He was of the opinion that encumbrance rules should simply be discarded as useless to gameplay. Despite the benefits, he said, there's just no way to make things simple enough to be fun. I tried to come up with an example of an ultra-simple encumbrance system to use as a counterargument, and inadvertently struck on an idea which I think I may start using in my games.

A character's strength score is the maximum amount of significant items which can be carried without becoming encumbered. Significant items are identified by the GM at the time of acquisition, and may include: a 50ft coil of rope, a 10ft pole, a sword, a suit of armor, or five hundred coins of any denomination. Items might qualify as significant based either on weight or on size, but no item which is not significant counts against encumbrance in any quantity. A character may carry as many non-significant items as they like without them counting against encumbrance, even if the sum total of their parts (such as fifty potions) would be heavier and more unwieldy than any single significant item (such as a sword). In some special cases, the GM may choose to make a particularly heavy or unwieldy item count as two or more significant items, though it is recommended that this be used only in special cases. Common adventuring equipment such as armor should never count for more than one significant item.

Chase Scenes are a huge problem in RPGs. What's great about them should be obvious: they're exciting. They're a unique kind of encounter which, if I could figure out how to run one, would make escaping just as much fun as standing your ground to fight. But what's exciting when every character has a pre determined speed? If your speed is 30, and your pursuer's speed is 35, then eventually you're going to be overrun. Numerous books discuss methods to make chases more engaging for players, but when speed is a set number there's only so much you can do.

I think the best way to overcome this problem is to encourage our players to think creatively while escaping (or giving chase). Halflings, with their lower speed, should try to use their size to their advantage by going places where larger characters can't. Other characters can attempt to use obstacles, or creative shortcuts to overcome the static speed problem. And of course, players being able to do this is contingent on the GM's ability to improvise a constantly changing environment for the players to dash through. Being intimately familiar with Pathfinder's movement and running rules (Pathfinder Core Rulebook Pages 170-172) can't hurt either. They provide useful mechanics for exhaustion, which determines when somebody in the chase is forced to give up.

There are a number of other things which I've never been happy with. Keeping time is nearly impossible, and the game makes it far too difficult to sneak up behind someone and knock them out. I'm sure there are others as well, but I think three is sufficient for this post. Particularly because I'm currently operating at a significant sleep debt, and very desperately need to get in bed early tonight!

As I mentioned above, I'd like to encourage comments on this post. On every post, actually, but on this one in particular. Let me know what elements of gameplay have never worked to your satisfaction. Or even better, let me know if you've got any better solutions than those I've come up with!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: The Worldwound Gambit

During the recent collapse of Boarders book stores, I went to find what deals I could find. This was during the final days of their liquidation, when most items were between 60 and 80 percent off, so the shelves were already pretty bare, but I did bring home quite a haul. Among the booty (books) I carried back to my stronghold (two room apartment), was The Worldwound Gambit, by Robin D. Laws. It's part of the Pathfinder Tales collection which, for those unaware, is a label under which Paizo publishes novels set against the backdrop of Golarion, the official Pathfinder game world. Supporting genre fiction authors is one of my favorite ways in which tabletop gaming companies advertise their products. I've been a fan of Dungeons and Dragon's fiction ever since a friend forced me to read The Dark Elf Trilogy. So as I've long since grown out of Drizzt, I was interested to know what my new gaming system had to offer.

The basic summary of the plot is that a group of less-than-heroic folks take exception to the demonic invasion which is threatening to overrun their homeland. Hoping to bring things closer to normal, the group ventures into the "worldwound," a tiny segment of the Abyss which has merged with the material plane. Their goal is to find and steal the magic orb which is allowing the demons to pass freely in-and-out of the worldwound itself. The plot is simple, and Mr. Laws devotes much of his time to developing the characters. Something which I very much appreciate: genre fiction is at its best when it's character driven.

But character driven storytelling is not enough to save this book from damnation. The writing is, at times, painfully bad. Far be it from me to claim any profound expertise as a writer, but what in the world drove Mr. Laws to write the entire story in present tense? ("Gad is running, and now he jumps." instead of "Gad ran, then jumped.") The senselessly unique perspective constantly pulled me out of the story as I tried to reconcile awkward phrasings. I was halfway through the book before I got used to it, and I still can't think of anything it added to the experience. What's more, some passages simply appear to be poorly constructed. For example, there's one passage which details a single side of a conversation. No less than nineteen lines in a row begin with "Then:." And on page 143, there's this gem, emphasis mine:
"Do we go around the marsh?" Gad asks.
"We don't know how far it extends," says Vitta."Whatever's on either side of it might be worse." She pulls a compass from her pack. Its dial spins crazily. "And the further we get from a straight line to your tower, the less confidence I have of staying on track. We could get turned around and wind up all the way down in the Shudderwood." The Shudderwood is a haunt of twisted fey, far from their destination.
My exact response to this was to shout "ORLY!?" Pardon my exasperation, but are you kidding me!? The Shudderwood never becomes relevant to the story, nor is it even mentioned again in the entire book. The passage provides enough context for even the slowest of readers to know everything they need to know: The Shudderwood is a place very far away. It strikes me as offensively patronizing that more explanation was thought necessary. Either that, or Paizo was really insistent that the Shudderwood get some exposure for some reason.

Aside from the poor writing, The Worldwound Gambit suffers from "Book Based on an RPG Syndrome." Everything about the characters and the world they live in is clearly constructed to tie in with the Pathfinder product. I'd bet $50 that Mr. Laws rolled character sheets for his characters before he started writing. Calliard is a bard and Hendregan is a sorcerer pretending to be a wizard (which is never explained), that much is said outright. Gad, Vitta, and Jerisa are all rogues specializing in diplomacy, lock picking, and combat respectively. Tiberio is the only one whose class is difficult to ascertain, but only because he swore off hurting people. Most likely he's another rogue. I understand that these books are advertisements. That's part of what I love about the fiction programs like Pathfinder Tales. They help companies push their product, they help people who read genre fiction, and most important, they help writers of genre fiction. But making the connection between the fiction and the game that fiction is advertising so on-the-nose only makes the game look bad.

The construction of the story seems sloppy as well. As I mentioned earlier, Hendragen is a sorcerer who tells everyone he's a wizard. The author took the time to make this point clear, and the characters even have a discussion about it where one of them is quite indignant about the deception. Hendragen replies "When others ask, tell them I am a wizard." That's the last which is ever said on the matter. No explanation is ever given for this anomaly. It's not the only one either, at one point Gad speaks with an old witch who apparently suffered rapid-aging due to a previous adventure which she accompanied Gad on. The entire encounter is not only melodramatic, but as far as I can tell, the only purpose the scene could possibly serve is to express to the reader that it's possible something bad might happen. Hardly a shocking revelation when the characters are charging into the heart of the demon forces. Oh, and spoiler warning: nothing bad happens to the characters after all.

Aside from the questionable writing, the book is also quite sexist. There are three women which play central roles in the story: Vitta the locksmith, Jerisa the killer, and Isilda the villain. Isilda is a powerful leader of demons, certainly, but is defined almost entirely by her sexuality. The first glimpse of her the "party" gets includes the following:
"A white silk garment sheathes her alabaster torso. its cut is tauntingly revealing, forcing the gaze to a pair of small, imperiously conical breasts. A filmy skirt of uneven strips likewise confronts the viewer with flashes of long, unblemished thigh. "
As a fan of small breasts, I found the phrase "imperiously conical" rather delightful, and mentally cataloged it for future use, for the next time I write something...personal. But this character, Isilda, is not starring in a fantasy themed erotic novel. She's a power mad woman who somehow rose to such high prominence that she--a mere mortal--commands demons within their own domain. But sure, we can talk about her breasts.

Her characterization only grows worse from there. Nearly every one of Isilda's scenes is about her aggressively pursuing sex with Gad. And when she's finally the focus of a scene where she isn't trying to have sex with Gad, it's only because she's being murdered by another woman who loves Gad. Which brings us to Jerisa. Her character can be quickly summarized in three points. She is good at killing people, foolishly impulsive, and desperately in love with Gad, who does not care for her in return. If you drop the killing efficiency from that list, she becomes every 2-dimensional love interest in history.

Which leaves Vitta. Vitta is a badass. She's got a slightly sharper tongue than she seems to realize, and it doesn't take much for her to fly off the handle when she thinks someone else is being foolish or putting the rest of the group in danger. She's intelligent as well. She critically analyzes each situation, and is often responsible for solving the group's problems. She has no love interest in the story, but shares a camaraderie with Gad which can be heartwarming at times. She's also a halfling. Excuse my crassness, but I can't help but wonder if she would have been so well characterized if her hips were wide enough to fit a dick into. It seems too coincidental that the only good female character is also the only one the author wouldn't be able to have sex with.

Despite all those failings, the book was compelling. Mr. Laws did an excellent job giving life to the world around his characters. Details, such as the blood of demons being used as an addictive drug, make me wonder what other curiosities this world holds. And wanting to know how things would turn out for Vitta had me turning pages furiously near the end. I must also admit that there were three or four other complaints which I was all riled up to make, only to have the author yank them out from under me near the end of the story. Bastard.

Easily the books greatest overall strength is the lack of combat. Fiction like this is normally characterized by lengthy descriptions of flashing swords, pooling blood, and clashing armor. It's refreshing to read a book where the characters solve their problems primarily through skill and guile. What violence there is takes the form of quick strikes from the shadows. Most of the foes the party actually chooses to fight are dead too quickly to say that combat occurred. This is precisely what I loved so much about The Cleric Quintet, and genre fiction needs more of it.

Despite loving Vitta, and believing more books need to lay off combat the way this one does, I don't think I can recommend The Worldwound Gambit. The poor writing and sexism are simply too much for me to accept. This is the first and only book in the Pathfinder Tales collection I've read so far, so I can only hope it's the worst of the bunch. I see that Elaine Cunningham has a book in this collection titled Winter Witch. I always enjoy Ms. Cunningham's Star Wars novels, so hopefully she can redeem Pathfinder fiction in my eyes.

If you do want something to read, try The Cleric Quintet. It's also low combat, exciting, and Danica isn't a cardboard cutout of a woman.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why I Use Unearthed Arcana's Weapon Groups

Since purchasing the Pathfinder Core Rulebook earlier this year, it has almost completely replaced Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 in my affections. So many of the overcomplicated mechanics in 3.5 have been reduced to rules which are simple to memorize and enact. And many areas in which 3.5 was lacking (there were many times when "leveling up" only meant more HP) have been beefed up by Paizo. Resulting in, I think, a much more balanced and entertaining game. Pathfinder is not perfect, by any means. It even created a few new problems which 3.5 didn't have to begin with. But the point stands that Pathfinder is an improvement.

So much so that I sometimes forget Pathfinder was designed to be compatible with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 content. With a little tweaking, most of which can be done in the GM's head, any D&D 3.5 supplement or adventure module can be used to enhance a Pathfinder game. So while Paizo is busy doing such a good job recruiting new players into our fine hobby, many of those new players may be interested in what D&D 3.x books are worth purchasing to add to their Pathfinder collection. It would perhaps be beneficial to construct a list of the best & most relevant 3.5 supplements. I would need to read the handful I missed before doing so, but I have no doubt that Unearthed Arcana would be damned near the top of my list.

Named for the AD&D first edition supplement of the same name, Unearthed Arcana is 218 pages of optional & alternate rules for D&D. You may recall the book from yesterday's Colorful Characters 6. The Gestalt system I used in that post comes from Unearthed Arcana. Every page of the book is worth a dragon's horde. It holds mechanics and fluff for anything from variations on race and class, to systems for reputation and sanity. A more descriptive title for the book might be "The Big Book of House Rules," but it's just not as snappy. It's the book so nice, I got it twice. For serious.

One of my favorite segments of the book is a three-page alternate rule nestled in chapter three, called Weapon Group Feats. It has been included as an optional rule in every game I've run since, from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder. The exact text of the rule, pulled straight from Unearthed Arcana, is available to read on HypertextD20 SRD, but I will sum it up here for clarity's sake just the same.

Using the standard rules, all weapons are classified either as simple, martial, or exotic. Most classes begins play with proficiency either in simple, or simple and martial weapon types. Characters who attempt to use weapons which do not fall into a group they are proficient with take a -4 penalty on attack rolls. Exotic weapons are a special type which are normally more powerful than other weapons, but each specific exotic weapon requires a feat be taken in order to wield it without penalty. On the face of it, the system makes sense. Fighters obviously receive more weapon training than wizards do, so they're able to wield more advanced and deadly weapons. Unsurprisingly, I have a number of problems with this arrangement, but I'll go into them in a moment.

The weapon group system appears somewhat more complicated, but is ultimately quite simple. Essentially, the 3 weapon classifications are replaced by more specific ones which identify the weapon's basic group. Examples of groups might be Axes, Bows, Heavy Blades, or Spears & Lances. Mindful of the increased effectiveness of exotic weapons, characters are still considered non-proficient with such a weapon, even if they are proficient with the weapon group it falls into. Characters must take Weapon Group (Exotic) in order to gain access to those weapons. Thus, instead of each class starting the game being proficient in either one or both primary weapon groups, each class begins play with the option to select a number of weapon groups they are proficient with. Barbarians can select three, Bards can select two, etcetera.

I resolutely believe the latter system to be superior for the following reasons:

Increased Realism & Increased Simplicity Almost without exception, increased realism means increased complexity. Sometimes, this is an acceptable exchange, but with games like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, complexity is already high. And while the weapon groups rule would seem to be more complicated than the basic proficiency rules, it's much more intuitive. If a character who has been using a dagger up to now finds a +2 hand axe they may be tempted to switch, but in order to determine whether or not they are proficient they need to crack open the rulebook and find the chart which details which weapons fit into which proficiency group. Using weapon groups, the player need only look at his character sheet to know what types of weapons he or she knows how to use.

Allowing Player's their Weapon of Choice You don't have to be a GM to realize that players care about the weapon their characters use. It's often one of the first parts of the character concept they come up with. "A dwarf paladin who fights with a trident," "an elven rogue who is a master of the kukri," "a halfling fighter who specializes in spear fighting." If players are so interested in the weapons they get to use, why should the game pointlessly restrict them from using it? It's not as though a wizard who uses a longsword is going to suddenly rival the fighter in melee combat. The wizard still has a -2 strength and the worst base attack bonus in the game. He's never going to hit anything. There's no reason to add a -4 "screw your character concept" penalty to that.

Makes Weapon Specific Feats Less Lame
There are a number of feats in the game which require the character to select a weapon to take them with, such as weapon focus, or weapon specialization. These are great feats which avoid all the pitfalls I hate about feats, players should be encouraged to take them. However, when you take Weapon Focus(Longsword), there's always the nagging worry in your mind that you're going to find a +5 Vorpal Scimitar in the next treasure pile. Replacing that with Weapon Focus (Heavy Blades) goes a long way towards reducing the player's worry.

Treasure Hordes Don't Seem Tailored
Often, partially because of the previous point, GMs feel obligated to include direct upgrades to a player's weapon. If a player has invested a lot of time in their battleaxe skills, then eventually they're going to want +1, +2, & +3 battleaxes. But it starts to feel painfully contrived when players just happen to find treasure hordes which include those things. If players can switch freely between types of axes without penalties, this becomes much less of an issue.

I do have one minor issue with the weapon group system as written in Unearthed Arcana. The number of proficiencies listed for each class to select at first level is far too low. There are 17 potential proficiencies listed there, yet the highest number of first level proficiencies is four for the fighter. And Druids, Sorcerers, and Wizards benefit from the system not at all. I prefer to add 2 additional weapon group choices for each of the classes. This allows everyone more freedom. Classes with a small number of proficiency selections, such as the wizard, can still know how to use an exotic weapon (which they'll still never hit with.) And classes which are supposed to be martial masters, such as the fighter, gain some depth to their weapons mastery.
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