The Ravenloft setting uses “Powers Checks” to reflect the gifts and curses imposed by the mysterious Dark Powers upon those who transgress moral laws. This gives some structure for great stories of corruption and redemption, but the exact game mechanics of these checks have always been open to questions by fans. It’s even worse when the player supports their character’s decisions, and enforcement of the rules spirals into an argument about who has the correct moral compass. If you want to include temptation in your game, here are 4 optional rules to keep Powers Checks from going the route of politics and religion.
1) Whispering Shadows
Assign each player the “dark side” of another PC. During gameplay, these “shadows” entice their target to commit acts that are worthy of a Powers Check, and can actually offer specific boons that will come from giving in--the DM decides the corresponding penalty. If the controlling player accepts the offer, the player that offered it gets a token they can trade in at any time to turn one die roll into a natural 20. This is a great opportunity for players to roleplay temptation, as well as get to know other characters better.
2) The Burden Of Time
Ravenloft PC’s study tomes of forbidden lore, brave sinkholes of evil, steal cursed objects, and worse. Reflect that general attrition of the soul by having players roll percentile dice when they level up, 1% cumulative for every 1000 XP they earn (10K for higher level groups). When someone fails, go through their most recent actions and find an appropriate offense. If nothing works, consider foreshadowing (see below), or change the powers check result to a failed horror check.
If a player argues that their offense wasn’t that big a deal and shouldn’t be punished, let them look for a better opportunity. The failed roll becomes foreshadowing of what the PC is about to do, rather than what they have done. Of course, while the Dark Powers are interested in little things done for good reasons, such as white lies and grave robbing, it’s best to only share the results of these rolls with the DM in case the player is eyeing that “Betrayal, Major” column in the rulebook.
Some players look at roleplaying as a chance to behave however they want without any consequences. While powers checks can help discourage this, the system is not designed as a teaching curve. If one of your players is playing Chaotic Stupid, consider a probationary result. When they fail the roll, they don’t suffer the consequences immediately. Instead, the PC is on probation: anything additional within the next (in-game) week that warrants a check will cause them to fail.
So depending on whether you need some more structure or flexibility, one of these rules may give you what you need or inspire you to create your own tweak. Just remember that whatever rules you use should be applied consistently, so that the Dark Powers feel like an omnipresent moral hazard instead of the whims of the DM.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement.
Picture Reference: http://thecampaign20xx.blogspot.com/2016/03/dungeons-dragons-guide-to-curse-of.html
Sometimes the strangest titles are also the strongest. Anima: Beyond Fantasy, I believe, exemplifies this concept. It has odd origins, being of both Japanese and European design, and it never really got popular in North America, despite a competent translation and vivacious artwork. The game is pure fantasy, and its setting runs the gamut from high magic to weird tech. I recommend it to players and GMs looking for a more robust fantasy experience. Here follows four of its core systems, each of which make it accessible and fantastic.
1) The Basic System Is Solid And Familiar
Anima’s dice-rolling mechanic proves far more simple than it may appear. It’s a target number system, meaning players need only roll d100 and add it to their skill plus attribute bonus. Sound familiar? It’s really just an expansion of the d20 mechanic common in D&D and other Wizards of the Coast titles. While the addition is slightly more advanced, the system is easy to get used to. The expanded number system allows for more variation in bonuses (and penalties) that the GM can hand out. Want to give a -3 situational modifier, but add 8 for a cool action description? The d100 system can handle the additional specifics and variance. Most bonuses and drawbacks are in increments of 5, but they aren’t limited by this factor.
2) The Magic System Is Robust And Varied
Never have I seen a game that melds several separate systems together in one fabulous, interconnected package. Playing a psychic? Your powers operate using a separate mechanic from the wizard, so as to better represent your psychic nature. Want to play a martial artist with Dragon Ball Z-level powers? Your Wuxia madness will be wildly different from the psychic’s powers, and you get to create your own if you wish. Each player needs only to learn their own system and how their powers function. The GM does the rest, melding the results of each dice roll with the basic system. The fighter of the group could be swinging a massive two handed sword while the wizard collects magic, preparing to cause a catastrophic conflagration. The wizard’s unique system informs how long they need to prepare, how accurate their projection of energies, and how powerful a spell they can release. The psychic could be focusing on their own manifestation, using their unique stats to determine how many points they can invest in powers and how draining their usage is. Still other mechanics of supernatural expertise exist within this one grand system, and they all work together wonderfully. Each character truly feels one-of-a-kind.
3) The Critical System Is Wild and Heroic
With the capacity to cause earth-shattering consequences, the system has to allow for unconscionably high results. When you roll a 90-100, you achieve what’s called an Open Roll. You can roll again, adding the new result. You get to keep doing this, though your crit range shrinks by one each roll. While most starting characters will achieve results from 60-120 on average, the Open Roll system allows them to get 300’s or higher. The target number system is graded by 20-40. When you achieve inhumanity (that is, a state that allows you to transcend your mortal limitations), you can eventually roll as high as 440, called a Zen result. The examples provided for Zen skill checks are just as incredible and heroic as you might think. Zen supernatural power results let you annihilate cities or relocate small islands. Anima’s capacity for exciting (and sometimes hilarious) feats is near limitless.
4) The Combat System Is Rich And Complex
Most fantasy games are judged based on the strength of their combat system. While I don’t necessarily agree with this metric, I will happily report that Anima’s combat system proves to be very strong. Fighters can play defensively or offensively, as a defensive character can wait to be attacked and use the margin by which they were missed as a bonus to their counterattack. Agile fighters can incorporate acrobatics into their attacks, achieving back-striking bonuses. Stealthy combatants obtain bonuses for attacking from the shadows without needing to belong to the Thief or Assassin archetypes. Characters can be built in whichever direction players wish. Want to wield a huge weapon for clearing out large groups of foes, then switch to a dagger for precision work? You can do so, and will receive the benefits you’d expect for each type of weapon. Want to embarrass your opponent by parrying each of their strikes, then artfully place the tip of your rapier against their throat? You’re covered there as well. The system of benefits and drawbacks for combat is staggering in scope.
The greatest criticism I have of Anima: Beyond Fantasy lies with its complexity. It is not a game I recommend to new GMs. Players can get the hang of everything just as quickly as they would with D&D 5th, but the GM needs to be somewhat experienced in order to aptly and deftly weave all of the systems together. If you’re experienced with other games and want to take your fantasy roleplaying to another level, let me know and I’ll happily provide more info about this gem.
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact
Picture Reference: https://lustmordweltschmerz.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/critical-failure-your-character-has-died-anima-beyond-fantasy-character-creation-part-1/
Era: The Consortium has been on a roll. Beginning with successful Kickstarter three years ago and followed up with a slew of expansions last year, Shades of Vengeance has been rolling with their time-stretching science fiction universe and is continuing with yet another set of expansions on Kickstarter right now. Ed Jowett of Shades of Vengeance was kind enough to fill us in on what the new expansions have to offer.
For those who are not familiar with Era: The Consortium, what is the game about?
Era: The Consortium is an Epic Sci-Fi RPG with 500 years of playable history. It follows the story of a group of Humans who have left Earth and travelled for over 1000 years to reach a new region of space.
500 years sounds like a lot to read and understand, but the reason that this weight of history exists is that the core of the game is enabling the players to explore any sub-genre of Sci-Fi that the GM wishes to implement. If you’re interested in colonisation of a new planet, for example, you can start near the beginning where the colonists have nothing but the ship which crash-landed on a new planet. Alternatively, perhaps you’re interested in exploring space and encountering new species… again, the history allows that slightly later in the timeline. From facing an alien race hell-bent on the destruction of the Consortium to transhumanism, from cyberpunk to resisting an evil and corrupt government’s schemes, every form of Sci-Fi which you can imagine is available within this historical timeline.
Of course, it can also be interesting to experience multiple events! One campaign I ran involved the players experiencing the last of those, resisting the Consortium’s schemes, then had them jump 250 years back in time, forcing them to defend the same institutions which they had fought against so vigorously from an alien force so overwhelming that it looked like their ancestors would be destroyed.
These options mean that it’s very hard to explain in just a few words what Era: The Consortium is about! However, I hope that people who have read this understand what I mean when describe it as an Epic Sci-Fi RPG!
The new Kickstarter is offering at least three new expansions, the first of which is Free Trader which focuses on shipping throughout the Consortium world, including piracy and new trading posts. What’s your favorite new trading post?
Free Trader is a book which has changed a lot during its development. I think that if you’d asked me this a year ago, my answer would have been very different to what it is now! Of the 30+ Trading Posts, one in particular stands out to me from a roleplaying perspective, and that is the one in orbit of Nodens.
Nodens is a planet which is owned and controlled by a religious sect which is very private, very demanding and almost totally isolationist. Being posted on Nodens as a member of Hardcastle Haulage, the company which owns the Trading Posts, is considered the worst possible scenario. The people of Nodens have expectations about how they, and aliens who approach their planet - they are fiercely xenophobic - and they make frequent demands of the personnel there. The story which was written for that location is one I am particularly happy with… and I think it has a lot of possibilities for some awesome roleplaying to take place, if you’re playing as the crew members of that station!
Also featured is the Predictive Genetic Algorithm expansion, which provides a new system for designing new alien player species. What has been the weirdest alien you’ve designed with these rules?
Predictive Genetic Algorithm is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. In the very first draft of Era: The Consortium (which only contained Humans, Eulutians and Ximians - no Vilithii!), I was given the feedback that more alien races were needed. I created the Vilithii as I expanded the storyline to a more complete history and I’ve since added the Pliangrathilon in “The Fifth Race” Expansion.
However, these are my visions of what abilities alien races should have. Predictive Genetic Algorithm allows you to create your own race with the abilities and drawbacks that you want to see. It offers 90 different options at the moment, and the book is not quite finished yet - it may reach nearer 100 by the time I am done!
I’ve made a few races, of course, to balance the points system properly. As a life-long Sci-Fi fan, I’ve enjoyed making the sorts of races you encounter in Star Trek - from enhanced health and violent tendencies like the Klingons to shape-shifting abilities akin to the Founders from Deep Space Nine.
The craziest I think I’ve made, though, is an ancient race of decadent, but fast-moving creatures. It was inspired by an image which Sophia, the artist for much of Era: The Consortium’s images, gave to me during my development of the book. These creatures have a decadent background, wasting their money on material pleasures, and are an ancient race with knowledge of the universe… with lightning-fast reactions and increased speed which will leave most species standing still! It’s a rather odd mix, but it comes out pretty cool, I think.
You’re also expanding the ongoing universe as part of the stretch goals. Can you provide a relatively spoiler free synopsis and perhaps give a teaser for what’s next?
The Fifth Race Expansion, which was unlocked a year ago by our last Era: The Consortium Kickstarter, gave an indication of what is to come: “Only the Seven Chosen Races can stand against the Titans...” says the Prophecy which caused the Pliangrathilon to leave their world and travel across space. We know of five races - it’s very clear that illustrations carried with them are supposed to represent the Pliangrathilon, the Eulutians, the Humans, the Ximians and the Vilithii. The other two races, for now, remain a mystery.
In the next 500 years, a lot will change. The conflict between the Resistance and the Consortium will not last for ever - it will end, and it will end through treachery, as you would expect from the Consortium. That said, it’s very hard to destroy a movement like the Resistance entirely. The technology discovered on Sirona also has an important part to play, as does the Caladbolg weaponry which is featured at the climax of the Core Rulebook.
These books which I am creating offer a huge amount of history and gameplay… but they are far from the end of the story.
Check out Era: The Consortium’s new set of expansions here.
So the day is upon you. The dice are packed, the books have been dusted off, your DM screen ready to be deployed. You’ve talked to your players, told them this campaign was intended for “more RP”. More role-play and less roll-play is the way you put it. But the warmest response you got was a “yeah, sure, whatever.” And you see the bloodlust in their eyes. They just want to roll dice and kill stuff.
You’ve got a choice, then. Do you DM another game of Diablo? Guide another pack of murder-hobos through the realms? Or do you put your foot down and teach these munchkins what the meaning of role-playing is?
If you’re one of those GMs who’s sick of the tyranny of the dice, or if you’d just like to create a game where people actually get into theatrics of it, live out their character’s lives and, ya know, actually bleedin’ put the “role” in role-play, here’s some tips to help you along. Whether it’s D&D, World of Darkness or GURPS, these might help you, or at least provide some useful ideas to play with.
0. The golden rule.
Remember this old chestnut? Every RPG book has at least a passage dedicated to it: “have fun”. That’s what we’re here for, after all. A corollary to this is “choose your party well”. If they’re so bloodthirsty that you’re worried they might actually be vampires, and it doesn’t look like they’re interested in what your story has to offer, best cut your losses and move on.
But, even if they come at it with the best intentions, some people don’t take to the acting quite as easily. Maybe they haven’t done this before. Maybe they’re shy, or if they don’t know the people at the table very well, they might not feel comfortable enough to get into it.
For those people, there’s a few ways to help them along.
Points. A little positive reinforcement to nudge them in the right direction. Cookie credits, brownie points, whatever you want to call them. In some games, it may take the form of bonus XP, in Cypher it’s Story points, in FATE it’s Fate points, Destiny for Star Wars, and so on. Some systems have this built into them, some require a little house-ruling. 5e D&D, for example, has inspiration, and it basically tells you in the Player’s Handbook, “the DM can hand out inspiration to reward particularly good RP”.
Generally speaking, these are tokens or valuable points that a character can use to influence the story in a meaningful way. A well-timed Deus ex Machina moment? Spend that Fate point. Feel like it’s the appropriate time to go full BAMF and dispense some indiscriminate justice? Use that Story point. While its uses can be strictly mechanic, it can also be used narratively. If a beloved NPC falls in battle, with a plot point spent, they can recover. Perhaps a PC would like to take over the narrative and introduce a story element that they think would be cool. By all means, give the GM a tribute in unicorn tears and they’ll make it happen.
But whatever their uses, it’s the way you earn them that matters. Hand these out judiciously and reward the type of behaviour you want to see at the table. If a party member takes time to get into the shoes of their character and be true to their nature, you should encourage that. If they seek to engage with the world you’ve created in a meaningful way – even if it doesn’t move the main narrative forward, if it creates a good role-playing moment, then give that player a cookie (an actual cookie would be nice too, mind you).
Of course, sometimes playing nice just won’t do. You glance wistfully at the poker tokens you were going to hand out as rewards in story-based currency, and not a single one has passed into the hands of this wild pack of Combat Wombats. Maybe it’s time to play a little rough.
Often times, a player character’s actions are summarised, rather than acted out. “I haggle with the merchant”, or “I negotiate with the noble to let us into their exclusive soiree.”
Ah, well, you don’t say, me chums. And how, pray tell, would you go about this remarkable endeavour? If they refuse to act out their character’s lines, it may be time to ask everyone’s second least-favourite question. Take a page out of the annoying child’s playbook, only instead of asking why, it’s… “How?”
“I seduce the priestess”
“I’ll intimidate the bouncer”
If their answer is not satisfactory. If it’s a particularly bad speech, or if they don’t even bother, just fail them automatically. No roll, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 coppers. It doesn’t matter what skills they have, or what they think their character is good at. If you can’t be bothered, it’s not going to work. You just fail and get a chance to think about what you’ve done.
“I convince the dragon of the error of its ways.”
“How? How in the Nine Hells do you do that? Tell me, how?!”
“Uh… I dunno.”
“Fine. Then, you don’t succeed.”
“You get nothing. You lose! Good day, sir. I said, good day!
Burn their favourite tavern because of a botched negotiation, that’ll put the fear of Tiamat into them.
3. Make it about the role-play
Let’s say the stick worked and you’ve got their attention. Or the RP-bunnies that took to the carrot are now hanging on your every word. But they’re still struggling. How to continue to push them along the path of role-playing? Or drag them kicking and screaming, if you have to.
A first simple step is to get them to say “I” rather than “my character”. It may not seem like much, but that third person narration on their part creates a divide between the player and their in-game persona.
Furthermore, and if you’ve gotten this far into this article, I probably don’t need to tell you this, but put some effort into it yourself. Rather than narrate all interactions, act out the scenes on the NPCs part. Lead by example. At the very least, if monkey see, monkey do. You might just trick them into role-playing, you devious little demiurge. If you can do the voices, by all means do. If you don’t think you’ve got the chops, maybe drop it. No-one likes the bad DM voice. You know the one.
Try to engage their characters at a personal level. Dig deep into that backstory, find something that personally affects them. If they’re at all invested in this story they’ve made up for themselves, then they’ll respond.
4. Pay attention to the table!
As a GM, you may have to play matchmaker or mediator.
Remember that your role is to make sure everyone’s having fun (there’s that golden rule, again). From your position at the table, you have to keep an eagle eye on the goings-on. The story’s there to facilitate interaction between all the people at the table.
If the players aren’t talking to each other (except to divvy up the loot), then there’s no hope for them. Try and ask the right leading questions to get everyone in on the discussion.
Let’s say one of your players is the rogue type, and he’s up to mischief. He uses some of his tricks in full view of the party to swindle some people. Let’s call him, Loki. One of the other characters has a slightly less chaotic outlook on life. You may want to ask that second player:
“Thor, what do you think about what Loki just did?”
“I never like what Loki does. I’m going to punch him till he apologises.”
“Odin, your son’s flown off the handle again.”
“Oh, for the love of – Heimdall, hold my mead!“
And there you go, family drama in your D&D by way of some Norse mythology.
5. Encourage deeper characters from the beginning
Right from the onset, goad, cajole, entice and coax your players however you see fit into expanding on their character’s stories, motivations and outlook. I’m not saying you need 5-page bios (though wouldn’t it be nice?), but expand on the usual “orphan with a thirst for adventure” baseline. Seriously, though, the orphanages in Fantasyland must be overwhelmed!
Maybe their parents are alive and they’re a rebel running from home to adventure? Maybe they’re doing it to impress their family. What is their relationship to their family in general? Their village/town? Any childhood friends? Siblings? Second cousins twice removed? Their first crush, their first major disappointment? Any early life milestones or significant moments in a character’s development – these are not just useful markers for understanding their personality (which should help the player get inside the head of their character) but can also be invaluable tools in a GM’s bag-o-many-tricks to bring up at any point in the campaign.
At some point, these points from their backstories should play a role in the main story. That old flame might show up and cause all kinds of trouble. Old rivals can become recurring villains.
It’s important to know what your players want from the story. Push those buttons and dangle the carrot of closure in front of them. Everyone wants to wrap up a quest, and if it’s a personal one they might all the more motivated. String these kittens along with the shiny lure of personal accomplishment and you may nurture their budding theatrical sensibilities.
Just have some tissues on hand for the emotional ones.
While not every game has to be Critical Role, the rewards of role-playing are richer when you can get into the hearts and minds of your characters. If you actively try to think as they do, and walk a theoretical mile in their fictional shoes, you may be surprised by how that can make you feel. The high of defeating a Big Bad is stronger, the pain of loss is real, and the closure from healing that hurt is all the sweeter, if a little bitter still.
As a Game Master, Storyteller, Dungeon CEO, it’s your job to create the fertile soil in which a story can blossom. It’s up to your players to pollinate and grow those stories to their full potential. If you can create an environment where role-playing is welcome and encouraged, you may find that both you and your friends have discovered new ways to have fun. And it’s all about that golden rule in the end.
Something of a modern day caveman, Ian fell down the rabbit hole of roleplaying games ages ago and has refused to emerge ever since. In his daily life, he wears many hats. When he’s not wearing the hat of the dungeon master, he studies cultural anthropology, writes short stories and occasionally posts on his own blog.
You can find more of his stuff at https://cavemanblues.wordpress.com/
Image is courtesy of JESHEILDS: https://www.patreon.com/jeshields/posts
Story is the main objective of a tabletop RPG. You sit down with a bunch of friends, play pretend, and make an awesome narrative while doing it. Some are better than others at this, and some only come to the table to mess around with math. The industry has started to adapt to this by incorporating rules into games that help the group collaboratively tell the story. They thrust power and agency into the hands of players, giving the GM more dough to knead before sticking it all in the oven for the final moments of a campaign. Since story is inherently system, and platform, agnostic, you can drag and drop some stuff to create a Frankenstein game! Here are some story mechanics that you could borrow from other games to make yours more cinematic, regardless of what RPG you play.
1) Skill Challenge (D&D 4e)
I wanted to get this one out of the way, just so I can stop hearing the moaning and groaning that comes with the territory. The fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons had a plethora of problems, but the product itself had a few shining gems. This was honestly one of my favorite parts of that game. The basic outline of this mechanic is to mimic the passage of time; traveling from one place to another, performing a ritual, climbing a cliff while a battle rages below you, etc. In my opinion, it does that exceedingly well and is easy enough to translate to other games. The way it functions is that the GM determines a number of successful skill checks needed to complete the challenge before a certain number of failures. That scale can be tipped either way, depending on how difficult you want it to be. A house rule that my gaming group used when we played this game was that you couldn’t use the same skill twice in a row or the skill the player before you used, even if you failed. It helps force players (and characters) out of their comfort zone and into a creative one. Cleverly done, WotC.
The DMG one and two explain how to do this specifically for 4e, but the Rules Compendium is definitely the better route to look at. They all give you some example DCs, but if you’re putting this in another RPG, obviously those DCs probably aren’t worth much. The concept overall is easy to adapt, as most all games have some manner of a skill check system. Amp up the creativity and tension with this one.
2) Finding Clues (GUMSHOE)
Investigative campaigns can sometimes be the hardest to implement, especially if you depend on character stats to find clues. Look no more for the fix, because the GUMSHOE system has a way to make investigating easy and effective. GUMSHOE isn’t a specific game, but an engine that runs a few games (Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, etc.). The basic philosophy of this rule is that characters automatically find the important clue. Of course, you have to make them work for it through the narrative, but they ultimately find it. This eliminates the problem of characters bumbling around trying to progress through the story but not having the skill checks work in their favor.
In the GUMSHOE system, you would have to make what’s called a “spend” to get more information than the clue itself at face value. For example, you automatically find the candlestick, but you would have to make a spend to make the connection that it’s sitting on top of the book that Colonel Mustard reads every night before bed. Replace this spend concept with a skill check and voila, you can put it in any game. It helps keep things moving, prevents the players (and GM) from becoming frustrated, and keeps the players engaged. What’s there to lose here?
3) One Unique Thing (13th Age)
I talk about this game all the time, I know. I just can’t help it, I love it so much, and this rule is testament to that fact. Every character in Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age RPG has a trait called a One Unique Thing. Basically, it’s something that is unique to your character that nobody else in the narrative is allowed to have. It can’t affect stats, it can’t give you an unreasonable edge. So, no, your one unique thing can’t be that you can fly faster than a speeding bullet. It can, however, be that you’re the child of the story’s big villain who ran away at a young age.
It doesn’t always have to be that drastic, but I find that the more drastic and rooted the OUT is, the more fun it is to play with. This mechanic serves as a springboard and idea cache in my home game. I’m always adding story elements to my campaign based off of my players’ OUTs. Never before have I seen someone so invested in the main story of a game. Obviously, since this legitimately has no mechanical benefit, this one is incredibly easy to bring to other systems.
4) Character Questionnaire (Dread)
You don’t have any stats, just the deftness of your steady hand to remove that block from the tower. Dread is a fantastic game on its own, but the way player characters are created can most definitely be put into other games. The character questionnaire is all you have; the answers to those questions are the foundation of who your character is and what burdens they carry. It’s awesome to see a situation be presented, a player look down at their sheet, look back up at the tower, and make a nervous gulp when you ask them how they react to a situation.
The character questionnaire usually helps identify flaws in a character’s… well… character! The questions can help players think of traumatic experiences their character has been through, their pet peeves, their relationship with the rest of the party, and even some random personal quirks like a drug habit or a stutter. A perfect tool for a session zero, if you ask me.
5) Character Death (7th Sea)
This one caused the pot to boil a bit in the RPG community, mainly because it seems that most people like gritty, mechanical games. John Wick’s train of thought with this one seemed to be, “Let’s make a movie into a game!” Let me tell you, based off of what I’ve read in the book, he did it exceedingly well. In movies, you very rarely see an important character killed by a random environmental hazard, trap, or crummy happenstance. 7th Sea’s take on character death definitely mirrors that.
Player characters can only be killed by a villain or hero. That means if a building comes down on your head, the GM (or players, I suppose) has to think of a way to explain how this wasn’t the end for the heroes. It makes things incredibly cinematic, though some people would probably whine calling this idea “plot armor.” I disagree. It just makes death more rewarding when it comes to claim you!
I’m a little biased towards all of these, as I’m a GM that’s overly focused on story. These ideas help make a game more robust and fun; far more fun than rocks fall, everyone dies, methinks. Explore around games that you haven’t read before, as almost every single one has something fun to take from it. Maybe it’ll even inspire you to create a game of your own!
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
Unfortunately, a lot of mechanics in Pathfinder are just numbers on the page. There isn’t too much difference in feeling between a Will save and a Reflex save, other than the name. Sure, each is caused by different circumstances, but in the end all a player is doing is picking up their d20, rolling it and adding a few numbers. This is the bane of Pathfinder in general. It’s much more ‘roll’-playing than roleplaying. There are a few mechanics that shine, hidden deep within some of the more obscure classes. These mechanics allow players to explore their class and create some fun roleplaying potential that goes beyond a simple roll of the die.
Here are 4 Pathfinder class mechanics with awesome roleplay potential.
1) Witch: Hexes
There’s no bigger home run in Pathfinder than the Witch class. This whole class revolves around the Hex mechanic. Witches can use a variety of different hexes against their friends and foes. Some are useful, such as Evil Eye; some, not so much, like Child-Scent. Most are relatively simple, but there is potential to really slip into the witch character through hexes.
Maybe a player wants to have their witch brewing potions over a cauldron? Hexes can do that: specifically Cauldron + Witch’s Bottle. Another player may want to fully embrace the idea of being one with the bog. Hexes can do that too: Swamp Hag + Swamp’s Grasp offer potential to embrace such a character. Luckily with Hexes, Witches are capable still being good in combat, cursing another creature and then madly cackling each round to ensure the curse stays strong: Evil Eye + Cackle.
A player can even further build their character into the roleplay with the Witch’s spell selection and patron familiar. They can be accompanied by a black cat that specifically acts as their spellbook, or even something more bizarre like a blue-ringed octopus.
2) Oracle: Curse
It’s not often when building a character that a player gets to build an actual mechanical weakness into their backstory. An Oracle’s curse does exactly that. The curse mechanic is something all 1st level Oracles are forced to have. It requires choosing an effect that is both a benefit and a hindrance. After choosing it, the curse cannot be changed without the help of a deity. Simply put, the bottom line: no if’s, and’s, or but’s, this curse sticks.
There is an abundance in the variety of curse effects that open the door to roleplaying potential. The options range from simple (such as being deafened or having clouded vision), to more fantastical (such as the promethean curse: the player’s body is falling apart and needs mechanical augmentations to survive). Scrolling through the Oracle curse page provides a collection of curses all teeming with backstory and roleplay potential.
In addition to the curse Oracles also have the choice of a mystery, that acts similarly to a domain in that it grants various abilities and spells as the Oracle levels. There is a good variety there, allowing players to choose a curse matching their mystery, or instead choosing to be the multi-faceted Oracle that’s ailed by various otherworldly maladies.
3) Alchemist: Alchemy, Bombs And Discoveries
The Alchemist provides a different and complicated form of spellcasting. They mix together a variety of ingredients (according to the formulae) to create extracts that, when consumed, trigger the spell. In addition to that, Alchemists are also very good at building bombs to create some chaos with.
These mechanics don’t scream normal. They seem to resonate more with a mad scientist or shunned genius. This fire is further fueled by the addition of Discoveries that an Alchemist can make as they level. Discoveries give an Alchemist a variety of strange, unique, and character defining effects to their potions and bombs. Holy Bombs allow for the creation of a Holy Hand Grenade kind of deal. The Syringe Stirge Discovery creates a small construct of a stirge (a giant, more evil mosquito) that carries one of the Alchemist’s bombs until it latches to an enemy and explodes.
I’ll say again: mad scientist.
Alchemists have another notable mechanic in the Mutagen effect, which allows an Alchemist to pump themselves up, boosting a physical stat and hampering a mental one. I don’t want to beat the mad scientist horse to death but: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?
4) Vigilante: Dual Identity
Let’s cut to the chase and introduce this mechanic as Batman. Yes, Batman. The Dual Identity mechanic for the Vigilante requires the player to design not only their normal character, but their masked counterpart as well. Of course it doesn’t require a mask specifically, but we are going to be building Batman here. There are a variety of rules and bonuses that come along with the Dual Identity, but they all revolve around a similar idea: the two sides of the coin style of Vigilante.
As Vigilantes level up they gain Social Talents. These talents provide deeper roleplay potential and various perks to the Vigilante. Social Talents all have a thematic feeling to them. Case the Joint, for example, allows players to visit as their normal identity, learn information about the location and use that to their advantage later when they come again as their secret identity.
On the flip side there are also Vigilante Talents that provide a huge selection of choices to a player creating this type of character. Many Vigilante Talents are combat oriented, while some are situational. Perfect Fall is an example that is beneficial to any superhero, as it allows falling players to take no damage if there is a wall or surface within reach while falling.
A vigilante also seems like a great class for a solo campaign with another DM. There’s also nothing wrong (actually, it’s incredibly awesome) with a group of players forming a super hero squad that fights crime in a city against other masked villains.
As for making Batman, it’s entirely possible. Scrolling through both the Social and Vigilante Talents reveals numerous choices to make a wealthy social figure who spends their free time putting fear into the hearts of villains everywhere. The orphan part may need to be added into the backstory though.
This is just a small selection of mechanics that I really enjoy in lesser known classes of Pathfinder. There are more, but those are all saved for another day. In the meantime I’m going to go build a few characters in these classes because I found myself getting overwhelmed with ideas as I wrote this. I’m probably going to convince the group to do a superhero squad for our Twitch channel.
Any other class mechanics you enjoy in Pathfinder or other roleplaying games? Let me know in the comments.
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
Image Source: Pathfinder Alchemy Manual (from DeviantArt)
Before we get to what was advertised on the tin, I’m told I need to call your attention to our Patreon. What I would next like to bring your attention to is that this website currently doesn’t run ads. (It’s true! Trust me, turn off your ad-blocker for a second!) We don’t like to run ads because frankly, they can get really annoying, especially if they’re irrelevant.
Unfortunately, good web-hosting isn’t free.
So if you could find it in your heart to contribute to our Patreon, you would not only be helping us keep this site ad-free, but you’d also be helping keep it ad free for your fellow fans and gamers as well. There’s also some other neat stuff you’ll get access to if you contribute, too!
And now, our feature presentation!
Awhile back, I wrote about some of the games from Japan that we in the English speaking world now have access to. All of them were unique in their own ways, but none quite as much as Tenra Bansho Zero.
It has some of your standard fare you could expect out of most TRPGs. Things like dice pools, class based character creation, and combining attributes and skills together for rolls. But that’s all basic stuff: Tenra Bansho Zero offers a great deal more, such as a unique setting based on the Warring States period of Japan, as well as this set of really cool mechanics they call “The Karma System.”
Fates are simultaneously one of the smaller parts of Tenra Bansho Zero, and the heart of everything that makes it unique. In short, they’re what your character cares about, be they other characters, their attitudes regarding certain subjects, or things they simply refuse to do.
Every Fate is rated from 2 to 5, which signifies how strongly a character feels about the given Fate. Most importantly, each Fate is also known to all other players. Motives aren’t kept secret here.
This isn’t necessarily a novel mechanic on it’s own. In fact, many narrative-based games have similar mechanics to this. Though how it integrates with everything else is what makes it noteworthy.
Aiki are tokens given to players who roleplay well, either by being entertaining to the rest of the group, or following their character’s Fates. These can then be used for various temporary bonuses and effects, such as gaining extra dice or temporary skill points, or calling another character (player or NPC) into the current scene.
What sets this aside from similar systems in other games is that Aiki can be awarded by ANYBODY, not just the GM. Your aim when acquiring Aiki isn’t just to entertain the GM, you’re also trying to entertain everybody at the table!
Additionally, Aiki are used to acquire more Fates, as well as for making Fate Rolls, which is how you acquire our next topic: Kiai.
Kiai is functionally very similar to Aiki. Everything that you can do with Kiai, you can also do with Aiki. Though a character with higher rated Fates will be able to turn a few chits of Aiki into many times more points of Kiai, making Kiai a much more effective way of improving a character or gaining dice bonuses.
Fate Rolls are the only way to generate Kiai, and they can only be done under certain circumstances. The first of these being that the player needs to spend an Aiki chit to make the roll. The second being that either a character’s Fate must be immediately relevant to what’s currently going on in game, or it needs to be during the Intermission phase of the game.
The player then rolls a number of d6 equal to their character’s Empathy attribute, and each die that shows a number below the rating of the Fate being rolled for generates one point of Kiai.
While Kiai can be more numerous than Aiki, they do have one drawback: every spent point of Kiai eventually converts into Karma.
Karma is gained in many ways in Tenra Bansho Zero. First and foremost, it’s gained during character creation: every template for building your character has an associated Karma cost. Karma is also raised when acquiring certain weapons and equipment at any point in the game. (Most notably: Soul Gems. Powerful magic orbs used as ammo for certain weapons, or embedded into people to grant them mystical powers.)
Spent Kiai also converts to Karma during the aforementioned Intermissions; breaks in gameplay where major, off-screen developments can happen. It’s also worth noting that everything mentioned thus far easily makes it so that two characters, even at character creation, can have wildly different Karma values.
If a character’s Karma is ever 108 by the end of an intermission, they become a monster that is obsessed with their Fates known as an Asura. At this point, the GM takes that player’s character sheet, tells them to make a new character, and it becomes entirely possible that this character is now an enemy to everybody at the table.
This then begs the question: can one lower their Karma? And if so, how?
Once again, Fates are the answer.
Another event that happens during Intermissions is that players can change and eliminate their character’s Fates, causing a decrease in their total Karma, as well as a shift in what the character thinks, feels, and believes.
And thus the cycle is complete: your Fates grant you power, that power grants you Karma, and letting go of your Fates is what releases you from the dangers of Karma.
So with all that said, we have the four components of Tenra Bansho Zero’s Fate System.
This set of rules is one of the things that makes Tenra Bansho Zero a truly unique game. It rewards players who use their character to affect the world around them, or to at least entertain those also playing. Additionally, it provides a vehicle for characters to be more dynamic.
The Fate System in Tenra Bansho Zero shows us, above all else, how even if we can identify and describe an individual game mechanic, it’s the sum of all these mechanics that make a game what it is.
Aaron der Schaedel isn’t really an expert on Japanese TRPGs, he just knows a lot more about them than your average person. He also wants to encourage people to try out and learn more games, and has compiled a list of helpful advice on the subject, which you can find here.
Pic Reference: http://www.tenra-rpg.com/
When you get to the heart of roleplaying, it’s all about the characters. Whether they are the stars of the show as Player Characters or supporting actors run by the Game Master, rich and believable characters are the key to the roleplaying experience. It is their story that draws you in, excites your mind, and makes you care about the fictional world you’re playing in.
Savage Worlds provides an excellent framework to build characters but it is the elements beyond the stats and edge lists that really tell you who this person is. I put the following guidelines to good use when I created twenty original characters in four common genres (haunted west, modern horror, historical fantasy, and space opera) in Savage Characters, Volume 1 (available on DriveThruRPG.com).
1) Make An Impression
Form a short scene in your mind as though you were watching a movie. This is the first time the audience will meet your character so think of how it might go. What characteristics are immediately noticeable: their hulking strength, head-turning beauty, easy smile, distracting talk, or haunted look? Do they shy away from contact or wade easily into the crowd? Do they move with the regal bearing brought on by years of tutoring and the right bloodlines, with the agile awareness of a veteran soldier, or with awkward stumbles as they adjust their spectacles? Is their speech flowery and intellectual or crude and street level? Does their accent betray their origins? Are they extroverted, wanting to join a celebration or more reticent, preferring to watch from out of the way?
You can set the scene wherever people could logically meet your character for the first time. A tavern or bar is pretty good for this but you could also meet them where their job or role normally takes them: the halls of a noble’s court, the traveler’s roads, sanctuary of their temple, or a craftsman’s stall. Picture them in a situation where they are expected to act rather than be passive so you can get a better feel for them. Leverage this preparation when you introduce your character to your fellow players or when meeting an NPC for the first time.
2) Develop Connections
Very few people live in isolation from the rest of society. In fact, it is often by our relationships with others that we discover ourselves and exhibit who we are for good or ill. No matter where a campaign might begin the characters have history up to that point. They have family, have friends and enemies, and live and work with dozens of others. While they begin to grapple with the Call to Adventure*, whose counsel would they seek? What favors would they call in? Who might make their life harder at the wrong moment?
These connections give the player more to work with both in deciding her character’s actions/reactions and in knowing what resources they can leverage beyond what is on their personal equipment list. All sorts of information can be gathered to better face the challenges ahead. Obligations and commitments, with their connections, will try to hold our hero back, letting them naturally Refuse the Call* or be bold and strike out for adventure.
3) Get Hooked
In Savage Characters, Volume 1, I created five different adventure hooks for each of the twenty characters so they could be easily used either as NPCs or as player characters. Each hook was aligned with a rank in the character’s development to show a progression of challenges. Some hooks tied together into logical sequences, almost like a micro-Plot Point for the character. Some hooks gave options to tie some of the characters together either as allies or antagonists.
Hooks present the ingredients for a conflict but don’t demand a specific solution. The motivations and objectives of other characters should be clear as well as what might happen if the player character does nothing. Would their own goals become harder or be put in jeopardy? Would their allies or innocents be hurt? Would evil claim some triumph large or small? Give the character a clear reason to act and let the player devise just what those actions will be.
If you're creating a player character, help your Game Master out. Try to think of adventurous situations your character might seek out or face. What threats, opportunities, or challenges would motivate your character to act? Would they pursue a treasure map, rumors of a village under attack, or a path to lost wonders? Providing hooks to your GM will make the game more enjoyable for everyone?
There are many ways to develop characters for RPGs. I think these three can provide easy hints for inspiration at the table-side, which is where we all need it most. We suffer plenty of l'espirit de l'escalier in our daily lives so everything that can help you play the character you want in the moment is worth time during character creation.
* See Joseph Campbell’s The Man with a Thousand Faces for an examination of the stages of heroic tales from around the world.
Jim founded Dragonlaird Gaming Studios in 2005 as a channel for his original tabletop RPG work. He’s an accomplished freelance writer with Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine (as a columnist) from Kenzerco, Margaret Weis Productions (Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Cortex), and many others. He published Savage Characters Volume 1 a couple years ago and has plans to release a series of Savage Adventures soon. You can find his website at www.dragonlairdgaming.com.
Picture Reference: Artwork provided by author
The second edition of 7th Sea from John Wick Presents is best described right inside the book:
“7th Sea is a tabletop roleplaying game of swashbuckling and intrigue, exploration and adventure, taking place on the continent of Théah, a land of magic and mystery inspired by our own Europe. Players take on the roles of heroes thrown into global conspiracies and sinister plots, exploring ancient ruins of a race long vanished and protecting the rightful kings and queens of Théah from murderous villains. It is a world of sharp blades and sharp wits, where a cutting retort can be just as deadly as a sword’s point.”
I would like to make a point before we get into it; the rule book is a guide and not a set of rules that you absolutely must follow. If something here doesn't suit your fancy, rip it up and throw it away! Not literally though, don’t do that; it's a pretty book. Hoist the sails ladies and gentlemen, because today, we set sail for adventure!
1) The World And Lore
Théah is a wonderful world based off of Europe, the parallel encompassing both culture and environment. It isn't a carbon copy of Europe, but it helps you really grasp what the place you are in can look like. I’m not going to get into every country in Théah’s continent but I’ll use Eisen as an example. Eisen is a country that was obliterated during the War of the Cross, leaving the land to become inhospitable for farming. The people of Eisen are proud that they carved the path for the Vaticine Church. As if war and muddy farm lands were not bad enough, there are monsters too. The population was around 24 million, fallen to only around 10 million currently. Between people fleeing, starvation, and plague, the country has dwindled quite a bit since the war. The crest of the Eisen nation is that of a Drachen (dragon). There is so much detail to the countries that you can find information about topics ranging from politics to what kind of clothing people wear. Now depending on where your character comes from you gain certain bonus to skills and the opportunity to delve into magic. I have to admit, the amount of detail in this book is beyond inspiring. Have to hand it to John Wick on this one.
2) It’s A Big World For A Hero
One of the rules I found whilst wandering through the book was a very interesting mechanic that I’ve never seen in a tabletop RPG before. 7th Sea is more about storytelling than anything else, and it seems they took inspiration from Disney with how they tell stories about heroes. Heroes can't die unless the the villain kills them. I thought this was a strange rule at first glance until I’d really thought about it. It obviously makes it super fun for you and your players. As long as things are based in the realm of reality and physics, your heroes can be the swashbuckling, daring monstrosities they want to be. Why can't we sword fight along a wooden beam for the sail? The game allows you to become Jack Sparrow or the Three Musketeers. Now, this doesn’t mean your heroes can’t fail, because they definitely can. This usually means you get brought face to face with the villain to be killed, but don't worry you’ll make it out (I hope). Being a hero never felt so good.
3) Hero Points And Danger Points
Hero points are a currency out of character that gets passed around from GM to player. Hero points are obtained through story interaction or if the GM buys unused dice (dice that don’t add up to 10, a Raise). You usually gain them by roleplaying a certain way, such as invoking a character’s Quirk or Hero’s Hubris. Hero points can be spent to gain bonus dice, give dice to allies, or even to use special abilities. When you use them they typically force you to roleplay a certain way, adding a flare to the game. An example from a character I played was that he was a homewrecker. When I let a person my character was attracted to get away with doing bad stuff, I gained a hero point. I’m so head over heels for that person, I could look past it. My character was also very loyal and protective of his friends. During a fight I spent a hero point to use a skill called Flirting With Disaster; it allowed bad stuff to happen to me more and less to my allies. In this instance the bad guy wanted to punch me six times every round. In the end, my friends and I were able to make it out alive because of these fun quirks and skills. Thank you hero points!
Danger Points, however, are the nasty ones that the GM gets to use to make the heroes’ lives more (dare I say it?) dangerous! The GM starts each session with Danger Points equal to the number of players, so five players equals five Danger Points. In addition, you gain a point from buying unused player dice. So, by the end of it, buying dice leads to one Danger Point and one Hero Point per die! The Danger points can be used to activate the Villain’s (or his goons’) special abilities, make a check harder, or even murder a hero. Yes, a cruel, evil GM can use his villain and Danger Points to murder someone when they become helpless, which is when you have zero hit points.
4) Dice And Finally Getting That Well Deserved Raise
The dice mechanics in 7th Sea are really fun. They consist of rolling the dice and adding up what are called Raises. So we roll 10 sided dice equal to the stats we are using for the roll. Every point in a stat gives you one die, to a max of five. For this example let's say that I am trying to humiliate the character I am dueling. Everyone describes their actions and determine what dice they roll. I decide I want to use my Panache, which adds three dice because the stat is three, and Weaponry, which is also three. Since this is the first time I am using this particular skill this session, I get to add another d10. I roll my 7d10s and make multiples of ten out of what I rolled. For every ten that I have, it makes one Raise. I find out I have four raises (I rolled 40 as a sum) and the villain has a raise of five. The more Raises you have, the higher you are in the initiative order, which is determined after everyone both explains their action and rolls their dice. In this case, the villain gets to act first. In addition to being an initiative value in Action Sequences, Raises serve as a DC when a character performs a Risk (skill check).
5) “Hello. my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”
So we talked about raises and combat lightly, but how can I talk about a swashbuckling adventure game without the meat and bones of dueling? Théah has a dueling academy that, upon graduation, gives you a pin granting you the right to initiate duels. It also lets you learn really interesting and flashy fighting maneuvers. An example is the good old Riposte, which prevents damage equal to your Weaponry skill and deals that much damage back to the opponent. Then we have dueling styles that grant even more abilities depending on what you choose. Such as the Aldana, which combines fencing and dancing into one fluid dueling style. It grants the hero the ability to use a skill called Aldana Ruse, which adds damage equal to your Panache skill. There are a ton more in the book and we could talk about this forever so let's slash our way to the next point.
6) Wait, There Is Sailing In This Game?
For those who are not sailing savvy, 7th Sea provides all the information you need on sailing. There are four types of Sailors according to 7th sea: we have merchants, naval recruits, privateers, and pirates. The section has awesome descriptions of different crew positions, what their duties are, and who they are in charge of. It even has superstitions that sailors whisper to each other that will foreshadow things to come. One example is the Green Flash that happens at sunset which is just an optical phenomena, but pirates used to say it was a soul returning from the land of the dead, or for those really superstitious types, Davey Jone’s Locker. Pirate battles are a little intense. They work just like rolling for Raises when doing a normal action sequence. These are on a much grander stage, giving the GM an opportunity to go wild. Maybe you can be fighting a villain and his goons while he tries to take control of the Kraken that is currently laying waste to everything around you; who knows?
7) The Villain
I have to say the villain mechanics make them fun for the GM to create and use. Villains have stats that make up their “level”. They are split into two, their Strength and Influence. Strength has to do with the body and mind of the villain, how smart they are, how charming or even how deadly they are with a blade. Strength also determines how many Advantages the villain has. Influence is money, resources, and allies, helping to change the world in their favor. The scale tips either way when it comes to Strength and Influence. Each rank you put into these you add up to make up the villainy rank. Let's say my villain is Influence four and Strength six, making a villainy rank of 10, which is decently strong. Villains get to pull schemes, revealing why villains are so much fun in 7th Sea. When a villain wants to pull a scheme they have to gamble. They invest Influence Points into the scheme, hoping it succeeds. Today we are robbing Avalon’s Royal Bank in order to kill the King, which we invested three of our villain’s Influence Points to do, split up in this manner: capture the banker and take the keys, look for an Avalon artifact, use the artifact to kill the King. If the villain succeeds she doubles the influence she gambled on the scheme, here we bet three so we would get six back. If she failed, well the points are lost; better luck next time. Villains can do a lot in 7th Sea from convincing an ally to betray you, hiring some thugs to rough you up or even introducing another villain.
If you want to try a game that is all about being Zorro or that Robin Hood-like hero... if you want to explore a vast and rich world ontop of seeing monsters and magic.... if you want to feel the breeze of the ocean and the slight salty taste in the winds as you cruise on the giant blue, then you want to try this game out.
“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island.”
Benjamin Witunsky, artist, writer and nerd savant. Co-founder of the NerdMantle Podcast available on Soundcloud, Itunes and Google Play Music.
Picture Reference: http://www.7thsea2e.com/port/forum/official-maps-theah
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.