When you’ve been playing role playing games for a long time, it becomes easy to forget how daunting a game is when you first play it. Whenever a new player joins your table, odds are they’re feeling a little lost. Their character sheet is an overwhelming collection of terms, boxes and numbers, their dice are all shaped nicely but they can’t tell which from which, and you, as the GM, are asking them to do something that is essentially a foreign language. Here are six tips for helping new players integrate into your next role playing game.
1) Give Players Spell Cards
In games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons, new players drawn to spellcasters are usually overwhelmed by their spells. They look at the lists of spells and choose a few that sound good, but then when it comes time to use them they forget what they do and don’t look them up. Taking their spells off of their character sheet and instead putting them on cue cards will be beneficial in reminding the players what the spells do.
On the card, list information that is relevant to the player: the name, the spell level, the range, duration, and effect. Also listing the ‘style’ of the spell can be helpful to the players. For example; fireball would be a ‘combat’ spell and dimensional door would be a ‘utility’ spell. That of course doesn’t mean those spells are only used in those situations, but it helps remind the player what they could use when.
Having a spellcaster feel lost and useless in combat is the fastest way to make them not want to play again. Spell cards grant confidence and comprehension that a character sheet cannot.
2) Give Players Resource Cubes
Resource cubes can be used to denote anything that has a limited number of uses. For example; the number of spells per day, per level, that a sorcerer can cast. In the game I’m running, I have colour coded each level of spell for my sorcerer and witch characters and gave them a corresponding number of coloured cubes equal to the amount of each level they can cast each day. This way when they want to cast a spell they have a tactile feeling of handing a cube over to me, literally depleting their resources.
Using resource cubes allows players to understand their skills and that they have limited uses. When they rest and earn their spells or abilities back you can give them back their spent cubes. This helps a new player get out of their character sheet. For as helpful and informative as that sheet is, it’s also a maze of confusion. Getting beginners away from it at will increase their quality of play.
3) Do the Hard Math on Your End
In Pathfinder there is an immense amount of conditions, traits, and curses that a player can be afflicted by. The list is already big enough that I need to look up the majority of them when they happen. Imagine being a new player being told that you are sickened, and that means you get a -2 penalty to attack rolls, weapon damage rolls, saving throws, yadda, yadda, yadda. At about the time the “yaddas” are coming, the player immediately doesn’t know what the hell is even happening.
Whenever a player is afflicted with a condition, give them the flavour but leave out the numbers. Instead of listing the specifics, tell the player that they are sickened and they don’t feel as strong as they normally do. Then, when a player rolls, keep track of the effect on your end. This gives you, the GM, a bit more work, but it takes the complex conditions out of the mind of the player and lets them get a handle on playing the game.
4) Give Players Flavour, Then Function
When a giant pit opens up beneath a player you’ll tell them to make a Reflex save. Experienced players know what this means, new players will look at their character sheet and then back at you with their mouths slightly askew in confusion. Instead of asking for the save directly, give them the flavour of what is happening.
“You walk into a dungeon, a feeling of dread hangs itself here. You feel something tug on the back of your mind pulling you away from yourself. You try to resist the pull and keep yourself whole. Can you make a Will save?” This allows players to not only understand what is happening, but it gives players the association between what the mind is and how Will save can help.
Now, this probably seems quite obvious, but you’d be surprised the amount of games I’ve played where the GM, myself included, would just say “Will save” in the previous situation. What this also does is allow your new players to begin filling in gaps. Soon they’ll learn what means what. When a pit traps opens up they’ll begin asking you in excitement, “Can I move out of the way with a Reflex save?” And you can smile and know that they’re learning and enjoying the game.
5) Sometimes You Need to Spoil Them
There are going to be times when a new player comes up with an idea in combat that is either really creative or really helpful. Usually this is accompanied by the new player experiencing a real primal excitement at the game for the first time. If the idea doesn’t make true sense to the rules of the game, that doesn’t mean you should immediately shut down their idea. Instead, spoil them, work with them to figure out how the idea could work. If they want to run up a giant’s back and stab them in the back of the neck, make it work for them within believable context of the game.
Likewise, if a new player makes a move in combat that is totally plausible by the rules and could really sway the tide of combat, it’s okay to make that action successful even if their roll wasn’t the best. There’s nothing more demoralizing than having a fantastic idea as a new player and then failing because the dice were against you. As a GM, you can’t do this all the time. When the player is still playing with training wheels, it’s okay to spoil them a bit before they realize the dice hate them.
These are just a few methods I’ve incorporated in my current campaign to help my new players. They’ve seen relative success and, at this point, they’ve been comfortable in taking part in both the combat and noncombat encounters. None of these ideas are directly related to teaching the player the game, but rather allow the player to understand the purpose of their character and offer them an easier time getting into that character. Roleplaying games work best when everyone at the table is contributing. No players should be left behind because they don’t feel confident enough to know what they are doing.
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.
For nearly a year, I have been GMing a playthrough of the Mummy’s Mask adventure path for my Twitch channel PlayingBoardGames. This was my first time as a GM for an adventure that would last more than two or three sessions. It was a daunting challenge but I was very excited to learn in a trial by fire scenario. Overall, the experience has been positive and incredibly fun. I have a lot more to learn, but these are four things I’ve learned running Pathfinder for my Twitch Channel.
1) No Player Treats Battle Maps The Same
After a few sessions I noticed a distinct divide in how my players perceived combat. Some of my players needed to know every distinct detail about where they were and where the enemies were. It made sense to me, combat in Pathfinder requires a lot of math and spatial awareness. Knowing the exact distance and how to possibly use the environment to your advantage is crucial in successful combat. However, I had some players who absolutely loathed having to look at a map and measure out their movement.
These players were my more ‘cinematic’ players. They were the kind of players who cared less about being exactly 40 feet away from the Orc and cared more about charging up to the Orc, weapons raised with a screeching battlecry. They understood the requirements for proper distance and space between enemies, but they wanted to create the entire situation in their head. Their mind made it more cinematic and, for them, incredibly more fun than a little battle map could.
To balance my players I had to come up with a way to suit both parties AND also showcase combat well for Twitch. In the end leaning towards a more cinematic approach works best. Our combat is all verbally based with myself being the only one with the battlemap. Our players who like knowing the exact distances and space still always ask, but now I am able to share that information with them on the fly.
2) The Heart of Pathfinder Lies in Your Players
I would not be anywhere without my party. They push me to give them the best story-driven experience I possibly can whenever we get together to stream. I’ve heard a lot of stories and jokes about harsh DMs that enjoy putting their PCs through the death gauntlet, the party coming out with less limbs or lives than before. To me, that negates a lot of what I find to be the most entertaining and fun role-play experiences.
Pathfinder, especially with the way we stream it on Twitch, reminds me a lot of people getting around a campfire together to tell a good story. The players act as the heroes (or villains) that hook the audience with their decisions. I’m sitting behind them building props, making costumes, and thinking of interesting roadblocks to throw at them. My job is to keep both the audience and party in suspense while also giving my players a challenge and making sure they’re following the rules. No story is fun when suddenly the main character dies for no reason. Likewise, the story isn’t good when the main characters can suddenly do whatever they want.
The push and shove and balance between the PCs and the GM is a beautiful one. We are not enemies. The greatest thing I can do to get my players engaged is to not be a jerk to them, but is instead to provide stakes and plotlines that get their character involved-- to get them role-playing.
3) Let Your PCs Impact the World
This sounds like an obvious one, but the importance of it didn’t hit me until I did it on a much smaller scale. This isn’t about your PCs having an impact on the main story, but having them influence and change smaller details.
This is best explained by an example: our PCs were called in to help decide something by the city’s generals regarding an undead invasion. Inside the war room all of the uptight officials were standing over a map of the city muttering in silence. One PC proclaims: “This room is missing a man standing with a sword over his head screaming his lungs out.” All the generals met him with disdain, insult, and confusion and the player shrugged it off. The next time the players decided to attend the war planning they barged in the following day. As they entered they found (with a successful Perception Check) that a man standing in the back quickly lowered a sword and stopped screaming when he saw players enter.
The PCs all LOVED this. I cannot stress enough about how much of an impact this little joke of a moment had on the players. It makes the world feel malleable on a smaller scale and reminds them that there is more to do than just ‘save the world’. It gives them a reason to interact with every character and circumstance they can, because nothing is absolutely set in stone. Of course the example I gave was on the sillier side, but our stream is quite purposely comedic. This brings me to the last lesson I’ve learned.
4) Pull the Rug Out From Under Your Players
On our channel our primary format is comedy. We like laughing and we like making people laugh. Due to this, our Pathfinder sessions have a lot of comedy in them. The NPCs are ridiculous, our PCs tell a lot of jokes, and most things are taken with a lighter twist. However I found that it was very important to put my players into situations where in a blink of an eye they weren’t laughing anymore.
The story has been unraveling over our sessions and I’ve been taking characters’ backstories and weaving them in the plot. I found ways to put in little story notes that would push the buttons on these backstories and exploit the emotions of the PCs. When you add in a moment of absolute seriousness after a moment where everything was happy the players can really get sucked into the story and realize that there is an actual stake that they are fighting for.
This works the opposite way too. It’s why Shakespeare’s tragedies had comedic scenes or moments within them to lighten the mood. It’s a little breather and change of pace that the audience, or in the case of Pathfinder, your players, really need. Shifts in pacing, storytelling, mood, and tension are incredibly important. Nothing that follows a straight line is interesting. Surprise your players and make them constantly feel like another twist can happen at any moment. This gives them a reason to continue playing and pushes them even further in their characters. And really, to me, this is what Pathfinder is all about: mutual storytelling with rules and dice.
When streamed on Twitch roleplaying games take on a unique presentation. It’s less of a game and more of a show. We don’t necessarily play Pathfinder as much as we perform Pathfinder. That doesn’t mean these four points won’t help GMs who play games in the private of their own home. Adding a living and breathing world is the heart of good roleplay, it takes it beyond a game and into a story. Turn your campaign into a story your players will want to share around a campfire.
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.
Alchemical items are an old standby in most Pathfinder games, but they're quickly left by the wayside once characters gain enough experience to gain iterative attacks, and to get their hands on magical items. However, while we're all familiar with alchemist fire and tanglefoot bags, there are some weirder items on the list: stuff that you never knew you needed, but which you're going to be looking for by the time you reach the last entry.
1) Spider Sac
This handy little item, found in the Advanced Race Guide, is useful for all sorts of adventures. When fired at an enemy as a touch attack with a 10-foot reach, a spider sac acts like a lasso. This entangles enemies and makes it impossible for them to get away if they don't break it. It can also be used as a kind of alchemical rope, letting you climb up sheer surfaces... or perhaps swing your way out of a fall if that's more your bag.
If you load a spider sac into a spring-loaded wrist sheath, then you've got the start of a Spider-Man character build on your hands. Or at least a nasty surprise for the next boss you face.
2) Troll Styptic
Adventurers run into all kinds of pain on their journeys. From spiked pits and goblin raiders, to undead claws and vicious footpads, it seems everyone is out for your blood. If you need a non-magical solution to bind your wounds, especially if it's a life-or-death situation, troll styptic is something you need in your utility belt. This compound, found in Seekers of Secrets, gives a subject “fast healing 2” for 2d4 rounds. It's a painful process, though, which is why the subject has to make a DC 15 Fortitude save to avoid being sickened the whole time the styptic is doing its job.
3) Bachelor Snuff
A favorite among characters with high charisma and low standards, bachelor snuff was featured in Adventurer's Armory. A golden powder that smells vaguely of soot, a pinch of it renders a man infertile for a brief period of time. Of course, regular users will stand out due to their gilded teeth and gold-stained nails. Though whether that makes you more or less attractive probably depends on the partner.
Technically a drug, this substance can be found in a variety of lists.
4) Clear Ear
Another alumni of Adventurer's Armory, Clear Ear can be a thorn in a DM's side if used regularly. Because there are no negative impacts from continually using this item, players will try and abuse it. It's a thick goo you pour into your ear, and two hours after the application it takes effect. For 6 hours, you gain a +2 alchemical bonus on Perception and Knowledge checks, but you take a -2 penalty on all Charisma-based checks. Ideal for a team of safe crackers, dungeon delvers, or just a strike team trying to sneak up on the enemy.
Created by yours truly for Bastards of Golarion, silvertongue is a double-edged sword. This sweet, quicksilver elixir grants users a 1d2 alchemical bonus on their Charisma score for 1 hour, and provides a +2 alchemical bonus on saves against mind-affecting effects for 1d4 hours. However, it deals 1d4 Constitution damage, and it comes with a DC 16 Fortitude save against moderate addiction.
Just remember, sometimes it's that one hold-out item that gets you out of a jam. Always come prepared for the worst the dungeon can throw at you.
For more great gaming insight, check out Neal F. Litherland's gaming blog Improved Initiative!
UPDATE: Point 4 was changed at the author's request to clarify his meaning after receiving many questions. This version was updates as of May 3, 2017.
Pathfinder has a lot of rules. We might think we know those rules pretty well, but it often pays to crack the book to actually look at them from time to time. While you might remember how to calculate your to-hit bonus, or that you get bonus spells based on a high casting stat, there are a lot of other rules you might remember incorrectly, and to your detriment.
Rule #1: The Heal Skill Can, In Fact, Restore Hit Points
Most of us don't bother investing points into the Heal skill. Sure you can use it to stop a party member from bleeding out, or to figure out what sort of wound killed a man you find in a dungeon, but what else can you do with the skill?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
According to page 98 and 99 of the Core Rulebook, you can make Heal checks to treat deadly wounds. If you have a healer's kit, and expend 2 of the uses in it, you can make a check against a DC 20. Success means the character heals a number of points equal to their level. If you beat the DC by 5, they also heal a number of hit points equal to your Wisdom modifier. You can only do this for wounds acquired in the past 24 hours, and never more than once per day.
This is in addition to treating disease, poison, and long-term care. So, in the future, it might be worth investing a few points.
Rule #2: The Difference Between Being Flat-Footed, and The Surprise Round
Being ambushed is something that happens with a fair bit of frequency in Pathfinder, but when combat starts and only some people are aware of it, you get a surprise round according to page 178 of the Core Rulebook. Everyone who is aware combat is happening (the ambushers, and sometimes everyone in the other group who makes a high enough Perception check) gets to act in the surprise round. You get a single standard or move action, as well as free actions, and after that comes the first round of regular combat. This can be particularly nasty for characters like diviners, who always act in the surprise round, giving them one more action over everyone else because of their ability to glimpse into the future.
This is different from, but connected to, being caught flat-footed. According to page 567 of the Core Rulebook, a flat-footed character is one who has not yet acted in combat. They do not gain their dexterity modifier to their armor class nor can they make attacks of opportunity. It also makes you vulnerable to sneak attack. However, any character with Uncanny Dodge cannot be caught flat-footed, which makes barbarians, rogues, and others quite tricksy to ambush.
Rule #3: Acrobatics Can Make Fighting Defensively More Beneficial
Fighting on the defensive is a rule we don't usually invoke, but according to page 184 of the Core Rulebook you can choose to fight defensively. You take a -4 penalty on your attacks, but gain a +2 dodge bonus to your AC. However, as pointed out on page 90 of the same book, if you have 3 or more ranks in Acrobatics, you gain a +3 dodge bonus to your AC instead. If you take the total defense action, which normally grants you a +4 dodge bonus to your AC, you will instead gain a +6 dodge bonus to your AC.
Rule #4: Vital Strike is a Standard Action
The Vital Strike feat, which starts on page 136 of the Core Rulebook, are the bread and butter of many great weapon-wielding builds. In short, you take the attack action to make a single attack. If you hit, you roll your weapon damage dice as if you had hit twice (three times with Improved Vital Strike, four times with Greater Vital Strike, etc.). So if you are a level 7 barbarian, and you use your standard action to attack with your greatsword, you would roll 4d6 instead of 2d6 for your weapon damage.
That seems pretty straightforward, but it's important to remember that this feat can only be used with the attack action (which is the kind you use when you take a move action to reach the target, and then a standard action to attack). You cannot weave it into other special actions. You cannot, for example, use the charge action and Vital Strike at the end of it, because a charge is its a unique full-round action. You cannot use Spring Attack and Vital Strike on your target. Nor does Vital Strike have anything to do with the target's anatomy, despite the name. It is not related in any way to whether a creature is susceptible to critical hits, or if it has an alien anatomy. All you're doing is hitting it really hard, but we'd already named a different feat, Power Attack.
Rule #5: Sneak Attack Applies to Anything That Isn't Immune to Precision Damage
In the old days of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, sneak attack had big blind spots. You couldn't use it on constructs, undead, plants, and dozens of other creature types. Unfortunately, a lot of players (and DMs) choose to use the rules they remember, rather than checking Pathfinder's update. Because unless a creature is specifically stated as immune to precision damage, such as oozes, incorporeal creatures (unless you have a ghost touch weapon), and elementals, you can still apply your sneak attack damage under the right circumstances.
So be sure your DM knows this rule, and always ask before you don't roll your bonus dice.
For more overlooked and misremembered rules, check out Playing By The Book: Some Pathfinder Rules Players Keep Forgetting over on Neal F. Litherland's blog Improved Initiative.
Role-playing games are the best thing since sliced ogre for you, your kids, and your grandma... but there is one particular happiness that can be gained from them that is not for everyone. Only the select few, those of us with refined palates, the nerds among nerds who would appreciate the emphatically overdrawn syntax of this sentence ever learn to enjoy it. It is enjoyed by such brilliant minds as the Matt from Herding Dice, John Kim, and other masters of mechanics. This is the joy of the hacking the rules themselves.
To play around with the mechanics is to create the rules by which the game world is governed; it is a creative process in some ways more fundamental than playing a role. The core of all role-playing games is that they simulate a reality in which people can enjoy playing characters. Game designers have found many different ways to simulate the limitations of reality while allowing characters to have autonomy, each game striking a balance between a sense of realism with a sense of fun. Each design has a different flavour; there are so many games out there now that you can truly order them to taste.
There are many mechanics that form a game. This article’s focus is on dice mechanics, what makes them good, exciting, clunky, or weird. Dice mechanics are good when they 1) create tension (there’s a variety of possible outcomes), 2) are somewhat realistic, and 3) are simple. If you have any favourite dice mechanics, please let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for interesting game systems.
1) Meat and Potatoes: d20 mechanics (Bad to Good!)
Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and the d20 Open Game License are the staple of many a role-player’s diet. d20 mechanics have their high and low points. There are an exciting twenty possible outcomes for each roll, which usually include one opportunity for wild success or critical failure. These mechanics break down in the realism department because each outcome has an equal chance of happening. The rules change the probability of success by incorporating modifiers and changing target numbers, but no matter how weak or powerful your character, there’s still a 5% chance that you’ll either critically hit that dragon or fall flat on your face jumping over a log. These eventualities often seem out of place and ridiculous. Regarding simplicity, recent incarnations have improved considerably, most of them paring it down to just a 20-sided die, avoiding the need for excessive polyhedrons. The 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons also introduced the idea of advantage and disadvantage, which improves the believability of the outcomes by giving players a pool of two 20-sided dice to choose from.
2) All Had The Graph Of Power! Marvel Superheroes (Bad to Ugly!)
One dice mechanic that has always intrigued me is the one designed for TSR’s Marvel Superheroes. It features very simple resolution: every action is resolved by a percentile dice roll combined with consulting a chart. It accounts for the huge disparity of power in the Marvel Universe by having each character roll under the assigned level of their power for different effects. As interesting as it is, however, the reality it creates is a broken one where failure is frequent. This means Colossus may have difficulty pinning a starving serf to the ground, and Aunt May can knock Spider-Man out cold. There are some mechanics that work to mitigate this kind of thing, but they aren’t powerful enough to avoid frequent absurd power upsets. Wild successes and failures are defined by the chart. Oddly, if you put together the chance of a wild success or a critical failure, depending on the action you’re taking, it is frequently more likely to knock it out of the park or to fail epically than it is just to succeed. Again, this undermines the sense of realism in the game.
3) One Roll To Rule Them All: Fate Core & Fate Accelerated Edition (Best!)
Featuring a robust mechanic based on the earlier FUDGE system, the Fate systems are two of my favourites. Players simply resolve all actions using a small pool of four FUDGE/Fate dice, which are 6-sided dice that supply outcomes between -4 and +4. There are fewer outcomes possible with this type of roll, but the outcomes follow a curve. The curve makes wild success and failures possible, but more rare, lending a sense of realism. There are also other mechanics that enable characters to succeed where they otherwise may not, and scale mechanics that allow this single dice roll to resolve conflicts on any scale. In combination, this creates a dice mechanic that simulates realistic outcomes, while providing the creative freedom of a truly universal system and enough tension to make victory sweet.
4) Welcome To The Desert Of The Real: Shadowrun (Good to Ugly!)
There will always be a soft spot in my cold gamemaster heart for this game, though I don’t play it much anymore. In principle, the resolution mechanic is fairly simple; a combination of skills and gear provide characters a pool of 6-sided dice they use to resolve opposed, unopposed, and extended actions. The bigger the dice pool, the greater a character’s chances of success or wild success. Dice pools by nature allow somewhat more realistic outcomes, and the core mechanic is really quite simple. There are so many additional rules, however, that gameplay tends to bog down in the simulation. Almost every piece of gear, skill, and action has a specific rule that is perfectly logical and lends to a sense of realism for the game. But, frequently, the complexity takes players out of the game too much for them to enjoy the sense of immersion that so rich a game world deserves. Also, rolling upwards of twenty dice is both super fun and more than a bit ridiculous.
5) ...And Four Stunt Points! Fantasy AGE (Good!)
This dice mechanic is a hybrid of early d20 mechanics and the Fate system. It uses a small pool of three 6-sided dice to resolve actions with a single type of roll. Outcomes range from 3 to 18, again making them feel realistic. An object of study for Matt from Herding Dice, it also features some super entertaining tricks. When players roll doubles, they gain a certain number of points with which to buy stunts – which are cool things their character can do. This means that wild successes are not limited to high rolls (though high rolls help). While it does not cover the same scope as Fate, it is nevertheless a very enjoyable resolution mechanic.
These are only some of the highs and lows that players may encounter using different dice mechanics. Of course, this article doesn’t consider all the different mechanics that exist, and doesn’t even touch other forms of resolution. If you’re still reading, you’re probably of the ilk that will stay tuned for the forthcoming article about alternative resolution mechanics. See you there!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
Rangers are one of the iconic fantasy archetypes, and they have been ever since we first noticed Strider sitting in the corner of the pub smoking his pipe. Though rangers get a variety of abilities, the one we always think of is favored enemy. And why wouldn't we? While the rest of the group is struggling against the undead minions of a necromancer, or the heavily armed orc warriors conducting local raids, the ranger is cutting through them like a scythe through chaff. And why not? A favored enemy bonus can often be what makes the difference between a challenging fight, and one that gets put down so hard it leaves a crater.
One thing we do too often, though, is turn our rangers into vengeance-driven murder machines. Because, while it's true that killing off a character's family simplifies their back story, provides motivation, and explains why they're so good at fighting a certain type of creature, not every ranger needs to be guided by revenge. Instead you might find your favored enemy bonuses come from...
Experience changes everything. Whenever you started doing a job, even if you were fully trained and qualified, there was a learning curve you had to deal with. Of course, if you survived, chances are you got really good at it. So, if your job has been, “fighting undead” for the last few years, it makes sense that you know how best to take them on. You know the tools to use, what signs to look for, and what sorts of strategies they use. You don't need any particular malice toward these creatures... they're just the opponents you cut your teeth on.
Not every ranger has gone toe-to-toe with his favored enemy in pitched battles for years on end. In fact, some rangers may rarely, if ever, actually see their favored enemies. They know what to do because they've researched, they've trained, and they've studied. A dragon hunter may never have fought a great wyrm, but he knows the signs to look for when that day comes. The environments they live in, the colors of their scales, and where to put an arrow or a spear to have the most devastating effect.
Sometimes a character is just naturally good at something. Maybe he knows just the right ingredients to put together for a salad, or he can always sniff out the best location to make camp. For some rangers, fighting a favored enemy might just be in their blood. An ability to see a creature, watch it move, and to intuit the best way to counter its strengths might just come naturally to you. Time and experience will only put an edge on these abilities.
#4: Insider Knowledge
No one knows how to fight a certain creature type like other members of that creature type. Human rangers whose primary prey has been other humans, for example, know what they're up against. The same is true for half-orcs who've had to best their orc brethren, or elves who've had to pit themselves against other elves. There is no strangeness in a prey you know as intimately as yourself, and when the ability to surprise is taken away, it becomes a battle of skill and preparation.
Some rangers are experts on the best methods to fight certain types of creatures not because they hate them, but because they admire them. The power of magical beasts, the grace of a construct, or the sheer, alien beauty of aberrations can breed an obsession in someone intrigued by these things. While fear is something a ranger might experience in the moment, there's also respect, and a strange kind of intimacy between them and their favored enemies. Though these creatures might need to be fought and killed, there's a kind of nobility in the struggle for someone who has devoted their life to understanding these adversaries.
For more great gaming articles, check out Neal F. Litherland's blog Improved Initiative!
Last weekend I attended a one-shot Pathfinder campaign; monsters were slain, pizza was eaten, and fun was had by all. Sounds like a normal session, right? This one was different: there were 14 players, almost half of which had never played a role-playing game in their life. The fact that fun was had by all is a little bit more impressive now, isn’t it? Sure, each combat took an hour (or more). Sure, the story was a bit contrived. However, the bottom line was that I would do it again in a heartbeat. The GM was a long-time veteran and put many hours of preparation into the game, which is the main reason it was so successful. Still, there were several aspects of the game which could have been improved. This got me thinking: how can the GM best manage large and inexperienced player groups and keep the game be enjoyable? Here’s what worked and what didn’t from the weekend.
1) Pre-Made Characters
The GM put in an incredible amount of work pre-generating 17 unique and fun characters from which players could choose. This drastically cut down on the amount of work needed during the session and got people into the game faster. Printouts of all relative spell and skill information also decreased the amount of core books required, a fringe benefit.
2) Splitting Up the Party
Under normal circumstances, this would spell disaster. However, when your party could field a football team, it’s less risky. In larger groups, much of the player-to-player interaction (strategizing, teamwork, etc.) is lost in the huge melee. The GM splitting the party into manageable sub-groups of 3-5 allows for players to mix and strategize; furthermore, he varied the sub-groups from combat to combat which gave players a chance to play and interact with new people (many of those playing didn’t know one another) and adjust strategies according to the limitations of each team.
3) Diverse characters
With a large number of players comes the potential for a highly diverse character set. Most, if not all, of the character classes were represented that evening, along with numerous supplemental classes. Even when there were duplicate characters in the same class, there were completely different builds. Not only did this give players choice, it led to interesting combinations in-game that you probably wouldn’t find otherwise. For example, there was a sub-party of a bard, sorcerer, and scout having to plan for combat. Woot for the rarely seen bard-tank!
4) Sub-Encounters Managed by Players
Given that our mega-party was split into 3 or 4 sub-groups for many of the engagements, having one person manage all of them would be have been infeasible. The GM assigned an experienced player in each sub-group to the role of playing baddies for their group. While this certainly presented a conflict of interest, it allowed combats to move at a normal pace and freed up the GM to float between groups, making the story-related and more important decisions, rather than rolling dice for dozens of baddies. He did this for run-of-the-mill baddie fights and it worked swimmingly; he took control of all the encounters significant to the main story-line (e.g. a big boss fight).
5) Player Ordering
When we did have combat with our mega-party, the GM had the players physically order themselves by changing seats according to their initiative order. While it felt like a game of musical chairs whenever we needed to switch seats, it helped keep the group focused on remembering whose turn it was: I go after the person on my right, no need to keep calling out asking where in the initiative order things are.
6) Single GM
While he split up the mega-party as often as he could, the game was too big to be run by a single, dedicated GM. I think it would have worked better if there was a second person acting as a co-GM, who could run engagements, interface with players, and split the time of all the things that GMs have to do effectively in half. Having 2 GMs could eliminate the need for having players run their own engagements entirely and I believe it would have streamlined the experience, creating more playtime for everyone.
7) Time Limits During Combat
The GM instituted a 30 second time limit for each player to take their actions during combat. While this may have been a necessary evil, it felt limiting as a character. Given that each round would take 7 minutes if everyone took their 30 seconds, think about how many rounds most combats take. Some turns are more important than others and some actions need more forethought, so a 30 second limit (as flexible as he was with it) left me, even as an experienced player, feeling a bit rushed and prevented me from enjoying some of the tactical aspects of combat.
8) Social Limitations
This naturally happens in the social dynamics of a large group of people when they get together: the loud, boisterous types dominate and the more quiet and shy people get left out. As a loud and boisterous individual, this didn’t impact me personally, but I noticed that some people enjoyed themselves less, as they were more uncomfortable with the situation. The GM, and I as a player, could only do so much to include everyone in the game. As such, the experiences of individual players in large groups are more varied, with some having a great time and others feeling forgotten, than that of a smaller group.
All in all, I counted the experience as a wild success, kinks notwithstanding. The fact that I got to play Mr. T, Night Elf Mohawk, didn’t hurt things either. After he was crushed to death from a failed attempt to “Pity the Fool” at a giant, I then took over as Yoda, the goblin wizard. The GM was really boss at making fun characters.
- Jake is one of High Level Games’ international correspondents, reporting from the great state of Texas in the U.S. of A. He aspires one day to become a Night Elf Mohawk himself.
Does everyone remember the Tarrasque? The fabled Tarrasque is a unique monster from the D&D world: one of a kind, huge, a mindless force of destruction. It appears every couple of generations, has ten gazillion hit points, and wreaks utter havoc on everything in its path. It’s not something that anyone in their right mind would seek out.
In the world of Game Mastering, there is another Tarrasque, a unique challenge that only the bravest survive: I’m talking about the mega-party. The mega-party is an ungainly group of eight, nine, ten player characters, a mixed bag of gaming noobs and veterans, bards and battle-turtles and min-maxers. It’s usually brought about by a mixture of poor decisions and good intentions (hey, my cousin Bob is in town, and he’s always wanted to play, so I brought him along!). To non-gamers, a mega-party sounds awesome: the more the merrier, right?
To the Game Master, the mega party is a nightmare. Every burden, every clerical detail a GM faces is amplified when a group reaches a certain size. Combat becomes double-entry book-keeping, players get bored, challenging encounters become dice-rolling marathons, and no one ends up having any fun. The GM ends up frustrated and exhausted, and the players get disengaged and bored.
I met my Tarrasque recently. My wife has a friend we’ll call Nice Debbie (she’s Nice Debbie because my wife knows several Debbies, and not all are nice), and Nice Debbie asked if I could run a game for her kids and some friends. I like Nice Debbie, so I agreed, and brought two of my players from my regular game along with me. Five players. Perfect. We started the introductory 5th Edition D&D adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver, and had a blast.
But word began to spread. Friends of the players got added, and suddenly we were at seven players. I decided that seven was my limit. I started prepping the next session, but then came Player Number Eight. Number Eight is a teacher at my kids’ school. He’s a very cool guy, and one of their favorite teachers. He’s been itching to play. He bought all the core books and then some. Worst of all, he’s the kind of guy that you meet and think, “damn, I bet he’d be fun to roll dice with”. He made us eight (nine if you count me), and, despite all expectations, we’ve ended up having a great time.
I survived running a table of eight. It can be done, and it can be fun. But I learned some critical tricks along the way. I hope they prove useful if you ever find yourself fighting your own Mega-Party Tarrasque.
1 - Simplify Combat
I can’t overstate this: combat is the bottleneck in almost every tabletop RPG I’ve played. It can bog down a normal-sized group, but when you get beyond six players, D&D-style combat can rapidly become an excruciating slog. Your only hope is to simplify and streamline combat in every possible way.
1 - Initiative Cards: I had all the players fill out standard 3” X 5” index cards before the game with some basic information: Armor Class, Hit Points, Character Name and Player Name, and all of their Stat Modifiers. Pre-game, I had all the NPCs and monsters statted out on cards as well. When combat starts, make a stack in initiative order of players and foes, and just flip through the stack. This prevents rolling over a combat round and having a player (who’s been noodling on their phone the whole time) complain that they didn’t get their turn. It also provides a handy place to scrawl down status effects, conditions and spell durations.
2 - Bring Back the Minions: 4th Edition D&D got a lot of hate, but it had some good ‘crunch’ mechanics. One of my favorites was the Minion. Minions were like any other low-level cannon fodder, but they had a single hit point. Basically, if they get hit, they’re dead. These are great for large-party combat because they simplify tracking monster damage, and they also let everyone feel like a hero as they mow through hordes of underlings.
3- Have Players Use Off-Time: this is hard, but it’s critical. When a player is waiting for their turn, they need to be planning. They need to be looking up special attacks, spells, whatever it is that they want to do on their turn. If a player’s turn rolls around and they start flipping pages, put their character on ‘defense’ or ‘hold action’, depending on the game system, and move to the next player. This is really hard, and it pisses people off; but, when you’re trying to manage eight players and sixteen goblins, you don’t have time for a player who waits until their turn to look up how Burning Hands actually works.
2- Small Spotlights
Look, the worst part of running a large group isn’t the pain it causes the GM. It’s the simple fact that, when a group is too big, nobody gets any time in the spotlight. We all play RPG’s to be heroes, to be badasses, and when you’re one of eight, it’s hard to have any heroic moments. Hell, if the dice favor other players, a monster might be dead before your turn even comes up.
This is a problem only you as GM can fix. Make a conscious effort to find a place for everybody to do their thing. If you have a Thief, toss in some locked chests or trapped doors, and ensure they get to find them, even if you have to fudge dice rolls. For arcane types, maybe include some ethereal monsters immune to physical attacks, or maybe a magically warded door. Divine players can save the day against undead, so, by God, throw some skeletons at them. For the Fighter types, give them a mob of 1HP minions to demolish or a door to kick in. Regardless of party make-up, you have to give everybody a chance to be badass.
I know this goes against basic GM advice to “make a consistent world and let the players work their own way through it”. That’s generally good advice, but it sucks when you have a large group. Find places for your players to shine, even if it pushes (gently) against narrative plausibility. Please trust me on this: your players will remember the time they brandished their holy symbol to Turn Undead against the skeletons more than they’ll bitch about the narrative inconsistency of why there were skeletons in a goblin den in the first place.
3- Find a Home
Figuring this out was pure serendipity, thanks to Wizards of the Coast and The Lost Mines of Phandelver. You need a base, a place like Phandalin, someplace where the adventurers can return to between adventurers. This is important, because, as GM of a large group, you’ll soon find that large groups are really damned hard to get together. Someone in the group will have a sick Aunt Edna, or a kid with the flu, or band practice, or a wicked hangover, and won’t be able to make a session. Missing players can really break immersion if suddenly Willow Cloverleaf the Druid disappears in the middle of dungeon; but if you can keep things episodic, plot-wise, they can start and end each session at ‘home’. This way, when Aunt Edna gets sick and Willow Cloverleaf won’t be with the party, it takes minimal hand-waving to explain that she had to go ‘commune with her druid circle’ for this session. Likewise, God forbid you have to add someone or get turn-over in your group, it’s really easy to narratively explain meeting Barfbreath the Barbarian at the Coloured Animal Inn and why he wants to join up with the group.
4- Be the Dad if Necessary
Look, this sucks. Trust me, I know: you’d be hard pressed to find a more conflict-avoidant person than me. But when it’s my responsibility to keep the game moving and maximize your fun, there have to be some ground rules: force players to be ready on their turn, ensure they minimize side-conversations during other people’s turn, and, man I know this sucks, maybe require people to turn off their frigging phones while they’re at the table. A lot of stuff that can slide at a normal sized table turns into a problem when the party becomes a crowd. It’s a fine line, and nobody can draw it or walk it but you; but be prepared to enforce things that normally aren’t an issue.
Don’t worry about me and my Tarrasque: I’ve got a handle on this particular group, all eight of them. And the best part is that Number Eight, the guy who just seemed like a great gamer in the making? He’s itching to start running his own game, and I have a pain-in-the-ass Half-Elf Rogue already rolled up. It’ll be nice to roll dice without having to spend a week prepping monsters and herding cats beforehand.
Jack Benner is the Renaissance Redneck and sole roustabout at Stick in the Mud Press http://stickinthemudgames.blogspot.com/
One of the unique ways of mechanically fleshing out a character in Pathfinder is background traits. These mini feats, as they've sometimes been called, allow you to gain small bonuses based on your character's history. You can pick two, and they represent your experience in combat, society, religion, faith, and half a dozen other areas. While there are a lot of common traits you find on characters time and time again (like Reactionary, which gives you a +2 trait bonus on Initiative checks, or Magical Knack, which increases your caster level by 2 up to your character level), there are some traits you rarely see.
Sometimes it's because those traits don't offer a big enough bonus compared to others. Sometimes it's because they're in books your table doesn't use. And, rarely, it's because a trait is considered the wrong genre, and is banned for being too sci-fi. If you've been looking for some fun traits to make your new character a little different, here are 5 you should check out.
Trait #1: Blood Steed
I discovered this trait while writing my character conversion for Khal Drogo from A Song of Ice and Fire. A character with Blood Steed comes from a nomadic culture, and begins play with a combat-trained light warhorse. You can ride this horse bareback as if it had a saddle, and this horse can fend for itself in all but the harshest conditions. Even cooler, when you step out of a settlement and whistle, your horse arrives in 1d6 minutes.
Perhaps the coolest feature of this trait, though, if your horse dies you can return to your people, and hold a rite for the horse's spirit. This costs 100 gold in herbs and materials, and when it is over you receive a new horse.
This is a great trait if you're a character who depends on their mount, and you want some extra insurance that your DM won’t just drop a rock on your pony.
Trait #2: Awakened From Stasis
This one gets the side-eye from DMs on two levels; it's sci-fi and offers a ridiculous benefit.
This trait states that you recently awoke in a cavern with no memory of how you got there. There were dozens of other creatures, all asleep in glass eggs. Huge, construct crabs attended to you, and all the others. As a result of your time in stasis, you receive the benefits of 8 hours of rest after sleeping for only 2 hours.
Most people need a magic item, or at least a class feature, to mimic that. If your DM lets you take traits from People of The Stars, this is a solid choice.
Trait #3: Possessed
Put simply, you were, or are, possessed by something. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can peek into the information it normally keeps to itself.
This trait lets you make a single Knowledge check once per day, even if you are untrained in that particular skill. If you could normally make an untrained check in this skill, you get a +2 trait bonus on the check.
This is a story-rich trait for any class, but given the sheer number of characters who have some truck with outsiders it has even more potential. A summoner, medium, or spiritualist would be the obvious choices for this trait, but conjurers, witches, and oracles may also find it helps boost their story. This trait would also be a natural lead-in for characters who acquire the possessed corruption, or for characters who will acquire the Possessed Hand feat tree.
Trait #4: Student of Philosophy
Bruising Intellect is a fairly common trait among Intelligence-based characters because it lets you use your Intelligence modifier in place of your Charisma modifier when making Intimidate checks. Student of Philosophy is similar, in that it allows you to apply your Intelligence modifier to Diplomacy checks to persuade people, and Bluff checks to convince someone that a lie is true.
Since we're all here for escapism, there are surely players out there whose fantasy is to be able to persuade other people through logic and reasoning... right?
Trait #5: Mutant Eye
As unsettling as it is useful, you have a third eye growing out of your forehead. If it is uncovered and open, you gain a better sense of the world, and emotions, of the people around you. This grants you a +2 bonus on Sense Motive checks, and that bonus becomes +4 on checks to determine whether or not someone is currently under a mind-affecting effect. It is off-putting looking at someone with a third eye, though, and as long as it's exposed and open, you take a -1 penalty on Bluff and Diplomacy checks against humanoids who can see it.
A good thing to have if you are the party's lie detector... even if it is a little blood curdling.
For more great gaming insights, check out Neal F. Litherland's blog Improved Initiative!
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.