For the longest time, I spent my time in the roleplaying game fandom on its fringes. The only community I was an active participant in was one dedicated to games from Japan. Don’t get me wrong, the folks in that community are great, but after an ugly encounter with a newcomer (that stemmed partly from a lack of tact on my part), I figured it was time to go out and refamiliarize myself with the larger RPG fandom.
I spent the following months becoming more active in other Discord servers, as well as connecting with other folks of the TTRPG Twitter-sphere, and even attending some Dungeons and Dragons panels at the Kentokyocon anime convention in Lexington, Kentucky. I’ve always known I was an oddity and the worst possible example of what’s normal, so this mission was to give myself a point of comparison: to better understand what IS normal.
What I learned in that time will no doubt be obvious to some of you, but I still believe it bears saying, if only so there’s a snapshot of the scene at this point in time.Since this is still an article about a leisure time activity, though, I believe it deserves an element of whimsy, so I will be including some dragon slaying metaphors.
With all that said, I present to you all: 5 Things I Learned Reconnecting With The D&D Fandom!
1) Dungeons and Dragons Is Still King Of The Hoard
Attention and participation are gold, jewels, and other fine treasures, while Dungeons and Dragons is a dragon sitting atop a giant pile of it.
The statistics that Roll20 used to publish on a yearly basis is the largest set of data we have on what games are being played. It’s far from a perfect dataset, since it’s only one platform, and it doesn’t list every possible game one could use the platform for, nor allow users to “fill in the blank” if their game isn’t listed. Rigors of the data aside, it does paint an unsurprising picture of the top dog: Dungeons and Dragons or some derivative thereof.
A quick look through the #ttrpg tag in Twitter adds to this picture: even though the tag is an acronym for “tabletop roleplaying game,” much of what you’ll find is geared towards Dungeons and Dragons. From pictures of the 7 piece polyhedral set, fantasy artwork, and memes alluding to situations that could only happen in D&D.
For a tag that uses such a broad term, it certainly has a narrow scope. One of the next biggest franchises in the RPG fandom, Shadowrun, doesn’t look like it’d fit in with this tag. It’s a near future, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, it only uses d6s, and while magic items and talismans exist, they’re almost exclusively used by magical characters.
2) There Is A Hope For A Dragon Slayer
Be they driven by curiosity, or a desire to see their world be the best version of itself, they want the dragon slain, so that the hoard can be shared by all. This, I had in common with some of them all along.
If you dig around enough in some of the dialogues that take place on Twitter, you will occasionally find a few dissenting voices: people who want more attention to be paid to other RPGs besides Dungeons and Dragons, and others who would gladly oblige them. Their reasons vary and range from an acknowledgement of D&D’s flaws, to wistful expressions of not wanting to miss out on everything that the RPG fandom has to offer.
These are the people I naturally gravitated towards, given my background of having divorced myself from D&D many years ago. The community I was in had a very strong distaste for Dungeons and Dragons; we were aware of the flaws, and we knew they could be fixed, we in fact played other games that did!
Our frustrations lead to some fairly cruel jokes we would tell at the expense of Dungeons and Dragons players, often in the format of “Why would you play that game? You can get the exact same experience by playing Pathfinder with these splatbooks and my homebrew system.”
Though, stepping outside of the bubble I was in made me realize: it may not necessarily be out of stubbornness that people cling to Dungeons and Dragons; but rather just not knowing how great other games can be. I had always known this might’ve been the case, but it was a different thing to see it for myself.
3) Everybody Wants To Be The Dragon Slayer
Many are confident in their abilities, believing they’ll be the one to slay the dragon, or that their efforts will contribute to its downfall.
The indie roleplaying game scene is huge. There’s numerous new games, splatbooks, and scenarios everywhere, created by all kinds of people. There are also scores of people recording and broadcasting their own games for the enjoyment of others. Many with aspirations of being the next big voice.
These modern days of the Internet Age also constitute a creative Golden Age: we have a huge collection of information, tutorials, and software available to us at our fingertips. If you have a computer and an internet connection, you can feasibly learn how to make anything. The Dungeons and Dragons fandom is just another example of this.
If you dig deep enough, you can find those same people who want D&D to be taken down a peg, wanting to rally people together so they can collectively have their fair share of the market. Whenever one of these calls goes out, it usually ends the same way: parties show up talking about what they’re doing to that end, how they’re different and how they believe they’re going to be the one to make a difference.
4) Conformity Is What The Dragon Wants (And Gets)
The dragon has its methods for maintaining its hoard: let a few people take from it, and collect tribute from others. Then the dragon won’t need to fight the people or try to stop them, but rather let human nature defend the dragon’s hoard.
There’s a lot of market forces at work that keep Dungeons and Dragons on top. They’re the biggest name in the industry, and for better or worse, being that big reinforces its top position. Anybody who wants to make some kind of living creating for the RPG fandom will likely need to make something catering to Dungeons and Dragons. The predictability of computer algorithms makes it impossible to be discovered if you’re not on a known tag or keyword, and if your end goal is to make money somehow, your best bet is to aim for the biggest market share and hope you’re noticed.
One of the major selling points of Dungeons and Dragons is the sheer volume of content there is; when one sees so much, it’s easy to come to believe you don’t need anything else. Somebody else likely has already made what you’re looking for. Wizards has even created a marketplace specifically for content for D&D and D&D alone.
Most damning to those that would want to topple D&D is this: humans are creatures of conformity. Being like everybody else is soothing to us, even if it’s ultimately detrimental. Newcomers come in, see it’s all D&D, and come to believe D&D is all there is, or that anything else is in the tabletop RPG fandom going to be similar to D&D. (Even though D&D’s genre, Dungeon Crawl Fantasy, is fairly unique in what it does.)
It also leads people to believe that since D&D is a complex game with several specific rulings that must be known, every game is. That since most people play D&D before they run it, they must play other games before they can run it. That since so much of the onus is on the DM, the same must be true in every other game. This leads to trepidation that is then soothed by remaining in line with what’s familiar, even if it ultimately falls short.
5) There’s More Than One Dragon
The dragons are everywhere, and thrive in this world. Wherever there is treasure to hoard, there is a dragon to guard it jealously, often with the same tactics.
I originally set out to write an article about roleplaying games and human nature when we gather around media. As I added to these points, I realized that a lot of what I had seen as I put myself back out there into the D&D world were things I had seen everywhere else.
Even though comics are now mainstream and cool, it’s weird to like anything that isn’t DC or Marvel, and if there’s any issue that needs to be addressed in the comics fandom, the onus is only placed on those two juggernauts to resolve it. (Even if a different company had already taken steps to address it; it may as well not exist.)
The only way to be recognized as a fan or critic of comics is to work with the larger companies; it might be possible to claw your way to recognition through other means, but the faster route is often to get lucky placing your bets in the oversaturated market.
This is a phenomenon across all kinds of media, and arguably even other industries, too. A throng of titans control the lion’s share and dominate both the market and a space in everybody’s mind.
If this article veered a little too far off the rails for your liking, just remember what I said at the start: this is a little more than just an experiment I made when reconnecting to the mainstream. It’s also a snapshot of how I see the world right now.
Aaron der Schaedel spent his 31st birthday writing this article; which would also have been Gary Gygax’s 81st, were he still with us. Sharing Gary Gygax’s birthday has granted Aaron no special powers or abilities, and he is still, in fact, really salty about that. You can tell him to get over himself via Twitter. You can also check out his YouTube Channel, which is his own attempt to slay the metaphorical dragon.
Picture Reference: https://www.facebook.com/pg/kentokyocon/posts/
We’ve been in the middle of an RPG renaissance for several years now. More games are coming out than ever before, and we’ve had huge inrushes of players eager to snap them up. And while creative changes in the industry, positive outreach from the community, and the ascension of geek culture have all played their part, something we can’t ignore is the popularity of YouTube campaigns like Critical Role or Acquisitions Inc. These games have allowed audiences who have never seen an RPG in action before to watch how it’s done by the pros, allowing them to get an idea of how all these moving parts should look when you flip the switch.
In broad terms, we can all agree that’s a good thing. Especially for players and dungeon masters who want to get into the hobby (or into a particular game), but who lack more experienced people to reach out to, and could use some examples of how things work.
In specific terms, though, there has been a definite up-tick in complaints that a particular game isn’t run like what they see on the Internet. So if you’re a player or dungeon master worried about how your game doesn’t look like the sort of game Matt Mercer would put together, take a deep breath, and relax. That’s okay. In fact, it’s great.
Here are some reasons why.
Reason #1) This Isn’t Your Job
Most people out there who love RPGs play them for fun. What a lot of folks forget is that, for the YouTube dungeon masters and convention games that people buy tickets to watch, that’s not the case. They are doing this to entertain you, the viewers.
Is it fun for them? Yeah, probably. But their main concern is more about what gets more viewers. Hence the celebrity guest players, the carefully crafted story lines, making sure a lot of stuff is worked out in advance for rules calls, etc.
If you’re running your game for the purpose of drawing ears to a podcast, or getting a lot of hits on YouTube, then by all means mimic what the successful games are doing. But if this is for funsies, remember that you don’t have to put on the whole three-ring show the way the pros do.
Reason #2) Professional Games Aren’t Cheap
You see all the props, the cool minis, the fully laid-out map, etc. that are on these shows? Well, they’re there in order to give the audience something cool to look at. Because the advent of popular 3D printing may have made such things cheaper, it has in no way made running a game that looks that good cheap. So if you’re not working with a big budget, there is zero shame in using re-purposed green soldiers, monster figures from SCS, or just Lego figures, and drawing with dry-erase markers on the map.
This same logic applies to all the complaints you might see regarding production values. From the ambiance of the set, to any music used, or just to how much in-depth RP the players and dungeon master do. Remember that these things have costs in terms of time, energy, preparation, and setup. If you don’t have the budget for bells and whistles, don’t worry. Engage with the game, and the story you’re all telling.
Reason #3) Every DM Is Different
While he catches a lot of flak, Matt Mercer himself has said that every DM should be free to develop their own style, and to find what makes their game work for them and their table. RPGs aren’t like organized sports, where if you want to be the best you should imitate those who are most successful (which, in this case, means the people who are known professionally for running entertaining gaming sessions).
Are there things you can learn from the folks who captain these YouTube campaigns? Of course there are! But there’s a big difference between learning a lesson or taking a bit of flair to work into your own routine, and outright copying what they’ve done. So remember, there are no rules when it comes to this hobby. And if the only objection someone has is, “That’s not how they do it on TV,” then you should politely inform them that they and their character are not a part of that particular show.
Reason #4) Are You Not Entertained?
Have you ever had a discussion with someone who tried to game shame you? This happens more with video games where people will talk down to you if you prefer a game that is older, doesn’t have good graphics, or isn’t the current in thing to play, and it’s just as asinine in those situations as it is with tabletop games.
Don’t compare yourself to others, especially in a story-based, creative endeavor. It doesn’t matter if your sword-and-sorcery campaign doesn’t feel like a Robert E. Howard adventure, and it’s immaterial if your horror game leaves out the earmarks of Lovecraft’s finest work. And it’s no more important that your game looks or feels like a professional podcast, as long as everyone is enjoying themselves playing it.
Reason #5) You Have Different Needs
Not to get repetitive, but these popular games exist to entertain an audience. That is the driving goal behind a lot of the decisions that get made (one in particular that comes to mind is Critical Role switching from Pathfinder to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition in order to speed up play so the audience wouldn’t get bored). However, you and your players may have needs or wants that this kind of format simply cannot provide for.
As an example, if you want that kind of mechanical complexity (or you feel that rules which have been truncated or re-written to speed up the game on-camera should be run differently), then it’s okay for you to play games that scratch that itch. If you want to deal with the kind of subject matter that wouldn’t show up on these shows, or if you want to do deep dives into game setups that might not seem as interesting to a broader audience, you can do that as well.
Games on YouTube are about what makes the audience happy. Your game is about your and your group’s needs, and unless you’re broadcasting, focus on what you need out of the game in order for you to enjoy it.
For more from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! And if you’re looking for a new YouTube channel dedicated to gaming, stop by Dungeon Keeper Radio.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/78320481003470118/
If you’ve ever been part of a long-running game, you’re no doubt familiar with what some folks call supplement fatigue. This is a condition that happens when the game you’re playing has a great deal of additional books beyond the core, and you start to feel overwhelmed trying to take it all in. Even if you’ve been with that game since the very beginning, constantly reading new books and trying to keep your mental software updated feels exhausting.
This is around the time people start talking about “bloat” in regards to a game. Because it used to be streamlined, easy-to-play, and no problem to run. But now… well, now it takes an entire library shelf just to make one character.
If you’re one of those players (or storytellers) who gets bent out of shape over a game being “bloated” then you’ll be glad to know this problem doesn’t really exist. It’s all in your head.
I talked about this back in There’s No Such Thing As Bloat in RPGs, and Here’s Why, but some of these points need to be reiterated. Points like...
1) One Player’s Feature is Another Player’s Flaw
Think of the mechanic you hate most in a game. Maybe it’s your least favorite race, that vampire clan you can’t stand, or that one rule that you just wish would be deleted. I guarantee you that, for another player, that is one of the things they love about the game.
If you’re honest with yourself, I bet there are at least a few supplements that you think are good, or which represented a step in the right direction for the game as a whole. But those supplements you like will be seen as unnecessary bloat by other players. So if we can’t even agree on a definition about what bloat really is, then chances are it may not actually exist at all.
2) Finding Things Isn’t Nearly As Hard As You May Pretend It Is
Another metric some people use for accusing a game of being bloated is that it becomes impossible to find the rules you need in a timely fashion. You can’t remember if this merit was in a clan book, or in that one Middle Ages sourcebook, or if it was somewhere in the base book’s optional rules section, and everyone’s looking at you, waiting for a ruling, or for you to declare your action.
In ye olden days, this could be a legitimate problem, requiring several folks at the table to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s rules and errata. However, technology has shouldered a lot of this workload for us. Now all you need to do is type in the name of a mechanic, or ask a database for the rule, and pop you’re there in seconds, and you can read the text aloud for your table. So while there is more stuff, it isn’t as difficult to parse through as a lot of folks would have you believe.
3) You Don’t Have To Use It
While there might be some crazed completists out there, it’s important to remember that supplement books are just that… supplements. If you want to include the half-dozen Ultimate books in your Pathfinder game, or all the special rules and lore in the different clan books for your Vampire campaign, you totally can. That’s what they’re written for, after all. But you are under no obligation to do that.
I’ll repeat that, because it bears repeating. You do not have to buy supplementary books, you don’t have to read them, and if someone at your table actually has one, you’re under no obligation to allow them to use that book in your game. If you just want to stick to the basic books with no additions, that’s your call. If you want to allow the first two or three supplements, but nothing else, that’s cool too. And if you want to allow anything and everything at your table, that’s your choice.
It’s all there for you to pick what you want from. And it seems like a lot of folks forget that.
But Game Publishers Just Want My Money!
I’m going to say this for all the folks in the back: Every business out there that creates a product you want is out for your money. The authors you read? Money. The video games you buy? Money. Your favorite YouTubers? Well, they’re trying the best they can to get money.
These companies don’t put these products out just for the love of the game (most of the time, anyway); they’ve got bills to pay. And if there’s a market of folks who want more content for a game, then rest assured publishers are going to keep putting out more stuff as long as people keep buying it. That’s why we’ve got something like 500 The Fast and The Furious films.
And just like with gaming supplements, you don’t have to go see them if you don’t want to. Nor are you required to like everything in a series if you’re just a fan of one or two extra installments. Keep what you like, and ignore the rest if it makes your games better for you.
For more from Neal F. Litherland, check out his Gamers page, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! You can also find books like the sword and sorcery novel Crier’s Knife on his Amazon Author Page.
Picture Reference: https://www.etsy.com/au/listing/183531915/rifts-conversion-book-rpg-vintageantique
There has been a lot of complaining about the Pathfinder playtest, and believe me, I’ve done my share of it. And though I summed up what I felt was wrong with the game as a game back in October with My Final Thoughts on The Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest, I’d like to talk about something tangential that I feel hasn’t been covered as much in the debate of whether or not the playtest is or is not a good game.
Because I’ll admit that it’s functional, even if I feel it’s held together with duct tape and string in a couple of places. However, what it is not is Pathfinder as we know it.
That isn’t just grognard-speak for, “This new version of the game isn’t the one I learned, so therefore it’s ruined!” either. Because Pathfinder wasn’t just another fantasy RPG in a market where you can hit one of those by chucking a rock. It was a game with a very distinct identity, as well as a unique heritage that allowed it to fill a particular niche. It had a brand, and the people who played it (or who asked about it) understood what made it different from the competition.
This new version we’ve seen and played, though, doesn’t carry through any of that uniqueness, and it feels like it’s trying to ride the brand name without offering any of the things that players associate with the brand. For example…
1) Copying What’s Popular (Instead of Being The Unique Stand-Out)
When Pathfinder first claimed its market share, it did so by lifting the falling light of the DND 3.5 engine. There were other games using it, sure, but Paizo took that engine and made it bigger, faster, louder, and stronger. They carved out their own niche, and when the 4th Edition of DND under-performed, Pathfinder existed as a viable alternative that was mechanically different from 4th Edition in a lot of meaningful ways.
This new playtest, though, feels like it’s trying to play catch-up rather than stand-out.
While it’s true that it isn’t exactly the same as Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, you can see whose homework Paizo was copying with this playtest. And while 5th Edition is a stand-out in the marketplace, it’s on the other end of the kind of play that Pathfinder tends to be associated with. So it feels like Paizo is just trying to be more like the latest success story, which isn’t working because that game already exists, and this attempt to hybridize it is just not going to appeal to players who like Classic Pathfinder or players who like 5th Edition.
2) Limiting Mechanical Freedom
One of the biggest selling points Pathfinder has, in my view, is the sheer amount of mechanical freedom it offers. If you have a character concept, there is probably some way you can make it happen using the rules and options as they exist. And you aren’t just re-skinning an existing mechanic so that it looks different; you have the specific mechanics you need to manifest your idea.
My best example for this is playing someone descended from storm giants. In 5th Edition, for example, there is nothing that stops you from making this claim. You can use it to justify a maxed-out strength score, and describe your character as blocky and gray-skinned. If you’re playing Pathfinder, though, you can take a feat that states explicitly that you are a storm giant for all effects related to race. And if you take a second feat, you are now immune to any effects of electricity damage. It’s more than story justification; according to the physics of the world, you have storm giant heritage.
There are dozens of examples in Pathfinder Classic of this kind of mechanical freedom. You want to play a character that’s half-orc and half-elf? Cool, take this racial option and this feat. You now have a half-elf with a bite attack and tattoos, or a half-orc that can do tricks with a bow usually reserved only for elves. You want to play a Jekyll and Hyde character who literally transforms into someone else? There’s a prestige class for that. You want to be a celestial being raised on another plane who is coming to the material world as a foreigner? There’s options for that, too!
The playtest, though, is all about rigidity of path and tamping down on your mechanical freedom as a player. Multiclassing is discouraged to the point that it feels token, all classes are forced to make choices that narrowly define their abilities and progression, and the new feat system has all the complexity of the old one without any of the mix-and-match ability you had to make exactly the character you want to play.
One of Pathfinder’s greatest strengths as an RPG was the flexibility of its mechanics, and how you could blend them to form exactly the concept you wanted without having to bend any of the rules as they were presented. In this playtest you’re stuck with archetypes whose abilities are rigidly defined, and which gives you almost no options to meaningfully deviate from the path that’s been laid before you.
3) Pointless Complication
Pathfinder was always the crunchier fantasy game on the market. If you like a game that had rules for what penalties you deal with when you’re drunk, to exactly what saves you need to make to avoid drug addiction, then Pathfinder was your jam. However, even if you found some of the rules cumbersome or unnecessary, you could at least envision situations where they would be useful.
The playtest kept all the complexity, but distanced it from scenarios where it helped rather than hindered.
The best example of this is the bulk system. In Pathfinder Classic (and most games with encumbrance rules) you simply look at your Strength score, and that tells you your light, medium, and heavy loads, as well as your maximum amount of ability to lift, push, etc. The playtest uses a bulk system, which means you have to look up an individual item, determine what its bulk value is, and then run your attribute through a formula to figure out how much bulk you can carry.
You might argue that they were just trying to do something different, but any playtester would have told you immediately it was a bad idea. It overcomplicates a simple mechanic that most players would like to ignore in the first place, so why would you do that?
You see it all over the place in the playtest. If you want to make a combat maneuver like a disarm check or a grapple (things that, previously, any character could just try to do), now you need to make a specific skill check. Not only that, but if you’re not trained in that skill, then you may not even be able to attempt the thing you’re trying to do. It’s the same line of thought that staggers out your racial abilities over a dozen levels, because it makes complete sense for a half-orc to get darkvision only once they’ve killed enough monsters to activate the eyes they were born with.
Pathfinder players aren’t scared of a complicated game. But they’re used to the complications at least making sense, and too much of this game seems to have been complicated for no other reason than to make it crunchier even if those changes added nothing to the experience but irritation.
For more gaming thoughts from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, his blog Improved Initiative. To read his fiction, drop by his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/pathfinderplaytest
My earliest RPG experiences were with D&D 3.5e, 4e, and Pathfinder. These games are known for being “crunchy” (having many complex game mechanics), and 3.5e in particular was known for having a glut of supplemental materials of dubious quality. With these games, because of the breadth and depth of mechanics and the focus on tactical combat, supplemental materials often negatively impacted game balance, and that had a chilling effect on my perception towards homebrew or 3rd-party published content (materials not produced by Wizards of the Coast). Over the years I’ve moved away from those kinds of games, and towards more rules-light games like FATE, Cypher, and OSR (D&D 2e or earlier, or modern games built with a similar design philosophy or shared mechanics). One thing that I’ve found so refreshing and rewarding about these systems is how easy it is to modify the games to suit your needs, without having to worry too much about negatively impacting game balance. With some consideration, these modifications could even work for a medium-crunch game like D&D 5e. Here are 3 ways to modify games. Treat these as ways to think more about why the mechanics of a game exist, and how changing them affects game balance and the play experience, so that you can come up with your own modifications!
1) Power Points
Here I’m using power points to refer to any kind of system where players gain points for their actions, which can later be spent to affect future actions. These are often employed in “narrative” games, as with the fate points in FATE, to encourage players to roleplay and to interact with the world in a way that drives the plot forward. However, I think this system can be used for several other purposes, such as to fill “holes” in character builds, to bring a little cinematic flare to medium crunch tactical combat games, or even evoke unique themes.
I ran a campaign in my Phantasmos campaign setting using Numenera as the game system. The Phantasmos setting has various species and classes of its own, not all of which mapped cleanly to the options available in Numenera RAW (rules as written). Let’s use Arpaia the dogu apoptomancer as an example. Dogu are a species with several unique abilities such as shifting between a humanoid and monstrous form, and a sense of hyper-touch, and apoptomancers are a character class focused on the manipulation of controlled cell-death and the neuro-immune system to induce metamorphoses. Rather than constricting the player to a limited set of descriptors (like species) and foci (like feats) that reflect all of these varying and specific abilities, we had him train in the skills “dogu senses” and “apoptomancy,” which he could use to do things that his character should be able to do, but aren’t strictly built into his RAW character sheet. Importantly, if he were to use these skills in any way on a scale of power or utility comparable to his actual RAW special abilities, he would have to spend power points. Not only does this give him greater flexibility in character building and ensures that he can always do the things he should realistically be able to do, this encourages creative thinking and interactivity with the story to get power points and leverage his abilities.
A final note on power points: The game Tenra Bansho Zero has a really cool karma system, which is used both for character building and as power points. However, in that game, as you acquire more karma, you become increasingly likely to turn into an ashura, a demon. The point of the game is in-line with the Buddhist philosophy of separating oneself from material attachment (as expressed by resolving karma). The strengths and weaknesses of material attachment, the Buddhist themes of the setting, are actually instantiated within the game mechanics using power points!
2) Change The Dice
So this gets into probability theory, which really should be a whole post in its own right, but I’ll go over some basics here. While many games use a d20 for action resolution as a matter of convention, I think most good games are mindful of their dice. A d20 is a very different beast than a 3d6 or FATE dice system, and understanding these differences can radically change how a game “feels.” Note that I will not be discussing games which use dice pools here, as the probabilities get a bit more complex, and I think that would be better suited for its own post.
A d20 is a uniform distribution, meaning there is an equal probability of rolling any value, which from a range of 1 to 20 means 5%. The wide range and uniform distribution are why people often describe d20 as being “swingy,” meaning it is common to roll excessively high or low.
A 3d6 is a normal distribution, or bell curve, meaning that you are most likely to roll the mean, and the further from the mean a given value is, the less likely you are to roll that value. With a range from 3 (rolling [1,1,1]) to 18 (rolling [6,6,6]), 25% of the time you will roll a 10 or 11 (27 ways each to roll a 10 or 11) , whereas you will only roll a 3 or 18 <0.5% of the time each (because, as already stated, there is only one way to roll a 3 or an 18). This is why 3d6 is less swingy; most of the time you will roll somewhere near the middle of the distribution.
So despite the fact that these dice mechanics have very similar ranges, they have very different probabilities. I’ve already explained how this affects swinginess, but it also affects the impact of modifiers. Unlike a swingy d20, with 3d6, assuming a difficulty of 10 or 11, you’re more likely to narrowly miss or succeed, so the impact of a small modifier is greater. For example, normally you would have a 62.5% probability of rolling a 10 or greater. However, with a modifier of +1, the range is now 4 to 19, but the dice remain the same, so essentially you’re sliding the distribution up by 1. In other words, because a roll of 9 now gives you a value of 10 (roll+1), and there’s an 11.6% probability of rolling a 9, you can add that to the 62.5% for a 74.1% probability of rolling 10 or greater. With a d20, that +1 only nets you an increase of 5%! That being said, for d20, no matter how many modifiers you have, each nets you +5% towards a higher value, whereas with 3d6, because the probability of a given roll gets lower the further you go from the mean, higher modifiers give you diminishing returns.
It may help to think about weapons. In Dungeons & Dragons, a greataxe has a damage roll of 1d12, a uniform distribution comparable to a d20. Greatswords have 2d6 damage dice, a normal distribution. They average about the same; minor quibbles aside they are roughly equal in power, but they behave differently, and in a way that reflects a specific intention. Compared to the greataxe, the greatsword will be more reliable, it will generally deal about 6 damage, only occasionally doing exceptionally more or less. The greataxe will average about the same, but will swing wildly from very little damage, to very high damage.
Keep in mind that these dice distributions also affect character progression and relative power. In a game where dice modifiers improve over time (such as by leveling up), there will be a much larger difference between lower level characters in a 3d6 system than a d20 system, but a much larger difference between higher level characters in a d20 system than a 3d6 system. All of this is to say that dice matter!
There is so much more I could say about probabilities, but as a last aside, keep in mind that the range of values on a die also matter. For instance, for FATE dice, you roll 4 dice, each with two negatives, two neutrals, and two positives, meaning you have a normal distribution centered at 0. Because the range extends into the negatives, is a relatively narrow range of -4 to 4, and is centered at 0, the impact of a modifier will in general be much larger than a 3d6 system, where the range is much larger and entirely positive.
All of this is to say, if you understand how these distributions affect your game, you can substitute them safely. If you want to play D&D 5e where the game is less swingy, and where characters become significantly more powerful from level-to-level at lower levels, but there is less of a power curve at higher levels, just substitute your d20 for 3d6!
3) Combat Modifiers
Obviously not every game is about combat, or treats combat to varying degrees of abstraction, but even so, many games deal with combat, and often not well. Personally, I’ve always felt like coming up with tactical character builds in crunchier games is fun, and the idea of combat is fun, but in practice it often gets bogged down. Either the game is so crunchy that it’s slow and cumbersome, or the game is so light that it becomes rote and stale. However, there are some simple ways to make combat faster or more fun, without fundamentally altering the game!
The easiest thing is to abstract. As the GM, try to apply narrative flourishes to the enemies’ actions. Describe how they attack, how they defend, how they behave in response to the players (even if it’s just a matter of taunts or sneers or wide-eyed looks of apprehension). Encourage the players to do likewise. Regardless of what spell/ability/move they do, let them have fun with how they describe the flavor of that action. A “missed” attack is much more satisfying when it’s described as a sure strike that was deftly parried, or glinted off the enemy’s armor. This can be difficult to do at first, but the more you practice, the more natural it will become.
In terms of mechanics, one option is an escalation die. One way to implement the escalation die would be to have a d6 appear at the beginning of the second round facing 1, and increase the number each round, up to 6. All combatants gain the value of the escalation die to their attack bonus, so that as combat progresses, all combatants are more likely to hit, making the game deadlier. This creates tension, it makes weaker enemies potentially more dangerous if in large enough numbers, and it moves combat along quickly and in a satisfying way. This kind of modifier could be applied as a random roll instead, reflecting the randomness and deadliness of real combat, or could be set to a specific value as a way to signify the stakes of a given encounter. An alternative way to do an encounter die would be to have the die lower AC, increase the damage roll rather than the attack roll, or give the defender a counter-attack chance (x or lower on a d6 allows counter-attack / attack of opportunity, where x is the value of the escalation die), or activate special abilities from the enemy or evoke some other “event”, such as more enemies arriving or a change in the environment. In addition to affecting the flow of combat, these alternative options can also have fun narrative implications.
Manipulating quantities of enemies and action economy is another useful combat modification, especially for mass combat or “boss fights.” Hordes of weaker enemies may seem cool at first, but either they’re too weak, in which case they’re ineffectual and their turns are a boring waste of time, or they’re just powerful enough that through sheer number of actions they can overwhelm the players in a way that is also unsatisfying. Instead, by clumping these weaker enemies into a smaller number of more powerful swarms, the encounter can be faster and more engaging. Even quicker, one could make the entire swarm a single entity with multiple actions. Likewise, rather than defaulting to giving a “boss” enemy a swarm of underlings to balance the action economy, an especially big-bad could get multiple actions per turn, or for a literally big-bad like a kaiju, its body parts could be treated as separate entities.
These are all intentionally loose and system-neutral, to show how you can go about thinking of any game. Crunchier games will be harder to modify without accidentally creating imbalances or “breaking” the game in other ways, but even those games can be modified if you carefully consider what affects the modifications will have. Modifications can affect how a player perceives an encounter, how they build their characters, the balance of the game, and the flow of combat, and any number of other things. If you understand the game and understand what you and your players want, then you don’t have to be afraid of modifications!
Max Cantor is a former cognitive neuroscientist and soon to be data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MadScientist
This is a slightly updated version of the article that appears in my Nuggets #1 zine.
I've been creating a new world seven hexagonal spaces at a time. Here is the beginning of that; an area for your player character to explore around a small village. It is written system agnostic and is easily adapted to any edition of old school role playing games. The village, Victoria's Tower, was built around and is named after a the wizard's tower at its center. There was an accident and the sun is frozen at dusk for 20 more days (totalling a month). The village and its surrounding hexes are stuck out of time. Anyone can travel back and forth, but no time passes naturally until the end of the month. Spells and other magical effects work normally.
1) Plains And Village
A mage, Victoria, lives in a tower and a village has evolved up around it. Victoria built here because of the magic contained in the burial mounds from a long dead civilization. The village provides reagents from the sea in exchange for protection from the wizard. Victoria has frozen herself and cannot fix this. Her tower is protected with glyphs of warding and arcane locks. There are about 20 small crates filled with enchanted fish (see 12) here waiting for Victoria to open her door.
2) Plains And Farms
Mostly farms and the location of the ancient burial mounds, these plains feed the village. There is an underground tunnel connecting the mounds to Victoria’s tower. If the twelve mounds are explored, four are connected to the tower and found emptied, four more are silent, and the last four are haunted by undead. One contains a flail, Beast Render, that smells of patchouli and deals +2 damage to beasts.
3) Plains And Lakeshore
A body of water where fishermen catch gillies and stuff them into enchanted scarecrows on the shore. After four days the fish are removed and delivered to the wizard. There is also an island where reagents and medicinal herbs are grown. Barren mothers (unknowingly cause by Victoria’s experimentation with ancient magics) come here with their husbands to tend the area while the men fish.
4) South Tower Hills
A well traveled road has signs of a fight and two dead worgs killed by a piercing weapon. There is a woman nursing her wounds under a small rocky overhang away from the road. Lune, an elven warrior, is armed with 2 short swords. She stands her ground if threatened, but seeks to be left alone. She is bringing the remains of two humans to add to the scarecrows in area 3. Once a month the scarecrows need to be refilled with fresh kills. Only Lune and Victoria know of this dark deed. Lune will not let players know about this unless her life depends on it. She will say that the remains she carries are from her family and she is making a pilgrimage to the lake to bury them at sea.
5) Moonlit Hills
These tree barren hills hide a duchess, Lady Em Winter-Borough, waiting under the moonlight for a clandestine meeting with one of the clerics, she is dying and has a book of secrets to trade for a cure. The players will not recognize Lady Em, as she is from a kingdom far away. She claims to be Dass Whitehall, a noble from a nearby kingdom and is waiting for her slower coach, with her luggage, to catch up. Her coach is hidden here and can be found if players search the hex. If the players search within the coach they can find a diary and a contract that reveals Lady Em’s true identity and the fact that she is dying. Her family made a pact with a devil that has cursed her with disease. She is looking to find a cure or a loophole in the contract.
6) Ogre Hills
An ogre, Rockgrinder, make his home here in an out of the way cave that players can find if they search this hex well. He hides if seen and has promised a raven (actually Victoria) to keep the town safe. Rockgrinder has a ring that lets him talk to animals and uses them for information. In addition to hunting predators, the raven leads him to food, but has been absent for over a week.
7) Plains Of Dissonance
The wizard’s apprentice stays with a group of traveling men. These are clerics of an uncaring god and they seek to destroy the wizard because she is tampering with ancient magics. The clerics have no names. The apprentice can locate all the wards in the wizard’s tower and is being charmed by the clerics to give them the information. The apprentice has not entered the tower in eleven days for fear of accidentally setting the wards off.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture Reference: Provided by the author
The dungeon master has the power to make or break a game. Good dungeon masters can transport you to a land of fantasy, and make even the clunkiest of game mechanics fun and engaging. Bad dungeon masters, on the other hand, can take what looks like a great game on paper and make it into the kind of experience that will drive you to drink.
If you have yet to be visited by any of the dungeon masters on this list, then beware! For in your future you may yet have to contend with…
1) The Naked Emperor
Every dungeon master was once new. There was a time when you didn’t know where the monster stats were, when you bungled a plot twist, or when you messed up rules calls more often than you got them right. But most dungeon masters learn from these mistakes, re-read the text, and eventually find their groove.
Not the Naked Emperor.
No, for you see, the Emperor has no need of such plebeian things like books or lore with which to make their decisions. Clothed in the invisible garments of their own brilliance, it’s uncommon for the Emperor to even know the mechanics of the game they’re running beyond the very basics. Convinced that the stories they have to tell transcend such things, questions about damage, resistances, or even class features are met with a dismissive wave of the hand.
In short, the Naked Emperor is the know-nothing DM who has no interest in getting into the mechanics of how the game runs, because that isn’t their concern. They rarely keep players for long, and when those players find other groups it can take some time to forget the behavior they learned in the Emperor’s Court.
2) The Author
In an ideal game setting, the dungeon master runs the non-player characters, the plot, and the world physics. The players are in control of their characters, and the actions those characters take. The dungeon master sets up the situation, the players react to it, and collaboratively they tell a story.
Not at the Author’s table.
The Author sees themselves more as a director of all the action taking place at the table. While the players might be the ones behind the characters, they’re treated more like actors on a set. They can improvise, and put their own spin on things, but the Author insists on certain paths being taken, and certain actions not being taken. Their games are characterized by problems with one-and-only-one solution, by constant interruptions explaining to players why their current actions will not work, and at times literal divine intervention pointing an arrow down a specific path.
No matter how beautiful the setting, how flowery the words, or how attentive to mechanical detail an author is, their games tend to feel more like a police state where you are attempting to guess the dungeon master’s desires rather than playing. Because without freedom, you’re not playing a game… you’re just part of a play where only one of you has the script, and he won’t share it with everyone else.
3) The Schoolmaster
A good gaming group has its share of messing around, in-jokes, and silliness. After all, you’re getting together around a table with your friends pretending to be elves, dwarves, wizards, and assassins… it’s kind of a silly thing to be doing, and taking yourself too seriously can backfire.
No one seems to have told the Schoolmaster this, though.
The Schoolmaster has underlying rules to how a game table should be managed. Players should be attentive, listening to all of the information they relate before taking the baton back so they can begin roleplaying again. The Schoolmaster expects you to listen when they talk, and to follow their lead. In short, they treat their players more like children who need to be corralled, and less like adults who are here to have fun together.
When the dungeon master tries to get everyone’s attention, it’s a good idea to listen. But when they start threatening to give players detention, and lecturing instead of being part of the game, it’s time to move on to a table run by someone who isn’t possessed by the spirit of Ichabod Crane.
4) The Adversary
RPGs are full of uphill battles, ambushes, tense negotiations, and hard-fought skirmishes. These are the challenges the characters have to overcome in order to reach their goal, and to bring the story to its completion. And while no dungeon master wants to make it easy on the players, most of them don’t want to kill the party.
The Adversary does.
For the Adversary, the story is a secondary concern. The game has a binary outcome, and for them to win, the party has to die. Adversaries tend to have enemies that are noticeably outside the party’s weight class, but they are also the first to cry foul if a tactic or power proves particularly successful against their villains. They will out-and-out strip abilities from player characters, stating that they no longer work, or switch tactics entirely to ensure that strategy is nullified completely. Worst of all, though, Adversaries have no empathy for the players’ goals. They may pay lip service to the idea that you’re all here to tell a story, but the Adversary won’t consider the game a victory if they haven’t made the players bleed for every inch of ground they cover.
Adversaries breed mistrust, but even worse, they can lead to players grabbing every advantage they can possibly find. This often leads to dungeon masters who aren’t adversarial thinking these players are just power-gaming munchkins, more concerned with bonuses than with the story. Adversaries leave scars and habits that can be hard to unlearn.
5) The Punisher
A good dungeon master lets the laws of cause and effect play out in the world. They arbitrate things neutrally, and allow complications and solutions to arise naturally from the actions of the player characters. In short, their actions have consequences, but those consequences fall into the “what comes up must come down” school of mechanics.
This is not the case for the Punisher.
For the Punisher, any act that fails is an excuse to inflict upon that character an Old Testament level of pain or humiliation. A Punisher’s critical fumble deck is well-thumbed and dog-eared from use, and they’ve never once asked players if they even wanted to use that optional mechanic. They simply take it as a given. The Punisher takes glee in natural 1’s, and may even attach consequences to regular failed rolls, as well. Broken weapons, injuring yourself, feedback from spells that failed to penetrate an enemy’s defenses, and even slipping on random banana peels and falling prone in the middle of a fight are all commonplace for the Punisher’s games. Some Punishers play it straight, giving the same drawbacks to the monsters, but they fail to see that a monster breaking its weapon has a much smaller impact overall than a PC who has lost their primary weapon in the middle of a dungeon.
Punishers tend to suck the fun out of a game, particularly if the table is on a good run of bad luck. Adding insult to injury may be done in the name of “realism,” but the result is more often a game that feels like it actively wants you to stop playing.
There are certain challenges we all have to face in life as gamers. Remember that if you’re ever faced with one of these dread DMs, remember that if you survive you get XP… and you’ll learn to recognize the signs the next time you see one of these game masters across a table.
For more from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive along with his blog Improved Initiative!
Picture Reference: https://dungeondutchess.com/tag/gm/
Anyone who knows me know that I'm a die-hard Pathfinder fan. I've been playing it since the end of the 3.5 era, when so many of us jumped ship from Wizards as a refusal to move on to their 4th edition. I've been quite happy with it, on the whole, and I even went on record back in the end of 2016 to explain Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice.
With that said, Pathfinder isn't a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. So when I heard that Paizo was working on a 2.0 update, I was tentative, but interested. And now that the playtest rules have been released I can say without equivocation that I am the furthest possible thing from interested in this new iteration of what has long been my go-to game.
Why? Well, I'll give you some of the major reasons, and the conclusions I drew after my read through.
1) The Feats Are A Mess
Feats were your bread and butted in any Pathfinder Classic game. Whether you wanted to be a knight riding his destrier into battle, a master of metamagic, or someone whose unique bloodline had allowed them to awaken sorcerous power without having to take sorcerer levels, feats made all sorts of stuff possible. And which feats you took was entirely up to you. If you wanted to have nothing but combat feats (the equivalent of going to the buffet and loading your entire plate up with pork roast), you were more than welcome to do that. If you wanted to dedicate your feats to becoming a master of certain skills, that was also an option. If you wanted to bolster your class features by gaining extra rounds of rage, more uses of lay on hands, or bonus arcana points, you could do that too.
You can't do that in 2.0.
Oh there are still feats, don't get me wrong. But now we have class feats, we have ancestry feats (race feats for those not up on the new terminology), and we have general feats, along with a few other classifications. And rather than letting you pick whichever feat you qualify for every other level, you now get different types of feats at different levels. So it doesn't matter if you don't actually want to take any of the ancestry feats you have access to, or that you find your class feats useless until you hit level seven; you're stuck with them.
This limits your ability to customize your character, and puts you on very specific tracks of advancement. Not good for folks who like the ability to load their plate however they want to in order to achieve specific results.
2) Where The Hell Are My Combat Maneuvers?
One of the things I was most grateful for as a player was the invention of Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense. Nothing was more nightmarish (or prone to cause arguments), than constant roll-offs between a player and the DM whenever the player wanted to do something other than hit the big bad with his sword, or cast a spell at him.
So I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see that those things are absent from version 2.0.
The maneuvers still exist, but they're buried in the skills section. Why are they in the skills section, you ask? Well, because now instead of making attack rolls, you make skill rolls for many of the combat maneuvers. Even stranger than that decision, though, is that when you make these rolls, you're going against your enemy's saving throws. Why? Hell if I know.
There's another issue, though. Because in this version, you don't have skill points. Instead, your skills (and a lot of other stuff, but we'll get to that) are influenced by your proficiency level. There are five of them; untrained, trained, expert, master, legendary. These determine what bonuses you get on skill checks, but they also determine when you can or can't use them for certain things.
And if you're not trained in Athletics, then you can't make a disarm attempt. Or feint in combat, if you're not trained in Deception.
This is a very specific example, but it shows up throughout the game. Things that everyone used to be able to do (attempt a combat maneuver check, make attacks of opportunity, etc.) are now limited to very specific classes. So much like feats putting you on a certain track, there are options that were available to anyone regardless of class in Classic that are now kept behind glass unless you have the right proficiency level.
3) What's The Big Deal With Proficiency?
In the Classic edition, proficiency simply means you can do something without penalty. If you're proficient in heavy armor, you can wear heavy armor. If you're proficient with martial weapons, then you can wield martial weapons. It did nothing, unless you didn't have it, which meant you were dealing with a non-proficiency penalty.
In the playtest, this word does not mean what you think it means.
Those levels of proficiency literally control all major aspects of your character. If you're untrained, you have a proficiency bonus of your character level -2. If you're legendary, it's your character level +3. Each level between changes that number by one.
I'm not exaggerating here, either. Proficiency determines everything from your attack bonus with a weapon, to your bonuses on spells, to what your skill checks are, to your saving throws, to your goddamn armor class. It is the central mechanic that this entire playtest is built around, and it only comes in one of five varieties.
This means that huge parts of your character just get automatic progression along your track. A 10th level character gets a +8 bonus on untrained checks from their proficiency. Doesn't matter if Hrothgar Bloodbeard had never attempted diplomacy in his life, he'll still be pretty okay at it. Call me a cantankerous grognard if you must, but I am not a fan of the idea that you just automatically get better at everything as you go up in level. Especially stuff that you've never invested time, resources, or effort in mastering.
4) No More A La Carte Options
Another thing that I adored when Paizo brought out Pathfinder back in the early post-3.5 days was what I call a la carte options. Barbarians had a list of Rage powers, rogues had a slew of talents, ninjas got a list of tricks, alchemists got discoveries, and so on and so forth. This gave you a lot more control over the powers your character gained as you leveled, and you could use those powers in combination with feats to produce exactly the effects you wanted.
As with anything else on this list I was a fan of, that's gone too.
While a lot of these choices have made it to version 2.0 as options you can take, you aren't allowed to freely choose from the list like you were earlier. Barbarians, for example, are now locked into a choice of totem (which was completely optional in the previous edition if you never wanted to take a totem-style power). Rogues receive a number of options to choose from, but they are only available at certain levels. Alchemists... don't even get me started. While they're now a base class, their progression gives me a headache every time I try to read through it.
It is the same for feats. What was once a wide open menu of choice where you could pick whatever you wanted as long as you qualified for it has been narrowed down to a bare handful of options, and a lot of them are arbitrarily shut behind a certain amount of level progression.
And to those of your clearing your throats and asking if I'm comparing a single book to the huge morass of a decade or more of Classic publications, no, I'm not. Core book versus core book, you had more freedom in the older edition than you do now. All the stuff that's come out since the core book was published is just frosting on top.
5) There is No Multiclassing (Not As We Know It, Anyway)
Real talk here. In the decade and a half since I got my first set of dice, I've played between one and three single-class characters. Every other character I have ever brought to the table has been multiclassed. So when I finally got to the section on leveling up, I noticed right away that this playtest assumes you are never going to deviate from the class you started in.
But what if you really want to? Well, you can take an archetype.
What does that mean? Well, it means you're technically still taking levels of your original class. But now you're replacing your class feats with the class feats that belong to your archetype. And let me tell you, this method is an out-and-out dealbreaker from where I'm sitting. It's messy, overly complicated, and sends a very loud, very clear message that if you start off as a fighter, barbarian, or wizard, then you'd better get comfy, because acquiring the specialties of another class is going to be a headache for you and your DM alike.
… And Then It Hit Me
There came a moment, around page 390 or so, where I realized something. In addition to all the red flags I've mentioned, there were a dozen little tweaks that felt familiar in their annoyance. Rage that lasts for an arbitrary amount of time, instead of increasing with you as you level? Sneak attack that requires you to use a ranged, agile, or finesse weapon? Three or four different levels of dying, fear, or fatigue rather than specific conditions that you are or are not in?
This is not Pathfinder... this is Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.
As I've said time and time again, the Classic edition was what we got when Paizo put Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 on the table, and gave it some juice. It came out bigger, tougher, and just as flexible and customizable as it's ever been. It was also just as complex, and required just as much investment. The second edition, though, has nothing to do with 3.5 at all. It's Paizo giving Wizards of The Coast's 5th Edition property the exact same treatment and hoping that the lightning will strike twice.
Why? No clue. Because when the lightning struck the first time there was a big audience clambering for support for a system that Wizards had dropped... but 5th Edition is riding high right now. It is, though it galls me to say it, probably the RPG of choice for the current tabletop renaissance. However, it holds that title because it is basic, it is clean, and it is literally something you could teach a person who has never gamed in their life with maybe a 15-minute run down.
Reading through this playtest, it has all of the complexity and confusion of Pathfinder's elaborate rules, but none of the simplicity and ease of learning that 5th Edition has. The mechanics have different names, and many of them have been split into three or four parts, but this is just 5th Edition with a bunch of gears glued on it to make it feel different.
Maybe I missed something in the lead-up to all this, but no one mentioned to me that the company was changing out the engine that ran the game, and which formed the core of what made everything else run. Because no matter what edition you're playing, if you want a 3.5 engine, you are not going to get those results running a 5E motor.
Folks who read my last post, 5 Things I Hate About Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, will know exactly how damning this next statement will be; I would never play this game over 5E.
For more of Neal Litherland's work, check out his gaming blog Improved Initiative, or take a look at his archive over at Gamers!
Picture Reference: https://geekdad.com/2018/03/pathfinder-version-2-0-playtest-anounced/
There has been something of a surge in tabletop RPGs over the past few years, and while a lot of systems have grown their player base, no one has gotten as big as DND 5th Edition. Driven by the popularity of shows like Critical Role, it isn't much of an exaggeration to say that this edition of DND has finally clawed the Wizards of The Coast property back onto the lofty perch it was knocked off of when they released the previous edition.
Since I like to check out popular games, I've played my share of DND 5E. I've also created content for it, which has necessitated going more than wrist-deep into the mechanics that make it work. As a gaming system, 5E is perfectly functional. It's fast-paced, easy to learn, and you can tinker with it relatively easily. With that said, though, there are certain aspects of it that I (as a player, an occasional DM, and a designer) absolutely hate.
And, as always, one player's flaw is another player's feature. So keep that in mind as you go through my list.
1) The Narrowing of Class Features
When I sit down with an RPG, one of the things that I enjoy is outright ignoring the stereotypes of a given class, and how they use their powers. Unfortunately, though, 5E has narrowed the functionality of class features to the point that character concepts which were simple to create in previous editions are outright impossible to make now.
I’ll give you an example. A barbarian's Rage now has the caveat that you have to either attack a foe or take damage pretty much every round in order to keep your Rage going. This reduces Rage to nothing but a combat-focused ability, taking away any other potential uses for the power. You can't use your enhanced strength to pick up fallen comrades as you flee from battle, for example, and you can't use it to give you an extra boost while climbing a mountain side. You can't use it to outrun people chasing you across the rooftops, and unless you're actively being hurt you couldn't even use it for something like rescuing NPCs from a burning building. Even winning an arm wrestling contest is out, by the rules as they're written.
This single-purpose mentality extends to a lot of classes, and it restricts play style unnecessarily. Rogues can only sneak attack with finesse weapons? Paladins can only use their smite on melee attacks? Was a paladin with a longbow whose hand is guided by the divine too game breaking?
And so on, and so forth.
The desire to be less flexible in terms of how abilities work, and thus to restrict character concepts, is one thing that turns me off hard about this edition.
2) Alignment Is More Pointless Than Ever Before
Nothing starts arguments faster than talking about alignment in tabletop RPGs, but at least back in the 3.0 and 3.5 edition of the game alignment had some kind of purpose. Certain spells might affect you differently based on your alignment, you had to be of a certain alignment to be part of certain classes, and there were weapons that wouldn't work for you if your alignment didn't match theirs. It wasn't the most important feature of your character most of the time, but it would have mechanical repercussions in the game.
I've played through a dozen levels in various 5E games so far, and alignment has never once come up. I haven't seen it mentioned in any spells I've looked at, nor in the descriptions of any magic items. There are suggestions in the class descriptions, but nothing happens to you if your paladin, monk, or cleric's alignment shifts away from what it was at the start. It doesn't restrict which classes you can mash up, either.
Which begs the question; why the hell is it even here?
While I'm sure there are a lot of folks who are extremely glad that alignment no longer impacts their in-game choices, if it doesn't actually do anything, then why was it included at all? Why not replace the pages talking about alignment with a deeper, more in-depth discussion of character beliefs and morality, since that's all been reduced to pure roleplay (as far as I can tell)?
3) An Overabundance Of DM Discretion
The Dungeon Master is one of the most important positions at the table; without them, there's no game. However, 5E is a lot more like the second edition of the game, in that it expects the DM to not just rule on what's happening (like a judge or a referee), but to actively use their discretion as part of the core rules.
I'll give you an example so you can see what I'm talking about. The wild magic sorcerer's description says that the DM may choose to make them roll a d20 any time they cast a spell of 1st-level or higher. If that roll is a 1, then they roll on the wild magic surge chart.
A core feature of a class is entirely dependent on the DM's discretion. If you have a DM who doesn't know, or doesn't care, then the sorcerer will never actually roll on that table, which means a big part of that class will never function. Why put that decision on the DM, instead of just writing a rule that made the sorcerer roll that d20 every time they cast a spell, thus making it both truly random and feel like a game of Russian roulette? Or why not instead offer expanded language that states that when the sorcerer is in a stressful situation, or is suffering from any conditions, they must roll the d20 then?
It's both one more thing for a DM to keep track of and it's asking them to put their nose directly into a player's core class feature.
This isn't the only instance of this thinking showing through in the rules, either. If you look at skill checks, there's no longer a chart showing the appropriate difficulty check for certain tasks. Not so long ago, if you wanted to make an appropriate knowledge roll to know what monster you were facing, there would be a formula for determining that DC (typically something like monster CR + 10), and you would be able to ask questions about it based on how high above the DC you rolled. There were similar formulas for determining the DC for making a certain jump, for successfully persuading or intimidating a target, etc. Now there's a footnote in the Dungeon Master's Guide regarding average DC level based on how difficult a task might be, but there are no specific tables for particular tasks and challenges, or for modifiers to them.
If you have a good DM, this isn't a big deal. If you have one who isn't mechanically savvy, or who decides to arbitrarily punish the group by setting nigh-impossible difficulty checks, then there's nothing in the rules you could raise as a point in your defense.
4) Big Gaps In The Rules
It's impossible to make a rules system that covers everything. Even attempting such an impossible task is to court madness. But with the exception of when I joined a second edition campaign, I have never seen a game where there were fewer answers in the official rules about things that will actually come up with a fair bit of regularity.
For example, we have some inkling of when certain races get older... but where are the age penalties/benefits (and if they don't exist, then what difference does it make how old you are)? We have rules for breaking objects, but no specific rules about trying to sunder the weapon, armor, or shield being wielded by an opponent. We have no set DC levels for given skills, as mentioned above, and there are no real rules for how you learn new languages. As a sample of the things that, while I was trying to build characters and figure out twists for an intro adventure, left me sighing and muttering, “Goddammit, 5E...”
Sure, these aren't insurmountable problems. But if someone tries to sell you a car, and that car has parts missing, you'd be understandably irritated as you find ways to fill in those gaps. Especially if you were in the middle of a long campaign when you realized a piece you figured would be there just isn't.
When I first came across the concept of archetypes back in 3.5, and then later on in Pathfinder, I thought they were a phenomenal idea. You took a base class like the fighter or the rogue (which already had a general, level 1-20 progression), and you swapped out certain abilities to make a more custom package of abilities. Maybe your fighter gave up heavy armor proficiency in exchange for additional damage with light weapons, making them into a duelist, or your ranger gave up spells in exchange for the ability to create traps. Archetypes were taking an already solid foundation, and providing you additional options you could use to better realize certain concepts.
The keyword there is option. Archetypes were not a required part of the game. Much like prestige classes, you could use them if they suited your concept, or ignore them if they didn't.
One of the most irritating aspects of 5E for me is that it kept what I can only think of as a holdover from 4E, in that classes much choose a particular archetype which more specifically defines their powers. Rogues have to make the choice between arcane trickster, shadow dancer, and assassin, for example. Barbarians can elect to go berserker, or totem worshiper. And so on, and so forth.
Yes there are more options than that now, but these are the choices you're faced with in the base book.
The problem is that there is no longer a foundation class; every class has branching paths. And the specificity of those branching paths often eliminates certain character concepts (perhaps just as much as the narrowing of class features I mentioned in the beginning). I don't mind their existence, as several of these archetypes are fun to play with; I object to them being mandatory. Because if they are optional, they give you additional tools to use for making your best game. If they aren't, then you're just being forced to cram your concept into one of these more narrowly defined paths which feels more like something out of an MMORPG like Diablo or World of Warcraft than the free-form universe of options and customization that tabletop RPGs have the ability to offer.
While you can make the argument that the DM can just change the rules at their own table, these criticisms apply to the rules as they're written, not how someone may modify them in their personal games.
For more of Neal Litherland's work, check out his gaming blog Improved Initiative, or take a look at his archive over at Gamers!
Picture Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUDJzEagqE0
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2018 is upon us. With the new year comes the tradition of self-betterment. Sure, the majority of resolutions aren’t followed through. Most people don’t even make resolutions anymore. Instead we sit behind the cynical idea, “Why should I only make goals at the start of the year when I could make goals year round?” You’re not fooling anyone, you’re not making goals at all. You’re just saying that to be cool. (And it’s working, I think you’re cool.)
Today I want to propose some resolutions that are more fun. They’re related to this wonderful hobby, after all. Here are 4 resolutions for your roleplaying hobby. I’m sure there are readers who do all these things every year, but these are all new to me and I’m excited to make them goals for my 2018 in the wonderful world of tabletop rpgs.
1) Play A Class You’ve Never Played Before
In both Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons I’ve been quite consistent with my class choice. I started with a fighter back when I was in grade 7 and I stuck with that class for a long time. The class was simple and its strategy was sound: “that is big man, me hit big man with sharp stick.” Eventually I branched out and tried something new, a ranger, and let me tell you… it wasn’t nearly as impressive a change as I initially thought it would be. My ranger was ultimately a fighter with a bow and certain enemies they specifically don’t like: “that is green man, me shoot green man with sharp stick.”
I’m guilty of this even last year when I started a campaign as a cleric, got eaten by some sort of swamp monster, and resurrected as a barbarian. It’s in my blood, I want to hit evil big monsters with sharp sticks. However in 2018 I want to play a class that never even picks up a weapon. “What’s a sword? All I know is my magic spell book.” My knowledge of Pathfinder has grown exponentially since I’ve started DMing it and now I can’t believe I went so long only playing one class. There are a lot of interesting and cool classes out there to try out, so if you’re like me, make your 2018 about trying something completely new.
2) Play A System You’ve Never Played Before
It seems this article is about me admitting to a bunch of my tabletop hidden shames. The only roleplaying systems I’ve played have been Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and Fiasco. (One of these is not like the other…) I started playing with 3rd Edition DnD and then that transferred over to Pathfinder when 4th Edition came out. Since then it’s just been the go-to game for my friend group. We knew the rules, we enjoyed the game, and we didn’t really find the need to try other systems.
Now that my knowledge of the roleplaying world has grown I realized that I’ve been playing the wrong game for what I like to get out of my tabletop experience. I’m not really a dice chucker, I like getting into a character and interacting with the imagined world around me. Thanks to people from this blog and other people I’ve met, I’ve discovered a lot of awesome systems I can’t wait to play.
On my agenda for 2018: Viewscream, a Skype based survival horror rpg, End of the World, a game where you play yourself trying to escape the end of the world, Worldwide Wrestling, that one is pretty self explanatory, and Ten Candles, a horror system a friend of mine is running that I’m purposely keeping myself in the dark for. Any others I should check out? Let me know in the comments.
3) Incorporate Physical Props Into Your Game
Recently I’ve been feeling that our games of Pathfinder need to feel a bit more tactile. Picking up dice and throwing them down on the table is nice, but it doesn’t really help fully immerse a player into the game. Props can go a long way in making players get themselves into the game in ways they never would before. It requires a little bit more work from the GM, but it’s worth it for the experience it provides yourself and the players.
If you’ve never made a prop for one of your games before the first place to start is with simple letters or scrolls the players receive. Imagine the look on their faces when the innkeeper says a letter arrived for them and you pull an actual letter out for them to read. They’ll each want to take turns reading and it makes the experience more believable for the players. It may not seem like much, but for the moments they’re reading the letter it’ll take them away from the table and actually put them in the world in which they’re roleplaying.
For me, the prop I’m going to be starting my 2018 with is actual healing potions. We always have people question the effects of healing potions in Pathfinder. My plan to fix this while also immersing my players is buying a bunch of small jars and putting the required amount of d8s inside and labelling it with the matching healing potion. I’m excited to see their reaction when I pull one of those out at the table.
4) Run A Campaign Outside Your Comfort Zone
I have only recently started running sessions of Pathfinder, starting with the Mummy’s Mask Adventure Path. That book provides the adventure, but as I’ve gotten later into the campaign I’ve felt more comfortable going off book and providing my own story and twists to the adventure. It’s with this that I get to my true tabletop resolution of 2018. I want to run a campaign outside of my comfort zone.
Running a dungeon is where most DMs start. I was one of those DMs. A dungeon is straightforward encounter and the namesake of the game. However my love of the game came from all the roleplaying encounters that I was put in outside of the dungeon. One of my first loved campaigns involved me and another playing being in charge of a small city. We had to deal with negotiations with neighboring cities, balancing the city economy, and making sure the citizens were happy. It may sound dull, but it was an awesome roleplaying experience.
Dungeons are comfortable to me. Political intrigue is not. My goal for 2018 is running a campaign based entirely on political intrigue inside of a nation’s courts. If you’re a DM and you’ve been visiting certain themes in your campaigns, why not try something completely new? Try something outside of your comfort zone and maybe you’ll discover talents you never knew you had.
Now if anyone asks you what your resolution for 2018 is you can respond with any of these. They may give you a few bizarre looks, but in the end a resolution is just for yourself. A goal inside of your hobby is still a goal, so why not use a tradition as a reason to play even more of what you love playing? I know that’s my plan for this next year.
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.
Artwork Courtesy of JEShields, whose work can be found 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)
Suddenly Talesian froze, still kneeling over the dismantled sculpture, his eyes snapped shut in the middle of lifting out the handful of enchanted cloth at the heart of the explosive device hidden within. We all wanted to ask what was the matter, but after three minutes holding our breath, we remained silent by force of habit.
“Sheth...could you...help me up?” Talesian said slowly, softly. I looked at the others. Lorne and Lydia stirred. They were both closer, surely they could help him without setting anything off.
“Only Sheth!” his quiet vehemence drew them up short, his eyes still shut. “Plainsman,” he said to me, “your time has come. The last layer of the weapon is protected by explosive runes; the trap will still kill us all--and everyone upstairs--if anyone reads but a single word.”
I helped him to his feet as the others turned their backs, and he patted me on the shoulder with confidence I did not share. “Describe what you see, and I will guide you. Your illiteracy is our best protection now.”
Most good roleplaying games have elements of mystery, suspense and thriller, after all, as these are plot based and can apply to any setting. But sometimes you want to push things further and create something that combines genres. Even if you’re not a fan of Smash Up, there’s a lot of fun to be had when you mix the tropes of one genre with the setting and elements of another. If your players are pining for Secrets and Spies while playing Dungeons and Dragons, here are some ways to give them the feel for what they want without changing settings.
1) Secret Whispers
The message cantrip can give the feel of modern spy thrillers with agents whispering to each other through hidden earpieces. A social venue the PC’s have crashed allows for lots of whispering back and forth as they distract the mark, case his room, etc. Note that message can work through a scrying sensor, allowing for the “handler” to call shots from a vantage point on the roof, nearby apartment, or getaway vehicle. If the PC’s are too low level to have message work reliably through a scrying sensor (5% chance per level for a scrying spell) perhaps their patron provides the targets of the spell with a some minor magic that “boosts the signal.”
2) Codes and Riddles
Codes and ciphers are perhaps the easiest element of spy thrillers to import into fantasy, at least for the party rogue. To kick it up a notch toward spycraft, emphasize the use of regular code books, rotating keywords, and other trappings of old-school cryptography. If your group is into props, making your own code grille for them to decode messages with is a surefire winner. And speaking of codes, the locking wards on doors and chests in fantasy games and settings doesn’t make most people think of computer passwords, but it could. To make the party rogue feel more like a computer hacker, have them focus on the individuality of the person who made the wards for their own personal use. That evil high priest they are investigating...what’s his favorite scripture?
3) Magical Message Drop
But what if the secret message isn’t written at all? Have PC’s discover that an enemy agent gets instructions via magic mouth spells when they arrive in a particular public place. Suddenly all those ranks in disguise (or equivalent spells or items) have yet another purpose, as they try to impersonate the agent and get the magic mouth to speak to them instead. But what if someone mistakes them for the real bad guy? Having to stay in character during an impersonation gone wrong is a tried and true staple of the spy genre, and a great opportunity to play “double or nothing” with the information they are after.
More than any other genre, spy thrillers are driven by small but powerful items prized by the superpowers on both sides. The fantasy genre tends to use maguffins that are powerful for their own sake--the One Ring, the Sword of Shannara, Hand of Vecna, etc. To make a fantasy adventure feel more like Her Majesty’s Secret Service, consider having the PC’s quest for powerful, portable things that they can’t use themselves, such as command words to a powerful golem; rare ingredient for epic spells; the remains of a powerful artifact that can be re-enchanted. Have rival teams of adventurers hired by the other side, both groups fighting to deliver the goods to those who can actually use it.
5) Gunpowder Plots, Minus The Gunpowder
The rare gunpowder in fantasy settings is probably better suited for firearms than for a weapon of mass destruction. For a bomb threat, consider instead a necklace or wand of fireballs rigged to break, so that all the charges are released at once (if players aren’t sweating, feel free to count out the d6’s you’d roll for a fully charged device). Explosive runes might be activated at a distance using a spyglass or scrying device, and could set off other effects. The shrink item spell can be used to shrink a bonfire and its fuel to a piece of inert cloth 1/16th the original size, making for an interesting “time bomb” as the duration runs out, or the spell can end early by a collision with a solid surface. This spell lends itself to sabotage; even a simple block of wood could do devastating damage expanding to full size in the right space.
6) Set Pieces And Chase Scenes
Finally, good spy thrillers keep a sense of urgency using breakneck chases and treacherous set pieces for the fights. It’s easy enough to import this into a fantasy setting using carriages, carts, and caravels for transportation, but be ready to take it to the extremes. Players are used to fast movement in the middle of combat, with spells and monk abilities to fly around. Don’t let them use these mobility options. Force them to fight bare-knuckled with the baddies in a small space that’s moving swiftly toward oblivion...and then crank up the Mission Impossible theme to eleven.
So there you have it: six ways to cross the genres and mix some spy thriller into your D&D fantasy setting for a change of pace. Who knows? If your players like it, you could build an entire campaign around these kinds of intrigues, with them as agents in a shadow war between secret societies.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for gaming 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 ran an extended spy thriller campaign in Ravenloft called “Kara’s Daughters.”
A puppeteer captivates his audience in the town square. The heroes, returning from their latest dungeon, spot the growing crowd and approach with interest. The audience is mostly children and a few citizens taking a moment to see what the fuss is about. It’s easy to get a good view. Hanging from one of the strings is a demon, horned and wings licked in crimson. Hanging opposite of the demon is someone holding a sword. The fighter immediately recognizes the puppet. It looks exactly like him. The puppeteer speaks of a great prophecy; of a demon, locked away, approaching escape. Only our hero can stop him.
This is an NPC that one of my DM’s made in a campaign I took part in. It was this puppeteer, who introduced himself as Alvar, that showed me the potential for an NPC in a Pathfinder, or really any, campaign. Beyond just an innkeeper with an eyepatch, or a noble with a stuck up attitude, Alvar was a living breathing character with a purpose. With this article I want to show you 4 ways to make a memorable NPC, all thanks to inspiration I gained from this puppeteer.
1) Connect Them To Your Player Characters
Alvar was connected directly to one of our players, the aforementioned hero that was crucial to keeping the demon locked away. This connection establishes a bond and creates a reason for players to interact with an NPC more. How do they know this? What else do they know? The bond doesn’t need to be as grandiose as providing a backstory to characters or as an omenspeaker, but any sort of connection immediately makes players feel exactly that: connected.
Another approach is to make the players feel responsible for this character. A young squire who finds the heroes to be inspiring hopes to learn from them so he follows them out of town to the cave they are going to explore. The party can’t exactly leave him alone in the cave, he’ll be ripped apart, so they’ll need to keep him safe while they seek out their objective. This can be especially strong if you target a Good character in town with this specific squire, idolizing them and setting up for the moment where the character feels responsible for their safety.
2) Have NPCs Praise Or Condemn Aspects Of Your Characters
Characters make mistakes. There are times when players can make decisions in the moments that skirt the alignment of their character. NPCs that either push them away or pull them towards the other side can be compelling talking points to a character. Alvar would constantly tell our fighter that he believed in him and they he could do better in making this world a good place. The fighter was caught between two alignments and Alvar was there urging our fighter to make the right call, but the fighter was still lost in knowing which was which.
This method can create tension. Tension is good because it inspires dialogue between characters and can make them more involved in the story. Having an NPC show up and point out the divide in players’ morals can provide intriguing role playing potential for a party. Of course, this is by no means an excuse to become vindictive and outright insult a player for their decisions. Instead if someone merely asks the character ‘why?’ it has potential to open up a whole new avenue of character exploration.
3) Find The Drive Behind A Character And Have An NPC Amplify It
The fighter always imagined himself as the hero. Maybe that’s why he was so intrigued by the puppet performance and became interested in Alvar so quickly. There was this idea that he was something more: he sought out some sort of prophecy and Alvar delivered. There was heroic blood in his family’s lineage, and the fighter was the key to reopening what was locked away.
Some players may find that to be a bit too convenient, but Alvar is a particularly specific example of what an NPC can do. Each player gives a purpose to their character, something that drives them to make the decisions they make. A method of taking your game to the next level is incorporating these themes into your story, feeding back into the players what they crave. You can twist it and turn it on their head, but dangling a carrot on a stick, so to speak, will push the characters forward.
Most villains in a campaign will do this to the players, but there is no reason you cannot take advantage and have other NPCs do this. Especially if you can balance the idea of similar traits between your villain, your player, and their NPC. The villain and the hero both crave power, each must stop the other to get it, the NPC wants to see the hero gain this power, but which side will their methods align with? This gets to the final, most poignant point of Alvar’s story.
4) Have Your NPCs Be Wrong
This may sound obvious, but what exactly does it mean to be wrong? An NPC can give wrong directions to a dungeon, but is that something they can be remembered for? A strong NPC will provide an emotional connection to the players, and with the above methods you can achieve the framework to create a memorable bond. However the most important point of an NPC is that they are not omniscient. NPCs should not know the way everything flows and they can be just as guilty as anyone of being wrong.
Alvar was a victim of his own prophecy. He didn’t know the full explanation behind what he was preaching to the party’s fighter. He spoke of the fighter being the key to locking the demon away, when in reality the demon could never be free until the fighter approached the cage. Our fighter broke, realizing that he wasn’t the hero that was meant to save the world: he was the villain destined to free the beast who would end it. Alvar himself also broke from this and met the tragic end of dying knowing that he was wrong.
There is nothing interesting about an NPC that the players can never outsmart. A villain who is always one step ahead is boring so why should someone helping out the players have knowledge they shouldn’t have? Treating an NPC like a mortal who is just as in the dark as the players are, with their own opinions whether they be right or wrong, allows the players to relate to them. It forms a bond or a rivalry, providing players with a push and pull that inspires digging deep into their character.
Alvar’s end may have been hopeless, but our fighter did not follow the same path. He fought against his prophecy and returned to his own path. He would defeat this demon. He let the beast out, so he was going to be the one to kill it. Alvar never saw this, but Alvar was never supposed to see it. Multiple storylines are happening at a time during a campaign: the main story, the player character’s stories, and the NPC’s stories. Alvar’s story was about an old man who dreamt of a golden era of his youth, locked behind memories and prophecy. He always hoped that he would find his hero, unfortunately all he was left with was betrayal-- from no one but himself.
The greatest part of all this is that Alvar wasn’t even involved in my character’s storyline from this campaign, but it’s undeniable the effect that he had on me. My side of the story was full of its own characters, twists, and revelations that I’ll be using as an inspiration for a future article. I hope this has helped plant some seeds to create an NPC that will push your players. They want it.
Have you played or experienced any NPCs that were memorable for you? Who were they? Let me know in the comments or on my twitter!
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.
Picture Referece: https://www.bit-tech.net/reviews/gaming/pc/top-10-computer-game-npcs/1/
The character sheet is a maze of information. Sections of it are winding paths of boxes and lines that ultimately lead to a dead-end. Even the most experienced character builders will miss something and get lost sometimes. Missing bonuses, ranks, and ability increases will cause characters to fall behind in combat. Pathfinder can be pretty unforgiving and optimal character building is the secret to getting the most advantage you can in combat. Here are 5 things you may have missed that will help make your character the best character they can be.
1) Ability Score Improvements
When you first build your character you get a bonus to ability scores depending on your race. For example, humans get a +2 racial bonus to one of their stats. This allows you to turnover your class’ most useful skill to a higher modifier. A 16 versus an 18 unlocks a plethora of new potential for your character. This allows you to take advantage of their primary stat.
There are a few other ability score improvements that you can take advantage of as your character levels. This is extra important if your GM is asking you to roll a character higher than the 1st level. At levels 4, 8, 12, 16 and 20 you get to increase one of your character’s ability scores. This can turn a 15 into a 16, which immediately adds to the potential of that stat. Losing out on these ability score improvements will lead to characters falling behind.
2) Everyone Gets Extra Feats
As a non-fighter, it feels a little disappointing when the fighter gets a bunch of extra feats and you’re sitting around with one. Sure, you can cast light and a few other neat cantrips, but the fighter can do a bunch of cool things in combat while you act as a glass cannon that is a bit too much glass and a bit too little cannon. Worry not! A few extra feats are coming your way that a lot of players may forget about.
Starting at the third level and every second level thereafter you get to add a new feat to your character. Missing out on these feats will seriously put your character behind. There are a lot of feats that can further amplify a character to take advantage of their specializations. Don’t forget about these!
3) Favoured Class Bonus
A small little detail that can really add up over time is the Favoured Class Bonuses. These are little bonuses that you can take each level instead of gaining an additional skill rank or hit point. When you build a character you choose their favoured class, then depending on your character’s race they are granted a class bonus as an option whenever you level up.
It may not seem like much when you initially glance at it, but if you level up a character ten times in their favoured class you potentially lose out on that ability ten-fold. Each class has their own different favoured class bonuses, so when you’re looking at building a character check all those out and see if any can influence your game plan.
4) Class Skill Bonuses
This is an aspect of character building that I personally didn’t learn for a long time. I always thought that the class skills your class starts with are just examples of things your character can do. Instead, class skills are something that every character should take advantage of.
When you place at least one rank in any of your class skills you get an automatic +3 bonus to that skill. For example, if diplomacy was a class skill, placing one rank in it automatically makes the bonus +4 for all diplomacy rolls. This is an incredibly strong bonus that helps characters really feel the strengths of their class. It also allows a convenient use of extra ranks to pad out your character.
5) Bonus Spells
As a spellcaster you have a limited number of spells. You gain extra spells each level, but did you know you also can gain extra spells depending on the ability score of your casting stat? There’s a handy table that is hidden within all of the resources of Pathfinder that lists bonus spells available to spellcasters.
An ability score of 16-17 grants one additional spell per day in the level 1, 2 and 3 spell slots. These extra spells allow spellcasters to have more free use of their spells and give them more wiggle room on the battlefield. These numbers get especially strong if the casting stat is in the 20s. Losing out on these spells will put your character in a bad place on the battlefield as you’ll have to weigh out your decisions against the remaining resources you have. The bonus spells make that decision a little less stressful.
Now you’ll be able to look at your character sheet in confidence and know that you dotted all your i’s and crossed all your t’s. Your character is stronger, more diverse, and working at maximum efficiency. This will allow you to spend more time building the roleplaying side of the character, and that’s where the real fun begins.
Is there anything else you’ve recently discovered or always missed about making your character? Let me know in the comments. Pathfinder is a big beast and I’m confident there are still things I’ve yet to learn.
Image belongs to Paizo
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.
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!
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