Boss fights

People often ask me "How do you build a really solid boss fight?" and I've always found that an interesting question. Since this month I'm talking all about campaigns I figured I'd give the breakdown.

First of all there are two vital parts to a boss fight. The Why, and the How. A boss fight without meaning is immediately at a huge disadvantage. Fighting a dragon because you want it's treasure just doesn't have the same weight as avenging your slain allies. Likewise, desperately trying to defeat or get passed a raging werewolf is all the more engaging when it has you locked in, when it's hunting you down. My rule of thumb is that if you consider a fight to be a boss fight, then it's worth some foreshadowing. And that isn't a hard rule to follow.

"Many of these slain soldiers were impaled on crystalline quills, but we've never seen an alien with that sort of weaponry." Boom, now later in that mission when your space marines suddenly see a huge raging alien covered in crystal quills, you know sh*t is on. It builds consistency, it grows your world, it creates mystery, and it gives your players a chance to prepare. If they took the time to analyze what they know and take precautions, they should be rewarded when it comes time for the battle. Which leads me to my second point.

A good climactic encounter, like an ogre, should have layers. When the players get waylaid by phantom fungi or a group of zedheads it's fine to have them rush in take some swings, mess with the best and go down like the rest. A boss fight though needs more setup, more stages, more grandeur. It should always have more than one draw. An ancient vampire prince, or an ancient dragon, or an ancient robot, or a big time super villain never relies on just one trick. Claws, magic, breath weapon, fear aura, tail, bite, crush. Dominate, Majesty, celerity, vigor, shotgun. Rockets, giant foot, machine gun, laser eyes, drone. Omega beams, super strength, agony matrix, minions. You get the idea.

Likewise a good boss is one that doesn't go down in one hit, they have survivability, which means more than just a lot of health. The most common, but also worst way of providing this is to give them Immunities. "You mind control the boss? Sorry it's immune. Drain their soul? Immune. Turn them into a squirrel? Immune". This is painfully common in a lot of games and is deeply discouraging. Instead consider giving your boss' more creative protections. Picture an evil sorcerer who has stolen a magic lamp granting them three wishes. Each time they're defeated they make a wish and the problem is solved. This means that you have to beat them four times to truly win, ideally in four different ways. That same encounter could also be won easier though by stealing the lamp, or muting the sorcerer, by goading them into wasting wishes, all sorts of things. Picture a powerful psychic with a platoon of clone bodies. When one is destroyed they hop into another and another until they run out. The Important thing is that unlike immunity, the players are making tangible progress, they are getting somewhere, and they know if they keep going they can win.  

Many classic boss fights have different stages, many moving parts, many vulnerable spots, this allows you to change up the fight, preventing it from dragging on and on while still making it a lasting and enduring challenge. Of course some games allow this better than others, but look at the systems your game allows and consider how breaking it into sections can be beneficial and can help spice up an encounter.  

So in summary, a good boss fight should have a reason, should have foreshadowing, and should be mechanically interesting with layers and different parts to it. Hopefully this has helped you create some memorable and exciting boss fights

Campain types

It's amazing to me how many times I've spoken to ambitious DM's excited for their games who can't tell me what sort of campaign they're running. They'll tell me what rules they're running, or they'll try to sum up their plot, but they don't seem to have any thought towards the style of campaign. Rather than just complain I figured since it's campaign month I'll go over some of the basic styles of campaign.

Sandbox: The sandbox campaign, one of my personal favourites, is a GM creating a large world, sprinkling plots and characters and adventures across it, and then releasing the players with a vague goal. If you explain the overarching story of your campaign and at any point you don't know what steps the players will follow to accomplish that goal, you have a sandbox. In a sandbox game the focus is on player freedom, exciting locales and plenty of options for success. The benefit of this type of game is that the players are free to do what they like. The bad thing is the players are free to do what they like. It's important to either be able to improvise well, or to thoroughly plan out all the things the players are likely to encounter or investigate so you don't wind up with an empty box.

 Linear campaign: This campaign follows a specific series of adventurers in the hopes of accomplishing a goal. Retrieve the 3 pendants, then get the 7 medallions, then slay the evil wizard. These campaigns sometimes get a bad reputation because they limit player freedom somewhat, but I feel that a nice tight well made campaign can make up for a lot. Because you know exactly what adventures have to get done it's easy to create several very fine, very precisely made encounters. Likewise because you know where the players need to go it's far easier  to make fewer but more detailed locations and characters. These games are great for playing strongly on a single theme or idea or fully exploring one or two conepts.

The Oneshot: This campaign is really just a single 1 session long adventure. A one shot is perhaps the most efficient form of campaign from a pure work to play ratio. You need only to make one adventure one or two locales and then you're done, with the added bonus of being able to re-use 100% of it with a new group of players. With that being said, the drawbacks likewise are fairly self explanatory. It's short, the oneshot doesn't generally build anything, it doesn't form a long lasting story, and it's hard for there to be a real deep character arc.

The XL campaign: What happens when a linear campaign has reached the conclusion but no one is ready to stop? The XL campaign ahoy! Sure the world threatening wizard has been stopped, but it's only gonna be about a week or two before The dragon queen rises from the Abyss! And once she's gone the long dead god NarlothOP'fg will awaken. These campaigns are always beautiful to see. When a GM gets to completely cap off a story and then the players want more, that is a great sign that things went well. These games become a series of linear campaigns stacked ontop of each other, but the spackle and grout is in fact the formation of a sandbox. As the world grows, as powers and threats escalate more and more options and allies become factors. You can't start a game expecting this sort of campaign, but many GM's are happy to see it happen. The advantages of this sort of game is that the setting and lore build and builds as the game goes on. This can mean a lot of book keeping, but it can also be deeply rewarding to see.

 

Campaign model

This Month's theme is : Campaigns, and so all month long Duck and Roll will be talking about campaign styles, how to build a progression of adventures, how to build an open sandbox game, and more. 

We're going to kick things off with a nice little sample campaign structure. We're gonna start off with a pretty basic structure that can work in just about any kind of game. This model focuses strongly on getting the most out of a very small range of foes and it starts with a lot of excitement and builds up continually from there. Because of the tight focus it serves best for short campaigns and works well without having many or even any side adventures. This model also provides a good mix of fear, action, and excitement. It's heavy on stealth but has plenty of room for some combat and problem solving and provides a heavy dark atmosphere. Let's take a look:

 

Adventure 1: The first encounter

The first encounter is a horror themed adventure. The player characters find themselves together in an isolated area. This works best in an enclosed space where options for escape are few. Good approaches to this are: A carnival funhouse, an office building after dark, the dungeon of a castle, a derelict ship, a small colony on a remote island/planet/moon, in a restricted military base, a pocket plane, or a space station. In this location the players are stalked by your villain of choice. This foe should be powerful, persistent, terrifying, and in some way unnatural. Ideal foes are implacable undead, murderous robots, frightening eldritch beings, killer golems, or the like. The foe stalks them through the location of choice, killing npc allies and making its best attempt on the players themselves. The foe should either be immortal, or at least durable beyond the ability of the party members and it should be clear. If the players have guns then it should soak lead, collapse, and then crawl back to its feet and continue pursuit. If the players have knives it should take a stabbing without even bleeding or slowing. Classic examples of this foe are foes like the Terminator, Jason Vorhees, DND Trolls, and Resident Evil's Nemesis or Tyrant. The foe pursues them slowly but unfailingly and finally through the perfect set of circumstances the party is able to slay or escape the foe and live another day.  During the adventure any information about the enemy is very well concealed and very minimal. No one knows what it is or where it came from or what it's after, and what little can be determined is hard to piece together. It's important however that the final result of adventure#3 is in some way foreshadowed here. And make sure you save your map if you made one, we might need it later.

 

Adventure#2: The nightmare returns

This adventure is the least like a traditional adventure in the series because it's quite the opposite of the first one. In this adventure the party from the previous encounter becomes aware of signs that whatever stalked and hunted them is back. Maybe a group of slayings on the news match the monsters M.O, maybe the trail of filth it leaves behind has been seen around, maybe the nightmares that it brings with it start all over. Some way the players know that the thing is back. This can also be done by having a group of npc's approach them, they say they know what the players have been through and now the monster is after them!

From there however the players are able to act accordingly. They can try to get help, but who would believe what they've been through, and more important who could actually be powerful enough to help them? The intention here is to build a sense of fear and helplessness. The monster is out there, it's taking lives and only a few people have ever seen it and survived. The players may use this opportunity to reach out to eachother but even if they don't they'll still be in a great position for the climax of the adventure. Once the fear and paranoia has been cranked up it's time for the monster to emerge, but this time it's different somehow. It fights different, or looks different, or it's wounds and scars are gone, it's still closer to the foe they faced than anything else, but something is wrong. It may seem like it's evolved, or devolved, but as the players engage, flee, or hide from the threat they get "the message". A cell phone call from someone who contacted the players, a desperate message spell, a psychic scream, a cry for help in the night, the distant howl of... a second monster. This threat, this foe is not the one they faced before, the invincible unstoppable threat they barely survived, there's more than one. The party escapes, maybe fleeing, maybe somehow slaying both monsters. But they find neither is the one they faced before. These things are out there, and now there can be no doubt, answers must be found before it's too late...if it isn't already.

 

Adventure#3 The delve.

After pressing their contacts, consulting the stars, or a lengthy investigation the players become aware of a location that may hold the secrets they're after. An abandoned lab, a distant planet, a forgotten portal, a long closed amusement park, some desolate location holds the secret of the monsters. This may sound a lot like adventre#1, and it should, in fact if it's at all possible this adventure is best set in the ruins or remains of wherever adventure 1 happened, making your map twice as useful. This time however the players know that one or more of the monsters is out there, and they may even be coming from the very bowels of this location. This time escape is not enough, they need answers. This is where all the clues dropped in part 1 can come around and become important messages, the final pieces, or at least more pieces, fall into place and the players understand the full scale of the problem. While evading capture and whatever natural hazards fill the area the party learns that this is just the beginning, that the country, kingdom, world or galaxy could be threatened by this epidemic. What they face now are just the first things awakened from cryosleep, prototype robots, the weaker brood. The players also find the origins of these things and more importantly, how to stop them. They have a weakness, not just for defeating the creatures individually, but for stopping all of them. An EMP, a computer virus, an airborne toxin, a single specially made ritual, some Achilles heel. But in order to make use of it, the party must venture to the very heart of the enemy itself.

 

Adventure#4 The final adventure.

The party must now infiltrate the root of the enemy. Now powerful foes, nearly unstoppable threats, are in a multitude and hope wears thin. Now the players can put all the skills and allies they've gained to the test in the climax of the campaign. The nature of the enemy means an all out assault is insane in the best of times so the key for this adventure is stealth. This helps play on the same ideas and themes as the first adventure, but now, thematically, the players are on the offensive, stalking, sneaking, hiding and surviving. This is also a good place to include a few very easy combat encounters, a chance for the players to show off how strong they've become. The element of danger and excitement in these battles though is that the foes don't have to win, they only have to raise an alarm in order for the fight to go very badly for the players. These smaller encounters should be with scientists, failed experiments, security drones or the like to ensure that the big monster of the campaign doesn't get devalued. Finally the players reach the end goal, the final switch. Customarily there should be a nice big boss fight here. If the power creep has been minimal then it could be the first monster from the first adventure, provided it was defeated in a way that leaves a chance for its return. Alternatively it could be an aberrant mutant, a superior next generation model, or the original being that was cloned to make the others. Ideally this monster should be powerful, relentless, and unbeatable, but all the party has to do is keep it busy long enough to execute the program or flip the switch and turn the key or complete the ritual in the right place and then, sweet sweet victory will be had. The threat is finally over, the monsters are banished or de-activated or slain, and the players have earned a long rest.

 

 

Variation: This arc is flexible enough to leave a lot of room for variation. You can use robots, plant people, demons, evil clone demigods, animatronic fursuits, aliens, all kinds of stuff fit this model quite nicely. One could also lighten the tone considerably by casting everything in the light of a B movie. The police are useless to help and don't believe anything, the monster has improbable and sometimes wildly changing powers, the deaths are over the top and gory, and despite mortal danger NPC's are inexplicably prone to making out alone in the bushes.

 

Works well with:

Paranoia: Someone or something was behind all of this. This kind of technology isn't cheap. Somewhere pulling the strings is a huge bureaucratic entity. It could be an evil corporation, or a secret branch of the government, but somewhere there were people of power who put their seal of approval on these nightmares.

Eldritch horror: These things simply should not be. Perhaps they are monsters from another reality, perhaps they are created and fed by fear itself, perhaps they came here from beyond the stars. Even if they're defeated the players will forever be haunted by what they've seen, and by the knowledge that things like that exist.

 

After the ending:

The nightmare continues: The robots are all shut down, except that one who the players shocked so bad it's uplink was severed. A single mutated variant of the creatures survived. The progenitor of the species didn't die in the final battle and went into hiding. Somehow, someway the creature that always comes back...came back! This can lead to either a final adventure where the players must finally face off against the last remaining monster in a no holds barred battle to the death. Or it could also be used to have that creature propagate, reproduce, and begin a whole new arc.

Enter phase two: The project was a failure, but valuable information was gained, and while costly, the wheels of industry keep on turning. A new monster can be cloned, or bred, or captured, one immune to the weaknesses of the predecessor.

The heroes of the past: Once you've battle against terrifying monsters and save the country/world/galaxy regular challenges feel dull and muted. From here we follow the players after their great adventure. The GM should throw a simple, boring, easy challenge, emphasizing how much the players have grown, what they're capable of, and how much more they could accomplish. From there a new opportunity arises. A monster that needs defeating, a special ops team, the call of the king or president, someone needs the heroes to regroup and face a new challenge.

 

 

Time Dilation

When one deals with time, there are a lot of opportunities, a lot of ideas, and a lot of questions. Fear not, Duck and Roll is here to walk you through a few of everyone's favourite classic time shenanigans. This article takes a look at: Time Dilation.

 

For those not familiar with the term this is also known as fast time, compressed time, time inequality, asymmetrical chronology, or hyperbolic time. It essentially means a situation in which time flows at a different rate for some but not all people. This means that there's some sort of time ratio like "One day out here is a year in there" or "Every second is six seconds within the circle" or something to that effect. Time Dilation can also occur when something like say a spaceship moves at speeds that approach the speed of light. The faster you move, the less time passes for you relative to things moving slower. Someone moving at just under light speed may find that almost no time passes for them, while everything else seems to age and decay and evolve with incredible speed. Usually that sort of speed based time dilation belongs in sci-fi and does not have a set ratio, since naturally your vessel or whatnot may change speeds during a trip.

Time dilation is an excellent plot device that can be used in many ways. Firstly It can be used to allow something normally impossibly long in scale to happen over the course of a campaign or session. This could be for example to allow the players to have an adventure where they interact with a primitive species, and then return later in the campaign to see how they have developed into a medieval, modern or futuristic society, or even to return many times. Each altering the course of history and shaping how their people develop and change. It could be a case where a player wishes to construct a magical item, a vast machine, or even a fortress or ship, but still be able to both begin and finish construction in time for the finished product to impact the campaign. Another example would be a place where heroes could slip in and train or adventure and grow stronger and more skilled over days or years and then emerge back into the world far stronger in a short period of time.

Another use of time dilation would be to allow an entire adventure to take place in a single moment. Imagine the party uploads their minds into a computer to defeat a security system, and meanwhile in the real world their ally is walking down the hall, talking to a guard and having them look in their system. The players must complete their entire cyber adventure in compressed time in order to ensure the relevant data is in the system when the guard checks. One could even stack these compressed times on top of each other under the right situation ala Inception.

Time dilation can also serve to highlight a sense of surreal or absurd helplessness. The passage of time is inexorable, but we rarely feel it crush down on us all at once. But imagine the party stepping through a gateway to another place with a different passage of time. Before the last team mate steps through the entrance to the other time stream they bid their child and loved one a fond, final farewell. They know that they will die of old age in what seems like minutes to those they care about, but this is the only way to save all of reality. A long hug, some final words and sweet kiss and they step through. When they emerge they find their allies have already made a settlement, built their forces, armed themselves, and decided they could wait no longer, throwing themselves against the forces of the ultimate evil and already been defeated. Now only the last one through the gate remains to do what all the other's could not. Imagine those few seconds our last hero has to consider stepping back through the rift before it's forever too late.

Picture  a sci-fi tragedy. A lone hero ventures to a far world to find a cure for their cryogenically frozen love. The hero pushes nearer and nearer the speed of light to reach a distant planet where the medical herb needed is found. By the time our hero has returned they find that the disease has already been cured through science, and the love has already remarried and long ago died of old age, leaving our hero, just days ago an eager excited starstruck lover with a top of the line ship, now alone, with an ancient vessel, out of touch with the entire world.

There are a thousand great ways to play with the passage of time as long as one pays careful attention and gives it proper consideration. This is an extremely powerful narrative element, and any GM should take care with it. Major battles will be very different In a fantasy game where a party can withdraw, teleport away, and then within minutes have a year's worth of preparation. And likewise, in a modern game is someone finds that they can spend a week in their wardrobe and only a day passes you can imagine the vast potential profit they could reap, and the monetary and tactical value of such a wondrous closet. 

Naming time

 

We've talked now about the counting of years, and we've talked about the calendar for your campaign, but we need one more detail in order to bring it all together. You know how many months you need, and how many years have passed in the eras of your world, but they still need to be brought to life, they still need names.

As a minimum you'll probably want a name for the week days and months and some sort of naming convention for different eras in your setting. This will allow you to present time in a familiar format and convey some basic information in a quick sentence. There are many great ways to name these increments of time, but I'll present a few of my favourites here to give some ideas as a starting point:

 

Rulers: If your campaign focuses largely on an area which has a long history of unified rulers or monarchs than each month could be named after a distinct ruler. From there one could name each day of the week after an aspect of the kingdom that the monarch manages. For example: Mercantile day or Merchday, Taxday, Warsday,  Thanesday, Fieldsday, Statesday, and Spiritsday. And you could break your eras into two distinct chunks such as BDM (Before the Dawn of Man.) and AMD (After Man's Dawn). Of course you could mix this formula up easily by making each monarch's reign its own group of years and then name each month for a different famous duke, prince or princess

 

Farmers calendar: Common folk worry about common things, and they may well track common things as a method for keeping time. One might see a kingdom or even large stretches of environmentally similar areas using a calendar that tracks common farm life. In this system the months might be broken down based on how warm or cold it is, or the types of crops grown during those months. One would see "Month of the snow yam." or "Whetmonth" or "Month of corn". And the days of the week could be broken into Important tasks. Milkday, Tillday, Weed day, Plowsday, Fenceday, Watersday, and Restday. Of course these days would not be hard and fast rules, a chicken farmer obviously has work to do on Milkday, and one doesn't need to till their field every week. The idea is the naming serves as a general reflection of the tasks in a farmer's life. Although having whole communities out doing similar work all at the same time does lead to some interesting options. The eras of such a timekeeping system aren't likely to matter much to the common folk as few have much stake in any group of years besides the ones they live in.

 

Magic Calendar: It's not too hard to imagine spellcasters being in charge of making a lot of the most important choices in a region, kingdom, or world. After all, they are typically the smartest, wisest, and most persuasive of people. If spellcasters decided to egotistically name the passages of time after themselves we might see this calendar used. Months could each be named after a type of spellcaster. The Month of the oracle, the Month of the Priest, the Month of the Magus and so on. Whereas a week might be broken into eight days: Abjurday, Conjurday, Divinday, Evoday, Enchanday, Illuday, Necroday, and Transday. Of course a more puritanical calendar might exclude Necroday for an even six weeks.  To take this a step farther one could include in their setting that on each day the schools spells become stronger getting +1 to effective caster level or other bonuses. In a calendar like this the Eras may be tracked with the discovery of new arcane methods. "In the era of truespeech" or "In the time of the occult" or "During the reign of Psions" or such things as that.  

 

Divine Calendar: It should be little surprise to anyone that even in worlds with a myriad of religions, faith has a huge impact on history and society. In a world in which gods are provably, demonstrably real it is likely to draw even more from its gods. A divine Calendar takes its names from the Gods and demigods of the setting. Months like "Pelortober" Or "Nerulvember" or "Nurgle Month" or "Baneuary" may fill your setting. Or maybe you can pick names that don't sound terrible. Your weekdays could then be named after famous demigods, or even perhaps specific religeous rituals. "Monastary day." followed by "Tunesday" and then "Worship day" and "Theurge day" and "Fasting day". The eras in a setting can be tied to significant religious events, such as "635WGW" (When gods walked), or 235 GF (God fell), or other events tied to your mythology or cosmology.

 

Numerical calendar: Wouldn't it be nice is everything just made sense? The Months of your year could be so perfect. Evenly numbered months telling you exactly which number it is. "Primus." "Deus" "Trinitary" "Quatober." "Quince" "Sextus" "September" "October." "November." "December".   In this system one might not even bother with naming days of the week, they aren't strictly necessary after all. Alternatively you could have a binary of "Workday, workday workday, holiday" Every four days a new cycle. And the Eras may simply be increments of 1,000 or 10,000 years, or you may not have any at all, simply using an ever increasing number of years instead.

 

Realistic calendar: Just take a mouthful of the different ideas above and spit them up on paper, edit absolutely nothing and BAM, you have a realistic and likely calendar. Unfortunately people don't always agree on things, and often times kingdoms are conquered and absorbed and some ideas pass on and some aren't. One look at the Gregorian calendar will tell you that history doesn't always make sense. Name one month after a god, name a weekday after some king's favourite horse, have an era that was a 2 year long gap in which all the recorded history was just forgotten or burned, just take several good ideas and bash them together with a crowbar into a hot mess.

 

One more thing to take note of. My recommendation when it comes to months and weekdays, and I'm certainly not the first to suggest this, is to try to keep the names somewhat familiar. Many of the above examples may have had you intuit which days of the week are analogous with our own week, and this is very intentional. Even though knowing "Today is Tillday, which is just like Tuesday" isn't inherently crucial, being able to say "My magic item won't be finished until Fieldsday" without having to stop and check and ask the DM about the calendar, can go a huge way to showing the detail and immersion a player can enjoy by having a relatable weekly cycle.   

Hopefully this all has helped you out in determining the months and weekdays and eras of the calendar in your game, and inspired you to create a novel, exciting, or at least functional, calendar of your own campaign so you always know what day tomorrow is. 

Counting years

This whole month is time month in celebration of the new year, so it's about time we actually talked about years. At the time of writing this it's the year 2017 A.D. So let's talk about that.

We talked about what a year is in a previous article but what we haven't touched on is the counting of years. 2,017 years ago, by the Gregorian Calendar was the year...1 B.C. There is no year 0. Of course the whole B.C and A.D thing didn't really come about until around 500 A.D, and wasn't popularized for more than 300 years from there. BC and AD have strong religious context, and so many people use the term CE for common era, as a religion neutral way of denoting the year. Others just leave theletters off entirely since context usually helps us differentiate between yesterday and a day over four thousand years ago without needing notation. But when it comes to what year it is in your campaign setting you should consider the 5 W's:

When is it?

This seems an easy question, you really just need a number and maybe a notation. It could be the year 500 FFF, or the year 4500, or the year 7 R.Q.N . Pick something that feels and sounds right for your game, and then get ready to explain it.

What does it mean?

Now we unpack things a bit more. If your calendar says it's year 500 FFF then it adds a lot of context to when you denote that "FFF" stands for "From first fire" which marks the first time humanity used fire as a tool. If it's just the year 4,500 that might mean it's been four and a half thousand years since someone started keeping track. But Year 7 R.Q.N might be the seventh year in the "Reign of Queen Nander" and perhaps new notations are included for every new reigning king or queen.

Why use this?

What makes this method of tracking the years any better or worse than any other? Or more realistically, which big shot decided to use this method above the superior ones? Some are rather self explanatory, and usually revolve around some big major event. Other methods are adopted when two or more very distinct cultures join together and they have to find some common ground to start counting from. Or in some cases a single, relatively small nation has their method of tracking years gradually mimicked by all other societies to facilitate trade and communication.

How is this tracked?

Imagine a society where every year in the Dwarven capital a 5 ft slab of stone is set atop a neat pile making a slowly growing column. Perhaps each new Era is marked by when that stone tower falls over. Some epochs, like those where an earthquake or other cataclysm occurs, are short and distinct because the stone tower is knocked over prematurely, while times of peace may be many many times longer in scale.  Other methods are simpler, like measuring the reign of a monarch or particular council of elders. 

Who uses this?

The alien entities visiting a post apocalyptic world are probably not going to consider it the year 86 S.B.D (Since Bombs Dropped), they'll probably have their own way of counting time. Likewise the Dark Elves probably don't care what or who Queen Nander is, and an ancient sorcerer from another reality might have been counting years since the dawn of time. So be sure to have a few backup methods of counting years for these other civilizations.

Hopefully this was helpful in thinking through the years in your setting, and if you need help naming those years and epochs than keep an eye out for an upcoming article about naming pieces of time!

Small time

Time is a tricky thing. It can slip through our fingers like sand, or it can sit immovable as stone, as humans we have trouble measuring time objectively, and so through ought history we have found many ways to measure such time. How a civilization measures time can be as telling and interesting about them as any religion or weapon.

As with our previous article let's start by clarifying why we break time down the way we do.

Sixty seconds in a minute, sixty Minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day (12 of day and 12 of night). It's a clean simple system, but why is it our system? It's widely believed to come from  ancient Egyptians, who used a base 12 method of counting by tracking the joints on each finger. I am not however by any means a historian. But the key point is that the foundation of our measurement if time is relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things. That being said, the vast vast majority of roleplaying games carefully divvy up their turns and actions and effect durations by measuring these times, so changing them must be done with an awareness of how it influenbces the rules. So let's start by looking at how they can be tracked, and what those methods say about your world.

Real world time methods:


Water clock: A water clock is a deceptively simple device and there are many concepts and designs. The most basic of which is a simple bowl with a tiny hole in the bottom set in a larger bowl. One form has the water in the lower bowl and the tiny hole slowly steadily allows the top bowl to fill up and once it sinks to the bottom a full hour has passed. Another variation has the water drip from the top bowl into a lower bowl until the top one is empty. Obviously these are not the most accurate methods of time measurement, and in order to keep track of a full day there must be at least two people trading shifts perpetually watching the clock and marking the hours.

Incense clock:  An incense clock is a brilliant invention that uses the burning of incense to measure the passage of time. This can be done several ways. Some methods attach weights to a stick of incense and when they burn the weights fall and strike gongs or bells. Other variations can measure the reduced weight of the incense holder as it's bounty burns causing the holder to raise along a measured line. Another potential variant could capture the smoke and the increased weight of a smoke filled chamber to active devices. The advantage of these clocks is that they only require maintenance when they are done measuring, they smell fantastic and can alert many people with the ringing of it's going, and depending on the calibration they can measure minutes hours or even days.

Candle clock: The candle clock is another simple concept, it is essentially a candle which burns at a steady measurable rate. The rate of burning is used to mark the passage of time usually by measuring the height of the candle but there are many variations. One method features holes in the base of the candle which allow wax to slowly drain out and this trigger a weighted mechanism which will lift the candle to different heights, and a fantasy extravagant method could even use this movement to light the next candle in a long sequence. Another great example is mixing certain metals or powders into the wick, causing the fire to either pop with considerable noise, signaling chimes of the hour, possible even multiple pops for different times, or it could cause the candle to burn with different colours for different times.  These types of clocks must be carefully crafted to ensure the candles are always the same consistency and size, and once they have finished burning they must of course be cleaned and replaced.

Sundial: The sundial is a classic time telling method that uses the rotation of the earth around the sun to cast a shadow around a circular marker that denotes the hours. While there is a great deal of science involved in how the sundial works they have been used since ancient times, outdating many of the clocks on this list. The advantage of a sundial is of course that if it is properly calibrated it remains accurate for an incredibly long period of time. The downside of course is that it doesn't function without the sun. And of course, if your setting has different days or years or a non 1 number of suns the sundial might not be very useful.

Hourglass: The hourglass is a beautiful and ornate method of timekeeping. Great blown glass bubbles filled with sand mounted usually on a wooden frame. The sand takes a specific amount of time to pass from one bubble to the next and then the glass is inverted to start all over again. To keep time for a large area you would simply have someone watch the device and then bang on a gong to alert a those nearby. The downsides to this device is that it does need to be reset and flipped back over regularly and that the art of precision glassblowing is a difficult one, making these devices hard to mass produce.

Mechanical clock: Of course the mechanical clock is also possible in many fantasy settings where clockwork golems and machines can wander the earth or slumber awaiting a target. Clocks are reliable, generally portable, can include mechanisms to set of bells or tones and need little maintenance. The downside is of course how intricate and complicated they are, which general leads to them being quite expensive.

 

Other time keeping methods:  

Log: The time it takes a log of wood to burn. This is very roughly used as a replacement to an hour. “You sleep for 4 logs, then I sleep for 4 logs”

Wander: The time it takes a child to grow bored with an activity and wander off. A very informal measurement of time but usually is about a half hour to an hour. “I saw the ogre I did, wasn’t more than a wander ago”

Stick: The time it takes a twig or branch or stick to burn, usually equates to around a minute but of course far less accurate.

Arcane measurement: This one might get a little bit meta but one could also measure the passage of time by the duration of spells. Many spells have very specific durations, and cantrips are cast able any number of times. someone measuring a minute need only cast a dancing lights spell for a noticeable coloured glow that will fade after 1 minute. Likewise an object created by prestidigitation will last 1 hour before vanishing.

Lifespan: In a fantasy setting with all sorts of amazing creatures it would not be hard to imagine a creature with a very specific lifespan. Imagine a beetle that, barring unnatural circumstance, would live exactly an hour before dying and becoming a larvae with an hour long lifecycle before becoming a chrysalis for an hour and then sprouting into a beetle again.  Such creatures would be kept and bred in order to tell time more effectively, doubly so if all of them in the world somehow operated on the exact same cycle, perpetually in the same state as each other.

Phenomenon: Perhaps your world has a reliable natural phenomenon. Perhaps the sky changes colours dramatically and noticeably at certain intervals. Maybe the tides of a nearby ocean are so even and perfect that one could set their watch by them, or you could have geysers or tremors equally reliable.

No time: It's also considerable that there may be no way to reliably tell time. In a place like D&D's abyss, or in a real or roiling chaos, or a primordial proto-dimension there may be nothing consistent and reliable enough to tell time by. Creatures living in such a place may be dramatically warped and different and may not be able to easily grasp the concept of time even if it were explained to them.

Other: Your setting may also lend itself well to any number of other unusual or fascinating time keeping methods, and I strongly encourage you to consider carefully the timekeeping methods unique to your world.

 

 

 

Campaign Calendar

This month’s theme is: Time. At the start of a new year many of us are looking back at the year behind us, and forward to the future ahead of us. But what is a new year? Why do we have the months we do, and more importantly for your game, is this the only way?

This article is going to deal with the measurement of time in the grander scale, dealing with days, weeks, months, and years and the formation of your worlds calendar. Many games can run just fine, never having considered the idea of years and months, but when a player asks, what the date is, the GM better have an answer. An unprepared GM may be missing a very important piece of their setting, not to mention missing a chance for some great world building.

So let’s start by looking at days, weeks, and months. We’ll have other articles looking at the smaller passage of time, another looking at the measurement of years relative to major events, and one about naming your units of time. So first I’m going to explain what a Year, Month, Week and day actually are, and that might be a bit unnecessary but it’s important for what follows after, which will be some interesting alternatives.

 

Firstly let’s consider how long a year is in your setting. Normally, a year is simply how long it takes the planet to revolve around the sun. That on it’s own is simple enough to grasp and easy enough to change or modify, assuming you have a solar system with just one sun and a relatively even orbit. Of course even this most basic idea can be changed. Perhaps your world doesn’t rotate around a sun, or perhaps it rotates around or between two or more.

Next let’s take a look at a month. A month is generally agreed upon to be marked by a full cycle of the phases of the moon, with a few variations on how that’s measured precisely. But in effect it’s just hat, measurements of lunar cycles. So any game in which you have a different solar system from ours, even down to just one or two extra or fewer celestial bodies could have different months, or even no months at all.

A month is usually broken down into weeks. But the real problem here is that a week doesn’t really mean or measure anything physical about the world. Historically many cultures have used weeks, and most often they are seven days, usually due to religious context, but some have had weeks as short as 4 days or as long as 10 or more. So consider carefully what a week means in your setting, if anything at all.

A day is of course easy enough to define, it’s a single rotation of the planet. The world goes from dark, to bright, to dark again, usually anyways. Many tabletop games have effects dependant on days, and they happen often enough that changing the length of a day could impact most games at least a bit. In a setting where the planet does not rotate, or where it’s rotation doesn’t have a clear way to measure, such as having multiple suns, or civilization growing and evolving on a pole, your world might not even have traditional days at all.

With that out of the way lets look at some interesting variations:

 

The Perfect Year:

Perhaps your world, your universe, is a little more flawless, a little simpler, a little easier and more predictable. A setting with this option has a perfectly even number of days, instead of our 365.256 days perhaps your setting has 400, or 1,000. And from there each step down is precisely measurable.

A 400-day year breaks down evenly into 10 months of 40 days each, which might reflect an equally reliable and obedient moon, or a month may simply be a measurement of 1/10th of a year. And each month might be 4 weeks of 10 days, or even 10 weeks of 4 days, and then it would be easy to tie each day of the week to some significant event in a particular culture, or tie them to some other celestial phenomena. Your days could be of any length, though 24 hours still works well, being neatly and easily Divisible, and keeping it the same would mean not having to alter any in game abilities reliant on a day.

A 1,000-day year could be precisely 10 months of 100 days, each month being 10 weeks, each week being 10 days long, and even making each day just 10 hours. This balances out to a year being equivalent to about 416.6 of our days in length, but far more neatly organized.

 

Primitive time:

Not everyone has brilliant scientists mathematicians and astronomers measuring and divvying up our days. Consider this time telling approach for less civilized or enlightened races.  Many societies have to rely on measuring time through events they can see and understand without study.

A life: The time it takes someone to grow old and die of age. Usually used in measuring buildings or history. “We have lived in this cave for 6 life and we will live here 6 more”.

Season: Any species can figure out that it’ been cold for a long time now but then it gets warmer again. This can of course vary wildly based on the climate

Moon: A fantasy classic, measuring a month by the phases of the moon is very true to life and again something even primitive races can manage.

Day: Days are pretty easy to keep track of really. Well for most people anyways.

 

The world Calendar:

Even in a world like ours it’s possible for a single united group to decide on the equitable and fair passage of time, and for that idea to spread all across the world. This real calendar takes our own irregular year and makes it much more even across all months.

Every year is divided into 12 months he same as normal. However each quarter of the year begins on a Sunday and ends on a Saturday and features 31 days in the first month, 30 days on the second month, and 30 days on the third month. On the day following the 31st of December there is a “World day” which counts outside of regular days and is intended as a world holiday. And on leap years there is a second world holiday at the end of the second quarter. Information on a world calendar is readily available online and it is a neat and efficient way of maintaining order and rhythm without changing the length of any time periods in your setting while still reflecting a world with a little more organisation.

 

The Fantasy Year:

Some worlds don’t work like ours. Some worlds are great flat disks, others rest on the back of a tortoise, some are the fruit on a great tree or rest in the eye of a giant. In a fantasy setting you don’t have to obey the laws of physics any more than you want to, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to think about the implications of your choices.

A year in such a setting is pretty much a free for all, and it can have whatever rules you decide, BUT you need to always be sure about those rules. If your world grows on a vine tended by the gods then you need to decide if people can climb up that vine and into heaven. If your planet is the pearl inside a great oyster you need to decide if daylight is regular, the shell opening at the same time every day, or if it changes at the whim of this massive entity. Can it be targeted by magic? Does one half the world rest in a sea of slime and soft tissue? Does the hemisphere facing the back of the clam never get sunlight? Not having answers to these questions can make your ideas fall flat, but having them, and even better, building them into your world makes it vivid and memorable. A sect of “Vinecarvers” who want to cut the world from the gods’ tree makes for an amazing cult that only you can have in your setting. And few players would forget a journey into a vast network of bloody caves dug into the great clam where they mine for Orishellum, the opalescent shell of their god.

Days and weeks and years can be whatever you want, but you need to consider how the other details influence your world, when you make a rule you need it to be consistent. If you say “The vinecarves began their attacks two years ago” And your player asks “What is a year?” You need to be able to explain how long it is and why. Because if your planet is tied to a god vine, then it probably isn’t rotating around the sun, and it likely isn’t perpetually rotating in the same direction.

The important thing to remember is that It doesn’t have to be possible, but it does have to make sense within its own narrative. The players and npc’s alike have to be able to live and adapt to the way the world works. That means they have to be able to understand it naturally since for the characters involved, life has always been that way.

 

The Alternate dimensional year:

 Almost everything about our calendar is based on the shape of our world, but some settings aren’t even worlds as we know them. Some settings aren’t planets, or even finite at all. Some places are mere existence, matter existing beyond the confines on a globe.

The most important thing to consider is the basic properties of your setting. A game set in the elemental plane of earth from D&D will likely have very different needs and time measurements from a Superhero game set in a magical astral plane.

The moment you aren’t on a planet anymore everything about telling time the traditional way vanishes. Years, Months, Weeks, Days, none of the things they measure may even exist in a different dimension. To figure out how cultures developing in such a place tell time we must look to observable phenomenon. Again we’re focus on big stuff for now, but a future article will cover small scale.

Fundamental to measuring time is rhythm. Is there any widely observable phenomenon that functions on a set rhythm? It could be a thousand geysers that always erupt in unison, it could be the steady breathing of the titan that the dimension sits inside, it could be regular earthquakes, rising tides of oceans of lava, or it could be a beetle that has an incredibly precise life cycle if tended a certain way.

Whatever it is that forms this rhythm, that is your new metric for measuring time. Of course it’s fine to contextualize this by comparing it to modern time by saying something like “Every 30 hours the astral whales sing their song, and this marks a new day.” But of course in setting they may not have hours or days, they might have “New song” for a day. Or they may have “Song” as a measurement of time equal to how long their symphony lasts. From there one can expand. Perhaps a “Movement” is about equivalent to a minute, and a “Tensong” is a term equal to their week. The core idea is to find something reliable and build form it, and the more people can observe this rhythm unaided the more universal it will become.

 

The realistic year:

This is a very messy but fun and accurate approach. Consider that in our own world there are more than 80 different calendars that have been used through history. In a fantasy or sci-fi setting with other races, or even worse multiple planets, there are bound to be differences and divergences. Every culture could have a different way of measuring days, months, weeks and even years, including many of the options presented here. Most realistically your setting might have many different calendars and years and months that make converting between one time to the other very difficult. This option opens up fascinating new plot hooks and stories and riddles involving the differences between years and months in different cultures. Perhaps an Elven year is 10 years long, and so their given ages are closer to humans. Perhaps a gnomish accountant clears their records every year, but a gnome year is just three months and the loss of vital records could be a disaster.

 

Hopefully all of this has been helpful and given you some ideas about how to handle time in your campaign setting. The next time your players ask for the date, you can drop some sick campaign lore on them instead of blanking. 

Item Crossover

Human beings are defined by their tools. Almost every hero and villain, from ancient mythology, to modern movies, makes use of tools, weapons, and equipment. As a function of this, a vast assortment of roleplaying games feature items and equipment, and it's only natural for some items to be more interesting than others. That's why I am a firm believer of what I call "Magic item crossover." Which is essentially taking the  best items from one game, and putting them in another.

All you do is find the most exciting, thought provoking, or just plain awesome items from one game, and then adapt and modify them for the  game you're currently running. I've had a Mutants and Masterminds game where a gunned up Space marine parody wielded a Warhammer 40K bolter. I've implanted "The Turk" One of my favourite world of Darkness relics into a pathfinder game, and I've written up a special device in Shadowrun that functions similarly to a DND rod of wonder. All with great success. The key is to recognize what about the item or device in question you love so much, and then change the item to suit your game without losing that quality. For example, something simple like a belt of Ogre strength would be far more interesting in a world of Darkness game, where strength is less important and yet also far more rare, than it is in a regular DND game. But, it's not matching the tone of the game to just have a magic item that gives you benefit without a drawback, and here you get to add a second interesting element to your game by making careful changes. For example what if the belt forces you to use all your might, making you incapable of careful manoeuvres, lowering your dexterity. Or what if it really borrows the strength of an ogre, but also draws their true fey master to you!

As long as you focus on taking the item, and making it as interesting as possible, while fitting it seamlessly into your world, you can't really go wrong. Many of the most interesting items and ideas come from sources you wouldn't expect, and I've always found that one of the great benefits of having and playing many different games, is to give you access to many different ideas, don't be afraid to use those ideas, no matter what game you're playing!

Mythology of the Roleplaying Hero

When people think about heroes for their role-playing games they picture Conan, Joan of Arc, Gandalf, Hua Mulan, Jack Sparrow, Calamity Jane, Han solo, Artemis, Heracles, Red Sonja and countless other heroes of fiction and history.  Their stories and legends are as famous as their media forms are diverse. But do they tell the tale of the Pathfinder hero? Or instead have we our very own growing mythology?

The role-playing hero is a very different breed from most of our legendary heroes, and the way their stories are told likewise are very different. To start, many of the heroes above are known for a few great adventures. They have a long quest with many encounters along the way and then their tale is done.  Whether that adventure is an incredibly long or unexpected journey, a series of twelve labours, or a long war to win their tales are most often self contained. They complete their quest and then more often then not they are done. A role-playing game hero looks at twelve great labours and by the time they're finished they've gained one or maybe two levels,  and then they're ready to go off again on another quest. They might save the world two, three or maybe ten times over. The sheer volume of battles they fight becomes so massive that instead of each one being highlighted and touted as a grand achievement, many don't even warrant listing.

Next, the scope of characters involved in other myths and legends is dwarfed by what an rpg hero deals with. Five or six or maybe even a dozen new faces with every town they venture to, party members joining and falling, foes defeated, the sheer number of characters that they encounter is vast indeed. A hero is likely to make so many friends that they can't keep track of them all until they resurface months or years later with a new problem for them to solve.

And then there's of course, items. While it's true that many of the above heroes can be noted as having some sort of special item. A staff, an Atlantean sword, a particular style of gun or golden fleece they are very decidedly not reliant on these items. A RPG hero is almost always laden down with a dozen powerful tools bolstering every conceivable aspect of themselves and ready to circumvent any situation. This is simply the way things are and there's definitely nothing wrong with it, but it certainly casts a very different light on the way these tales are told and remembered.

And obviously one can't forget the dynamic that is the party. Our heroes are not solo warriors on a rampage, they aren't individual legends who go it alone against impossible odds, they are a party. A team that works together, each one adding something different and unique to their efforts.  The glory of victory is shared, the legend is told of many and not just one, and ideally everyone should be given even spotlight over the length of the epic tale.

And lastly our stories are not just about powerful heroes, but about the growth of heroes. One of the most key elements of an RPG is the feeling of progression, of growth and strength. Of going from bandits to monsters to dragons to demons to gods. To look back on the past and marvel at how far you have come, and this is fundamentally tied to the items we gain, the number of battles we fight, and the contribution we make to our team. All of these ideas mix together forming a mythology very different from the heroes we idolize and look at as our inspiration.

So if our adventurers aren't like these legends then where do we look for inspiration and ideas that match our medium?  Let us summarize what we have? Heroes, a team of them, with phenomenal powers, skills and collections of items and gadgets, who run through endless series of adventurers with changing and growing rosters stretching back for years and years while they grow stronger together.  It sounds to me, an awful lot like superheroes. Teams like the Xmen, Justice league, Young Blood, Teen Titans and the Avengers could easily be filled out with the assortment of classes and prestige classes available in most fantasy RPG's. Items like the green lanterns ring, Batman's countless gadgets, even iron man's suit and the divine equipment worn and wielded by Thor are easily swapped out for magic items. Even the concept of death, so very final in nearly all other mythologies, can fall by the wayside in both Pathfinder and Superheroes. So when you're looking for inspiration for your next character, or campaign, consider looking at a more modern, but no less fitting source. Examine how the super hero mythology is built, how their adventures and teams are formed and fit together, and the stories and threats they face. You may find that we share a lot more with them than you think. 

Homebrew Review: Genius the Transgression

Duck and Roll games is kicking of item month in a big way, but if you thought the fun was going to be limited to pathfinder, you were dead wrong. Presenting a most unusual Homebrew review: Genius the Transgression.  Genius was written by the phenomenally talented Kyle Marquis, author of Empyrean.

Most often Duck and Roll reviews 3.5 and Pathfinder homebrews, but Genius is a World of Darkness creation, and an amazing one at that. Genius is designed to let you add your favourite mad scientists into world of Darkness, from Bond villains, to Dr.Frankensteins, to Lex Luthers and Dr.Dooms and far more.

First and foremost Genius is an entire finished world of Darkness Add on. It has everything that any of the official core books, and in many respects more than some of the others. It lets you play as a Genius, gives you Genius society, Genius threats and enemies, Genius history, the genius cosmology, genius abilities, Genius factions, Genius inspirations, and even those lovely fluffy story bits that other World of Darkness books have. With a bit more editing, and a little bit more unnecessary art and design touch ups this book wouldn't only be indistinguishable from real core WOD, but it might actually be better in many ways. This review is going to cover the major pieces, but there is so much more than everything below.

Anyone who has ever cracked a World of Darkness book, of any edition, can tell you that the focus is on esthetic design, and invoking the feeling of the books contents. Everything else, balanced mechanics, thorough explanations, easy to read text, any form of organisation, comes far beyond drawing you into the feeling and the lore and the immersive story driven depths that the system is known for. In an all too fitting change of pace, Genius is written to be functional and effective and shows an almost comical disdain for frivolous graphic design. That's not to say it has no flavour mind you, the mechanics do more to convey the feeling of the game than the wording does, although every bit of the lore and example text is absolute gold. This focus on form makes the book a much easier read, which is important because it is, again appropriately, more mechanically focused than other WoD systems.

In Genius you play as a mad inventor, capable of building impossible inventions called "Wonders". These devices are the vast majority of your ability and replace the disciplines spells and gifts that other creature's possess. But as with everything in world of Darkness, nothing comes for free.  These inventions lock up the limited power that a Genius uses to actually activate them, and the more powerful an invention, the more energy it locks up. Given the sheer number of amazing intentions this ensure that you never really feel like you have enough power for everything. However one can reduce or even eliminate this cost by using "Larvae" Special ingredients obtained by doing horrific things, which create a reward for risking or lowering your morality, building in a great temptation that every genius could benefit from.  On the topic of Morality, the Genius' not only have to maintain their "Obligation" their sense of actually using their wonders to benefit someone, but they also have to avoid becoming an Unmada, a Genius who is incapable of accepting the ideas of others. But one risks becoming an Unmada, and the worse for, an illuminated, just by going overboard on doing too much science, and if you've been paying attention you'll note that going overboard on science is kind of their thing.

Vampires all pinky swear not to tell anyone about their powers, andwerewolves kind of no better, and their full wolf form is kinda forgettable, but Geniuses have a really damn good explanation for secrecy. They can't prove their abilities to normal humans. A wonder that's examined or even touched by a human is likely to breakdown, malfunction, or even go completely insane. This makes it very hard, and dangerous, to use most of their gadgets around or on regular humans, but half the fun is figuring out ways around that limit, and then watching them go terribly wrong. Combined with this the Genius suffers from the "Jabir" which tragically makes them sounds like lunatics when talking science with normal human scientists. This system creates fantastic options for Geniuses, forcing them to choose if they're trying to overcome these limits, or allow them to get shut off from humanity. The conflict if compounded by the fact that wonders aren't cheap, so a genius is going to need to either be exceptionally wealthy, have a sponsor, or find some way to pay bills AND buy plutonium....or perhaps they can find someone to borrow it from...

There's no doubt that the wonders are the main attraction, and they are functionally limitless. Borrowing ideas from Mage, Geniuses' have many different "Axioms" which they buy dots in, and each dot comes with new themes and abilities they can use in their inventions, and like their power source, Mania, you will never feel like you have enough Axioms.  This is because of two main reasons. The first is that many of the details of your inventions are yours to decide. Maybe your super weapon is a silver sword, maybe it's a flamethrower, maybe its a sonic gun, maybe it's a physical embodiment of Occam's razor. They might have the same statistics, but they say a lot about the inventor, and you might even want more than one of those.  The other reason you want as many as possible is because multiple axioms can be combined to build better inventions. Want a suit of Ironman armor? You're gonna need "Prostasia" for it to protect you. Oh, and "Skafoi", at least two dots if it can fly. Repulsors are going to need at least one dot of "Katastrofi", maybe more if you want them to be deadly. Then there's the sensors, the super strength, and the A.I, each of which need even more dots of other axioms, and you start with 3 dots. However, if you know another genius you could both work on it....but then who gets to wear it? And from there you'd still have to explain the armor, power it, and make sure humans never touch it. This system is a far cry from a homebrew power grab, but it also doesn't fall flat next to other systems. It is perfectly along that WoD spectrum of "Powerful, but you're gonna work for it".

Along with all of that there are tons of beautiful little touches. From a world history and cosmology of Geniuses, to the power to tie people up and tell them your evil plan to regain energy, to having mentally broken lab assistants, creating other geniuses, and even adopting living failed experiments like pets, this book is riddled with amazing flourishes that help give you countless options. I don't always use vampires, I don't always use werewolves, but I always use Genius, it is in truth, my favourite world of Darkness System and I highly recommend it.

Encounter Culture#9: Cross Crossbows

This is a fun little low level encounter that focuses on mobility, flight, and machinery.

Basic premise: The cross Crossbows are, simply put, a cluster of flying repeating crossbows intent on raining destruction down on the party. They use their flight and ranged capabilities to harry players that might not yet have the proper abilities to defeat them.

The breakdown:  8 Aerial creature Animated Light repeating Crossbows (CR 5, 1,600 XP)

These Crossbows work great as defenders guarding a spellcaster workshop, or as a hit squad sent to take out pesky rivals or meddling adventurers.  It also makes for a great trap. The party opens a chest and a bunch of these jerks fly out, or slots in the ceiling open up and down they come.

The environment is very important for this encounter. Be away of your party's ability to reach the enemy. If everyone has ranged attacks or a great jump or flight options then these enemies work well in an open area. But if the party is a bit more limited then put these enemies somewhere where there are trees, buildings, or ledges for them to climb and jump off of. Another option is to intentionally use this encounter in an open area even if they don't have ranged options. This is a great way to indicate to a lower level party that they have a gap in their offensive options.  In this case after five shots the repeating crossbows should be out of bolts and have to flee to reload, ending the encounter before it drags on too long. (Unless of course you want to use these foes as a way to split up or herd an ill prepared party). New players will not soon forget the time that ranged weapons themselves would have been the key to defeating ranged weapons.

Another big factor is the level. Unless you want to stroke the arcane caster's ego, do not use this encounter at any point after the players acquire the fireball spell. One blast ends the counter pretty much immediately. That being said, if you have a later encounter that is just as flammable, this may be a good way to coax the caster into letting the spell go early.

 

Tale of the tape: These crossbows are Tiny animated Objects that have been given the Aerial creature simple template. On top of that they've been Given two flaws* in order to grant 2 extra CP. This gives them 3 CP total. The first flaw is vulnerability to fire, this is a no brainer since they are after all made of wood. The second flaw is a custom one of my own design: A DC 20 disable device check, done as a standard action, automatically destroys the target. This gives mechanically savvy party members a way to immediately bring down a foe, provided they have the tools and the ability to reach their target.

2 CP buys the Ranged attack quality from Ultimate magic. This turns their slam into a ranged attack for 1d2 damage and a range of 20 ft.

1 CP buys the improved natural attack quality which normally would give them a whopping 1d3 damage. However since for the same cost they could get Burn* which adds 1d6 fire damage, there's no reason not to take 1d6 damage and the base 1d2 and just make it 1d8 piercing damage. Technically not the exact same, but close enough and it means our crossbows deal appropriate damage.

*For those curious, the flaws and burn animated object quality is from Pathfinder adventure path#43, Haunting of Harrow stone.

The Arial creature simple template** Grants our crossbows:  

10 Electrical resistance (Which is perfect for wooden crossbows)
A fly speed equal to the creature's normal land speed (15 ft in this case)
And adds 1 Electrical damage to the creatures

** This Simple template is from Pathfinder Player Companion: Monster Summoner’s Handbook.

Hooks: These weapons came from somewhere. Were they stolen from a master weapon maker who grants the players an audience only because of the incident? Such a visit could give them just a single chance to buy extraordinary wares.

Or were these created directly by an enemy of the players? And if so who? The crossbow bolts may have been poisoned with a slow acting toxin or disease with exotic cure, a special remedy must be found, but the poison's origin will serve as a clue. Or the toxin could put the party to sleep to be captured later

 What if these weapons were only the scouts, or rejects of a powerful super sentient construct commanding a vast army of specialized living weapons? This trial run may have only served to gather Intel for a much more powerful threat.

Regardless of who made or sent them, If you decide that each crossbow only holds 5 shots (As is typical of a repeating crossbow) then once they are empty they will have to retreat, and this could give the players an exciting chase scene to follow them, and then perhaps a heist or break-in when they arrive.

Variations: This encounter can be scaled up or down in challenge rating by adjusting the number of crossbows. Remember every doubling of numbers is worth+2 CR. Raising the HD of the crossbows can also adjust the encounter (Especially if 4 or more bonus HD are given, as the benefits of the template get better as well).

The crossbows could also be improved by Changing their design, spending more CP to enhance or modify their abilities. Making them steel and giving them faster speed changes them into something much more like modern day drones.  

Another Option is to raise the CR by +1 and giving them magical bolts equivalent to +2 weapons, or adding poison to the bolts.  

Another option is to pair the crossbows with an animated Ammo cart, of large or Huge size. This has the added benefit of giving melee players and heavy hitters something to swing at. If you add an ammo cart then the crossbows should be required to mover adjacent to it to reload after every 5 shots, and adding that drawback will let you reduce the effective CR of the encounter by 1, after adding an increase for the Ammo cart's respective CR of course. 

Encounter culture#8 Transmutation

The month is coming to a close but before it does let's finish up looking at schools of magic with an encounter based on transmutation.

CR 5- Summon monster 5 trap- 1,600

Basic premise: A transmutation themed Puzzle with dangerous consequences and multiple ways of Solving it. As the players enter the room a huge clay jar shatters. By calling and defeating elementals in the right order the jar can be reformed.

The breakdown: As the players enter the camberthey hear the tremendous sound of a 10 ft clay pot shattering and a stone door sliding shut. A voice speaks out "That which was unmade, must be remade before our eyes". The room is smooth stone with four large obvious engravings equally spaced through ought the room and each with a large eye engraving above it, all facing where the pot once stood. One button has a mountain, one with waves like water, one with the shape of a flame, and one with lines like air.  When a button is pressed a Large sized elemental will appear corresponding to the button (earth for rock, air for air ect). As elementals are defeated in the correct order the pieces of the pot will change. When an earth elemental is defeated the pieces will crumble into dry clay. If a water elemental is defeated after that the clay will soften. If an air elemental is beaten next the pot will form into a proper pot shape and begin to dry. If at this point a fire elemental is slain the pot will shrink slightly and harden back into proper shape and the door will open. Defeating an elemental out of that order ruins the currently gained progress.

There are several ways the players can make this challenge easier on themselves.  A dc 13 profession or craft check related to pottery tells the players what the order should be. And if the players have the time and resources they could even try to repair the pot. It has 100 hp when fully repaired and so any spells such as Mending or the like will have to undo that much damage.

A clever player can also create an illusion of the pot and that will trick the door into opening, as will any other object of the same exact shape and size, regardless of the material its composed of. Further the elementals always appear in the nearest space in front of their button, meaning the players can ready to attack them as they appear.

The Disable device DC to bypass this puzzle is 25, and a failed attempt calls another elemental, always of the incorrect type to complete the puzzle. A summoned elemental remains for 10 rounds, and if not slain within that time it vanishes and does not count towards the puzzle. Only the order they are destroyed in matters for the purpose of solving the puzzle.

Tale of the tape: This is essentially a CR 5 summon monster trap with an automatic reset. Normally the difficulty would be higher, since the potential exists for multiple foes to be fought at once, but this is offset by the fact that the players can defeat the trap without a single battle, and that after the first elemental they should be ready for more.  

Variations: If your campaign has a different elemental focus you can feel free to change the symbols or even types of elementals to match, though you'll likely need to rethink the object being created.   You can also scale the CR up or down by changing the strength of elemental being summoned. You should base the CR on the elemental, NOT the normal cr for that type of trap. So a trap summoning CR 11 elder elementals should be CR 11, Despite mimicking a level 8 spell.

Encounter culture#7 Necromancy

Today we're looking at a Necromancy themed encounter that focuses not only on undead, but on the concepts of fear, and an unkillable immortal foe.

CR - 5 - 1,600 XP   

Monsters: 2 Mythic Bloody Bugbear Skeletons

Basic premise:  The first encounter of the dungeon becomes an ongoing battle against seemingly unstoppable foes, putting the players on a timer or forcing them to get very creative.

The Breakdown: This encounter is ideal to place at the beginning of a dungeon. At first blush it appears to just be a pair of grisly skeletons armed with 2 Morning stars each, or whatever weapon the GM prefers, a careful look and a DC 13 knowledge nature check reveals they are actually bugbear skeletons and not human. A combination of fast healing 2, damage reduction, superior two weapon fighting, and the relentless ability makes these foes tough to deal with but the players should be able to dispatch them. It's only after the encounter is over that it really begins. As mythic bloody skeletons these creatures will rise again after an hour and begin healing unless they are destroyed in the area of a mythic bless spell, which the players are almost certain to not have. This means every time the party stops to rest, or takes a 20 on a locked door, search check or trap the timer is ticking down until they are once again attacked by a foe they cannot hope to defeat permanently. And remember, no matter how many times the players battle this encounter, it only gives XP once.

Tale of the tape: A 3 HD creature like a bugbear normally becomes a CR 1 skeleton, But the bloodied template bumps that up to CR 2, and the mythic skeleton template adds another +1 to that for the 1 mythic rank it gains. With a final CR of 3 adding a second one makes this a challenge rating 5 encounter.

Hooks: Who animated these creatures? Why bugbears? And most importantly, do they ever stop pursuing the players? You could easily turn this encounter into a recurring event, awakening them with the skeletal champion template, adding on advanced, raising their HD or even giving them class levels. These mindless undead could gradually evolve into perpetual stalkers until the players are driven to pursue the mythic power needed to slay them once and for all.

Variation: For a slightly tougher solo challenge try using a Troll as the base creature and having just one instead of two. The encounter will still be CR 5, though definitely on the hard end for low level players. This puts the party up against a very difficult to handle foe and the fact that trolls naturally regenerate will help add confusion and paranoia to attempts to keep the creature down for good. If you really want to...Troll your players, you can use this encounter a second time after they actually find a clever way to dispose of their foe, just when they think they're safe you make them wonder if they really got rid of the original threat.

Encounter Culture#6- Illusion

 

This Encounter Culture focuses on illusion, with a deadly, often udnerappreciated, monster that is the absolute pinnacle of deception and comes loaded with everything you need for a truly memorable ordeal.

CR 7- 3,200

Enemies: One Aboleth

The Premise: On paper this encounter is just a battle against an Aboleth, but in reality it is a nightmarish struggle to determine what reality really is. The Aboleth hides behind layers of illusions while dominating as many members of the party as possible.

The Breakdown: What should be a simple looking battle unfolds as a terrible waking nightmare. Start by designing a simple looking dungeon room or natural terrain area that seems to fit with the players location. A kitchen, a prison room, a forest glade, a swamp, whatever you like. This is really the first layer of illusion, created by a Aboleth's Mirage Arcana. The real terrain features large pools of water, completely hidden by the magic until a hapless player falls inside. At this Point the player who fell in is subject to the first dominate person attempt of the Aboleth. If they succeed on their save they may  notice some kind of effect tickling the back of their mind, but they have bigger issues to deal with. The water is full of monsters! Depending on the location of the encounter it may be sharks, hydras, krakens, piranha, or other creatures. This is a quadruple whammy of deception. Some of these creatures were generated by Programmed image, Set to trigger when a creature enters the water. Others are created through persistant image,  and one of them is actually a Projected Image that has been affected by a veil spell to look like a different, non hostile, underwater creature. Meanwhile the real opponent, the actual Aboleth is hidden behind an Illusory wall. The real Aboleth just bombards the weak willed with dominate person and hypnotic pattern until it has no more dominate and only one or no players remain able to act and then it resorts to melee attacks. The real trick here is that because several of the fake enemies are made by one creature and several are made by another only some of them will become transparent on a successful save, and a save is only allowed for those who interact with the creatures. Which means any party member wanting to know the real deal has to get in the water and touch some potential monsters.

Hooks: Depending on the other encounters the Aboleth may be the big boss of a dungeon, or it may have its own separate far reaching goals. If the players never actually discover the creature and its able to dominate party members without being caught it may even choose to let the party go. Commanding the victim to "Act normally" and then keeping telepathic tabs on them until they can use their new puppet to send more helpless victims its way. A clever Aboleth could even set up an alter ego for captured party members, forcing them to act during the night for its goals, and allowing them to remain normal during the day. Just a few powerful pawns are more than enough for an Aboleth to create an empire from.

Variations: If you don't believe in the Aboleth's ability to get the job done on it's own you can up the CR of the encounter to 8 by pairing it with a CR 5 monster, or group of monsters adding up to 5 (2 CR 3's, or a CR 4 and a CR 2 work). This encounter can also easily be changed up by altering the terrain and the situation in which the players run into their foe. Any template that adds new offensive spell like abilities to the Aboleth can also be very effective, such as half fiend adding unholy blight and Poison, as well as darkness for added confusion. This encounter also serves very well mixed with deadly traps above the water that are cloaked in the illusionary battlefield making them extra deadly. Even just adding some pits that drop the players a dangerous distance before hitting the water work nicely.

Tale of the Tape: This encounter is CR 7 as it's really just an Aboleth using all of its abilities  appropriately, and the water is a necessity since that is the creatures natural habitat.  Keep in mind of course if any of the Variations mentioned above change the CR that you reward the players accordingly. If you want to give the players a better chance you can give them a chance to avoid detection by the Aboleth so that it won't have  it's persisted images in place and won't have a dominate person readied when a player falls in right away. You could also tip them off that the area may not be real by making the illusion seem out of place with the surroundings, such as a foggy swamp inside of a stone dungeon.

Encounter culture#5- Enchantment "There must be something in the water"

Continuing on with our look at the spell schools this week Encounter culture is covering Enchantment. The most enticing of all schools of magic.

CR-None

The premise: This encounter couldn't be simpler, the water supply of an entire town, city or village had been contaminated by a potent love potion. It functions as a Philter of Love, but takes hold of everyone who drinks it. But more than just drinking the water carries the effects.

The breakdown: Creating a magic item that achieves this goal is very costly. By breaking down the cost for a single use activated magic item we can discern that the 3,000 gp cost, is based on a CL of 15 and a spell level of 4 multiplied by each other and then the base 50 GP cost. Simply taking the same number but pricing it for an unlimited use item gives us a cost of 120,000 GP. Which means it would take 60 days of crafting to complete. The item may be similar to a decanter of endless water, but with love potion, or it may be an enchanted well or fountain. The creator just needs the craft wondrous item feats, charm monster, and permanency.

Anyone drinking the tainted water will fall in love with the next person they lay their eyes on, permanently and with no save. The effects of this being applied to an entire town are massive, and there are several things for the GM to consider, each of which has its own implications.

What does a second drink do? Technically each time the subject drinks they'd fall in love with the first person they see, and this would not end their love for anyone else, including non magically induced love.

How strong is the love? Does it fill people with the desire to profess their feelings, write songs, and give gifts? Or does it drive people to near madness with desire that must be fulfilled no matter what.

Does the population understand what's happening? The local citizens may realize they're under an effect, or they may simply think that their hearts are running wild. And if they do understand something is going on are they able to recognize the water is causing it?

How strongly does the potion pervade the city? Consider what happens to Soups, baked goods, potions and medacines made using local water.  When boiled, does the water become purified? Does it release  steam that carries the effect? What about clothes washed and steamed with the elixir tainted water?

What mood do you want this encounter to have? Do you want to portray a fun light hearted goofy story featuring comical impossible romances? Do you wish to explore themes of sudden passion, guilt, and confused feelings of love? Do you want to evoke a horrific atmosphere with people terrified of their own emotions and an unseen contagion?

Consider these questions and answer them with eachother in mind. Consider these two very different scenarios as examples:

By deciding that the tone is a mix of comical and dark the DM may decide that the feelings of love are very powerful and very physical, and that the locals have no idea what's causing it, but they know that food and water is tainted. Each time someone eats or drinks they will become deeply attracted to another person they lay eyes on, and be unable to stop themselves from trying to hug and kiss those people (And not more than that, given the mood we want). This causes the population to shut themselves in, barely eating or drinking and not leaving the house for fear of becoming the target of infatuation. We've effectively constructed a low stakes parody of a zombie outbreak scenario. Where people could be dragged off and swarmed with kisses and backrubs, and clean food is scarcely rationed.

Alternatively the GM may decide to play up the feelings of romance. The potion only causes you to fall in love with one person, and it's a far more real love, maybe even as strong as "true" love. The town has no idea it's even happening, as only some water is tainted given the towns multiple wells and it mostly spreads through certain goods. This creates a situation where a long-time rival, or even a hated team mate could suddenly find themselves in love with one of the player characters, or visa versa. This focuses on the romantic and storytelling aspects, and may even touch on the conflict of knowing that a feeling is false, but still feeling it just as strong. Perhaps someone affected by it finds their life is made better by love, and decide not to have it removed. Or perhaps once awakened those feelings don't vanish, even with a break enchantment spell.

There are dozens of directions a DM can go with this idea, andthey may even get several adventurers worth of material out of this single encounter.

Hooks: This encounter is nothing but hooks. It's all hooks. Hooks for days. But fine, if you want one more, just let the players investigate who MADE this crazy item and why. And as an added bonus, players figuring out the source of the love will have to decide what to DO with it.

Encounter culture #4- Evocation

This time encounter culture will take a look at Evocaiton, especially coupled with the idea of mobility and the clever use of mounts. 

CR 10 (9,600 xp)

Enemies: 6 level 5 Evocationists, on horseback.

Basic premise: The concept for this encounter is simple. Six evocaitonists, each wearing masks or obvious magical disguises, specialists in evocation plan to effectively incapacitate or kill the party in order to get a hold of their valuables. Using a combination of deadly offensive magic, horses for mobility, and clever tactics, these spell casters a huge advantage that helps even the playing field against their much stronger foes.

 

The breakdown:

The Mages ride up to the party, preferably a safe distance from any law enforcement, and they open fire with an array of spells. Wizards are of course known for their intelligence and as such have a carefully laid out plan. The first wizard to act has the job of hindering the enemies and protecting the rest of their spellcasting team. If the party has mounts that may mean lobbing a damaging spell at their mounts, if the party has ranged attacks it could mean readying a wind wall for the first time a ranged attack gets loosed, or, it could mean just opening up with a round of sheet lightning to try and daze them.

The next few wizards all have the job of focusing on shutting down the parties casters. For each spellcaster on the party a wizard will ready actions to unleash attack spells when they cast in order to disrupt them. Preferably these spells will be fireballs, lightning bolts, that can damage other party members, or admonishing rays so they can knock the players out and capture or loot them later. Although another excellent choice is the flaming sphere, since the mages won't need their move actions to escape their opponents they can use them to move their spheres around in order to both damage AND hinder the party.

After the casters have been accounted for the remaining mages have the job of dealing as much damage as possible. This means usually throwing out fireballs if the party is clustered, or the afore mentioned flaming spheres on the first round so they can lay the double whammy in the next round. If however the party is still managing to mount an offense then these mages should instead focus on preventing that, by focusing down who or whatever is able to threaten them, by killing mounts, targeting ranged weapon users, or using magic to stun, trip, or disarm enemy melee combatants.

This encounter serves as a great acid test for players, to see if they are able to adapt to unusual combat encounters, and can serve as a great learning experience. If they're nearing or at 10th level they need to be prepared for fights like this, and the mages having the intent to rob, and not kill, gives that safety net in case the players are caught totally unprepared. I would recommend this for a party of level 7-9 playerssince it does make such a good learning tool, and the stronger the players are, the easier it is for them to shrug off the threat these craft casters pose.

 

Building the enemies:

It's not hard to slap together a very functional evocations. Load up on a variety of attack spells, especially the ones mentioned above and let them fly. With the intense spells class feature every offensive spell should be pulling in two extra damage which will quickly add up. Selecting a Bonded item and having it function as a wand can be very helpful as will be explained shortly. Another good option is a raven or monkey familiar that can chuck out alchemist fires and thunderstones at casters or  tanglefoot bags at hapless mounts.

The bonus feat gained at fifth level could be traded away for Creative Destruction, to give the wizards a little more survivability. One could also give them craft wand since wands might be extreemly useful for their plans. A few metamagic feats work very well for this situation, such as Bouncing spell, which is very effective when used on a flaming sphere as it not only gives them another chance to hit, but if the first target dodges it gives them the potential to move their sphere to another target within medium range. The Mages could also take Merciful spell if the GM wants them to knock the party out so they can rob or capture them, without actually killing them. Another fine choice would be still spell, allowing them to cast on horseback without risking losing their spell, though other options exist below. And of course a Toppling magic missile is a great way to ruin the day one a mounted enemy since you can blast both them and their horse for twice the chance of slowing them down.

If the wizards can maintain a safe distance using only their mounts move actions they can cast without any penalties, but if they will need to move any faster than that it's recommended to either equip them with partially charged wands containing the spells they need, or putting two of their feats into the getting the stellar Uncanny concentration. The Mages may be using a Mount spell, or may simply have some lightly armored warhorses, either way works equally well.

My recommendation is to just make 1 wizard and copy them 6 times, and then give each unique personality traits, but if you really want to then feel free to custom tailor 6 unique spellcasters.

 

Tale of the tape:  6 level 5 enemies does make for a CR 10 encounter. Ordinarily I might count the challenge rating as one higher due to the very clever tactics and environmental advantage the mages have, but the reality is that the players will be nearly equal in number and close to double in power, they need the help. If the players have a really tough time of the fight consider awarding them xp for a CR 11 encounter (12,800 xp)

 

Hooks: If the mages are attempting to kill the players then there may be a good reason, perhaps this is no mere robbery, but instead a hit in disguise. And if they DO incapacitate the party there are a host of options for what can happen next. A daring escape from their lair? A naked hike through dangerous hostile territory? Gathering info about the identities of these spellcasters in order to track down their stolen gear? The possibilities are endless.

 

Variations: To really play up the desperado outlaw angle the mages could be spellslingers, armed with rifles and pistols. They could also be replaced by rogues, slayers, or even bards using magic items to emulated the necessary spells. Lastly the scenario could be played out very similarly with alchemists using a variety of bombs and alchemical items at a lower level.