Social Systems

So it's social month, and I've gotten out the mandatory talk about basic roleplaying principles, now let's talk crunch. Yeah, that sweet sweet salty roleplaying crunch. The archetypical smooth talking rogue has been around since the early days of tabletop rpg's, and just as long as we've been killing monsters we've been finding enemies we'd rather not kill. Maybe they're too strong, too weak, maybe we agree with them or we have a code, but for whatever reason some problems get solved by talking. Since the moment that this first came up there have been two prettybasic schools of thought. One being "We need rules for this" and the other being "We don't need rules for this".

There are some games in which there are no rules at all for roleplaying, and there are some games where there is almost no roleplaying needed in the rules for social interaction, but over time game systems tend to hover somewhere around a middle spot where there are rules, but more often than not they're intentionally left vague. The other school of thought is "Social combat".

Social combat is a pretty simple idea. If we can take the delicate interplay of deadly swords, kung fu, backstabs and assault weapons and resolve it through combat, why not do the same for social interaction? I've seen my share of social combat, and the premise has always interested me. The idea of being able to apply a set of rules and actions and track progress towards social success has a lot of allure. The notion of how something is worded, what approach is taken having mechanical benefit, feels rewarding. Being able to clearly see social options laid out like attacks gives the player an easy way to categorize and consider their approach. Some of the most attractive advantages to social combat are: Being able to see something like how much of a bribe will improve your odds by what amount, knowing which skill to use when, being able to eyeball how hard someone is to persuade, and of course being able to excel as a social character even if you yourself aren't a smooth talker. Every time I play in a game with a social system I see players taking new approaches they wouldn't have used or thought of without being able to see the mechanical impact.

With all of that being said, I don't like social combat. That must seem odd because I just spent a whole paragraph praising it, but the flaws with a social combat system are, in my opinion, simply too big. First of all, most roleplaying games are designed so that everyone has something to contribute to combat, even if someone is less accurate they can offer better positioning, they can flank or add bonuses to their allies, or at least offer the appearance of outnumbering a foe. That's great in combat because it gets the party involved and of course you're going to gang up on the bad guy most of the time. But imagine you're at a party talking to someone. Things are going fine, they mention they need a ride home and then BAM three of their friends come over and everyone starts talking to you at once about why you should drive them all home. You'd be notably disconcerted. Social combat is either going to be a solo affair or quickly turn into a 5 on one conversation. There are some situations where a good GM can get around that, but in general those are the most common options. Now of course it's fine to have some 1 on 1 scenes, it happens a lot and it's not a bad thing. But think how many 1 on 1 combat encounters you run while all the other players do nothing. Hopefully it's not a lot. if you replace a lot of solo conversations with full length encounters it can get messy and drag on. Which leads to my next point. Time.

Table time is valuable time. I've never met a group who felt like they'd be better off if things progressed slower in social situations. Social combat creates this by necessity, it will never be faster to roll dice and check values between each new idea, statement, or sentence. There is just no way a social combat won't stretch things out longer. On top of this, while I think nearly anyone should be allowed and able to play a social character I don't believe a bonus should be a substitute for thought. A character built for social combat poses the risk of a player throwing the dreaded "I intimidate" or "Social roll to make them love me" without giving the GM anything to work with to carry on the narrative.  And lastly while it empowers good "tactical" social thinking to offer different benefits and advantages, it also creates other cases where a social approach becomes less optimal, it causes you to be more likely to succeed with specificapproaches, based on die pool, difficulty, and the like, but this is not guaranteed to be the approach that makes the most sense in that situation.

Pointing out a problem without offering something better is just rude however, so I'll show you what my favourite method for integrating social attributes in a game. I think absolutely there should be a social stat, or several social stats, to give those "Face" characters something to put their points into. But my general approach is. "Tell me what you say. Roll the stat, and here's a bonus for your roleplaying."  They make the roll, I eyeball it compared to the relative difficulty they'd go up against in the default for that system, and then have the npc re-act accordingly. This lets me balance their approach with their stats.  But it also doesn't let them off the hook for explaining what their character says. There have been times where a player will fail a social roll even if their bonus would have been enough, just because what they say is so, utterly absurdly bad that no amount of charisma can fix it. I do make some exceptions. For some players, usually ones with social disorders I'll allow them to be more vague on their exact wording, but they still have to give me an idea of how they're making their case and then give them a little more leniency. I haven't found a system that this doesn't work for and it strikes a balance between keeping the stats important, and focusing on the details of the interaction.

 I know firsthand how hard a lot of game developers work on their rules, social rules included, but for me, I use this quick easy adjustment for just about every RPG I play. But as always, the most important rule at your table is to make sure everyone is having fun. If you like social combat then go for it! And if you think social interaction shouldn't have rules at all then you go for that too. The most important thing is to find the balance that fits your game.  

Roleplaying at the Table

This month is "Social" month and that means it's time to take a look at one of the most basic aspects of a role-playing game. If you boil down any tabletop RPG to its absolute base, remove everything else, you're left with role-playing. The narrative, whether thick or thin, is vital to all role-playing games. You can play without any rules at all and still have fun, but pure numbers on their own, with nothing imaginative to represent are meaningless. But that doesn't mean that every game has to be a deeply intense character driven narrative masterpiece.

It is for each group to decide how much they want to role-play. For some groups all they really want is a reason to go hunt monsters, a brief explanation for their character's abilities, and some baddies they can really get behind stomping. Other groups want to have rich detailed back stories, in depth webs of characters and associations, personal rivalries and alliances, and no clear singular threat at all.

There has often been a lot of debate over just how much detail should be put into role-playing, but I'm of the belief that the "ideal" is going to vary, not just between groups but between campaigns. A World of Darkness game usually needs a different level of detail and role-playing than a Pathfinder game, which is very different from what you might need for a Fifth Edition DnD game. I've ran games all over the spectrum, from totally rules free to very crunchy pure combat encounters, and I've yet to find an amount of role-playing that cannot be fun for my group.

The most important aspect of role-playing in your group however is that everyone should be on the same page. Do as much or little in character speak or depth as you like, but be aware of the rest of the group. There's few things more awkward than one player talking in character, and the other responding out of character. It kills the pacing of the conversation and keeps either from getting the experience they really want.  This doesn't mean every player has to have the exact same level of detail, but at least they should interact in the same way.

Also keep in mind it's completely fine to change up how much or little story is going on, and "zoom out" on the level of detail. I love character interaction as much as the next person, but sometimes you just need to buy items and don't need to chat. And other times a conversation with the local merchant might open up a wealth of vital information about the setting or even about the players characters themselves. It is definitely an art and not a science, it's important to feel out such situations, and if you aren't sure feel free to just ask around the table.

Whenever my party sets into a long travel time, from one area to another, be it walking through deadly forests or driving across town, I like to give them the opportunity to interact with each other or other NPC's on hand. Some of the best scenes we've ever had come from those moment, and sometimes it's enough to have a little summary of how they interact. Role-playing should never be looked at as a mandatory boring aspect of a game, but it also doesn't have to completely consume everything either.

Remember, as with all aspects of tabletop RPG's the most important thing is to have fun, however much role-playing you need to do that, it's the perfect amount.

 

Enviromental Storytelling

The dungeon is a staple of role-playing games. Dungeons and Dragons in particular could be said to be about 50% dungeons. But the quality and content of these great locales can vary in the extreme. In some campaigns; all a dungeon needs is a goal and a string of encounters to dole out gold and XP.  But a dungeon can be far more than that, it’s one of the most interactive parts of your world and every dungeon should tell a story.

Why does this place exist? Who occupies it? Why? How do they defend it? How do they survive? And the topic of this article: What has happened here? These are some questions you should have in mind when creating a dungeon. There is no place that does not have a story. Sometimes a story is so simple that it exists as a single sentence. It’s believed to be Hemmingway who wrote “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”. An illustration of the power of telling an entire story in a very brief moment. You can easily tell a tale in a single moment or scene. It can be as simple as one Orc that wears the finely crafted but now abused armor of a knight from a neighbouring land. It can be a skeleton still clutching an unopened healing potion, or a section of cave leading into darkness, it’s entryway warded off with salt and silver.

If you want to, you can stretch this out into many tiny details that come together. Perhaps each of the strongest three or four Orcs in the dungeon has a different piece of the same suit of armor. The players find the skeleton by following a trail of blood to an opened chest, an adventurers belongings still inside, including gear that would not fit the skeleton they found. Each room of the dungeon is lined with strange symbols and icons, and human sized cages are kept near the tunnel leading into darkness.

You can even grow these moments larger, leaving clues sprinkled through the world and through many dungeons and encounters if you have the foresight and desire to. The important thing is that these little pieces of story will be there to help build player immersion and catch their interest. Maybe something will really stick in their mind, they may even want to investigate further, leading to whole new adventures! Environmental storytelling is an amazing and impressive way to build your world and add details to everything around you. Videogames have been mastering environmental storytelling for years, and many of the finest RPG’s thrive on it. Look to series like the Elder scrolls, Fallout, and especially Dark Souls for tips on how to pull this off seamlessly and effectively.

Remember: Every monster, every item, every brick and coin and bone is yours to create and decide, you have unlimited tools at your disposal, so use them to craft a truly beautiful story.

Creating a New Rules Set

So you know you want to run a game in a specific setting, and that setting comes with a special form of abilities. Many settings of various genres have their own unique powers. This can be anything from a different kind of magic, like alchemical transmutations or Ninjuitsu, to having a game in a high tech world with exo-suits, to humans being capable of amazing feats of near magical martial prowess.  There are a lot of factors to consider when creating a homebrewed rules system.

Can I do this with what I already have?

Before you create your own homebrew consider this question carefully.  In a Pathfinder game where you want to emulate a manna or chakra system think about if it might be easier to just use Psionics or spell points from 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons. If you want your World of Darkness vampire to be able to call down lightning storms consider just importing a Werewolf or Mage power that does the same thing. Look at the mechanics of your game carefully, consider what you could do by just reflavouring things a little, or a lot, and changing one or two basic mechanics. This also will require you to think about how precisely you want to be able to emulate the source material. Sometimes instead of a new system all you really need is a new coat of paint on an existing system. But for those other times there is a lot to consider.

How does this interact with other mechanics?

If you are adding a new option or feature to a system without removing old ones think about how they work together. Can a wizard dispel a Fullmetal Alchemist style transmutation? Does a Gellar field protect a ship from Protoss psionics? Can a Decker hack into a Gundam and if so what can they control remotely? If you've made your homebrew system correctly most of these questions will have straightforward answers. If you can't explain how 2 systems interact in one or two sentences you should consider simplifying it.

How do I balance this?

The importance of this question varies a lot. In a very mechanics driven game like Pathfinder or GURPS balance is more important than it is in something story driven like World of Darkness or Shadowrun. But in all of these games something unbalanced can become a clear problem. If one party member can bend water, and another is proficient with a sword and a third can bend all elements; is this game going to work? If it isn't can you make it work by tweaking the mechanics? This is especially important when a new system is introduced akin to a magic system, but the mundane characters don't get any new options for dealing or competing with it.

Is it simple enough?

This is pretty pivotal. Even if you make a perfect system that is 100% faithful to the original source material it's no good if you're the only one who can understand it. Ideally this system should be explainable to someone who has never experienced the original material. As a warning, it can be deceptive to compare your system with existing ones. Saying "My homebrew is no more complicated than Mage" does not automatically mean it's simple enough. People put a lot of time and effort into learning some core systems because they know they'll use them again and again. Furthermore players have help understanding from forums and being able to reread the rules and look things up. With your homebrew all someone has is what you give them and the only person who can clarify is you.

Is it working?

None of the other things matter as much as this. Is your homebrew enhancing your game or making it worse? This can include a number of things. Consider if the system is still fun for people not using what you created. Think about if you have to be having fun as the homebrewer seeing your creations come to life. Along with this idea is the question of if your homebrew achieved the desired effect. Does it make your game feel like the source material? Does it help the players think and act like the characters they're trying to emulate? If so you've done a great job.

Is it perfect?

No, it's not. It won't be perfect the first time you play it, and it won't be perfect the last time you play it. Every system has it's quirks and problems and oddities and that's okay. Nobody is perfect and no gaming system is perfect either, the important thing is a willingness to evaluate and change. Let's say you developed an amazing and clever system for  perfectly replicating the classic FPS  Doom as a tabletop game. First of all, wow, super neat idea. But second of all you may find your game suffers a bit when every encounter starts off with four players each saying "I fire my BFG until it goes click.  Make a looting for ammo check and then repeat". Designing a fair and balanced system is hard, but breaking one is easy. It doesn't take long for players to find the most efficient approach and if you give them one option objectively better than the others they are more likely to use it all the time. There's no shame in admitting that you have to adjust things, and make sure you tell players why something is getting changed, they need to understand that a homebrewed piece of content is a work in progress and sometimes it needs tweaking.

Homebrewing anything is an exciting and sometimes daunting endeavour but it's something I heartily recommend to anyone. Even if you fail you're guaranteed to learn a lot about the game you're playing, the people you're playing with, and yourself.

 

 

The Inspired campaign

Alright, so you want to make your campaign using an existing setting, something from a favourite book, show, movie ect. There are several factors to consider carefully.

 

Will my players get it?

This is one of the first mistakes that can be made. No matter how amazing and in depth your Gundam campaign might be it will fall flat if your players don't like or know about Mecha. Even if they happen to like a different Gundam series than you, it could wind up being a very off key experience for them. If the players aren't familiar with the source material are they willing to take a look? Or does your campaign stand enough on it's own two feet that no prior knowledge is needed. Generally the further from traditional a setting is the harder it will be for a player to go in blind and maintain the tone you're going for.

Will it make a good campaign?

This is another really common question to ask yourself. We've all been there, we watch or read something, we get super excited, we want more and we want to play in the world we saw before us. We want to tell stories as good and exciting as what we just witnessed. But not all stories make for good role-playing games. Maybe you love the classic spaghetti westerns. For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Gad and the Ugly, Fistful of Dollars, these are classic tales of a lone badass gunslinger come to enact a form of bloody justice. But does it convert into a party of four to six players? Not easily. Consider that stories are told very differently in role-playing games and think carefully about if the spirit of what you want to emulate can survive the transition.

 

Assuming that the above questions are answered affirmatively there are a few more considerations to make.

What game are we playing?

This topic happens to be one I wrote an article about just last week. But in short it's important to know what game you're playing and why. Along with this you need to consider what rules you're changing, removing, or adding if any. Make sure the roleplaying game rules match the tone you're going for. Which brings us to tone. 

What is the tone of my game and how do I keep it?

This is another topic I've brushed on a couple of times in past articles. The important thing is to know the feelings you're trying to evoke and to consider how important they are. If you're running a game set in a combined Pixar setting, you need to consider what happens when the players want to make dirty jokes and kill things. It's not necessarily a bad thing if the tone your players find is different from the original idea, as long as everyone is having fun and you're on the same page and you can roll with the punches. Some game concepts though are better served with a specific tone, and in that case it's important to get the players invested into the game, the more immersed they are the more they will feel compelled to suit the mood around them.

How close is the original story?

This can be another crucial choice. Let's take for example a Lord of the Rings game where the players play as Frodo, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn on their famous quest to destroy the One Ring. Compare that to a game where the players are a group of Dwarves leading another expedition reclaim Moria. And contrast that to a game where the One Ring is instead entrusted to a coalition of the finest warriors from across middle earth. Each will feel like a very different game, and each will involve very different interactions with the original "Cannon" of the franchise. Some games are best served by being in the same setting but only briefly hearing about or being influenced by the main plot, others are most satisfying when the players get to rub elbows with, or even take control of, the famous characters that make the source material great. There is no right or wrong answer as long as everyone is in agreement.

How long will interest last?

This last question is important for planning how long the campaign will be. If your game is based on a movie that just came out, will players stay interested 3 months from now? If your game is based on a videogame, what happens when all the players have beaten it and moved on to other games? Or is your campaign revolving around a continuing series that will keep providing more and more free excitement building? Making your game too long to hold interest, or not long enough to take advantage of excitement can lead to a less satisfying game overall. So consider carefully how long the fires of passion can stay stoked in the hearts of your players. 

The right game for your campaign

Since this is Fandom month I want to take a chance to talk about game choice. I know I talk a lot about mostly just pathfinder and by extension 3.5 here, but there are a lot of great systems that I'm just as fond of, if not more.

When someone tells me they want to play a role-playing game in a particular setting the first thing I want to know is what game they're playing. Contrary to what a lot of people think there is no one game that can do everything. Well, okay there's GURPS, since that was kind of the point of it, but not everyone likes GURPS.

When you want to capture the feeling of your favourite franchise it's important to consider what that feeling IS. Does Firefly feel like it would easily convert to a Pathfinder game? Would have your players make members of the Justice League in world of darkness? How about a high fantasy game using the Warhammer 40K roleplaying game? Probably not. This is because the inherent tone to the game is different from the feeling you want to capture.

This doesn't mean that you can't make a very unusual combination, but it does mean you'll either be doing a lot of extra work in converting things OR you'll take ideas presented in an existing medium but give them a dramatic change in tone. Here are some examples of settings and games that mesh well:

Let's say you want to play a good old fashioned anime inspired campaign. It doesn't matter whether you're borrowing from classic anime tropes to create a new setting, using an existing one whole cloth, or weaving/mashing several together at once the ideas are basically the same. I always recommend Mutants and Masterminds for such a game, though a lot of other superhero systems can do almost as nicely. Super powered blasts? Check. Flight/air walking? Check. Super speed? Check. Absolutely everyone having unique abilities even though they stem from the same source? Double check. These are games where you can get hit by a truck and walk it off, and they pair well with the anime hero who gets wailed on, blown up, and impaled at least once per episode/issue. They keep the feel of amazing escalating power, sensational moves and abilities, tons of options, and dramatic physics-breaking moments. And yes, you could also play BESM (Big eyes small mouth), which was designed to capture such a game, but I'm still more partial to the freeform classless systems. Now some anime, like your Death Note, Tokyo Ghoul, and a lot of games more focused on narrative with lowered powered magic might be better run with the  World of Darkness storyteller system. And then some anime are best to play in Maid...or not at all.

Conversely though, what if you want to go against the grain?  Picture, the Kingdom of Hyrule. The Hero of Time has vanished, Gannon rules the land with a cruel dark hand. A bomb merchant, a Goron guard, a poor desperate farmer, and a magician possessing just a tiny ounce of magic decide to rise up against their wicked king. Their story is one of desperation, of making deals with dark forces and spirits, of battling not just evil, but other people just as desperate as themselves. It's a story of loosing oneself. This game could be played better by something like the song of ice and fire role-playing game, or world of darkness than by a Pathfinder or Savage worlds game.

Because it's ultimately the rules and the intricacies of the system that will reinforce the theme and the emotion of your game they must match up with the feeling and ideas you want to include. So think carefully about what rules set will go best with the fandom or series you want to play in, and when in doubt ask the others at your gaming table about what they want to play and what the core aspects they want to capture are. Hopefully this has been helpful in setting up some truly great games for the future.

 

Inspiration at the tabletop.

This month is "Fandom month" and that means I'm going to be taking a close look at how your favourite shows, books, movies and games can influence your tabletop roleplaying experience in a whole variety of ways. This article is going to go through the basics.

To start off it's important to recognize that there is no such thing as a work that is wholly it's own creation. The first stories were recounting of real events, and later tales and epics were built upon those, and so on to this day. This is not a bad thing by any means. Without Gilgamesh there would be no Heracles, without Heracles no Superman. Everyone to ever sit down at a gaming table has based at least some of their ideas on other mediums, the only difference is how much, and how overtly.

Subconscious or cursory inspiration: This is the most common form of burrowing from previous stories. It's that moment that we roll up a barbarian and think "Conan". It's when our wizard loves to read and has a long beard and a staff. It's also when the plot is it's most simplistic. A princess captured, a war begun, an item lost, or the like.

Intentional imitation: This is the purposeful idea of "I'm basically ash Ketchum but with summoning". It's the campaign that says "You're on a world spanning quest to collect seven wishing stones so a dragon will grant you a wish". It's when a character or campaign is copied almost whole cloth to give a player or DM a starting point. This can also feature making adjustments to the way an ability looks or feels to better suit a theme. Perhaps your Barbarian's hair gets spiky and golden when they rage, or drawing your magus' black katana blade comes with a whole new outfit. Many people look down on this approach, seeing it as unimaginative or lazy but I disagree. Certainly its faster to not develop your character or campaign as much in the beginning but a good campaign should make it nearly impossible to stay that way. What begins as a direct rip-off loses its original flavoured coating and exposes a new creative entity underneath. A stoic and grim Kratos imitation, who dreams of slaying gods to avenge his slaim family can only stay serious and dire so long. Once the party Gnome keeps making everything taste like butterscotch and the elf can't find his +1 flaming pants the player must think beyond the initial concept. And a campaign to cross the world and throw a ring into an active volcano changes tone dramatically when the evil deific being recaptures the ring and now the party must take the battle to the fortress of a god. Just as no storyline or plan survives contact with the players, no character concept can stay entirely separated from the rest of the party.

The homebrew: This is to go one step beyond. To create custom homebrew around a franchise or mechanic that you love but has no suitably accurate analogy. This is used when you need more than just calling spells per day "Jutsu's per day" and when your Belmont family vampire slayer realises they can't actually HURT a vampire with a whip. Many of the best and most creative homebrew's are developed by people looking to emulate a specific character or setting. And while some people may not have much of a taste for a game like Ponyfinder, There are a lot fewer who would object to a whole plethora of Kaiju's to terrorize their setting. Homebrew campaigns can also be an amazing experience, one with a plethora of existing maps, characters, storylines, locations and lore to draw upon. I've rarely been more excited to work on a campaign then when I can take a franchise or series I love and dig my fingers into it and tweak and change and expand on my favourite aspects. Telling a player "I'm going to set my game in Lordran from Dark Souls." is all it takes to set their mind ablaze with ideas. Creating a new setting from scratch, while deeply rewarding in its own ways, is more of a slow burn. You gradually build up and explore and explain more and more about the world and work with the player on how they will fit in and what they'll do. In an already existing setting the player can do research on their own to learn about the world, about its people and culture and abilities. This can be a double edged sword however. If the DM hasn't done enough research, or even if their players have simply done more, the DM could lose control of the setting for their game. Players correct them on tiny little tidbits of lore, and sometimes an entire plot point may actually not fit with the original rules of a setting. While some DM's find this quite unacceptable, or even terrifying, others relish the chance to see their players so deeply engaged in their campaign.

So how much is too much? Well, as with anything about role-playing games, it's a matter of taste but the best idea is to work things out as a group and decide together what inspirations you'll be drawing from and how strong those influences are. For a lot more information about the ways you can use these concepts join me next week for my follow up article next week!

 

Bestiary 5 inspired items

I've recently picked up and summarily devoured the bestiary 5. Since I've had items on the mind thanks to my work on my next big project I figured I'd do a little write-up of the new items inspired by bestiary 5! 

This article will cover some custom adaptations of various weapons and equipment mentioned in the Bestiary 5 that could be fun for a player or DM to get a hold of.

 

Maul: This massive hammer is significantly heavier than a typical war hammer and is favoured by Gristly Demodands.

Primal chisel:   This amazing and peculiar weapon is the trademark of the Anunnaki . This peculiar device draws power fromspecial device known as a Lantern of civilization (see below) and as such cannot be used unless it's wielder is also carrying such a device in their other hand.

Laser Torch: This small extremely hot beam of energy is a laser weapons and as such follows the rules for lasers below. Furthermore a laser ignores the first ten points of hardness when used against an object.

Chain gun: This massive two handed firearm is a devestating weapon that is capable of unleashing a withering hail of fire. Ammunition for this weapon is specially crafted at the same price as regular bullets but this weapon is belt fed. As such as long as there are bullets left this gun can continue firing without having to stop and reload. Furthermore the wielder of this weapon may, as a standard action, unleash a stream of automatic fire in a 200 ft line, allowing one attack against each creature in this line. Using this function expends 10 bullets per target attacked.  Unlike most firearms this weapon has no misfire chance.

Laser rifle: This two handed ranged weapon comes in a plethora of designs and styles but all funciton identically and use the laser rules presented below.

Laser weapons: Laser weapons fire highly concentrated light which causes them to function differently from solid projectiles. Lasers always target touch ac regardless of their range increment. Lasers deal fire damage rather than normal weapon damage but this damage can be increased by any feats or abilities normally limited to weapon damage. Lastly lasers completely pass through invisible barriers and creatures, though cloud cover provides cover in addition to concealment.

 

Lantern of civilization:

Aura: Strong Divination; CL 20

Slot: None; Price: 140,000 gp, Weight: 5 lbs

Lantern of civilization: This peculiar object nearly hums with power casting a dull light like iron fresh from the forge. So long as it is being carried it's weilder gains a continual true seeing effect. This ability only applies when the lantern is held, not merely when stowed on the owner's person.

Construction requirements:  craft wonderous item, true seeing, Cost: 70,000 gp

 

 

Myrmidon rockets:

This highly advanced and deadly weapon system unleashes devastating rocket fire from extreme range. This device is too large and cumbersome to be moved by anything shortof a massive vehicle or powerful magic. As such it is almost exclusively placed to defend an area from invaders. This weapon come in several varieties but all of them function similarly using the same basic rules.

The weapon system requires someone to aim it by using standard action and selecting a 30 ft burst anywhere within 800 ft of the device. Unless otherwise noted all rockets deal 6d6 fire and 6d6 bludgeoning damage with a DC 18 reflex save for half.  Unless otherwise noted a single rocket launcher can hold up to 5 prebuilt rockets at a time. Once stored rockets are expended more can be loaded in but each takes a full minute to load and the weapon cannot fire while being loaded. Unless otherwise noted a rocket costs 1,600 gp to create. The launcher itself has effectively a hardness of only 5 and 50 hp due to the many vulnerable areas and fragile components creating it and it can also be de-activated with a DC 15 disable device check.

In addition to the standard design there are several upgrades that can be bought for the system independently of each other. All costs are listed below.

Regular:  The basic weapon system as listed above. 8,000 gp

Concealed: When loading  or not firing this weapon it stays beneath the earth surrounded by a tube of either adamantine or magically hardened iron (Hardness 20, 120 HP). This protective silo is concealed requiring a DC 30 perception check to locate and a disable device check of DC 32 to bypass without first destroying the hatch on the top.  +8,000 gp

Direct attack: The person aiming the weapon may select a specific creature to target and roll a ranged touch attack vs the target, the bonus for this roll is always +20 regardless of the aimer's aptitude. If the attack is successful the struck target does not get a reflex save to avoid the missile's damage.  +5,000 gp

Double capacity to 10 rockets before requiring reload: +3,000 gp

Damage increases to 12d6 fire and 12d6 bludgeoning:  +9,000 gp (And 3,500 gp per rocket)

Reflex save increases to DC 36: +4,000 gp

Single use, cannot be reloaded: Final cost halved

Creates one new missile every 12 hours using nothing but scrap: Increase final cost by 50% 

Behind the vault door excerpt: Usefulness of items

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book: Behind the vault door. I hope you enjoy!

 

Magic items can be sorted into any number of categories. The slots they use, the cost of them, the kind of effect. But when I look at magic items. I think one of the most important things to consider is last ability. Is this item going to be useful in 2 levels? In 5? in 10?

There are three categories an item can fall into when considering this. First are Items that simply do not stay useful beyond a few levels. A wand of sleep, or scroll of fireball are great examples, but as are things like thunderstones and even mantle's of spell resistance. These items grant a specific measurable numeric effect, which becomes less relevant as other effects continue to increase steadily.  These items need special attention because if they don't get used soon they never will, and that can lead to a sense of unfulfillment. That's not to say these items are bad, but at level 2 it's probably better to bust out that sleep wand while you still can, don't hold onto it so long that it becomes obsolete, use it while you can.

That last part is important and helps separate it from the next category: Items that maintain usefulness but can be replaced by something better. An amulet of natural armor+1 always provides+1 to ac and it is always helping and contributing, never becoming entirely useless. You'd be better served by a +3 sure, but that +1 is still pulling it's weight. Other items in this category include things like bracers of strength, a +3 sword, or most of people's favourite statimproving numbers. This also includes things like wands of magic missile, which will still deal damage but not as much as you'd like.

The final category is for items that will always be useful and relevant and, more importantly, provide benefits thateither aren't measurably, or aren't meaningfully improvable.  Things like stone salve, which cures petrifaction, or a scroll of teleport, or a wand of cure light wounds. These items do something that will always be useful, no matter what level you are. These are in my opinion, the best and most exciting items, ones that you can award as a GM or receive as a player and KNOW that they're going to come in handy whether you use them now or 5 adventures later.

So when you're shopping for your next adventure, or building treasure for your players. Consider carefully which items are going to be useful when, and plan for situations where those short term items will come in handy right away. Some of this stuff may seem obvious to some, but it's vital to think about what sort of an item you're looking at, and what kind of game you're playing. 

New terrain features

Let’s say you’re a veteran GM, you’ve done lava, airships, rubble, vines and cliffs ad nauseum. Have no fear I’ve got something new for you. Presenting a selection of brand new terrain features.

Rope/Chain: Who hasn’t wanted to buckle swash alongside Zorro, Flynn, and sparrow? These ropes are meant for swinging and launching with. They are anchored in two spots, one usually being the ceiling or other high up location while the other is tantalizingly within reach. When you reach the lower end of the rope you may as a free action take hold and untie (or cut) your end. This moves you a specific distance along a specific path and you may release at any point along that path. If following up this dashing maneuver you count as charging and most likely attacking from higher ground. This works the same for the classic chandelier rope cutting to launch you straight upwards. If the rope would allow travel more than 100 ft assume it takes one turn of swinging per 100 ft to reach the end.

Springboard: From the classic wooden ships plank, to the trampoline, canvas awning, or even an actual springboard this is a classic. The springboard exists to facilitate high flying maneuvers, when entering a space with a springboard you may make an acrobatics check to leap from your current space when you do roll your acrobatics check twice and add the results together to determine the total distance covered.

Bounce pad: Whether a giant rubber sphere, ring ropes at a local wrestling arena, or a wall that reflects kinetic energy a bounce pad forces someone back further and harder than they hit it. Someone moving ten feet before crashing into the bounce pad moves back twenty feet either straight back or diagonally in either direction similar to a bull rush combat maneuver. This movement does provoke attacks of opportunity and uses the subjects movement up as though they were travelling on favorable terrain. If they would move farther than they would normally be able they fall prone at the end of their movement. For example a monk with 60 ft speed travels 20 ft before hitting a bounce pad and is pushed back 40 ft, which uses only another 20 ft of movement. After bouncing the monk could still move another 20 ft. If their speed were only 30 ft however they’d have bounced twenty feet and then fallen prone. Bounce pads function even if they are hit while charging, bull rushed or falling. If a bounce pad pushes a subject into another creatures square they make opposed CMB checks, with the looser falling prone and taking 1d6 damage per 10 ft bounced.

Conveyor belts: This category also includes boats floating down river, carriages that you’re standing on rather than steering, sleds whipping down a mountain, and any other instance where the ground under you is taking you away. This seems like a simple concept but is often hard to integrate since on any given character’s turn the terrain is not actually moving. There are a few ways to handle this. What most commonly happens is that once per initiative the object moves its full speed along with everyone on it. This is simplest to manage but can often times lead to things feeling stilted and disconnected. If you don’t look too closely one could also recommend breaking the movement into small increments that happen between each character’s turn which feels much more natural, althoughrarely does an objects overall speed divide nicely into the number of combatants so some generous rounding is required. I’d also recommend counting anyone on such a conveyance count as mounted and charging against if they travel more than 80 ft. This of course shouldn’t apply to someone mounted on the same conveyance as them.

Favorable terrain: This can come in a lot of different forms, from charging downhill, rolling down the river on a log,  having the wind at your back, or magical areas and spells that grant swiftness. Favorable terrain is the exact opposite of difficult terrain. The second square of favorable terrain does not use a square of movement, nor does every 2 squares thereafter. This a line of 4 squares of the terrain uses only 10 ft of movement.  Charging is allowed over favorable terrain and in fact grants an extra+2 on the attack roll on top of the normal benefits for charging. In some cases this terrain grants its benefit in only one direction, in other cases it’s omnidirectional. Favorable terrain is excellent for maneuvering around the battlefield and getting the drop on the enemy.

Slipstream: This functions like a much more powerful version of favorable terrain. A square of slipstream has a specific direction and anyone entering it moves in that direction. A chain of slipstreams can cause a very quick way to travel across the battlefield. Ranged weapon attacks directed into the slipstream instead target whatever creature is at the end of it with the same bonus it was fired with. Movement caused by the slipstream does not provoke an attack of opportunity. The GM is free to choose whether or not to allow a strength check to move through without being pushed, in which case the DC will generally be 20+2 for every 5 ft of stream. If a slipstream throws a target against a wall or another creature they generally take damage using the same rules as falling the same distance. If a slipstream directs a target into the air they land 1d6 ft in a random direction, unless there is a platform at the top of the slipstream.

Switch squares: This magical terrain feature is always paired with another. Whenever a creature occupies both connected squares they instantly exchange places. This effect is activated only once per round and is treated as a teleportation effect. There is no save allowed generally as stepping onto the square counts as being willing, however the GM may grant a will save to either or both unwilling parties, if one succeeds the effect fails entirely.

Sharing stone: A sharing stone is a highly magical statue that allows an effect to be stored and then invoked at a later date. These stones are usually carved into statues resembling the common races, but their effect is anything but common. When the statue is touched, attacked or subject to an effect, and survives, it remembers that effect and the next person to touch the statue experiences it. A sharing stone struck by a longsword for 28 damage for example remembers it and the next person to touch the stone takes 28 slashing damage. A stone given a gentle kiss on the lips likewise would relay that to the toucher regardless of how they touched the statue. Due to the myriad uses for such statues they are beloved by both hedonists and sadists alike. An effect stored in the statue can even be a spell and it uses the caster level, duration, dc and other qualities of the spell as it was cast with the new target being the toucher and them alone. If the spell allows a save the toucher may make the save as well. Since these statues are often subject to intense attacks they are frequently made of living steel or adamantine (which makes their name somewhat of a misnomer).  It’s generally assumed anyone entering the same square as the statue touches it in some way, though if they are careful they could move through the square without touching it. (Generally this requires an acrobatics check with a DC ranging from 10 to 30). A favorite tactic of devious minds is to place a single fireball trap in a room filled with sharing stones to create a deadly forest of stone ready to unleash wicked flames.

Fountain of doubt: A classic hallmark of fantasy adventures, the magical fountain. Who knows what power it possesses? Not you. A fountain of doubt is highly resistant to any forms of divination or identification. The fountain does not radiate any form of magic and any magical attempt to identify its effects or predict its results fails in the vaguest way possible. It cannot be confirmed nor denied if this was due to some magic of the fountain, or just a more common explanation. Furthermore much like a potion anyone drinking from the fountain is considered willing and thusly is allowed no saving throw to resist its mysterious effects. Some fountains possess effects that are very obvious, such as polymorphing into another kind of creature, and some effects do not even emulate known spells (and can basically do whatever the GM likes). Others are so subtle that one wonders if they truly found a fountain of doubt at all…

Hopefully this has given you all some great ideas for scenic and interesting fights and environments. Try them out and let me know what you think, and tell me about your own interesting terrain ideas.

Terrain tips

I’ve reviewed the benefits and dangers of terrain, and covered a bit about cover, but today I’m going to dive deep into the use of terrain features and Hazards from both an encounter building and narrative perspective.

The important thing to consider is that cover and beneficial terrain represents a fantastic narrative opportunity to enrich a foe. This is very important to understand when building an encounter. Consider an encounter where wild elves skulk in under cover of fog. They have total concealment and are effectively bypassing the varied ranged attacks that could be hurtled towards them, and allowing them to hid their numbers and equipment. That speaks of a cunning and dangerous foe. From an encounter building perspective it means that your party is going to be drawn into melee much easier. It also rewards players who can issue ranged attacks, though it’s clearly very hazardous to fire into a horde of unseen enemies. This also gives the encounter a claustrophobic dangerous feeling, enemies pressing in from all sides, uncertain numbers, it’s tense and exciting.

Contrast that to a horde of goblins dug in atop a hill, hurtling mud and other mud-like substances as well as rocks, javelins and bombs. This encounter speaks of cowardly crude enemies who are lazy and undisciplined. The challenges it poses are polar opposite, melee becomes a dreadful slog uphill (half movement) and through mud (another ½). Only the fastest of characters will be able to engage in melee without flight or the ability to bypass the terrain. Likewise the feeling of the campaign is different, it’s much more comical, nothing is hidden, and the threat isn’t as intense, even if the terrain leaves the players struck by more debris than they’d like. The players are free to take their time, attack from whatever angle they want, they are the attackers and it’s their foes that are hiding and being encircled.

One of the hardest encounters my players ever fought through was built on terrain. Their level six party was accompanied by six bodyguards and a knightly escort as they travelled across country in their carriages as guests of the duchess. It had been raining all day and the roads and marches had turned to thick mud by the time the bandits attacked. Overall it was a CR 5 encounter divided among many low level bandits with bows. But two factors turned it from an easy sweep into a bloody battle. Firstly, the muddy marshy ground was difficult terrain and some extremely difficult terrain making charging impossible and regular movement a nightmare. On it’s own this wouldn’t be so bad, but secondly….my players had no ranged weapons. No one on the party could attack at a distance and I knew it. A hail of weak attacks absolutely bombarded the party andflaming arrows lit the carriages on fire (They’d been sabotaged the night before). All told most of the guards were slain, the bandits were even chased off, and the duchess was murdered by a traitor. But a hard lesson was learned about difficult terrain and range. The players felt unprepared, attacked, and defenseless and I guarantee it’s an encounter they won’t forget.

Whether your fights take place on a narrow beam over a chasm, in a silent bamboo forest, in the villains marble throne room or aboard the deck of an airship, always consider how the terrain makes the battle feel, what it’s like, what it can do for both you and the players strategically and narratively.

 

Hazards

As we advance through terrain month, possibly at only half speed, we of course must cover the topic of hazardous terrain. Because bullrushing someone into tall grass doesn’t have the same impact as pushing them off a cliff. By hazards, I don’t mean actual “hazards” as outlined in the core rulebook, but rather dangerous terrain features. This is one of the fastest go to options for completely devastating an opponent far stronger than the players. Hazardous terrain is the most exciting, but also most difficult to use.  While a battle on a rope bridge over a 500 ft chasm is incredibly exciting, a 3rd level hero who falls is pretty much dead, barring a feather fall or similar effect. You wouldn’t include a trap that deals 20d6 damage, so you probably shouldn’t include a fall that does the same. But at the same time that doesn’t mean you have to avoid using those exciting locals, it just means you have to be careful how you use them.

A fight at the edge of a cliff could spell instant death, unless there happens to be an outcropping 20 or 30 ft down that can be landed on. The peril and threat o falling is still real, but now it means that instead of dying from a fall, the player has to spend a few turns climbing back up to get back in the fight. The rope bridge over a chasm? Add water at the bottom and it becomes a much less lethal drop that threatens to carry away its victims (likely to another convenient adventure spot). Battling atop uneven stones adrift in a tide of magma? Just make it ankle deep, reducing its damage considerably but keeping the threat very real. Thick vines and briars that entangle and damage anyone forced inside? Those are actually perfect on their own. The important thing is to keep the threats more balanced whenever possible. My recommendation is to treat dangerous terrain as a custom made trap, base the CR on it’s difficulty to avoid with a save (or no save), and on the average damage. This means that those deadly threats are now worth experience and can be quantified. This also allows us to scale up threats. Level 10 heroes don’t really have to fear 2d6 fire damage so shallow magma isn’t a huge threat, but deep magma is still intensely fatal. But by treating it like a trap we can perfect average damage for it to deal based on the level, and then explain that this particular depth and heat of lava deals this damage. And likewise if thorns and brambles have lost their kick, add some poison to them to spice things up and keep the effects relevant.

So that covers how to use hazardous terrain, but when should you use it? In my opinion, very frequently. One of the best ways to make a fight unique and exciting is the creative ways you can battle and best your opponent. I think that almost every combat encounter should include some terrain that does something. Whether it’s a lower level you can shove someone down to, dangerous or deadly spaces that harm those inside or more esoteric instances like stationary spell effects or squares that bulrush, grapple, trip, or disarm foes. The important thing is that there’s some reasoning and consistently. If random lighting strikes deal 2d10 damage at level 5 then by level 20 a random lighting strike should still be 2d10 unless it’s in some way magical or more potent lightning. Whenever a fight starts, think about what is around, how it can be used and what it can do, and make sure your players know those options are there.

Hopefully this helps you design encounters that are riveting, without being devastating and campaign ending. And remember, where a fight takes place is just as important as who is fighting.

Evocative terrain

In the heat of battle there are many things that cease to matter; The color of the sky, the songs of the bards, the history of the world, the only thing that is winning, surviving. This is when a tree isn’t just a tree, its safety, a table is cover waiting to happen, the thick volcanic smoke is a 20% miss chance. When the fur starts flying and the dice start rolling what matters is the tactical advantage of every move, but that doesn’t mean battle isn’t a great place to inject some scenery, in fact it’s the best place.

In a regular tavern the players may not care whether their table is finished wood, whether it’s thick or thin, but if a fight starts suddenly those details are more important.  Every difficult terrain, every partial, regular or total cover, every high ground and concealment is a chance to inject scenery and life into your world while making your players keenly aware of it. If they want something to tie up the thugs they just bludgeoned offer up the lord’s banner with the snake sigil on it, or the table cloth spun from pressed banner wood fibers. When the player wants to hide in the forest let them know they’re taking refuge in the deep black boughs of a mighty howler pine native only to the nation of Abysmia. 

Those examples though require a great deal of thought put into the setting and detailed backgrounds and that is not everyone’s cup of tea. Even if the details of the local area are pretty vague feel free to add something suddenly, make up an interesting detail, or pull on what little you do know about the area, the important thing is that hiding behind “A rock” only tells that rocks are found here. But ducking behind “A shrine to the stone mother Alehjin” tells the player about the local gods, about the feeling of the area, and depending on the faith of the party can change the way they feel about taking shelter and how they react to their assailant toppling their cover.

Even if you must rely on very basic terrain features take effort to give them a one sentence description, something that makes them feel alive and exciting. When the boulder being used for cover takes damage describe how it sounds when stone cracks, when the players duck into the volcanic smoke describe the burning scent stinging their eyes, make it vivid but keep it short.

And when there are options to use terrain make sure the players understand that these objects are there to be used if desired, after a few times making effort to do this it will become natural and instinctive. Before long your players will recognize and remember that this region of the land has tall reeds great for hiding, or jagged rough terrain ideal for ambushes and cover.  Being able to blend world building, immersion, and combat effectiveness and bonuses is always a win-win for DM’s and players alike.   

Hatching duck and Roll 3: The first Dollar

It’s been a little while since my last update and there have been a few months of quiet website side but they’ve been anything but quiet on my end. I’ve been busy like never before. I finished writing the content for my first book. The Flavour Handbook, which if you clicked that link you can see has gone live. It took a tremendous deal of effort, writing, editing, playtesting (A.K.A the fun part), and meeting with everyone from potential customers to experts to Mensa ranking mathematicians. I’d been working closely with a few dear friends of mine on getting art and composition done while I was still writing and editing which wound up saving a lot of time in the end. Finally I’d had a finished product and put it out for sale. I’ll never forget the feeling of having gotten my first sale. I rushed out and got my very first dollar to save in my box of mementos and I plan to keep that coin as long as I live.

In the following few days I got my first review and while it was positive they’d found some errors and corrections, nothing that would ruin the book but a few things making it less than perfect. This was the moment they told me would happen. The moment when a company owner decides how they carry themselves and their business. I knew right away what I had to do. I thanked the customer up and down for their input and immediately set upon hiring a professional editor to go back and pick through the book with a fine tooth comb. I’d re-release it with all the updates and resend copies to everyone who bought it in the meantime. During that process I also discovered it would need some reformatting if I ever wanted to make a real hardcover book, so I had that done as well, hoping that someday It’d be something tangible I could hold in my hands. At the time of writing this all the edits and revisions are nearly done, and I’ve already begun working away on my next product, learning from my past mistakes, and hopefully getting things right this time around.

The downside to all this, and the other big factor towards things having slowed down is money. The program I was enrolled in has ended, and due to a lot of delays in getting the Flavour handbook together I was financially dead in the water. So I went back to work, sticking through my medical issues as best as possible, working an eight hour day and then coming home to work on my book and website alike. That’s the situation I’m in now at the time of writing this, but in my last article I talked big about sticking to the path and determination and I damn well wasn’t going to go back on that now.  Until things tighten up I’ll do the very best I can to keep on top of updating you all. Hopefully you’ll hear more from me soon, until then take care.

Terrain overview

This month is terrain month! But before we get too deep into the intricacies and details I think this topic could use a little overview. If you’re anything like me, terrain often times winds up slipping your mind, and gets overlooked. Terrain comes in a lot of different forms and you can probably think of a few during these winter months. So let’s take a look at terrain types.

Ground: Firstly and most obviously we have literal terrain, the ground you walk on. Difficult terrain of the most basic sort reduces movement rate by half by making each 5 ft square require 10 ft of movement to get through. This can be anything from rough uneven ground, to tall tangled grass or vines, furniture like tables and chairs, low walls and the like, or of course snow or slush. These are the most common example but there’s a plethora of other options.  One step above regular difficult terrain; there are some types of terrain that are incredibly uneven rough or difficult to pass which require 20 ft of movement for a single 5 ft square.  On top of the movement penalties it's impossible to run or charge through difficult terrain, nor can you take a 5 ft step. And of course above that is impassable terrain. Things you cannot normally move through at all such as stone walls and solid earth. And of course these things can affect your overland movement going from one place to another in exactly the same ways.

Squeezing: If you are moving through a space you can fit through, but smaller than your space you have the misfortune to be squeezing. This causes you to move slower like difficult terrain but also imposes -4 to attacks and ac. Technically this doesn't restrict the weapons you can use, but your GM is well within their rights to decide your greatsword is useless in such a space, or that your dagger takes no penalty.

Higher ground: If you have more elevation than your target, but can still reach them you gain a +1 bonus to your attack. Super simple stuff.

Cover:  The basics of cover are pretty simple. If an enemy has to shoot or swing around an object that grants cover to hit you, you get a +4 bonus to ac. specifically if you can draw a line between the corner of a foes square, and the corner of you square, which passes through cover, you get the bonus. You also have to be within 30 ft of the cover and you have to be as close as or closer to the cover than the opponent is. On top of that you also gain +2 to reflex saves if the origin of the effect is opposite to the cover. And of course with cover one can make a stealth check to conceal themselves from sight. And it’s not just objects that can provide cover, creatures provide the bonus to ac, though not to reflex saves, just like an object which makes hiding behind friends and foes an invaluable tactic. A large or larger creature picks any 5 ft square to calculate cover from giving them better chance to swing around such barriers, but those attacking them can pick any square they can reach to calculate cover against, it cuts both ways.

Cover has a few variations depending on the situation. Partial cover confers only half the ac and reflex bonuses, while total cover doubles them instead as well as granting improved evasion and a whopping +10 to stealth. The best cover though is total cover. If there are no corners from the foe’s square that lead to yours without passing cover than they can’t attack you whatsoever, and likewise an area of effect ability is only going to harm you if it blows through your cover first. Speaking of destroying cover, it is not implicitly stated that the cover takes any damage from this process. What I would recommend is that an attack which misses the target due to cover should deal damage to the cover instead. What does and doesn’t grant cover and in what amount is ultimately up to the GM but generally it’s pretty easy to interpret.

Concealment: Similar to cover, if a line connects your corner and a foes and passes through something granting concealment you also gain a significant defensive advantage.  This generally comes as a 20% miss chance on all attacks directed against you. If the concealment is thick enough it can grant a 50% miss chance. Just like cover, concealment allows you to hide and can also apply penalties to movement depending on the source of concealment. Concealment can be caused by anything that obstructs sight, but not physical attacks such as fog, smoke, darkness, weak vines, paper screens and more.  

Hopefully this has been helpful both in letting you better understand these tactical mechanics, and in framing and understanding some of the articles to follow this month.

 

 

Playing the monster

Since the dawn of dnd there have been players who want to play the monsters. As those creatures became more in depth, interesting, powerful, and diverse that desire has only grown stronger. One of my favourite books in my entire collection is the classic "Savage species" which, while dated, is still a great source of inspiration for me. With the dawn of pathfinder there was a great deal of hope about being able to play as monsters and it was met with a rather perplexing pair of solutions.

First you can let everyone be monsters of that challenge rating. This solution is much closer to fair as it allows everyone the chance to get to be nice and monstrous and get some neat abilities, although it can be a little challenging to find many monsters of the same cr that are suitable for play it's hardly impossible if you have an expansive enough bestiary. This is doubly true if you bear in mind the advice for using 3.5 content and just lowering the cr by 1 or slapping on the advanced template to make it pathfinder equivalent.  This is a good option if you don't mind everyone being strong, but equally so, and everyone wants to be a monster.

If just one player is looking to be a monster you let them play as that base creature and count it's cr as levels, and then every 3 levels beyond you let them gain 1 extra level between the second and third. repeat again until you have gained bonus levels equal to half the monsters CR. Woah, what? Really? Yeah thats what it says. So I'm gonig to take a look at a few examples of this in play.  You can skip the italicized section if you don't need illustration of why this might not be balanced.

Example 1: "The Redeemed" Your campaign is kicking off at level 8, or just a player is rolling up a new character at this Point. They want to tell the tale of a fallen hero struggling for redemption. They decide to play an Erinyes. Perfect it's CR 8. She has 9 hd which gives her 9 base attack, and more skills than the fighter. Some DR, spell resistance, flight, some immunities and amazing ability scores along with constant true seeing and greater teleportation at will. Both of which are powerful abilities that the cleric and wizard don't have access to even once per day yet.  Wow, that's pretty strong but let's say the gm approves it. The story progresses well and soon it's time to gain a level. Of course the Erinyes becomes a paladin, turning the good side and swearing faith to a goodly god. That's not too bad, base attack is still great, she can fight with the best of them, and once a day she can add her huge charisma to attacks and ac against evil. Not that her ac wasn't good enough. Fast-forward another level. Divine grace, lay on hands. self healing adding charisma to all saves. Getting intense. And then the Erinyes gets another level before anyone else. aura of courage, divine health, mercy. She's now got 12 HD, and 12 base attack. The fighter has 10. The campaign progresses all the way to 20th level. Our Erinyes paladin is now a 16th level paladin. She has 25 base attack, or perhaps 23 if you follow the old rules for epic levels. Her saves areprobably 17/7/16, or again 14/7/14 with epic rules plus adding charisma to them. Woah.

Example 2: "The solar master" Ancient Solar dragon Sorc 2. Sometimes a DM wants to run a nice long level 20 game, maybe going through many mythic trials at the end to provide progression. And one player isn't satisfied with a sorcerer who merely has traces of draconic blood, they want to play a glorious brilliant full dragon. Specifically an ancient solar dragon with two levels of sorcerer. Sure, why not? That's cr 20..I guess. Now the party wizard has some concerns. Mainly that the sorcerer has 27 HD, 37+ac, more than 300 hp, and a higher attack bonus than the fighter, better saves than the paladin, and a 20d10 breath weapon. Yes, that's all very true. But hey, the wizard has 9th level spells, and CL 20. The dragon only has 8th level spells and cr 17. Unless it takes practised spellcaster for a feat...which makes it's CL 21 but hey at least they didn't get free sorc levels every 3 levels.

Example 3: "The superhuman" So you're running a level 5 game. and your player tells you they're really excited to play a really cool super awesome unchained monk. Nice nice. Let's see what they've got. Monk 1....advanced human 4?as in the advanced template? Well I guess. I mean it has a cr....wait. advanced x4? so they have +16 to all ability scores? And +8 natural armor. But they add dex and wis to ac, so that adds +24 to their ac overall, ontop of base 10 is 34 ac....and +8 on all their saves. They get +8 attack and damage. A 5th level monk only has 5 base attack. But wait, hold on he's only got like 10 hp, well 10+con, which is at least 8. But yes, he's got low hp. But every level he gets more.  And you have to hit him to deal damage. Or maybe not right? reflex saves for half damage , half damage is still great...till level 2 when he gets evasion. Then before everyone else his 7 he hits level 3, and then hits 4 when they hit 7. by level 10 his 4 advanced templates cost him 2 levels. When everyone else is 20, he's 18, with +16 to all his scores.

Ok, ok, enough math, enough examples. I'm sure you get the idea. Now of course a few things should be said. It's not always going to be that strong, many players aren't that great at optimizing, though many are even better. And yes the bestiary explicitly states to keep a close eye on using this rule, but from that starting point there will always be problems. And on top of that there's no explanation for how much of that monster's stat block one should use. For example, does the Erinyes get the elite array for ability scores? She's a player character after all. Does she get starting equipment like the players? she'll definitely start getting equal shares once they begin play either way. Can the solar dragon pick different feats and skills? There's a lot left unanswered. So without further ado I'd like to present my solution:

If you want to play a monster right from the bestiary with no changes it is treated as a character with class levels equal to it's cr + 1 for every 5 cr or part there of. A cr 4 monster is a level 5 character, a CR 8 monster is a level 10 character, cr 19 is a level 23 character and so on.

If you allow the player to fully customize their monster, including adding any template, do as follows: Subtract 10 or 11 from each of the monsters ability scores to get an even bonus, and then let the player use the same ability score generation as the other players. Whether that's rolling, point buy, elite array or some other method. and then add the bonuses back on. The player can reselect any feats they get from their HD, but not racial bonus feats, and they can re-allocate their skill points and get gear appropriate for a character of their level.  and if youallow the player to choose their own feats and skills and give them level appropriate gear. In exchange for this customization further increase their effective level by 2 more.  This means that a CR 5 troll would be playable and fully geared out fighting alongside a team of level 8 heroes. A cr 11 barbed devil with free reign over feats and a full set of gear is matched up with level 16 heroes (who can likewise teleport and can be boasting spell resistance. And the strongest monster that can be played at level 20 is cr 15, which still allows for many mighty dragons albeit with far less magic than their CR 20 counterparts. This system greatly reduces the liklihood of players having more HD than their team mates and helps bring their abilities into line with what other party members may acheive, and it also account for player who are customizing and optimizing their choices vs ones who just want to open up the book and play a monster.

 

 

The scary session

In my tenure as a GM I've measured my success based on the reactions of my players. If they have fun then I succeeded. If they laugh I'm happy. if they cry from being moved by the story or characters I'm proud. Running a game means being a storyteller, and being able to weave an emotional story is a huge priority for me. But the hardest time I've had is in scaring players. The RPG experience is not conducive to fear. You are surrounded by friends, playing a game, and more often than not, winning. Time and again I see DM's trying to run a truly terrifying adventure. This is somewhat misguided because it's next to impossible to inspire real fear in your players, what you should aim for is anxiety.

There are some subtle differences.  You players will never be concerned for their safety at a game, or at least they shouldn't be! But a sense of anxiety and uneasiness is definitely possible and in some games encouraged. The biggest hurdles are maintaining the mood, having solid anxiety inducing content, and creating a consideration for power.

It can be hard to maintain the mood of a game. Every group has in jokes, food gets ordered, people have phones and other things on their mind and sometimes attention just wanders, but these are all things that can drain away the mood. Try to get all the food demands set up first, let the players know the kind of atmosphere you want, and encourage them to pay attention. For most games an uneasy quiet is a real bad sign, but for an anxiety inducing thrill fest it can serve quite well. Think ahead to things that might kill the mood, if any part of your game comes across as too comedic or too immersion breaking then try to cut it so you can focus solely on what is going on. That being said even a tense anxious game doesn't have to be comp0letly serious, humour is a classic way to lower tension to allow it to be built back up again later and it's a fine art to balance how much is too much.

Great atmosphere will get you no where without actual anxiety inducing content. You can't just dim the lights, throw on a Halloween soundtrack and then run through a normal dungeon. You need to confront the players with situations that make them tense, uneasy, anxious, but not cross that fine line into going too far. create situations where peril is readily apparent, outgunned, outnumbered, on the defensive, on the run. Keep your players at a disadvantage but, and this is crucial, make it about more than numbers. bigger stronger enemies are commonplace in a lot of games. You need something more than that to make a game terrifying. A foe they cannot see, a creature they cannot harm, battling against your own mind controlled friends, while ankle deep in corpses drained of their brains, make it hard, make it personal, and make it clear that whatever they're up against cannot be overcome with a simple beating.

The idea of putting your players at a disadvantage plays into power management. I can't think of a lot, beyond a fear effect, that can scare a group of blinged out level 17 heroes. They fight demons and wizards and undead and demigods regularly and win. The hard part is finding something that stands out against all the huge opposition they face normally. There are three basic ways to do this effectively. One is to take away their powers. Disarmed, hit with 10 negative levels, stuck in antimagic, cut off from their god, there are plenty of ways to strip a hero of a lot of their power, but this method requires a thorough understanding of your players and what they can do. A wizard with eschew materials is still effective without their spellbook, until they need to regain magic anyways. If the cleric can remove those 10 negative levels in a few turns it's not really imposing, and the monk disarmed is still a deadly opponent. The other downside with this is that players choose RPGs to get a feeling of strength and power, taking that away can be a big buzzkill but as long as they recognize it's temporary most should be fine with the idea. The second option is to let the players keep their fancy toys and throw something even stronger at them. Those level 17 heroes are pretty tough until an advanced half dragon Balor blackguard starts hunting and tormenting them. The downside to this method is that the players have to recognize the threat is too big for them, and you have to make it too strong, without killing them immediately it's a fine balancing act. The third option is to put them against something they cannot fight, or cannot understand. Perhaps the anxiety inducing hook comes from a series of mysterious crimes that they have yet to solve, or from stalking through an eerily abandoned dungeons funding increasingly more and more ghoulish bodies and remains of men and monsters alike, or the source of their fear is the very turning of the planar wheel, an apocalypse that cannot be stopped, only dreaded.

As I've said before, this is a very complicated trick to pull off. everything about a gaming session is meant to be friendly and inviting, causing the people there to feel real tension anxiety or fear is a very hard sell, but hopefully if you're brave enough to try it these tips will help you out.

 

Skinning Monsters

A terrible buzzing, huge insectile wings. A massive chitinous hide, a slender neck topped with a terrible reptilian maw with a single serrated horn atop it.  Two huge pincers lash out at you and as it draws close it brings it's body close against you, a terrible circular mouth filled with triangular teeth rests in the center of its chest. It's terrible eyes glow brilliantly before beams of horrible multicoloured energy flow from the compound orbs and tear through your companions.  

What monster is that? What are its weaknesses? What else can it do? Mystery, suspense, maybe even fear. The truth is, the monster described above is nothing more than a CR 7 chimera. Right from the bestiary. The change is purely cosmetic. No templates, no cr adjustment, no extra HD, just describing your monster in a new and different way can make it a brand new threat that catches the attention of even experienced players. This gives you freedom to add variety to encounters, or to build a theme in your adventures. If your dungeon is the lab of a mad alchemist and you need more terrible abominations to use just grab any old cr appropriate monster and mess it up! This can also be used to make a region of your campaign feel more exotic and unique without taking a ton of prepwork.

With that said, it's certainly possible to make a few basic adjustments to make a monster even more different.  Replacing a monsters natural attacks with different ones with the same average damage, switching up energy resistances, damage reduction, and regeneration , or even altering the type of damage a monster deals can help enhance the illusion of a totally new monster without altering game balance at all.

If you are going to make major cosmetic changes to a monster though just be aware that your players are going to want to know what it is. I like to keep things mysterious with my players, so I don't tell them when I use this method. But other DM's may enjoy sharing some tricks and tips with their fellows to encourage them to get creative and look at each foe with a new perspective. Along with curious players a DM should also be wary of curious players.  The confidant DM turning the horrible insect beast above on their players can quickly become a stuttering unprepared shyster when the players start calling knowledge checks to identify the creature and the DM has no answers. So be wary that you might need to explain yourself, although personally I think once in a while it's fine to tell a player that they simply cannot identify a creature, regardless of bonus as long as that doesn't happen more than once every few sessions.

Of course along with this basic premise I also should acknowledge that some monsters might not need it. A chimera is pretty scary all on its own, even without making it a new monster, as long as you describe it well it can still drain a little colour from your players cheeks. The mystery might not be there, but there's still lots to fear from the traditional monsters, plus with such a plethora of monster books availible there's no trouble finding something your players have never seen before. 

Advice for DMs: Monster workshop

This month's theme is Monsters, and to kick it off with a bang I'm going to take a look at how to keep your monsters exciting.  I want you to think about a troll. Think about your players fighting that troll. What comes to mind? Maybe how it looks, maybe that rend damage, but probably: regeneration.  I had the enlightening experience of playing with a group of new players not long ago, and I can tell you I've never enjoyed using a troll more. Because they had to fight it three times. They pushed it down a ravine, a fall they knew should kill nearly anything. Hours later they found it stalking them across the grasslands, and they ran it through with a dozen sword blows and an entire brace of throwing knives. They took off and that night they hid their camp, went without a fire and huddled up for warmth and courage. And the troll returned. They battled it fiercely and finally the party magus happened to harm it with fire and the players observed that its healing seemed to stop.  That night they sat by the smouldering body of a troll, watching its burning husk....just to make sure.

But what does that do for you? Your players /know/ that fire kills trolls. If you threw a troll at them it'd be torches and fireballs immediately. At best you can make them roll knowledge checks to see if their characters know about the weakness, but it doesn't capture the same wonder. Two main components made the troll encounter memorable: Capability, and Mystery.

Capability is simple: What does your monster do? What Can your monster do? A quick glance at a monster's stat block tells you everything a monster can do, it's all there in black and white. Look closer. Really read that stat block, think about all their abilities. In my above example the troll threat would have been a single encounter had I not noticed the troll had scent. But that one minor sensory ability turned it into a relentless hunter instead of a random encounter they didn't technically kill. I can't tell you how many monsters can greater teleport at will, but I can tell you that the day I really thought about that was a great day for me. For a solid week my players were pursued and harassed by a Pairaka Div. It would pop in, stealth near them, wreck havoc with its charms and abilities, and then vanish by the time they'd stopped the horses and drawn steel. By the end of it they were sleepless, constantly armed, half of them were mind controlled and all of them had developed some very unhealthy fixations. Technically the div only had dimension door but it works equally well with the host of outsiders who canport at will. A cr6 monster ruined the lives of a 7th level party and my players never forgot that encounter.  

Look at a monster's stats and abilities and think "What is the most interesting thing about this monster? And how can I best use all its abilities?". Even a player who has fought 100 demons will give pause when this new demon vanishes from combat and returns 12 seconds later holding the players childhood blanket that they left in their home town.  It's easy to fall in a rut thinking about the tactical effects of every spell and power, but there's so much more to explore. Lots of monsters use swallow whole, but when a monster swallows the party mount, or cohort, or even just a lower level friend that ability becomes a race to get eaten and cut out the ally rather than just another slugfest. Take nothing for granted. Study that stat block for a few extra minutes and turn every ability upside down.

Mystery is a little harder to achieve. We all have that player who knows every monster, every ability, every tactics, and is never surprised by anything. The poor fools. The more you think you know, the easier it is to surprise you. The day that troll eats a face full of flaming acid and just keeps healing it will be your most knowledgeable player who is the most alarmed. There are thousands of templates out there that can mix a monster around and turn everything a player thinks on its head. Sometimes though a simpler change is fine. Swap out one signature weakness or ability with another.  A regular looking troll that only takes lethal damage from electricity is simple enough to shake things up for a veteran player but you can go further. Any videogame enthusiast can tell you that sooner or later you're going to fight something with only one weak spot. As popular as this trope is we see it almost nowhere in DnD. Just take this idea: Throw a big scary dragon at your players and just make it immune to damage. Even magic swords bounce off of it, fire and lightning alike cannot wound it, it seems unstoppable. But when it breathes flame, for just that one moment it's mouth is wide open and it's throat exposed. Perception checks and knowledge checks draw this to the party's attention and it's up to them to decide who is going to get that close. Once they hit the weak spot it's an automatic critical hit for maximum damage. Just a few good blows like that can kill the beast, if it doesn't flee after the first one.  A roiling "Hate elemental" draws power the more it's attacked but healing and spells giving bonuses instead cause tremendous harm.  A quantum filcher teleports every time the characters look at it, forcing them to fight it blind...or work together to look in every direction at once, banishing it back into a state of existential uncertainty. All of these examples are memorable and challenging and yet each one is just a regular monster with a unique catch slapped onto it.  This might adjust the CR a point or two, if you feel it's appropriate but usually it doesn't. A monster with a way to be beaten instantly is a fine trade off for beingimpossible or very hard to beat normally.

The two methods above work great to take what would be an old stale monster and make it something special. For some campaigns you can make sure that every fight feels like something new and bold even while using the same monsters as always. Other campaigns should also mix in more traditional foes that fight in a predictable manner, sometimes players just need some monsters to pound without thinking too hard, it all depends on your group and your campaign style.