Sunday, July 29, 2012

GM's Request: What Needs to be Made Easier

I am always looking for ways to make GM prep take less time and to make my game time job easier and quicker.  After all, a person has only so much time to put into game prep, and in game delays waiting on the GM are no fun.  Some of these I have found solutions for, and some of them I am still looking for.

  • Creature Stat Mobility -- There should be an easier way to bring creature stats into game plans.  Currently it means either copying creature stats into my GM notebook or scanning stat blocks out of books.  Why can't, for example, there be a common interchange format for Pathfinder stat blocks that come with all resources (including 3rd party ones) so I can drag and drops them into a plan.

  • Tracking HP for Large Numbers of NPCs / Creatures -- Tracking HP for a large number of NPCs/creatures can become problematic.  Stuffer Shack has a great set of markers for 'labeling' minis to keep track of them, but it still requires a separate sheet of papers. Litko has a nice set of counters, but no matching markers, and they kind of scatter when trying to keep track of a lot of them.  Litko's counter are also rather expensive.
    STATUS: Open
  • Random Tables -- I love the idea of using random tables to generate all sorts of things on the fly, but finding them and keeping them together is a royal pain.  There must be a better way.
    STATUS: Open
  • Initiative Tracking -- I wanted to have an initiative tracker that worked on my dual-display laptop game setup.  I also wanted something simple to use and that really had the look and feel of my magnetic initiative tracker.  In this case, I wrote my own in Java that I call JInitTracker.  At some point in the future, I will clean up the java code and release it.
    STATUS: Solved, Waiting to Release
  • Making Big Plans -- This one took me a while to get down.  I had trouble making big plans on paper.  Paper is hard to manage at the game table.  I ended switching to FreeMind, a mind mapping software.
    STATUS: Solved.
  • Dealing with Large Numbers of NPCs -- This one caught me off guard when I started with the Wormood Skull and Shackles module.  Tracking the 29 NPCs and their attitude toward the PCs is a big task.  Even tougher is making the NPCs memorable.  In this case, I ended printing out folded cards that had the NPC portrait on one side and the NPCs stats on the back.  This can then hang on my GM screen, monitor, or laptop when that character is 'in play', allowing me to see stats and the players to see and remember the NPC.  For me, this type of thing was awesome, and I would like to see NPC and creature cards become a standard part of every module release.  Just stick them on pages in the back, and the GM can cut them to use them if he/she wants.  For PDFs, it easy enough to include them and let the GM print them if he needs them.  If would also be good to have an 'electronic' NPC/creature card with software that display the pictures to the players while displaying the stats to the GM.
    STATUS:  Not Completely Solved Yet
  • Modules -- I haven't found a module yet that was organized the way I need it for play.  There are always sections based on topic.  I don't play based on topics like NPCs or Bestiary.  I play lineary from beginning to end.  What I need are modules written so I can GM them without reading them first.  Adding Bestiary and NPC topic sections are nice, but really they are appendices that I can yank from when I making a new adventure.  (This could be replaced by given me portable NPC / creature stats that I can stick in a library.)  The meat is what I need to GM the adventure now.  NPC/creature cards would help a lot, but really this is about writers thinking more like GMs.
    STATUS: Need to write an example
  • Minis -- Minis don't match what is played.  I get tons of humans, a few less elves, fewer dwarves, and even fewer of other races.  The combinations are cliche (halfling rogue, human fighter, elven ranger, etc) and don't match my PCs (or even my NPCs).  So many minis look coll, but offer no real help for game play.  Too many times they are esoteric or unique creatures that I won't ever play more than once (aka. blackwood dryad).  I think Pathfinder paper minis and Wizkid Pathfinder Battles are starting to go a long way to fix this problem.
    STATUS: Maybe solved?
  • Fast Rule Checking -- Checking rules during a game is a pain when its slow.  Books are not feasible (there are so many of them.)  The Pathfinder PRD (online) and PFRPG RD Mobile App (Android, IOS) help a lot, but they aren't easily searchable, and don't address the 3rd party rules.  It seems like a standardized format for providing pathfinder and 3rd party rules would be good.  THey should interface into a multi-platform app with improved search capabilities.
    STATUS: Getting There

Saturday, July 21, 2012

RPG Achievements

"Achievements" have been a popular part of video games for a quite a long time.  I can remember earning medals back in X-Wing  back in '93.  Trying to get as many achievements as possible drove a lot of my game play in Dragon Age.  Likewise, StarCraft 2 has a lot of achievements that I unfortunately haven't had time to earn.

So, do "achievements" in the video game sense fit into RPGs like Pathfinder?  Several other authors have certainly considered the topic for a while.

My opinion is that videos game are really good representation of role-playing games only without the role-playing.  Mostly, I believe this is the case because 1) Computers aren't advanced enough to provide an open-ended canvas for human interaction (Refer to the Loebner prize contest for examples of state-of-the art chat bots that still seem to be quite a ways from passing the Turing Test.) and 2) MMOs, the human-interaction version of video games, have yet to sway the players out of ignoring role-playing.  As a result, driven by the competitive nature of the players and the need for positive feedback from completing goals, video games turned to achievements.

In a role-playing game, the achievements are less-tangible but more rewarding for the players.  First they get to figure out how to beat the dragon, interaction with a group of other players to build an open-ended solution to the scenario.  Then, later, they get to recount and share the experience with other people.  This recounting and sharing is a common part of D&D culture.  You can't sit through a single session without someone telling the story of what they did in some other campaign.  Our RPG culture is already built on achievements in the stories we tell and retell.  For some famous examples, refer to my earlier post of the Wubba Wubba story or the infamous story of Eric and the Dread Gazebo.

So what are achievements in RPGs?  They certainly aren't little medals or icons you put on your profile page.  I think achievements are a much more tangible thing that the GM can design into the game -- interesting stories:

  • RPG achievements are designed as an opportunity for a good story. Think about the Wubba Wubba story.  No one wrote the Wubba Wubba story; they lived it.  It was, however, enabled by some non-traditional mechanics that the GM inserted to keep things interesting; and it worked.
  • You can't force them or necessarily predict them.  A good example is one of the stories that gets told and retold in my Friday Night Pathfinder group.  The thief tries to pry a jewel out of the casting circle in the lair of an evil necromancer they just defeated.  Unfortunately, the thief slips (bad roll) and shatters the gem, unleashing a wave of wild magic.  As a wild magic result (another roll), the thief is enlarged.  The group also found a large cauldron in the room for making undead minions.  It just so happened the next room contained a white dragon, not very large, but very hostile.  A plan emerges for the rogue to run into the room (with a dice check to get the surprise) carrying the cauldron (another check he can make thanks to being enlarged) and slams the cauldron over the dragon's head.  The plan works, the cauldron blocks the dragon's breath weapon, and it shatters in doing so.  The party then easily fights off the dragon.  Later, of course, the greedy thief finds out that the cauldron itself was worth twenty or thirty thousand gold pieces, which only serves to make the story funnier.  There is nothing in that plan that I saw in advance.
  • You can help the story along by introducing interesting things.  If the game ends up as nothing but hack and slash, you are going to end up with hack 'n' slash achievements.  Oh wow, we killed a big monster.  The really interesting stories almost always come from interesting non-combat mechanic interactions.  The GM can always encourage the players to look at non-combat options.  It is also good to add new non-combat mechanics.  My favorite is the karma point -- an abstract point that players can earn and spend to undo bad rolls, avoid death, and most important, do all sorts of things they might not normally be able to do.  This mechanic gives the players a way to act like heroes when the time is right.  Wild magic is another mechanic with a lot of potential.  When anything unplanned happens magically, have a set of wild magic tables ready to go to find out what strange things might occur.
  • Let them enjoy it.  It is important for the GM to let stories be a part of the game.  When a players has a good story, let it slide.  It might slow down the game a bit, but it is a big reason we play the game.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Caster 'I Win' Button

There's been some discussion on the caster so-called "I Win" button, those high-level spells that can effectively allow a caster to end an encounter with one spell.  I understand the frustration with casters.  Early in the game they can be practically useless; however, by the upper levels they can be overpowering.  This is due to an inherent design flaw or feature, depending on your point of view, that allows most fighting classes to grow linearly while the caster classes grow quadratically.

When casters overpower and take the fun out of a game, it is not the fault of the caster or a particular spell.  It is the fault that the GM and/or the module writer did not take into account these new abilities properly.  The GM needs to design adventures and encounters to challenge the party that is playing.  Once in a while, this may mean allowing the caster to save the day with a simple spell.  More times that not though, it means engaging all of the players in a meaningful way.

There are lots of good strategies for challenging higher level parties that have those spells:

  • Non-combat encounters can be used to challenge a party by forcing them to roleplay and rely on skills.  And, it will help keep your bard happy, if you want your bard happy.
  • Split-the-party encounters can force the spellcaster to do what he does best, while the rogue does what he does best, while the cleric does what he does best, while the fighter does what he does best... and so on.  A combination of challenges can always be a fun encounter for all.  Never split the party sounds like a challenge for the GM.  There is ALWAYS a way.
  • Mirroring the party's strengths in the enemies can bring back balance.  Sure you have a 17th level gnome sorceress, but the incoming has two of them, and one of them is going to do nothing but try to block your spells.  Now what?
  • Kill the magic.  Nothing makes a party work harder that turning off the magic.  Alternately, a x100 hyper-magic field can have a similar effect.  This gets everyone since magic weapons turn into masterwork weapons in an anti-magic field.
  • Find better foes. If your party isn't challenged in the encounters, your are probably using the wrong foes.  Game designers do their best with CR levels and such, but ultimately the GM has to find the right combination, especially at higher levels.  Those special immunities, special abilities, etc, can go a long way to making things more interesting.  Have a mage that blasts everything with fireball?  Find something with immunity to fire and force them out of their comfort zone.
  • Change the rules.  It's not cheating to add anti-magic walls that you can't teleport through.  It's not cheating to cast a gaes on that caster.  Shake things up to keep them interesting.  Remember that the GM wins if the players are challenged, having fun, and have those legendary stories to tell when the game is over.
Wubba wubba.


Character Histories

I read some views lately on character histories and thought it would be good to toss my own two cents out there.

Character histories are a contract between the GM and the player.  A character history gives a player upfront to say this is what my character is like, this is the world around him, and these are the characters in that world.  It defines a line between the immutable truth to the player and the world that the GM controls.

As a contract, it can be negotiated.  A character history isn't really done until the player and the GM both agree to it.  From a GM perspective, this is a huge opportunity to fill in the world's backstory and give the players options for where they might be from and world-linking details that fill in the gaps in their creation, tying their character to the world.

As a creation linked to the character, it should be written from the perspective of the character.  The player doesn't ever get the luxury of an omniscient view, and this is especially true in the character history / background.  The character only knows what he/she knows and that should be true for the player as well.  After all, the GM controls everything the player/character don't know.  I find that what the player doesn't know is often more important than what the character does know.

Here's an example:  In one of my current games, one of the characters has an aunt who has recently gone mad, a mother that works in a candle shop, and a father and sister that work together, but she isn't sure what they do.  This is pure gold for the GM.  Suddenly there is a great conspiracy with her father and sister working to sell artifacts illegally recovered from the ruins in the town where she lives to evil red wizards.  When her aunt discovered this, she was attacked and cursed.  And the character knows nothing of this... yet.

The character history tells you what the player wants.  A character history and what the player wants go hand in hand.  If they give you a lengthy backstory, that tells you they want that to tie into what happens.  If they give you a couple of names and a place, that tells you they want to write the story ahead.  Some players like level one to be the middle of the story; some players like it to be the beginning.

Think about a couple of scifi favorites:  Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The Buffy story starts at the beginning when a teenage girl cheerleader finds out she is the chosen one.  Year after year, season after season, the story builds from the beginning to, well, I guess it hasn't stopped yet if you follow the comic books.  Firefly, on the other hand, starts in the middle of the story.  Half of the fun is finding out what happened before (Have you read "The Sheperd's Tale" comic?) and how that influenced the things that are happening now.  Serenity, the motion picture, was in fact centered around discovery of events that happened many, many years earlier.

Like any contract, there may need to be updates.  Just like your will needs updated when you have children, the character background needs to be renegotiated as the story moves on.  Oops -- the city where you grew up has been destroyed by an ogre invasion.  Did your childhood friend make it out alive?  Ok, we've arrived in Innsbruck -- which part of town did you live in?  Similarly, the desires of the players will change.  I have one player that wanted to be a druid and now flounders a bit on the choice.  At first he wanted dragon armor for his animal companion and now he has his eyes set on a Cloak of the Bat.  All of these play into the character history, the character story going forward, and the rewards and trials that are thrown at the characters.

Don't forget to keep the characters satisfied with small near-term and big long-term rewards.  The character history is only a piece of the puzzle that keep players happy.  Sure, someday the cleric wants to ascend to godhood to take vengeance on the god that destroyed his homeland, but maybe this week he only really needs to find a rod of resurrection to keep him happy.  The game world should operate on multiple time scales and should always give near- and long-term rewards.  And you have to leave breadcrumbs for the long-term stuff to keep everyone interested.  Characters from the past are a great way to do this.  Spirits from a dead friend work equally as well, if not better.  Throw in that creepy fortune teller and foreshadow what is to come.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


Does anyone know if there is an RPG based on clowns?  If not, there should be.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Switching Gears for a While

My allergies/asthma is giving me fits right now, so I am cancelling my two Pathfinder games for a while, until I can get back to my old self again. *sigh*  In the meantime, I am going to be working on my game world, my book, and my background material for Shadowrun and such.  I might post some of the stuff on here.  I also am working on getting a macro photography setup, so maybe there will be some new miniature photos.  I'll stick to whatever I can do inside in the filtered air.  I need to probably find some video games to catch up on too.  Maybe I'll even get my Java Initiative Tracker code cleaned up for a release.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rigging Mechanic

When a ship is underway and not in combat, it moves at its waterborne speed.  While this happens, various crewmembers perform rigging -- moving the ropes and sails about the ship to optimize the use of the windpower.  It seems that this operation should assist the waterborne speed, so I am proposing this mechanic for that.

  • Rigging only works on sailing ships.  The amount of sails of a ship is measured in squares in Pathfinder, ranging from 5 or 10 for a small boat to 90 for a large sailing ship.  ( I exclude the 240 squares of the massive Treasure Ship, which is out of sorts for this sort of thing).
  • Each ship gets 1 rigger position per 10 square of sails.  Based on that:
    • Galley
      • 90 Squares
      • 9 Riggers
    • Junk
      • 90 Squares
      • 9 Riggers
    • Keelboat
      • 20 Squares
      • 2 Riggers
    • Longship
      • 30 Squares
      • 3 Riggers
    • Raft
      • 0 Squares
      • No riggers
    • Sailing Ship
      • 90 Squares
      • 9 Riggers
    • Ship's Boat
      • 10 Squares
      • 1 Rigger
    • Warship
      • 40 Squares
      • 4 Riggers
  • Each rigger helps to make the ship go faster, if he does his job well
    • DC 10 Rigging Check (with modifiers for conditions) based on Strength
    • For every 5 a rigger misses the Check, it is a -1 to waterborne speed
    • For every a rigger succeeds over the DC, it is a +1 t0 waterborne speed
  • Rolls are made once per day while underway.
For example, on a warship, the wind speed of the ship is 30.  There are 4 riggers.  Here are some roll combinations:
  • Rolls: 12, 15, 3, 9
    • 12 -> Neutral, No Plus or Minus
    • 15->Positive, +1
    • 3->Negative, -1
    • 9->Neutral, No plus or minus
    • Overall: Speed is unaffected

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fremlin via Advanced Race Guide

One player wants to play a fremlin, so I've been working with the Advanced Race Guide rules and some of my own enhancements to see what I could come up with.

Type:  Outsider 3RP
Size:    Tiny 4RP  (+2 Dex, +2 AC, +2 Attack, -2 CMB, -2 CMD, +8 Stealth, Reach 0)
Speed:  Very Slow -2RP   (Base speed of 5 ft)
Language: Standard 0RP (Goblin, Common)
Greater Weakness (-3RP)
  Dex +2
  Con -2
  Str -4
Damage Resistance: DR 10/  (12RP)
Pacifist: -10 to Base Attack Bonus, Cannot use weapons for -12RP
Flight: 30ft clumsy (4RP)
Improved Flight: +10ft (2RP)  TOTAL Fly 40ft Average
Beguiling Liar +4 to Bluff when Lying (2RP)
Sociable   Can repeat diplomacy checks that fail by 5 or more once in 24 hours (1RP)
3+4-2+0-3+12-12+4+2+2+1 = 11RP

Monday Night Pathfinder Pirates: Logistics

Tonight was disappointing.  I ran out of air quickly (darn allergic asthma) and starting losing my voice.  We ended after only a short while.

We did get a chance to cover some logistics.  We are going to establish who will be at the various duty stations during operation (important for who gets hit/killed by incoming threats).  We also talked a bit about plunder, infamy, and disrepute.

One mechanic to be added will be an increased waterborne speed with good rolls on rigging checks.

We talked a little about background stories.  Some folks are reading them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Background Stories and Knowledge and their Role in Campaigns

I have always been intrigued by the role that myth and legends and storytelling play in building a world.  Maybe it comes from my fascination with Tolkien's Silmarillion or the greek myths I studied as a child, or perhaps it comes from years of pouring over anecdotes of famous historical figures, scientists, and mathematicians.  For me, to know history is really to know the personalities involved and how their unique perspectives on things interacted to make big things happen.

In an RPG setting (Faerun, being my favorite currently), stories, legends, and background stories seem like an important element that gets overlooked too often.  Backgrounds woven together out of people and places and things help ground the maps of endless names and give the deities of character a form and flavor beyond things written on a character sheet.  The greatest asset of Faerun, which to a GM is also a curse, is the abundance of material that has already been written regarding the history, societies, peoples, places, and things.

With my current campaigns, an epic dungeon-delving tale of old on Friday nights and a pirate-themed adventure on Monday nights, I find that simply pointing characters at the existing material is a useless exercise.  There are many websites that capture all sorts of information, canonical and GM-created, but with my own additions (reverting the Time of Troubles and Spellplague) I find the need to focus and revamp the material that exists.  Enter the background stories.

Background stories are little anecdotes (one to several pages) written from various perspectives giving the players focused looks at relevant material that they 1) may want to use in backgrounds of their characters, or 2) explaining key aspects of the common knowledge that may come to play in their current worlds.  Background stories, if used properly, set the stage for characters feeling like they have changed the world.  You can't changes the world if you don't know what it was beforehand.

For example, in my Faerun, I used a time-traveling incident to roll back the Time of Troubles and the Spellplague.  There are several background stories that explain the new order of gods as a result of this.  Other background stories explain how Faerun reacted to these changes.  Other stories just explain interesting tidbits of information, like the Mithral cargo trains that run out of the dwarven cities of the North.

My latest challenge has been to fill in the missing geography of the western seas.  The Cimarine Isles, the Moonshae Isles, the Whalebones -- they all exist in Fearun, shown on maps, referenced in histories, but tying all the information together into making them a place one might want to go takes a lot more.  There must a common understanding of what, who is there.  There must also be a sense of what might be there, what isn't know, what could be.

Another piece I have been filling in lately are the legends concerning dragons.  Written as a multipart series, I am slowly boiling down the dragon lore into relevant summaries for the regions of interest, introducing potential new players in whatever events might eventually emerge.  Faerun serves as a source of two problems -- lengthy diatribes on dragons that far outweigh the word count any of my players would read, and one-line descriptions that give no details, ties, or background.  My challenge is to compress the long stories to short, relevant stories, and expand the one-liners into something colorful and interesting.

Now, background stories, above all, must be accessible to players.  Here are some key points to keep in mind if you write your own:

  • Keep them short, relevant, and add pictures (they help build the theater of the mind).
  • Keep them in a convenient format.  I prefer PDF, since most all platforms can access them, and since they don't allow easy editing.  (Never use word documents -- this an authorship format, not a format for exchange)
  • Include details sparingly, only where relevant and interesting.
  • Include multiple cultural perspectives -- for example, does the dragon have a nickname in one language that doesn't exist in others.  Cultural differences in how the world is viewed are important for giving your players that their character will react differently than the other characters.  Differences between characters is the whole point in having characters.
  • Include hooks for players.  I often send out an email to individual players after I send out a background story suggesting character specific hooks.  For example, here is a city where your character could be from?  Or this is the magic sword you could be searching for?
  • Be ahead of the game.  Don't send out background information just before it is needed.  Instead give your characters a few weeks to digest the information before they need it.  This also gives you time to evolve things, fix oversights, and even bring up the background in casual conversation.
  • Leave some things unknown, rumored, or open for future adventures.  (This is where you story can fit in.) 

Players:  feel free to add your comments on the advantages and disadvantages of getting background information!