Monday, December 30, 2013

Hopes for the New Year

Resolve:  a firm determination to do something.

Since the move is nearing and so many things are still up in the air and underway, I really don't have any resolve for actions in the new year.   Instead, I think I just have a lot of hopes, and with all things, I think I will decide what to do as the year progresses.  It is going to be a big year of change.  So here are my hopes for the future.

  • I hope to get back to a regular gaming schedule.
  • I hope to find a nice balance between working time, commuting time, and time to recharge, with my new job and my new extended commute.
  • I hope to improve my health and become more fit.
  • I hope to become part of a new in-person gaming group in our new hometown.
  • I hope to set up a nice gaming area at the new house.
  • I hope to set up an efficient woodshop at the new house and start using it to make useful things, some of which will be for gaming.
  • I hope to get in a full solid year of beta testing for my new rule extension for Pathfinder.
  • I hope to improve my gaming art: both cartography and drawings.
  • I hope to write more consistently.
  • I hope that I can help my family to be happy in our new hometown.
  • I hope to sell our old house.
So really the challenge, as with all things, is to manage my time to fit all these things in.  In this time of rather overwhelming stress, I think I see a path of things building together to bridge all these goals.  
  • Get better sleep.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Eat right.
  • Take the family out to places where we can socialize.
  • Set a comfortable schedule.
  • Tackle a small goal each week.
And this week's goal is to prepare for a successful, pleasant move, if there exists such a thing.  Next week's goal will be to execute the suggested move.  And the week after, I can start working on my comfortable schedule.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Finding Weaknesses in Pathfinder Characters and Exploiting Them

This article isn't finished yet -- it is more of a living document to accumulate knowledge as I gather it.  In any case, I thought it would be worthwhile to publish and collect comments on.  Thanks for help from Michael Bell on Cavalier weaknesses.


Unlike other systems, Pathfinder doesn't explicitly include weaknesses in character as a choice made by the player on character creation.  Instead, the GM has to ascertain what abilities, skills, saves, background, or class properties represent the weakness of the character and exploit them.  Think of it this way -- when building some characters, everything starts at a base level and a lot of things get better and some get worse.  In Pathfinder, characters start at a lower level and everything gets better, except because of the balance of things, only a subset of everything gets better.  What doesn't get better, is the weakness of the character.

Now normally I am not an evil GM.  I don't see the GM as an adversary to the players, but more of a guide, sort of like that old D&D cartoon's dungeonmaster.  I also, however, believe that heroes are defined more by their weaknesses than their strengths, and that any good game should be about characters overcoming their weaknesses.  In this article we present some ideas to help GMs find those weaknesses.

As an added bonus, exploiting weaknesses wreaks havoc on a power gaming min-maxer.  If you always go for the weakness, then the maxing out of a few abilities at the expense of everything else becomes a real problem.  This encourages players to find balance and to build characters with a different goal in mind -- perhaps the goal of making an interesting character.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a character should start with the core stats: HP, AC, ability scores, and saves.  Each of these can be a big weakness, especially when a player tries to min max a character.  Let me summarize what to look for in a handy table:

Exploiting Pathfinder Weaknesses in Core Stats
Weakness How to Exploit
Low HP Do what it takes to do damage. Some good options: setting them on fire @ 1d6/rnd damage, falling @ 1d6 damage per 10 feet fallen, acid pit @ 2d6 damage per round.
Low AC Use groups of adversaries of lower level that can still hit but do more damage because they are in groups. For example, a grizzly bear does up to 33 damage per round at CR 4. A group of 12 goblins does up to 48 damage per round also at CR 4.
Low Strength A good low strength challenge is a trap that requires a strength check to get out of -- perhaps something with a large sliding rock. In addition, low strength is a strong disadvantage because the character can't carry anything very heavy. Force them to track the weight of things and apply penalties for their load. Also, hit them with climb and swim scenarios.
Low Dexterity Low dex characters are often weak when engaging ranged targets, because they have a poor ranged attack. A few archers out of reach can be really bad. Also, have them get captured and tied up -- they'll never be able to get loose (Escape Artist is dex-based). (See also Low Reflex Save)
Low Constitution Low constitution means low hp and a quick transition to death. Area effect spells like fireball are very effective if they can't make a reflex save (i.e. paralysis). (Also see Low Fortutude, Low HP)
Low Wisdom Low wisdom implies low perception, so use it by hiding everything. Use bluff against (vs sense motive, a wisdom skill.) Also leave them in the woods (survival is wisdom based). Another good one is to force them to use a heal check (WIS) to check if someone is dead. Not helping someone who is not dead yet can be devastating to a party, especially if there is a funeral pyre. (Also see Low Will Save)
Low Intelligence Hit them with INT-based knowledge checks over and over again. Also, force them to use appraise when buying items so they get ripped off every single time.
Low Charisma Make them talk to every person that comes along, splitting them off, if necessary. Use social skills to convince them of all sorts of things. There is nothing funnier than watching the low charism barbarian argue with the high charisma face after or during an NPC discussion when they are trying to figure out what to believe.
Low Will Save Charm them and hit them with Will save spells: Glitterdust is nice, especially against rogues and ninjas.  So many spells work on this: Lullaby, Sleep, Hold Person, Hypnotic Pattern, Deep Slumber, the list goes on.
Low Reflex Save Area and cone effect spells are nice. Traps with reflex saves are also effective.  Combine spells if necessary:  for example:  Entangle + Fireball.
Low Fortitude Save Poision and disease hit hard against fortitude. Suffocation spell.

Once you've looked over the core stats, look for weakness in the class.  Each class has things is does well, and doesn't do well.  Understanding these things helps the GM to counter individual classes.

Exploiting Pathfinder Weaknesses in Classes
Class How to Exploit
Fighter At lower levels, if they wear heavy armor, put them into situations with skill checks during combat that are affected by ACP. Also, attempt to engage them before combat with social skills, traps, and other things using skill points fighters just don't have -- how would you beat a fighter? With a club while he slept!
Arcane Casters (Sorcerer, Wizard, Summoner) Traditional arcane caster cannot easily engage in melee, so have a couple of hidden bad guys to emerge and attack them. In close combat, they die quick. It helps if you can otherwise engage any summoned creatures they have. Also, remember, if you kill the caster, the summons are gone. Spell: Enervation -- the negative levels cause the mage to lose all of their highest level spells.
Wizard Destroy the wizard's spellbook and he can't prepare spells anymore. A bit of fire will do the trick.
Rogue Generally, rogues can't do well when denied sneak attack, so faerie fire works nicely against them. Also, using large creatures with reach makes it much harder to flank. Tight spaces and clusters of enemies will also eliminate flanking and drive the rogue to frustration.
Cleric Clerics can be dangerous, but are easy occupied being a heal bot. Force them to use spells for healing and they won't have them for combat. It is also common for clerics to have horrible ACPs against them in heavy armor with shields, so if that is the case, hit them with swim, climb, and ride checks.
Sorcerer Sorcerers have a limited number of spells per day, and this has to cover both utility spells and combat. Try to set up obvious uses of utility spells in advance of combat to sap away some of their spells per day before they need them.
Druid Working in unnatural environments without animals could be slightly helpful. Need additional ideas.
Ranger (Ranged) Having enemies run up and surround a ranger is not a bad strategy, since they are usually worse melee fighters. Sundering their bow might be helpful.
Ranger (Two-Weapon) Wielding two weapons may reduce the ranger's AC quite a bit, so consider low AC strategies. It also is a good idea to sunder their weapon(s).
Barbarian Get them to use their rage at the wrong time -- i.e. before they need it or when suddenly a skill check is required that they can't make. Catch them when they are fatigued or exhausted. Make sure they can't get enough sleep. Spell: Waves of Fatigue.
Gunslinger Firearms are usually not common, so make sure they are always struggling to get some supply they need. Also, use attacks of opportunity when they are reloading to nail them. Use cover and large movement speeds to keep enemies at a miss chance. Keep the monsters touch AC high.
Monk Ranged attackers are usually pretty good against monks.
Magus The magus is all about making touch attacks. To keep the pressure on them, keep an adversary adjacent to them so they have to make concentration checks for their spells. Also, in lower levels, try to dispel their shield or mage armor to reduce their AC. Their HP isn't that deep usually, so once their AC drops, they die quick. Also, try to get them to use their limited spells at the wrong time (aka. too early) so they don't have them later when they need them.
Bard Silence them. Engage them head-on in combat. Avoid socializing with them. It is often a good idea to force them out of the socializing rule by giving them a problem. For example, maybe they are wanted as a pickpocket because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now they can't show their face.
Oracle Oracle is a class with a built-in weakness -- the oracle's curse. Use it against them whenever possible.
Witch The most powerful weakness of the witch is the power of superstition to be used against him. Witches get burned at the stake and tormented. Use this against the witch. Grab the torches and pitchforks!
Paladin Use their code of honor against them. Make sure they are always off balance. Lawful evil can beat lawful good every time. Also use false auras to ensure them spending a smite when it won't work.
Alchemist Fire immunity of enemies helps a lot.
Cavalier Terrain is the cavalier's worst nightmare -- i.e. take away his ability to adequately perform mounted combat with a charge.
Inquisitor Judgement bonus only are available when engaged in combat, so keeping the inquisitor out of combat (much like the cleric) is a good strategy.
Summoner Summoners hide behind their eidolon, but are extremely attached to them. In play these means separating the eidolon and summoner and hurting one of them so the other compromises their position.
Ninja For the ninja, much like the rogue, focus on eliminating sneak attack. The ninja has the second dimension of trying to get the ninja to use her Ki pool up too early so it is depleted by the time she needs it.  Non-combat usage of Ki is especially recommended:  Darkvision, possibly Shadow Clone, possibly Smoke Bomb, Sudden Disguise, Undetected Sabotage, Ventriloquism.
Samurai The samurai's lord can be a point of particular difficulty for the saumarai. Use this non-obvious NPC to wreak havoc on the samurai's plans.

In cases where you've already used up the obvious weaknesses or where the character truly is balanced, break into the background of the character for inspiration.  Every super hero tale revolves sooner or later about how the people that know and love the superhero are the superhero's greatest weakness, so look for significant people in your character's life.  Look for the obvious weaknesses they planted in the background.  Many people have dead parents -- maybe someone thinks that the character killed their own parents?  Many people are escaping something bad -- maybe they were the cause of it?  Players write these character backgrounds to be used -- make sure you use it against them as a weakness.

When no other weaknesses are available, it is time for the GM to manufacture some of them.  Here is a list of suggestions:

  • For mages, hypermagic fields, wild magic areas, and antimagic fields are gold.  It is scary to a mage when their magic won't work, but even scarier when small controlled effects get completely out of hand by either being too powerful or being completely unpredictable.
  • An intelligent weapon is a weakness waiting to happen.  Give it some exotic desire it wishes to fulfill and let it battle the PC for control.  Make sure you use it to annoy and distract the PC too.  And make it talk so it can always let all the enemies know that the PC are on their way.
  • Cursed items also give a nice weakness in a just-in-time fashion.  Place a cursed item in with other items of the same type that aren't cursed and leave them together just before the big battle.  Sooner or later someone is going to say "Hey, they must all be boots of speed." and put them on to find out that one pair are boots of slow.
  • Planted NPCs that join the party and then screw them over are always nice.  I had a thief that was always slightly higher level than the party.  He would join the party to act as their trap finder, since the players refused to play a rogue.  He would clear a room, let them go in and get into big trouble (usually a battle plus a trap he "missed"), and when things turned south, he would loot the bodies, steal things, and run away.
  • Disenchanters and rust monsters can take out magical and metal items quicker than anything.  
  • Overpowered magical items sometimes can bring weaknesses with them.  The necklace of fireball, for example, is a wonderful item, unless it gets hit by fire.  Then it can become a mushroom cloud of PC-killing evil.
  • Lack of needed items can be a big weakness.  Let the PCs run out of stuff they need:  gunslinger bullets, ranger arrows, water, food, light.  This becomes a big weakness in a hurry.
  • Blackmail is a good weakness, and there are lots of ways to fool a PC or group of PCs into doing something really bad without them even knowing about it.  And when they are done doing it, it is all the weakness a villain needs to exploit them.
  • Blindness / deafness spell:  PCs are one bad saving throw away from a big set of negatives that are permanent (until removed) and it is only a level 2/3 spell.
  • Black tentacles spell: no spell resistance, no saving throw.
  • Damage resistance:  Let's see how many weapons we can make do no damage.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Matter of Space: The Mythical 5' Square

As of late, having switched mostly these days to virtual tabletop gaming, I have come to notice the great difficulty in running on 5' square maps with 5' square tokens.  It is a simple enough explanation in the rule books -- that the 5 foot square is the fighting space for a single party member.  Still it bugs me.  In the older D&D tomes, you can find reference of a "3 wide shoulder-to-shoulder in a 10 foot hallway" reference and even 3 1/2 foot per inch squares in some OSR allowing 3 to fight side-by-side in a ten foot hallway.  On VTT this really doesn't need to translate to a new grid, but just smaller tokens with a bit more zoom.  Change noted.

As I move through my own home now, investigating the use of space, especially as we look to pick all these items up and move them to a new home in a new layout with a new sense of space, I don't find many mythical 5 foot squares left.  In this house, built in the 60s, there was space enough for things, but more along the lines of a 3 foot square or perhaps even a 2 1/2 foot square.  We have filled much of the space, to the edges and to the seams, even with two daughters leaving.  Like an ideal gas, we expand to fit the shape and size of our container.

The mythical 5 foot square now becomes a problem as we attempt to clear to the lower half of our home for painting and new carpet.  A five foot square in the garage holds spare desks.  A five foot square where we flipped over our dining room table holds a gelatinous cube-sized pile of boxes and miscellaneous items from the girls' bedrooms.  Closets hold boxes.  Walkways through the garage are overtaken  by boxes.  There are no more five foot squares left.

As I think ahead, to the new house, I am starting to size it up in 5' squares, and this time, to avoid this, I think I shall plan out some empty five foot squares, just like in a good dungeon.  It is good to have space, to move, to breath, to escape the clutter of things.  A good battle doesn't have all its foes lined up one-by-one to be killed, but instead engage across the party all at once.  Similarly the flow of a home should allow movement outside a single walk-through path.  Space should have an opportunity to tug and draw one, on foot and in the eye.

This same principle, I will apply to new maps, as I find them, and as I make them.  Five foot squares for everyone!  As the Darklands open up on Fridays, let the space open up and envelop them, just like that gelatinous cube, living in my dining room, made of the living junk, excavated from the bedrooms below.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Move: Fighting Coax

It is unfortunate, but even the pre-move things don't seem to be going as well as expected, and it has impacted even my online games.  I had hoped to be hosting games at either the new or old house, but the new house has an evil secret.

Deep in the bowels of the new house, which supposedly has cable internet hooked up now, is a nest of around 40 coax cables running to everywhere.  It turns out the house was wired for dual satellite plus cable, meaning many of the rooms have three coax drops.  There are also phone and DSL drops.  That is a lot of cable.

In the beginning it seemed simple, in that the cable TV drops were unfinished, and I could just hook them up and voila... internet.  But no -- one of the previous occupants decided to "fix" this and now there is a mangled mes of unlabeled cables that may or may not hold the key to getting cable hooked up.  It is nice that they are mostly housed behind the panels of the drop ceiling in the basement, but still, it is impossible to trace them down, especially when I can't even see where the CATV comes in, and I have no tools for testing which cable is live, since it requires special CATV boxes and modems, which I know are notorious for not quickly connecting.  I tried my TV, but it says no signal on everything, which I'm not sure I really believe.  What I wouldn't give for an RF power meter that would work with the CATV signal?

Anyway, I broke down and a contractor is coming out to trace the cables and get the basics up and running.  At the cost of a contractor, I just want the bare minimum up and running -- 3 drops.  In addition, I purchased Klein Tools Cable Tester than has the ability to test and trace up to 4 endpoints, in the hopes that future links can be reconfigured after I have gone through the tedious task of labeling all of the non-active drops.

Meanwhile my box of cable TV and internet hardware is doing a nice job of holding up a TV hooked to an antenna, and my box of networking cables and routers is acting as a nice side table.  The good news is that years of playing Pathfinder and other RPGs has prepared me well for having my plans and schemes destroyed and for rewriting them on the fly.  I just hope that we can get the games going again before the holidays take their toll and drag everyone off to other things.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Port Wayne Campaign

So I wrote an extension to Pathfinder for post-modern because I was tired of fighting Shadowrun and not looking to invest another wad of money in 5th edition.  Mostly, I like Pathfinder because of the OGL aspect so my players can play basically for free, and the greater community makes money off of me buying books and supplements.

The extension is lovingly referred so far to as Dead Channel Sky, an obvious tribute to the cyberpunk genre king William Gibson.  My design goal was to extend, not rewrite, normal Pathfinder.  By simplifying a lot of extension rules and rebalancing using new equipment, new archetypes, new classes, and a couple of new races, I am trying to make Pathfinder come alive in a post modern campaign.  Traditional Pathfinder sorcerers can now fight alongside modern gunslingers with machines guns and hackers.  The best part, however, for DCS, is that it has nothing too closely tied to setting.  As a result, I am taking my own homebrew Port Wayne Shadowrun setting and reusing it as a test.

Our band of 4 was able to get through character creation in person, but the impending move has forced me to move the game online.  Roll20 and teamspeak3 come to the rescue again; but this time, I am sandboxing it and making up stuff as we go along with a rough outline already in my head.  Unlike my other Pathfinder campaigns, this one is going to be very free-form.  It makes it more fun for all of us.  My roll20 prep is simple -- loading a bunch of urban maps in advance.

The campaign, for me, is a playtest as well as just a really fun game.  I get to see where things might break and where things don't work and where complexity isn't fun.  First hand experience playing these things helps a lot.  It also helps that both of my younger daughters are playing in the campaign, so I can see when they are and aren't having fun and adjust.

Session 1 started out in a club.  The party is a foblin (flying goblin race of size tiny) bard with a new archetype "Face", a human pilot (new class), a human gunslinger with a new archetype "Overkill Gunner", and a cavalier with the new archetype "Leatherback".  The foblin is named Mr. Fixit, the gunslinger is Vee, the pilot is named Ziggy, and the cavalier is Caversen.

Fixit and Caverson are Dubs, a nomadic band of VW-loving hippies that inhabit the ground floor and specialize in providing cheap taxi service.  Fixit is their spokes-person to the elder council of the ground floor and Caverson is his body guard, provided by the council.  Ziggy and Vee are privately hired to keep an eye on Fixit, and the four of them also take on jobs, as needed, to pay the bills.

Cav and Fixit are enjoying a smoke and a drink.  It is noticed that a gal at the next table iswatching Fixit.  The group gets suspicious, but they get a message from Spinner, their business contact, to meet them at this very bar.  They wait; Spinner shows up, dressed in a  gaudy blue suit.

The business proposition is a simple snatch 'n' grab in the security zone on the edge of Port Wayne.  They have a guy in a safe house to pick up.  Negotiation to $1200 each is easy and Spinner picks up the tabs on the drinks.  Spinner leaves.

The party turns its attention back to this lady, who now seems to be operating some device under the table while staring at Fixit.  The group heads for the bathroom, keeping Fixit surrounded.  The gal and her new troll friend, who had entered the club with an obvious gun, then leave the club.

Fixit would like to take flight out the window in the bathroom, but it is barred to keep folks jumping their bar tabs.

The party heads outside.  The gal from earlier is in a car.  They get to the corner and find the troll hanging out.  Vee draws her weapon, and everyone moves out to get Fixit out of here.  Vee and Cav head to the bike, Fixit gets in the limo back-end that has no top, known as the Chariot.  It is the honorable transport for the Dub representative to the council, aka The Dub Council Dude.  Normally it would be on a hitch on the motorbike, and they don't notice that it is unhooked.

Ziggy gets hit on by the troll, while the gal starts driving.  Cav pulls away on the bike, but the trailer is unhooked.  The troll tackles Ziggy and the gal tries to shoot Fixit with a net gun, but misses.  The troll and gal take off, while Cav runs his bike into a junk car, trying to get back to Fixit.

Meanwhile Fixit has been conversing with a contact trying to get info on the two folks.  As Fixit  later explains, they are from the lab where he was created, and they are trying to get him back.  The gal, for all intents and purposes, is Fixit's scientist mom.

They head on to Metaburger, grab way too much food, and then head on to the hotel.  A good night's rest for most does the trick, though Fixit is up part of the night sick from the "food".

The morning brings breakfast and a quick run to the S-zone.  They find the house, and it looks bare and empty.  They go in and see something moving, but don't find their target just yet.  To be continued next time...

Here are my playtest notes:

  • Need stats for modern walls
  • Need to explain rules for 'texting'
  • Need to look if Foblins are overpowered as a rogue thief.

Ranier Leaves: The Rise of the Runelords

The week the party rescued the beautiful Xeneshu.  She was the most beautiful hal-elf he had ever seen (Ranier was charmed by her.)  She kept her safe while they turned in the judge to the authorities.  Once everything cleared through and they received their reward, Xeneshu was gone.

Ranier followed the party onward to investigate reports at a local fort near Turtleback Ferry.  His heart just wasn't in it though.  While the party slept on the way out of town, Ranier left the party and left behind this note:

My Fellows,

I've reached the end of this road and I am taking my leave of all of you.  Bigger things await me.  My destiny is yet to be found.

To my friend Alex, I return the deed to the townhouse in Magnimar.  Unfortunately, my path still requires access to the Misgivings, and so that deed I am keeping.  Do not follow me there and do not venture there for the next two weeks.  I will recover what I need from that place and then be gone.  The deed will be left behind the painting of Iesha on the second floor in the hall with all the other paintings.  I also leave behind for you Abyssal<->Infernal translation book that I purchased, my compass, a chime of opening, a masterwork scimitar, a ring of protection +1, and a potion of heroism.  Also, you may have my cloak of elvenkind.  Please find a way to protect the rest of the party.

To my colleague Jericho, I leave you my fortune of 1026 gold pieces, a +1 mithral chain shirt, and a +1 scimitar.  I also leave you my manacles and marbles.  Two potions of cure moderate rooms have also found their way into you pack, along with a masterwork longsword.  Good travels for you, my friend.

For Tari, the great blade of our party, I leave you a Composite longbow (Str+2), 80 arrows, my wayfinder, my traveler's any-tool, and potions of shatter, remove fear, remove blindness/deafness, hold portal, cure light wounds, charm animal.  I also leave you my belt of giants strength (Str+2) and an amulet of natural armor +1.  I also leave you my boots of the cat.  Please also take care of my companion Sol.  He will find no happiness on the trek ahead, but perhaps he will find it with you.  Please use you blade for good and your mouth for nothing more than you have to, lest you annoy the others to homicidal tendencies.

My magical items I yet keep with me.  I consider that I may yet need their power to complete my planned transformation.  If ever we should meet again, I bid you all find a way to leave me quickly, for I shall not be the same.