Search This Blog

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Campaigns update

Greetings! Long time, no talk. I don't have any intriguing topics to discuss today. Instead, I'd like to update you all with the status of various projects that I've been working on for the past few months: HERO LAB coding I've been chipping away at coding various Hero Lab projects. Here's where I stand: 6 Godling Feats - 42.8% complete 8 Dragonrider Feats - 75% complete 9 Inquisitor Feats - 100% complete Adept Godling - 29.4% complete Advanced Races Compendium alterations - 87.2% complete Assassin rework - 82% complete Battle Lord validation - 28.6% complete Binder - 2.5% complete Genius Guide to Bravery Feats - 54.2% complete Cackle of the Gnolls - 93.9% complete Legendary Cavaliers - 20.2% complete Clever Godling - 33.6% complete Divine Channeler (validate) - 16.2% complete Dunes of Desolation - 6.2% complete Eldritch Godling - 64.3% complete Genius Guide to Expanded Favored Class Options - 100% complete Fortunate (rebuild of the Luckbringer class) - 17.7% complete Everyman Minis: Gnoll Options - 88.9% complete House Rules - 100% complete Everyman Minis: Mesmerist Feats - 100% complete Mighty Godling - 39% complete Psychological Maneuvers - 43.2% complete Legendary Rogues - 96.6% complete Everyman Minis: Sleeping Rules - 100% complete Spellpoints Compilation - 44.9% complete Survivor - 100% complete Treasury of the Pharaohs - 14.3% complete Unchained Monk Archetypes - 9.6% complete Curse of the Crimson Throne All content for book 6 created in Roll20. Mummy's Mask All content for book 2 created in Roll20. The Reach of Empire (Against the Aeon Throne, book 1) All content created in Roll20. Character management tool still to be determined.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Duality: An alignment alternative

 Alignment in Pathfinder or D&D is a heated topic.  Some curse its existence, and hope to see it banished with each new edition of their preferred game.  Others will swear by it and claim that the game can't be played without it.  It's hard to find folks that don't have a strong opinion about alignment.  I used to be an alignment apologist.  I would find intricate ways to justify its usefulness in the game, finding all kinds of convoluted arguments to use a system of nine categories to describe the variety of human moral and ethical belief.  Until recently, I never stopped to ask if the d20 alignment system did the job it was intended to do.

The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game defines alignment as "A creature’s general moral and personal attitudes...Alignment is a tool for developing your character’s identity—it is not a straitjacket for restricting your character. Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies".  5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons says alignment "broadly describes (a creature's) moral and personal attitudes. Alignment is a combination o f two factors: one identifies morality (good, evil, or neutral), and the other describes attitudes toward society and order (lawful, chaotic, or neutral)."  2nd Edition Pathfinder does nothing to change the alignment system from 1st Edition.  In fact, alignment as a system of codifying character morality and beliefs hasn't changed at all since 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, published in 1979.  

As a mean sof defining very broad elements of a character's personality and social views, I guess alignment works.  At least it gives a player six choices that can be combined into 9 different alignments.  You get good versus evil, law versus chaos, and "I don't give a shit" (neutral along both axes).  That's all very fine and well, but does describing your character as "Chaotic Neutral" really aid you in deciding what your character's personality is?  The interpretations of each of the nine alignments varies wildly in the gaming community, and has even changed over the course of successive iterations of the game.  The 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook describes a Chaotic Neutral alignment as follows "lunatics and madmen tend toward chaotic neutral behavior."

The other issue with alignment is that it forces you to play in a setting where Good and Evil are real and tangible forces in the world.  And those forces are defined by a Judeo-Christian code of morality.  Generosity is good, greed is bad.  Anger is bad, serenity is good.  Good guys protect the innocent and helpless, bad guys rob and steal and pillage.  If that's the kind of game you want to play, then alignment probably works for you.  

Lately, in the games that I've run, I've been drawn towards portraying a world where morality is relative.  The world of mortals represents the merging of all cosmic forces and ideals, but isn't truly a reflection of any of them.  It is a world where conflicting ideologies clash, change, transform, survive, die and are reborn.  It is the battlefield upon which the ideals of the cosmos wage war for survival.  Furthermore, it is a world where Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Jesus and all the prophets, apostles and saints never existed.  Indeed, the entire concept of monotheism doesn't exist, because gods are real.  There is conclusive proof that multiple gods exist and take an active part in the lives of mortals.  In such a world, the concepts of Good and Evil are relative to the observer.  There is no Bible or Qoran or Talmud, which all tend to align on the topic of what is Good versus what is Evil.  Rather, there are multiple holy texts, one or more for each god, that define what is desirable behavior in the world and what is against the philosophy of the relevant god.

Think of two faithful people in such a campaign world.  One worships the god of hearth and home, community and family.  The other worships the god of war, battle and conflict.  The disciple of the god of home and hearth believes in stability, cooperation, and individual sacrifice for the betterment of the greater community.  This ideals are considered "Good" to this believer.  Anything opposed to these ideals would be labeled as "Evil."  Meanwhile, the war god worshiper believes that victory in battle is the ultimate judge of right and wrong.  He believes that conflict tears down old ideas and makes way for new ones.  They believe that change is constant, and that the world is always in flux.  Does he consider himself "Evil" just because his beliefs directly oppose those of the god of Community?  Of course not!  From his perspective, the tenets of the Community god are "Evil", because they directly oppose his own beliefs.  In this kind of world, every mortal is the hero of their own story.

In order to create a system that codifies the moral and ethical beliefs of the mortal world, we must first discard "good" and "evil" as useful terms.  "Good" is simply what you believe, and if others believe the same things, then they are "Good" too.  Anyone that believes something opposed to your beliefs is "Evil", and therefore should be opposed.  Instead, we need to look closely at the Abrahamic faith's definitions of what constitutes good and what is evil, and find suitable replacement words that are not fraught with our real-world's moral context.  I offer my apologies to any Buddhist or Hindu readers out there; I was raised a Christian, so my religious knowledge mostly extends to Christianity, it's precursors and it's cousins.

For Catholics, there are seven seven "deadly sins", which provides us with a good jumping-off point.  These deadly sins are pride, anger, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and sloth.  The general theme of these seems to be selfishness, or "self-full-ness" (yeah, I just made that word up). Maybe we can summarize these "sins" as the belief that it is more important to better yourself than others.  Or maybe that your welfare comes before that of others.  Something like that might work.  But to strip out real-world connotations of words like "selfish" or "self-centered", we need to find replacement ideas that aren't so laden with moral judgment.  

The opposed ideals to the seven deadly sins would therefore be the opposite of the sin, i.e. humility, serenity, generosity, temperance, love, contentment and diligence.  If the sins describe selfishness, then their polar opposites would describe the opposite: Selflessness.  But we still have a problem, because "selfish" and "selfless" have moral connotations of their own in our world.  Selfless is good, selfish is bad, and therefore "Evil".  Instead, we need to find words that don't bog us down in real-world religious moral codes.  How about this: "Selfless" implies taking care of others before taking care of yourself.  This notion can also be described as "sacrifice" because one gives of themselves to help others.  The contrary ideal, therefore, would be a word that describes someone who is more interested in giving to themselves.  "Self-fulfilling" is a bit clunky, so what about calling this ideal "fulfillment"?  Thus, to a person who holds sacrifice as a core belief, fulfillment would be evil.  Conversely, a believer in fulfillment would consider sacrifice to be evil.

After settling on satisfactory replacements for good and evil, I turned to the other primary alignment axis: Law versus Chaos.  Connotation once again reared its ugly head when I looked at Chaos.  In today's modern, organized and structured society, the term 'chaos' has taken on a negative meaning.  So once again, I need to find another word that means the same thing, but isn't viewed so differently.  'Change' occurred to me, but I didn't think it reflected the best antonym of  'law', so I decided on 'flux' as the replacement for Chaos.  As for "Law", I never really considered it to be the best representation of the concepts it was meant to portray, so I made a decision to rename it 'order'.  Boom!  Law and Chaos are done.

So far, I've replaced Good, Evil, Law and Chaos with four ideals named Sacrifice, Fulfillment, Order and Flux.  Great!  Now what?

Since the gods of a campaign world are the primary means by which morality is dictated to mortals, I thought that maybe I would have a look at the cleric domains that exists in PFRPG.  Hopefully, I could find opposing domains that would line up in neat pairs and my work would be complete.  Sadly, it didn't turn out that way.  Some worked out nicely: Air and Earth turned out to be great opposites, as did Fire and Water.  Life and Death were no-brainers, and it turned out that Community paired well with Travel.  The rest of them required some work; some domains just needed to be renamed so that they would better reflect their opposition to another domain.  Some domains didn't seem to have a counterpart, so I created them.

I don't want to turn this post into a lengthy discourse on morality.  My aim was to describe the thought process that led me to the system I am now going to detail.  I call it Duality.  The concept for Duality is based strongly on the Removing Alignment section of Pathfinder Unchained (pp. 100-101).

The core principle of Duality is that for every attitude, idea and belief that a creature holds, there is a competing, opposite attitude, idea or belief.  These beliefs are referred to as ideals. An ideal is a character's personal commitment to a moral, ethical or social philosophy, a belief that determines what that character believes about themselves and influences how they interact with the world around them.  They are the principles that inform the character what is "good" behavior and what is "evil".  Ideals are the line drawn in the sand over which the character shall not cross.  It is the hill they will die upon to defend and uphold.  In essence, they are a code of personal conduct the character commits to, and holds dear to their heart.

One key point to remember about ideals is that while they still attempt to categorize morality, ethics and social beliefs, the list below is only a sample.  A player is free to create and define their own ideal, so long as it also defines the ideal's opposition as well.  Second, like alignment, ideals are a framework that players can use to help flesh out their character's personality.  But ideals are more granular and less vague than alignment.  They provide a broader, more specific selection of choices, each of which is designed to require less interpretation and more inspiration for character development.  Lastly, ideals should never be used as a requirement for a race or class; unlike alignment, ideals are strictly role playing tools (but we'll talk about the rules implications of that later).

So, without any further rambling, here is the Duality system:

Ideal Opposes Domain
Accord Conflict None
Art Labor None
Cold-blooded Warm-blooded Scalykind
Community Travel Community
Conflict Accord War
Creation Destruction Artifice
Dark Light Darkness
Death Life Death
Decay Renewal Decay (subdomain)
Defense Offense Protection
Destruction Creation Destruction
Discovery Knowledge Revelation (subdomain)
Equality Privilege None
Fate Luck Fate (subdomain)
Flux Order Chaos
Fulfillment Sacrifice Evil
Guile Strength Thought (subdomain)
Honesty Trickery Truth (subdomain)
Humility Pride None
Knowledge Discovery Knowledge
Labor Art Toil (subdomain)
Liberation Servitude Liberation
Life Death Growth (subdomain)
Light Dark Light (subdomain)
Love Lust Love (subdomain)
Luck Fate Luck
Lust Love Lust (subdomain)
Madness Stability Madness
Magic Science Magic
Moon Sun Moon (subdomain)
Offense Defense None
Order Flux Law
Pride Humility Glory
Privilege Equality Nobility
Renewal Decay Healing
Sacrifice Fulfillment Good
Science Magic None
Servitude Liberation None
Stability Madness Memory (subdomain)
Strength Guile Strength
Sun Moon Sun
Travel Community Travel
Trickery Honesty Trickery
Void Weather Void
Warm-blooded Cold-blooded Animal
Weather Void Weather


Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Player's Perspective: Creating Characters

 Before I finish off the series on adding tension to your game with a post about social interaction, I have two posts that I want to commit to the digital archive: The first is some thoughts about character creation and how to approach it differently.  The other is about a possible system to replace alignment.  The former is offered below.

How we engage with the game

The ways that we conceive and create characters are as varied as people are.  Some gain inspiration from TV, movies or novels and create a character from a particularly interesting persona.  Others may decide on a race and class, and build their character around those two central elements.  A single name, such as "Sprinkles the Barbarian" could generate a character concept (it did for me).  As a player, you may be tempted to create your character independently from the rest of the players in your campaign.  I encourage my players to play the character they want, and not feel shoehorned into playing what the group lacks (i.e. a cleric).  But if you do so, you should still consider some important points that will help improve both your enjoyment of the game and the enjoyment of the players gaming with you.

To start, let's talk about the different ways that we engage with the game and how we can ask questions and make decisions about our character from those perspectives.  I can think of three different ways we approach a game and interact with it:

We are individuals playing a game

Like any game, roleplaying games have rules.  The rules may feature prominently during play, or they may reside in the background and inform how play progresses.  Either way, an understanding of the rules is a necessary element to effectively play the game. The rules tell us what abilities we have, what our strengths and weaknesses are and, based on our choices, what we can and cannot do.  In effect, we choose a collection of rules for our character, and then apply those rules in the game with the aim of being effective.

When approaching a roleplaying game, we should be looking at what the game's core activity is.  It's not hard to figure out that in Pathfinder, the core activity is combat.  You defeat monsters by engaging them in combat, and by defeating them, you gain experience points and treasure that help you become more effective in combat.  If you are preparing to play a published Adventure Path, your character will not be effective if you don't give them at least some abilities that benefit them in combat.  It is natural, I think, to recognize this and tend towards building a character that is as effective in combat as the rules allow them to be.  If I'm creating a fighter, I would have a high Strength, choose feats like Power Attack, Weapon Focus, Improved Initiative, and Improved Critical; if I make a wizard, I would be sure that he knows how to cast magic missile, grease, glitterdust and darkness; all of these selections accomplish the goal of making my character effective in combat.  

In short, there's nothing wrong with creating effective characters.  Efficacy leads to success, and success leads to fun.  Why else would we play a game but to have fun?  This tendency, nay, impremis, to make effective characters can be taken to extremes, however.  While games like Pathfinder's core activity is undeniably combat, it is not the game's only activity.  In earlier posts, I've written about how both Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder describe three modes of engagement with their game.  Combat is certainly the most prominent, but the creators of these games also call out exploration and social interaction  as important elements in a roleplaying game.  If we fall into the trap of focusing only on the core activity, we will have a character that is ineffective in other game activities.  For example, as my fighter gains levels, I continue to give him feats and abilities that make him more effective in combat.  I continue to increase his Strength, I give him bonuses to his Constitution so he has more hit points, and I choose feats like Cleave, Vital Strike, Improved Weapon Focus, Critical Focus, and Weapon Specialization.  My wizard selects spells like black tentacles, fireball, haste and scorching ray for the same reasons.  But when my combat-effective wizard or fighter is asked to explore  a desert in search of an ancient tomb, they have nothing to contribute.  If they need to negotiate with a mercenary company to enlist their aid, they bring nothing that can help them with this task.  Optimized characters are not always effective characters.

I've fallen into this trap myself, and can tell you from experience that optimized characters are frustrating for two reasons.  First, all they can do is fight.  If the PCs aren't fighting, your character might as well not be there; there's nothing for them to do.  Secondly, combat becomes routine and easy. You mow down row after row of opponents, taking damage but dealing out twice as much.  Nothing can stand against you, and as you pile victory upon victory, interest inevitably wanes.  Games are meant to present us with a challenge; if the challenge disappears, the game starts to be not fun.  Here's a secret that the optimizers don't want you to know: The game isn't built to handle optimized characters. Seriously.  And there is a very sensible reason that the game was designed this way: Not every player knows how (or wants to) optimize their characters.  The designers need to assume that characters will have at least some abilities that are not focused on hitting things and hurting them.  So the challenges that are placed in front of the players assume that the PCs are well-balanced with regards to all modes of play.  If your character is optimized for combat, they will not only be effective; they will be too effective.

So as an individual playing a game, try to keep in mind that there are other modes of play besides combat.  How will your character participate in these modes?  Would a few ranks in Survival allow your character to be effective during exploration?  How about some love for Diplomacy, Bluff and Sense Motive?  Are there any feats that would allow you more access to skills?  How about some feats that aren't combat-focused?  Think about all of the activities that Pathfinder encompasses, and try to choose abilities, skills and feats that will allow your character to participate in all of them.

If you can't quite make that leap of faith, then perhaps look at combat options that don't affect attack and damage bonuses. Look at your character for vulnerabilities, and try to shore those up.  My fighter has a pretty shitty Will save: Iron Will might be a good feat choice.  My wizard keeps failing checks against Spell Resistance: Spell Penetration to the rescue.  My rogue's armor class sucks: Dodge, Mobility and some potions of mirror image would help.  Look at your character in a broader perspective.  Find gaps and address them.  The game is more than attack and damage, it is also the ability to withstand attack and damage.

The great thing about choosing non-combat abilities for your character is that they allow you to ask "why." "Why does my character have this ability?" "What event  in my character's life made this a logical choice?"  What does my selection say about my character's personality, fears, ambitions and obstacles?"  Which segues us nicely into the second way we engage with a roleplaying game:

We are performers portraying a character

By it's very name, a roleplaying game assumes that the players will take on and perform a role, or persona, when engaged with the game.  This takes us out of the rules for the game, and brings us into an improvisational space, where we act and the other players react to our action, along with the world that surrounds our character.  This is scary for a lot of people.  By nature, we are social creatures because our ancestors were.  Primates found that they were more likely to survive and propagate if they lived in groups.  Such groups gradually evolved behaviors that were acceptable to the group, as well as those that were not.  Unacceptable social behavior risked rejection from the social group, and possibly ostracism, leading to a decreased chance of the ostracized individual's survival.  As descendants of primates, we instinctively seek social approval, and shy away from behavior that would bring ridicule or scorn from our social connections.  It's understandable, therefore, that many people defer from role playing.  Acting unlike ourselves risks appearing foolish to our peers.  The average human brain does not want to do this because our monkey brains tell us that it's bad.  It isn't unusual to find a player who simply doesn't engage with this aspect of roleplaying games; it's less threatening and risky to just play your character as a collection of bonuses and penalties, numbers collected on a piece of paper or computer screen that dictate your character's chances of success at a given task.  

In order for a roleplaying-averse player to successfully test the waters of improvisation, there must exist a safe space for them to take that first plunge.  This requires a GM that encourages roleplaying, and a group of players who welcome and respond positively to it.  There cannot be any scorn or criticism, lest that player may never make the attempt again.  But here's the thing: If the environment is safe and the player makes the attempt, the outcome will be amazing.  Transformative, even.  Experiencing no negative consequences to your attempt to portray someone else, you become more willing to make the attempt again.  A positive feedback loop emerges as you experiment with ideas for your character, and act them out in front of your friends.  The fear of rejection and ridicule recedes, and you begin to gain confidence in your ability to step outside yourself.  

Ensuring that we have a welcoming environment for safe role playing, let's consider our characters from a story perspective.  Consider for a moment any good novel that you have read.  What about that novel made it "good"?  Was it the story?  Maybe the setting?  Both are likely, but interesting characters probably factored strongly into your opinion.  What constitutes an interesting character will vary from one opinion to another, but I think we can agree that one-dimensional characters are boring.  I mean, would you read a novel that just detailed the blow-by-blow account of one fight after another?  Or one that just documented the spells that a wizard casts against a succession of foes?  Of course not!  I seek out fiction that offers me characters with goals (and obstacles that get in the way of achieving those goals), with strengths and talents, but more importantly with flaws and defects of character.  I look for characters that are complicated and multi-faceted, much like real people.  Despite my many, many deficits, creating complex characters seems to be one of my strong suits.  A few examples of characters I have created and played:

  • A fighter who participated in an ill-fated rebellion, and suffered a devastating leg injury.  Translating this into a rules structure meant that Ormald the Lame had a Dexterity score of 6.  Ormald also grew up in a fishing village, the son of a fisherman.  Ormald hated fish, and was creeped out by their look, smell and feel.  Any time he encountered a fishy-looking monster, he suffered a -2 penalty to attack rolls and saving throws.  This was a self-imposed condition, not codified by any rules.
  • A gnome barbarian whose rage manifested more like a spastic fit.  When not enraged, Sprenkel was polite to a fault.  But when he entered his 'rage', he would flail around as though in an epileptic seizure, spouting nonsense phrases in a patois of gnomish and sylvan.  He was unfailingly loyal to a fellow gnome adventurer, and eventually left the team when a rift developed between the gnomes and the other player characters.  
  • A halfling rogue and freed slave who bought his freedom by informing on escaped slaves.  Fenton started the campaign with a Lawful Evil alignment, and felt no remorse about benefiting from the capture of his fellow halflings.  He enjoyed his freedom a bit too much, though, and ran up a significant gambling debt, forcing him to flee his native city.  When the character reached 2nd level, he took a level in oracle, which played out as Fenton being selected by the goddess of freedom and travel to serve as her emissary.  Fenton had no idea why Desna chose him and hated it.  He referred to her as "Dizzy Twinkletits", and fought her will at every opportunity.  In game terms, each time he leveled, I randomly rolled to see if he took a level in rogue or oracle.  If he took a level in oracle, his alignment would shift one step towards Chaotic Good.
  • A human cavalier who flunks at becoming a paladin of the god of home, family and community.  Nonetheless, he holds strong religious convictions, and tries to convert everyone he meets.  He acts in accord with a paladin code, but has no paladin abilities.  He has a Charisma score of 8, so he fails quite often in his conversion efforts, but he remains positive and undaunted (at least for now).

I like to create characters that have internal conflicts or limitations, and see how those resolve in play.  I want my characters to have a personal story that may not necessarily align with the campaign plot, but one that also will not derail the campaign arc.  There are a lot of ways that you can create interesting and complex characters.  You can work from the general to the specific, coming up with a general concept and then selecting feats, abilities and skills that support that concept.  You can also work from the specific to the general, choosing your character's mechanics and then asking why your character has those abilities.  What events in your character's backstory would make your choices logical and compelling? 

I've found that the Background Generator from Paizo's Ultimate Campaign is a great source of inspiration; if you feel stuck, make a few rolls randomly and see if the results spark the creative muse.  A few words of caution, however, when making your character's goals and dreams, fears and flaws: First, make sure that they are unresolved when the character enters play.  If the character has reconciled their inner conflict or achieved their goal before play starts, there's no space in-game to explore them.  They've already happened, and aren't anything but a footnote that probably won't even get mentioned during the game.  Second, find a way to resolve them during the game.  If the character doesn't grow and change over the course of the campaign, they become one-dimensional.

Let's say you have a concept for a character that hates orcs.  It's a good starting point.  Ask yourself why they hate orcs and then maybe find a class/race combination that would allow your character to express that hatred in a rules framework.  Next, find opportunities (working with your GM) to question that hatred.  Perhaps an orc saves the character's life, or they witness a community of orcs living peacefully in a human community.  Let the character doubt their convictions; test their resolve and give them opportunities to change.  "He's the ranger that hated orcs, but gradually changed his opinion of them, even welcoming one onto his team by the end of the campaign" is a lot more interesting than "He's the ranger that hates orcs."

I've made a few references to novels, and how we can draw inspiration from them in our efforts to create compelling characters.  We need to remember, however, that our character isn't just a protagonist in a narrative; they are one of an ensemble of characters, developing in an emerging, shared improvisation.  Give your character permission to grow, learn and change.  Allow their vulnerabilities to challenge them.  Let them surprise you!  Your fellow player characters are going to do things that will threaten your beliefs, expose your fears and allow your virtues to shine.  Let it happen.  Practice the improv dictum of "Yes, and."  Accept what your fellow players offer you, and build upon it.  Your characters will be the richer for it, and your enjoyment and engagement with the game will be vastly improved.

Speaking of your fellow players, it's time to discuss the third way that we engage with a roleplaying game:

We are participants in a social event

A role playing game is a group activity.  Well, it doesn't have to be, but most are.  One person is the Game Master and anywhere from two to twenty are the players (but may God have mercy on your soul if you have twenty players).  This group of people gather in a shared space, be it in person or online, and agree to participate in a cooperative game.  That's the deal.  If you are playing to tell the story of your character's existential angst in a cruel and uncaring world, write a novel instead.  Seriously, roleplaying games like Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons are a shared, cooperative experience.  Your brooding loner has no place here.

Much of the experience of a cooperative game boils down to some simple rules which most of us learned in kindergarten.  Let's look at a few:

Take turns: Since there is more than one player in your game, you will, by necessity, have to wait until it is your character's turn to do something.  When your turn comes around may be dictated by the rules of the game, or it may be free-form.  Either way, the spotlight cannot always be on you.  Your turn may come around in a few minutes, or maybe a half-hour; regardless, when you are waiting for your time in the sun, sit patiently, quietly and attentively.  Try really hard not to disengage from the game when it's not your turn.  If you grab your phone and watch YouTube videos the moment after your turn is over, it shows a lack of respect for your fellow players, a lack of interest in their actions, and a disregard for the spirit of teamwork that the game tries to build.  When your turn ends, immediately start planning what your next turn's activities will be.  Pay attention to what develops when other players are acting.  Adjust your intentions accordingly.  In our modern world of ever-shrinking attention spans, this can be challenging.  If it's not delivered to us in a 30-second soundbite or 80-character tweet, we have a tendency to check out mentally.  Computer RPG's may pander to this proclivity, but tabletop RPG's cannot.  See if you can exercise your  attention skills by staying focused on the game, and the other player's contributions to it.  Your GM will thank you for it.  I will thank you for it.

Share your toys: In a roleplaying game, we all want to be special snowflakes.  We want our character to fight well, to heal well, to find traps well, to bluff well.  If we decide to invest in a skill or feat, we want to have a chance to use it.  There's nothing wrong with that desire; why else would we have chosen that given ability.  And a lot of times, there's skills or feats that we can use without any impact on the other players.  Look at the Acrobatics skill in Pathfinder.  We can make Acrobatics checks to navigate a narrow ledge, or leap across a chasm, or slip past an enemy, all without taking anything away from the other players.  The same can be said for skills like Climb, Escape Artist, Heal, and Ride.  But there are other abilities that can steal another player's moment in the spotlight and reduce the amount of fun that player gets out of the game.  

Take the Knowledge skill as an example.  During character creation, you decide that your character has some training in history, and therefore you take a few ranks in Knowledge (history).  Meanwhile, one of your fellow players' character concept is a historian; their ranks in Knowledge (history) are at their maximum allowable.  Along comes a clue that requires a successful Knowledge (history) check to decipher.  This presents an opportunity for the historian to shine, but since your character has a few ranks as well, you feel entitled to make a check yourself. Despite the fact that the historian has a better statistical chance of success, you succeed on your check and he fails.  You've just taken away an opportunity for the historian be a special snowflake.

This should be one of the topics that gets addressed during a Session Zero of a campaign.  All the players should work together to discuss the things that make their characters special so that no other character intrudes into their "territory."  This isn't to say that there can't be any overlap; on the contrary, redundancy can often be a life-saver in a roleplaying game.  Go ahead and take a couple of ranks in Disable Device, even if another player's rogue character is a trap specialist.  But instead of making a separate roll to disable that nasty pit trap, why not instead use the Aid Another action, giving your rogue a bonus to their chance of disarming the trap, but still allowing that player the chance to make the check and celebrate the success (or mourn the failure)?  During Session Zero, find out what makes each character shine, and don't take away opportunities for them to do so.

If your fighter has the Cleave feat, think about how you can maneuver your enemies into positions that allows the fighter to cleave.  If your rogue has the sneak attack ability, try to position your character so that you set up flanking, allowing your rogue to shine.  If your wizard likes to lob fireballs into clusters of opponents, don't rush into melee combat and get in the way of the wizard's fireball.  Instead, delay your turn so that the wizard can blow shit up, and then charge away!  In short, think about what makes each character special, and work to improve their chances to shine.  If all the players act in this way, everyone will have their moments in the sun.  You'll also find that your rag-tag bunch of homicidal vagabonds are acting like a team instead of a collection of individuals.

Play nicely: As with any social gathering, there is an unwritten expectation that you will conduct yourself in a socially-acceptable manner.  This expectation includes being polite, respectful, courteous and controlled.  And with this expectation comes a potential minefield when playing a roleplaying game.  The expectation of proper social conduct applies to us as individuals playing a game, but not to us as performers portraying a character.  While we, as people, are expected to be polite and respectful to our fellow players, our characters are free to be as rude, crass and unrestrained as we want them to be.  Some folks have a difficult time distinguishing between the player's actions and the character's actions. Player A's paladin character has a chance to redeem a villain, and wants to offer them a chance to surrender.  Player B's assassin has no interest in redemption, and wants to kill the villain.  Both characters express their desires, both players wrangle over the final outcome, and it eventually comes down to an initiative roll.  Assassin wins, throat of villain is slashed and villain dies.  Now the paladin and the assassin have an unresolved conflict that can be played out in game.  That's a good thing because it creates the possibility for roleplaying. Who is not in conflict, however, are player A and player B.  The assassin's actions in no way reflect player B's regard for player A (or at least it shouldn't).  In this scenario, player A needs to remember that we engage the game as both a player and a character, and not mistake their character's feelings towards another character as their feelings towards another player.  Player B didn't execute the villain just to piss off player A.  Therefore, try to keep these two competing elements separate in your mind.  Be a furious paladin, but welcome the chance for character development as a player.  Don't get butt-hurt over a game.  We play to have fun.  If you leave the game more aggravated than when you arrived, you' may be doing something wrong.

But we're also only human, and we're not always perfect models of social decorum.  Maybe we're tired from a long day of work, or maybe our kids were unusually troublesome, or maybe we forgot to take our Paxil this morning.  We can't always arrive at the gaming table as the best versions of ourselves.  There's a pretty strong probability that sometime during a campaign, two players will come into conflict.  Players, not characters.  Whatever the cause or issue, resolve the conflict as you would in any social gathering; with respect and politeness.  Think of how you would resolve a conflict at work, and use that same approach with your fellow players.  Remember that the goal is to resolve the conflict, not escalate it.  Unresolved conflicts between players can lead to the death of a campaign.  Trust me, I've seen it happen.

If you happen to game with a romantic partner, conflict between you seems to be more likely.  Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes.  If so, please keep your domestic drama off-camera.  No one wants to hear you bicker with your partner during a game.  It's awkward for the other players, and the problem at hand will likely be forgotten before the ride home.  At very least, postpone your argument until after the game is over so that you aren't taking away game time from the other players.  

Don't be a dick: This Is Rule One.  It should go without saying, but sadly there are certain players that either don't realize that they're being dicks, or don't care.  Don't create Evil characters unless you have explicit permission from your GM.  Don't create your character with goals entirely separate and counter to the team's goals. Don't ruin other players' fun. Don't shit all over another player's character arc because you're bored (this actually happened).  Don't fireball your fellow player because "that's what my character would do" (this happened too).  Don't threaten to punch your real-life girlfriend in the face (unbelievably, this too).  Nobody wants to game with a dick.  So don't be that guy.  Don't be a dick.

If we take time to consider the various ways that we engage with the game, the characters you create will be effective but not overpowered, rich in personality and backstory, and a member of a team working towards a shared goal.  The stories that emerge from such characters will be amazing, and you will remember the campaign fondly for years to come.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Building tension in your game, part 6

Today I would like to chat about travel through, and exploration of, wilderness.  To start, let’s discuss the goal of this mode of engagement.  I’ll move on to discuss some of the obstacles I’ve encountered with wilderness exploration in the past.  Lastly, I’ll use the Tension Pool mechanic to see if any of the problems with travel and exploration can be solved.

 My experience with travel through the wilderness began with my high school gaming group.  The group had finished Keep on the Borderlands and needed to travel several hundred miles to their next destination, the Kingdom of Keoland.  As we were using The World of Greyhawk as our campaign setting, we had access to the two beautiful poster-sized maps of the world, with a hex overlay (30 miles to the hex was the scale, IIRC).  One of the best parts of that campaign was the travel between the Felreev Forest and the southern Dreadwood.  Granted, we were 15-year-old kids who just wanted to kick ass and be awesome, but the excitement of learning what was in the next hex, the risk of encountering a wandering monster that was overwhelmingly more powerful than the PCs, all combined to make the journey an adventure in and of itself.  The idea that a journey from point A to point B could be an adventure all by itself became a fundamental aspect of D&D for me.

 When we talk about exploration as a fundamental mode of play in fantasy RPG’s, I believe that it is the sense of plunging into the unknown, of traveling paths untrodden by kindly feet that designers seek to capture.  Travel through the wilderness should be scary.  Think about all of the things that could go wrong during a journey:

·        Really, really powerful monster tries to eat you.

·        You run out of food

·        Your mount runs out of food

·        Your mount dies or runs away

·        You can’t find fresh water

·        You can’t find a safe place to sleep

·        You run out of arrows/bolts/other ammunition

·        You get lost

·        The weather sucks

·        The terrain sucks

There’s probably more, but you get the idea.  Many of these risks feature lack of resources as the hazard: You run out of food/water/places to rest/ammo/mounts.  The remainder feature risks posed by the environment: Monsters, weather, terrain, disorientation.  My takeaway from this point would be that if you (or your players) don’t care for detailed resource management, then wilderness exploration and travel may not be enjoyable.  If your group just assumes that you buy enough resources to cover the duration of the journey, that’s great.  Briefly narrate the journey, maybe in a montage-style story, and get on with the adventure at your destination.

 But if you feel that exploration and travel in Pathfinder is a missed opportunity, then take my hand and follow me down this hole…

 Exploration is important, and here’s how to ruin it.

Last week, I grabbed a couple of excepts from the D&D Player’s Handbook and the Pathfinder Core Rulebook that discussed exploration.  Both sources seemed to agree that exploration is one of the main ways that a player interacts with the game.  This sentiment makes sense to me; after all, exploring a dense jungle, searching for a forgotten snake temple, scouring the desert for ancient pyramids to plunder, sailing the wine-dark sea in search of new lands to conquer, all of these are common adventure tropes in books, TV and cinema.  It makes perfect sense that a fantasy roleplaying game should include themes of exploration and discovery.

And yet, when playing these kinds of scenarios in Pathfinder/D&D, the steak just doesn’t seem to live up to the sizzle.  In my experience, exploration in roleplaying games falls short of my expectations.  There’s something quintessential to the trope that is just not translating into Pathfinder.  I want to know what that is, and how I can make exploration more dramatic.  What is that missing element, and how can we hardwire it into the game?

When characters travel and explore, they are moving from a place of civilization to a place of wilderness.  The wilderness may have some small outposts of civilization, such as a road, a guard post or a roadside inn, but for the most part, nature rules here.  Here there be monsters.  If you and I, as beings in a mundane world, endeavor to depart on a journey across the desert, what considerations should we make?  Water, certainly.  Lots of water.  Food, enough to feed ourselves for however many days the journey will take.  Shelter from the elements, in the form of tents, sleeping bags, sources of light.  How much does all of this stuff weigh?  Perhaps we should rent a camel to carry some of our gear.  We need appropriate clothing, loose-fitting, lightweight fabric with a scarf to cover our faces from the blowing sand.  Do we need to feed the camel?  Probably.  We better get some saddle bags to carry food for the camel.  How will we stay on course towards our destination?  Should we hire a guide?

In a mundane world, if any of these considerations are ignored, the likely outcome of our journey is our death.  Resource management is vital in surviving an overland journey on foot or mount.  One miscalculation or complication could be the end of us.  Because we can’t just stop at Sheetz and grab more power bars and Aqua Fina.  We have left civilization behind, and our only provender is what the terrain offers.  I think that this, more than anything else, is what makes exploration dramatic.  The ever-present tension of something going wrong that could doom the explorer to starvation, dehydration, exhaustion, disorientation and even death is what conveys the drama of exploration.  The reward is the experience of discovery, of wonder, of finding something truly new or unique.  Or maybe it’s just the reward of arriving at your destination alive. 

If the designers of games like Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons really want to make exploration a key component of the game experience, their respective games should offer rules that create and support this kind of survival tension.  The risks and dangers of exploration should be front and center in the character’s minds as they undertake each journey.  “They do, you dummy”, you respond. “There ARE rules for starvation, dehydration, drowning, suffocating, environmental hazards, random encounters, getting lost, and all manner of other dangers involved in exploration.”  You are correct.  The rules are there, right in the respective core rulebooks.  “So, what’s the problem?”

The problem, mon amis, is magic.

 See, we have this daunting journey across the desert.  If we don’t plan the journey perfectly, we could die.  OR, we could just make sure we have some magic users in the group:

·        Create water – Sor/Wiz 0.  1st level characters solve thirst.

·        Know direction – Bard 0, Druid 0.  1st level characters solve getting lost

·        Ant haul, create food and water, endure elements – Each removes some hazardous element of exploration.

There are other examples, but you get my point.  Especially for 0-level spells, there is no chance for dehydration or getting lost to even be a concern, because 1st level wizard or cleric can spam create water and know direction.

 So, here’s a radical idea that is sure to bring about revolution: Let’s get rid of 0-level spells.

Wait, wait!  Put that guillotine away!  Here’s a replacement feat instead:

Mundane Magic

Benefit: You can create a variety of small magical effects. These effects are not powerful and are treated as spell-like abilities in all ways.  They require a standard action to use, have a range of Close, and are either instantaneous or have a duration of 1 hour depending on the effect created.

• You may clean, soil, or color up to 1 cubic ft of material per round.
• You may create floating lights the size of candle flames and move them up to 20 ft per round as a free action.
• You may create a spark such as with flint and steel, which may ignite flammable, unattended Fine objects.
• You may open or close a door or container weighing no more than 30 lbs.
• You may chill, warm, or flavor 1 lbs. of nonliving material.
• You may create a small breeze from whichever direction you choose, strong enough to rustle clothing and flicker candles.
• You may lift objects weighing up to 1 lbs. and move them up to 10 ft per round.
• You may create small non-speech sounds, such as that of a mouse screeching, soft simple harp music, or the hubbub of a whispered conversation.
• You may touch a creature or object and detect whether it possesses a magical aura. You may use Spellcraft to identify its aura as if using the detect magic spell.

Additionally, depending on your class, you may produce additional effects with Mundane Magic:

Arcane casters:
• You can detect the presence of poison in a creature or object.
• You can grant a +1 resistance bonus on all saving throws for 1 round.
• You may make a ranged touch attack, dealing 1d3 acid, electricity, fire, or cold damage to a target.
Divine casters
• You can detect the presence of poison in a creature or object.
• You can grant an ally a +1 bonus on their next attack roll, saving throw or skill check.
•  You can produce light equivalent to that of a torch.  This effect lasts for 1 hour.
•  You can purify 1 pound of food or 1 gallon of water per caster level.
• You can cause a dying creature to stabilize.
Psychic casters
• You can detect the presence of psychic auras in a creature or object.
• You can cause a corpse to babble incoherently.
• You can telekinetically launch an object weighing 5 pounds or less as a ranged touch attack, dealing 1d3 points of bludgeoning damage.

See what’s missing from the feat?  Create water and know direction.  If we make those two spells into 1st-level spells, many of the problems with exploration are solved.  Who knew that such a simple collection of spells could cause so much damage?  As a spellcaster, you can still choose to take know direction or create water, but now there is a limit to how much you can use them, and you will have to choose what 1st-level spell they will replace in your daily selection.  Meaningful decisions make for interesting play.

Now that thirst and getting lost have become important considerations again, let’s take some time to discuss how the tension pool mechanic works in exploration mode.  Setting a proper time frame for this mode of play is important: adding 1d6 to the pool every ten minutes is clearly not going to work.  Conveniently, a 24-hour day nicely divides evenly by 6, making for 6 x 4-hour chunks of a day.  At the start of the day (let’s say the day starts at 6:00 a.m.), the GM rolls a full tension pool of 6d6.  Every time a 1 is rolled, a random encounter will occur.  The day is split into morning (6:00-10:00 a.m.), mid-day (10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.), afternoon (2:00 – 6:00 p.m.), evening (6:00 – 10:00 p.m.), early night (10:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m.) and late night (2:00 – 6:00 a.m.).  If a 1 gets rolled, the random encounter happens during the specified time. 

Random encounters in wilderness exploration are a lot more diverse than in a location-based exploration because weather and terrain hazards become much more prominent.  When designing a random encounter table, take care to include weather events like torrential downpours, high winds, dust storms, thick fog, etc.  Also design some terrain hazards like crevasses, quicksand, avalanches, tar pits, etc.  This variety will help keep the challenges faced in wilderness varied and fresh.


What have we accomplished with the suggested changes?  First, by removing a couple of troublesome 0-level spells, we have made wilderness exploration something that must be planned carefully, allowing players to make important choices that will impact the success or failure of their expedition.

Second, the tension pool makes random encounters more likely.  The possibility of more than 1 encounter per day exists, making players choose how many of their resources they should spend on any given encounter.  The Kingmaker Syndrome of one encounter per hex is fixed; characters can no longer go nova on the one-encounter-per-day, because another encounter may be lurking just around the corner.

Lastly, we have divided the exploration day up into manageable chunks, which creates a design space.  I don’t know exactly what will be designed, but just creating them has sparked a few ideas which I may develop in a future post.

Happy trails!