Category: Pathfinder

Every DM should run a game of Dungeon World

Dungeon World is a fantasy take on a narrative RPG system under the Powered by the Apocalypse umbrella (coined from Apocalypse World, the first game which used these rules). PbtA has your typical players and GM type of setup, but the game is highly narrative driven. Action is pushed forward by PC choices and outcomes from their die rolls.

Not to get too deep into the rules, but generally each player describes what they want to do and the GM chooses the appropriate move (action) that they will test for. Pretty much just about like any other RPG out there. The tweak is the simplicity and the potential outcomes. Players roll 2d6. On a 10+ they succeed. On a 7-9 they are successful but at some cost. While a 6 or less is a failure. Simple.

Immediately what you find playing this is that mixed success results become the norm. Additionally players will also get a slew of failures rolling sixes. As dice outcome probabilities go, results of 6-8 will be common with 7 being a typical roll. This pushes the GM to drive the players into interesting situations, layering on complications and forcing the players to make hard choices, especially when they fail.

When they fail outright on a 6 or less, the GM has control of the narration. They can introduce more baddies, cut off expected routes or resources, and in short drive the story in another direction. While players have a lot of agency with this system those failures allow the GM to throw a big wrench into the works. Nothing like having players expect to rest and recuperate from a long dungeon expedition, only to return to the local village and see it burned to the ground from a goblin raid.

Running PbtA games can stretch your GM chops. You have to learn to be adaptable and improvise more. Continually finding mixed success outcomes is especially a wonderful way to strengthen skills for running RPG games. Your typical D&D game can slip into binary outcomes. Either you succeed or you fail with an ability check. Having to constantly think of that ‘success BUT…’ with a mixed 7-9 dice roll result in PbtA really can help you find ways of using it in other games.

Say you’ve got your thief trying to break into a merchant’s room, eager to steal off something valuable to get some useful information. They make their check to open the door. Make a stealthy move around the room. Possibly a perception roll to find any important information. Pretty much they will either succeed or not. Cut and dried.

Throwing in the mixed success suddenly adds more outcomes and a more engaging experience. Roll a 7 trying to open the door? That thief has successfully gotten inside, but accidentally knocked over a brass candlestick. They hear guards approaching to investigate. Do they make a run for it? Do they instead make a frantic check through the room first? As a GM you might leave a hint of a small chest on the floor, or a table with several papers scattered about. They could likely have enough time to get either the chest or the papers, but not both. On their way out, maybe they sneaked away successfully, but left the door slightly ajar. The guards begin a search through the keep, ramping up future complications.

We like to think we run our D&D games like this, but with so many rolls of that d20 I would expect most sway back to those ruts of just having a pass/fail result. While Dungeon World instead has this type of outcome in the structure of the rules. Yes you can get a fantastic success, or potentially get a disastrous result, but commonly your get what you want at a price. The mechanics of PbtA games push for more complicated outcomes.

This actually fits well with fifth edition. The advantage/disadvantage and inspiration rules allow you some tools to introduce mechanical benefits to the game as well. Having a poor outcome for an ability check might not mean that the PC fails outright. Instead they might be thrown off their feet, with their next check being at a disadvantage regardless of what ability/skill being used. Make a wildly successful check? Consider throwing the player an inspiration token. If a player just barely makes that check to avoid falling over a cliff edge, they might instead lose some critical gear, weapon, or ammunition which falls into the chasm.

So I highly recommend if D&D is your bag to give Dungeon World a stab as a one shot. It’s easy to run and get characters generated. There is a lot of free material out there. In fact likely before getting into the rule book too deep, I would consider looking at the Dungeon World Guide first. As a fan-made resource it picks apart the base rules of PbtA system and gives you a firm understanding of how to interpret dice rolls from your players and what types of checks/moves are appropriate, making that first game much smoother to run.


A more common kind of evil in your game

Evil PCs and NPCs have been on my mind as of late. For villains most DMs seem to go with the typical kick-a-puppy type. You’ve got a baddie and they are mean. Occasionally you’ll dabble in the Mr. Freeze type, a villain that thinks they have moral justification for their evil actions. But for the most part you’ve got villains running around doing really bad things to good people.

Thugs, bandits, warlords, necromancers, you can pretty easily sketch out what drives that type of evil. But if you broaden your definition of evil some. You start to see how easily it can be a label placed on many NPCs, organizations, and even for the players.

What I define as evil in much of my campaigns is a lack of empathy and selfishness. You’ve got a merchant that scraped their little store together from nothing. They’ve been ruthless against competition and unyielding with their prices and policies. Want to get something on credit? Sure, but you pay hefty interest. They’re the kind running a company store for mining claims. They are evil.

Think of a wealthy merchant that built trade empire on white lies and uncaring adherence to the law. They never busted heads or threatened anyone with violence, but they sure got signatures for contracts through pure browbeating and other underhanded tactics (cutting off water rights, undervalued offers for land, etc.) that would make a fictional character like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview seem mild.

If anything Lawful Evil would be a fairly common description of most the evil NPCs in my game. While they might not outright break laws, they certainly bend them and find loopholes. Even more so they’ll also unerringly seek to enforce laws that play to their advantage. The most important characteristic they share would be lack of empathy and being selfish. They are a literal embodiment of ‘F&*K you. Got mine.’

It’s their family, loved ones, and kin that might get an expression of kindness or caring. Everyone else might get a furrowed brow of concern at the most. After all, they can’t give away all they have to help everyone in the world. And this logic is used to cloak themselves from shame when turning their backs on strangers in need. When you adopt that type of mentality for evil NPCS, you begin to see these types of people can be found everywhere in your game.

Alignment isn’t an absolute. Those good villagers might be distrustful of strangers, and circle more around those that they know. But they can be goaded into doing the right thing. However for my evil NPCs I see them doing good deeds as a way to adhere to quid pro quo. Yes, that evil noble will donate to an orphanage but it isn’t an act of charity or compassion. They know they are getting something from it. They know it helps seat them in power and sway the peasants to his banner. He is using that act of charity to further his own selfish goals.

This is easily something that can be adopted for your players. The evil PC is going to get theirs, no matter what. Tasked with clearing out a warren of goblins? Okay. But the village is going to pay. The PC will get a reward AND keep a share of treasure found, no matter what. It’s literally a mercenary way of thinking. And when this type of motivation is expanded some, ensuring a PC gets compensated sufficiently for every ‘good’ deed that is done, your game opens up to playing evil aligned characters.

I would argue it’s the Neutral characters that are the most difficult to play. I see these types more akin to zen-like monks that see the value in letting the universe just be, and not align with any particular moral force. These types seem to hardest to properly stoke motivation in navigating through potential story lines and adventures.

In the past I’ve put my foot down on having players helm evil characters. More from my laziness in not wanting to wrestle with thinking up the right type of adventure hooks and lures to get the group going in a particular campaign direction. But lately I’ve reconsidered acceptable motivations for PCs that swerve into more selfish territory. Once you allow the notion of evil being acceptable for PCs, you’ll also start seeing it a more common NPC personality trait too. It can add more complexity and depth to the type of interactions your group has with denizens in your campaign, and something worth exploring around the table.

Chain of Command – Making jump off points

I picked up Chain of Command and been digging it. Likely later I’ll get some thoughts on the rules written down. For now I’m busy modeling some 28mm Africa platoons and other bits I’ll likely use for the game.

CoC has a mini-game of sorts at the beginning where the table is cordoned off in areas allowing for forward deployment using markers. Some markers will end up becoming staples on the table once the battle starts. Right now I have some paper disks you can download for patrol markers. But I decided to whip up some simple markers to represent jump off points.

I picked up a 1/48 oil drum and jerry can set from Tamiya to use for modelling the markers. They have a lot of small bits which are well detailed (almost too much so for my purposes). A bonus is it also includes stowage for axis and allied vehicles which I’ll likely use on other kits. All in all, a decent spread of stuff to add to terrain and vehicles.

I traced out circles on plasticard and cut them out with scissors. Using some sandpaper, I buffed the rough edges to even them out some. Being plasticard, I could use model cement to glue oil drums and fuel cans directly to the card.

After priming, I used a base coat of gray and olive drab to the respective axis and allied jump off markers. A wash of sepia ink gave them a little more depth and all I had to do was dress up the bases a bit more. In addition to a flat green and a dabble of flock, I also painted the edges of the bases with different shades of brown. My intention is that each color will be used by one player, just in case there’s a little confusion as to which model drum represents which nation.

The end result looks pretty decent. I have lots of spare weapons and other bits I can add later if I want to. Likely I’ll chalk that up on my possible-but-not-likely list. I’d rather put more modelling effort into armies instead of terrain and markers. Still they look pretty nice and blend a little more into the battlefield over paper tokens. Now I need to try and get some CoC games in!

Running the Game: a DM tutorial series

I’ve got a player eager to take the helm running a D&D game periodically. I’m super excited to see them flip to the other side of the screen and be a DM. They freely admitted struggling some with thinking up an appropriate way to kick off the game, and the decision to dabble in making up their own world or run something pre-made. They also wanted to know if I had any advice. So I pointed them over to Running the Game, a YouTube series about being a DM.

It’s done by Matthew Colville, a writer that also works in the video game industry. The videos he creates run between 15 to 30 minutes and commonly cover a specific RPG topic. Some address a specific issue most DMs will face at the table or when planning out their session. He also has a series that covers his own game more in detail and the problems he occasionally has when playing.

Now a big caveat with the advice is that what he will regularly state the tidbits he throws out are his opinions and how he likes to run his own games. Your mileage might vary with his advice, and he’ll freely admit his approach might not be for everyone. Another point is that much of the series is about running D&D. I think if you were a GM for other game systems a lot of his advice would still be great but you are going to get some chunks of content not quite applicable to a non-D&D game.

This last point touches on a few episodes. One is related to the Deck of Many things (which dragged some for me), and if not playing D&D or including that magic item in your campaign, much of the video will be not helpful. However you might pick up some interesting tips and ideas handling a similar powerful, legendary magical item in your own game. The concept of using a few props to spice up your game is great and I particularly like the idea of a little sleight of hand to make players think they have full agency (when in reality you are guiding events some).

Another ding with the video series is the speed that Matthew speaks. He talks fast. You might want to slow down the playback speed at little. I think especially if English wasn’t your mother tongue you’d have a hard time keeping up. I enjoy his rapid fire dialog and find it engaging and quippish, but keep in mind he speaks at a fair clip.

But these are quibbles. You’ll find his videos a great resource. I especially like that he also talks about things that fall flat at his table. We tend to just spout off the things that work in our sessions and not dwell on the times when things just didn’t work. I agree with his opinion that sharing stuff that failed can also serve as helpful advice.

In the end you have a fantastic introduction to being a DM. Seriously, for the uninitiated wanting to sit down and try their hand at running a game, this is a great series. The first four are especially solid tutorials for DMing your initial adventure. There really are some golden tips covered in them. It’s such a helpful and entertaining bunch of tutorials. I really can’t recommend it enough to new DMs, and if you’re a bit long in the tooth as a GM, give a few videos a watch. You’ll either be nodding your head in agreement or picking up a few good ideas for your own game.

Keeping campaigns organized with blogs and wikis

I’ve been fiddling around with my sci-fi Savage Worlds game getting everything together. Something I’ve been a stalwart supporter for over the years is using online tools as information repositories for current games. I tend to game pretty infrequently, just about every other week. So for long campaigns I need a place to keep track of major events that happen. Another plus is I don’t need to saddle my players with scribbling down the name of every major NPC they come across. The important stuff I can put on up the campaign site for reference later.

Additionally we have about 2-3 different settings going on. I sometimes get a little burnt out GMing a particular setting and like to have an occasional one shot game once in a while. It can be a challenge for my players to keep track of the types of worlds they are playing in. Sometimes they need something to jog their memory on who the major movers and shakers are for that campaign. In these cases having an online wiki or blog is great keeping everything together.

For a long while now I have been using Obsidian Portal for a few of my games. It’s a great tool but lately I’ve migrated towards having more simple sites. I’ve found I don’t usually need the complete functionality of a wiki. I can just keep a running page or two of major NPCs or locations. So currently I’ve been leaning towards using blogs instead.

For my Savage Worlds superhero game it’s been a great means to provide a quick reference for major criminal (and neutral) organizations. Also by adding posts and tagging them, my players can filter out a lot of stuff and skim through past posts looking for specific enemies or topics related to the campaign. I haven’t been keeping a running adventure log going for that, but it could be done.

With my sci-fi game I’ve found this especially helpful. Above all other settings I think players sometimes need a little more information on the game universe. Sci-fi encompasses so many styles and themes, it can be difficult to accurately get across to players the levels of technology or how proliferate alien species are. Having a site that they can navigate to get that information is helpful.

Mind you have to be realistic about how deep players will dig through your site. Some may enjoy it but expect many to be willing to skim through about a paragraph at most. So I try to keep things brief if possible, especially for adventure recaps.

One last point though on having a campaign blog or wiki, it’s public. While it’s a way to share your world and ideas with others, it’ll also show how messy your games run including all the lackluster ideas. Just roll with it. Because sometimes you’ll have people mine your stuff for adventure ideas to use in their own games (Hee… or learn about things to avoid if scouring my campaigns). Honestly that alone is a great reason to have your campaign material up on a wiki or blog.


Jumped off the deep end of miniature Kickstarters with Reaper Bones

ReaperBones3I’ve avoided the siren’s call of Reaper Kickstarter campaigns of past. But the temptation to pick up a slew of minis is just too much. Their current Kickstarter campaign wraps up in less than 3 days. As usual, you get a ton of plastic minis. The bonus for me is that you don’t need to prime them.

I prefer to use tokens for my RPG sessions over using minis. But I am pretty deep into miniature gaming and been taking a gander to some different systems as of late. Pulp Alley looks neat and Frostgrave is certainly on my radar for something to pick up. As a back up, there is always Chain Reaction which is generic enough for a variety of light arms skirmish games. Yet, I’ve heard some cool things about Songs of Blades and Heroes too for fantasy melee. Yeah…. guess I’ll have plenty of games to run with these KS goodies.

A summer of D&D fun

I expect some news will be trickling out about DnDnext come Gencon. Modularity with the rules seems to be the big theme. You have a core set of rules, with optional cogs of details and working gears to slip into the game. It also seems many of the core books will be pushed out sooner, rather than a long rollout of material. I expect other later releases will be more campaign setting-type material (like the Planes, Underdark, and such) rather than another PHB 2.

Still I fret a bit about the new player experience. Dumping 3 tomes of information onto a new person can be daunting. Having a boxed set of basic rules would be a great starting point.

I think that’s something which sort of killed 4E. Much of it seemed for existing D&D players and not much emphasis put towards the newly drafted group of brand new adventurers. You had a basic set, that was redone into an Essentials format, and then an entirely new line of new products (Essentials) that differed in presentation from the core books. It just exploded into this line of products that made things more confusing and diluted the new player experience even more.

I’ll go a bit more on this. I never quite got the focus group for the Red Box. It seemed packaged in a way to draw in the nostalgia of the older crowd that used to play D&D. Like it was to rekindle all those fond memories of gaming in the past. What about the 12 year old kid wandering through the store? Take a moment to track down a few pics and videos of the Pathfinder beginner box. Go ahead, I’ll wait…..

…THAT’S how you design and present an rpg. That is something to spark a kid’s interest to pick up a box and carry it out the store. WotC decided to go the whole retro 80’s deal. A poor decision there.

What would entail this new introductory boxed set? Aside from an introductory document (start here, what is an RPG, a step-by-step way to navigate a character sheet, introduce core game mechanics, etc.) a slimmed down rule set would be peachy. Give us your human, dwarf, elf, halfling races. Give us the fighter, wizard, cleric, and thief classes. Give us a trimmed list of specialties of two options. Give us rules for character generation, not just pre-gen characters to use. More importantly give us rules and material for the DM to get up to level 5.

That’s right, stop it at level 5. Figure a group playing every week, leveling every other week, and you’ve got 2+ months of D&D goodness. A summer of D&D fun. Wet the appetites of new players and get them playing D&D. If they want to take the plunge, there are 3 core books they can buy which open up the game fully.

Hands down, this should be the entry into the world of D&D. You’ve got a ‘basic’ set. A set that has everything you need to play, that allows for new adventures and characters to be created. A boxed set that has everything you ever need to play D&D.

But if that’s not enough, if you really want more options and the means to create a long term campaign with prolonged character progression, buy the ‘advanced’ rules. It’s the same core game just lots more options. And as a marketing strategy something very recognizable to older players. People that you might want to stroke up the fires of nostalgia, a group of folks that might get the desire to pick up the rules and share with their kids, having a ‘basic’ set and the option to pick up ‘advanced’ rules with 3 core books harkens back to AD&D of old.

So if you are a core book person, why buy the beginner boxed set? What would be in it for you? Aside from a decent adventure and a set of dice, how about some other nifty things that could be used? How about a fold out map of a campaign world (along with a simple gazette)? Even better, throw in a ton of monster tokens and character figure flats. While entirely optional, having stand up figure flats might encourage folks to pick up figures from the miniature line.

Notice I didn’t say a battlemat. It’s not needed. However tokens and figure flats go a long way in helping new players visualize the action. Without needing to be played out on a gridded map, it still can keep a firm foot in the ‘theater of the mind’ while still allowing players a way to better imagine what’s happening.

So give us that WotC. Have that beginner’s box ready to go at the launch of DnDnext. Don’t cheap out on the contents. Give it enough meat and goodies to provide a summer of D&D fun. Have it a product that anyone which regularly plays the game can unerringly say to new folks, ‘If you want to play D&D, start with this box.’

Obsidian Portal Kickstarter wrapping up

A possible dashboard layout. Spiffy!

I’ve frequently gushed on this blog how much I love Obsidian Portal. In fact, I’ve been a fan of the site for a long time. It’s been very functional over the years however I understand the people running it really want to give it a face lift.

A Kickstarter campaign is wrapping up in a few days. Fortunately, they’ve made their funding goals and then some. I’ve been a freebie user for a long time and I appreciate Obsidian Portal allowing that. If you aren’t a regular subscriber to their system this kickstarter is a great way to support the site.

So I hope folks are willing to send a few dollars their way. The project is funded. It’s a nice way to thank them for all the support they give to the gaming community. There are only 5 more days until the campaign ends, so if you are inclined be sure to support it soon.

Pathfinder – Inner Sea world guide as a 4E resource

I’ve gone round and round with pathfinder but I think I’m still in the camp for passing on it. At the heart of it is that I’ve got my 3.5 D&D books. I see pathfinder as a refinement of those rules. I think 4E really made changes to how D&D plays and I liked what WotC did. I just don’t see me going back to previous editions and I feel pathfinder goes in that direction.

For a lot of folks, I think pathfinder is a perfect fit for their D&D game. It tweaks and retools the stuff some might have found lacking in earlier D&D editions. I can completely understand the things they love about pathfinder and why it is their D&D game of choice nowadays. It’s just not my thing.

I will however step up and say that Paizo has some wonderful products in the pathfinder line. And I think for people that enjoy fantasy RPGs, you will be doing a disservice to your group if you don’t give some of them a try at your game table. I also feel that a lot of the material (with a little elbow grease) can work for your 4E game. One such product is the pathfinder campaign setting, the Inner Sea world guide (ISWG).

This is the default campaign setting for pathfinder. Don’t let that put you off. If you play any edition of D&D, you simply need to buy this book. It’s a wonderful setting and fleshed out world that is rife with inspiration for a high fantasy campaign.

The book is a meaty tome that gives details on 40+ countries and locations that make up one of the many continents within the world of Golarion. What I particularly like is the digest-size write up of each region. About 3-4 pages are provided listing a brief history, government and politics, along with some details on the major settlements and noteworthy locations in that region. It’s enough to give a DM a grasp of the country along with enough ideas to write up an adventure, without saddling you with pages and pages of fluff, background, and other ‘facts’ that can trip up your story.

The key element I enjoy about ISWG is the variety of the lands given. Humans are the most common and are of a variety of ethnicities and cultures. You have different governments and political ideologies. Some countries are stable, others constantly at war (both civil and external), while others are in a constant cycle of violent revolution with their ruling class. Add to this regions with heavy undead and demon influence, wasted lands devoid of magic, while others seem to be warped with bizarre creatures from a wizard’s imagination, you’ve got a lot on your plate as a DM to choose from.

The sheer variety of campaigns you could run in the ISWG is staggering. Obviously you could have the typical high fantasy world. However if you want a bit of steampunk, a Ravenloft-like setting, fighting in demon lands, or even a touch of Gamma World (one land having a mysterious ‘meteor’ crashing into it’s borders), there are options here for the DM. I think this alone makes for a wonderful product, as you could start your campaign in different regions of the same game world and get very different types of settings.

Making the transition from a pathfinder source book to 4E is not too difficult. Much of the core races are there (halfings, dwarves, gnomes, elves, etc.). I think the pathfinder elves are a bit closer to the 4E eladrin than your typical 4E elf, but I think you have enough room to encompass just about any 4E race into this world. Tieflings could obviously come about from the many demon controlled kingdoms, with goliaths being an easy shoe-in for the northern lands, and drow are all ready within the ISWG lore.

There is a full pantheon listed of the many gods and faiths within the Inner Seas that I think can be tooled around with if needed (particularly with the alignments). The ISWG has information listed in the traditional D&D 9 step alignments but aren’t that difficult to craft into the reduced alignments of 4E. While there is a simple creature bestiary listed, they are primarily based off stock entries in the pathfinder bestiary. Something a 4E DM should adopt, and simply re-skin the many creatures currently in the monster manuals if needed.

The campaign setting specific class options in the ISWG bring about exciting possibilities, especially with WotC’s new heroes of shadow book out. I can envision the Red Mantis easily as an assassin character option, as well as the Hellknights being a step away from a blackguard. I particularly like how the book details certain factions based on a philosophy that encompass more than those just driven by a nationalist agenda.

There is a lot of stuff in this book. It is well organized and I particularly like the sections that help detail normal life of most people within the world, covering mundane aspects of trade, state of current technological achievements, to the role of magic in the world. This book covers a lot, and best of all manages to distill things down to bite-sized chunks of information that can be easily processed.

You don’t need to have a complete grasp of the entire world geo-political layout to play. You can simply pick a land, skim through the neighboring regions, and have a complete historical and political handle (not to mention the major factions) on what is happening in that part of the campaign world. It’s a fantastic 4E resource, gorgeously presented in color with great art, not to mention a nice poster map of the entire place.

Do your group a favor and pick up this book. Even if you aren’t set on running a game in the Inner Seas, you’ll definitely find some ideas for your game.

9 character questions

Just a short post today. A friendly MMO acquaintance of mine writes fiction for a living (sorry, not going to name drop). Using a technique they use in their craft, they would also apply it to making character bios for the MMO they played. They came up with 9 questions. If you can answer each of these questions, you pretty much have a character well fleshed out. They’ll have their own motivations, and fears, and can react accordingly to plot events. On to the questions:

  • What does he love?
  • What does he hate?
  • What would he be willing to die for, real death, no rez?
  • What would he go through anything to live for (because there are things that are worse than death)?
  • If he were granted one completely unselfish wish, what would it be?
  • If he were granted one completely selfish wish, what would it be?
  • When he is all alone in the dark, with no one to see how he feels, what scares the crap out of him?
  • Where does he think he’ll be 5 game-years from now, and what does he think he’ll be doing?
  • If all the villains were defeated and he didn’t need to be a hero anymore, what would he do with his life?

If your characters are struggling a bit to think up a background, have them fill out this list (or at least most of it). For being a DM, I’ve found it indispensable information as a starting point to plan out adventures which can have some resonance with the group. Getting a few one-shot sessions, which tackle the psyche of one player can make for some memorable games. I also think this is great for NPCs too, and especially for the main heavy villains of your campaign. It’s also interesting to push players into confronting some of the answers on this list, and over time, see how much they’ve grown and changed.

I think this is a neat list, and hope you folks get some mileage out of it too for your campaigns.