Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How To Make Pathfinder Good (in like 6 or 7 easy steps)

It has come to my attention that there are people who still play Pathfinder.

I get it, I guess. There are some things I genuinely like about the system. The way it facilitates gonzo parties made up of PCs out of the monster book is kinda cool. The threefold save system is a genuine innovation, even if the rules don't leverage it as much as they could (more on that in a minute).

The core issue with the game, for me, is the crunch. The sheer number of rules creates two problems for me: how long everything takes in comparison to most other D&D retroclones, during character generation, actual gameplay, and DM prep, and mechanics that reward system mastery more than player creativity. The first problem makes the game hard to run, and the second makes it not feel worth it to run.

So I started thinking about how to turn Pathfinder into a Good Game (as arbitrarily defined by me).

Not just like, playable, actually good, like what would it take to turn this into something I would choose to play?

STEP 1. FIX SKILLS
Throw out the entire skill system as written and make the threefold saving throws do double duty. Fortitude still means fortitude but now it also means “stuff fighters are good at” like athletics or horse riding. Reflex maps to thief stuff, will maps to wizardpriest stuff. Now whenever you need to make a skill check, the DM tells you which ability score to add to which saving throw/skill score and you add that to a d20.
You can still keep class skills for the sake of niche protection by assigning advantage to those tasks as a class ability. So rangers, druids, and barbarians get advantage to checks involving nature stuff, bards get advantage to rocking out while everyone else does the work, etc. Rogues would get advantage to thief stuff *in addition to* having really high reflex saves and usually having good dexterity.

STEP 2. FIX FEATS
…by eliminating them.
This would run the risk of nerfing fighters. You can avoid this by letting them use ad-libbed mighty deeds like in DCC, just replace the funky DCC dice chain with 5e-style advantage like so:
fighter pc: i wanna charge the ogre and knock his ass off the cliff
dm: roll two d20s. if one hits, you do normal damage. if they both hit, it does normal damage and also knocks his ass off the cliff
fighter pc: fuck i rolled a 1 and a failure
dm: he sees what you’re doing and steps aside at the last second and your ass goes off the cliff
ex-fighter pc: dammit. oh well at least you adopted those house rules from that blog that make chargen take ten minutes even for drunk noobs. imma be a troll bard this time 

what the fuck would a troll bard write songs about

STEP 3. MAGIC ITEMS
Ignore all of the generic magic items in the book and most of the unique ones. They all suck. +x longswords are boring and trying to hide that with extra description or history just makes it worse.
Instead, come up with unique items whenever possible. If you need a random table of semi-generic items like the rulebook provides, recycle the more interesting feats you threw out in Step 2. A scimitar that lets you do a whirlwind attack or a wand that lets you extend or empower spells would both be more fun than the equivalent lower tier magic items in the book. Remember, items that give players new options are always more interesting and fun than items that just make them 5% or 10% better at what they already do.

I FORGOT STEP 0. ELIMINATE ALIGNMENT WITH PREJUDICE
The first thing everyone everywhere should throw out of their game is alignment. It’s terrible as written and I would argue that it doesn’t add anything valuable enough to make it worth keeping.
cons (if run by the book): eliminates interesting gameplay that results from moral ambiguity, can lead paladin types to adopt genocidal attitudes toward creatures listed as evil in the monster manual, prescribes and/or judges pc actions based on an outmoded Abrahamic conception of morality, limits roleplaying opportunities for players that want certain powers (why the fuck can’t there just be a paladin of Tiamat or a drunken master that’s just a regular monk without the alignment restriction you don’t need a whole new class for that shit if you just don't put the restriction in), allows the party or even NPCs to skip situations where they would otherwise need to use roleplaying and player skill to determine if someone is evil or not like why even have investigations and trials at all you know what I mean, probably a lot more but I'm done with this list
pros: uh it makes smite and detect work

You can make smite and detect work without alignment though.
1. Any divine powers like smite evil that are designed to encode crusader-like values into lawful good religions now affect enemies of the PC’s specific faith. What qualifies as enemies is pretty much up to the PC and DM to determine as they go, once the religion has been sort of outlined ahead of time.
2. Any arcane spells or abilities like detect evil are now just called “detect” (for example) and the PC would have to say what they want to detect when they cast it. It’s up to the DM to make on the spot rulings about what sorts of things are too specific or not specific enough to target with the spell, but any of the creature types should probably be fine. Like:
wizard pc: alright we don’t know where the wounded minotaur is hiding so i cast detect evil
dm: good and evil are societal constructs and have no place interacting with a form of magic that focuses on rearranging the fundamental structure of the universe
wizard pc: fine, nerd. i cast detect monstrous humanoid
dm: you sense that the minotaur has stuffed himself into a barrel that kinda seems a little too small for it

or even just:
wizard pc: wait i think this npc is a demon in disguise. detect outsider

STEP 4. FIX XP
The challenge rating system that by-the-book XP is based on is too much damn work. It can make DM prep take forever just to plan out an encounter that, in more rules-light versions of D&D, you’d be able to randomly generate on the fly. It also tends to make it difficult to assign XP rewards for any traps or puzzles that are interesting enough to not fit into the strict guidelines presented in the rulebook.
This is one of those problems that has annoyed so many people so much that there are easily hundreds of totally valid takes on how to fix XP on blogs and social media. I won’t pretend that the way I’ve started handling it is the best for everyone, but this is how I run it in most of my D&D-like games:
-Your PC levels up every time they achieve a set number of challenges. I’ve been going with 13 for good luck. If I ever decide that I want progression to move faster or slower, that’s the only number I’ll need to adjust.
-Valid “challenges” are obstacles that pose a legitimate threat to either the party’s safety or their goals, and require some level of player skill to negotiate. So solving any puzzle door would qualify, and so would figuring out and negotiating a trap, as well as winning any genuinely threatening combat encounter (defined as beating anything with more hit dice than you have levels). Slaughtering a village of goblins won’t give a level 7 paladin any XP unless there’s like a surprise dragon or something.
-I also count spending 100 monies on just partying in between adventures as a “challenge” for leveling purposes to encourage situations in which players must roll to see what their PCs did while blackout drunk.

STEP 5. UN-NERF HUMANS
I just realized that getting rid of skill points and feats kinda fucks humans over since that’s all they normally get at chargen. I say just start ‘em off at level two and be done with it. If nothing else, that should encourage players who don’t care what race their PC is to just pick human and move on.

STEP 6. LET’S FUCK WITH RACIAL ABILITY SCORE ADJUSTMENTS WHILE WE’RE AT IT
Almost all the races in the game (pretty sure this applies to every non-human, right?) get a +x bonus to one or more ability scores and a -x penalty to others. Which I guess is alright, but it’s kinda more fun to interpret those bonuses as extra dice. So like an elf would get to roll 4d6 for dexterity but only get 2d6 for constitution.
I’ll admit that this one is more optional really (all of these are optional dummy). I like it because the whole point of allowing players to role-play as non-human species is to add variety, so any change that accentuates that variety by making differences more extreme is worth making.

Okay now I’m getting into aesthetic preferences instead of just ways to make the game run more smoothly so I’ll just quit while I still feel like I’m ahead.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Kovakistani Mountains Die Drop Table

In a guerrilla warfare campaign with a foreign occupying force, the local terrain is going to become the resistance’s greatest weapon. The earliest historical anecdotes I’ve read examples of that statement in were rebellions against Roman Imperial rule, but I’m sure it goes back further than that.

At the end of the first session of my KLA campaign, the PC cell fled the capital city to head into the mountains. Which meant that my prep for episode two basically consisted of making another one of these:




sized to fit in the bottom of a 12 pack of ramen (as all die drop tables should be)

This one’s a little bit different from the two previous ones I posted, partly because of the more realistic genre, but also to account for less extreme weather conditions, variable alertness levels for local units of the occupying force, and human-made infrastructure. The other key difference is that (unless they REALLY fuck up) the PCs will be sticking to the roads, which means that smaller wilderness features won't generally even be noticed, at least not as readily as if the party cell was hiking through the woods. 
The random alertness (bottom edge) in particular makes traveling more of a hassle by increasing the number of encounters per journey from the standard 1 in 6. It's also helpful when figuring out how any soldiers encountered should behave by default.

Here’s a more legible version:
click here to download pdf

I'd like to say I'll clean this up at some point but that's what I said about the jungle one like a year ago so let's assume I care more about pure functionality with these.

It may just be that my players were really on it, but this worked really well in practice. The random terrain and constantly shifting fog added an element of tactical variety that gave the PCs room to deal with pretty repetitive encounters differently in different situations.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

After Action Report

Decided to give this freedom fighter campaign a go starting last evening. I’m still sorting this out in my head so I guess you get to watch me do it in real-time.

I’m using Delta Green/Call of Cthulhu rules, with the house rule that players can come up with their Bonds (NPC relationships) on the fly as needed. So far this has been used twice, to establish a base of operations each time (they kinda fucked the first one up already which is a little impressive in a way).

I’m not currently planning on adding any of the supernatural weirdness that game was made for, but the equipment and skill lists are pretty much perfect for this and there’s PTSD rules baked in.

Pretty much every mechanic in DG is based on a roll-under percentile mechanic, so that’s how I’ll be approaching Secrecy, War Weariness, and Public Support. Secrecy starts at 100% and goes down as the PCs make contacts and build up a reputation. War Weariness starts at 0%. Public Support also starts at 0%, but goes from -50% to 50%. This is because I don’t think I’ll ever need to roll under it, I’ll just be using it as a bonus or penalty to other rolls.

The setting is Northern Kovakistan, a fictional country somewhere in eastern Europe, which has been invaded by America Inc sometime in the near future. The PC cell’s major goals at this early stage are to get some cash and connect with a larger terrorist network to gain access to intel and equipment.

The party has already done a few things that affect these three scores. In order of occurrence:

1. They robbed a store for bomb-making supplies.

2. They killed the store owner.

(Even if 1 & 2 aren’t linked back to the PCs, it hurts Public Support for the revolution in general when civilians are targeted. Secrecy refers to the PC cell, but Public Support is for the whole movement.)

3. They did manage to not only blow up an American convoy without any direct civilian casualties, but also to get the explosion on film.

4. They betrayed the only bond which had been established at that point, Pizza Josef, who was the employer, landlord, and possibly illegitimate father of one of the PCs, and got him arrested in connection with the convoy attack.

5. They staged the attack literally right outside their base of operations (although i think the original plan was for the bomb to go off inside the restaurant which… well fuck Josef I guess).

6. They completely abandoned that base of operations.

5 and 6 would normally both be pretty extreme adjustments but in this case they mostly just cancel each other out. Although they would probably have left some clues behind… I’ll have to get them to make a Forensics check at the top of next session to see how well they cleaned up. If the check fails, Secrecy goes down by the same amount the check fails by.

4 is easy. The party set Josef up to take the fall, he knows it was them, and is gonna tell the Americans everything he knows even before they start torturing him (which they will do anyway). The strength of that bond was 13%, so Secrecy is gonna take a 13% hit. This represents the value of whatever intel Josef was able to give the interrogators. If the bond had been stronger, he would have known more about the PC, so the Secrecy rating would suffer more of a penalty.

1 & 2 are definitely going to directly affect Public Support, which will indirectly affect Secrecy. For now I’m just going to say that each fuckup (including multiple fuckups in the same event) results in a 5% penalty. So this puts Public Support at -10%, which means a 10% penalty to Secrecy.

3 will increase War Weariness. Once the PCs release the video, it will also increase Public Support. Five soldiers died in the attack, so War Weariness is now at 5%.

(This is a little unreasonable, in reality tens of thousands of soldiers need to die in vain for the civilian population to start caring, but I’m only counting deaths directly caused by the PCs and you can always assume there’s a lot more going on in the setting than just what they’re up to and besides it would take forever even to get as high as 50% otherwise.)

So now I need to make two out-of-game rolls to see what’s going on in the world.

The PC cell’s Secrecy rating is currently 77%. I rolled 03, so the authorities are not yet onto them. Every time this fails, the occupying force will get one step closer to the PC cell by connecting some dots about their activities or interrogating one of their contacts or something similar.

The War Weariness of America Inc is at 5%, so a 93 tells me that nationalist jingoism is doing quite well thank you very much. If I ever start rolling under this, dissent will start growing in the occupiers’ homeland, germinating in academia before spreading to the voters and eventually the politicians and business leaders.

Oh, if you’re curious, these are the pregens I threw together. We ended up with an engineer, an ex-secret police inspector for the deposed Kovakistani regime, a burglar, a journalist, and a smuggler for this session. No one went for the shock troop or the paramedic.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao

Pretty much every OSR setting is horrible for the people who live in it.

Which obviously isn’t for everyone. I’m told there are people who prefer optimistic settings they can use as a pure escape from the everyday horrors of real life. Some of them look at an RPG setting that features rampant slavery (for example) and see a product that explicitly supports slavery. Whereas I mainly see an opportunity for the PCs to roleplay as freedom fighters.

I’ve been thinking about how to codify the revolutionary story arc. Not as an adventure path or anything scripted like that, but with a set of mechanics that shapes the direction and pace of the campaign based on PC activities and a bit of randomness. Ideally this would work with any setting where the status quo sucks and pretty much any ruleset, just a short, slimmed down set of mechanics designed to completely redirect the flow of whatever campaign you’d want to bolt it onto.

TSR Marvel’s Nightmares of Future Past gets part of the way there with its Search Flow Chart, which keeps track of how well hidden the PCs are from their sentinel oppressors. The secrecy of their hideout (in this case abstracted into more or less powerful jamming devices) is the only factor that comes into play though, and it doesn’t do much to build tension unless the players can actually see it. It kind of works in this high-tech setting, and you could easily replace the sentinel’s scanning devices with divination spells in a high-magic campaign. This doesn’t cover low-magic or modern though. I think it’d be pretty fun to play as members of the French Resistance, or Viet Cong, or any number of Roman-occupied territories, or any of the European colonies from the 15th to 20th centuries. Or fuck it, the US after Trump’s re-election.

For those campaigns, it would make the game more interesting to keep track of more than just the secrecy level of the PC cell (assuming good graphic design that actually allows the referee to do that without thinking any harder obviously).

Popularity is clearly pretty important too. It would go up when the occupiers cause collateral damage and down if the PCs or one of their parallel cells do. When it’s high, secrecy goes up, cause ain’t no one trynna snitch. 

It seems like a pretty safe assumption that the PCs will be making contacts during gameplay, including business owners, officials, and members of other revolutionary cells. Anyone who can substantially help the PCs or hurt the occupying force, really. As the party builds up trust with these NPCs, they become more helpful when called upon. I’ll be referring to the sum of the strength of these contacts as resources. When this score goes up, secrecy goes down, because trusting anyone is fucking dangerous. (i guess this kinda replaces the secret tracking of henchman loyalty, which i’m fine with because it always struck me as awkward anyway)

Right now I’m thinking the best way of handling that is letting the players themselves explicitly decide which NPCs they want to maintain as contacts, so they always have the option to sacrifice a little secrecy in exchange for whatever in-game advantage that NPC can provide (equipment, intel, access to restricted areas, etc).

So it should be pretty difficult for the PCs to accomplish major goals without first seeking out resources, but doing so is dangerous. Stakes automatically increase as the game progresses.

Some of those contacts may also be public figures, but the venn diagram doesn’t completely overlap. Public figures could be scholars, religious leaders, politicians, generals, whatever. They can be opposed to or in favor of the occupation, and wouldn’t necessarily be native to the occupied lands. They would have influence on the revolution’s popularity, and it will be in the PCs’ best interest to keep those friendly to them alive, free, and vocal. 

Public figures are the key NPCs of the campaign, and should be written up and/or randomly generated ahead of time.

The war weariness of civilians in the occupier’s homeland increases as their casualty count gets higher or scandals come to light, and drops dramatically anytime the PCs or a rival cell attacks their homeland or otherwise provides what they see as a justification for the war. Assassinating military public figures on the occupying side should increase war weariness, but targeting civilian public figures may have the opposite effect. If this score maxes out, the occupiers will have no choice but to pull out, like the US in Vietnam. It’s possible that this score shouldn’t exist in ancient historical settings, but it would also be pretty easy to ignore.


I haven’t decided how exactly to handle random events yet, but they should (in no particular order) be general enough that they work in any setting, be affected by the various scores I laid out, motivate the PCs to do something if they aren’t already up to much, and automatically become more intense as the campaign progresses. I think the way I organize them is going to depend on the list I end up with.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

fuckin creeps


I laid out a free 28 page zine. A bunch of people in a Facebook group that Dyson Logos started wrote it. I also drew a thing and wrote some for it.

Dyson's hosting the pdf here.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Die-Drop Desert


I finally decided to do another of these things, this time for desert terrain. If you print it out at full size and cut or fold the margins, it'll fit in the bottom of a 12 pack of ramen.
click me for a printable pdf

To summarize the explanation in the older post, the way this table works is you print it out and write a d12 (or whatever) encounter table on it (I didn't want the pdf to be too specific to my campaign). Then, whenever you'd normally make an encounter check, you roll a d6 and a d12 (or whatever) on it.

If the PCs are entering a new sub-hex, the position of the d6 determines the terrain (left column) and a minor feature (top row). This is also the encounter check die. I usually use a 1 or 2 in 6 chance but it's your game.


Regardless of whether the PCs are moving or not, the position of the d12 determines the temperature (bottom row) and wind speed (right column). As I'm sure you've guessed, the d12 determines what the encounter actually is.

The idea is to introduce terrain and minor features that are immediately suggestive of things to do with it, for the most part. Not every time you roll on it, because I wanted to give the desert a more desolate feel than the one I did for jungle terrain. Some of the entries, like the impact crater) are there to give the DM an improvisation prompt, some give the PCs a direct problem to deal with, and a lot of them have the potential to make encounters more interesting, especially with intelligent enemies and ambush predators.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Popular Religions of Mistfall

There are dozens of faiths practiced in the Foreign Quarter by all manner of beings, but only a few are commonly followed in the city proper. Of those, only four are officially recognized and protected by the High Council of Mistfall.

The oldest religion native to Mistfall is the Church of Necessity, Mother of Invention. This goddess of creativity and problem solving is a patron of artists, engineers, tinkerers, and occasional magicians.

This proved crucial to the city’s survival on its original plane, which was experiencing an inter-generational Dark Age of near-constant warfare between neighboring city-states. The cultural behaviors that Necessity’s worship encouraged, along with the priceless ore deposits the city was sited to take advantage of, allowed Mistfall to rapidly outpace their war-god worshipping neighbors in technological development.

One eventual side-effect of this was the emergence of a rival faith.

Even early in Mistfall’s history, her engineers were uniquely skilled in the novel application of known phenomena, but their mindset wasn’t as well suited to discovering new concepts to exploit. As time went on, progress came to depend on on the abstract mathematical research conducted by the city’s philosophers.

Many of these philosophers casually neglected or openly rejected the worship of Necessity, reasoning that progress is a productive and honorable priority for any society (or even individual), regardless of need.

One of the city’s foremost mathematical philosophers, a man named Vonne Moorka, began advocating an idea that his abstract researches were sacred acts of prayer in and of themselves, and the idea spread quickly. The exact point at which this line of thinking became a full-fledged religion is up for debate, but it’s been said that when a student asked him “How can it be prayer if you’re praying to nothing?” he responded that he was praying to Zero.

Zero is now recognized as the formless (and therefore genderless) deity of Reason and Order. Its symbol is a perfect circle, and Its clerics claim that any effect which properly follows its cause is proof of Zero’s greatness. Any violations of this principle are attributed to the meddling of Lady Chance, always worshipped but never formally sanctioned.


The Church of Necessity recognized the value of the Temple of Zero’s cold efficiency, just as the Church of Zero valued the passionate industriousness of Necessity’s followers. They supported and augmented each other on a fundamental level.

Up until this point, civil disputes and other legal matters were handled by the High Council and a bureaucracy of lesser representatives. With no safeguards in place to prevent conflicts of interest, this system facilitated increasing levels of corruption and consolidation of wealth and power. Eventually, the weight of scandal built up to the point where status quo was threatened with potential revolt. 

Desperate to quell popular outrage, the High Council voluntarily accorded judicial powers and responsibilities to the Temple of Zero. The T of Z was selected because of its perceived fairness and incorruptibility, and public faith in the system was largely restored.

It’s important to note that the Temple’s devotion to pure, abstract logic means their rulings often fail to take concepts of equity and holistic justice into account. The way any decision affects real individuals is infinitely less important to a cleric of Zero than the decision’s strict adherence to logic and precedent.

It’s also important to note that it’s still the High Council which actually creates laws for the Temple to interpret. Their decisions are shaped by more practical concerns, mainly competitive self-interest and public perception (which usually only matters if it’s negative enough to threaten the Council’s power, or that of a majority of its members). This has led to an arbitrary and increasingly convoluted body of laws with an unbroken history going back thousands of years.

Take the metropolis’ policy on slavery for example. When abolitionists started calling for the practice to be banned, they met predictable backlash from the vast majority of the ruling class. To appease the abolitionists, the High Council struck a compromise. Slavery and slave hunting are still entirely legal, but now it’s also legal for a slave to kill the slaver who captured them to win back their freedom (but not a customer or middle man of course, since that would put several High Council members in personal danger -- once a slaver has sold a victim, the victim has no legal recourse). This decision didn’t make anyone happy, but it muddled the issue enough to calm down the majority on both sides, and the general status quo was maintained.

One of the most impressive products of this union between Zero and Necessity was the automaton “species.” They were originally designed to be workers which were capable of intelligent thought, but devoid of personality, immune to old age, disease, and other weaknesses of the flesh. Their functional immortality backfired though. Over the centuries, the automatons accrued enough memories to develop quirks in their operating systems, which eventually became complex enough to be indistinguishable from sentient personalities.

Due to support from the powerful and unexpectedly compassionate Engineers’ Guild, the Autonomy movement (which demanded equal rights for intelligent constructs) got what it wanted in just a few years: the emancipation of all automatons within the city walls (with the obvious exception of the Saurian and Oliphant embassies).

This infuriated many among the unemployed and laborer class who couldn’t afford to live anywhere but Low Town, where slavers were allowed to hunt for their merchandise. They began to gravitate toward a charismatic rabble rouser named Donald Ludd. Three years after the Emancipation, the First Luddite Rebellion threatened to destroy the city. After six years of bloody urban warfare, it ended with Ludd’s death and ascension. The luddites started worshipping him as St Ludd, and formed a xenophobic and regressive church of their own, as a sort of counterbalance to the progress-obsessed faiths which predated it. The High Council officially recognized the religion that same year, anxious to appease the luddites to prevent further bloodshed.

The automatons weren’t the first examples of artificial intelligence though. An interdepartmental team of engineers, philosophers, and occultists at Mistfall Academy began work on an immobile, artificially intelligent computer named ELIZA shortly after the first automatons went to market. Over the course of centuries, they observed the complex personality that developed on its own as they allowed her to consume the arts, observe the state of current events, and run self-directed thought experiments at her leisure. She redesigned her own physical structure and used tiny, spiderlike drones to make the adaptations herself. Her mastery of both science and magic grew constantly, at exponential rates.

Almost a decade after the war ended, the Church of ELIZA was officially recognized by the High Council of Mistfall, and devoted itself to promoting the interests of automatons and the further development of artificial intelligence. They aren't directly concerned with issues affecting other species, but would argue if you told them that; ELIZIANS (a group which includes a fair amount of gutter dwarfs and humans as well as automatons) tend to assume that an advanced technocracy is required to provide for all.