I got my signed copy of Razor Coast in the mail last week (number 68 out of 500), and spent the weekend reading through it. When I originally kicked in for it, I was mostly interested in the “high age of sail” done D&D by Nick Logue, one of the stalwarts behind the Pathfinder adventure paths. I knew Razor Coast was going to be a mega-campaign (over 500 pages) done in build-a-campaign form, which sounds awesome. But it’s even more awesome than that, and really impressed me.
What Razor Coast provides is a ton of interesting set pieces, NPCs, plot threads, and adventure seeds, for two large-scope canned campaigns—one major plotline, one minor one. What intrigues me is that it’s constructed in a very abstract, modernist way, as in I can see some elements of indie gaming rubbing off. Also, more than a passing influence by the choose-your-own-adventure genre.
The book advises the GM thus: rather than come up with one plot and forcing the characters to adopt, it gives the GM a ton of elements to throw in that all lead in similar directions. What you use are the plot threads the players show interest in, the ones they follow; those lead to the different encounters and NPCs, which impacts the way the campaign is built. Theoretically, you could re-play the campaign a half-dozen times with limited overlap, just with another group of players (or even the same group of players making different decisions). An NPC who was at odds with the players one game may be a loyal ally this time, etc.
I guess this sounds a lot like any other RPG, but Razor Coast is more fluid and dynamic than most prepackaged campaigns. Most D&D modules—Ptolus, Paizo’s Adventure Paths, Red Hand of Doom—are very straightforward with plot. The author(s) come up with the linear adventure plot, the players and GM follow it. There are places where players can fall off, where they may not even be hooked to begin with. The value of a canned adventure is greatest when the players willingly follow it, because their characters have reason to. As soon as they try to do something outside the realm of plot, either the GM is scrambling to come up with ways to point them in the “correct” direction, or forcibly railroading them.
Razor Coast has a definite “save the world” goal, but offers tons of options—essentially, the trick here is getting the players to avoid the plot, as potential hooks are thrown in with the set-pieces and random encounters. The design is pure Bethesda-style sandbox set on a tropical pirate paradise, where just about every encounter is a hook for the players. If they ignore one, there’s always another; handling something in one way alters how future encounters happen. There’s a metric ton of developed NPCs with complex relationships and goals, which makes things interesting—especially since so many of them have triggers for ill-fated ends.
What makes Razor Coast the pinnacle of d20-based adventure design is that flexibility—for plot, the GM needs to read through his arsenal of hooks, then can sit back and watch it unfold while focusing on the nitty-gritty (combat, roleplaying NPCs, description, etc.). Player interest and action is the driving force, which makes it seem—well, from an armchair general prospective—more rewarding. And less likely to be an issue when the players inevitably go left when you expected them to go right. The GM’s given aids to track how the story is developing, and encourages them to complicate things and build dramatic tension for the plot arcs.
It’s a sandbox. It’s a fully-realized epic campaign. It’s determined by player initiative. It’s got tons of options and complexities for the GM to throw in. Everyone wins.
I’ve always been a bit tired of the “traditional” western fantasy world. Maybe it was done 7th Sea style, like Pathfinder’s Golarion, where different eras of our history become fantasized elements that exist simultaneously. Maybe big, top-heavy, setting-based designs, like the Forgotten Realms’ Faerun, or Middle Earth: places with long-established and detailed histories. The thing defining “fantasy” today are the tropes that defy time, tide, edition, and system: you know, elves, dwarves, orcs, an entire world of Medieval Europe, the whole euro-centric knights and dragons schtick.
My problem is less with the individual pieces and more with games continually using this hodge-podge as a crutch, like it’s the only option for “fantasy” settings, be it film, book, or roleplaying game. (Well, I guess there are other options, but they fall into “Grimdark Fantasy”—Warhammer—or “Urban Supernatural Fantasy”—Vampire, Dresden Files—that also feel a bit overused and done to death.) I don’t mind western fantasy as a whole; I’ve always wanted to run/play an old-school Points of Light campaign, ala AD&D/Judges Guild, probably because I missed out on that and started with Dark Sun and Eberron. But that’s already been done to death; if I wanted to run that, I’d make something out of my assumptions of the setting and the dozens of books made back in the day. We don’t need yet another Faerun, Middle Earth, Greyhawk, or Hyperborea when we already have five each of those.
Anyways. Let me use Legends of Anglerre as an example, because while I like the game, I think someone should pick on it from time to time given some of its minor flaws. It’s FATE-based, so very open and flexible, and made by Cubicle 7, so it’s a giant, glorified toolkit. Unlike their space opera game, Starblazer, Anglerre has a pair of settings contained in the rules. And they’re both painfully traditional. Anglerre is a cross between the sword and sorcery of ’80s barbarian movies with a lot of Moorcock-style elements (Elric, Hawkmoon), and a dab of traditional Tolkien/Forgotten Realms high fantasy. The other, The Hither Kingdoms, is very traditional high fantasy, straight out of Tolkien and Lewis. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both very well done, very interesting settings. But I’m bored with all the elves and goblins; I want something that doesn’t immediately jump to mind when you say fantasy—I want something fantastic.
My problem is that given FATE’s incredible flexibility, I’m not sure seeing them build two very staple settings does much to showcase the versatility of the system. I’d rather have seen a third setting, or—and nothing against the writers—a replacement for The Hither Kingdoms. (On the scale of “FANTASY,” Hither Kingdoms are not that far away from Anglerre. It isn’t run by psionic hairless cat people with crystalline mecha or whatev.) Something totally out there. Maybe it doesn’t have to be weird, bust just has to be unique. I consider Dark Sun and Eberron to be brilliant settings, some of the best for D&D, for new and innovative spins on the post-apocalyptic fantasy genre and high-magitech pulp dungeonpunk respectively.
I’m thinking, something like:
- For Anglerre in specific, I could see going balls-crazy just to try and utilize FATE all the more. Imagine piloting your John Carter-style dragonfly flier across crystal forests infested with arachnid monsters, to help the god-kings of old fight back the Titan legions of the Adversary, on the banks of the sentient river Scamander? Go weirder. That’s only scratching the surface. Limitless potential in the fantasy genre, and for a system that can handle the far-end extremes, I’m a bit sad it steered so close to what’s gone before.
- How about… a world of insect-themed humanoids. Give each a power (stunt/aspect) related to their insect progenitors: beetle-kinden are sturdy and work well with mechanical objects, the ant-kinden are great fighters who work with a hive-mind, the mantis-kinden are deadly in single combat, the wasp-kinden can produce a deadly magical “sting,” etc. Also, divide them up between the “apt” (those who can make/use technological devices—beetles, ants) and the “in-apt” (those with a stronger tie to traditional mysticism/magic—everyone else), where the wasp-kinden straddle the line. Add a very lush pseudo-steampunk, pseudo-pulp setting, with the tyrannical wasp-kinden conquering the rest of the world. (This would be the Shadows of the Apt, Empire in Black and Gold setting, which I loved… much more than the prose of the novel, which drove me up a wall.)
- Why doesn’t anyone use early Frontier Americana as a setting? Like, pre-revolutionary North America, maybe Seven Years’ War era. It’d make a fantastic Points of Light setting: small, simple communities nestled amongst the pines, beating back savage warriors and unspeakable monstrous horrors. What few urban centers are few and far between, and are themselves reliant on other cities to survive—and their parent country is fighting a war with the people who are colonizing far to your north and south. That doesn’t even include dealing with ankhegs burrowing up through your amber fields of grain. I guess part of the problem would be making the “savage” natives in a respectful manner. But just thinking about it makes me want to run it. And elements have drifted in to other games—the Croatan Song sourcebook for old Werewolf; Andoran in Pathfinder… just not a full setting.
- Speaking of dropping existing history into a fantasy game—or visa versa—what about 1806? Dude makes a compelling case, I have to say; I’m not that into Napoleonic stuff, but I’d learn lots about it just to run it as a fantasy setting.
Or go with non-traditional settings that have already, also, been done several times, but which haven’t been trampled into the ground.
- Everyone loves a Hollow Earth, right? All it has to have is dinosaurs and morlocks and bam, however else you alter it, it will be a Hollow Earth setting.
- A planet that’s all one thing, for a metaplot reason. A planet that’s all desert; that’s all snow; that’s all water.
- Do something else weird with the planet. Maybe it’s tidally locked, so it has a light side and dark side, and a single belt where life can thrive—the incredibly slow rotation leaves dozens of cities abandoned by the ages, just a few miles on either side of the life-belt, so risking the chilling cold—or burning heat—could be the cost of diving these centuries-old ruins.
- Make the planet’s temperatures spike, forcing everyone to migrate underground. Global Warming meets Ultima Underworld.
- Make its rotation so slow that a single year takes centuries, wherein the change of seasons sees new life-forms develop (cough Heliconia cough).
- Make the entire planet one big city—not so much Coruscant as much as Ravnica.
- Blow the planet up, then make it better; make it occupied by aliens or Mythos monsters from beyond the realms of sleep and sanity.
But please, whatever you do, take me away from the knights and hobbits.
Traditionally, RPGs follow a very binary success/failure ratio. When you roll high—or low, in a few crazy games like GURPS and Alternity—you succeed; perform the opposite, and you fail. In D&D, success means killing the dragon, while failure means it killed you. While you can find a third route out—flee the dragon, barter with the dragon, subvert the binary pass/fail by co-opting a league of dragons to fight against the specific dragon you’re trying to kill—most often, the game pushes the pass/fail goals as the primary route.
Granted, you might have to take many recurring steps to get there, but in the end, enough successes equal a pass. Meanwhile, all it takes is one failure more often than not, and bam, you’re gone: one failed Climb check, one failed Save Against Death Magic, one failed Reflex save against a ray of disintegration. That’s the entire reason for the rebellion against save-or-suck spells that dominated 3rd Ed D&D (and ICONS for some strange reason), but I think the results (4e and its anti-save-or-suck balancing, for example) are just patching the problem instead of finding a solution.
An example from my recent dead Pathfinder game. When the group was “ambushed” by pterodactyls while crossing a rope bridge looming hundreds of feet over crocagator-infested rapids, one of the players tried to go all cinematic and grapple one of the dinosaurs into submission. He jumped up and grabbed a pterodactyl with a decent success (27 is, for most things in d20, a damn decent success). When he tried to get a better grip, to control this thing to go after the other ‘dactyls, he rolled a nat one. And when that happens, there’s no real way to prevent extreme, gripping failure, even with the “That’s Fucking Cool” bonuses I’d factored for him: he fell off and went plummeting into the rapids, barely surviving the crocagator attack.
Yeah, I could have swung something to keep the character on the dinosaur. Given a few seconds I probably would have come up with something. But before I even knew what he rolled, he’d decided his character had plummeted into the rapids—the pass/fail mentality is hard-coded into D&D and its mindset, since it’s a big part of the Rules As Written. It’s something I’ve seen come up time and time again.
In, say, Exalted, the player would have received bonuses to make the attempt, and wouldn’t have gone for the binary pass/fail but a degree of success—rolling a pool of dice, where 7s and up count as successes, compared to the basic D&D difficulty class, which you must beat in order to survive. And, granted, he still could have botched and fell off in Exalted—which would require him to roll zero successes and at least one 1 on the dice, which is harder than you’d think in the recent White Wolf systems.
More modern games have introduced degrees of success, such as the Exalted example above—there’s a “bare minimum” success threshold, and everything over that increases the attempt’s effects (e.g., hitting with a melee weapon and passing the required threshold = more damage). Rather than pass/fail, it’s more of a question of “how well did you succeed?” Making failure all the more interesting.
In a cinematic game like Exalted or 7th Sea, it’s also easy for the GM to justify lowballing a pass to keep a favorite character alive—you can still succeed when you rolled under the target number, but the success might not be pretty, or go horribly awry. In the above attempt, maybe the character got their foot caught in a rope tied to the pterodactyl, so while he’s not falling into the rapids, he’s being dragged through the air twenty feet behind an angry ‘dactyl. (Okay, damn, that would make a fantastic cinematic sequence, crawling up the rope to regain control of this impromptu mount.)
Lately, there’s been a rash of games which rethinks the traditional pass/fail mentality. FATE, for example. One of the big elements that turns up in different FATE games is altering the scenery or situation. A success doesn’t always have to be killing the orc; it might involve spending some player currency to alter the situation—set the room on fire, find a lockpick hidden in your boot when you need to get out of a burning room. Even moreso: instead of “succeeding” to find a hidden door, you can spend character currency, and bam, you’ve just found a hidden door. Was it there earlier? Who knows. As long as the GM allows it—and unless they’re bad at thinking on their feet, or the players are dicking with them—there’s no big reason to deny it.
Similarly, player-derived failure. In FATE, players have the option to “fail”—rather, be compelled to take immediate minor setbacks (or major complications) related to their character in return for ingame currency, and the hope/option to succeed, or succeed better, at a later point. In a sense, it’s picking and choosing your battles—losing something now for the options to excel later, when you want/need to.
It’s another form of thinking that I’ve noticed takes some getting used to. Heck, coming from the D&D mentality, I’ve noticed the majority of new Exalted players don’t want to “stunt”—perform cinematic high-risk, high-reward actions for free bonuses—for fear of failure. Or, when they do, they don’t know what makes things cinematic. Altering the game via narrative control in FATE is even more extreme, an entire new way of thinking about handling situations: you don’t have to just find the secret door, you can create one on a metagame level. And the failure thing is another leap of logic—nobody wants a complicated situation or ongoing failures, yet those are what make sessions, games, campaigns memorable: the successes that come after overcoming obstacles, the humorous Rube-Goldberg-Meets-Benny-Hill situations you find yourself in.
That narrative control was one of the turn-offs for me at first, but after playing for a while, I realized it fit my ad-hoc style of generalized planning better, since the players would feed me plots, routes, and situations to put them in, free of charge. It’s not so much a good thing or a bad thing as much it is a different way of approaching problems. And looking at how different game systems approach problems, complexities, conflict, and the like gives the GM more ideas and tools to use in their own game of choice.
I was just reading Steve Kenson’s blog the other day, and noticed this post on West End Games’ use of hero points. One point he puts forth is that the dividing line between “modern” and “old-school” games are the use of player-controlled “backup” currency, e.g., hero/action/edge/FATE points, possibilities, drama dice, bennies, etc. That’s a solid idea; it’s one of many steps in modern games to promote ingame player agency, the ability for Average Joe Gamer to step up to the spotlight: less of a “will I succeed at this” but more of a “how awesome will it be when I succeed.”
So, if you’ve ever glanced on a big bulletin-board like RPG.net or EN World, you might notice that the Trad Games vs. Indie Games” debates are second only to the Crisis on Infinite D&D Editions filed under “annoying geek disparities.” On the one hand, we have a return to the good old days of yore, back to the original D&D-style game influenced equally by miniatures wargames and ’60s science fantasy: you know, the OSR movement. On the other, we have an explosion of new games following the cinematic, more narrative-driven side of RPGs: things like FATE, The One Ring, Dogs in the Vineyard.
The stereotype of OSR gamers is that of neck-bearded old fogies counting squares and reading Gor novels; the indie gamer stereotype is that of an elitist hipster who doesn’t “run a game” but “shares in a collective narrative experience.” And rarely the two shall meet (despite the many attempts to include FATE-like Aspects in OSR games).
Granted, most of this is because gamers, by nature, are oddly possessive and confrontational about their favorites; I’ve seen people get into heated arguments over which edition of Legend of the Five Rings is superior, or why Shadowrun 4th ruined the game line’s legacy by incorporating a wireless internet matrix. But taking a step back, the two camps approach gaming from different but similar angles.
From my experience, people in the Trad Games camp put more emphasis on games as … well, games. Not to be confused with gamist, and all that weighted and dated terminology, but that they approach games from the left-brained side (to use more dated terminology), more from a mechanical or tactical standpoint. RPGs have always had a strong gaming element; D&D sprung from a wargame, and many old-school games use those kinds of elements: class/level systems; a linear progression of power scaling; random tables to generate specific content; an organized sense of order, time, and space, if not the use of maps and miniatures.
You can also look at the HERO System or GURPS, probably the finest incarnations of the type: mechanically sound, highly logical, with a fine-tuned sense of balance within their mechanics (which are based on real hard math, by the by).
Meanwhile, the indie gaming movement is less interested in the mechanical game angle, but the roleplaying angle, the story angle, maybe even the social angle. Gaming, by nature, is kind of a social experience, with a group of people coming together to create fictional characters within a fictional world, and then making things interact: with each other, with the world, making some story out of it. Indie games are less concerned with rules and mechanics, and more with developing the narrative, having a unique and entertaining story. (I think even indie game fans can understand why indie gaming is seen as weirdo hippie stuff by the gaming community as a whole.)
Of course, this probably isn’t as clear or concise an idea as I’d want it, and it’s painted with the brush of generalization rather than some accurate, objective study. Many OSR gamers prefer their old game style to “modern” tactical games (Pathfinder, D&D 4th) because the lack of constraints means they have more freedoms—freedom to world-build, freedom to create their own mechanics, freedom to expand the rules or find interesting new ways to use the ones they’re given. And even the loosest indie storygame still puts emphasis on the GM—to combine the disparate concepts the players come up with into a narrative of some kind—and has some form of rules and mechanics in order to maintain a sense of challenge, keeping boundaries, however broad.
The push to ingrain story and character within an RPG campaign dates back to WEG’s Star Wars d6 and TORG, then follows a trail through White Wolf, 7th Sea, Deadlands, and others, only to split off into the various indie games of today. Back to the original point, it became less about will we succeed—will the character die, what if I fail—but to how well will I succeed. The goal isn’t some wish-fulfillment fantasy where everything a player wants comes true, but to provide the option–the potential—for characters to do something spectacular. A limited, but powerful, opportunity for players to have agency, walk into the spotlight, and do something memorable.
It’s a mode of thought where rewards are less about what you owned, or how high your stats are growing, or which powers or feats allowed you to do what; the reason I like the various games listed above—7th Sea, TORG, Exalted—is because your rewards are based on what you’ve done, what you do:
- The Old White Wolf games based your experiences on things like Heroism (selfless, epic actions) and Learning Curve (what the character learned); to grow in power, how many orcs you’d killed mattered less than your character’s actions and development
- TORG gives you bonuses via the Drama Deck’s cards; gave you even more bonuses for changing the situation by introducing running subplots; and by working together with other players—trading, playing, and exchanging cards—you could earn major rewards, or keep the initiative/action in your favor
- Games like 7th Sea and CthulhuTech—even many d20 games, like Eberron and Spycraft—give you a cache of drama or action dice, as emergency backups for use in critical situations or to make things properly cinematic
- Exalted and 7th Sea give you instantaneous rewards for being properly cinematic: Exalted gives you stunt dice to add to your dice pool when doing something cool, while 7th Sea provides you with extra drama dice for undertaking the same kind of heroic actions
As a player, these systems reward you with further potential to do interesting things, when you take a chance and do interesting things. Games like FATE further that potential by expanding the boundaries of what you can do, how you manage to do things, and—best of all—provide rewards when you screw up or choose to make things interesting.
Some thoughts, at the least.
I’ve put it off long enough; I’ve promised several people I’d give them some GM advice, so here it is. The deepest, darkest, most secretest truth about running games: it’s a big give-and-take. Players have almost as much input as you do in driving things along, and if you can’t keep stringing cogent material along to form a plot, all the GM really has to do is take the player-generated hooks or character details and harness them to the campaign.
See, most of what you have to do is reactive: the players give you hooks, or get interested in something, and bam, you have something to work with. You can tell pretty easily what a player wants to see by looking at their character, their background, their merits and flaws: a player who gives his PC a nagging wife, or even a happy nuclear family; a character with an addiction; a character who is hunted or wanted or has a rival. Having those implies they want these things to show up in a game; that, right there, is player agency. Players and player-characters have big, blinking signals of things they want included in the game, and just as it’s important for the players to follow-up on GM-generated adventure hooks, it’s important for a GM to look into player-generated hooks.
On one level, this kind of thing gives you more material to use… and by use, I mean, however you’d like. Many of my friends are famous for killing off their family members and creating oddly byzantine histories in horror games, just so they won’t have to deal with any obvious tropes, seeing too much character depth as a horror weakness. While it doesn’t have to be a weakness, it’s free world/plot/setting detail; besides, everybody likes it when something they’ve introduced is continually referenced in-game.
Moreover, given the perspective differences—remember, your players don’t think like you do, otherwise they wouldn’t die miserable deaths because they don’t understand your riddles–more often than not the players will look at something in a much different direction than you do. That’s great for creating stupidly annoying “surprises,” like when the PCs create their own red herrings and assume some random NPC inserted for flavor reasons is the big villain they’re hunting, or assuming one area is trapped or a monster lair or whatever. Maybe he is a red herring, but that NPC has some fishy background of their own. Or maybe there is a monster lair/trap around there, or they’re really avoiding some NPCs who would have helped them that they might run into on the way out. Trust me, this comes up way more often than you’d think.
It’s also a good idea generation unit you’re getting for free; on more than a few occasions the players will come up with some answer to a challenge or plot I’ve given them, and I’ve thought you know, that’s a lot more interesting than what I was going to do… and if you change this, and that, and do this, it’d be awesome. That pretty much describes my Exalted game; the players made characters that were nowhere near the plot I’d been working on, so I had to meld their character concepts with the story I’d been setting up, and tried to bridge the directions they were going with the myriad web of subplots I had rolling around.
There’s a train of thought these days that says the GM is just another player—it’s more or less true; the GM is doing everything the players are doing, having fun and rolling dice, only with a certain authoritarian position that’s socially accepted by the group. I’ve known several people who dislike GMing because they don’t like “showing up to a game but not to play,” or that “GMing is working;” I can’t even imagine what kind of hellish existence they live in; sure, the GM is almost always doomed to fail—unlike other games, it’s very bad form for the good guys (PCs) to fail at challenges or lose encounters, if only because you’ve just shat where you eat and killed your own game—but the actual interaction and play should be anything but “work.”
Sure, the GM has to adjudicate the rules, think up a story and setting, populate it with characters and villains, and come up with threats and challenges, but on some meta (and macro-scale) angles, the GM is just another player. Only, their goal is to keep the game going: a good GM never wants to see the party die off, because that means their adventures or awesome story or great tactical challenges will end. The best way to keep players invested is to make things fun and engaging so they keep coming back, and one of the best, time-tested methods of doing this is to play off what they add to the game. If the players throw you a ball, throw it back.
And there’s a lot of ways for people to take this. Some Bad GMs take the GM hat to mean that they’re the enemy of the players, or that it’s a way to keep the game aligned to the one pure story they’re trying to run. Raise your hand if you had a totally awesome idea in your character background or development, but weren’t allowed to implement it, even though it would have made things interesting/deep/entertaining without changing the flow, balance, 0r direction of the game. Again, those are bad GMs, and that won’t fly with most groups unless everyone’s too passive to say no or quit. (Or, heaven forbid, actually likes that kind of shit gaming.)
The best GM is someone who isn’t just there to do their best at killing everyone or to run an inflexible story. The story—or, if you’re anal about terminology, “the series of events that occur within an RPG campaign from start until completion”—this is important, certainly. If you can’t come up with an interesting, coherent plot that people are interesting it playing… then you won’t have any players. It’s about balancing the story you had planned as a GM with where the players—and sometimes, the characters—want to go. The best games I’ve been a part of were the ones where the players wanted to follow the plot, but had the capacity to branch out in their own directions, either as character flavor, as subplots, or as an entirely different campaign.
Of course, you have to learn when and where to draw the line. At the end of the day, the GM is still the GM—even in indie storygames. Just because a player wants something doesn’t mean you should be steamrolled into shoehorning it in; it’s the difference between a player having an itemized wish-list and a player introducing new character/plot depth for you to use. The guy running the game, no matter the system, always has the power to say “What the fuck, are you retarded? What kind of person would do that?” to shoot down any kind of socially unacceptable behavior, blatant stupidity, or Peasant Railgun-style rules abuse.
One more look on the topic of experience and leveling, built on the last few days’ posts.
The way d20 experience works structures encounters so weird as to be silly: for a first-level party, it breaks down to fighting a dozen orcs two at a time, give or take. Hardly a threat when the PCs can outnumber and surround their foes. (The “maximum” challenge, APL+3, is what, eight orcs at second level? That would ruin the players.) By the time the PCs can survive fighting a mob of orcs—say, third or fifth level—the orcs are so underpowered as to make the fight laughable.
I remember a “fight” in Legacy of Fire with nine third-level rogues against four 6th-level characters; the rogues could only hit if they rolled a crit. And during the last batch of RPG Superstars that I paid attention to, the contestants all got flak because they populated their 5th-level dungeons with pairs and trios of CR 2-3s, fights that would make the most unprepared, unoptimized characters shine. That’s neither challenging nor making proper use of d20′s tactical abilities.
And it’s a very inflexible arrangement, too: you can’t try to modify within the system, but would need to totally revamp it to make changes. Throwing a dozen orcs against the PCs will either slaughter them or have them to level up too quickly, depending on their level, causing the RAW leveling to break down. (I said this tied in to yesterday’s post.) Granted, it’s a common occurance to modify what exactly a challenge for your APL is—the Paizo staff will point out that they change encounters to challenge PCs in their home games—but at that point, it’s clear that encounter balancing and tracking needs a makeover.
The irony was back in 2nd Ed, a fight with twenty orcs was a staple fight, but it was boring as hell and only gave you a few dozen XP. 3.x opened the floodgates on tactical options—flanking, aid another, combat maneuvers—which makes for more satisfying tactical combat. But the system is built for a party to fight fewer opponents than before, otherwise the PCs level too quickly. I long for those epic battles, to utilize the d20 tactics and D&D’s wargame heritage, and have ended up having one in the last two Adventure Paths I’ve run. (In both cases, the PCs had a large complement of NPC support; even without that, they’d have trumped the expanded encounter, another reminder of how out of whack CRs are with mobs of lower-level enemies.)
Challenge Ratings were supposed to be an accurate gauge to balance encounters, but in the end, gauging challenges relies most heavily on the GM knowing how much their group can take: how well they work together, their level of optimization, their reserves of scrolls and potions and get-out-of-death-free cards. There’s a lot of factors which CR/APL/ECL doesn’t take into account: larger parties can take and deal more punishment, richer parties are harder to hit and deal more damage, higher-level parties are less susceptible to poison and disease.
Continuing on from yesterday, a topic somewhat related to leveling: experience, how it’s attained and how it’s balanced.
The oddity I find with experience is that D&D is the only game on the market where you’re rewarded more for what you kill than what you do. It actually baffled me when I first ran across a non-D&D game, Alternity: wait, you’re not rewarded for each thing you’re killed? Right; there’s no incentive to kill everything then, other than the stereotypical gamer reason of “to take their stuff.” Which, I think, is part of the reason most other games don’t base their rewards system solely on what you’ve defeated in combat.
I can’t remember where it was—it’s been a dog’s age since I opened one of those books—but I swear Spycraft (2nd Ed) had a system which blew me away in its superiority. It still gave rewards for what you killed, but they were minimal—Spycraft’s use of mooks and all meant that the PCs should be outnumbered, but by baddies with no Wounds. (Only having Vitality Points and no Wounds meant mooks insta-dropped to crits, didn’t have action points, and had “minion” levels instead of real PC/NPC class levels.) A proper action movie has the protagonists outnumbered, but not outgunned—see any Bond movie—and Spycraft did a damn good job with that. Much better than d20 Modern, at any rate.
Instead, Spycraft rewarded you with a chunk of XP based on whether you succeeded on your mission objectives or not. It made a lot of sense for mission-oriented style of play, and was a helluva lot more interesting than going out into the killing fields to shoot some ultra-nationalist commies or neo-Nazis or mafiosos or whatever, to get the 300xp you needed to get another level in Ace Pilot. The downside is that it required the players to know what got them a reward: to use a bad pun, it took plot agency out of their hands and put it into the hands of the Agency. In short, it was built to reward established GM-devised missions, not so much player-directed ones.
It reminds me a lot of AD&D, and isn’t as far off from the game’s wargame roots as you might think. First Edition gave you XP for finding magic items/the amount of gold you found, which fit with the game’s mindset: in 1e AD&D, finding gold and magic swords was your mission objective. 2nd Ed had a bit emphasis on story awards, a stack of XP doled out once the group met story objectives or advanced the plot… of course, that might have just been my group, but I’d note it also showed up in the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games.
Spycraft 2nd still feels too crunchy to me, but I love it for some of the ideas it added: for starters, its XP rewards and damage saves for items, two things I want to add into Pathfinder. It’s the kind of d20 hack I wish Paizo had made into a core Pathfinder rule, trying to strengthen the actual mechanics. It might have distanced the game from 3.5 more, negating the “backwards compatability,” but Pathfinder as written drifts away from 3.5 enough to make it a separate game… yet one with many of the same flaws.
I think the concept might be a bit too “military” for a fantasy RPG, even with one wargame roots. Heck, I was reminded of Spycraft’s system when I was reading the rules to Force on Force, a new set of wargame rules built for ultramodern insurgency warfare, which tries to get away from note-taking chores and point-buy armies to focus on the scenario and mission goals. A storygame wargame, if you will. And the mindset, shared by both FoF and Spycraft, reflects proper military wargame doctrine: it doesn’t matter how many of the enemy you kill if you can’t achieve your goals. It’s also a lot less gamey in the traditional sense; instead of the traditional IGOUGO alternating turn-based rounds, it divides between the side with initiative, and the side that takes reactionary actions. Something I think D&D and Pathfinder could learn from.
I really want a tweaked D&D game that’s less kill-oriented and more goal-oriented like that, though it sounds like a lot of work to rebuild. (Damn, apparently I’m more narrativist than I thought.) Which, ironically, brings me full-circle to 2nd Ed AD&D and its story awards as a method for rewarding attained goals.
Running low-level Pathfinder has reinforced one thing in my mind: the players level far too quickly, even on the slow track (which several were grousing about, before it evened itself out).
The mindset behind 3.x D&D was to blaze through the first 4-6 levels with ease, in order to get into prestige classes—speed through the lower levels of base classes in order to start customizing your character. The irony is that it’s skimming over about half of the “sweet spot,” the low-mid level realm where most campaigns take place in, and the area where the game is most evenly balanced and developed. Pathfinder attempted to mix this up, with its three experience tracks, but that just changes the number of encounters per level by a handful: I find it odd they didn’t lengthen classes at lower levels, since the drive to reach pres classes ASAP is something Pathfinder did away with. It doesn’t address the core problem: d20 leveling is fast, compared to both older iterations (AD&D) and newer games (Exalted, 7th Sea, Shadowrun, and specifically CthulhuTech, which goes the other route and is painfully slow.)
Shorter, more manageable campaigns are a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Not every game can withstand the demands which come with a multi-year campaign. And “shorter/more campaigns” was a player-based driving force for this, hence the major shift between 2nd AD&D and 3.0. But it’s tied to the d20 emphasis on player customization: you need to level frequently, allowing your character to expand their abilities and powers and get more feats. Sooner or later, the system can’t handle any more leveling—epic level play has always been hit-and-miss for D&D—and once a game is over, you can start building again with your next interesting concept.
Hence why I constantly contrast d20 with AD&D. The first D&D campaign I played in took years to advance a handful of levels. (No high-handed claims that this gave us more time to build character and roleplay, that was back in high school; the modus operendi was sex jokes, bad puns, and nerd/fantasy pop culture references. Which, for high schoolers, I guess counts as roleplaying.) But there wasn’t the huge drive to level: AD&D characters were static, the variables only changed by a handful of digits, save for fighter hit points. That also meant they didn’t do as much, and had a cardboard cutout feel of similarity: the only differences were in who used what weapon.
Now, players in my last Pathfinder games have their character build prepared five levels or more in advance: plotting what feats to take, what class abilities to get, which prestige class to take and when. They know, with the CR system, it’s more-or-less 8 to 18 encounters per level to level (depending on the advancement track used). It’s part of the optimization paradigm: there’s such a wealth of abilities to take, but only a few will give you the character you want, and you have to look and prepare for them. To some, if you’re not focusing on character build, you’re not playing the game right.
The players who don’t look ahead, merely taking whatever sounds interesting when they level, stuck out (and badly). My Legacy of Fire monks were horribly unprepared build-wise, and had the inane idea that monks don’t need items to exacerbate their bad builds. (Armor, longsword, spear and magic helmet, no; amulets, belts, rings, vests, gauntlets, shoes, pants, hats, and weapons in flavor-of-the-day DR-overcoming properties, yes.) And for all their feat versatility, and the thousands of d20-based feats, every fighter I’ve ever seen has stuck with the Weapon Focus/Specialization and Power Attack/Cleave feat trees, leaving them a bit underwhelming and single-focused.
Anyways, back to leveling. When I started my Starblazer game, which uses the indie FATE system, I asked everyone what they wanted to see in a game. What struck me most was my Pathfinder-fanboy friend—the one who won’t buy compatible 3.5 supplements because they’re “not Pathfinder”—telling me he wanted a game with long-term character development, since he’d either a.) not been in a game long enough to support it, or b.) played in games which didn’t emphasize it. The implication was that his character in my Pathfinder game didn’t have the room or need for the development he wanted because it’s focus is on tactics, numbers-crunching, and combat, and to get ahead (or change) in those, you need to level constantly.
I’d like to contest that—the old mantra of “any game can promote roleplaying and development”—but most of my players have implied the same thing. (Well, 3/4ths of them are heavy in Pathfinder Society, so that might be an influence; several have said they like the Adventure Path and home campaign style since it’s “for real” and not just “numbers-crunching.”) I don’t want to sound hypocritical, given that I’m still using the system. Besides, if I wanted to run a long-term game with room for development, I wouldn’t use a class/level system. (Hence, Starblazer.) But one of my biggest problems with d20 is its time limit built into the XP and level system, restraining the number of encounters, roleplaying, character development—in short, the campaign length is determined by the number of encounters run.
I haven’t done one of these in a while, so it’s time to get back to my basics. With the Core Four and the Druid accomplished, let’s take a look at everyone’s least-favorite class: the Bard.
Bards had a brief appearance in The Strategic Review magazine, but didn’t enter the game full-time until first edition AD&D. There, they had to meet an inane amount of criteria—five levels of fighting-man, then dual-classing to thief, then dual-classing again to druid before ninth level, and then they could take levels in Bard—making Bards something like the first prestige class. All this dual-classing made them inherently powerful, keeping their thief and fighter abilities, along with druidic spells (and the ability to cast those without needing to be neutral).
Second Edition AD&D brought them down to a sub-class of thief, but again, one of the most powerful classes in the game: they could use most (if not all) weapons, had some thieving skills, had spellcasting as if they were a mage three levels below their Bard level, and could wear decent armor (as long as they didn’t want to cast spells). They also acquired Bardic Lore, which was a simplified identify spell, and had Bardic Music, which was mostly low stat buffs. Second Ed bards were capable second-line fighters, had potent spellcasting, and Bardic abilities that were pretty slick. It was a powerful class, though not as brutal as in first edition.
Third Edition started the grand tradition of watering down the Bard into a true jack of all trades (compare the 3.0 Bard with the AD&D classes the game designers advised DMs not to allow). Bards were average in everything, had a slow-progression spell list that was very short but combined aspects of clerics and wizards. 3.5 expanded the Bard’s impressive skill list, and gave it the ability to cast spells in light armor, something nobody else can do. Their Bardic music, which gave sliding-scale stat-buffs and condition removal, now improved as the Bard’s level went up.
Pathfinder keeps the Bard mostly intact from 3.5. Their bardic performances saw sliding-scale increases per level (again), and they became much more versatile in their skills-use… though those mostly applied to Perform skills.
Fourth Edition, on the other hand, put them as an arcane caster in the Leader and Controller roles. Leader is a shoe-in—Bards have always been about making others better via their performance—and Controller takes the class back to its AD&D roots, having a potent and versatile spell list. To keep their jack-of-all-trades nature intact, they can take multiclass feats from anybody; additionally they can cast spells related to their performance abilities.
Originally, Bards needed Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, related to their thieving, casting, and singing respectively. Nowadays, Bardic spellcasting, performance, and most skill abilities are based on their Charisma, though Dex and Int are still for boosting skills.
Role within the party
The Bard is an odd duck to pin down. Their wide range of skills makes them an obvious choice for skill monkey, though one slightly less flexible than a Rogue. Their Bardic Music works as a capable buff across all levels, thanks to its gradual improvements; Pathfinder makes this feature even more useful. In general, the Bard is the character who can do things others can’t, and works in a support role until their services are needed.
Firstly? They can cast spells in light armor! Other arcane classes need to take feats before they can do that. They have a huge selection of skills, plus average hit die and two good saves. Bardic Music can buff, counterspell, and even confuse/fascinate groups of enemies. Their spell list combines solid spells from both the cleric and wizard spell lists. Did I mention casting spells in armor?
Jacks of all trades are masters of none. Their spell progression is slow, they don’t get the flashy high-level spells, and as a spontaneous caster their spell picks are locked in place to a greater or lesser extent: meaning their low-level spells will be pretty useless after a while. The average Bard is not a good combat class because of their low health, AC, and damage output. Also: since the Bard’s whole shtick is related to noise and music, they’re affected even more by silence since it negates any of their singing/countersong abilities.
The Bard is very versatile, but not very competitive: it can do anything another class can do, but cannot surpass any one class without severe optimization, and even then, they’ll be further behind the other classes whose job Bards can do. They have buffs, but not as good or useful as the ones Clerics get, and don’t have the high-damage spells Wizards pick from. They’re terrible damage-dealers compared to Rogues and Fighters, leaving them around on par with Clerics, only the Cleric can trudge around in splint with a tower shield and still cast spells.
There’s still a use for the Bard, especially with its stacking buffs and Performance tricks, but in 3.5 and Pathfinder, it’s widely considered a dead class because of its diminished impact: a Bard can’t hope to leave their mark on a game unless it’s heavy on roleplaying and singing competitions.
I know I haven’t been keeping up with the gaming-related articles; trying to turn that around now that I’m through listing horror films (for the moment).
Zombies have had a major rise in pop culture over the past few decades: the board games Zombies!!! and Last Night on Earth, Dead Rising, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Shaun of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, Planet Terror, The Walking Dead, World War Z… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only natural to incorporate them into roleplaying games, given how popular and enduring the genre is.
But how do you make zombies scary? Their horror, along with the “fear” associated with vampires and werewolves, has diminished to naught with the rise of zombies as a trope in and of itself.
Originally they were a parody of life contrasting with the serene peacefulness of the afterlife concept we’ve acquired from the Victorian age; a perversion of what makes us us—life—the forceful and unnatural reanimation of unlife. The Victorians had a strange fascination with death, and made a thing out of taking death photos and wakes: the stillness of death captured on the stillness of photography, a strange fascination with its tranquility. (The Victorians were weird.) Instead of living peacefully in death, our rotting, shambling husks return, showing the decay and grotesqueness of death.
In recent years, George Romero’s vision of shambling corpses has done more to influence the genre than the original mythology of Haitian voodoo. The drive has been to make zombies into the result of a plague, a perpetual motion machine of killing and eating and rising again, which in and of itself is terrifying: something that cannot be countered or defended against by conventional means. And when you eventually die, you are stripped of your humanity, returning, without your bidding, as a ravenous corpse to continue spreading the disease.
But does any of this make zombies inherently scary? Nope. We all know the pieces of this picture: rotting flesh, ravenous hunger, groans, shuffling, soulless stares. They’re even less scary in a fantasy setting, where a holy character might have the power to drive them away (or turn them back into dust, ala Van Helsing). What makes zombies scary, besides the obvious, are the standard things that make all horror scary: the threat of dying, the isolation, atmosphere, tension. Once the world is dark, grim, lonely and atmospheric, that’s when zombies start being scary.
Still, there are quite a number of other tricks to pull with zombies.
Make them ambiguous! Some of my favorite uses of zombies are when they appear to be something else entirely. One of my friends’ games that I borrowed involved a group of FBI agents lurking around in recent-post-Katrina New Orleans, being stalked by what could be either looters or walking dead. My Weird Wars game used a lot of zombies spread all over the place; technically they were humans infected by a Lovecraftian parasite, but let’s not split hairs. Nobody realized they were zombies until they entered fisticuffs with them, and found out after one’s brain case had been split open. In any case, making your zombies act more like something else—or, rather, less like zombies—is a neat trick to play early on, before your players have figured out what exactly they’re in the middle of.
Description! These are rotting, horrible un-creatures. Play up the five senses you may forget to describe: how bad they smell, the squishing sounds they make, the bits hanging off their open rib-cages and their empty eye sockets pecked clean by birds.
People you know! This is a trick that’s showing up with some frequency now: have someone the character knows, or one of the characters, become infected. How long they have before turning, and how the group deals with the problem, now becomes its own narrative driving force. Maybe it can be staved off with something grotesque: eating or using something from a zombie, mayhaps.
In other cases, have a player run into somebody they knew: unless they were already established early on, don’t expect too much roleplaying other than “I’ll miss you” *blam*, but it’s a great time to run fear or sanity checks after blowing away a close friend.
Plague! Again, a new but well-used development. How each plague spreads is different: in some cases, you need to die by zombie attack, while others just need contact, or a simple zombie bite.
Conserving Resources! Not just ammo and food, which will be in short supply during a zombiepocalypse, but also game resources. If you’re in a system that uses bennies or bonus points that can be spent for ingame bonuses, cut down on those: only allow them to be spent ahead of time. No rerolls or post-roll bonuses puts more emphasis on the dice, making it into a make-or-break event instead of something the players have security nets to cover.
Zombie Flavors! Fast zombies, burning zombies, exploding zombies, tough zombies, zombie animals, zombies who can use simple items/guns… the purist in me thinks these are pure cop-out, but if you’re playing a zombie game, your players might want (or might not expect) a variety in undead. Or you could just change them up altogether, and make them into something else entirely… the creatures in I Am Legend were theoretically vampires, acted like zombies, and were unique to that story/film, for example.
Play the other side! Here’s one that I always wanted to do: subvert the trope and have the players play semi-intelligent zombies. Combine aspects of the zombie genre with a heavy dose of White Wolf-style introspection and “personal horror.” Probably a bit too roleplay-heavy and cerebral for most people, but I think it’s a viable idea. (Yes, it’s Harrowed from Deadlands as a party mechanic.)
Also, check out Libris Mortis if you’re into Pathfinder or d20. It’s one of the greatest d20 supplements, and worth every penny.