Archive for October, 2011
In both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, feats are special abilities which are gained once every few levels. They are roughly equivalent to a minor class ability. And, in fact, several feats are simply repackaged class features. The idea behind the system is a good one for a game which favors in-depth character building. While a character’s class controls their general progression, and the selections they make for their skills determines their effectiveness with mundane tasks; feats offer characters the opportunity to excel at something special.
Based on the title of this post, however, I’m sure my readers know there’s a ‘but’ coming. So lets get it over with: BUT, individual feats often suffer from poorly considered design. By which I don’t mean that there is poor balance between feats (though there really really is, it’s just not my point.) The problem is that some feats allow characters to perform tasks which they should be able to perform whether or not they have a feat.
The damage this causes may not be readily apparent, but it weakens the very foundation of the entire game. Anytime something which should be available to all players becomes a feat, it arbitrarily steals that ability from everyone who doesn’t take the feat. Such arbitrary theft of possibilities dulls the most potent edge tabletop role playing has over video games: a limitless amount of options.
I first noticed this problem years ago, when I was rolling a character who would go on to be named Zalekios Gromar. Among the many horrifying things I wanted this dark and evil character to be, was a self-mutilator. And, as it so happened, I knew that a feat existed in the Book of Vile Darkness called Willing Deformity. It was accompanied by a whole host of deformity feats which could be selected after you had Willing Deformity as a prerequisite.
I spent some time weighing whether or not the feat (which didn’t have a mechanical effect I was interested in) was worth it, or whether I should just give up on being a self mutilating character. It took some time before I realized that there was no reason a feat should determine whether or not I could take a knife and cut on my face. The act requires no great skill, it is not a feat by any stretch of the definition. Why should the game disallow me from mutilating myself simply because I don’t want to waste a feat on doing so?
I started noticing the same issue elsewhere after that. Feats which shouldn’t be feats, but should instead be handled on a case by case basis by the GM. Fortunately for me, Zalekios’ GM not only allowed him to mutilate himself, but gave him a mechanical benefit for it in the form of a +2 to intimidate, -2 to diplomacy. That was a pretty clear cut situation, though, and other players might not have such understanding GMs. One might point out that the Book of Vile Darkness is a D&D 3.0 book, but even the Pathfinder update did not fully address this issue. To illustrate that fact, I’ve included several samples of gameplay below. Each demonstrates a player doing something which would not require any special ability on the part of the character, and the GM granting them a benefit for that. Each of these will also represent a feat from either the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, or the Advanced Players Guide.
Player: “This giant slug monster can’t dodge for anything. My fighter is just going to swing at it wildly and as hard as he can, rather than attempting his usual finesse.”
GM: “Very well! Your fighter will take a -1 penalty on attack rolls for as long as he attacks this way, but will gain a +1 to damage on any successful hits.
Feat: Power Attack
GM: You’ve saved the Orc’s life from certain death at the hands of the grotesque mistress of webs. He falls to his knees and thanks you for helping him. He offers you anything you desire as a reward.
Player: “My cleric speaks Orcish. I would like to ask that the orc reward me by aiding me in my adventures henceforth. In exchange, I promise he will always be granted the fullest benefit of my healing ability.
GM: Make a diplomacy check.
Player: “A twenty seven!”
GM: “The orc agrees to follow you henceforth, so long as you always treat him with the same kindness which you have shown today.”
Player: “Since I use a rapier, which doesn’t really lend itself well to strong-armed attacks, I’d like to focus my weapon fighting style on quickness and style, rather than brawn.”
GM: “Sure, just add your Dexterity to your attack rolls rather than your Strength.”
Feat: Weapon Finesse
Player: “Geeze, there’s a lot of guys here. Um…hey! I’ve been using a Halberd for a long time now, and even have some feats to improve my ability with it. Do you think I could do a bunch of fancy moves with it to try and scare some of them?”
GM: “Make an intimidate check.”
Player: “A 17.”
GM: “You’ve successfully intimidated those who can see your display. They seem demoralized.”
Feat: Dazzling Display
Player: “Since the humans in this city are xenophobes, my halfling rogue would like to disguise himself as a human child.
GM: “Alright, you can have a +2 circumstance bonus on that disguise since you picked one which isn’t far off from your current appearance.
Player: I’d like to attempt to protect the wizard from the goblin’s arrows while he casts. The last thing we need right now is this spell getting interrupted!
GM: Sure thing. You’ve got a small wooden shield, so I’ll give him a +5 bonus on concentration checks while you protect him.
Feat: Shielded Caster (Teamwork Feat)
I could go on, but I think the above examples sufficiently illustrate the point. The players and GMs above were doing things right. The player was coming up with responses to situations, and the GM was altering the mechanics of those situations based on the efficacy of the player’s responses. There’s no reason any of those actions, or many others within the Pathfinder game, need to be feats. And yet they are.
Before you go thinking feats are all bad, though, I didn’t just pull these off the top of my head. I had to sit down with the books and carefully consider which feats made sense and which did not. The fact of the matter is that most feats do work. Feats such as Two Weapon Fighting allow players to handle a difficult task more easily, but it does not prevent them from attempting to fight with two weapons unless they take the feat. Skill Focus allows players to become unusually skilled at a group of mundane tasks such as diplomacy or wilderness survival. These types of feats improve characters which take them, but do not imply a restriction upon characters which do not.
The fact that most feats are good does not excuse those which are bad, though. As gamers, we have to point out failures such as this. Role Playing games are essentially nothing more than rules and imagination, so the rules must be well crafted. If a rule can’t be well crafted, then it should be left to the players and the GMs to work out for themselves.
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Posted by LS on Monday, October 31st, 2011 at 6:40 pm
Categories: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, Pathfinder
Tags: System Critique
Me: “The mass of shambling undead have been largely dispersed, and the townspeople have taken refuge in the buildings which Morrie didn’t set on fire.”
Morrie: “I said I was sorry!”
Me: Jashel has managed to fell the strange creature which appeared to lead the attacking force.
Jashel: “I loot the body.”
Me: Aside from the greatsword which it used to attack you, there’s nothing here but bones, meat, and a white tabard depicting two hands holding an eye between them. Jashel, do you have the Knowledge(Religion) skill?”
Me: “Then roll a wisdom check, please.”
*A twenty sided die clatters across the table*
Jashel: With my wisdom modifier, that’s 12.
Me: “That’s enough for Jashel to recognize this symbol as similar to one which you’ve encountered in the past. The Cult of Vecna uses the same hand-and-eye motif. However, they only use one hand while this uses two. You also notice that one of the hands is distinctly smaller than the other.”
The skills which a game master must cultivate are many. At the table they must be quick improvisors, skillful arbitrators, cunning liars, and more descriptive than an erotic novelist; among other things. But it is when a GM is away from the table that they must become the architects of whatever fiendish danger their players will soon face.
There are countless approaches to constructing a game session. I would guess that there are at least as many as there are Game Masters, and probably more. I’ve never met a GM who didn’t have his own thoughts about how things should be done, and I’ve rarely met a GM who used the same methodology every time. The task requires an ambitious and creative individual. Most just aren’t interested in doing things any way but their own. Nor should they be.
One of the two major campaigns I’m running at present is titled The Ascendant Crusade. Not everybody titles their games, but I do just so I can label my binders with something. The Ascendant Crusade has been running since about 2009. It started as an online game played with members of my World of Warcraft Guild. After a hiatus lasting through 2010, half the players didn’t want to return to the game, and the other half lived near enough for us to start playing around a table.
There are a number of different facets to the way I approach The Ascendant Crusade, so I’ll begin with the one which has the most affect on session-to-session design: the big bad evil guy, or BBEG for short. I won’t say too much about the specifics of my BBEG, because my players read this blog, and as of now he’s still an unknown player. And I use the word “player” very deliberately.
From the very first session, I had a plan for what I wanted the players to come up against in the final encounter of the game. However, as all good game masters know, guiding your players towards a specific end point is one of the cardinal sins of running a game. So I didn’t treat the endpoint as my goal. But, rather, I made it the BBEG’s goal. Ever since the first session, I’ve treated the BBEG as though he were a hidden player. He succeeds and fails in the background of the game, and I make sure that his plots never exceed his current resources.
Even in that very first game, back in 2009, my players lives began intersecting with his plans in ways which I did not foresee. Largely because my players forced me to continue the game for four hours after I ran out of planned material, and I had to quickly improvise something interesting for them to stumble into. Let that be a lesson for anyone who thinks improvisation skills are overrated. The group continued to encounter his plots as they traveled through the world, but thankfully never uncovered the grand scheme which wove everything together.
Which isn’t to say they never had a chance. I’ve left dozens of clues and dropped several large hints over the years. Sometimes I thought I was being so transparent and obvious that they would surely find my BBEG out, but he always remained safely outside of their awareness. Once, the PCs even encountered the BBEG in the middle of something extremely incriminating. I thought I was caught, but I made up a feeble and obviously false lie to try and get out of it. And it worked.
Let that be a lesson to any GM who plans an entire game around their players finding and correctly interpreting a single clue. Players need a little more help than that.
Being discovered is not a problem anymore, fortunately. The snippet of gameplay I began the post with occurred two sessions ago. It was the BBEG’s little way of saying “you missed your chance.” After years of planning, he doesn’t really need to hide any longer. From here on out their only hope is to disassemble the infrastructure he already has in place, if they can even find it.
Corruption is another theme which has played a major role in my adventure design throughout The Ascendant Crusade. Dungeons and Dragons is a game of very clear ethics. Good and evil are active forces which drive the actions of those devoted to them. Villains are rarely nuanced and complex characters with understandable justifications for their evil deeds. They’re just plain evil. However, evil being obvious, and evil being attractive, are not mutually exclusive. Attempting to corrupt the PCs by making evil attractive to them has been a hallmark of this campaign.
My notes for the first adventure are actually split into two parts. At the start of the game, a bandit approaches them and offers them a fair share of the booty if they help his gang attack a wealthy caravan. After that, half of the notes are for if the players accept the offer, and half are for if they refuse. As it happened, most of them refused the bandit’s offer (long story), and eventually killed him and disbanded his band. But I made it clear from the outset that the path of the hero was not the only one open to them.
In later games, I tempted them with magic items. My favorite among them was when I allowed the chaotic good cleric to find a greatsword (her weapon of choice) which was far beyond her level in power. It was called “The Bite of Reason,” and aside from its attack bonus, it could be used to instantly rust away many common metals. The drawback was that the item was intelligent, and strongly lawful neutral in alignment. So in exchange for this powerful weapon, the cleric was forced to engage in a battle of wills anytime she wanted to subvert the law in the name of good. If I recall correctly, it was one such battle of wills in mid-combat which caused her to lose an arm whilst fighting a lich.
This is just how I run The Ascendant Crusade, though. I’m also running one other major campaign and a third campaign which is relatively low key so far. Each one of them uses a completely different approach. Not so much because my players need it, but because it’s fun for me. Trying new things is one of the best parts of being a game master.
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Posted by LS on Sunday, October 30th, 2011 at 9:41 pm
Categories: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, Pathfinder
Tags: GM Tips, My Games
Just a few hours ago, my old friend and I got together for a Zalekios game. For those who didn’t read my post on evil in games, Zalekios is my character in the only game I’m currently in which I don’t GM. He’s a chaotic evil psychopath with a penchant gratuitous violence. The game is just me and the GM, though other players have cycled in and out during the six years this campaign has gone on.
As of late, Zalekios has been seeking a kingdom to rule. Nothing too grandiose. The plan was to subdue a tribe of goblins beneath my level 12 gestalt heel, then march those goblins on an unsuspecting settlement which I could reshape in my own image. To his credit, my GM has made me work for every inch of this goal. I had the good luck to happen upon some fire breathing goblins, only to learn they would freeze to death in temperatures below 100°F (38°C). And when I found a wizard who could fix it, he needed me to get the blood of an adult white dragon before he could cast the spell. It’s been nothing but work, work, work, and I don’t even have a village yet!
Anyway, one of the first events in this session was the report from one of my goblin scouts that a village had been found. It met all of the qualifications I had insisted upon: it was on the outskirts of civilization, with a population of about 100 people. Small enough to rule, small enough not to be noticed, but large enough to satiate Zalekios’ desire for power over others. At least for now.
I rode south for a day until I came upon the small village. My initial scouting revealed that the village was ripe for the picking. I wasn’t able to spot any exploitable land formations which would provide me an advantage in my attack, but that’s just as well. I wouldn’t want anyone to use it against me once I’m in control of the thorp. With my scouting complete, I took a room at the inn for the evening. Zalekios was enjoying his sleep, when he was awakened by a knock at the door. Angered, and ready to stab whoever was standing there, he flung the door open. And before he could say anything, a chorus of little voices shouted;
“Trick or treat!”
Yes, my GM had thrown me in the middle of Halloween within his game world. It’s not the first time he’s done this, either. A few years ago, I hunted down and killed Santa Claus right around Christmas time. I don’t actually recall why I did that, though I think it was one of the few times Zalekios actually did something which benefited people. The game world Santa Claus was an asshole for some reason.
Some might find this overly goofy, or even be angry at the break in the ‘fourth wall.’ People can take their gaming pretty seriously, and even those who don’t often prefer things don’t go completely off rails. But I, for one, have always enjoyed the sessions where a GM steps back and lets things be goofy for an adventure.
So what did Zalekios do? First, he scared the children off by exposing his mutilated features, and his fleshless skeleton hands. And for the rest of the evening he played along with the goofiness. Thanks to some magic items and a few Wish spells, he’s a ghost when it comes to moving silently and hiding. Houses had their candy stolen while the family’s backs were turned, children had bags snatched right out of their hands without noticing, and Zalekios ATE ALL THE CANDY!
Sure it was out of character. On a normal day, Zalekios would have been more likely to eat the children than to eat their candy. Seriously, he’s done that before. But the game was a fun departure, with the operative word being fun. A GM should never be scared to completely break with convention and be silly once in a while. It pays off. One of Zalekios’ most memorable fights was when he was chased by a dragon which had a breath weapon of bubbles. And despite being mostly a silly, out-of-character session, the evil (read: good) twin of Zalekios I fought today actually got me down to 9 hit points before I killed him.
I’ve never done it myself, but I think my friends can expect a Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas themed adventure in the near future.
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Posted by LS on Saturday, October 29th, 2011 at 10:53 pm
Categories: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5
Tags: GM Tips, Personal Stories, Player Perspective, Zalekios