Puzzling Obstructions

The Legend of Zelda NES Cliffside OverlookA Pathfinder GM has any number of time tested challenges to present his players. The most common is combat, but to focus on combat exclusively is to lose much of the flavor which makes fantasy role playing so entertaining. Bargaining with an NPC, planning a raid, exploring the wilderness, crossing a river of magma, or any one of innumerable challenges can be utilized by a skilled GM to provide players with engaging games that keep them coming back to your table for more. One of the most maligned, and most poorly implemented, types of challenge is a puzzle.

I’d like to define precisely what I do, and what I do not mean by ‘puzzle’ before proceeding further. Note that these are not common definitions, simply terms which I find useful to facilitate clarity of discussion.

An obstacle is anything which hinders a character’s progress towards a goal. A lock would be a very basic example of an obstacle.

An obstruction is a simple, or even natural, type of obstacle. Obstructions are general-purpose, and likely identical to any number of similar obstructions of the same type. Examples of obstructions would be locked doors, walls, pits, or even most traps.

A puzzle is a more elaborate form of obstacle than an obstruction. It is almost always created by an intelligent force, and is likely unique in its design. Examples of puzzles would be riddles, a door which only opens when four statues in a room are turned to face each other, or a box with no visible lid which opens only when submerged in holy water.

Puzzles are some of the most difficult obstacles to manage successfully, and should be used sparingly. In fact, a great many GMs I’ve spoken with over the years believe that puzzles should be considered verboten. And they have an excellent point! Puzzles can stop a game in its tracks. Almost by definition, puzzles have only a single answer. So instead of the players attempting to concoct their own solution (a great strength of tabletop RPGs) they’re attempting to figure out what the GM’s solution is. And if they get stuck when trying to figure that out, then the progress of the game can come to a screeching halt. And that’s when people start looking for a new GM.

But I hold that puzzles have their place. Maybe it’s it’s simply because the early Legend of Zelda games are near and dear to my heart. No dungeon, temple, or crypt seems quite complete without a puzzle. Recently I ran a game where the players faced several puzzles crafted for them as a test by a master illusionist. All of the puzzles challenged my players, without becoming game-stoppers. I’ll use those puzzles as examples.

Puzzle The First
GM says: “You enter what appears to be a small grassy field within the tower. The walls and ceiling are made of dirt, and a dirt path at the far end of the room leads down. There are [number equal to the number of characters present] horses present, docilely grazing.”

Additional Information: The horses were very friendly, and could be ridden easily. If any character attempted to walk down the dirt path, they were asked to make a reflex save. Failure meant they fell into the path as though it were water. A round later they fell out of the walls or ceiling of the room, taking one point of damage. After one player did this, the voice of the wizard filled the room with “Your feet won’t work there! You’ll need these!” and as he speaks, clovers sprout from the grassy ground.

Intended Solution: The players were supposed to ride the horses down the dirt path. If they did, they would suffer no adverse affects. The clovers were a hint about cloven feet, but if they’d strapped the clovers to their feet somehow, I would have allowed them a half-success. They would sink up to their waist, and be able to slog their way down the ramp. I also would have accepted simply jumping off the edge, down to the bottom of the ramp. Though though as it was a 20ft drop, falling damage would apply if they didn’t make a successful acrobatics check.

What they did: My players were, at first, very wary of the horses. Just outside the tower they had been dealing with a stampede of horses, and didn’t want to get thrown off another raging horse. They did attempt to walk down the ramp, and triggered the hint. Someone suggested strapping the clovers to their feet, but before anyone tried that, one of my players decided to mount a horse and go for it. It worked, so everyone followed suit. The entire puzzle took perhaps 3-5 minutes to solve.

Puzzle The Second
GM Says: “This is a small room with a stone floor. There is a line on the floor ten feet away from a door opposite where you entered. The line is painted on a single, long piece of stone, and beneath it is written in common ‘You must stand behind this line to open the door.‘”

Additional Information: The stone which the line is printed on is 12ft long, and loose. Characters can pry it up easily, and beneath it is a 15ft coil of rope. The door is on on hinges which allow it to open both in or out. Pushing on the door while between the line and the door will be next to impossible. However, the door will open easily to even small amounts of force, so long as the originator of that force is behind the line.

Intended Solution: None, really. Though I did have three expectations of how the puzzle might be solved: The 12ft long piece of stone might be used to push the door open, the rope might be tied to the door, and pulled from behind the line. Or, alternatively, the players might throw heavy objects (or even each other) at the door.

What they did: My players really surprised me with this one. Rather than doing what I expected them to do, they first tried to open the door by taking the rope they found beneath the stone, and laying it out right next to the door, then trying to push the door open. When this didn’t work, they tried the same thing, but this time they moved the stone with the line on it. Given the way I worded the rules, I decided that this should work, and allowed them to open the door. However, if I had decided that the line was somehow intangibly tied to its original spot, I think my players still would have figured the puzzle out promptly. This one was quick. Perhaps 2 minutes tops.

Puzzle The Third
GM Says: “There are 5 buckets hanging on the wall with labels on them. Each apparently has a different color of paint in it–red, blue, green, yellow, and black. Across the small room from the entrance is a plain door.

Additional Information: Behind the door is a stone wall. However, when the door is painted, opening it creates a portal based on the color used. The color/portal associations are as follows: Red opens a portal to the doorway the PC’s entered this room through, Blue successfully allows the PCs to progress to the next room, Green opens a portal to the first layer of hell, yellow causes those who pass through the portal to simply come back out of the portal again, and black opens into space looking down on the planet (a wall of force stops any air, or players, from going through the black door.) The labels describe these locations, but are written in gnomish (the language of the illusionist who created this trial). This was intended as a hint to the illusionist’s identity. He had thus far presented himself as a 9-ft tall humanoid.

Intended Solution: To paint the door blue.

What they did: My players probably struggled with this one the most. I probably should have provided better clues. Rather than paint the door, they painted the stone wall behind the door, but I decided to allow it. It took them perhaps 5 or 6 minutes to progress past here.

Puzzle The Fourth
GM says: “There are three iron doors exiting this room. High on the wall is a window made of grass. A green light filters into the room, the blades of grass creating a collage of lines and edges over every surface the light touches. In the center of the room is a large lens mounted on two axes so it can be turned in any direction. It is presently focusing a small beam of light onto the floor, warping the lines and edges created by the grass window’s light.”

Additional Information: All three doors open easily, with no trouble. This is the first puzzle the players encountered which was truly dangerous, as two of the doors led to particularly deadly traps, the natures of which are not important to the puzzle. If the characters examine the area of distorted light, they will notice that the lines & edges of the light form the word “look” in common. Directing the lens toward the doors will identify them either as “Death” or “Forward.”

Intended Solution: To go through the door which reads “Forward” when the light is directed at it.

What They Did: I must confess, my memory is somewhat fuzzy on precisely how this final puzzle played out. I do recall that they were somewhat confused by the lens at first, but they did notice that it said “look.” (I allowed them a passive perception check to notice it.) After that they made the leap to directing the lens at the doors, and found the correct way out easily. The entire process was brief, perhaps 2-4 minutes.

I view all four of these puzzles as successes. The players enjoyed themselves, and had some good discussion about what solutions they should attempt. Up until that point, these players had participated in sessions which focused on exploration and combat, so it was a good way to give them a new type of challenge. As mentioned before, setting up a good puzzle can be extremely difficult, so it’s important to proceed with caution if you’re planning to use one. While hardly exhaustive, I find these tips very useful in designing my puzzles.

  • Puzzles should almost never be required for progression through the adventure, and if they are, they should be easier than normal. You might notice that the four above puzzles were in fact required for progression, since the characters were after the illusionist for help. But neither were any of them particularly difficult to sole, and I was flexible with my solutions. If you do make solving a puzzle a necessary, then you risk the players becoming stuck. And if they get stuck, the GM is left with two options. One, the GM can give them out-of-character help, or somehow allow them to bypass the puzzle. This steals player agency, and makes players feel as though they’re being railroaded. The other option is simply to allow them to remain stuck for as long as it takes, even long after they’ve lost interest. Both responses suck the fun out of a game. Since the GM is the fun facilitator (or the funcilitator!), sucking the fun out of a game is a pretty severe failure of GMing.
  • Make sure there are clear hints to help players succeed. Looking at the puzzles above, the first one had the four leaf clovers, the second had its conditions spelled out, and the fourth had the spot of light which formed the word “look.” Only the third puzzle lacked a clear hint, and that was the puzzle which stymied the players longest.
  • Allow “half solutions” which help the players get there. If the players try something that doesn’t work, they’ll rarely attempt subtle permutations of what they’ve already tried. So if they attempt a solution which is close to the answer, but not quite, then after they fail they’re likely to try something completely different, rather than try something similar to what has already not worked. If the solution your players come up with is near the mark, give them some indication of that. If it’s a door they’re trying to open, have the door open just a crack, but no further. In the first puzzle above, I would have allowed players to have some success by putting the clovers on their feet, even though this was not the “correct” answer.
  • What is obvious to you as the designer of the puzzle will never be as obvious to the players as those challenged by the puzzle. This rule is absolute. Err on the side of caution. It’s better that your puzzles be too easy, than too hard.
  • In order to help with that previous point, confer with a third party before the game. Asking a friend who won’t be playing in the game to solve your puzzle will give you a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Pathfinder: Pillars of Motherfucking Salt

Penny Arcade Pathfinder Storyline 1 ThumbnailClick the comic to go to Penny-Arcade.com’s high res version.

Pathfinder made an appearance in today’s Penny Arcade! You may want to click back a few comics to read the rest of the storyline. Essentially, Gabe (the fellow in yellow) is GMing a 4th edition game, but he’s lost control of it. He’s allowed his players to become overpowered, and is no longer capable of challenging them. Tycho (the fellow in blue) is a much more experienced GM, and has resolved to help his friend teach his players a harsh lesson.

Because GMs are all about the harsh lessons.

Regular Wednesday post will come this evening.

Wizard Spell Research Variant

William Fettes Douglas The Alchemist Looking At VialWizards are the scholars of Pathfinder. Other spellcasting classes, such as the sorcerer, cleric, or druid, draw their powers from their ancestry, their gods, or nature itself. The unique flavor of wizards is that they are the scientists of a magical world. Their power comes from hours of study, and dutifully logged research. At each level, wizards automatically learn two new spells which represent research performed between adventures. A wizard can also learn new spells by studying the spellbooks of other wizards. The only real limit on the number of spells a wizard can know is however many books the GM will let him get away with carrying.

This versatility is one of the great draws of the wizard class. Unfortunately, the nearly limitless ability to expand their spell repertoire also allow wizards to completely overshadow the other classes. This uncontested dominance has plagued the game ever since D&D 3rd edition’s release. Over time, balance has improved through lowering the effectiveness of some spells, and increasing the abilities of other classes, but wizards are still considerably overpowered in Pathfinder.

Editions ago, when wizards were still called magic users, this was not as much of an issue. I’m not exactly an expert on older versions of D&D, but my understanding is that not only did wizards level at a slower rate than other classes do, but their abilities were also significantly less comprehensive. In Pathfinder, the idea is that anything which can happen in the game world can potentially be achieved by players. If there are mighty magic users who can cast spells powerful enough to raise continents out of the sea, then players should be able to look forward to similar abilities at some point. Obviously this creates much more powerful casters, but I don’t think I would want to give either of these things up. I like that ever class levels at the same rate, and I like that nothing is ever completely out of reach of player characters. I would, however, like to see wizards brought more in line with other classes. It’s a problem which is often floating around the periphery of my awareness. I haven’t come up with a solid solution, but recently I struck upon an idea which I think is flavorful, interesting, and goes a small way towards helping with balance issues.

As I’ve posted about before, I’ve been reading a few first edition D&D modules. Alas I’ve been too busy to really make a dent in the small stack of them that I have, but one thing I’ve noticed is the big to-do which is made about NPC spellbooks. Any time a magic user appears in a module, the author makes note of where the magic user keeps his or her spellbook, and what spells are in it. Magic users often seem to go to great lengths to hide their books. It seems that in 1st edition, stealing finding and stealing a spellbook was considered a great prize. And why shouldn’t it be? In first edition, as in Pathfinder, getting your hands on someone else’ spell book means that–after a little study–all of that person’s spells can be added to your own collection.

I toyed with this idea for awhile, not really sure what I wanted to do with it. I could start making spellbooks a bigger part of my games, but all that would do is make any wizard players more overpowered than they already were. I jotted the idea down in one of my notebooks for future reference, and promptly forgot about it for a few weeks. That’s when I read a post by Paul over at Blog of Holding called 4e Spells as Treasure. I find it amusing that many of my best ideas come after reading Blog of Holding, since it most often focuses on 4th edition D&D, a game which I find personally quite distasteful. In this post, Paul discusses the possibility of including scrolls which have improved versions of spells in treasure hordes. Wizards could transcribe the spells into their books, and forever be able to cast a slightly better version of a common spell. This set me to thinking:

What if wizards only learned spells by finding them?

It wouldn’t be difficult. Simply drop the 2 spells wizards learn automatically with each new level. Since those spells are explained as research performed between adventures, all a GM need say is that spell research in the game world is significantly more time consuming and difficult than in the standard Pathfinder game. Players could still research spells on their own, but doing so would need to be handled with the GM, and would probably have significant costs associated with it. As Paul writes, “DMs and players can go crazy with rules for spending money on research, libraries, and labs.”

Using this house rule, characters would no longer be able to learn spells independently from the game world. Players never like to see their characters become weaker, but once they accepted this way of doing things, I think it would make spell acquisition a much more involving and entertaining process. Gaining two new spells instantaneously with each level is fine, but it’s an abstraction which reminds everyone that they’re playing a game. Instead, every time players encountered a wizard, they would be engaged in trying either to befriend her so they could learn from her, or defeat her so they could steal her secrets.

This house rule also provides the GM with useful tools for controlling their game world. Many spells make a GMs job significantly more difficult, such as the various permutations of polymorph, flight spells, teleportation spells, invisibility spells, and worst of all, divination spells. And while I think it would be inadvisable to simply block players from ever finding these spells, this rule does give the GM a throttle with which to control their inclusion in the game. Overland Flight, for example, might never appear in the game until an enemy wizard uses it in a level 14 adventure. If the players then earn the spell by defeating their foe and finding his spellbook, it’s still just a 5th level spell. But the GM is able to prevent it from effecting the game until they’re ready for it, 5 levels after it would normally be available to characters.

Another benefit of this house rule is that treasure hordes become much more interesting. My experience with D&D is that most GMs include two things in treasure piles: coins, and gear they want their players to use. I did this myself for many years, so I understand the desire to simplify player rewards. Artwork, weapons which won’t be used, and even gems seem like they’re simply obstructions to game play. All the player will want to do is find out how much gold he can get in exchange for these items, and sell them as soon as they can. But simple treasure hordes become boring very quickly. Players can only get excited about a pile of coins and a replacement for their weapon with an extra +1 on it so many times. Including the spellbooks of long dead magic users, or even just scrolls containing a new spell, will go a long way towards getting players more excited about what they find.

It’s just a thought at this point. I haven’t had an opportunity to implement this rule in a game yet. When I do I’ll be sure to take copious notes on player reactions and update the blog on how it went.

Paizo’s New Venture: Pathfinder Online

Pathfinder Golarion World MapThe Internet has been abuzz of late with news of Pathfinder Online. At least, the parts of the Internet which take note of tabletop RPG news have been abuzz. In case you haven’t heard, Paizo (publisher of the Pathfinder RPG) has spun-off a new company called Goblinworks, and tasked Goblinworks with creating an massively multiplayer online role playing game based on the world of Golarion. Details at this point are scarce. Goblinworks won’t even open its doors officially until 2012. But considering how early it is in the process, we’ve actually been told a great deal.

Truthfully, my initial reaction to this news was not favorable. The concept itself breaks two of my fundamental rules of video games.

  1. Tabletop RPGs never make good video games. They may have some moderate success, such as Neverwinter Nights enjoyed, but they’re still bad games. Every one I’ve ever played makes the fundamentally bad assumption that the video game needs to emulate the rules of the tabletop game it’s based upon. What never seems to be taken into consideration is that video games & tabletop games are different. The greatest strength of tabletop games is tactical infinity. When you’re dealing with a GM rather than a computer, you can attempt to solve a problem using any kind of solution which comes into your head. Video games are incapable of that, it is their great weakness. One of the great strengths of video games is that computers can automatically keep track of the rules, and perform complex calculations instantly. Since humans can’t do either of those things, tabletop games (even the most complex ones) use mechanics which are simple in comparison with most video games. So by forcing a video game to comply with the rules of a tabletop game, you end up with a game that takes the worst parts of both mediums, and ends up with the best parts of neither.
  2. MMORPGs fail. I know World of Warcraft is going to falter eventually, but after seven years of completely unchallenged dominance, is Pathfinder Online really going to unseat it? I’ve started playing a little game with myself every time an MMORPG is released. I estimate how long it will be until the publisher excitedly announces that their game is now “Free to play!” An announcement which essentially means “so few people are playing our game that our only hope to make money off of it is to abandon the subscription model.” The announcement never requires more than a year after the game’s initial release.

That being said, I do have a certain amount of faith in Paizo. To use a ham-fisted simile, Paizo is kinda like the Blizzard of tabletop. They release exceptionally polished products, are an independent company* with a powerful fanbase, and both companies were founded by a bunch of D&D nerds. In fact, both companies also ripped their primary intellectual property off of another company. Warcraft is just a ripoff of Warhammer, and Pathfinder is just a continuation of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. So given the faith that I have in Paizo as a publisher of quality products, I decided to look into the project a little more, and find out what there is to know about it.

Goblinworks FAQ page provided a great deal of information. Unfortunately I don’t qualify for a job with the company, but there is a lot which serves to allay my concerns. For example, “almost every Paizo employee that works on Pathfinder will be involved to some degree with Pathfinder Online.” That’s encouraging. Too many projects are ruined when the people working on the project don’t understand their source material. I suppose that’s one of the benefits of starting your own publishing studio.

I also find it very encouraging that Goblinworks is promoting feedback from the community. I have no illusions about it. There’s a good chance that Goblinworks is using the suggestion forum the same way Blizzard uses their suggestion forum: as a convenient way to keep people who want to bother them with suggestions busy. However, one of the things which makes Pathfinder a milestone game in the RPG industry is the massive “beta test” which took place in the months leading up to the game’s release. Paizo made PDFs of the Core Rulebook freely available online, and asked players to play the game, test it, and tell Paizo if they had any problems. I have a copy of the original Core Rulebook download on my hard drive still, and I can assure you that a lot changed between it and the print edition of the book. So it’s always possible that Goblinworks will actually keep an eye on the suggestions forum. Tabletop RPG players are creative people, so it certainly can’t hurt to listen to what they have to say.

And then there are these two quotes:

Pathfinder Online’s innovative archetype system includes specific paths of development that reflect the classes in the tabletop game, so if you want to play a character that mirrors a classic tabletop class, you’ll be able to do it. However, Pathfinder Online is driven by more diverse player activity than the classic adventurer-focused tabletop experience; Pathfinder Online players will be able to act as merchants, farmers, miners, teamsters, caravan guards, spies, and explorers, and in any other role the players choose to create. Characters will have a wide variety of skills to develop, allowing them to be highly customized to the player’s preference.

-&-

Characters in Pathfinder Online don’t have levels in the classic sense. They develop skills over time, and as their skills develop, and as they meet various prerequisites, they unlock new abilities similar to class features or feats from the tabletop game. Characters following an archetype path will be able to unlock a capstone ability much like the 20th-level capstone abilities in the Pathfinder RPG.

This is hugely encouraging to me. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic in saying this, but it sounds like Goblinworks is not only aware of the issue I discussed above in point 1, but has resolved to fix it. PFO sounds like it will be a delightfully complex game, which works for me. The gradual simplification of World of Warcraft is part of what turned me off to that game.

We are planning a hybrid subscription/free-to-play model. Players will have the option to pay a flat monthly fee for complete access to all standard game features, or to play for free with certain restrictions, using microtransactions to access desired features and content on an a la carte basis. Pricing details have not yet been finalized.

While this is not particularly interesting to me, it seems like an unusual payment system. Perhaps helpful in staving off the “NOW FREE TO PLAY” announcement a few months after the game’s release.

Yes. Several types of premium content can be purchased using microtransactions. This content includes “bling”—visual enhancements to the character or the character’s property that have no mechanical effect; a wide variety of mounts that let you customize your ride and show your personal sense of style; and adventure content packaged like classic adventure modules that you and your friends will be able to play through as a group.

I find this somewhat worrying. Microtransactions for bling doesn’t bother me. If somebody wants to spend a few bucks on a special hat, I’m fine with that. In WoW, I’m quite happy with my Lil’ KT minipet which cost my girlfriend $10. However, actual adventure content being purchasable skirts dangerously close to being a dealbreaker for me. I’ll be keeping an eye on that as the game’s development goes forward and we learn more.

The final line in the FAQ provides some of the most interesting information:

Most fantasy MMOs, including World of Warcraft, are “theme park” games. In theme parks, you’re expected to work your way through a lot of scripted content until you reach the end, and then you play end-game content while you wait for the developers to release more theme park content so you can continue to advance your character.

The other end of the MMO spectrum is the “sandbox” game. In sandboxes, you’re given a lot of tools and opportunities to create persistency in the world, then turned loose to explore, develop, find adventure, and dominate the world as you wish. You and the other players generate the primary content of the game by struggling with each other for resources, honor and territory. There is no “end game” and no level cap.

Pathfinder Online is a sandbox game with theme park elements. You’ll be able to create your own place in the world of Golarion, complete with complex social and economic systems. You’ll form ad-hoc or permanent groups ranging in size from small parties to large settlements and even huge nations, and interact with others in your world in a realistic, unscripted fashion. You’ll also be able to participate in scripted adventures, though, with the outcome of those adventures helping to determine the shape of your world.

This all sounds pretty awesome to me. But as a more experienced MMO player pointed out to me: it sounds like a game which will be rife with griefing. I like to think Goblinworks will be aware of this issue and make sure they have a fool-proof solution in place before the game goes live, but we’ll see.

That’s essentially my outlook on the entire project right now, actually: we’ll see. Truth be told, there aren’t many reasons to believe that Pathfinder Online will have any more success than Warhammer Online or Age of Connan did. Every video game sounds good when the only thing we can talk about are concepts. However, I choose to have faith in Paizo, and through them Goblinworks. They’ve done right by me up to now, and I want to see them succeed.

I’ll see about examining the game & the people behind it more in depth as details emerge.

*Technically Blizzard is no longer independent, but their acquisition by Activision didn’t come until after the release of WoW’s second expansion. And the third expansion bombed so hard that subscriptions have plummeted. Coincidence? Probably.

Goblins Redux

Pathfinder We Be Goblins Mogmurch Goblin with a BombMy friend Jeremy, his family, my ladyfriend Morrie, and I have a half-assed Thanksgiving tradition which we started three years ago. In that far off year of 2009, I was doing quite poorly financially, and Morrie (not yet having met either Jeremy or myself in person) wanted to come up and visit the both of us. So during the time off, Morrie and I both spent the Thanksgiving vacation staying with Jeremy and his family. We spent the week having all manner of fun with one another, and among other things, we spent one very enjoyable evening playing an extended session of D&D. It was the Zalekios campaign, which Morrie made a character for. Since then, we try to get together over Thanksgiving to enjoy each others’ company, and wreak some havoc with some chaotic evil role playing.

This afternoon, while Morrie and I were getting ready to head off to Jeremy’s home, we realized something annoying: neither of us had the slightest clue as to where her character sheet for “Jerry the Chaotic Evil Halfling Barbarian” was. We were already late, and had no idea where to look, so Morrie suggested something which would end up teaching me several valuable lessons before the day was done:

“Why don’t I just play the four Goblins?

I blinked. The idea was twofold odd: I’ve never been in a game where a player played more than one character, and I’ve never been in a game where a player’s character is so drastically lower in level than the other players. Truth be told I’ve been interested in trying both of those things for a long while now, and Morrie was willingly taking on the task of guinea pig. “Sure,” I finally replied. “I’m sure Jeremy won’t have any problems with that.” So we show up, pumpkin pie in hand, and I tell Jeremy about Morrie’s idea. As I suspected, he’s fine with it, and we begin play.

As play began, Zalekios was standing over the body of his good twin, and the GM gave me space to come up with a plan. Seeing that I was trying to take over the town, I decided to assume the role of my twin. After all, we were twins. The only problem was Zalekios’ rather horribly self-mutilated face. Fortunately, I had a dead twin on hand whose face I could cut off and wear temporarily. I then promptly chopped up my twin’s body, and spread his remains about town. When the townspeople became frightened, I told them that I would go off and gather a fighting force to protect us from “these vile acts.” Having a charisma of 23 comes with distinct advantages; such as being able to dupe 377 villagers into believing you’re not wearing their dead mayor’s face as a mask.

So off Zalekios went to fetch the small group of goblins which he had conquered in a previous game. A few days later he returned, no longer wearing the dead mayor’s face, and with the 33 goblins in tow. When asked about his “injuries,” he claimed that he had been cut viciously while defeating the goblin tribe’s chieftain. But now that chief was dead, and the tribe owed him their absolute loyalty. Again, 23 charisma can be damned helpful in duping level 1 commoners. Once I had everyone convinced, I began directing them in constructing better “defenses.” A phrase which I’ve placed in quotation marks because only Zalekios knows that the pits and walls won’t be used to keep anything out. The purpose of those obstacles is to keep the villagers in once Zalekios begins to establish the new order of things.

The whole thing was done in a very rules-light way, because there aren’t really any rules on the subject. Essentially, Zalekios’ role in the first half of the session was that of director. I told the GM what I wanted the villagers to do, and he told me what worked, what didn’t, and what complications presented themselves. I was really very happy with the way this played out. I tried something almost exactly like it a few months back which failed miserably, so I’m glad to see it can work if done properly. I may need to give it another try soon.

Morrie, playing the goblins, really shined during this part of the game. Building on the role playing the party (especially Poog) had done the last time these goblins were in play, she set about to cause goblin mischief, and generally make Zalekios’ life more difficult. When Poog cut off all the pig tails in town “for his collection,” Zalekios had to quickly spin some lie for the population about pig tails being a necessary reagent in a spell which would ward the town against evil. Even my 23 Charisma was strained getting them to accept that one, and I had Poog flogged for the nuisance.

Age of Empires Two, Age of Kings Screenshot Walled CityThe town needed lumber for its walls, so I sent Rita, Chuffy, and 3 other goblins to protect the humans who were gathering it. The GM used this as an opportunity to run an ad-hoc 1st level adventure. He sent a couple bears to terrorize the commoners, and Morrie took control of Rita & Chuffy, while I played as the three Monster Manual standard goblins. It was a genius idea, nestling a 1st level adventure within a 13th level adventure. It worked fantastically, and everyone had a great deal of fun.

Once the goblins returned with the lumber, it was starting to get late in the evening, and we still wanted some time to play Magic before Morrie had to go to work. To speed things along, we decided to put off furthering the construction for a later date, whilst Zalekios, with all four goblins in tow, answered a persistent call from Al’Kim. Al’Kim is a high level government official with the nation of Mulgran who believes Zalekios is a loyal compatriot. And while the two do share goals, Zalekios is also the second-in-command of an organization seeking to overthrow Mulgran. I hold that it is Al’Kim’s fault for making Zalekios sit in a waiting room for 30 minutes once. But I digress. Al’Kim wanted Zalekios to investigate some unusual goings-on at a port town a few days’ travel away.

On the road, the five characters were attacked by three wyverns. This is what I had been waiting for: a chance to see how well level 1 characters survived combat geared for my level 13 powerhouse. I began combat by casting Fel Flight, granting me wings, and flying up into the air. This left most of the goblins somewhat helpless, but Rita managed to hit Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Monster Manual Wyvern one of them with an arrow, and Mogmurch successfully threw an alchemical explosive at one of them dealing a few damage. On the wyvern’s turn, they mostly ignored me and went straight for the goblins. Poog was reduced to -3 in a single bite attack, and none of the goblins managed to make any hits.

Zalekios, with his lowly 10 wisdom, decided to dive bomb the Wyvern laying atop Poog, and attempt to pin it to the ground with a slam attack to the neck. I rolled my Combat Maneuver roll against the wyvern’s Combat Maneuver Defense (Zalekios’ game hasn’t switched fully to Pathfinder yet, but we have house-ruled in a few of the better rules) and Zalekios succeed. The three wyverns failed to make any progress that turn, but Rita did manage to pull Poog aside and feed him a healing potion. In the following round, Zalekios channeled his Eldritch Blast ability into the Wyvern, killing it. And, as a bit of theater for my goblin minions, Zalekios used his move action to take a big bloody bite out of the dead Wyvern’s head. They cheered for their Blood God.

By then, though, a second wyvern had landed and made a bite attack against Zalekios, which fortunately missed. Still riding the high from his utter domination of the previous wyvern (and still suffering from 10 wisdom), Zalekios used his clawed hands to grapple the offending beast’s head, digging his sharp fingers deep just behind the jaw. He was again successful. I jokingly asked the GM what the DC would be to rip the dragon’s head off. Truthfully, my plan was to try snapping the creatures neck, but I never expected what happened on the goblin’s next turn.

First, Chuffy managed to make a devastating sneak attack on the wyvern’s underbelly. But even more spectacularly, Mogmurch successfully threw his last alchemical bomb of the day into the snapping maw of the grappled wyvern. The GM allowed this as an automatic crit, and Mogmurch rolled just below max damage an all his dice, blasting the mighty CR6 creature with a fiery explosion which left it reeling. This left me wondering just how plausible my earlier joke was. So when my turn rolled around, I asked the GM what the explosion’s visible damage had done. He confirmed that numerous muscles and tendons had obviously been severely damaged or even destroyed. So Zalekios looked the monster in the eyes, set his legs against it’s shoulders…

…and pulled.

I think Jeremy was a little flabbergasted. He asked me for a strength check. I rolled the twenty-sider in my hand for a long while. This was the kind of roll which could make-or-break a game session. For all my philosophical skepticism, I tried to force the die to roll high through sheer will. Finally, I threw the die, and a 19 came up. I think Jeremy had been hoping for something low so he could simply ignore the question of how to adjudicate such a ridiculous plan. He settled on making an opposed strength check for the wyvern, and I kid you not: he rolled a 19. I thought for sure I was finished. No way was Zalekios stronger than a fucking dragon.

But as it turns out, Zalekios is just strong enough that his roll was 1 higher than the wyvern’s. The bones cracked, the skin tore, and Mogmurch and I were bathed in the blood of our victory. The final wyvern fled.

We ended the session there, and I came away having learned 3 very important lessons which I will take with me into my future GMing:

  • Anyone who says ‘playing characters of vastly different levels sucks’ doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Based on how much she was smiling, I would say this ranks among Morrie’s top five gaming sessions ever. And I say that as as someone who has been gaming with her for 3.5 years. In RP, the goblins were providing a lot of the game’s entertainment and challenge. And in combat, never once did they feel useless.
  • At least in some circumstances, a single player can play multiple characters without being overwhelmed.
  • Adventures where the PCs simply direct others in performing tasks (finding lumber, digging trenches, etc.) can be a lot more fun than you might think. I’m starting to ponder a game where each party member is given a task: one to build the defenses, one to train the villagers to fight, etc.

For the record, all of Morrie’s goblins survived the game, and everyone agrees they should return. But Morrie, wisely I think, has decided that she does not want these characters to level. She thinks it’s more entertaining when they’re low-level goofballs who get on Zalekios’ nerves and sometimes manage to help despite themselves.

We have decided, though, that Mogmurch deserves something special. He has been granted the title of “Dragonboomer,” and from now on will always receive a +4 when attempting to throw objects into a small space.

Colorful Characters 7: Hiles Gorefeet AKA “Speak No Evil”

Hiles Gorefeet Psychopath Gnome Serial KillerThough Hiles does not know it, he is the last in a proud line of halfling leaders. Hiles grandfather led a large band of nomadic halflings for many years. The band flourished under his leadership, and he was well loved. As was his daughter, Iyllia, whom he was grooming to replace him. Iyllia was with child when the band arrived at the tower of Gasner The Blue, a wizard with whom they had often traded in the past. Hiles grandfather entered the tower to greet the wizard, but within he found only carnage, and demons.

Gasner, no great practitioner, had intentionally summoned these demons. And while Gasner successfully brought these creatures onto the material plane, his skills were insufficient to hold them captive. His entrails decorated the tower’s interior like streamers. The halfling leader fled the scene, and ordered his band beat a hasty retreat, but the demons were too quick. The fiends had the halflings surrounded before the last cart had fully rounded about.

The demons took pleasure in torturing some of the halflings, releasing or killing them only after the poor fool had offered his soul in exchange. Those who would not relent were tortured for days before finally succumbing to death. Those halflings who avoided torture, though, suffered the most dire fate. The demons took them back to the Abyss, and sold them as slaves in the Abyssal city of Dis. Among these was Iyllia, sold to a mighty Balor called Tarro’Ghk’Zheir. Two months later, Iyllia died as she was tortured during childbirth. She survived only long enough to name the child Hiles, and apologize to him for the life she was bringing him into.

The other mortal slaves of the demon kept the child alive, though none were willing to take on the responsibility of “raising” him. That level of caring is too dangerous in the Abyss. They were able to tell the child his name, but none knew his family name, and so for many years Hiles did not have one. It wasn’t until Hiles was five, when he was stamping the corpses of the damned to mush in an abyssal winepress, that Tarro’Ghk’Zheir mockingly gave him the name “Gorefeet.”

Tarro’Ghk’Zheir grew somewhat fond of Hiles, insomuch as demons can be fond. He found the little halfling’s cowardly nature amusing, and often passed time by finding creative ways to terrify Hiles. And despite his cowardly nature, Hiles did prove himself useful as a servant. Which is why, when Tarro’Ghk’Zheir traveled to the material realm to wreak havoc there, he brought Hiles with him. For his own part, Hiles never really knew much about his master’s schemes, concerning himself only with avoiding the demon’s wrath. He didn’t know what the strange underground complex was, or what the cultists in red robes were for. Then the adventurers came. They scattered the cultists, raided the underground complex, and killed Tarro’Ghk’Zheir.

All without noticing little Hiles.

Never having been free, Hiles didn’t know what to do. And he was far too scared to experiment, at least at first. He carried on with his assigned duties, believing that this was merely another game being played by his master. One which would end as soon as he strayed from his duties, and the mighty demon could threaten to flay his skin from his bones. As his supplies dwindled, and the corpse of the mighty demon began to decompose, Hiles began to wonder if it was a game after all. Perhaps, for whatever reason, the cruel demon was gone…a concept which terrified Hiles nearly as much as invoking the demon’s wrath. Hiles had never known life without Tarro’Ghk’Zheir, and couldn’t imagine how to function without him.

Hannibal Lector Mask MuzzleFortunately, the comforting voice of Tarro’Ghk’Zheir came to him. It berated him for being a fool and believing for even an instant that any harm could befall the great Tarro’Ghk’Zheir. The voice then demanded that Hiles bring it a meal of freshly dead humanoid. Hiles ventured out of the dungeon for the first time, found a nearby village, and knocked out a young human man in the dead of night, bound him, and dragged him back to the dungeon in a bag of holding. He set the young man loose there, to be hunted down. Tarro’Ghk’Zheir likes his meat to experience terror before death.

Tarro’Ghk’Zheir’s voice has continued to speak to Hiles, and for twenty years the halfling has fed his master from dozens of villages and cities both near and far. More recently, the urban legends which tell of the halfling murderer call him “Speak No Evil,” because of the phrase which Hiles now repeats over and over again.

Personality

Hiles is cowardly and uncertain of himself. He will often apologize to his victims even as he murders them. Extended conversations with him are next to impossible. If he’s not murdering you, he’s fleeing from you. And if PCs manage to force him to do neither, anything he says will be incoherent. If captured outside of his dungeon, GMs may choose to insert clues to the location of his dungeon into his ramblings. No matter what, though, the phrase “Speak No Evil” should pass his lips frequently. It is his mantra.

Tactics

Hiles is motivated in everything he does by terror. It is likely that he would flee if forced into a direct confrontation with anyone who seemed confident enough to stand up to him. He prefers to prey on those who are just as scared of him as he is of himself. If forced to deal with a capable foe, Hiles will attempt to separate that foe from any allies, and will always prefer to strike from the shadows.

If reduced to 50% health, Hiles will beg not to be hurt anymore.

Thoughts on Use

Hiles is designed as an encounter for characters levels 6-8. He’s a much more grim encounter than often comes up in D&D games, and should be used only with a group which is comfortable with high levels of violence and other disturbing content.

The encounter might come about when the players are hired to look into “Speak No Evil” by a city Hiles was recently hunting in. A more interesting plot hook might be Hiles capturing an NPC the players know personally. The player characters would then need to hunt Hiles down, hoping to save said NPC. If your group is amenable to being split, you might even have one of the PCs be captured by Hiles.

Interesting Facts

-Immediately after being killed, Tarro’Ghk’Zheir reformed in the Abyss. He raged at having been defeated, then returned to his citadel to carry on his affairs. He has completely forgotten about Hiles, and has never contacted him or even bothered to wonder what happened to him.

-Hiles once heard the phrase “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” Being as uneducated as he is, the halfling believes this to be a prescription for creating wards against evil. For reasons unknown, he latched on to the last part, and believes that tongues can be used to protect against evil. Once Tarro’Ghk’Zheir’s corpse is completely surrounded by tongues, he thinks, then the demon will never be able to hurt him again.

Dungeon

Every room of this twisted maze is essentially identical. Old and broken items lie in piles scattered randomly through each room and corridor. From simple items like benches, barrels, and shelving; to more distinguishing items such as torture equipment, sacrificial altars, and demonic statues. It is possible that some forgotten treasure is buried under a few of these piles. The blood and scraps from hundreds of humanoid creatures are scattered randomly throughout the dungeon as well, though no tongues will ever be found.

If the players enter the room marked with the pentagram, they find the rotting, still-flaming corpse of a Balor Demon, (Tarro’Ghk’Zheir). On the walls of this chamber are tongues. Dozens upon dozens of tongues, each one nailed to the wall, forming something which resembles a grotesque set of scales. If the characters take the time to count thoroughly, they will find three hundred and twenty eight tongues on the wall. Some of them appear to be as much as fifteen years old.

Hiles Gorefeet Halfling Murderer Dungeon Map

Note: I notice now, too late, that there’s a small portion of the map which I forgot to fill in. I apologize for that.

Hiles Gorefeet, AKA “Speak No Evil” (CR 7)

XP: 3,200
Male Halfling Rogue 8
CE Small humanoid
Init +8; Senses Perception +12 (+16 v. Traps)


Defenses


AC 21, Flat Footed 16, Touch 16 [10 + Armor(5) + Dex(4) + Size(1) + Dodge(1)] (+2 v. Traps) (Can’t be Flat Footed)
hp 73 (8d8 + 24)
Fort +6 Ref +11 (1/2 damage on save)(+2 v. Traps)Will + 2 (+1 vs. fear)


Offense


Speed 25ft
Melee Wounding Dagger + 11/+6 (1d3 + 4/19-20 x2)(+1 bleeding damage, -1 HP each round, cumulative)
Ranged Dagger + 11/+6 (1d3 + 1 /19-20 x2)(10ft Increment)
Sneak Attack 4d6
Vital Strike When using attack action, may make one attack at highest BAB. Damage dice are rolled twice for this attack.


Stats


Str 16 (+3) Dex 19 (+4) Con 16 (+3) Int 8 (-1) Wis 8 (-1) Cha 10 (+0)
Base Atk +6/+1; CMB +8; CMD 16
Feats Improved Initiative, Dodge, Weapon Finesse, Fleet, Weapon Focus (Dagger), Quick Draw, Vital Strike
Skills Acrobatics +17, Climb +8, Escape Artist +15, Perception +12 (+16 v. Traps), Sense Motive +12, Sleight of Hand +15, Stealth +19,
Languages Halfling, Common, Abyssal
SQ May move at full speed while using stealth, can draw weapons as a free action
Gear +2 Studded Leather Armor, 10x +1 daggers for throwing, +1 Wounding Dagger, 10ft of chains, 2 meat hooks, 20ft of demonshair rope (+5 to escape artist DCs), 5lb of caltrops, bodybag of holding, 80 gold pieces

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