Of Forgotten Lore and Ancient Sourcebooks

Forgotten Tomes of Ancient LoreHuh…for some reason, I find it somewhat intimidating to actually sit down and type up a post on the new site. Which might have something to do with breaking 100 hits in a single day for the very first time, largely thanks to a link from Hack & Slash. Hello new readers! Hope you’re enjoying yourselves.

I’m Pathfinder player and a Paizo fan. I think that much has been made pretty clear on this site. I am also a firm believer in being open about criticism. Criticism drives improvement. If we don’t criticize the things we love, then any changes made to what we love will be based on the criticisms of someone else. Besides, no one who is genuinely interested in creating something they can be proud of ever shies away from good criticism. On the contrary, it’s a highly sought upon treasure. When I ask someone to critique my writing ninety-nine people out of every hundred will tell me it’s “great.”

I know it’s not great. I want it to be great. That’s why I asked you to tell me why it’s not great.

Last week, I criticized modern game developers for failing to include any time management in their games. A criticism which ended up going on so long that it spawned a follow up post that same week. In the past, I’ve also criticized modern game designers for the lack of information on hex mapping. These are just two amongst a sea of criticisms I have for Pathfinder and the various modern iterations of Dungeons and Dragons. The common thread which connects these two criticisms, though, is that both of them used to be part of the game, but were dropped for no cogent reason I can discern.

 Unfortunately, there are numerous game elements like this. Mechanisms which have, for whatever reason, fallen out of use. I’m sure it always sounded like a good idea at the time, and that’s okay! Elegance of design is important, so if a game’s developers thought they were streamlining gameplay by dropping superfluous systems, then good on them. But in many cases it seems to me as though they were wrong, and ought to start reversing their mistakes. I’ve already written on the topic of time management and hex maps, here are a few other gameplay mechanics which RPG designers used in the old days, and which modern RPG designers really ought to be talking about.

Combat Facing

Have I mentioned I like rogues? Because I like rogues. I play so many rogues, that the one time I didn’t play a rogue, I had to multiclass into rogue, because my GM was conditioned to fill his adventures with opportunities for sneaking and lockpicking. I’m trying to branch out into other classes, but rogues will always have a very special place in my heart.

Flanking and Sneak Attacks with Combat FacingPart of the reason I love rogues as much as I do is their reliance on a large variety of skills, most of which are not well suited to combat. At least not face-to-face, even-steven, Combat As Sport style combat. Rogues function best when you’re not quite sure what they’re doing. If they just ran behind a tree, you don’t know if they’re trying to lure you into a trap, retrieve a hidden weapon, disappear into the bushes, climb the tree so they can leap down on you from above, or something entirely different which you haven’t even considered. Any class can play this way, but it is a rogue’s specialty. And it’s a play style which is severely hampered by D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder’s “360 degree field of vision.”

Characters in these modern incarnations of tabletop RPGs are not considered to be “facing” in any particular direction. They are always looking all around them at all times. No matter where you’re standing relative to a character, you are in that character’s full view, unless there is something between you. The idea was to simplify combat, which seems rather silly, since D&D 3rd edition added a number of largely superfluous rules.

In fairness, combat facing has not been completely neglected, but an optional rule in a supplemental book is not good enough. This should be part of the core combat system, no question.

Wizards Learning Spells at Random

A couple months ago, I wrote a post about an alternative to the current methods by which Wizards learn spells in Pathfinder. I’ll freely admit it’s not one of my better posts, but give me a break. I was severely sleep deprived and wrote the whole damned thing in a rush before work. My hope was that by removing the Wizard’s ability to automatically learn two new spells upon leveling up (and placing a larger emphasis on other methods for learning spells) we could partially overcome the vast power gap between casters and non-casters which has plagued this generation of games. I still think it’s a solid idea, but shortly after posting it, -C of Hack and Slash informed me that balance was less of an issue in older editions because Wizards didn’t get to select which spells they would learn, but rather, learned new spells at random each level.

I hold to my initial reaction upon learning this: that it doesn’t make any sense, but it sounds incredibly awesome. On the one hand, it seems silly to me that a Wizard would ever not be aware of what he or she was studying. Wizards (or “Magic Users” in the more traditional terminology) are scholars, they learn magic through something akin to the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, experiment, theorize. So if a spell which a wizard has mastered is a “Magical Theory,” shouldn’t they figure out which spells they’re working on in the “observation” or “experimentation” stages?

That having been said, there’s an undeniable charm to the idea. Being thrown a completely random grab-bag of spells, and then being forced to figure out how to use them most efficiently, sounds fun to me. I doubt future incarnations of Pathfinder will revert back to randomly determining spells. Nor do I think they should. But it’s certainly something which we should be talking about. Maybe as a house rule, or perhaps something which we could use for the sorcerer, to further differentiate it from the Wizard.

Incidentally, there’s an entire post about this issue over on Hack & Slash.

Monster Activity Cycles & Diets

These are extremely minor, which makes it all the more strange that I even need to talk about them. In old editions of Dungeons and Dragons, each monster had both an “Activity Cycle,” and a “Diet” listed in their stat block. The purpose of these is pretty simple. The activity cycle let GMs know when a creature was active. If it was nocturnal, the GM knew not to have it attack during the day, if it had an activity cycle of “any,” then the GM knew it didn’t matter, and so on. In most fantasy books or films, night is a particularly dangerous time when particularly vile monsters are on the prowl, so it makes good sense for GMs to be aware of when monsters can be active.  The diet of a monster is, of course, what they eat. Also useful, since herbivores are unlikely to try and eat adventurers, yet may still pose dangers for other reasons.

I wouldn’t say that either of these rank high enough on the “usefulness” scale to qualify Pathfinder as severely flawed for lacking them. However, I can see no reason not to include them. If the choice is between knowing when my players are in danger from trolls, and knowing which feats a typical troll has, then I would much rather know the activity cycle.

Experience Points based on Gold Pieces

Now, personally, I’m a fan of my Simple XP system. It has improved my game by an immeasurable degree. But if we’re going to be using large experience point rewards, why not use the original system wherein 1 gold piece granted a character 1 experience point? I’ve never personally played with this system, nor have I researched it in great detail, but on the surface it seems simple and logical. If experience points are a measure of the useful experience your character has gained, then why do we only really receive it for defeating monsters? If the goal of adventuring is to find treasure, then we should reward equally all methods of acquiring that treasure. The group who cleverly sneaks around a monster, or convinces a less intelligent monster to give them the treasure freely, deserves just as much credit as the group who kicks down the door and stabs everything around them until there’s nothing left between them the shiny shiny gold.

More Supplements for Game Masters

Paizo Pathfinder Game Mastery GuideLooking over the various first edition Dungeons and Dragons stuff I’ve got, I notice that very little of it is aimed towards players, most of it is aimed towards GMs. Whereas when I look at my extensive collection of D&D 3rd edition and Pathfinder books, I notice that most of them are geared primarily towards players.

It makes good business sense, really. For every GM, there are what? An average of three players? Four? More? There are more potential customers for a player’s handbook than there are for a dungeon master’s guide. I’m sure the shift in priorities has made a lot of money for the developers of these games, and that’s cool with me. I would never ask a company to focus on a less-profitable demographic simply because it is my preference. Though I would question whether or not it is a more profitable demographic. In my experience, Players own the core rules, and mooch off the GM for everything else.

But even if it is more profitable to market to players, I’d like to see more books for Game Masters out there. Pathfinder has taken a step in the right direction with their excellent Game Mastery Guide, which is easily my favorite Pathfinder supplement thus far. I’d like to see them take it further with a Game Domination Guide, then perhaps a Game Supremacy Guide.

Remember this, Paizo: the collective of Game Masters are 100 times more effective than any marketing department. We’re the ones who find new players, and draw them in. The better we are at running games, the happier our players will be, and the more likely that they’ll purchase your products.

Are there any other oldschool game mechanics you’d like modern game developers to be learning from? Let me know in the comments! If nothing else, I can better educate myself.

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16 thoughts on “Of Forgotten Lore and Ancient Sourcebooks”

  1. Re. facing. I would add a huge honking caveat there. If your combat system runs on a grid, you should totally have facing rules as well. If you don’t have a grid at all — like most old-schoolish games don’t — then facing is a matter of common sense and fictional positioning.

    Re. activity cycles and diet. Yes! Yes! Add “natural enemies / predators” to the list as well.

    Re. XP for Treasure. I’m two sessions into the first XP for Treasure game I’ve ever run: as a teens we immediately threw that out, because we didn’t understand the point. We thought the game was a simulation, and XP for gold was just silly. Now I know better. :) It’s a great reward cycle, which people grog to immediately when it’s spelled out.

    Re. supplements. I’m not sure. I actually like “small” games best. If you come out with more than a rule-book per year, I’m going to ignore them. Stuff I might buy:

    – Friends and Foes decks. They’re the only Paizo products I own besides the Pathfinder PDF, and I could use a dozen more. You don’t even have to make them in color or print them. Sell me PDFs of all kinds of B/W fantasy portraits and I’ll happily buy them at $5-10 if the art is good and they come with ~50 portraits each.

    – Good quality modules/adventures with sharp boundaries. “Rough Night at the Three Feathers” is a prime example of the genre. Things you can drop anywhere without worrying about messing up the map, or needing to transport players. Dungeons are good — as long as they don’t impose on the surroundings too mcu. Adventures happening in a single inn or village are good — the world is full of those. Adventures built around a bunch of NPCs with abstract locales are great: you can really put them anywhere.

    1. Regarding facing, I think the combat grid was a good idea. Its inclusion in the game has caused some problems, but I think most of those problems could be overcome without resorting to dropping the grid from combat.

      Natural Enemies / Predators is another good one. It’s far more important to know how the monster behaves and how it exists within its environment, than it is to know how many ranks it has in climb.

      In comparison to its predecessor, Pathfinder is incredibly small. The release schedule for their supplemental sourcebooks is much slower than D&D 3.5, and many of the products they release are things like the Beginner Box, or the Bestiary Box. I have almost all of the full-sized Pathfinder supplements, aside from the campaign setting stuff. Most of it is very good, though I find that most of the time I’m only personally interested in a relatively small percentage of the information.

      Paizo has also done something interesting by releasing leaflet-sized supplements. 30-40 page softcovers like “Goblins of Golarion” which serve as a kind of “mini-supplement.” Again, personally, I prefer the larger hardbacks. But it’s a good idea none the less.

      “More modules” was actually on my list originally. The old gang at TSR put out dozens of modules for first edition D&D, and they were great! Whereas D&D 3.5 had so few modules that I doubt you could get a group of characters all the way from 1 through to 20, even if you used every single one.

      I dropped it from the post because Paizo has pretty much solved that already. With stuff like Pathfinder Society, their numerous modules, and all the PDFs they sell, there are already more modules for Pathfinder than there were for 3.5.

      Thanks so much for the comment!

      1. It’s all relative. :)

        Re. grid. I’ve played both with and without grid, and like it better without.

        The reason I like gridless better is that fiction remains the primary reference by necessity. Any sketches, tokens or figures used to clarify positioning remain clarifications.

        When I add a grid it tends to become the primary reference, and fiction bends to conform to it — which focuses attention on the table, and not in the fiction where it should be. I’m not saying that has to happen, but it does happens when I try to use a grid — so no grids here.

        Also, you can never have too many /good/ modules. There have never been that many of them in the first place. :) Sturgeon’s Law applies here as well, unfortunately.

        1. I’ve actually played both with and without a grid myself, though I’ve only ever played without out of necessity. Many of my games have been run over Ventrillo servers, or in the old days, simply over AIM.

          My experience of playing without a grid is that I (as GM) get lots of questions about distance, and whether people are close enough to something to do this or that, and lacking a visual representation of the battlefield, my answers were often arbitrary. It’s one of the biggest reasons which I no longer run any online games.

          Then again, if it’s just a couple random goblins, I don’t always bother with the mat even when playing around a table. I mostly use it in more “gourmet” combat situations.

  2. I have not heard of the “Wizards learning spells at random” idea before, but I instantly fell in love with it and will probably start using it. I’m thinking I can give the player a list of new spells for each level with percentages based on what they were researching; then I can just let them roll a percentile to see what they learn. Possibly find a way to let them increase their chances of learning a particular spell based on how much gold they put into researching that particular school of magic or that particular spell? So many possibilities… DM notebook, here I come.

    1. Those are some pretty interesting ideas! I hope you can let me know how they work out once you give it a try. Most of my players are pretty interested in Wizards, so I don’t have much of an opportunity to test this kind of stuff out. =P

  3. Wizards (or “Magic Users” in the more traditional terminology) are scholars, they learn magic through something akin to the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, experiment, theorize.

    Well, that’s one explanation. Maybe their master is handing them down new spells. Or their demon patron. Or the spells come to them in dreams. Or they meditate and the spells come in little bursts of enlightenment.

    Personally, my favorite method is to make spells treasure:


    No new free spells at level up. Magic-users need to quest for them, or quest for the resources to acquire them.

    I think the focus on XP from monsters was the biggest misstep in the games from 2E on. That, more that perhaps anything else, brought the focus to combat over problem solving and exploration. XP for GP is not perfect, but it does at least avoid that problem. XP only for monsters slain breaks all kinds of monsters, which are really intended to be obstacles not direct foes (much of the cleanup crew, pretty much everything that drains levels).

    1. It is hilarious that you mention that method as your favorite, because I’ve written about that exact same thing myself. I thought I was pretty clever for coming up with it, actually.


      No free spells on level-up, magic users only receive spells as scrolls found in treasure hoards. Thusly allowing the GM to control, somewhat, what spells end up in the game.

      I like to give out XP whenever I feel the players have done something which required them to stretch their abilities a bit. Using a Simple XP system helps with that immensely. Since the amount of XP needed for each level is 20, handing out 1, 2 or 3 XP doesn’t require a lot of calculation the way that many other methods of handing out XP do. Just “I solved the puzzle” “you get 1 xp.”

      Boom. Simple.

      1. Nice. Thanks for the link to that post. It’s always interesting to see people come to similar ideas from divergent sources.

        Can wizards in Pathfinder cast spells from scrolls that are higher level than they can prepare? They can in earlier editions. Thus, if I give a high level spell, the player needs to do a utility calculation: is it better to save this scroll for when I am powerful enough to copy it to my spell book for repeated uses, or should I use it now when it might benefit me more (relatively speaking) and who knows, I may not even survive that long.

        I would like to have a game where the magic-user literally only starts with read magic (the only spell that can be prepared in my house rules without a spell book; it is essentially the ability that distinguishes magic-users from other classes).

        1. Lets see!

          A scroll must be deciphered before it can be cast, requiring either Read Magic or a DC 20 + spell level spellcraft check.

          There are three requirements:

          1) The scroll must be of the correct type (divine/arcane)

          2) The caster must have an ability score high enough to cast the spell. (For a Wizard, their INT minus 10 must be higher or equal to the level of the spell they’re casting. So an INT of 17 allows them to cast 7th level spells, but an INT of 19 is required for 9th level spells)

          3) The caster must be potentially able to learn the spell. For a Wizard, this means anything arcane. But for a bard, lets say, many spells are not on their class list.

          If all three of those conditions are met, and the caster is of a high enough level to add the spell to their spellbook, then they can cast the spell without a check.

          If the caster is NOT high enough level to add the spell to their spellbook, then on casting the spell they must make a caster level check. The DC is the Scroll’s caster level +1. (So a level 8 wizard attempting to cast a spell which requires 9th level spell need to roll 1D20 + 8 against a DC of 10.)

          This allows Wizards to cast spells high above their level. Given that level 9 spells are learned at 17th level, this means the best spells can have a DC as low as 18, which the level 8 Wizard has a 50% chance to roll. (though I suppose spells cast at a higher level might get up to a DC of 21 or more.)

          Scrolls which fail don’t just fizzle, mind you. They have a number of possible mishaps which can be randomly determined; such as targeting a random location/creature within range, the spell fails to activate for 1d12 hours, or any number of other possibilities.

          Regarding a game where magic users start only with Read Magic, how would they be effective in the first adventure?

  4. Having never played D&D before *coughcough* (:P) I dunno how much I can say about this but what I WILL say is that I love the idea of facing having a larger role in combat, as well as activity cycles, diets, natural predators/prey ect. All stuff that makes sense!

    The ‘Wizards Learning Spells At Random’ thing kinda makes me go “lolwhat?” though. Like you say in your post, Wizard’s are the Scholars of the Magic world. I doubt they’d do anything by chance! I think it sounds far more suited to a Sorcerer, whose magic is more an inborn trait, right?

    *insert obligatory reminder that you WILL GM a game for me at some point, OR ELSE* <3

    1. I was thinking it could work for the sorcerer as well, yeah.

      The problem is that in 3.5 and Pathfinder, Wizards are pretty insanely overpowered at high levels. They can basically handle any problem the party has by themselves, because they can (potentially) learn every spell in the game, and prepare them at will.

  5. I remember you mentioning something in your previous post on wizard spell restrictions about the “number of spell books”. Perhaps that *is* the way to go in bringing a wizard down to earth. I believe it takes (spell level +1) pages of a spell book to transcribe a given spell in Pathfinder.

    Well, suppose Mighty McWizard has a twelve volume Encyclopedia Arcana, but due to the way spells are transcribed, he can only prepare spells from one *volume* on a given day. If every spell book has 100 pages, transcribing Wish is going to eat up 10% of the potential variety of spells he can cast. So, he may have a tome for Defence against the Undead, 50 Spells to Make Friends and Influence People, and Generic Spellbook for Everyday Adventuring.

    In the end, he still has the same overall variety of spells, but they’re lumped into more restrictive sets.

    Maybe you’ve touched on this later in the blog, but I’m in the process getting caught up here.

    1. No, that’s not an idea I’ve ever come up with before. I quite like it! I’d be interested to know how you would explain to players *why* they can’t prepare spells from different spell books. And would the players be able to create the spell books themselves, or would there be restrictions on what spells could be placed in a book together?

      Another, similar, idea is to make spell books heavy. Sure a 1st level spell only takes 1 page, but that page isn’t 8.5″ x 11″, it’s more like 1.5′ x 2.5′. And on top of that, pages to write spells on must be made of tougher material than mere paper. (If it was written on paper, then the spell would disappear after it is cast, like it would from a scroll.) Spells must be written on leather, or some other thick material which can contain the spell’s magic. And such heavy pages require metal bindings to hold together.

      If each spellbook weighs 25 lb., then a 22 Int wizard won’t be able to carry that many spells around, because they’ve only got 7 strength.

      Of course, that problem goes away as soon as they find their first bag of holding. And since high level play is more of a problem than low level play, maybe this idea doesn’t help at all. x’D

      1. I’d actually justify it in terms of enchantments used in transcribing a spell. A spell isn’t just ink on a page, but has special “mnemonic charms” which keep the spell in the memory for the whole day. However, each spellbook’s mnemonic charms are slightly different, even when penned by the same caster, and they clash when you try to hold spells from two books at once. So if you try to memorize from two books, you just get a splitting migrane. Or maybe it requires a sacrifice of spell slots to prepare from multiple books to ensure everything gets memorized properly.

        I think creation of spellbook’s for oneself is fine under this system, and even transcribing spells as you go. But once a book’s been crafted, you can’t add pages to it. Maybe the cost of making a spellbook scales exponentially per 100 pages.

        Another method might just be to say a wizard needs the spellbook on hand to cast from it. So if you’ve prepared spells from seven different tomes, you’ll be rummaging around in that bad of holding every time you need to cast different spells. And if spellbooks are heavy, they can’t just make a bandolier of tomes (though that would be pretty awesome).

        1. That is a very interesting idea. I’d be curious to see it in play.

          Also, a bandolier of tomes sounds fuckin’ badass.

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