Colorful Characters 4: Baron Ika of the Treebreaker Tribe

Gobling Dark Forest Baron Ika of the Treebreaker TribeIka of the Treebreaker tribe was born twenty six years ago. Like all goblin children, Ika was raised in an environment where her ability to bite and claw the other children was the only thing which ensured her next meal. Early childhood served to hone a goblin’s devious instincts, and had the added benefit of making Ika tough-as-nails. By the time she was a year old, she already had a reputation among the other children for being absolutely fearless.

When Ika was four, she and some other children were hunting snails in a small copse of trees not far from the village. Quickly bored by their task, the other children decided to test Ika’s fearlessness. They set fire to a bush, and told Ika that if she ran, she was a coward. They then scuttled off to wait just outside the treeline, and come up with jeers and taunts to throw at Ika when she eventually came out.

The fire spread from tree to tree, and the goblin children continued to wait. The fire eventually drew other goblins as well, and the children told them about Ika’s test. Not being a particularly nurturing race, most of the adults started trying to come up with jeers of their own. But Ika never emerged. As the fire smoldered, the goblins returned to their village, believing the young fool to have died.

Ika had, in fact, remained in the flaming death trap much longer than she should have been able to survive. But, as the fire became omnipresent around her, Ika’s need for self preservation overrode her need to prove she was tougher than any of the other goblin. Badly burned, and coughing violently from smoke inhalation, she stumbled out of the cluster of trees on the opposite side from the one the other goblins were waiting at. And it was there that the hunting party of Baron Greegorg found her.

Greegorg of Stok was a human lord who could best be described as arrogant, amoral, and cheap. So when he found a coughing young goblin child separated from the rest of her tribe, he saw it as a golden opportunity to improve his small castle’s plumbing. So Ika, biting and scratching the whole time, was thrown in chains and taken to Castle Stok where she was forced to clean the stables, chamberpots, and even the dreaded brown chute, for six years. In that time she had ample opportunity to observe the baron, and the goings on of human lords.

In the seventh year of Ika’s slavery, a human she had not seen before approached her while she was dumping shit from her small cart just outside the castle walls. He asked her if she would like to be free, which she said she would. He then asked her if she was willing to kill, and she answered that she was eager to. The man went on to explain that he was an assassin, and that he had been hired by a rival to kill baron Greegorg. But the deed had to be done that very night, and he had no means of entering the castle.

Ika smiled a devilish smile, and told the assassin about the brown chute. A long shaft, angled at 45 degrees, which ended five feet off the ground on the castle wall, and began in the Baron’s own bedchamber. An easy entrance for an assassin with the fortitude to brave the slime and the stench. The man grimaced and told her he would come for her if he was successful. Seven hours later, the assassin returned, smelling horribly, and freed her.

Able to determine her own destiny for the first time in over half her lifetime, Ika didn’t quite know what to do or where to go. The assassin, whose name she learned was Blavid, offered to allow her to travel with him. And so, for some years, Ika aided him in his work as he traveled about the kingdom. She was not quite as subtle or skilled as the assassin, but her strength in combat proved to be a significant asset to the human.

During the fifth year of her travels with Blavid, he and Ika were helping a merchant dispose of some competition when she recognized the village they were in. It was one which her clan had raided shortly before she had been enslaved. After the mark had been slain, Ika bid farewell to Blavid so she could return to goblin kind. He, having grown fond of the little green woman, told her to look him up if she ever needed anyone killed.

It took nearly a fortnight of traveling and searching, but Ika found the village she had been taken from as a gobling. Reintegrating with her tribe was not easy, though. Her fellow Treebreakers were suspicious of her. So many goblin children die as a matter of course that few even remembered her. Those who did remember her story were unsure if the goblin standing before them was indeed Ika of the Treebreaker, or just a tribeless goblin looking to infiltrate their village.

Shunned by her people, Ika determined to prove herself the only way a goblin can: through violence. She recalled a tale from her childhood of a blade of legendary strength, used by Treebreaker chieftains in generations past. According to the tale, it rested in a dangerous crypt deep in the forest of Umulgar which bordered the Treebreaker village.

Ika offered a gold to one of the village elders to tell her where the crypt could be found. With that information in hand, she set off to find the sword. She braved the many wolves and the giant spiders of the forest to reach the entrance to the crypt. Within she faced further danger from deadly traps, and undead goblins. Through all these, Ika survived. And when she pulled the sword called Gorgok’s Tongue from the pedestal on which it rested, she felt its power sear her skin and rattle her bones. When she returned to the surface, she found that she was a changed goblin. Her contact with the sword had awakened a latent sorcererous power within her.

Armed with her newfound talent and her mighty blade, Ika returned to the Treebreaker village. She arrived just in time for a post-raid feast. The goblins were dancing and eating and drinking; all of which Ika interrupted by cutting off the chief’s head. And, as the head rolled across the ground with half a chicken head still hanging from its jaws, Ika shouted, “Ika is leader now! Ika is baron of Treabreakers!”

The tribe did not attempt to block her ascent, and have prospered in the many years which she has led them.

Personality

Baron Ika is more worldly than most goblins, and has a great deal more pride. Her self-bestowed title of Baron is a good indication of how she sees herself, and how she thinks others should see her. She is a goblin to be feared, and she knows it.

Tactics

Baron Ika always tries to cast Mage Armor on herself before combat, raising her AC to 24 for an hour. If she’s unable to do so before combat, she will use her first action during combat to do so.

Ika keeps her spells in reserve, and attempts to attack the weakest character whenever possible. Her preference is to quickly kill this character, then use her sword’s ability to raise them as a skeleton to assist her. If she is accompanied by other goblins, which she most often should be, she directs them to attack more powerful party members to keep them distracted.

If Ika is reduced below 75% health, she will begin to cast Magic Missile when it is convenient. She will use one of her potions at 50% health, but save the rest in case she needs to flee. If reduced below 25% health, she will use a withdraw action to attempt to escape and hide from her attackers. If they are too persistent in attempting to find her, she will prepare an ambush.

Thoughts On Use

Baron Ika works well as a boss in a first or second level adventure. If you were so inclined, however, she could be the sidekick or lieutenant of a boss in a level 3-5 adventure.

Baron Ika of the Treebreaker Tribe (CR 3)

XP: 800
Female Goblin 3 (Fighter 2/Sorcerer 1)
NE Small humanoid
Init +7; Senses Perception +1, Darkvision 60ft


Defenses


AC 20, Flat Footed 16, Touch 15 [10 + Armor(4) + Dex (3) + Amulet(1) + Size(1) + Dodge(1)]
hp 29 (2d10 + 1d6 + 6)
Fort +5 Ref +3 Will + 1 (+1 vs. fear)


Offense


Speed 30ft
Melee Gorgok’s Tongue + 7 (1d10 + 5/19-20 x2)
Ranged Dagger + 5 (1d3/x2)
Sorcerer Spells (CL 1st; Concentration +3 (+7 when casting defensively); Spell Failure 20%)
1st (4/day)–Mage Armor, Magic Missile (two missiles)
0 (at will)– Bleed, Mage Hand, Message, Detect Magic
Bloodline Elemental (Fire)
Bloodline Powers
Elemental Ray (5/day)–Ranged touch attack, 30ft, 1d6 fire damage.


Stats


Str 15 (+2) Dex 17 (+3) Con 15 (+2) Int 12 (+1) Wis 9 (-1) Cha 14 (+2)
Base Atk +2; CMB +3; CMD 16
Feats Improved Initiative, Dodge, Weapon Focus (Greatsword), Combat Casting
Skills Intimidate(+7), Perception (+1), Ride (+10), Spellcraft(+5), Stealth (+9), Survival (+4)
Languages Goblin, Common
Gear Gorgok’s Tongue, Chain Shirt, Amulet of Natural Armor +1, 10 daggers, 3 potions of cure light wounds, 12 gold pieces.


Weapon: Gorgok’s Tongue


Aura Faint Necromancy[Evil]; CL 4th
The hilt of this goblin-sized greatsword is engraved to look like a goblin’s head, with the ears forming the cross guard, and the hair wrapped around the grip. The goblin’s mouth is open, and the waving blade extends from it like a tongue. This is a +2 Greatsword. Once per day, a creature killed by Gorgok’s Tongue will rise as a skeleton under the wielder’s command as the Animate Deadspell.

It is very unusual for a blade of this quality to bear the markings of goblinkind. And, in fact, it was not crafted by goblins. A century ago, an evil halfling wizard conquered several tribes of goblins and forced them to raid nearby towns. He had this blade crafted as a gift for his most effective goblin chief, Gorgok of the Treebreaker tribe.

Magic Items: By Deed or by Craft

Beautifully Glowing Magical Blue SwordOne of the great legacies of Dungeons and Dragons, a legacy continued by Pathfinder, is the strong presence of magical items. Ever since Gygax and Arneson first published their “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns,” magical swords, helms, rings, and so on have been a staple of treasure hordes around gaming tables everywhere. These wondrous treasures have served not only as motivation for players to delve ever deeper into the dungeon, but have played a role as an essential part of character progression and enhancement. This has remained true even as games moved beyond the tabletop. Modern games, such as World of Warcraft, can often be simplified as a quest to get magic items, so you can engage in more difficult challenges, which result in better magic items.

In Pathfinder, most of the magical items available can be gathered in one of three ways. The most traditional way of acquiring such treasures is to find them; whether it’s at the bottom of a dragon’s horde, or resting on a pedestal in the tower of an evil lich. A character might also earn magic items, either by gold, or by deed. Finally, with the right skills, a character can simply make the item they desire. Pathfinder (and D&D 3.5 before it) provides detailed information on creating magic items, including the cost of raw materials, and the amount of time the work will require. All a character needs are a few prerequisites: ranks in a crafting skill, a few feats, maybe a spellcasting class, and they’re good to go.

Some magic items which can never be crafted, regardless of skill. These exceedingly rare items are known as artifacts. The most common artifacts have perhaps a couple dozen iterations in existence. Most are even more rare than that, and many are one-of-a-kind. The exact reason why an artifact can’t be replicated varies from item to item. Some are simply of mysterious origins, such as the Deck of Many Things. Others might be ancestral treasure, created in time immemorial, such as the Axe of Dwarvish Lords.

World of Warcraft TCG Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the WindseekerMy favorite type, though, are the artifacts which are created by intersecting with greatness. Good examples of this tend to come from D&D, since Pathfinder’s mythology is not yet well established. Take the hand and eye of Vecna, for instance. If a player were to cut the hand and eye from just any lich, and attempt to replace his or her own hand and eye with the lich’s, it wouldn’t work. Like as not, the character’s shortsighted plan would leave him or her short handed. Alternatively, attempting the same thing using The Hand, and The Eye will work, and it will grant the character fantastic abilities to boot. These artifacts gained their power because they were once part of Vecna. Other items which gained their power through association with greatness are The Mace of Cuthbert, The Sword of Kas, and the Wand of Orcus.

I find these items so much more engaging than other magic items, or even other artifacts, because of the inclusion of a history. When my fighter hefts the Sword of Kas, she knows the blade was forged for one of the most evil swordsman in history. She knows the blood of countless innocents have run over the handle she now grips. That knowledge transforms the blade from a hunk of metal and a bonus to my attack roll, into something which my character cares about. That kind of interest in the game world is something which game masters should strive to instill in their players.

That excessive buildup brings me to the main point of this post:

What if all magic items were created by deed, rather than craft?

I’ve been toying with this idea for a couple months now, and I think it has potential. Such a dramatic shift in gameplay mechanics is perhaps best suited to an entirely new system. But I’m a Pathfinder GM, so I’ll present it as a house rule (probably a campaign-specific one) for that game.

Link draws The Master Sword from The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time Official ArtworkThe immediate problem with this idea is one of supply and demand. Pathfinder is designed with magic items in mind, and a character without them is going to have a much more difficult time dealing with encounters of his or her level. That isn’t to say that it’s impossible, many people enjoy low-magic games where magical treasures are much more rare than they are in standard play. But even in standard play, a high level character is lucky to have even one artifact. Clearly, that gap needs to be bridged for the idea to be viable.

The obvious response is to simply lower the threshold of awesomeness required to transform a normal item into a magical item. I think it was probably clear from the start that we’d need to do this, but there’s a danger in going too far. If we try to use this new method of magic item creation to simply supplant the current system without any additional changes, then killing five people will need to be enough to create a +1 bonus. That completely defeats the purpose of the new method, since the backstory for 90% of items will simply be “used by a nameless soldier for the three weeks he survived such-and-so war.”

The best solution to the supply and demand problem is to meet in the middle. Any game using this method needs to be a low-magic game, where players can’t expect to be able to find an upgrade in every dungeon they delve into. The threshold of awesomeness required to create a magic item will also need to be lowered drastically. Low enough so that magic items will be accessible starting as early as level 1 or 2, but high enough that the story behind the creation of the items will still be of interest to the player. I’ve given some possible examples below.

One other problem with this system is any kind of run-of-the-mill magic items which give simple bonuses. Items such as +1 daggers or +2 armor inherently lack flavor. In certain rare circumstances they may be appropriate (I detail a +1 bow below), but as a rule, magical equipment created through association with greatness should reflect the nature of that greatness more specifically than a flat numeric boost can.

Examples:

Boarslayer’s Blade: This blade grants a +2 bonus to attack and damage rolls when wielded against creatures of the Animal type. It was created by legendary human ranger Hassif Annandar when he was only 12 years old, and protected an injured playmate by slaying the boar which had attacked them.

Bow of Winning Accuracy: This is a +1 shortbow. It was created by a mysterious stranger who appeared at an elven archery tournament held annually in Mahgtinton Wood. The stranger won the competition easily, astounding the crowd by striking her own arrows in twain eight times on a target twice the normal distance from the shooting line. The stranger disappeared before she could be congratulated, but she left her bow behind. Legend says that the stranger was none other than the fiendish bandit of Mahgtinton Wood: Shora The Fox.

The Immovable Rod (as Immovable Rod, found on page 484 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook.) This unusual magic device was created when the kingdom of Queen Darsus was beset by demons. The queen led her servants and children into her bedchambers, and barred the door with this rod. For three days she single-handedly held the door closed using only her strength, and what leverage she gained from the bar.

The Devilsblood Blade This is a Flaming Burst Battleaxe. It was created during the battle of Obrent’Kel, when an army of dwarves fought off an invading force of hill giants. The giants had hated the dwarves for years, and made a pact with devils to finally wipe out the clan. During the battle, a lowly Axe Hand named Torel Anvilchest (who would later become a general in the clan’s leadership) faced down and slew a horned devil after being separated from his unit.

Ring of Invisibility (as the item of the same name on page 481 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook) When master assassin Arcturus Iammad accepted a contract from the price of Galnar to slay his father, the king, Arcturus didn’t know what he was in for. After sneaking into the massive Castle Galnar, it took the assassin no less than a month to finally finish what he thought would be only a night’s work. The labyrinth of secret passages, illusions, and magic portals within the structure were enough to nearly drive him mad. But not once was he seen, and once he found the king, he finished the job he had been given.

The Problem with Feats

The Problem with Feats...FEETSIn 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.
*clatter clatter*
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.”
Feat: Leadership

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.”
*clatter clatter*
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.
Feat: Childlike

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.

My GMing Methodology for The Ascendant Crusade

The Hand and Eye of Vecna, Holy SymbolMe: “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?”
Jashel:“Nope!”
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.”
Morrie: “…fuck.”

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.

GMing For The Holidays

Halloween Banner ZalekiosJust 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!

Hyperbole And a Half Edit: Eat 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.

Colorful Characters 3: Cohen Strauss, The Town Blacksmith

Cohen Strauss The Blacksmith
Cohen Strauss was born far away from where he lives now, in a small farming community. When he was seven summers old, a party of adventurers came through his town. He was fascinated by the fineness of their arms and armor. Having lived all his life amongst poverty, he was amazed to learn that items of such beauty could exist. When none of the adults were looking, he bravely strode up to the dwarf and asked where he got such wonderful armor. In typical dwarvish fashion, the adventurer responded that only the greatest dwarven smiths could craft such armor and weapons.

Cohen never learned where they were going or why they stopped in a community so far off the main roads, but he never forgot his fascination with the fine armors of the adventurers. As soon as he was of age, he apprenticed to the village blacksmith, where he learned the basic skills and tools of the craft. But sodding horses and constructing crude farming implements did not satisfy Cohen. Whenever a traveling merchant came through town, or some farmer went to market, he put up all of his meager earnings to buy books on the crafting of arms and armor, and on the dwarves who were known as the finest of all craftsmen. He taught himself to read using these books, and by the age of twenty he had surpassed his master in skill.

Realizing there were no opportunities for further advancement in such an out-of-the way town, Cohen resolved to seek out the dwarves. He bid goodbye to his family and his friends, and began the long trip to Gorren’Vor Mountain, stronghold of Moltenforge clan. There were other dwarven clans nearer his home, even clans who were renowned as craftsmen amongst dwarves. But the Moltenforge clan had a reputation for being welcoming to outsiders who wanted to commission their craft. Cohen hoped they would be as welcoming of a student eager to learn from them.

It took the eager young smith over a year to cross the distance to Gorren’Vor, stopping occasionally along the way to earn pay as a blacksmith as needed, and to pick up new knowledge and skills. He never lingered too long though, eager to reach his destination. When he finally arrived, feeling as though his entire life had been one long journey to the mountain which stood before him, Cohen eagerly requested to be granted an audience with a dwarven smith.

His audience was granted. And, after hearing the young man out, the smith he was taken to refused to accept him as a student. The one which Cohen saw the next day refused him as well, as did the one he saw the day after that. Day by day, Cohen saw his dream crumble as he was rejected by one potential teacher after another. Most had been kind to him, but none were interested in passing on their skills to a human.

“Why trust me legacy and me teachings to a boy who’ll be dead before me beard’s gray?” one dwarf had said. After a few months the guards simply stopped allowing Cohen to enter the dwarven city. Crushed, the young man found a bar in the human settlement of Taire at the base of the mountain. He sat down, ordered a drink, and didn’t stop ordering drinks until he had to find a job.

It wasn’t hard for a skilled blacksmith to find work in town. And with the constant flow of adventurers stopping on their way to Gorren’Vor, Cohen had many more opportunities to exercise his craft than he would have ever had in his home village. So for fifteen years he has made his life in Taire. He has become well respected in the town as a reliable smith, though most agree that he drinks too much. It never seems to affect his work.

When not working or drinking, Cohen makes arms, armor, and jewelry of remarkable quality. It easily matches the dwarves’ work in quality, which is why most assume he purchased it from them. After awhile, Cohen just stopped correcting them.

Personality

Cohen Strauss is dour, and not terribly friendly. When dealing with dwarves he can be particularly spiteful, often openly ignoring them, or using racial slurs. In truth, Cohen suffers from a severe inferiority complex. Despite the high quality of his work, he feels completely inadequate after his rejection by the Moltenforge clan. Years of demeaning labor as a common blacksmith, as well as the lack of recognition he’s received for his more finely crafted items, have not helped matters in the slightest.

Thoughts on Use

Cohen Strauss could be used as a simple smithy if that’s all the game requires. The players could also be told that he’s a good person to commission work from by a local who knows of Cohen’s largely hidden talent. If the GM was so inclined, the lack of recognition for Cohen’s work could make it difficult to learn that he’s a skilled craftsman, and as a reward, Cohen’s lack of self-worth might cause him to sell his items below their market value.

Particularly altruistic characters could be enticed into a political/role playing adventure wherein they try to get the dwarves of Gorren’Vor to accept the talented Cohen as a student.

Smithing

Cohen keeps a number of scrolls available, and has a good working relationship with the same wizard who provides magical assistance to the Moltenforge clan smiths. He has studied enough of magic and scroll use to be able to use the scrolls to imbue his creations with powerful dweomers.

Much of his work is improvisational in nature. Rather than engraving a scene from mythology on a shield, for instance, he largely plans what engraving he makes as he goes along. Oftentimes the patterns and designs on his work seem random, or have no definite shape.

Interesting Facts

*Despite being relatively well settled, Cohen’s demeanor does not endear him with women. Most of the women in the local bawdy houses know him as a somewhat unpleasant customer who pays well.

*Years of heavy drinking, as well as other vices, have caused Cohen’s voice to develop a rasp.

*Cohen is completely clean shaven, never allowing the hint of a beard to remain on his face.

Cohen Strauss (CR 9)

XP: 6,400
Human Expert 12
LN Humanoid
Init +0; Senses Perception +0


Defenses


AC 10, Flat Footed 10, Touch 10 [10 + Armor(0) + Dex (0)]
hp 70 (12d8 + 12)
Fort +9 Ref +4 Will +4


Offense


Speed 30ft
Melee Masterwork Blacksmith’s Hammer +12/+7 (1d8 + 3/x3)


Stats


Str 15 (+2) Dex 11 (+0) Con 13 (+1) Int 16 (+3) Wis 11 (+0) Cha 6 (-2)
Base Atk +9/+4; CMB +11; CMD 21
Feats Craft Magic Arms & Armor*, Craft Wondrous Item*, Master Craftsman(Craft Weapons), Skill Focus (Craft Weapons), Skill Focus (Craft Armor), Master Craftsman(Craft Armor), Master Craftsman(Craft Jewelry)
Skills Appraise +18, Craft(Weapons) +26, Craft(Armor) +26, Craft(Locks) +18, Craft(Jewelry) +20, Intimidate +13, Knowledge(History of Dwarves, Arms, and Armor) +18, Profession (Blacksmith) +15, Spellcraft +18, Use Magic Device +13
Languages Common, Dwarven
Gear Heavy Leather Apron, Masterwork Blacksmith’s Hammer, Masterwork metal crafting tools, 500gp

*Technically, according to the rules in Pathfinder, one must be a caster of level X to take these feats. However, I not only find that silly, but downright offensive to the proud history of the Fantasy genre. If this rule were to be enforced, then every master smith in fantasy literature would need at least a few levels of wizard. How many dwarven smiths seem like wizard types to you?

Edit: -C of Hack & Slash pointed out in the comments that I overlooked the Master Craftsman feat, which allows non-casters to qualify for Craft Magic Arms and Armor, and Craft Wondrous Item. I also notice that I forgot to increase the benefit from skills focus from +3 to +6 after 10 ranks. Both issues have been corrected. Sorry about the mistake everybody! -LS

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.