On Character Generation V.S. Character Building

Bad Rolls for Character Stats D6 Character SheetYesterday I wrote regarding the general consensus I’ve observed in the OSR community regarding player agency and game master guidance. On that issue the OSR community is very much opposed to the emphasis on GM guidance they perceive to be more present in modern games than in older ones. And, while their criticisms have merit, I ultimately disagree.

Today’s post is similar. It again relates to the OSR community, this time relating to character creation and progression. The consensus is that the forms of character generation used in older role playing games are superior to systems of character building present in more modern RPGs. I’ll explore this in more depth below, but first I’d like to define these two terms as I understand them.

Character Generation is quick, simple, and requires a minimum of knowledge on the part of the character. Many character generation systems actively discourage GMs from allowing their players too much access to the rules, because knowing what the rules are will limit what the player thinks they can do. Often these systems are not much deeper than rolling dice for your basic statistics and picking a class. Generating a character is a great way to get into the game quickly, with a minimal amount of time spent on other things.

Character Building, by contrast, can be a very intensive process. Ability scores tend to be generated less randomly, with many of the most modern systems simply using a point-buy as the default. Players have a multitude (some might even say a deluge) of options available to them to customize and specialize their character’s abilities. Character building systems offer greater depth to a player interested in customizing their character.

These are less dichotomous than simple labels would imply. There are gradations between the two, as well as alternatives to either system. Traveler’s ‘lifepath’ system is both amazing, and unlike anything described above. However, in most games (particularly those closely related to Dungeons and Dragons) some variant of character generation or character building is used.

As a matter of personal preference, when I’m a player, I’m very attached to the character building model. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the speed, simplicity, and unpredictability of character generation. However, when Zalekios finishes a hard day’s work being a horrible person, and the GM goes home, I’m still on a role-playing high. I want more. Unfortunately, as a player, there’s not a lot more for me to do. The only thing I have control over is my character.

Which is why Zalekios often has written and diagrammed plans prepared for the next gaming session. It’s why I designed my own character sheet layout for him, I’ve made character sheets for NPCs in his backstory and sent them along to my GM in case he ever wants to use them. It’s why I’m level 12, but already have my character sheet ready-to-go for when I hit level 13. The fact of the matter is that I enjoy fiddling with my character.

Having said that, the OSR community is correct. Character building is harmful to RPGs.

When I think back over my career as a game master–a great deal more extensive than my career as a player–I have a hard time coming up with any of my players who enjoyed building their character. Many, if not most, have needed me to help them with updating their character sheet for every successive level. And that includes the group in which I purchased Player’s Handbooks for the entire party. Most people are far more interested in playing the game than they are in deciding where to put their skill points. Or at least most people I’ve played with feel that way. Anecdotal evidence is not hard evidence, after all.

This doesn’t mean that complex character building needs to go away. I enjoy it, and I know for a fact that many others enjoy it as well. But if we want our hobby to grow, then we need to make our favorite games more accessible. We need to engage people who are less interested in putting points into acrobatics, and more interested in leaping across a gaping chasm without caring why they landed safely. This is too big to house rule. It needs to be built-in to future systems.

I propose a theoretical system which offers players a choice between character generation and character building. Those players who want to spend their evenings pouring over rulebooks looking for the perfect combination of skills and talents should be able to do so. While players who don’t want to, shouldn’t have to. They should be able to roll their character ten minutes before the game and be ready to go.

This is a difficult, if not impossible task. In order for such a system to function, characters rolled using the shorter method will need to be just as effective overall as other members of the party built by dedicated players. Yet simultaneously, players who spend hours building their characters must not be made to feel as though their efforts have gone to waste. I think this would be best achieved by making a “general purpose” and “special focus” distinction. Whilst a generated fighter would be good at all the things fighters are good at, a built fighter might excel in fighting casters, or taking damage, or sundering weapons, while being less adept in other areas.

Considering the fact that games such as D&D and Pathfinder are unable to maintain class balance in the systems they’ve already got, my theoretical system seems like a pipe dream. I’m confident, though, that with sufficient ingenuity it can potentially be achieved. I fully intend to devote some of my attention to the problem. Until this magical system makes itself manifest, however, we’ve got to make due with what we’ve got.

I’m presently working within Pathfinder to try and devise a stopgap solution. I want to work out a method of character generation & leveling which functions quickly and simply. My current criteria for the system are:

-Characters created using this method must be reasonably well balanced with characters who are built within pathfinder. I’m never going to be able to make a formula for creating Pathfinder characters which will be able to rival min-maxed characters, so I won’t try. All I want is for a party of casual players to be able to contain both built and generated characters without there being an obvious disparity in power.

-The method must be able to easily create a character of any level, not just first level. And it must maintain its ease of use throughout the leveling process.

-Any mechanisms used in this method of quick character generation should be easy to commit to memory. At the very most it could require a single page printout to run effectively.

I’ve made some minor progress. The difficult items like feats, spells, and class abilities such as rogue talents are still hurdles for me to make a jump check at. However, I did come up with a quick method of generating skills that I like.

Each class grants x + Int Modifier skill points each level. Select a number of class skills equal to x + Int Modifier. These are the character’s skills. The modifier for any check is Level + 3 + Relevant Ability Modifier.

It’s a start.

On Player Agency, and GM Guidance

Dungeon Master D&D CartoonIn an effort to educate myself further on the variety and subtlety of the role playing hobbyscape, I’ve spent the last few weeks trolling for good blogs. Many of the ones I’ve gravitated towards affiliate themselves with the OSR sub genre of role playing. To sum OSR up in a single sentence, it’s essentially a group of people who think RPGs reached their zenith with older games like first edition Dungeons and Dragons, or Hackmaster. And while I doubt you’ll hear me espousing a return to treating elves and dwarfs as classes rather than races, I firmly believe that history is an excellent teacher, regardless of the subject.

One issue discussed frequently is the conflict between what is called Player Agency (D&D’s version of ethical agency, for my fellow philosophy majors) and what I’ll call GM Guidance. This issue is particularly well illustrated by a post over at Hack & Slash. Stated simply, a player has agency when he or she is able to control their own in-game destiny. Any circumventions of a player’s choice, or arbitrary restriction placed on the choices available, reduces player agency.

The general consensus I’ve observed among the OSR community is that modern games fail at creating sufficient player agency. At best, this failure is the result of a failure to communicate the importance of player agency to gamers. At worst, it is argued, modern games actively discourage or prevent an acceptable degree of player agency. The examples given in the post linked above deal primarily with how fourth edition D&D discourages player agency. Any game, though, can suppress player agency if the GM fails to recognize how important it is to preserve.

On this matter, the OSR community has a point. Any game master of quality will warn new GMs of the temptations and dangers of railroading. And I’ve often told new players that the most remarkable thing about this hobby is that you can do anything with it. That freedom, that player agency is what makes these types of games so worth playing. To harm that freedom by telling a player who just wants to hunt for treasure “No, the king wants you to go on a diplomatic mission!” is bad game mastering.

Where I start to disagree with the OSR community is when they espouse unrestricted player agency. The idea that the GM should place no limits whatsoever on player freedom. It seems that many view the role of the GM to be one of world total world creation. NPCs may plead the players for help at a village to the north, and a sage may hint at a long forgotten dungeon to the east, but if the players want to go South West the GM damned well better be able to keep up. As fun as that sounds, I cannot accept it as the ‘correct’ way to play.

The work which goes into simply running a pre-written adventure for your players warrants some guidance from the GM. At a minimum, published adventures are thirty or forty pages long. That’s an evening’s worth of reading, plus any additional time the GM would need to create reference sheets, handouts, maps, or to integrate the module’s locations into the campaign world. And as much time as that would take, it is easily the least work-intensive method to prepare a game. Designing a high quality adventure from scratch requires creativity, and hours of preparation detailing locations, challenges, and so forth.

I always hesitate to use my own experiences as an example in an argument, because that’s simply anecdotal. However, in the years I’ve engaged in this hobby, both as a player and as a GM, I’ve never felt as though fun was lost due to the guidance of a game master. As a player, I make sure the GM knows what my player wants. If I want treasure, I’ll try to find a treasure map, or even just tell the GM that I’d like to go looking for some treasure. As a GM, I ask my players after each game what they liked, what they didn’t like, and if there’s anything they want to do moving forward. Much to my delight, they’re often too busy talking about how awesome it was when they ran away from the tribe of goblins to pay much mind to my probing.

That’s what’s really important: engaging your players. It doesn’t matter if you nudge them along a vaguely linear progression, or simply drop them in a sandbox. So long as your players are engaged and having fun, you’re doing it right. There is no excuse for half-assing your plot hooks and expecting your players to fall in line. Nor is there an excuse for dropping your players into a finely crafted campaign world and being frustrated when they want someone to give them some direction.

I don’t want anybody to think I dislike sandbox style role playing, however. I actually prepared a campaign world for one once, several years back, which I was going to play with members of my World of Warcraft guild. That game fell apart, but the more I learn from the OSR community, the more I want to give it another try with the tools and knowledge I’ve gained in the years since that first attempt. Both styles of play are an excellent way to spend time with friends, or to make new friends.

Above all, Game Masters should remember: players will always defy your expectations. It’s their job to break your game, and if you don’t know how to handle it, you’re doing it wrong.


Pathfinder House Rule: Simple Experience Points

World of Warcraft Level Up DINGAs a Game Master, I have always hated experience points. It is one of the most frustrating and poorly designed aspects of many role playing games. Including my beloved Pathfinder.

I understand function of EXP, and why it’s valuable. Players enjoy being rewarded for their work, and (along with treasure) experience points are the most direct and tangible form of reward in an RPG. Watching the number of accrued XP grow larger and larger, bringing a character ever closer to the threshold of the next level, is not only encouraging, but it gives players a sense of control over their own progression

For the GM, though, it’s nothing but a pain in the ass. Every encounter in the game needs to have an encounter level applied to it. Each encounter level is modified by the variables in combat. If the giant slime had a challenge rating of 6, and each of the two dozen skeletons had a challenge rating of 1/2, what was the encounter level of the combat? Should the characters gain more experience because the floor was covered in pit traps? Should they gain less because they have that powerful magic item which kept the giant slime pinned down for most of the combat? Should the total amount of experience gained change if the players find it unexpectedly more or less difficult than the GM expected they would?

I don’t shy away from using a complicated system if I can be convinced it needs to be complicated. But experience gain never struck me as having that kind of need. Almost every game I’ve run as a GM has used a kind of ad hoc experience distribution system. I look up how many experience points are needed for the characters to reach the next level, and I give them whatever percentage of that number which I feel like they’ve earned. Most of the time I base that percentage on what speed of progression is optimal to keep the players in-step with events in my game world, rather than basing it off of challenges they have overcome.

At best, the method I’ve been using make experience points redundant. At worst, my method reduces player agency. It’s an arrangement I’ve never been happy with, but not one I never thought of a good solution to. Maybe I was just being dense about it, though, because the solution seems damned obvious now.

Last week during my morning blog reading. I found this post over at Blog of Holding. According to Paul, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition is normalized so that each level requires roughly 10 encounters to reach. So, instead of bothering to calculate large XP numbers, Paul simply gives his players 1 experience point for every encounter, and once they reach 10xp they get to level.

I immediately fell in love with the simplicity and elegance of the system. But, not wanting to rush into things headlong, I ran the numbers for Pathfinder’s own leveling graph. My formula was simple:

[(Amount of XP required to reach next level) – (Amount of XP required to reach previous level] * (XP awarded to a character in a party of 1-3 when overcoming an encounter with a CR equal to the Average Party Level.)

This should produce the rough number of combats required to reach each level. While it is possible to raise or lower this number by having more members in the party, or dealing with encounters with a CR above or below the APL, this should provide a reliable average.

Since Pathfinder provides groups with slow, normal, or fast leveling progressions, I punched in the numbers sixty times, and lo and behold, the numbers are consistent.


Slow progression levels every 22 encounters, normal progression levels every 15 encounters, and fast progression levels every 10 encounters. I have to admit, as the results started to become apparent, I started to get angry. It seems ridiculous to me that leveling is actually based on such an exceptionally simple system, which is hidden behind needless layers of complexity. I can understand that large XP numbers are perhaps more fun to talk about, but couldn’t they have let GMs in on this? Knowing would have saved me a lot of work.

Having now shown that leveling is simply a function of the number of encounters players have overcome, I will now be using a modified version of Paul’s Simple XP House Rule in all of my future Pathfinder games:

At slow progression, each level requires 44 experience points.
At normal progression, each level requires 30 experience points.
At fast progression, each level requires 20 experience points.

Characters receive 1 experience point for: overcoming an easy battle; escaping from a difficult battle or boss battle; overcoming a non-combat challenge such as a trap, or diplomatic negotiation; other misc tasks the GM would like to offer rewards for.

Characters receive 2 experience points for: overcoming an appropriately leveled combat encounter.

Characters receive 3 experience points for: overcoming a very difficult encounter or boss battle, or completing a major task such as saving a kingdom.

The major difference between my system and Paul’s is that while his system converts the number of encounters into the total amount of required XP, I doubled the number of encounters to get the amount of required XP. This allows for more more nuanced experience rewards. The baseline for most of the experience most characters will receive is 2, which means that the average number of encounters will remain unchanged. Characters who only fight monsters appropriate for their level will still reach a new level every 22, 15, or 10 fights.

However, with my variation on the system, a GM is better able to reward players for more minor actions. Something like successfully disabling a complicated trap, using stealth to avoid a ferocious band of orcs, or convincing a band of marauders that it’s not in their best interests to raid the village which is under the PC’s protection. I’ve never liked RPGs which punished players for skillfully avoiding combat. As a guy who likes to play rogues who rely heavily on stealth, I’ve experienced this in essentially every class based video game I’ve ever played. It’s just poor design.

Let me know what you think. I haven’t actually play tested this system yet, so I’m sure I’ll have cause to update it eventually.

Colorful Characters 2: Spyri the Trinketeer

Gnomish Merchant and her Cart(NOTE: The Witch class is from the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide. If you don’t have that available, the stat block below will not be of much use.)

Spyri comes from a gnomish merchant family of modest means. Truth be told, her youth was positively normal. She learned her parents’ trade well, and helped acquire and sell goods. She had a knack for the work, and in particular for finding more unusual items. She often came to her parents with some arcane bauble or other, which rarely seemed like something they would be able to find a buyer for. Luckily, Spyri had as much of a gift for selling oddities as she had for finding them.

One evening, when Spyri was perhaps 37, she was contacted by someone who had been a reliable source of goods to her in the past. He wanted to meet after dark in the stables of a nearby inn. Not unaccustomed to unusual behavior in her associates, Spyri agreed. The two met, and after some negotiation, Spyri made a good deal for a tiny sundial which functioned even without light. Just as the gold changed hands, however, torches of the town guard appeared around a nearby bend in the streets. Apparently Spyri’s associate had some reason to fear the law, because he quickly leaped onto one of the horses in the stable and sped away from the place as quickly as he could–trampling Spyri in the process.

The gnome woman faded in and out of consciousness throughout the night. Even now, a lifetime later, Spyri seems to become tongue tied when attempting to describe the experience. She claims to remember nothing at all, and yet to remember a detailed conversation with an unknown entity she refers to only as “Whispers from Lightless Corners.” This conversation which she seemingly does not recall changed her life. She awoke in the wee hours of the morning with a pony nudging her with his snout. And, without entirely knowing why, she led the pony away from the stable and went out into the wilderness for a year.

When she returned, her parents were jubilant. They had thought their daughter dead. Their joy was short lived. Spyri told her parents that she was leaving, did not know where she was going, but that she might return someday. She then left, again leading the pony (which she named “Shade Tender”), and taking nothing else with her.

Spyri was changed by her encounter with the unknown force she named Whispers from Lightless Corners. Not only did she act more erratically, and seem somehow detached from the world around her, but through her connection with that force she began to learn witchcraft. By communing with Shade Tender–witness to that first fateful meeting with Whispers from Lightless Corners–Spyri could reconnect with that power. Could draw knowledge from it, and learn powerful spells.

In her travels, Spyri met a group of adventurers traipsing through the woods. They asked her:

“Who are you, and where are you headed?” Spyri looked at them a long moment before responding by repeating their question. Somewhat confused, but willing cooperate, the adventurers introduced themselves, and added that they were trying to find the Crypt of Anakhot, which was rumored to be nearby.

“Now,” said a well dressed halfling bearing an instrument, “What about you?”

Without pause, Spyri responded “I am Spyri, and I seek the Crypt of Anakhot, which is rumored to be nearby.”

Confused though they were by her oddity, the party allowed Spyri to tag along on their adventure, and many others which followed it. The gnome was capable in a tight spot, and as she socialized more with the group, she seemed to become more lucid. Though she still had some difficulty dealing with strangers or acting whilst alone, Spyri found she was able to be much like her old self whilst around her new friends.

One day, while raiding the treasure horde of a goblin who had fancied himself a king, the party found an unusual deck of cards. One of the party members excitedly identified it as a Deck of Many Things. An item of rare power which they were fortunate to have found. Without a thought to the danger, each party member in turn drew a card. Defying the odds, each received some boon from the act.

When it came time for Spyri to draw, she did not think twice. She pulled her card from the top of the deck. It was The Demon’s Laugh, a card unique to this deck. As soon as it was drawn, all those whom Spyri most loved–the entire party–blinked out of existence, leaving her alone. The etchings on the card promised that her friends would return again once the card was drawn a second time. Unfortunately, a Deck of Many Things never lets the same person draw twice.

Grief stricken, Spyri now travels the world with Shade Tender. She’s taken up her family trade as a merchant, buying and selling oddities along the roads. She asks every customer if they would like to draw a card from her deck, hoping to someday be reunited with her friends. Even after 100 years of traveling, Spyri is still hopeful that she will see them again.


Spyri is an oddball. While not mad, she is certainly eccentric in the extreme. She will often Hex those who are kind to her with Fortune and those who are unkind to her with misfortune. If ever asked about her past, she will make up a lie, which will probably not match up with earlier lies she has told.

She can be pushy as a merchant, attempting to convince characters that they cannot go on without whatever bauble she’s decided she wants to sell them. And, after every transaction, she always offers to allow a customer to draw from her Deck of Many Things.


Spyri does not like to fight. If forced, she will attempt to use spells like Cause Fear or Fog Cloud to escape as soon as possible.

Interesting Facts

*Spyri has a facial tick. Her left eye and check twitch and quiver while she talks.

*Spyri talks in her sleep, often directly to Whispers from Lightless Corners

*Spyri’s hair has gone prematurely stark white.

*Spyri will often show unusual kindness to adventurers, as they remind her of happier times. If, however, adventurers ever treat her poorly, she becomes vindictive.

Thoughts on Use

Spyri is a great character for players to meet out in the wilderness, or while traveling along the road to a destination. She will try to sell them a number of very odd things, and the party might even buy one or two of them. If they do, she will offer to allow them to draw from her Deck of Many Things. If they do, roll a d% before each card drawn. If 100 is rolled, then the card drawn is The Demon’s Laugh, and Spyri’s friends suddenly appear, having aged not at all since their disappearance. Otherwise, treat as a normal Deck of Many Things. Spyri, like the deck itself, is intended to add spice & an unusual twist to a gaming session, rather than define it.


Spyri travels on her merchant cart, drawn by Shade Tender. Among many other oddities, it contains the following items which she will attempt to sell to the PCs.

-50ft of rope which unknots when the slightest pressure is put on it; 1gp
-A brown bag. 2lb of sand can be poured out of it every day; 2gp
-Gloves which make whatever they touch slightly colder; 5gp
-A working divining rod; 10gp
-A ball of yarn which will attract the nearest cat, up to 5 miles away; 1gp
-A stick enchanted to cut & stab like a normal shortsword. AC: 5, Hardness: 1, HP: 4; 2gp
-Ring which causes anyone who wears it to speak only the truth; 1,000gp
-Leggings which allow someone to be comfortable no matter where they sit; 10gp
-A torch which never goes out–no matter what you do; 10gp

Spyri, the Trinketeer (CR 3)

XP: 800
Gnome Witch 4
CN Small humanoid
Init +1; Senses Perception +6


AC 14, Flat Footed 13, Touch 14 [10 + Armor(0) + Dex (1) + Ring(2) + Size(1)]
hp 32 (4d6 + 8)
Fort +3 Ref +2 Will +8


Speed 20ft
Melee Masterwork Dagger +2 (1d3/19-20 x2)
Ranged Masterwork Dagger +4 (1d3/x2)
Witch Spells Prepared (CL 4th; Concentration +7)
2nd–Detect Thoughts, Fog Cloud
1st–Identify(2), Cause Fear
0(at will)–Touch of Fatigue, Dancing Lights, Daze, Light
Patron Shadow


Str 9 (-1) Dex 12 (+1) Con 14 (+2) Int 17 (+3) Wis 15 (+2) Cha 11 (+0)
Base Atk +2; CMB +0; CMD 11
Feats Iron Will, Brew Potions
Skills Heal (+9), Perception (+6), Profession(Traveling Merchant)(+9), Spellcraft (+10), Use Magic Device (+7)
Languages Common, Gnome, Draconic, Celestial, Abyssal
SQ Hexes (Save DC: 15) Fortune, Misfortune
Gear Simple grey robes made for traveling, Masterwork Dagger, 3 potions of Cure Moderate Wounds, a Ring of Protection +2, Two silver rings worth 5gp each, 6gp, a Deck of Many Things.

Familiar; “Shade Tender”

See “Horse, Pony” on page 177 of the Pathfinder Beastiary for stats.
Familiar Bonuses +2 Natural Armor, Intelligence raised to 7, Alertness, Improved Evasion, Share Spells, Empathic Link, Deliver Touch Spells & Hexes
Stored Spells
Level 0 – All Cantrips are stored.
Level 1 – Identify, Cause Fear, Command, Comprehend Languages, Cure Light Wounds, Hypnotism, Mage Armor
Level 2 – Detect Thoughts, Fog Cloud, Spectral Hand, Silent Image

Exploring Crime in a Fantasy Setting

AD&D Thief's Handbook

Party Leader:“Once we get the loot from that last dungeon back to our townhouse in Kilesh, I’d like to go talk to Knight Captain Martet. If we help him out with something here in the city then maybe he’ll give us a letter of introduction to the Duchess.

GM: “The Knight Captain is happy to see you. He’s got a job that none of his men can handle, because half of them are in lockup! Turns out they’ve been taking accepting bribes to ignore shipments of Devil’s Leaf coming off the docks. Martet is positive he’s thoroughly cleaned up the city watch, but somehow the illegal substance is still making its way into the city. He needs you and your compatriots to investigate.

A better GM would have shown, not told. It’s not good GMing if you’re not doing voices.

Almost by definition, any rule will be broken. Whether that rule be personal, religious, cultural, social, or legal; someone will break it. Because of that, crime is an inescapable part of any civilization. Assuming the laws are just and the PCs are good aligned, criminals make excellent foes for PCs. It also works if the laws are unjust and the PCs evil aligned, but I’ll be focusing on the former in this post. Most of the time, the civilization where the PCs make their home will have the same kind of laws and crimes which our own societies typically have.

But what happens when those criminals are able to take advantage of living in a fantasy world; monsters, magic, and all?

Most criminals simply won’t have the resources to purchase an extradimensional safehouse of course. Nobody turns to crime because they have piles of money lying around, and they don’t normally accumulate piles of money picking pockets and burglarizing homes. There are, however, exceptions. The Duchess whose family has secretly ruled a city’s criminal element for generations; the charismatic leader who was born poor but learned how to manipulate others into doing his dirty work; the Illithid who provides a city with vices, then controls it’s leaders through blackmail; all of these would have the means to hire a wizard, or to outfit themselves (and their minions) with magical crime-aiding items.


Theoretically, a wealthy city could pay some decently leveled wizard a sum of money to research a Detect Contraband spell. That spell could then be permanently affixed to the city gates. Which would cause anyone walking through the gates with a condom full of cocaine in their large intestine to suddenly start glowing a bright red color. While most cities are unlikely to need a precaution like this, those with active smuggling problems may try it.

Unfortunately for the city watch, any city wealthy enough to have an organized criminal element, probably has an organized criminal element wealthy enough to afford a teleport spell. And short of creating a city-wide ward on teleportation spells, there is no simple fix for this issue. And even a city-wide warding spell would have untold complications. No wizards would want to live in the town, for one thing, which I can only imagine is bad for the economy. Not to mention the fact that the myriad of types of teleportation would require a myriad of (very expensive) warding spells.

I suppose a GM could surround a city with four towers (or six, or eight, or however many he or she feels is necessary) which block any travel other than through the material plane. This would allow teleportation to function within the city, as well as just outside of it, blocking only non-material travel past the city’s walls.

Criminal ingenuity wouldn’t be foiled by even this elaborate setup, though. While relatively expensive, any crime boss would be able to afford a few Portable Holes. And since anything stored in a portable hole is technically in extradimensional space, it would be undetectable.

Any player tasked with stopping the flow of contraband into a city is either going to need to become very creative, or just try to stab everyone involved until they die.

Illegal Commodities

The most obvious type of illegal commodity is drugs. If drugs socially accepted in the GM’s setting, then they probably won’t be illegal. Otherwise, though, drugs serve as a useful segue into a criminal underground adventure. And regardless of whether they’re legal or not in your game world, they have the potential to be endless amounts of fun. Here are a few a dealer offered to my players in a game a few years back:

Magic Dust Residue collected from the creation of magic items. When inhaled through the nose, causes euphoric effects. Can cause spells to malfunction, but only mildly addictive.

Corpse Motes Are detailed thoroughly in an older post of mine.

Speedy Grease When rubbed on the chest, this causes the character to feel incredibly sharp, and aware. Grants initiative +1, but if anyone startles the character they must succeed on a DC: 15 will save or perceive that person as a danger. Non addictive.

Underskin Crawlers One dose includes four of these gnat-sized bugs. Cutting ones self and allowing the insects to get into the wound gives random shots of adrenalin to the character. Anytime the character makes a strength based check, roll 1d20. On 15 or higher, the character can add a 1d4 bonus to that check. Underskin Crawlers are highly addictive and prolonged usage can cause death.

Mother’s Butter A pad of a soft, semisolid substance extracted from subterranean fungus. When placed under the tongue, causes characters to wildly hallucinate. Non addictive.

Sharkskin Happies The skin of a dire shark. When rubbed on the stomach, it causes a number of cuts. Sharkskin Happies are a powerful aphrodisiac. These are highly addictive, but have no ill effects save stomach scars and an increased risk of venereal disease.

Drow Eyes Eyedrops which grant the user darkvision for 3 hours. Often used by criminals for burglary. Addictive if used frequently. Can cause blindness after prolonged exposure.

These are all from old game notes of mine, but it’s easy to come up with new ones. The most fun ones are the ones your players might actually take, forcing them to deal with issues like addiction and the consequences of prolonged use.

Illegal Services

Brothels, opium dens, gambling dens, speakeasies, or even certain types of religions have often been the subject of government bans throughout history. And whenever a government bans something, criminals will be quick to provide it to those willing to pay the price.

The traditional methods of concealing an establishment like this still work great in D&D. A sliding shelf in the back of a shop; a heavy, barred door; a man who asks for a password through a sliding window in the door which only reveals his eyes? It’s charming and flavorful, and is great to include in a game. However, it’s also mundane, and this post is about the fantastic.

Enter the extradimensional space. A room or building which exists nowhere in particular, but is none the less real. It is a dimension unto itself, created by a wizard. Every evening the doorkeepers wander the streets, perhaps wearing some subtle symbol to indicate their purpose. If you can tell them the password, they take you somewhere private, and use a magic ring to cause a door to appear in the nearest wall. And once you pass through it, your every pleasure is at your fingertips.


The classic example of fantasy counterfeiting comes from the atrocious, fear-fueled film “Mazes and Monsters.” In the final scene, Tom Hanks (who went crazy, and now thinks he lives in a fantasy world) tells his visiting friends that each night he gives a coin to the tavernkeeper’s wife (his mom) to pay for his room, and each morning it appears again in his purse.

Terrible as the movie was, this is a pretty killer idea. But what else can we do?

Illusory magic is common in the fantasy worlds of D&D/Pathfinder. Even a novice illusionist could enchant a copper coin to appear to be a gold coin. A more experienced illusionist may even choose to permanently enchant a copper coin, so that when a command word is spoken a temporary gold coin illusion is activated.

Money isn’t the only thing which could potentially be counterfeited with illusion either. What about a ring which creates a solid illusion of a small piece of jewelry when the command phrase “Absolutely exquisite!” is uttered. A quick fingered rogue with a knack for blending in with high society could potentially steal the jewelry of every woman in the king’s court without anyone realizing anything had been taken.

This post is not exhaustive. “Crime” is a rather broad topic. The crimes above are merely the ones which I felt a player might most commonly encounter when dealing with a criminal element. Of course by far the most common would probably be simple theft and assassination. Those are covered so extensively elsewhere, though, that I thought it would be redundant of me to bother with them.

Spicing Up The Battlemat: Forests

Woodland Stream Through a Forested AreaIn the first RPG-related post I made on this blog, I wrote about the importance of adding variety to any battlefield. Even as I posted it, however, I knew it wasn’t enough. The topic is not only rich with detail to be discussed and dissected, but it is essential. Combat is one of the most exciting elements in an RPG, and for D&D/Pathfinder in particular, it plays a central role. Skimping on the options available to our players in combat is not a good idea, and environments provide a great deal of those options.

I think the best way to approach this subject is environment-by-environment. I’ll be starting with one of my all-time favorite environments: forests. These are nothing if not filled with diverse forms of plant life and other obstacles to make combat more interesting. I spent most of the evening making a random chart for my own use, which anyone is, of course, free to use. And below, I’ll discuss each of the elements more in depth, giving some of my own thoughts on how a player might use the items presented to his or her advantage.

Meadows are large grassy areas which can sometimes be found in or around forests. They normally form around water, and are often filled with flowers and bees. If nothing else, a battle here is dramatic, with violence being juxtaposed with flowers. And, for those less interested in poetry, there’s always drowning your opponent in the nearby water source.

Clearings Similar to a meadow, but smaller. Often the result of an old forest fire which opened up an area which the forest has not yet fully reclaimed. More typical forest elements will be present here than in a meadow, and after enough fights amidst trees, the lack of them can seem like a good change up.

Sparse,Medium, & Dense Trees These gradations of tree size and frequency allow for different tactics. While even sparse trees might force a bullrushing fighter to change his tactics, a rogue with intent to hit-and-run through an entire combat will only become more effective the denser the trees become.

Exposed Roots Everyone whose ever gone walking in the woods has tripped over exposed roots now and again. A trip hazard like that could be a detriment–or a boon–in combat.

Fallen Logs Nature’s handy half-wall, ready to protect a diving character from the evil wizard’s Cone of Cold.

Fresh Fallen Tree Nature’s handy half-wall, still covered with protruding branches to make getting over it more difficult.

Low Hanging Branches My ladyfriend informs me that trees with low hanging branches are more rare than I had originally thought. However, as I understand it, they do exist. And aside from making climbing easier, there’s always the opportunity to take some inspiration from slapstick comedy and bend a branch back so it can spring back into position and potentially deal bludgeoning damage to a foe.

Hollow Trees I suppose that once a tree is hollow it’s normally more of a stump than a tree. However, they still make excellent hiding places from which to launch an ambush mid-combat.

Stumps Instant higher ground!

Stream/Pond/Spring Small bodies of water offer a number of tactical choices. Not only can you potentially drown a foe in them (handy for getting rid of spellcasters with low strength, who could turn you into a toad if you let them speak) but if you can cross them more quickly than your opponent, you force them to put themselves at a temporary disadvantage whilst they cross it.

Waterfall Like the meadow, this is great for drama. However, for characters with excellent balance, it also provides them with slippery rocks to fight on. If this lures less-graceful foes onto the treacherous footing, the more well balanced character gains a significant advantage.

Dry Creek Bed This provides an excellent means of stealth for players with a surprise round. Just drop into the creek bed, move along it until you’re positioned favorably compared to your foes, then pop up and strike! Just be sure you’re stealthy enough that you don’t end up fighting from the low ground.

Gradual/Steep Slope While the Pathfinder core rulebook does not list slopes as potential forest elements, every environment has some variations in elevation. Slopes are the most basic element in creating a tactics-rich environment, and should not be neglected.

Boulder/Rock Formation In addition to providing the same benefits as any high ground, some special circumstances may even allow for a powerful barbarian or fighter to move the mighty boulder, dropping it off a cliff or down a hill onto his or her foes.

Ditch/Cliff With a potential depth of 2d6 feet, knocking a foe into a ditch or off of a cliff may deal worthwhile falling damage.

Thorn Bush There are so many uses for the thorn bush. Not only is there the potential to deal damage to unarmored foes, but a particularly tangled bush might require an escape artist check to get away from.

English Ivy This prolific and fast-growing ivy wraps itself around everything, especially trees. And can grow strong enough to provide hand and footholds for climbing.

Irritating Plant While not likely to turn the tide of battle, it felt wrong to ignore the potential amusements offered by poison ivy, oak, or any other poisonous plants.

Wasp nest / Ant Hill While I avoided including animals in this chart, insect nests are too common to leave out. The benefits of using these against your enemies, and the dangers of not being mindful of them, should be obvious.

Once again, if you’re interested, check out the PDF I made, detailing a method to randomly generate forest elements for your battlefield. While it is functional and, I believe, very useful; it could certainly use improvement. I’ll take any criticism into consideration.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.