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.

On Zalekios Gromar, and the Undervaluation of Evil Campaigns

D&D 3.5 BlackguardEverybody who plays RPGs is familiar with the harm that religious zealotry can cause. Thankfully, the general populace’s opinion of role playing has largely shifted from “satanic” to “dorky” in recent years. But as a person who had to hide his Player’s Handbook from his parents as a teenager, no one is more aware than I that this prejudice still exists. There are people, a lot of people, convinced that role playing games are the first step on the road to virgin sacrifice.

I suppose they’ve almost got it right. But it’s not “virgin sacrifice,” it’s just “virginity,” amirite?

Taking that into consideration, it’s only prudent that Dungeons and Dragons has spent a long time avoiding the subject of evil PCs. Player Characters are good almost by definition, and the evil alignments only exist as labels for NPCs. There are other games which are not quite so shy about evil, such as World of Darkness, but they have that luxury only because most people are unaware that there are pen and paper rpgs other than Dungeons and Dragons.

Even the excellent Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 book “The Book of Vile Darkness,” which was labeled with a sticker marking it as containing mature content, skirts the issue of evil PCs. It presents itself solely as a tool for GMs, to help them create truly vile villains for the truly heroic heroes of their gaming group. Though, to give credit where credit is due, I still think publishing the book was a courageous move on the part of Wizards of the Coast, and I applaud them for that–even if they did avoid a few issues I would have liked to see addressed. Publishing a book which covers topics as controversial as cannibalism, slavery, and incest had the potential to generate a lot of bad press. I like that Wizards of the Coast had enough respect for their product, and for theirDungeons and Dragons 3.X Book of Vile Darkness customers, to risk that.

Yet still, the very concept of evil PCs is relegated to a three page appendix in a 191 page book. Which saddens me, because I love evil PCs.

Who hasn’t imagined what it would be like to break the rules? To take what you want, eliminate those who frustrate you, or even force the world to march to the beat of your own drum? It’s only natural to think about these types of things. Musing about how nice it would be to punch a cop in the face while he’s giving you a speeding ticket does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person. If anything, it’s a coping mechanism to deal with the sense of powerlessness being at a cop’s mercy can cause.

There is nothing wrong with playing the bad guy in a pen and paper role playing game. Nothing wrong with capturing damsels (male or female) rather than saving them. Nothing wrong with stealing the quest reward rather then earning it. Nothing wrong with constructing a fortress of evil, rather than raiding one. Of course, it’s important that everyone at the table be comfortable with the content of the game. Topics like rape, slavery, or racism should be verboten in groups where they would make others at the table significantly uncomfortable. However, villains exist in any D&D game, so any table should already have an acceptable level of villainy established.

Allow me to introduce you to Zalekios Gromar.

Demon Prince OrcusZalekios is a level 12 gestalt character, with four levels of Hexblade, ten levels of rogue, and ten levels of warlock. He is the most chaotic evil motherfucker in the room, and that’s true even if he’s in the same room as Orcus. He’s committed every depraved deed you can think of from conceiving a child with the same succubus which gave birth to him, to using that child’s bones to fashion a sword. He is a murderer, a slaver, a cannibal, and a rapist. He is a highly intelligent sociopath with a penchant for taking unnecessary risks just to further pain those who cross his path.

He’s been my player character for half a decade now.

I was in Highschool when I first rolled up his stats. I only had one friend who shared my interest in D&D at the time, and as the more experienced player he did all the GMing. Sometimes his girlfriend would join the party, but most often it was just him and I. After playing several of the traditional hero types (like Tarin the Half-Elf rogue, or Xunil’Nerek Sharpedge the Illumian Fighter), I got it into my head that I would very much like to play an evil character. I had read about the Vasharan race in the Book of Vile Darkness–an entire species of pure sociopaths intent on killing the gods themselves–and I wanted in.

I won’t bore you with the details of a campaign which has lasted five years or longer. To be honest, a summary wouldn’t sound all that different from the summary of a normal D&D game. I fought an ancient civilization of phase-shifted trolls, infiltrated a magic college, explored a castle which sank beneath a lake in ages past, foiled a plot to trick two nations into going to war with one another, killed a dragon, and established a stronghold. Zalekios has even been taken through at least one published adventure (the Standing Stone) without completely breaking it. The only thing which really changes is an evil game is the motivation and the methodology.

Allow me to use a recent game as an example. For reasons unknown, the plane of fire intersected with the prime material plane. A rift was torn between the two dimensions, and now a large area of land which was once peaceful planes is a flaming hellscape. I don’t know yet how it happened, but when it did happen it burned down my secret apartments within the city. So, thus enraged, I set out to see what was up, and what I found was a tower filled with fire-breathing goblins.

Now, Zalekios had decided recently that he wanted to acquire some minions. Conquest was starting to sound good to him in his old age, and subduing a tribe of goblins seemed like a good first step. So what did Zalekios do? He kicked in the tower’s doors, melted the faces of the goblins which got in his way as he ascended to the top of the tower, and confronted the goblin king. Zalekios waited until a large number of the goblins had rushed to their king’s aid before cutting the king’s head off, picking it up, and taking a bite out of it as though it were an apple.

I then stood up at the table, and (blatantly ripping off a game I’ve never played) shouted “I am the blood god! Bring blood to the blood god! Brings skulls for his skull throne!”

This serves as an excellent example of how an evil game can function. Allow the player’s to revel in their bloodlust. Give them motivations like rage and vengeance to get them started on their adventures, and allow them to further their own evil schemes within the context of the greater storyline. The GM which runs Zalekios’ game does a good job of this, even if he does constantly complain about how difficult Zalekios is to plan for. I’ve promised him my next character in ones of his games will be a paladin named Kronus Mountainheart to make up for it.

Despite spending five years inside the head of an imaginary sociopath, sometimes to the point of excitedly shouting his evil proclamations at the table, I think I’ve become a better person rather than a worse one. It’s difficult to point to moments in time and identify them as when you became ‘more ethical.’ However, it’s only since I started playing Zalekios that I came to acknowledge and confront the fact that I carry a lot male/white/heterosexual/cisgendered privilege. I would call that an ethical step forward.

In closing, I’d like to offer a lists of “evil campaigns” which I’ve come up with. I’ve actually got a notebook filled with potential plots for future campaigns which I’d like to either run or play in someday. Evil ones probably make up about 25% of those. (Note that all of these below are for D&D/Pathfinder unless otherwise noted)

Band of Thieves The PCs would all play the role of thieves, and each adventure would be focused on stealing some item or items. At low levels they might simply be knocking over taverns or shops for money, but they could eventually build up to stealing great pieces of artwork or even the crown jewels.

Band of Assassins Much like the band of thieves idea, but rather than the object being the theft of items, the adventures would focus on killing people. At first perhaps they’re merely contracted by a jealous wife eager to have her cheating husband out of the picture. However, as their levels rise they could find themselves in the middle of political intrigue, or plots to usurp the throne.

Urban Vampires There are games specifically designed for the players to be vampires, but I would very much like to try it in Pathfinder. Vampires have such a unique blend of limitations: inability to go into sunlight, inability to cross running water, inability to enter buildings without an invitation, etcetera. I would love to throw all those restrictions at players, and watch them try to survive and flourish in a town. Particularly one in a setting where everybody knows monsters exist, and there are many out there eager to fight them.

Slavers Touchy as the subject may be, slavery is a reality in many D&D style games. And where there’s slavery, there is the slave catcher. Someone who needs to find people which can be taken without being missed–or who needs to be able to fight off those who miss them. Adventure variety could come from certain kinds of slaves being needed (such as ogre slaves for a large construction project) or re-capturing a specific slave which has escaped.

Pawns on the Overlord’s Chess Board I actually did start running a campaign based on this idea once. The PC’s boss is Dark Lord Evilguy, and he needs them to further his goals so that he might achieve the world conquest he’s so long desired. What’s great about this is that it’s just as open-ended as a standard campaign. While good heroes fight goblins to save small villages, these PCs would fight the small villages and tell the local goblin tribe to start sending tribute to Mount Scaryhorror.

BBEG* in training The PCs start at level 1. Their only task: to conquer the world. They could choose any method they find preferable. Perhaps they’ll construct an elaborate plan which is undetectable by the forces of good until its too late. Fortress of EvilOr, perhaps, they’ll immediately set out to conquer one small village at a time.

Imperial Navy This is for the old West End Games D6 Star Wars game. I don’t have much of a plan for it really, but I would really love it if all of my PCs were members of the Imperial Navy. TIE fighters, Star Destroyers, and greasing rebel scum. That’s the life!

There are more, but I think that will do for now. Thanks for reading.

*(You may see this on the blog from time to time. It means Big Bad Evil/End Guy)

Non-Digital Random Map Generation

Cartographer Woman MapmakerAs I mentioned in a post earlier this week, I like to generating things randomly, and that includes maps. However, despite being heavily invested in technology in most areas of my life, for some reason I prefer to keep it out of my gaming. I’m not quite sure why, but there is certainly a kind of tactile pleasure I derive from scratching pencil against paper to create stat blocks and adventure notes. I may occasionally write up character sheets in Open Office, or experiment with tools like Hexographer; but I do my best to minimize my reliance on computers. At least where RPGs are concerned.

Below I’ll be detailing the various methods I’ve devised for randomly generating maps by hand. I would like to preface this, however, by saying I’m far from an expert on map making. There are GMs out there who’ve blown my mind with the amount of realism they’re able to bring to a map. Anybody interested in making really good maps should check out Trollsmyth‘s hex mapping posts, or the Cartographer’s Guild. There you can learn how to make good maps. This is just about how to make random maps.

With that out of the way, lets get started. Here’s a picture of my current campaign world to provide a sense of what results might look like:

Fantasy Role Playing Game Map On a Bulliten Board

And here’s a close up of the primary continent, which my group hasn’t ventured off of yet:

Role Playing Game Map Negune Continent

All of these were created using the Paper Drop Method, which requires just a few very basic tools I was able to gather from around my apartment:

1) Two sturdy surfaces of even height, like two chairs.
2) A sturdy piece of glass. I pulled the door off of an old stereo cabinet for mine.
3) A good lamp which can be moved around without much trouble.
4) Paper. If you don’t have this, you may be in the wrong hobby.

Once you’ve got these items, place the glass across the two sturdy surfaces, and position the lamp underneath the glass, facing upwards towards it. Congratulations, you’ve constructed a tracing table! It’s not fancy, but it’s effective.

Role Playing Game Workspace LinkSkywalker
I’m unable to take a photo of a tracing table at the moment, however you
can see one on the right side of this old photo of my workstation.

At this point, rip up a few sheets of paper. The pieces should be relatively small, but not so small they become a nuisance. I would so no bigger than a palm, no smaller than a fingernail. Try to vary the shapes as best you can as well. Squares, triangles, circles, long pieces, squat pieces, any shape which strikes your fancy. Continue tearing up paper until you’ve got a nice little pile of it. Two or three sheets is usually sufficient.

Now, shredded paper in hand, drop it onto the tracing table from at least 2 or 3 feet high. It should rain down onto the glass, creating the shape of your continent. It’s up to you whether you want to pick up the pieces which land on the floor and re-drop them, I prefer to let just remove them.

With the paper on the surface of the glass, the shape of the continent is established. You can now place another piece of paper over the pile of shredded pieces, turn on the light, and outline the shadow your pile of shredded papers makes. This step can be something of a pain in the ass, since the shredded pieces are easy to jostle around while you’re tracing, no matter how careful you try to be. The easiest solution, I’ve found, is to put another sheet of glass between the shredded paper and the drawing paper.

Once you’ve got the outline of the map completed, repeat the earlier paper-dropping process with fewer pieces of paper. One drop for your forested regions, another for your mountainous regions. Mountains whose paper-shadow extends beyond the coast could potentially become islands rather than mountains, or simply be ignored as you prefer.

The placement of water on the map is best not done randomly. Even the least aware player may give you a cockeyed look if your rivers flow through mountain ranges rather than around them.

For smaller scale maps, I sometimes use the Atlas Jumble Method. My grandfather has mountains of local map books he accrued during his career as a backhoe operator–maps which cover most of the geographically diverse state of Washington. He gave me one which was published in 1995, and after finding it among my things recently, I struck upon an idea.

I took a few pages of maps, photocopied them, cut the copies into roughly 1″ square pieces, and dropped all the pieces into a bowl. I then drew the squares out one by one, and arranged them from top left to bottom right on my tracing table, forming a shape roughly 8.5″ x 11″. After placing another sheet of glass on top of the pieces so as not to disturb them, I started drawing the map I had created onto a piece of paper.

Not a single one of the pieces matches up with any of the others, of course. Roads and rivers begin and end ever inch, and elevations and climates change without reason or warning. But this is where I’m able to exercise creativity by adding or removing elements from the map. Some roads to stop at dead ends, perhaps because there is untamed wilderness beyond the last town. I alter the course of other roads, so that they can meet up with roads on the next piece. And then I come up with a reason why the road needed to be built with such a meandering course.

The atlas jumble method isn’t as simple as the paper drop method. It requires creative applications of all the “connect the dots” skills we haven’t had much use for since we were children. But if you need an adventuring map and you don’t know where to start, this method is an excellent springboard for creativity.

Last, I want to talk about a method I’ve never attempted, but am eager to try someday, The Paintball Method.

Essentially, I want to shoot a sheet of glass with a paintball gun a bunch of times, then flip the glass around, stick a light behind it, and trace whatever shapes I’ve got. I figure I could potentially even use paint balls with colors corresponding to geography. Green paint for forests, brown for mountains, yellow for planes, blue for waters.

I’ve got no idea if it will work, and unfortunately paint ball equipment is expensive. I still would love to try it, though.

And yes, I did pull all the method names out of thin air just to make the post sound more authoritative. How did you guess?

Colorful Characters 1: The Governor

Awesome Paladin The Governor Jordan EphlerMany blogs some manner of weekly features. This seems like a fun idea to me, because there are a number of posts I’ve thought would be cool, but only really work if they’re part of a longer series of similar posts. Ergo, I would like to introduce you, my dice rolling readers, to Colorful Characters. Every week on Friday I’ll post detailed information on an interesting NPC. GMs are free to steal the characters for their games, and players are free to steal them for use as PCs. Though I think this week’s PC is best suited to being a quest giver for low level PCs.

Jordan “The Governor” Ephler

Jordan Ephler was fifteen when he left his family’s small merchant business to seek the path of a paladin, and for over a decade he lived up to that noble description. His signature axe and shield became well known in the region. For many small towns he was a more reliable source of justice than the distant courts & lawkeepers. Jordan had such a gift for diplomacy that many towns never even saw his axe, Razortail, leave its sheath. He even once negotiated a treaty between the humans and dwarves of Rockpoint, and the Orc tribe which had raided against them them for decades. Four years later he had to return to fight off a marauding force of orcs, but he viewed four years of peace and safety as a significant victory.

That isn’t to say he never failed. While trying to negotiate a territory agreement between the village of Opeth with the nearby tribe of gnolls, Jordan was captured and tortured for three days. He lost the four fingers of his left hand in the process. After escaping from his captors, Jordan played a game of cat and mouse with them for days as he tried to find his way back to Opeth. A week after his escape, he returned to the Gnoll village with the two dozen men and women of Opeth’s militia. Not a single one of the evil gnolls survived that day. Thereafter, Jordan was a little more grim, and a little less willing to trust in negotiation to solve problems.

When he was 28, Jordan was investigating a series of missing children in the small fur-trading post called Midroad Rest. The town believed a tribe of goblins had set up camp nearby and was stealing and eating their children. However, as the investigation continued, Jordan found more and more reason to believe the kidnapper was one of the townspeople. Sure enough, while surveying the town one night, Jordan saw someone carrying a bundle slip off into the woods. He followed the figure to a nearby cave. There he found Midroad Rest’s mayor, holding the body of a young child. Toys and clothes which had gone missing with the other children adorned the cave.

The mayor fell to his knees and begged for his life, but Jordan could summon no pity, and struck out with Razortail, killing the monstrous man. And, in killing one who had surrendered, Jordan strayed too far from the paladin’s code. The powers and clarity granted to paladins left him then. Saddened though he was, Jordan could not accept that his actions had been wrong, and vowed not to seek atonement.

With his life of adventure thusly at an end, Jordan asked the townsfolk if they would allow him to build a home in their community, thinking to become a trapper. So grateful were the townsfolk for his service, though, that they offered him the Mayor’s home and position. Jordan accepted, and has served the town faithfully in that capacity for 24 years now.

In that time as leader of the community, he has led the town through a number of hard times gracefully. So enamored are the townsfolk of their mayor that at some point they all decided to informally promote him to governor. When the townsfolk talk about him, they most commonly refer to him simply as “The Governor.”

Personality Though less idealistic, and a great deal more grim, than he was as a young man, The Governor is still a diplomat first. He is far more likely to attempt a negotiation than to engage in combat. Even if combat seems inevitable, he may attempt a diplomatic solution in the hopes of sparing any of his townsfolk from harm.

He’s also a wily old coot. Bandits and other criminal elements have often tried to outsmart him, but he’s always managed to root them out and keep the roads safe for travelers, and for his citizens.

He is likely to test any PCs before doing them any favors or asking their help. Or, often times, he’ll let the bandits perform the test for him, knowing that they like to “covertly” use the town’s tavern to recruit travelers into their gangs.

Tactics The Governor is unlikely to try and fight the PCs unless they are harming one of his citizens. He still carries Razortail with him at all times, though, so if he is attacked or otherwise forced to fight, he is prepared.

Against a single opponent, The Governor is confident and attempts to fight even footing. If grappled, he will try to use his clawed hand to attack an opponent. If The Governor is reduced below half health, he will attempt to use a nearby object such as a chair as an improvised shield. If attacked in his office, The Governor’s shield is readily available and he equips it at the beginning of combat.

Against groups, or characters who obviously overpower him, The Governor attempts to escape so as to don his armor & shield prior to combat. If one of his villagers is in imminent danger, however, The Governor will forgo his own safety to protect his people.

Interesting Facts

*The four fingers of The Governor’s left hand have been chopped off just below the knuckle. In their place are four hooks of equal length, roughly approximating the length of his fingers. These grant him a 1d4 claw attack, but he takes a -4 penalty on any dexterity checks which rely on that hand. This does not affect his ability to use a shield.

*Though there are none among the citizens of Midroad Rest with whom The Governor is intimate, he is gay.

*When using Combat Expertise (-2 AC, +2 attack roll) The Governor sometimes shouts “Smite evil!” or some variant.

Thoughts on Use I used The Governor in the first session of a new campaign a few years ago. At the opening of the adventure, bandits approached the PCs and asked for their help attacking caravans. Had the PCs accepted, The Governor would have been a boss they had to face at level 2. These players did not accept the offer, and so The Governor became a quest giver for the group.

If there is a paladin among the PCs, it may be fun to play The Governor as being made uncomfortable by a paladin’s presence. This may cause the players to think he’s hiding something, when in fact it is simply due to the painful loss of his own paladinhood.

Jordan “The Governor” Ephler (CR 3)

XP: 800
Human Paladin 6 (Fallen)
NG Medium humanoid
Init +3; Senses Perception 6


AC 20, Flat Footed 21, Touch 9 [10 + Armor(9) + Shield (2) + Dex(-1)]
hp 46 (6d10 + 0)
Fort +5 Ref +1 Will +8


Speed 30ft
Melee +3 Battleaxe +11/+6 (1d8 + 5/x3)
Claw +8/+3 (1d4 + 2/x2)


Str 14 (+2) Dex 9 (-1) Con 11 (+0) Int 13 (+1) Wis 17 (+3) Cha 13 (+1)
Base Atk +6/+1; CMB +8 (+2 on Disarm, no A.A.O.); CMD 17
Feats Improved Initiative, Toughness, Combat Expertise, Improved Disarm
Skills (Armor Check Penalty: -6) Diplomacy +10, Heal +7, Perception +9, Sense Motive +12, Survival +6
Languages Common, Goblin
SQ Combat Expertise (Can take -2 to attack rolls for +2 to AC for a round.)
Gear Battered Masterwork Full Plate Armor (gilded with gold which has chipped away in pieces), Masterwork Heavy Steel Shield (emblazoned with a roaring lion in green). Razortail a +3 Handaxe, small collection of maps detailing local areas, Amulet of Detect Evil 3/day, 50gp

Vecna Lives!

Vecna Lives Cover ArtAs I mentioned in a recent post, I’m very interested in taking old modules and updating the mechanics to be compatible with Pathfinder. And given that I’m such a huge fan of Vecna as a villain, Vecna Lives! was at the top of my list to read. I finished reading it awhile ago, and there were a couple things about it which I felt worth pondering publicly.

The one thing which is giving me the most trouble is instant and unavoidable death. I’ve always known that this was something which showed up in Gygaxian D&D, but I’ve never seriously thought about including it in a game before. I always looked on death without a saving throw as an outdated idea, one which had a kind of oldschool, hardcore charm, but not one I’d want to subject my players to. After all, I was bred on D&D 3.5, where it is a well known unwritten rule that no matter what players must always be given a chance to survive, even if that chance is just a roll of the dice.

However, if I want to update Vecna Lives! for Pathfinder, then I’m faced with a choice. Either I can include the few examples of “instant death, no saving throw” which show up in the module, or I can deviate from my attempt to be faithful to the original experience of the game. On the face of things, the rule that players must always have a chance to survive seems like a very good rule; nobody likes a game which makes them feel as though they were not given a fair chance to win. However, a saving throw is rarely the only time a player is given the opportunity to avoid a particular fate. It is the last opportunity. Actually, opportunity is somewhat of a misnomer, a character whose life rides on the success or failure of a saving throw is Schrödinger’s PC. As the die rolls the character is in a state of being both alive and dead at the same time, and if the die lands on 1, then we open the box and learn that the PC was dead the whole time. And when that happens, is it really any different from a GM simply declaring that the PC has died?

Of course, quantum physics aside, a die roll is still a chance to survive, and players are right to feel they deserve a chance to survive. But as I mentioned above, the saving throw is often the last chance to survive, not the only chance. If the party encounters a statue of a dragon with a gem clenched in its marble teeth, and an ancient language swearing death to any who would disturb the monument is scrawled around the base; then perhaps the rogue who snatches the gem before the wizard finishes deciphering the warnings deserves to die. Even if nobody could read the script, the rogue could have at least used a stick to try and knock the gem out of the dragon’s maw. Not only does the rogue have the opportunity to avoid death, but some adventuring sense offers much better odds than a saving throw.

Though if your GM puts such a gem in a pile of random treasure at the end of a dungeon, and whoever gets it in their share of the loot is declared dead, then your GM is a dick.

Furthermore, denying saving throws is not an all or nothing deal. In Vecna Lives! instant death effects appear twice if I recall correctly. The first is during the opening scene, where the players take control of powerful characters which have the sole purpose of being killed by the GM within minutes, just to show that this module means business. Later, if the PC’s choose to attack Vecna himself during a moment of distraction on his part, the evil god snuffs them out of existence with a thought. The former is a very special and uncommon circumstance, and the latter seems to me like a justified punishment for impossible stupidity. Attacking a god is not something a non-epic character is going to get away with.I see no need to make it more complicated than “um…you’re dead.”

Vecna Lives! Hand of VecnaAside from these two specific instances, there is a potential third opportunity for the players to face (or wield!) instant death. Much of the adventure revolves around the classic D&D artifacts, the Hand and Eye of Vecna. According to the information on these artifacts at the back of the book, anyone touched by the full palm of the Hand of Vecna is killed with no saving throw. Which means that if you’re fighting someone who has the hand of Vecna, you’re one successful touch attack away from death. Now, the module never puts the player characters in a position where they will face an opponent who wields this deadly artifact, but I’m uncomfortable even having it exist in the game.

The question, though, is how to make it fair without neutering it. It is, after all, the severed hand of a deity. It should have a fearsome and terrible power for the players to tremble before. So how about this:

Someone with the Hand of Vecna can instantly kill anyone with 10HD or less on a successful touch attack (no saving throw). Creatures with more than 10HD are entitled to a fortitude save DC 20. On a failed save, the character dies. On a successful save, the character is reduced to 1 hit point and knocked prone. If the character with the hand also possesses the eye of Vecna, the DC to resist is raised to 25. (Saving throws based on D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide)

Using this rule, players will feel almost exactly the same way about the hand: they’ll want to avoid it at all costs. But even if they can’t avoid it, or don’t even know that their enemy has it, then they at least have a chance at achieving a near-death experience, as opposed to dying outright.

Moving on, Vecna Lives! is also the first module I’ve read which has such a strong focus on mystery, detective work, and role playing. A lot of adventures include some of that, but this is a ninety five page module which downplays combat encounters, and has no dungeon crawls. The adventure goes from the players trying to learn who the bad guys are, to trying to find out where the bad guys are, to trying to figure out how to stop the bad guys. And [spoiler alert] even the final solution is essentially a matter of role playing, with the PCs summoning The Old One to duke it out with Vecna, evil god to evil god.

Games like that have always been my weakness as a GM. I love to plan them, but they never quite work out the way I hope they will. It often feels as though I’m stuck nudging the players along, giving them every hint until it feels like their presence at the table is redundant because I’m playing my own adventure. Granted, my group has admitted in the past that they don’t think they’re very good at looking for clues, but I still feel like they might have an easier time if I took lessons from Vecna Lives!

First off, there should be a variety of ways to reach any of the conclusions necessary to move forward in the storyline. In my games I’ve done things such as sending the characters catch some smugglers red handed, hoping that they would take the time to interrogate one of the smugglers. This would allow them to learn the name of the smuggler’s contact within the city’s criminal element, and thus allow the players to come closer to finding the den of the crime boss. The problem is that my players would never think to question the smuggler, leaving me to wonder how to move the game forward without stealing their sense of accomplishment.

Vecna Lives! readily admits that players may be dense sometimes. In fact it frequently uses language like “if they still don’t get that they need to do X, you may need to slap them upside the head,” or my personal favorite “you may need to give up on them.” However, despite the auspicious author’s candid comments about players who aren’t able to detect well, he also provided many paths of investigations for the characters to follow to reach the same goal. You might say that while the example of my game which I gave above constructs detective work as a linear exercise, Vecna Lives! provides GMs with an entire web of interconnected information for the PCs to discover.

For example, in trying to determine what happened to their predecessors (the powerful characters killed by the GM which I mentioned earlier), the players have the options of inquiring with the victim’s colleagues and friends, or of looking into what books those characters checked out of the city’s libraries before they departed on their ill fated journey. Talking to some friends might lead to other friends, and those friends might lead to specific libraries which can be investigated, and a book found there might lead the PCs to consult an expert on the book’s subject matter to learn even more.

I’ve already got outlines for the next few games I’ll be running with all of my groups, but I’m already excited to give mystery based sessions another attempt.

Vecna Lives! Adventuring Party
As a final word, I’d like to give a nod to a nice role-playing helper the module provides.

The bulk of the adventure is meant to be played by 8 pre-generated characters detailed in the back of the book. The characters are a rag-tag group, banded together by their relationship to the more powerful characters killed off in the first few minutes of the adventure. Each character’s description is understandably short, but I was very pleased that they allocated the space in each of the 8 character descriptions to write seven paragraphs about that character’s relationships with the other seven PCs. Reading over those descriptions gave me a sense of how the characters will work as a group. And I noticed that more than a few characters had a relationship which could provide interesting role playing opportunities. Such as the half-elf who thought the paladin was standoffish, while the paladin was only distant because the half elf reminded him of his own son. A player playing the Half Elf might easily choose to forsake the highroad and lash out at the paladin, only to have the paladin’s player choose to break down crying. As a GM who often thinks about ways to better encourage my players to role play, I found this both simple, and potentially effective.

I don’t know when I’ll get around to updating this 95 page monster to Pathfinder, but I’ll be sure to post it when I do. Don’t be surprised if years pass.

Magically Generating New Adventures

Pile of Random Magic The Gathering CardsWhen I was 12 I finally got the opportunity to begin learning how to program on a second-hand computer my uncle was throwing out. For reasons I’m not entirely certain of, programming didn’t remain a major pursuit of mine. The time I spent fervently perfecting my simple programs did teach me a lot, though. Among other things, I learned to appreciate the beauty of randomness. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I enjoy a hobby where life and death often hang on a roll the dice.

In recent years I’ve become more interested in using randomness to aid in my creative process as a GM. I’ve worked on creating systems for randomly generating a variety of gaming elements, from dungeons, to species, to entire campaign arcs. One of my proudest achievements was my random NPC generator. It was one of the most ambitious programming projects I ever undertook, and I made a lot of progress with it. Unfortunately, my ability to construct the system was far more advanced than my ability to code the system, and the project has largely fallen by the wayside.

In this post, however, I’d like to talk about one of the simplest, most elegant and most entertaining systems of random generation I’ve come up with. I use it for adventure generation, but I imagine it could be adapted to be used for any length of narrative, up to entire campaign arcs.

The idea came to me one afternoon after an extended game of Magic: The Gathering with some friends. Most of my friends find the game much more entertaining than I do, so I was sitting out for a round. While they played, I browsed through the four boxes of cards I’ve accumulated, just enjoying the artwork. I came across one particularly devilish monster (I don’t recall which) and thought it would be great to throw against my players in an upcoming session of D&D.

Then my eyes snapped open wide as I realized that Magic and D&D take place in environments so similar that every magic card is a potential element in a D&D game. I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and worked out the system which, even then, seemed so simple as to hardly need codifying.

1) Either: predetermine the game elements the cards will represent, or decide to establish those elements after the cards are drawn.

2) Either: separate the cards into categories (artifact, creature, land, sorcery…), or decide to draw them from one huge pile.

3) Determine the number of cards you will draw. (and, possibly, from which piles you will draw them.)

4) Draw the number of cards you decided on in step 3, according to the conditions established in steps 1 and 2. Use any element found on the card (art, game effects, flavor text, or even just the card’s name) as a seed from which to develop the game.

To just write it out like that doesn’t seem very clear, so below are a few examples of this. For the first draw, I used the “Random Card” function on Gatherer. I won’t predetermine which cards correlate with which game elements, nor will I separate the cards into categories. I will draw four cards.

Magic The Gathering: Great Sable Stag ElkMagic The Gathering: Flashfreeze Old ManMagic The Gathering: Mentor of the Meek Swordsmanship TrainerMagic The Gathering: Hellkite Hatchling Red Dragon

The first thing that strikes me about these cards is the power and majesty of the Great Sable Stag. It seems a paragon of nature. This is in contrast to the Hellkite hatchling, which looks like a pretty evil dragon. Flashfreeze has some nice art of a sagacious old man on it, but I think I’d like to make this card into a kind of freezing trap which shows up in the game. Mentor of the Meek is kinda throwing me for a loop, but I’ve found that things work out best if I don’t discard cards which are difficult to fit into the idea. Maybe I can maybe work him in as the questgiver.

After some additional mulling, this is what I’ve come up with:

In a town on the outskirts of society, near an immense and unexplored forest, there are no inns for the players to stay in. Here, there is a strong presence of temples which offer free hospitality to travelers. While staying in one such very crowded temple, the PCs find themselves sitting at a table with a group of elderly pilgrims equal in number to the party. After some brief role play has allowed the players to familiarize themselves with their table companions, the server brings food. Unfortunately, the temple is overcrowded, and only has enough food for half the people at the table.

This is a test. If the PCs share the food, or offer it to the elderly pilgrims, they are approached by a young monk wearing light leather clothing, and a sword strapped to his side. He asks if he can speak with them, and takes them to a small side room with chairs, a table, and food for the players. They have impressed him with their generosity, and he would like to ask a favor of them. In the deep forest is a creature called the Playton Stag. It is a beautiful, and terrible, creature. All other stags in the world are a reflection of this one great animal.

Recently, a nearby Ancient Red Dragon named Ashrain gave birth to a whelping, and is teaching him to hunt in the great woods. Normally this would be of little concern, but the temple’s seers have foretold that Ashrain intends to continue hunting until her whelp can devour the Playton Stag.

To prevent this, the monk would like the party to capture the Playton Stag, and bring it back to the city where the monks can hide it until Ashrain grows bored of her grisly sport.

There is one snag, however. Any creature which touches the Playton Stag is instantly affected by a Time Stop spell, lasting one hour. The players must somehow return the creature to the town without ever touching it, lest they be easy prey for the creatures of the forest, or the dragons.

There are two things about this which I would like to point out. First, despite pulling 3 creature cards and a spell card, the game outline I worked up is not combat based. In fact, the primary goal of the adventure is more akin to solving a puzzle than anything else. Second, and most important, this is not an adventure I would have come up with on my own. It’s not my style, which means that the system is doing exactly what I want it to do: making me think differently. Forcing me to break my own patterns by forcing me to try to find patterns in randomness.

I think the concept is pretty clear at this point, but I’ll provide one more example to demonstrate the alternatives available in steps 1 and 2 of the process. This time I’ll be drawing from my own collection. I will predetermine the elements the cards will represent, but I will not sort the cards into categories.

The first card will be what the heroes are after on this adventure.
The second and third cards will be the challenges they must face.
The fourth card will be the unexpected help along the way.
The fifth card will be what sent them on their journey.
The sixth card will be what special treasure they have an opportunity to find.

I will now draw from my collection, and post the cards below in the order I drew them.

Magic The Gathering: Tempest Owl Blue Owl WaterfallMagic The Gathering: Spin Engine Artifact ConstructMagic The Gathering: Amrou Scout Kithkin Rebel Scout Woman AdventurerMagic The Gathering: Greater Basilisk Green Reptile Monster Magic The Gathering: Chandra's Spitfire Woman Of Fire SerpentMagic The Gathering: Tireless Missionaries Human Clerics Incense Procession

Now, you might look at this and see it as an unfortunate draw. What the players are after appears to be nothing more than a mundane owl, their unexpected help comes from a mindless and violent creature, and one of the obstacles they must overcome is an attractive young woman. But this is precisely what we want when we predetermine what cards will be associated with which game element. It forces us to further stretch our minds, to further break from our own patterns. I’ll keep this one short since the post is starting to run long.

After defeating a mad pyromancer, the party discover a journal whilst looting her body. It turns out she was hunting for a missing artifact. She had recently pinpointed its location: the ancient Amrou people who had hidden it had allowed an owl to swallow it, and enchanted the owl so that the artifact would be passed to its children. For generations, this family of owls has hunted among the Tempest Falls–a breathtaking and rare cluster of waterfalls in a far off land.

Along the way, the party is hounded by the forgotten descendants of those who first hid the artifact. However, if they looted a special amulet from the pyromancer, they will discover that it has an unusual ability. Whenever one of Amrou blood is near, it will summon a basilisk. The basilisk will attack the Amrou on sight–and will attack the players if it cannot find any Amrou nearby after being summoned. This makes any attempt at peace very difficult.

If the party successfully finds and slays the owl, the moment it dies, a great rumbling is heard, and an ancient war construct rises from beneath the earth to kill those who have breached the sacred trust of the Amrou.

Once the construct is defeated, and the players are finally able to examine the orb from the owl’s belly. If they are able to use magic to identify it, they will discover that once per day, it may be used to attempt to force a permanent 1 step alignment shift in another creature. Will save DC: 17, may not be used on the same creature twice regardless of success or failure.

So there you have it. Generating new adventures via magic. It’s not the only way of coming up with new ideas, but it’s one very good and fun method to try.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.