Pathfinder: Pillars of Motherfucking Salt

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

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

Because GMs are all about the harsh lessons.

Regular Wednesday post will come this evening.

Wizard Spell Research Variant

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

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

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

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

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

What if wizards only learned spells by finding them?

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

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

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

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

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

Paizo’s New Venture: Pathfinder Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there are these two quotes:

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

-&-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goblins Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and pulled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All without noticing little Hiles.

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

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

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

Personality

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

Tactics

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

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

Thoughts on Use

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

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

Interesting Facts

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

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

Dungeon

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

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

Hiles Gorefeet Halfling Murderer Dungeon Map

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

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

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


Defenses


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


Offense


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


Stats


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

My GMing Methodology for ToKiMo

Red Dragon Standing Amidst Lava and SmokeMe: “Shortly after mid day, you hear some noise coming from behind a nearby shrub covered ridge.
Gibbous: “Doubtless more of those cowardly Kobolds we faced earlier!”
Rosco: “Probably. We should take a loo-“
Gibbous:“Ho there you cowardly lizards! Show yourselves, and let the might of St. Cuthbert judge thee!”
Me: *blink*
Me: “Um…the tribe of Kobolds is now alerted to your presence…
Gibbious: “Wait…what?”
Phoenix Dark: “I knew we shouldn’t have brought the cleric.”
Gibbous: “Nothing we can do about it now. Charge!”
*Gibbous charges over the ridge into the Kobold camp.*
*Roscoe and Phoenix look at one another.*
Me: “Don’t worry. You two both have abilities which work from range.
Phoenix: “Phew!”

A little less than a month ago, I wrote about my GMing methodology for The Ascendant Crusade. In that post I mentioned that I run a few other games as well, including one other major campaign which I’ve dubbed ToKiMo for my notes. The title is a portmanteau of the players names: Todd, Kiersty, & Morrie. ToKiMo has developed very differently than The Ascendant Crusade did. When I started TAC, I had a great deal more time to devote to gaming than I do now, and in fact I still rely on many of the notes I made back in 2009. ToKiMo, by contrast, started during a very busy time in my life, with a very different group of players than TAC has.

In this post, I’d like to detail. the process I undergo in preparation of a ToKiMo game. Bear in mind that ToKiMo has only had a handful of sessions to grow and develop, so in many ways I’m still experimenting with each game. Bear also in mind that I got Batman: Arkham City yesterday, and I’m god damned shocked that I’m writing this post rather than playing it right now.

With the first session of ToKiMo, I pulled one of my favorite tricks to pull on new players. I call it the “Generic Fake Out.” When I’ve got a group of mostly new players, I often present them with a task which is completely formulaic. The kind of task they’re expecting to see: attack the goblin tribe, attack the kobold tribe, attack the orc tribe…essentially they attack a tribe of something, normally on behalf of a village which is too weak to defend itself from that tribe of something. For ToKiMo it was Kobolds, and the village was weak because an ancient red dragon had bathed it in flame on a lark.

The players were then able to buy equipment, explore the world around them, and eventually decided to hunt down the Kobold village. And, just like every other group before them, once they found said village, they charged it with swords out, arrows notched, and spells on lips. Here’s the fake-out part: whatever kind of creature I pit my new players against in the Generic Fake Out, diplomacy is always an explicitly stated option. The quest giver always mentions that they’d accept a peaceful resolution, but players never go that rout. New players always have a predetermined notion of what adventure gaming is, and they stick to their script.

Once the deed is done, and the players are covered in the blood and gore of the fallen monsters, I step out of character for a moment to point out to them that diplomacy would have been an option. And that while attack the village was not necessarily wrong, it was a more “neutral” act than it was a “good” one. Most often the players are surprised, having ignored the hints about diplomacy because they assumed it was just flavor text. In the future they approach the game with more attention to detail, and a realization that they have more options than the first one which pops into their heads.

I employ the generic fake out tactic for three reasons. The first reason is to give players a taste of what they expect from adventure gaming. As a GM, it’s important that I’m running games for my players which they will enjoy, but when someone has never played before, I have no idea what they’ll like and what they won’t. Giving them an adventure which (likely) fits their preconceived notions of what D&D / Pathfinder will be like is a good starting point for me to judge what works for the group, and what doesn’t. The second, and primary reason for the generic fake out, is to help new players break bad habits before they start. Tactical Infinity–the ability to attempt anything you can conceive of–is the greatest part of RPGs, but many new players don’t even realize it exists because they’re applying the same logic to tabletop games that they apply to video games. And video games always have a very small, very specific set of tactical options for any given situation. By letting them go down the beaten path, then showing them that there was an easier & better option available to them, I help open their minds to the innumerable possibilities that await them. The third and final reason is that nobody expects the handful of Kobolds who escaped to show up in a later session. And they certainly wouldn’t return with class levels, hungry for vengeance. (Spoiler: that’s exactly what happens).

Since the first ToKiMo session, I’ve tried to give the players a completely different experience every time we gather around the table. With the second game, I wanted to give Roscoe, the party’s hunter, some time in the limelight. I also wanted to introduce the party to the concepts of puzzles and traps, as well as give them another opportunity to creatively handle a village of hostile foes. So the mayor of the town they’d rescued in the first adventure came up with another task for them: seek out the wizard Mahudar Kosepske, and beg him for aid on the villages behalf.

The mayor was not certain of the wizard’s precise location, but knew that a certain herd of wild horses would run non-stop to the wizard’s location if they heard his name. This gave Roscoe an opportunity to make use of his tracking ability, first to find the herd, and then to follow it when it outpaced the party. Once arriving at the tower, Mahudar insisted on testing them before granting them an audience. The players were forced to make it through five puzzle rooms before they were able to proceed to the wizard’s chambers. I must admit, I’m always worried when I make puzzles a requirement for forward motion. If the players get stuck, the GM is forced into the position of either giving them the answer (stealing their player agency, and their sense of accomplishment), or allowing them to beat their heads against the wall until they don’t want to play anymore. Still, I decided to risk it, and the players easily made it through all 5 puzzles by coming up with some very satisfying solutions. Everyone seemed to enjoy the change of pace, so I’ll probably be including more puzzles in the future.

Finally, once Mahudar was reached, he revealed that the spell the players needed would require a specific reagent. One which would be difficult to obtain: the branch of a tree which was struck by lightning, but did not burn. He directed the towards one, and even teleported them near its location, but warned them that the goblin tribe which surrounded it viewed it and it’s fire-immune wood as a gift from their god. And also that said goblin tribe had been at war with a neighboring human settlement for generations. To their credit, my players did attempt diplomacy. They just didn’t do a good enough job of it to convince the extremely prejudiced goblins to help them. And with stealth being out the window, the players opted to simply run into the village, grab a branch of the tree, and flee like the dickens.

Shockingly, through some of the most hilarious antics I’ve ever seen at the game table, the players managed to survive.

In our upcoming game, I’m continuing the trend of giving the players different experiences with each session. While I’ll not go into specifics, the upcoming adventure includes some hex crawling, small scale combat, a mystery, a few role playing encounters, and the largest dungeon I’ve ever made for level 2 characters.

Should be good times!

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