Sitting Behind the GM Screen

LS sitting sinisterly behind his GM screen
I’ve helped a lot of new players take their first shaky steps into role playing. In fact, nearly every group I’ve GM’d has been composed entirely (or nearly so) of new players. As sessions pass, it’s always exciting to see how those new players develop. Last weekend, during his third game, one of my players absolutely delighted me by fully jumping into the role of the goblin Poog. Other players in that group aren’t quite there yet, but I saw them all become a little more comfortable with experimenting once there was somebody besides me doing voices. I’ve seen similar things occur with most groups. Some surprise me with their ingenuity, coming up with quirky uses for their spells; others develop a go-to tactic, like performing a bluff check, which they build their character’s personality around; and still others start asking me questions about what they’d need to know to be a GM.

Nearly every group of new players produces a future GM. Most of them start out with some truly terrible ideas. Their brains are caught up in the planning of things: the heroes, the villains, how events will play out, and how good will eventually conquer evil. That’s completely fine, but if you prefer the planning part of things, then write a story. I love stories! I read them, I write them, but I don’t run them as games. Games give the players choices, and when the player has real choices (or “Player Agency,”) no plan will ever remain on track for long. Being a game master is 30% planning, 70% execution.

Below I’ve detailed several important elements which help me in the execution phase of running a game. They are divided into three groups: Note Design, Table Setup, and Adjudicating the Game. I would like to stress that there are many schools of thought, and different methods work for different groups. This is just how I do things. It’s my hope that this can serve as a resource for new GMs who are still trying to find what works for them. But I would certainly welcome any comments from veteran GMs who have suggestions for me, or who would simply like to compare styles.

Note Design may sound like the planning part of the game, and it is. Having some manner of plan beforehand is helpful for most GMs. The important thing is that the plan be fluid and easy to adjust on-the-spot when the players do something unexpected. But that’s not what I want to discuss here.

What I mean by note design is the way your notes are arranged before you. Whether you keep your notes in some kind of special software, or in a word document, or in a ratty old binder like I do, it’s important that those notes can be referenced as quickly as possible. Many GMs, including myself if I’m feeling absent minded, write notes as a sort of stream-of-consciousness exercise. When your notes consist of a series of paragraphs which mix player information, GM information, and game mechanics information, things are going to go poorly. If you don’t accidentally tell your players about the secret door they haven’t found yet, then it’s probably because you’re holding the game up with your incessant note reading.

Organizational tools are your friends. If you have any adventure modules around, take note of how they arrange their information. There are clearly marked sections for things which should be read aloud to the players, all the NPC stat blocks are normally in the back of the book, and miscellaneous information is kept in sidebars. With a glance, a prepared GM can filter out what is needed and what isn’t without stopping to read. Even if you’ve never seen an adventure module, it’s not too hard to use color, font size, boxes, and bold/italic text to separate information into types. As an example, you can always put monster stats in boxes, room descriptions in red, potential NPC dialogue in blue, and dice checks in bold.

Page number references are also important. Nothing slows a game down more than flipping through a rule book. If you need to use a mechanic or spell which you’re not intimately familiar with, put a page number in the notes. That way, if you have an ogre who likes to throw people into a nearby spike pit, you have a quick note reminding you what page number the grapple rules are on. I’ve even got a rule at my table that if a player can’t give me the page number for their spell, then the spell fails.

As a final note, if you’re making a map for your game, use nonspecific notations for it, or create a duplicate with nonspecific notation. Players may want to see the map, and you may want to show it to them. Only too late will you realize that there’s a big X marked “Villains hideout” which all the players have now seen.

Table Setup is how you set the table. Just like when you were a kid, except instead of plates and forks, it’s pencils and dice.

What LS' Gaming Table Looks Like

This is my gaming table right now. It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but it’s functional. I’d like to make note of a number of things.

  • The central part of the table, where the battle mat is, is clear. Things may be placed on it during gameplay, but it’s important to try and keep this area free of clutter. Otherwise transitioning into a battle will require you to clean off the mat first, which will kill some excitement.
  • I use a mark-able battlemat which I got for less than $20. It has paid for itself a dozen times over already. It’s a great way to create environment detail quickly for the players.
  • Everybody has space. I’ve got these nice little folding tables which I constantly find uses for. Here, each player has their own personal table for papers, snacks, drinks, books, or anything else they’ll want close at hand.
  • Comfortable upright chairs. The idea is to keep everyone comfortable enough that they don’t feel compelled to leave, but not to allow them to get so comfortable that they don’t pay attention to the game.
  • Everybody has paper and pencils. These are not just helpful, they are essential tools which are too often neglected. Players will need them to keep track of their HP, make note of temporary inventory items, or help them remember what the tavern keeper’s clue was. I always make sure to keep a couple extra pencils behind the GM screen to avoid anybody needing to take time to sharpen the pencils.
  • Notes on the PCs for the GM’s use. Aside from all the normal things a GM needs (game notes, dice, monster manual) it’s good to have a few basic notes on what the character’s abilities are, to facilitate secret rolls and speed the game along. For example, I take note of my player’s AC. That way I don’t have to ask the player if they were hit, I can simply tell them that they have been hit, thereby keeping things moving at a faster pace. It’s particularly useful to know what your player’s perception skills are. Otherwise you need to ask for a perception check from your players, and even if they fail, they now know something is up.
  • A GM screen to keep my notes and rolls private. The GM needs to handle a lot of material which would spoil the game if players knew about it, so the screen helps with that. It also, handily, contains a bunch of quick reference charts for rules.
  • Monster markers. I keep these in the little wooden box which I got them in. I actually picked these up at a garage sale a few months back, and they’ve become an indispensable part of my games. Nothing beats the look on my player’s faces as they enter the goblin village and watch me put token after token onto the battlefield.

Adjudicating the Game is the main event. You’re sitting behind the screen, the players are in front of you. To be honest, I’m always speechless for a moment when this happens. I shuffle my notes and wonder how in the world I’m going to keep these people entertained for the next few hours. You would think I’d be used to it by now, but for some reason I lose all my confidence every time I stand on the cusp of starting a new game. I tentatively read the opening lines of the adventure, often something as simple as “You were at location X performing task Y, then event Z happened and now you’re in situation S.” Then there’s a brief pause as the players wait to see if I’ll continue, and in that second I’m positive that I’ve failed. Then somebody speaks, and I respond, and I suddenly remember: I’m good at this.

There’s no trick that makes you a good game master. There are lots of tricks which help to make you a great game master, but being a good game master is more a matter of philosophy than it is of method. A good game master recognizes that he or she is there to facilitate a fun game for the players. Such a GM realizes that their own fun is contingent on whether or not the players are enjoying themselves; and that the player’s fun is likewise contingent on the GM putting the player’s enjoyment before his or her own. This means letting the players drive the game with their actions. The GM should never have an ‘agenda,’ should never want a certain event to happen so badly that they manipulate the game towards that end.

Improvisational skills are extremely important in this regard. It is a universal law that players are unpredictable. The only way to combat their unconventional thinking is to think just as unconventionally as they do. And since you’re the GM, you’ve got to do it a great deal faster than they do. If they miss your clue about the evil cult hiding in The Gilded Goblet, and instead head to the local brothel to look for clues there, then by the time they arrive you should already know which of the women within is secretly a succubus who kidnaps her clients to serve as sacrifices for the cult.

I could go on for pages about other skills which have improved my GMing at the table, but most of those skills deserve their own post, and will get it someday. For now, I’ll end with the three cardinal rules of being a good GM which I’ve learned.

  1. Frequently look around the table to make sure everyone is having fun. If a few people aren’t, try to engage them in the game. If nobody is, change your approach completely.
  2. If something is holding your game back, identify it, and figure out how to overcome it. Always be critical of yourself in a positive way.
  3. Never, ever, stop looking for ways to improve the way you manage your gaming table. Blogs (such as this one) are a great resource in that quest.

Thoughts On Hero Points

Shirtless Burly Hero prepares to warhammer a rock-wielding giantHero points, alternatively known as action points, have been a part of tabletop role playing games since days of yore. They’re a quirky and polarizing concept, often lurking around the edge of a game system’s rules. A hero point mechanic for any given game is either a very commonly used house rule, or it’s an optional rule presented in an officially published supplement. There are those games which use them as standard rules (D&D 4th Edition comes to mind), but in my experience those games are in the minority.

For those who are unfamiliar, a game which employs such a mechanic allows characters to gain hero points through [insert method here]. Once acquired, one of these points can be spent to bend the game’s rules. A missed attack can be re-rolled, a difficult task can be simplified, or a player who has exhausted a special ability can sneak in an additional use. Pathfinder’s “Advanced Player’s Guide” offers such a system as an optional rule, with points being gained any number of ways. From leveling up, to completing a plot arc, to performing a heroic act.

My biggest problem with hero point systems is that they are, by definition, a meta-game mechanic. The core of role playing games is establishing characters which act within an internally consistent world. It seems odd, then, that we would intentionally break the wall between the game world and the real world by introducing a mechanic which muddles the internal consistency of a world. After all, only player characters get hero points in most systems. Ergo, once hero points are an option, the PCs are no longer simple characters within the game world. They are, rather, avatars of otherworldly beings (the players) which grants them special abilities. Pathfinder is particularly bad in this area, and goes so far as to provide feats, spells, and magic items which interact with hero points. So not only do you gain access to a completely unique ability merely on the basis of being a player character, you can even build your character around this uniqueness which separates you from rest of the world.

Another reason which I don’t like hero points is the way in which they mitigate danger. By allowing players to re-roll when the result is poor, we give them a much higher probability of avoiding pivotal failures. While this may not sound like the worst thing ever, it creates three undesirable situations. First and foremost in my mind is that avoiding pivotal failures often means avoiding interesting failures. In a standard game, the cleric fails his jump over the pit of spikes. He falls 40 feet, takes his damage, but survives. However, his legs have been impaled by the spikes, and the other players must find a way to rescue him from bleeding to death at the bottom of a pit. Or, the wizard uses an action point and the game continues on without incident. Which story will the players be talking about after the adventure is over?

Second, avoiding pivotal failures makes the whole world around the character much less dangerous. Part of the thrill of stealing from a dragon’s horde is knowing that the dragon could wake up at any moment. If you know you’ve got a hero point in the wings ready to save you from a bad stealth roll, then the adventure’s edge is dulled. And that leads right into problem three: compensation. Any time players become more powerful, the GM gives them greater challenges. I’ve used that argument to defend giving PCs more power on numerous occasions, but with hero points I think the argument works in reverse. Giving a character a powerful magic weapon is fun for that character, and enhances gameplay. It’s worth beefing up the adventure for that. But given all of the ways in which hero points detract from gameplay, why give them to players when the end result is just a game which requires player’s to use Hero Points to survive?

Bearing all of that in mind, there is at least one thing about hero points which I find appealing. Hero points have the potential to be used as a kind of “Last ditch, adrenalin pumping, now-or-never” means by which players can attempt to pull a win out of an almost certainly deadly situation. I had such a situation in a game not too long ago. My players weren’t quite up to defeating the Corpse Sewn Hekatonkheires which ambushed them. The sorcerer was dead at -15 hp, and the Dawnblade (homebrew fighter/cleric class) was desperately attempting to hold the beast at bay while looking for a means to escape. After some arbitration between us, I allowed him to use his healing wand & make a standard attack (albeit at a -8 penalty)on the same turn, which would normally not be allowed. The attempt failed, and the Dawnblade was felled by the beast, but I decided then that I wanted my players to have some kind of option to better facilitate that kind of cornered-animal effort.

Hero points were the obvious choice, but I’ve always been turned off by them for aforementioned reasons. It wasn’t until last night when I was looking at the Star Wars Roleplaying Game rulebook that I struck upon an idea. West End Games’ Star Wars is one of the few games I’ve encountered where hero points are a central mechanic. It’s also the only system I’ve ever encountered where hero points actually make complete sense, and avoid being a meta game mechanic. But that’s a different post.

In the Star Wars RPG, ‘character points’ are primarily used as action points. Characters acquire a handful of them at the end of an adventure based on how awesome they were. A character might only receive 1 if all they did was make it through the adventure, but could receive 5 if they made it through the adventure by wrestling a shark into submission then throwing the shark at a stormtrooper. Aside from simply being used to add an extra die to a roll, though, character points can be used for character improvement. Since the game has no classes or levels, improving the skills by spending large amounts of character points is the only way for a character to permanently become more formidable. Essentially, Star Wars’ version of hero points also functions as that system’s experience points.

So what if I just switched it around?

Since I use the Pathfinder Simple XP System (and loving it, by the way), I’m already dealing with small, manageable numbers. All I need do is allow players to spend 1 experience point to gain the benefits of spending an action point. Here’s what that rule might look like:

Pathfinder House Rule: Using Simple XP as Hero Points

By pushing themselves the the limit, characters can sometimes perform feats beyond the normal scope of their abilities. At will, as a free action, a character may sacrifice 1 experience point (so long as this does not reduce the character’s level) to perform any one of the following actions:

Act Out of Turn: An experience point can be spent to take your turn immediately, permanently moving your place in the initiative order to whenever this action was taken.

Bonus: Prior to making any roll, an experience point can be spent to grant a +8 bonus to that roll. This ability cannot be used at all after the roll is made. Multiple experience points can be spent, and their effects stack.

Extra Action: During your turn, an experience point may be spent to grant you an additional standard action. This can only be done once per turn.

Recall: An experience point may be spent to use an ability which you have access to, but which has already been used up for the day, or was not prepared. This includes casting spells after the daily spell allotment is cast, using special abilities after their daily limits are used up, or casting a spell from a spellbook which was not memorized for that day. Bear in mind that if a wizard wishes to cast a spell he or she has not memorized, and they are out of spell slots for the appropriate level, two experience points must be spent.

Special: You can petition your GM to allow you to spend an experience point to perform a number of abilities. GMs should use the options presented here as a guide for how to balance this ability. Also, bear in mind, that an experience point can never be spent to re-roll a die.

On paper, this system looks like it fixes a lot of problems. It’s still something of a meta-game mechanic, as the connection between performing a spectacular action and losing experience is tenuous. But NPCs can also use the system, which removes the problem of the player characters being a class apart from the rest of the world. In theory, it also obliterates the danger problem. Hero points exist for the sole purpose of being used to perform great deeds, so that’s what players will use them for. XP, though, is far more precious. Players will not spend it lightly, because doing so will prevent them from leveling. Any player which did overuse this system would quickly be left in the dust as the rest of the party leveled higher and higher whilst the problem character remained low level.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this variation on hero points is the simplicity. By integrating it with the XP system, players won’t need to find a place for yet another number on their already cluttered character sheets. The GM won’t need to keep track of when to award hero points, because he or she is already keeping track of when to award XP. Aside from the “no re-rolls” stipulation, there’s not even any additional rules to memorize. The players regulate the system themselves, because they don’t want to lose experience.

I’ll be implementing this in my games for now. I hope it’s as effective as it looks!

Online Video: LoadingReadyRun’s Rarelywinter

Loading Ready Run Jeremy and Tally playing Dungeons and Dragons with Paul and FriendsI’ve been a Loading Ready Run fan for years now. (LRRmon for life!) I’ve always enjoyed their nerdy brand of sketch comedy, and it’s especially fun for me when their nerdiness culminates in a Dungeons & Dragons video. They’ve done a few before (and even a Pathfinder video once!) but those aren’t exactly news. This video was just posted today:

For the record, I’m pretty sure Jer is being a bad GM intentionally for the sake of comedy. But it still serves as a good example of what not to do. Here are all the GMing pitfalls I caught in the video:

  • Discouraging your players from jumping into their role play is a bad idea. As a GM, your goal is to help them get in character, not obstruct them from doing so.
  • Joking about wanting to kill your players is fine, every GM does it. But a GM’s job is to facilitate fun. Feeling as though you’re constantly in completely over your head, and dying because of it, isn’t fun.
  • When your players are facilitating their own in-character fun, never stop them. If your players want to name the dragon, let them do that for as long as it seems like everyone is having fun. (Out of character joking, on the other hand, should be corralled by the GM. You don’t need to ban it, you just don’t want it to take over the game.)
  • Of course there’s cheese in Neverwinter. As the GM, he should have come up with a name and given it to them. Not only does it make sense, and help facilitate the player’s fun (see my point above), but it ALSO ends the discussion on what to name the dragon, which is ostensibly what he wants anyway.

Again, I’m sure Jer knows all these things. The video was funny, I just thought I’d do a quick critique of the GM to add some content to the post.

This doesn’t count as your regularly scheduled Monday post, by the way. That will still go up later this evening, as normal.

WEG Star Wars: What It Was, and Why You Should Play It

West End Games Star Wars RPG Second Edition Revised and Expanded CoverI am a Star Wars fan. I’ve read every book based off the original trilogy at least twice. Some of them I’ve read five or even ten times. I keep the audio books around as well, which I’ve probably listened to hundreds of times each. At the age of 11, I wrote the editors with omissions I had found in the Star Wars Encyclopedia When I was 12 years old when I attended the midnight showing of The Phantom Menace, and despite how terrible that and Attack of the Clones both were, I was still at the midnight showing for Revenge of the Sith. I cried over the death of Chewbacca, and I cried harder over the death of Anakin Solo. And when Jaina Solo was forced to kill Jacen? That haunted me for days. I still break down crying every time I try to read through that chapter.

Star Wars is my great, lifelong obsession. And “The Star Wars Roleplaying Game” Second Edition published by West End Games is among the greatest tabletop role playing games I’ve ever encountered. You really don’t even need to read the rest of this post. If you don’t have it, you need to find it, and buy it, now. Once you have it in your hands, you can read the rest of this post to learn why the choice to make that purchase was the right one.

Platt Okeefe in a FirefightThe entire system is designed to keep game sessions fast paced and exciting. The rules are very simple, the character creation is minimalistic, and any actions which requires a roll are handled with one of two basic systems. If a player is attempting to do something to another player or NPC, the two make opposed dice checks (such as “shoot” and “dodge”) and whoever gets the highest succeeds. For any other kind of action, the GM just picks a difficulty number (based of a difficulty chart which GMs should memorize) and asks for a roll. Simply put, that’s it. Much as I love Pathfinder’s more complex rules, there’s something freeing about switching gears and running something with almost no rules at all. To put it in the words of the system’s designers:

Keep the Game Moving Quickly. Star Wars is supposed to be exciting. Laser bolts fly fast and furious, starships dodge around asteroids, and speeder bikes race through thick forests at frightening speeds. Keep the game moving as fast as the Star Wars movies!

Even the core rulebook is fast paced. Chapter 1 starts off with a solo adventure where the book plays the role of game master, and the reader takes on the role of a player. It plays out sort of like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book with dice occasionally thrown into the mix. In whole, the player’s portion of the rulebook is sixty six pages long, including the adventure at the beginning. In comparison, the D&D 3.5 Player’s Handbook has 317 pages. Pathfinder’s core rulebook doesn’t get past the player section until page 393! WEG Star Wars is a definitely a game which adheres to the old school role playing philosophy of keeping most of the mechanics away from the players to better simulate the fantasy.

General Aerin CrackenLike Pathfinder, WEG Star Wars characters have six basic attributes; Dexterity, Knowledge, Perception, Strength, Mechanical, and Technical. Each of these has a certain number of six sided dice attached to it during character creation. (WEG Star Wars only uses six sided dice.) For example, a human character gets 18 dice total, and has a minimum of 2 dice and a maximum of 4 dice in each of the six attributes. After filling the minimum requirements, players have 6 dice to spread between their six abilities. Once in play, any action which requires a roll will be associated with one of the six abilities, and the player gets to roll however many dice they allocated for that attribute. For example, hitting something with a blaster requires the ability to aim the blaster accurately, so you would roll your dexterity. If you went ahead and maxed out your dexterity, then you’d be able to roll 4d6 against your opponent’s dodge. And if he or she rolls lower than you did, the blaster bolt hits! And given how dangerous combat is treated in this game, there’s a good chance getting hit by that blaster bolt killed them.

There’s also a skills system for more specific tasks. Each character starts out with 7 dice to apply to skills. So even though you have 4 dice in dexterity, you could put another 2 dice in the Blasters skill, and be able to roll a whopping 6 dice whenever you try to hit somebody. Dice can also be split up. Each die counts as 3 “pips,” which is WEG’s code for bonuses. Essentially, if you’ve put 2 skill die into blasters, 3 into medicine, and 1 into starfighter piloting, and can’t decide where to put your last die, you can just break it up. Add a +2 to starfighter piloting (making the skill 1d6 + 2) and a +1 to blasters.

Rogue Squadron by Michael A Stackpole Cover ArtAll praise aside, there is one thing about West End Games’ masterpiece which I really don’t like. I can’t find anybody to play it. New players curious about the hobby are normally the most interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons. It’s probably the only game they’ve heard of, and it’s the one which drew their attention to the hobby in the first place. Others are wary of playing a Star Wars game, either because they don’t think they’re familiar enough with the mythos to keep up, or because they don’t like games based on movies/television/etcetera.

I did manage to play a few sessions of the game once. In the first session, my player (I only had one) managed to steal a ship, which he painted bright orange and christened “Stealth Ship.” He was too lazy to hire a crew for it, so I gave him a wookie communications officer. By the second session he had been hired by the rebellion to free some prisoners from an Imperial prison camp. One of them as it turned out, was his psychotic ex girlfriend, who shot him. By the time the second session ended, he had recovered, been chased around the corridors of an abandoned Star Destroyer by the same psychotic ex, and narrowly escaped form said Star Destroyer just before it exploded. We never got to session three, which is sad, because the rebellion was going to commission him to find them a new hiding place “now that the Yavin base has been compromised.” I was going to let him re-shape the original trilogy by becoming an incredibly important, off-screen character. It would have been glorious.

Buy the game. You will not regret it. And, once you have it, all you need to do is move to WA state so we can play it together…


We Be Goblins! (You Be Food!)

Pathfinder module "We be goblins" cover art“We Be Goblins!” is a charming little Pathfinder module which Paizo has made available as a free PDF through their online store. I printed out a copy a month or so ago, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Despite the short length of only 16 pages, there are some remarkably charming touches which make this module memorable for me. The adventure is well designed with a good mix of challenges for the players. The pregenerated characters are interesting, and developed well enough to give players a baseline to role play from without being constricting. There’s a good sense of humor throughout the adventure as well, with a number of catchy songs scribbled in the margins. I must admit, I’ve recited a few of them to myself while driving. They are quite catchy:

We be Licktoads! We Make Raid!
Put the longshanks to the blade!
Burn them up from feet to head,
Make them hurt, then make them dead!

Cut the parents into ham,
Smush the babies into Jam,
All the rest in pot get stewed,
We be Licktoads – YOU BE FOOD!

Dungeons and Dragons 3.X Monster Manual Goblin

Which brings me to one of the biggest draws to this module: playing as evil goblins. Players have never been prevented from playing as evil characters, or from playing as goblins; the Monster Manuals and Bestiaries even have racial traits for goblins which players could use if they liked. But as I’ve discussed in the past, while not forbidden it’s certainly not encouraged. Despite that, something about Pathfinder’s version of goblins has caught hold of players. As any sensible company should, Paizo is cashing in on that with a number of products. The artist who designed Pathfinder’s Goblins can be thanked for that, I think. He or she somehow managed to take the most generic-of-the-generic fantasy monster, and reinvent them into something which is both classic and novel, adorable and terrifying all at once. The song above is a testament to all four seemingly contradictory traits.

Pathfinder Goblin Carrying a D20
On a lark last weekend, I decided I wanted to see how this adventure played at the table. What’s more, I wanted to do it with enough people for all four of the pregenerated characters to be in play. So during the week I conferred with the players from two of my gaming groups. Remarkably, each of them had Saturday free. Considering how difficult it can be to get either group together for a game, I thought it might be a titanic effort to get both together at once. But everybody was open to my first suggested date and time. So this morning I got up, cleaned my apartment, and was going over my notes just in time for people to start arriving.
The opening of the adventure is somewhat wordy for my tastes. My rule of thumb is three paragraphs. If I’ve got more than three paragraphs to read before the players get to start taking action and making choices, then I edit down. I may pride myself on my writing, but my friends didn’t make room in their busy schedules to listen to me read aloud. They came to play a game. All the same, the introduction didn’t go off too poorly. The players got a good sense of who and where they were. But to be honest, if I were to run it again I think I would cut a lot of the introductory crap and jump into the bonfire as quick as I could. That’s where the game really got moving.

After the goblin leader provides the PCs with their mission in the opening scene, the tribe has a bonfire celebration to, as cheif Gutwad says, “burn bad luck away from [the PCs].” Essentially it’s a big rowdy goblin party in honor of the PC’s upcoming quest. Here, I think, would have been a much better place for a lot of the exposition which happened at the start of the adventure. Rather than have the goblin chief tell the players to avoid the creature known as Lotslegs Eat Goblin Babies Many, the PCs could have overheard frightening stories about it from other goblins during the feast. But this is a minor nitpick at worst.

The content of the bonfire are four “dares,” as the goblins call them. To test the bravery of the PCs, the tribe presents them with challenges. If they succeed, they are rewarded with the right to borrow a few pieces of magical gear. If they fail, or refuse the challenge, they are mercilessly mocked. I must admit I was somewhat worried that this was the kind of thing which sounded good on paper, but wouldn’t work out in play, but I was wrong. It was during this more lighthearted, role-playing heavy activity that my players really started to get into their characters. I’m not often fortunate enough to have excited, in-character conversations going on between players. More on that later.Goblins Attempt to capture Squeally Nord

My players ended up succeeding at each of the four challenges without much incident. It was then that I began to realize that the pregenerated characters were extremely overpowered. I honestly cannot comprehend how the rogue managed to have a +16 to his stealth check at level 1. [Edit: Okay, I see. The Goblin size bonus, and the Goblin racial bonus, stack.] This ended up detracting from the game somewhat, as I never really felt the characters were in real danger. Though, in fairness, I did significantly reduce the difficulty of each of the challenges. Not to make things easier, but simply because I can’t make it seem exciting to ask players to make a DC 15 ride check three times in a row.

In the morning, the players set off on the grand one mile (1/6th of a hex) journey to the grounded ship marked on the treasure map, and the cache of fireworks it held. They were nearly there when they were accosted by Lotslegs Eat Goblin Babies Many, a giant spider who hungered for goblin flesh! Two of my cowardly players hid from the beast, the rogue succeeding at doing so despite the bells which another player had secretly attached to her clothes. The fight was brief, with minimal damage on the part of the players. Considering that this is probably the second most difficult fight in the adventure, I was somewhat disappointed in how quickly the spider was felled.

From there, the players moved on to reach the ship. And that is where things took a turn for the awesome. One of the four goblins is a cleric named Poog. According to his character sheet, Poog is ashamed of being one of the worst animal riders in the clan. The character sheet also says Poog is brave to the point of being overconfident. So when Poog was acting as a scout into the the muddy area surrounding the ship, and was charged by a rabid horse, Poog’s immediate response was:

“POOG WILL RIDE HORSE!” Complete with my player’s best goblin voice.

As it turned out, Poog failed to mount the charging beast, but managed to deal it a crushing blow by bracing his javelin in the mud when the horse came around for a second charge. From there on in, the events of the game took a back seat to the hilarious role playing exchanges between the characters. The woman playing the aforementioned rogue took it upon herself to goad Poog on. She heaped insults onto him, and quickly discovered that there was nothing she couldn’t get Poog to do by simply telling him that he wasn’t good enough to do it. And all of this simply goaded Poog onward, culminating “POOG CAN RIDE ANYTHING!” being shouted several times. In one combat, Poog and the Rogue actually took turns mounting and pushing each other off of a very confused dog which the other two party members were desperately trying to kill.

The climax of the adventure came when the four goblins were attempting to flee the ship with their firework booty. Just as they were about to escape, they were accosted by Vorka, the goblin cannibal whose fireworks they had just stolen. She had cast Spider Climb on herself before the party reached her, so her first action in combat was to walk up the vertical mast of the ship high enough so that melee attacks couldn’t reach her. Unfortunately, this prompted Poog to remember that he’d earned an Elixer of Dragon’s Breath during the bonfire challenges. Before the rest of the party knew what was happening, the mast was on fire, and Vorka was quickly jumping down onto the deck to avoid the flames.

The rest of the adventure proceded entirely without incident. Vorka’s rolls were so terrible that she was killed without much of a fuss. And despite my attempt to destroy the player’s fireworks by having the chest catch on fire, they were all dexterous enough to get the prized explosives to safety before they were ignited.Pathfinder Goblins raiding a town

Having now played through it, “We Be Goblins!” is an entertaining way to spend four hours. It suffers significantly from lack of challenge, though. When I run a one-shot game such as this one, my expectation is to see one or more players lose their lives. Since they’re never going to play these characters again anyway, what’s the point of coddling them? This failing is particularly bad since the game comes with its own pregenerated characters. If they knew how powerful the PCs would be, why couldn’t they make the adventure a little tougher to give it the edge it was missing?

I must reiterate that it was fun, though. It brought my group together and gave them a situation which they had a lot of fun with. I’d be a little wary of starting up yet another campaign, but I’m pretty sure everyone agreed that it would be fun to return to those characters (and that group) again someday.

Maybe I’ll run them through an edited version of The Sunless Citadel next…

Colorful Characters 5: Delana The Gravedigger

Delana the Gravedigger Peasant Woman DiggingDelana was born in the town of Obleton to a local widow. The widow, a seamstress by trade, had a brief tryst with an elven ranger who was passing through Obleton with his adventuring party. Though Delana’s mother never saw her elven lover again, she always spoke fondly of him to her half-elven daughter.

Like most half elves, Delana had a difficult childhood. As a member of a much longer lived species, she matured much slower than the other children in the village. A decade passed for her the way a pair of years passed for her fellows. Childhood friends matured quickly enough to have children of their own for Delana to engage with as peers.

One day, as a child of twenty, Delana was out with a hunting party. She was learning to track and to use a bow in an attempt to be closer to the father she had never met by emulating his craft. During the hunt, she came into a clearing where she found herself separated from her companions. In the clearing stood a shambling undead, which began inching towards her with hunger in its eyes. The young half elf fled and rejoined her companions, warning them of the nearby danger.

The group decided to find and kill the beast, but by the time they returned to the clearing, it was gone. Given Delana’s mental age, they assumed the child simply had an overactive imagination. Delana’s pleas for them to trust her fell on deaf ears. Later that night, Delana awoke to a wet smacking sound. The undead had returned, and was eating her companions. She screamed, and the creature turned to attack her. It bit her on the forearm, tearing away a large chunk of meat. The girl flailed, and somehow managed to escape, fleeing into the woods.

Delana was lost in the wood for four days, and lost a great deal of blood before she stumbled back into Obleton. Her mother and the townsfolk tended to her wounds and her exhaustion as best they could, but she was never quite the same. It was a full decade before she spoke a single word to anyone again, and when she did speak what she said was often cryptic. More disturbing still was that what she said could often be interpreted later as descriptions of events which had not yet occurred when she spoke.

Fifty years later, Delana’s mother passed away. Now a fully grown and developed half elf, Delana dug her mother’s grave, buried her, and set the tombstone in place with her own two hands. Every day for weeks Delana returned to the graveyard, visiting not only her mother’s grave, but each of the graves in turn. Shortly thereafter, she requested that the townspeople help her build a small home for herself near the graveyard, so as to free her mother’s larger home up for the next young couple to start a family in the village.

Delana has continued to live in the village of Obleton through the many decades and centuries of her life. The town has always been kind to her, and in her peculiar way Delana has worked to protect the town and its inhabitants. She very rarely speaks to anyone, but she is always kind when she does. Those who now live in Obleton (now a much larger town) are generations removed from anyone who knew Delana as a young woman. People often wonder why she came to their small town, never realizing that she has lived there her entire life.

The old woman still helps with the hunting occasionally, but it is a skill she never quite took to. Her livelihood is supported by the village. The only real work she does is in the graveyard. It is well known locally that when old woman Delana begins to dig, someone will be dead by the time she reaches six feet deep.


Delana is not crazy. She is, in fact, quite sharp for a half elf of such advanced age. Many of her mannerisms are eccentric, though. She does not speak much, preferring to listen. When she does speak, she is often cryptic. If pressed for a more firm answer, she merely chuckles as though her oblique answers are a joke which only she understands.

Delana does have two very strong convictions. First, if she believes that the village or anyone in it is in danger, she will bring all of her abilities to bear on the problem. She will offer help as clearly as she can, though, even when trying to be clear, her responses are often difficult to understand. Second, Delana has a great fear of, and hatred for, the undead. A lifetime of outliving friends has made Delana very comfortable with death, and the perversion of it which is represented by undeath enrages her.

She knows that the sorcerous powers which have slowly manifested since that first encounter with an undead creature include abilities which she views as abhorrent, and she has done her best to turn her focus away from them.

If faced with a choice between raising the dead and allowing Obleton to be destroyed, it is unclear which conviction would prove stronger in Delana’s mind. It is certain, though, that failure to uphold either would break the poor old woman’s mind.


Delana is not a fighter, but if attacked she is more likely to fight with her shovel than with her few offensive spells. If Delana is reduced to below 50% health, she will begin casting Cone of Cold and other frost based damaging spells, as well as any non-evil necromancy spells.

Delana will never cast evil necromancy spells, such as Animate Dead, except under extreme duress. The guilt of doing so would likely either drive her completely mad, or cause her to commit suicide.

Thoughts on Use

Delana is intended to be a seer in the traditional fantasy sense. Goodly characters can seek her foresight and wisdom to aid them on whatever quest they are on. Delana’s cryptic nature allows the GM some room to toy with players by forcing them to puzzle out the meaning of Delana’s answer before proceeding further.

Interesting Facts

-Delana refers to graves as “beds,” and to death as a type of sleep. Something which she might say is “I make the beds for the long sleep we all must take.”

-As a joke, Delana refers to her trusty shovel by the name “Samuel.” She often acts as thought she believes the shovel is her husband.

-Delana can often be found walking amongst the graves mumbling to herself. Unbeknownst to the townsfolk, she is reciting the life story of those who are buried there. She has committed each to memory. For most of the graves, she knows the story because she was part of the life of that person. For others, she has used her divination spells to learn of their life, and taken care to memorize it accurately.

Delana, The Gravedigger (CR 12)

XP: 19,200
Female Half Elf Sorcerer 14
NG humanoid
224 years old (Venerable)
Init +0; Senses Perception +31


AC 10, Flat Footed 10, Touch 10 [10 + Armor(0)]
hp 84 (14d6 + 28)
dr 10/- (Nonlethal damage only)
Resistance 10/Cold
Fort +5 Ref +4 Will + 16 (May Reroll Will 1/Day)


Speed 30ft
Melee Samuel The Shovel + 9/+4 (1d8 + 2/20 x2)
Sorcerer Spells (CL 14th; Concentration +18; +2 save DC for Divination spells)
7th (3/day)– Greater Scrying, Finger of Death
6th (5/day)– Legend Lore, True Seeing, Undeath to Death
5th (6/day)– Wave of Fatigue, Cone of Cold, Telepathic Bond, Contact Other Plane
4th (7/day)– Detect Scrying, Locate Creature, Scrying, Bestow Curse, Animate Dead
3rd (7/day)– Arcane Sight, Clairaudience/Clairvoyance, Tongues, Gentle Repose, Vampiric Touch
2nd (7/day)– Detect Thoughts, Locate Object, See Invisibility, Blindness/Deafness, Scare, False Life
1st (7/day)– Comprehend Languages, Detect Undead, Identify, Cause Fear, Ray of Enfeeblement, Chill Touch
0 (at will)– Detect Magic, Detect Poison, Read Magic, Bleed, Disrupt Undead, Touch of Fatigue, Light, Ghost Sound, Ray of Frost
Bloodline Undead
Bloodline Powers
Grave Touch (7/Day) — touch attack causes living creature to become shaken for 7 rounds.
Death’s Gift — Cold Resist 10, DR10/- v. Nonlethal Damage
Grasp of the Dead (1/Day) — Skeletal arms attack foes. (See Pathfinder Core Rulebook page 77)


Str 15 (+2) Dex 10 (+0) Con 13 (+1) Int 13 (+1) Wis 21 (+5) Cha 18 (+4)
Base Atk +7/+2; CMB +9/4; CMD 19
Feats Eschew Materials, Skill Focus(Perception), Toughness, Iron Will, Still Spell, Silent Spell, Quicken Spell, Alertness, Improved Iron Will, Spell Focus (Divination), Greater Spell Focus (Divination)
Skills Perception (+31), Profession(Gravedigger) (+19), Spellcraft(+15), Sense Motive (+7)
Languages Common, Elven
Gear Rags for clothing, Samuel the Shovel, 17 copper

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