Product Review: Pathfinder GM Screen

Pathfinder GM Screen FrontToday I got around to doing my budget for the new month, and realized that I could afford a trip to my favorite Friendly Local Game Store; Fantasium. The owner, Paula, was there, so I got a chance to talk to her a little bit about my feelings on Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately she didn’t have Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress in stock, so that one will need to wait a little while. By the time I left, I had spent a great deal more money than I intended to, got a stock date for the Pathfinder Bestiary 3, and purchased the subject of tonight’s post: The Pathfinder Game Master Screen.

I know I have a few readers who are unfamiliar with the basics surrounding tabletop RPGs, so let me take this opportunity to explain what GM screens are, and why they’re awesome. In pop culture, the screen is possibly even more iconic than funny shaped dice as an indicator of role playing geekery. The benefits of the screen are many fold, but its purpose is actually quite simple: to allow the GM to do things ‘out of sight’ of the players. Behind the screen are game notes, maps, monster stats and abilities, all the sorts of things which a GM needs to reference, but which must be kept hidden from players. Two of the primary side-benefits are what is printed on each side of the screen. On the player side is normally some a dramatic piece of adventuresome artwork to help get the players into the mood. On the GM side of the screen is printed as many quick-reference game rules and cheat sheets as the printers can manage to fit on there.

And without further ado, here is Pathfinder’s game master screen:

The Pathfinder GM Screen Character Art Front
Blogger kills the quality of images, but you can click them for a (much) higher resolution.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be comparing it with the trusty GM screen I’ve used for years, published by Wizards of the Coast for the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 game.

Dungeons and Dragons DM Screen / GM Screen Red Dragon's Treasure Front

I’d like to make a note first regarding how the two screens unfold. It may be difficult to see from the photographs, but both screens are composed of four segments separated by a fold. The D&D screen folds in such a way that the center of the screen is closest to the characters, and the edges of the screen curve back towards the GM, like a U shape. Whereas the Pathfinder screen’s segments are angled in-and-out in an M shape. At first this was quite a turnoff for me, but as I played with it a little more, I found that I much prefer the folding style of the Pathfinder screen. It may seem somewhat unimportant, but I think it looks better. And I’ve always been annoyed by how far back the sides of the D&D screen go, feels like they’re crowding me.

Regarding the art, I think Paizo rolled a critical failure. Take a look at the D&D screen I posted, or any number of other screens. They depict dynamic scenes of adventure. The kind of scenes which depict what should be going on at the table, and inspire the players to get into the adventure. Pathfinder, for some reason, chose to instead show static images of the characters who represent their core classes, as well as the Eldritch Knight for no explicable reason. And not only are these images bland and uninteresting, they’re re-used. These are the exact same illustrations which accompany each class description in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Honestly, that makes me a little upset. It’s easy enough to make a GM screen by propping up two binders and paper-clipping notes onto the inside of them. The draw to purchasing a professionally produced GM screen is the art. This failure is particularly disappointing because Paizo normally excels in getting fantastic artists for their products.

It’s not so much that I’m angry, Paizo. Just…disappointed.

Pathfinder GM Screen Thickness ComparisonThe major selling point, for me, was the construction of this GM screen. This thing is as sturdy as a dwarven barstool.* My D&D screen is a very basic cardboard. It’s not quite paper, but it’s really only sturdy enough so it doesn’t flop over. The Pathfinder screen, however, is thicker than the covers of most hardback books. The Pathfinder screen also has a glossy coating which, I think, is somewhat water resistant. I’m not eager to try, but it’s certainly more durable than the D&D screen. This may seem like a minor thing, but I’ve often worried about damage to my GM screen during travel, or when a drink is spilled at the table. The higher quality of the construction for the Pathfinder screen is a big plus for me.

Pathfinder GM Screen Height Comparison to D&D DM Screen

There’s not a whole lot to say about the differing sizes of the two screens. The D&D screen is longer, whilst the Pathfinder screen is higher. This really comes down to a matter of preference. Personally, I like the height of the Pathfinder screen, and I’ve never liked how wide the D&D screen is. My only concern is that I’ll be spending more of my game time standing. I already sometimes have trouble seeing things over the screen.

The final element to the screens is the GM side, with the quick-reference guide for the rules. First, the new Pathfinder screen…

Pathfinder GM Screen GM Side With Text and Charts

…and then the old D&D screen.

Dungeons and Dragons DM Screen DM Side with text and charts

Now, truth be told, I’ve never actually used the quick reference rules on the GM screen. I have a lot of respect for the utility of printing them there, but as a GM I prefer to simply make a ruling on the spot based on whatever seems most logical. That said, I think the D&D screen actually has much more useful information printed on it.

Here are some of the items on the D&D sheet which I think would be more useful than much of the information on the Pathfinder sheet.

  • DCs to break or burst an item.
  • Information & stats for common types of walls.
  • Information & stats for common types of doors.
  • Increasing weapon damage by size
  • Decreasing weapon damage by size
  • Graphic demonstrating what to do when a thrown weapon misses
  • Common types of actions (drink potion, prepare oil for throwing, drawing a weapon) and what type of action time they require, and whether they provoke an attack of opportunity.
  • Information on movement and distance both in tactical, and overland
  • Light sources and illumination

But at least the Pathfinder GM screen has information on how to calculate the DC for a longjump check. It’s difficult to remember that +1ft = +1DC.

I think it’s somewhat obvious that I’m disappointed in Paizo’s Pathfinder GM Screen. Aside from the construction, it really feels as though no work went into this. I’ll certainly use it, because I do like the construction so much. And bland as the art is, I’m sure my players have grown tired of looking at the same dragon for so many years.

Still, Paizo, come on. I’m deep in your camp, I am a believer, and I don’t like being in a position to speak ill of you, but this is not a good product. Step it up with the next GM screen.

*Yes, that was ridiculous. I decided to go with it, so you can just stfu Mr. or Ms. Critic! >.>

Colorful Characters 8: Orom Huntsorc

Hunter Orc Ranger Orom Huntsorc With a BowThe childhood of Orom Huntsorc is not so different from that of any half-orc. He believes he probably had a human mother, though he does not know. He never knew his mother, and his first memories are of the streets of the small city of Ilton. He merely assumes that she was human, because everyone else in Ilton is. The opportunities available to Orom in his formative years were few. The only education he received was that which could be learned stealing food, and fighting other children so he could keep it.

It was during his childhood that Orom gained an affinity for dogs. There was a number of strays in the city, and they tended to congregate wherever the castoff children did. The children spared what food they could, and the dogs provided some protection from adult criminals, or worse, the city guard. The dogs had no prejudice towards Orom’s heritage. The simple creatures were loving, loyal, and helpful.

By the time Orom was fifteen, he was so much larger and stronger than the other children that he could easily have started or joined a gang, as most of the other children his age were beginning to do. But to Orom, joining a gang meant tying yourself to Ilton. He didn’t want that, he hated Ilton. All his life he’d known nothing but hardship and suffering, and he knew there had to be some place where he could live the way he saw everyone else live. With a home to return to, plenty of food to eat, and a reasonable expectation that you’d never get stabbed for that food.

Eager for an alternative, Orom found a posting for a bounty nailed to the board outside of a guard station. A petty thug who had fled the city with 300 gold pieces stolen from a local merchant. He was believed to be hiding in the woods surrounding Ilton. Orom gathered eight of the strongest dogs, and ventured outside of Ilton for the first time. His hunting was clumsy at best. He was a city slicker, and nearly died in the wilderness due to a complete lack of survival skills. But through determination and luck, Orom not only survived, but found the thief he had been chasing. He dragged the man back to town, and was rewarded with 15 gold pieces. A pittance compared to the amount which was taken, but more money than Orom had ever been able to earn doing any other kind of work.

The young half orc continued hunting bounties, and became a great deal better at it. Within a few months he had enough to begin renting a small apartment of his own. But he rarely stayed there. Each time he returned to town with a bounty, he eagerly began searching for a new one to go after. The more time he spent in the forest, the more the city felt alien to him.

When Orom was twenty five, he was drinking quietly in a tavern when a fight broke out. Orom was, by then, a cool and collected warrior. He didn’t feel the need to join into the brawl. But then a small, wiry man fell back onto Orom’s table. The man was clearly drunk, and when he pulled himself up, he saw Orom, shouted that the thrice-damned orc had shoved him, then pulled a dagger. Orom quickly drew his own dagger, and buried it in the man’s chest. The fight–a good clean affair, with nothing more deadly than fists up until then–stopped. Everyone turned to look at Orom, and he suddenly realized he needed to make his way out of the tavern as quickly as possible.

Now with a bounty on his own head, Orom fled Ilton, and traveled deep into the forest, further than he had ever gone before. After two weeks of travel, he found a dirt road passing through the woodlands. Drag marks on the road indicated that it was used for hauling logs south, likely from the ironwood groves to the city of Asterem, which exported the rare wood. Orom considered following them, but stopped himself. He had never been happy with city living, and another city would be no better, he decided. So he set up camp a few yards off the road in order to have some time to think.

He was still thinking a few days later when a group of men using horses to drag logs along the road passed by. That’s when the idea struck Orom, and he began following the loggers stealthily. When they camped for the night, so did he. And when they left in the morning, he remained. He remained in that area for three weeks, watching as the loggers came by. They consistently reached this part of the road by late evening, and set up camp not long after.

So Orom began clearing trees in a large area by the side of the road. It was slow work, but he was in no rush. Methodically he dug a foundation, and began constructing an Inn for the loggers to stay at along the road. It took him months of work, and the loggers took note and began to joke with him as they passed, or sing songs about the ‘crazy woodland orc.’ After six months, the Inn was finished. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional. He christened it “The Tree Grown Orc” after his favorite of the jovial songs sung by the loggers during the construction. Orom became well beloved by the loggers for his warm accommodations, and his strong ale. Though his cooking was bad enough that, after a few months, the loggers begged him to hire someone to prepare the food. He told them that if they brought him someone, he would hire them for 50 silver a week. The next group to come back from Asterem had an old woman named Ysilla with them, and she’s worked for Orom ever since.

For fifteen years, Orom has successfully owned and operated The Tree Grown Orc, happy to live a life of playing with his dogs, brewing ale, hunting game, and listening to loggers sing drinking songs.

Personality

Orom is stoic, and quiet. He doesn’t talk much to anyone, and he doesn’t talk at all to those whom he finds unpleasant. If he needs to communicate with them, he’s most likely to simple gestures, grunts, or in extreme cases, blows.

Orom does get along well with his regulars, though. They all like him for making their hard journey much more pleasant, and Orom has found that he likes being liked.

Tactics

Orom is a powerful foe with either his trademarked falchion, or his composite shortbow, and his four dogs can prove very useful in combat.

Orom likes to remain at range and hidden if possible. If he can get away with it, he will move to different positions around his foes, so they’ll never be able to predict where his arrows will come from. If he is able to fire from concealment within 30 feet of his prey, Orom will send in his dogs. His increased accuracy at that range makes Orom more confident that he won’t harm one of his friends.

If he runs out of arrows, his foes begin advancing on his location, or one of his dogs is harmed, Orom will switch to his falchion and charge. He likes to use the heavy weight of the massive blade to sunder weapons and armor. Not only does it often cripple opponents more quickly than attacking them directly, but it also keeps them alive to be turned in for the bounty.

Thoughts on Use

Inns are a staple of tabletop gaming, so GMs are always in need of good colorful Innkeepers for them. Orom can be a fun one. And if the GM is in the mood for a filler adventure, bounty hunters from Ilton could always come looking for him.

Orom could also be used to hunt down players who cause trouble in or near his Inn, such as skipping out on payment. He might even be used by the city of Ilton to hunt players down in exchange for a pardon.

The Tree Grown Orc

The Tree Grown Orc is a very simple building. A single story, the building consists of a main hall with a hearth and general sleeping area. Four private rooms with very basic amenities are spaced around the east and west sides of the Inn. A simple kitchen can be accessed through a door across from the entrance to the main hall. And, through the kitchen, are doors to both Orom’s private room, and Ysilla’s private room. A third door from the kitchen opens into the outdoors, and forty yards away from the door is Orom’s distillery.

Orom Huntsorc (CR 3)

XP: 800
Male Orc Ranger 4
CN humanoid
Init +3 (+5 in forests); Senses Perception +9 (+11 v. dwarves, or in forests), Darkvision 60ft


Defenses


AC 16, Flat Footed 13, Touch 13 [10 + Armor(3) + Dex (3)]
hp 47 (4d10 + 12)
Fort +6 Ref +7 Will + 3


Offense


Speed 30ft
Melee Falchion + 8 (2d4 + 4/18-20 x2) (+2 to attack & damage rolls against dwarves)
Ranged Composite Shortbow + 7 (1d6 + 3/x3) (+2 to attack & damage rolls against dwarves)(+1 to attack & damage rolls within 30ft)
Prepared Ranger Spells (CL 1st, Concentration +3)
–Level 1 (1/day): Calm Animals (Pg. 252 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook)


Stats


Str 17 (+3) Dex 17 (+3) Con 15 (+2) Int 9 (-1) Wis 14 (+2) Cha 8 (-1)
Base Atk +4; CMB +7 (+9 when sundering. No AOO.); CMD 20 (+2 v. sunder.)
Feats Point Blank Shot, Endurance, Power Attack, Improved Sunder
Skills Craft(Brewer) +6, Handle Animal +6, Intimidate +4, Perception +9, Stealth +10, Survival +9 (+11 when tracking); [+2 to Bluff, Knowledge, Perception, Sense Motive, and Survival checks concerning dwarves.] [+2 to Knowledge(Geography), Perception, Stealth, and Survival in forests.]
Languages Common, Orcish
SQ
Favored Enemy – Humanoid(Dwarves)
Wild Empathy – (Pg. 64 of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook)
Combat Style – Archery
Favored Terrain – Forest
Power attack – May choose to take a -2 penalty on attack rolls in exchange for a +4 on damage rolls.
Endurance – (Pg. 122 of the PF CRB)
Gear +1 Falchion, Composite Shortbow, 24 arrows, large quiver, Studded Leather armor dyed dappled shades of green and brown, one dagger in his belt, one dagger in his boot, steel toed boots, 20lb of caltrops, 3 sets of manacles, flint and tinder, 58 gold pieces


Greadhut


Orom’s Animal Companion, Greadhut is as the dog listed on page 87 of the Pathfinder Beastiary, except as noted below.
hp 16
bab +1
Fort +3; Ref +3; Will +0
Skills Acrobatics +3 (+11 jumping)
Feats Improved Bull Rush
SQ Link, Share Spells
Tricks Attack, Come, Defend, Fetch, Guard, Heel, Seek


Moot, Hornt, & Forvet


In addition to his animal companion Greadhut, Orom has trained three other dogs which he cares for. Each is as the dog listed on page 87 of the Pathfinder Beastiary. Each knows the following tricks: Attack, Come, Defend, Fetch, Guard, Heel

Pathfinder: Percentage of a Living Body Comprised of Liquid

Penny Arcade Pathfinder Storyline 2 ThumbnailClick the comic to go to Penny-Arcade.com’s high res version.

Penny Arcade continues to showcase Pathfinder!

It’s really good to see Pathfinder getting the attention it deserves from webcomics. Wizards of the Coast seems to be working out a lot of product placement deals lately. Not that product placement is necessarily bad. In fact it’s all been classy and entertianing. Nothing wrong with a nerd comic taking money from a nerd company to showcase a nerdy product which fits within the comic’s nerdy theme, and which the comic’s nerd audience will enjoy. But considering that Pathfinder is currently a more popular game than D&D fourth edition, It’s good to see Gabe & Tycho paying attention to it.

I must confess, I would love to have Tycho as a GM. He’s beyond insidious, he’s positively evil. That kind of harsh game environment holds a certain appeal. Plus, the man has a way with words that I could never hope to match in a hundred years of studying the craft of writing.

Puzzling Obstructions

The Legend of Zelda NES Cliffside OverlookA Pathfinder GM has any number of time tested challenges to present his players. The most common is combat, but to focus on combat exclusively is to lose much of the flavor which makes fantasy role playing so entertaining. Bargaining with an NPC, planning a raid, exploring the wilderness, crossing a river of magma, or any one of innumerable challenges can be utilized by a skilled GM to provide players with engaging games that keep them coming back to your table for more. One of the most maligned, and most poorly implemented, types of challenge is a puzzle.

I’d like to define precisely what I do, and what I do not mean by ‘puzzle’ before proceeding further. Note that these are not common definitions, simply terms which I find useful to facilitate clarity of discussion.

An obstacle is anything which hinders a character’s progress towards a goal. A lock would be a very basic example of an obstacle.

An obstruction is a simple, or even natural, type of obstacle. Obstructions are general-purpose, and likely identical to any number of similar obstructions of the same type. Examples of obstructions would be locked doors, walls, pits, or even most traps.

A puzzle is a more elaborate form of obstacle than an obstruction. It is almost always created by an intelligent force, and is likely unique in its design. Examples of puzzles would be riddles, a door which only opens when four statues in a room are turned to face each other, or a box with no visible lid which opens only when submerged in holy water.

Puzzles are some of the most difficult obstacles to manage successfully, and should be used sparingly. In fact, a great many GMs I’ve spoken with over the years believe that puzzles should be considered verboten. And they have an excellent point! Puzzles can stop a game in its tracks. Almost by definition, puzzles have only a single answer. So instead of the players attempting to concoct their own solution (a great strength of tabletop RPGs) they’re attempting to figure out what the GM’s solution is. And if they get stuck when trying to figure that out, then the progress of the game can come to a screeching halt. And that’s when people start looking for a new GM.

But I hold that puzzles have their place. Maybe it’s it’s simply because the early Legend of Zelda games are near and dear to my heart. No dungeon, temple, or crypt seems quite complete without a puzzle. Recently I ran a game where the players faced several puzzles crafted for them as a test by a master illusionist. All of the puzzles challenged my players, without becoming game-stoppers. I’ll use those puzzles as examples.

Puzzle The First
GM says: “You enter what appears to be a small grassy field within the tower. The walls and ceiling are made of dirt, and a dirt path at the far end of the room leads down. There are [number equal to the number of characters present] horses present, docilely grazing.”

Additional Information: The horses were very friendly, and could be ridden easily. If any character attempted to walk down the dirt path, they were asked to make a reflex save. Failure meant they fell into the path as though it were water. A round later they fell out of the walls or ceiling of the room, taking one point of damage. After one player did this, the voice of the wizard filled the room with “Your feet won’t work there! You’ll need these!” and as he speaks, clovers sprout from the grassy ground.

Intended Solution: The players were supposed to ride the horses down the dirt path. If they did, they would suffer no adverse affects. The clovers were a hint about cloven feet, but if they’d strapped the clovers to their feet somehow, I would have allowed them a half-success. They would sink up to their waist, and be able to slog their way down the ramp. I also would have accepted simply jumping off the edge, down to the bottom of the ramp. Though though as it was a 20ft drop, falling damage would apply if they didn’t make a successful acrobatics check.

What they did: My players were, at first, very wary of the horses. Just outside the tower they had been dealing with a stampede of horses, and didn’t want to get thrown off another raging horse. They did attempt to walk down the ramp, and triggered the hint. Someone suggested strapping the clovers to their feet, but before anyone tried that, one of my players decided to mount a horse and go for it. It worked, so everyone followed suit. The entire puzzle took perhaps 3-5 minutes to solve.

Puzzle The Second
GM Says: “This is a small room with a stone floor. There is a line on the floor ten feet away from a door opposite where you entered. The line is painted on a single, long piece of stone, and beneath it is written in common ‘You must stand behind this line to open the door.‘”

Additional Information: The stone which the line is printed on is 12ft long, and loose. Characters can pry it up easily, and beneath it is a 15ft coil of rope. The door is on on hinges which allow it to open both in or out. Pushing on the door while between the line and the door will be next to impossible. However, the door will open easily to even small amounts of force, so long as the originator of that force is behind the line.

Intended Solution: None, really. Though I did have three expectations of how the puzzle might be solved: The 12ft long piece of stone might be used to push the door open, the rope might be tied to the door, and pulled from behind the line. Or, alternatively, the players might throw heavy objects (or even each other) at the door.

What they did: My players really surprised me with this one. Rather than doing what I expected them to do, they first tried to open the door by taking the rope they found beneath the stone, and laying it out right next to the door, then trying to push the door open. When this didn’t work, they tried the same thing, but this time they moved the stone with the line on it. Given the way I worded the rules, I decided that this should work, and allowed them to open the door. However, if I had decided that the line was somehow intangibly tied to its original spot, I think my players still would have figured the puzzle out promptly. This one was quick. Perhaps 2 minutes tops.

Puzzle The Third
GM Says: “There are 5 buckets hanging on the wall with labels on them. Each apparently has a different color of paint in it–red, blue, green, yellow, and black. Across the small room from the entrance is a plain door.

Additional Information: Behind the door is a stone wall. However, when the door is painted, opening it creates a portal based on the color used. The color/portal associations are as follows: Red opens a portal to the doorway the PC’s entered this room through, Blue successfully allows the PCs to progress to the next room, Green opens a portal to the first layer of hell, yellow causes those who pass through the portal to simply come back out of the portal again, and black opens into space looking down on the planet (a wall of force stops any air, or players, from going through the black door.) The labels describe these locations, but are written in gnomish (the language of the illusionist who created this trial). This was intended as a hint to the illusionist’s identity. He had thus far presented himself as a 9-ft tall humanoid.

Intended Solution: To paint the door blue.

What they did: My players probably struggled with this one the most. I probably should have provided better clues. Rather than paint the door, they painted the stone wall behind the door, but I decided to allow it. It took them perhaps 5 or 6 minutes to progress past here.

Puzzle The Fourth
GM says: “There are three iron doors exiting this room. High on the wall is a window made of grass. A green light filters into the room, the blades of grass creating a collage of lines and edges over every surface the light touches. In the center of the room is a large lens mounted on two axes so it can be turned in any direction. It is presently focusing a small beam of light onto the floor, warping the lines and edges created by the grass window’s light.”

Additional Information: All three doors open easily, with no trouble. This is the first puzzle the players encountered which was truly dangerous, as two of the doors led to particularly deadly traps, the natures of which are not important to the puzzle. If the characters examine the area of distorted light, they will notice that the lines & edges of the light form the word “look” in common. Directing the lens toward the doors will identify them either as “Death” or “Forward.”

Intended Solution: To go through the door which reads “Forward” when the light is directed at it.

What They Did: I must confess, my memory is somewhat fuzzy on precisely how this final puzzle played out. I do recall that they were somewhat confused by the lens at first, but they did notice that it said “look.” (I allowed them a passive perception check to notice it.) After that they made the leap to directing the lens at the doors, and found the correct way out easily. The entire process was brief, perhaps 2-4 minutes.

I view all four of these puzzles as successes. The players enjoyed themselves, and had some good discussion about what solutions they should attempt. Up until that point, these players had participated in sessions which focused on exploration and combat, so it was a good way to give them a new type of challenge. As mentioned before, setting up a good puzzle can be extremely difficult, so it’s important to proceed with caution if you’re planning to use one. While hardly exhaustive, I find these tips very useful in designing my puzzles.

  • Puzzles should almost never be required for progression through the adventure, and if they are, they should be easier than normal. You might notice that the four above puzzles were in fact required for progression, since the characters were after the illusionist for help. But neither were any of them particularly difficult to sole, and I was flexible with my solutions. If you do make solving a puzzle a necessary, then you risk the players becoming stuck. And if they get stuck, the GM is left with two options. One, the GM can give them out-of-character help, or somehow allow them to bypass the puzzle. This steals player agency, and makes players feel as though they’re being railroaded. The other option is simply to allow them to remain stuck for as long as it takes, even long after they’ve lost interest. Both responses suck the fun out of a game. Since the GM is the fun facilitator (or the funcilitator!), sucking the fun out of a game is a pretty severe failure of GMing.
  • Make sure there are clear hints to help players succeed. Looking at the puzzles above, the first one had the four leaf clovers, the second had its conditions spelled out, and the fourth had the spot of light which formed the word “look.” Only the third puzzle lacked a clear hint, and that was the puzzle which stymied the players longest.
  • Allow “half solutions” which help the players get there. If the players try something that doesn’t work, they’ll rarely attempt subtle permutations of what they’ve already tried. So if they attempt a solution which is close to the answer, but not quite, then after they fail they’re likely to try something completely different, rather than try something similar to what has already not worked. If the solution your players come up with is near the mark, give them some indication of that. If it’s a door they’re trying to open, have the door open just a crack, but no further. In the first puzzle above, I would have allowed players to have some success by putting the clovers on their feet, even though this was not the “correct” answer.
  • What is obvious to you as the designer of the puzzle will never be as obvious to the players as those challenged by the puzzle. This rule is absolute. Err on the side of caution. It’s better that your puzzles be too easy, than too hard.
  • In order to help with that previous point, confer with a third party before the game. Asking a friend who won’t be playing in the game to solve your puzzle will give you a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.

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.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.