Pathfinder House Rule: Simple Experience Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colorful Characters 2: Spyri the Trinketeer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Interesting Facts

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

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

*Spyri’s hair has gone prematurely stark white.

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

Thoughts on Use

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


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

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

Spyri, the Trinketeer (CR 3)

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


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


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


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

Familiar; “Shade Tender”

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

Exploring Crime in a Fantasy Setting

AD&D Thief's Handbook

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Illegal Commodities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illegal Services

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Spicing Up The Battlemat: Forests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stumps Instant higher ground!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Zalekios Gromar, and the Undervaluation of Evil Campaigns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allow me to introduce you to Zalekios Gromar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Digital Random Map Generation

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

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

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

Fantasy Role Playing Game Map On a Bulliten Board

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

Role Playing Game Map Negune Continent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.