GMing For The Holidays

Halloween Banner ZalekiosJust a few hours ago, my old friend and I got together for a Zalekios game. For those who didn’t read my post on evil in games, Zalekios is my character in the only game I’m currently in which I don’t GM. He’s a chaotic evil psychopath with a penchant gratuitous violence. The game is just me and the GM, though other players have cycled in and out during the six years this campaign has gone on.

As of late, Zalekios has been seeking a kingdom to rule. Nothing too grandiose. The plan was to subdue a tribe of goblins beneath my level 12 gestalt heel, then march those goblins on an unsuspecting settlement which I could reshape in my own image. To his credit, my GM has made me work for every inch of this goal. I had the good luck to happen upon some fire breathing goblins, only to learn they would freeze to death in temperatures below 100°F (38°C). And when I found a wizard who could fix it, he needed me to get the blood of an adult white dragon before he could cast the spell. It’s been nothing but work, work, work, and I don’t even have a village yet!

Anyway, one of the first events in this session was the report from one of my goblin scouts that a village had been found. It met all of the qualifications I had insisted upon: it was on the outskirts of civilization, with a population of about 100 people. Small enough to rule, small enough not to be noticed, but large enough to satiate Zalekios’ desire for power over others. At least for now.

I rode south for a day until I came upon the small village. My initial scouting revealed that the village was ripe for the picking. I wasn’t able to spot any exploitable land formations which would provide me an advantage in my attack, but that’s just as well. I wouldn’t want anyone to use it against me once I’m in control of the thorp. With my scouting complete, I took a room at the inn for the evening. Zalekios was enjoying his sleep, when he was awakened by a knock at the door. Angered, and ready to stab whoever was standing there, he flung the door open. And before he could say anything, a chorus of little voices shouted;

“Trick or treat!”

Yes, my GM had thrown me in the middle of Halloween within his game world. It’s not the first time he’s done this, either. A few years ago, I hunted down and killed Santa Claus right around Christmas time. I don’t actually recall why I did that, though I think it was one of the few times Zalekios actually did something which benefited people. The game world Santa Claus was an asshole for some reason.

Some might find this overly goofy, or even be angry at the break in the ‘fourth wall.’ People can take their gaming pretty seriously, and even those who don’t often prefer things don’t go completely off rails. But I, for one, have always enjoyed the sessions where a GM steps back and lets things be goofy for an adventure.

So what did Zalekios do? First, he scared the children off by exposing his mutilated features, and his fleshless skeleton hands. And for the rest of the evening he played along with the goofiness. Thanks to some magic items and a few Wish spells, he’s a ghost when it comes to moving silently and hiding. Houses had their candy stolen while the family’s backs were turned, children had bags snatched right out of their hands without noticing, and Zalekios ATE ALL THE CANDY!

Hyperbole And a Half Edit: Eat All The Candy

Sure it was out of character. On a normal day, Zalekios would have been more likely to eat the children than to eat their candy. Seriously, he’s done that before. But the game was a fun departure, with the operative word being fun. A GM should never be scared to completely break with convention and be silly once in a while. It pays off. One of Zalekios’ most memorable fights was when he was chased by a dragon which had a breath weapon of bubbles. And despite being mostly a silly, out-of-character session, the evil (read: good) twin of Zalekios I fought today actually got me down to 9 hit points before I killed him.

I’ve never done it myself, but I think my friends can expect a Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas themed adventure in the near future.

Colorful Characters 3: Cohen Strauss, The Town Blacksmith

Cohen Strauss The Blacksmith
Cohen Strauss was born far away from where he lives now, in a small farming community. When he was seven summers old, a party of adventurers came through his town. He was fascinated by the fineness of their arms and armor. Having lived all his life amongst poverty, he was amazed to learn that items of such beauty could exist. When none of the adults were looking, he bravely strode up to the dwarf and asked where he got such wonderful armor. In typical dwarvish fashion, the adventurer responded that only the greatest dwarven smiths could craft such armor and weapons.

Cohen never learned where they were going or why they stopped in a community so far off the main roads, but he never forgot his fascination with the fine armors of the adventurers. As soon as he was of age, he apprenticed to the village blacksmith, where he learned the basic skills and tools of the craft. But sodding horses and constructing crude farming implements did not satisfy Cohen. Whenever a traveling merchant came through town, or some farmer went to market, he put up all of his meager earnings to buy books on the crafting of arms and armor, and on the dwarves who were known as the finest of all craftsmen. He taught himself to read using these books, and by the age of twenty he had surpassed his master in skill.

Realizing there were no opportunities for further advancement in such an out-of-the way town, Cohen resolved to seek out the dwarves. He bid goodbye to his family and his friends, and began the long trip to Gorren’Vor Mountain, stronghold of Moltenforge clan. There were other dwarven clans nearer his home, even clans who were renowned as craftsmen amongst dwarves. But the Moltenforge clan had a reputation for being welcoming to outsiders who wanted to commission their craft. Cohen hoped they would be as welcoming of a student eager to learn from them.

It took the eager young smith over a year to cross the distance to Gorren’Vor, stopping occasionally along the way to earn pay as a blacksmith as needed, and to pick up new knowledge and skills. He never lingered too long though, eager to reach his destination. When he finally arrived, feeling as though his entire life had been one long journey to the mountain which stood before him, Cohen eagerly requested to be granted an audience with a dwarven smith.

His audience was granted. And, after hearing the young man out, the smith he was taken to refused to accept him as a student. The one which Cohen saw the next day refused him as well, as did the one he saw the day after that. Day by day, Cohen saw his dream crumble as he was rejected by one potential teacher after another. Most had been kind to him, but none were interested in passing on their skills to a human.

“Why trust me legacy and me teachings to a boy who’ll be dead before me beard’s gray?” one dwarf had said. After a few months the guards simply stopped allowing Cohen to enter the dwarven city. Crushed, the young man found a bar in the human settlement of Taire at the base of the mountain. He sat down, ordered a drink, and didn’t stop ordering drinks until he had to find a job.

It wasn’t hard for a skilled blacksmith to find work in town. And with the constant flow of adventurers stopping on their way to Gorren’Vor, Cohen had many more opportunities to exercise his craft than he would have ever had in his home village. So for fifteen years he has made his life in Taire. He has become well respected in the town as a reliable smith, though most agree that he drinks too much. It never seems to affect his work.

When not working or drinking, Cohen makes arms, armor, and jewelry of remarkable quality. It easily matches the dwarves’ work in quality, which is why most assume he purchased it from them. After awhile, Cohen just stopped correcting them.


Cohen Strauss is dour, and not terribly friendly. When dealing with dwarves he can be particularly spiteful, often openly ignoring them, or using racial slurs. In truth, Cohen suffers from a severe inferiority complex. Despite the high quality of his work, he feels completely inadequate after his rejection by the Moltenforge clan. Years of demeaning labor as a common blacksmith, as well as the lack of recognition he’s received for his more finely crafted items, have not helped matters in the slightest.

Thoughts on Use

Cohen Strauss could be used as a simple smithy if that’s all the game requires. The players could also be told that he’s a good person to commission work from by a local who knows of Cohen’s largely hidden talent. If the GM was so inclined, the lack of recognition for Cohen’s work could make it difficult to learn that he’s a skilled craftsman, and as a reward, Cohen’s lack of self-worth might cause him to sell his items below their market value.

Particularly altruistic characters could be enticed into a political/role playing adventure wherein they try to get the dwarves of Gorren’Vor to accept the talented Cohen as a student.


Cohen keeps a number of scrolls available, and has a good working relationship with the same wizard who provides magical assistance to the Moltenforge clan smiths. He has studied enough of magic and scroll use to be able to use the scrolls to imbue his creations with powerful dweomers.

Much of his work is improvisational in nature. Rather than engraving a scene from mythology on a shield, for instance, he largely plans what engraving he makes as he goes along. Oftentimes the patterns and designs on his work seem random, or have no definite shape.

Interesting Facts

*Despite being relatively well settled, Cohen’s demeanor does not endear him with women. Most of the women in the local bawdy houses know him as a somewhat unpleasant customer who pays well.

*Years of heavy drinking, as well as other vices, have caused Cohen’s voice to develop a rasp.

*Cohen is completely clean shaven, never allowing the hint of a beard to remain on his face.

Cohen Strauss (CR 9)

XP: 6,400
Human Expert 12
LN Humanoid
Init +0; Senses Perception +0


AC 10, Flat Footed 10, Touch 10 [10 + Armor(0) + Dex (0)]
hp 70 (12d8 + 12)
Fort +9 Ref +4 Will +4


Speed 30ft
Melee Masterwork Blacksmith’s Hammer +12/+7 (1d8 + 3/x3)


Str 15 (+2) Dex 11 (+0) Con 13 (+1) Int 16 (+3) Wis 11 (+0) Cha 6 (-2)
Base Atk +9/+4; CMB +11; CMD 21
Feats Craft Magic Arms & Armor*, Craft Wondrous Item*, Master Craftsman(Craft Weapons), Skill Focus (Craft Weapons), Skill Focus (Craft Armor), Master Craftsman(Craft Armor), Master Craftsman(Craft Jewelry)
Skills Appraise +18, Craft(Weapons) +26, Craft(Armor) +26, Craft(Locks) +18, Craft(Jewelry) +20, Intimidate +13, Knowledge(History of Dwarves, Arms, and Armor) +18, Profession (Blacksmith) +15, Spellcraft +18, Use Magic Device +13
Languages Common, Dwarven
Gear Heavy Leather Apron, Masterwork Blacksmith’s Hammer, Masterwork metal crafting tools, 500gp

*Technically, according to the rules in Pathfinder, one must be a caster of level X to take these feats. However, I not only find that silly, but downright offensive to the proud history of the Fantasy genre. If this rule were to be enforced, then every master smith in fantasy literature would need at least a few levels of wizard. How many dwarven smiths seem like wizard types to you?

Edit: -C of Hack & Slash pointed out in the comments that I overlooked the Master Craftsman feat, which allows non-casters to qualify for Craft Magic Arms and Armor, and Craft Wondrous Item. I also notice that I forgot to increase the benefit from skills focus from +3 to +6 after 10 ranks. Both issues have been corrected. Sorry about the mistake everybody! -LS

Book Review: Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons and Dragons by Shelly MazzanobleA few weeks back, whilst perusing the shelves at my local gaming/comic shop, Fantasium, I saw this book sitting next to the small selection of RPG-based fiction. “Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons,” by Shelly Mazzanoble. Ostensibly, it’s a parody of self-help books. Everything I need to know… points to D&D as the source of “all the answers™.” I thought it was a pretty amusing idea, but being on something of a budget I wasn’t sure if it would deliver. The whimsical doodles of adventurers on the back cover, though, convinced me to give the book a shot.

I took it, along with my other purchases, up to the counter, and started chatting with the store’s owner. I learned that the book had only been released that very day. The owner mentioned that copies had been flying off the shelf so quickly, she was concerned she wasn’t going to have an opportunity to snag one for herself. Apparently the author’s previous book, Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress had been quite good. I also learned, to my delight, that the author was a woman. Women are so extremely underrepresented in this hobby that I was thrilled to find a book written by one. Since I wasn’t driving that day, I cracked it open as soon as we were on the road.

As is often the case, the back cover somewhat misrepresented the book. It becomes obvious within the first chapter that it is not a parody of self help books. Rather, it is a series of personal anecdotes from the author’s life in which Dungeons and Dragons helped her solve problems. None the less, the book gets off to a good start. Ms. Mazzanoble has a very conversational style of writing which serves her well. There was a paragraph in the first chapter where she describes her first encounter with D&D players, and the passion they have for their hobby. It was so well written as to be legitimately touching. Not only does she have the ability to be poignant, but the author is legitimately funny as well. The humor didn’t often make me laugh out loud, but it did keep me turning pages through the first few chapters. After that, though, the whole facade starts to wear thin.

Each of the stories contained within the book seem to fall into one of two, equally insulting categories. First, there are the stories which seem entirely contrived. For example, in one chapter Shelly decides to spend each day of the week ‘worshiping’ a different deity from the Dungeons and Dragons mythos. She writes that she did this to help herself explore spirituality. But if I had to guess, I’d say her motivation was to fill 181 pages. Second, there are the stories in which D&D’s involvement seems to have been added retroactively. Such as when she’s wondering if she should ask her boyfriend to move in with her. She asks herself “what would my character do.” When she decides that her character wouldn’t sweat the small stuff, she resolves to be more spontaneous. This culminates in a spur-of-the-moment day trip with her boyfriend, which goes just well enough for her to feel comfortable asking him to move in. I hate to call anybody a liar (honestly, I do) but that just reeks of retcon. The story functions perfectly well if you remove all mentions of D&D from it. And when your book is about D&D, that’s a problem.

Perhaps what bothers me most about the pervading aura of contrivance which surrounds these stories, is that I could actually write a book about how D&D changed my life. How it helped me see that the strict religious cult I was raised in was overly controlling. How it taught me the importance of establishing systems and impartial arbitration. How it made me a better writer, and gave me an outlet to explore my creativity before I had the confidence to write stories. I imagine many or most players would have similar experiences to share. In fact, an anthology of essays about how RPGs changed people’s lives is a fantastic idea…but I’m getting off track.

It is a slap in the face just how little D&D is actually present in this book. Each chapter generally contains two distinct parts. “The Problem,” which takes the form of an extended story from the author’s life, culminating in an obstacle which must be overcome. These are generally engaging tales, told in the author’s amusing style. The second part is “The (Attempted) Solution.” This is where D&D comes into the picture, with the author making a hair-brained attempt to use the game as a problem solving device. Generally the chapters are split about 50/50 between the two parts. That means that D&D is featured in about half of the book. This is despite the fact that D&D is almost certainly the reason people bought the book in the first place. If I had to identify the true subject matter of Everything I Need to Know…, it is really more about the Shelly Mazzanoble’s relationship with her mother than it is about Dungeons and Dragons.

I get that this book was not written for me, but I can’t for the life of me figure out who it was written for. It’s marketed to people who play tabletop RPGs, so whoever the target audience is, they must be some subset of tabletop gamers. Considering how infrequently D&D is actually talked about, and how every reference is explained in excessive detail, it must be aimed at very casual players, or perhaps potential players which Wizards of the Coast is hoping to ensnare with this book. Finally, add in the fact that the book includes more references to reality television than to gaming, and it becomes clear what this book actually is.

This book is marketing. Hell, Shely Mazzanoble even works in Wizards of the Coast’s marketing department. The idea is clearly for the book to be a handy gift for gamers to give their girlfriends, as a means of enticing them to play. And, honestly, I wouldn’t have a problem with that if not for how it was done. Women are underrepresented in our hobby. We’ve alienated them, and it’s good to reach out to them. But apparently, WotC thinks that women are some kind of mysterious creature which can only be coaxed into buying a product if the sales pitch contains numerous references to shoe shopping.

Since WotC doesn’t seem to understand this, allow me to spell it out: women gamers are gamers. When a woman buys a book about gaming, she’s looking for a book about gaming. She doesn’t need you to take the edge off of the “scary boy’s game” by interspersing it with references to Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City.

With all of that having been said, I want to add once more that Ms. Mazzanoble is not a bad writer. If the book were truly abysmal, I would not have finished it. The stories would have been very enjoyable had I not been tricked into purchasing the book under the pretense that it was about D&D. But that kind of thing is often a decision of the publisher, not the author. I’ll probably still read the author’s first book, Confessions of a Part Time Sorceress. Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like a far superior book.

I’d like to close this post by talking about my favorite part of the book: the last chapter. No, I’m not being glib. The last chapter is the only one which struck me as being real. The only chapter where I felt Dungeons and Dragons was essential to the story. If the rest of the book had been of the same quality as the last chapter, you would have read a very different review just now.

The final story in the book presents the problem of children. Shelly’s mother wants her to have some, whilst Shelly is downright opposed to the idea. None the less, when a minor emergency leaves Shelly in charge of her friend’s two kids, she needs to find a way to connect with them. Otherwise the entire evening will just be a lot of awkward staring. She suggests a few kid-friendly activities like watching a movie, but nothing engages the two until she recommends a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The experience is new and different, and the children excitedly play their roles and roll their dice. Shelly even lets them keep a D20, and learns from the children’s mother later on that she’s now their favorite person in the world. The whole experience leaves her feeling less terrified of children, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Dungeons and Dragons.

That’s a D&D story.

On Character Generation V.S. Character Building

Bad Rolls for Character Stats D6 Character SheetYesterday I wrote regarding the general consensus I’ve observed in the OSR community regarding player agency and game master guidance. On that issue the OSR community is very much opposed to the emphasis on GM guidance they perceive to be more present in modern games than in older ones. And, while their criticisms have merit, I ultimately disagree.

Today’s post is similar. It again relates to the OSR community, this time relating to character creation and progression. The consensus is that the forms of character generation used in older role playing games are superior to systems of character building present in more modern RPGs. I’ll explore this in more depth below, but first I’d like to define these two terms as I understand them.

Character Generation is quick, simple, and requires a minimum of knowledge on the part of the character. Many character generation systems actively discourage GMs from allowing their players too much access to the rules, because knowing what the rules are will limit what the player thinks they can do. Often these systems are not much deeper than rolling dice for your basic statistics and picking a class. Generating a character is a great way to get into the game quickly, with a minimal amount of time spent on other things.

Character Building, by contrast, can be a very intensive process. Ability scores tend to be generated less randomly, with many of the most modern systems simply using a point-buy as the default. Players have a multitude (some might even say a deluge) of options available to them to customize and specialize their character’s abilities. Character building systems offer greater depth to a player interested in customizing their character.

These are less dichotomous than simple labels would imply. There are gradations between the two, as well as alternatives to either system. Traveler’s ‘lifepath’ system is both amazing, and unlike anything described above. However, in most games (particularly those closely related to Dungeons and Dragons) some variant of character generation or character building is used.

As a matter of personal preference, when I’m a player, I’m very attached to the character building model. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the speed, simplicity, and unpredictability of character generation. However, when Zalekios finishes a hard day’s work being a horrible person, and the GM goes home, I’m still on a role-playing high. I want more. Unfortunately, as a player, there’s not a lot more for me to do. The only thing I have control over is my character.

Which is why Zalekios often has written and diagrammed plans prepared for the next gaming session. It’s why I designed my own character sheet layout for him, I’ve made character sheets for NPCs in his backstory and sent them along to my GM in case he ever wants to use them. It’s why I’m level 12, but already have my character sheet ready-to-go for when I hit level 13. The fact of the matter is that I enjoy fiddling with my character.

Having said that, the OSR community is correct. Character building is harmful to RPGs.

When I think back over my career as a game master–a great deal more extensive than my career as a player–I have a hard time coming up with any of my players who enjoyed building their character. Many, if not most, have needed me to help them with updating their character sheet for every successive level. And that includes the group in which I purchased Player’s Handbooks for the entire party. Most people are far more interested in playing the game than they are in deciding where to put their skill points. Or at least most people I’ve played with feel that way. Anecdotal evidence is not hard evidence, after all.

This doesn’t mean that complex character building needs to go away. I enjoy it, and I know for a fact that many others enjoy it as well. But if we want our hobby to grow, then we need to make our favorite games more accessible. We need to engage people who are less interested in putting points into acrobatics, and more interested in leaping across a gaping chasm without caring why they landed safely. This is too big to house rule. It needs to be built-in to future systems.

I propose a theoretical system which offers players a choice between character generation and character building. Those players who want to spend their evenings pouring over rulebooks looking for the perfect combination of skills and talents should be able to do so. While players who don’t want to, shouldn’t have to. They should be able to roll their character ten minutes before the game and be ready to go.

This is a difficult, if not impossible task. In order for such a system to function, characters rolled using the shorter method will need to be just as effective overall as other members of the party built by dedicated players. Yet simultaneously, players who spend hours building their characters must not be made to feel as though their efforts have gone to waste. I think this would be best achieved by making a “general purpose” and “special focus” distinction. Whilst a generated fighter would be good at all the things fighters are good at, a built fighter might excel in fighting casters, or taking damage, or sundering weapons, while being less adept in other areas.

Considering the fact that games such as D&D and Pathfinder are unable to maintain class balance in the systems they’ve already got, my theoretical system seems like a pipe dream. I’m confident, though, that with sufficient ingenuity it can potentially be achieved. I fully intend to devote some of my attention to the problem. Until this magical system makes itself manifest, however, we’ve got to make due with what we’ve got.

I’m presently working within Pathfinder to try and devise a stopgap solution. I want to work out a method of character generation & leveling which functions quickly and simply. My current criteria for the system are:

-Characters created using this method must be reasonably well balanced with characters who are built within pathfinder. I’m never going to be able to make a formula for creating Pathfinder characters which will be able to rival min-maxed characters, so I won’t try. All I want is for a party of casual players to be able to contain both built and generated characters without there being an obvious disparity in power.

-The method must be able to easily create a character of any level, not just first level. And it must maintain its ease of use throughout the leveling process.

-Any mechanisms used in this method of quick character generation should be easy to commit to memory. At the very most it could require a single page printout to run effectively.

I’ve made some minor progress. The difficult items like feats, spells, and class abilities such as rogue talents are still hurdles for me to make a jump check at. However, I did come up with a quick method of generating skills that I like.

Each class grants x + Int Modifier skill points each level. Select a number of class skills equal to x + Int Modifier. These are the character’s skills. The modifier for any check is Level + 3 + Relevant Ability Modifier.

It’s a start.

On Player Agency, and GM Guidance

Dungeon Master D&D CartoonIn an effort to educate myself further on the variety and subtlety of the role playing hobbyscape, I’ve spent the last few weeks trolling for good blogs. Many of the ones I’ve gravitated towards affiliate themselves with the OSR sub genre of role playing. To sum OSR up in a single sentence, it’s essentially a group of people who think RPGs reached their zenith with older games like first edition Dungeons and Dragons, or Hackmaster. And while I doubt you’ll hear me espousing a return to treating elves and dwarfs as classes rather than races, I firmly believe that history is an excellent teacher, regardless of the subject.

One issue discussed frequently is the conflict between what is called Player Agency (D&D’s version of ethical agency, for my fellow philosophy majors) and what I’ll call GM Guidance. This issue is particularly well illustrated by a post over at Hack & Slash. Stated simply, a player has agency when he or she is able to control their own in-game destiny. Any circumventions of a player’s choice, or arbitrary restriction placed on the choices available, reduces player agency.

The general consensus I’ve observed among the OSR community is that modern games fail at creating sufficient player agency. At best, this failure is the result of a failure to communicate the importance of player agency to gamers. At worst, it is argued, modern games actively discourage or prevent an acceptable degree of player agency. The examples given in the post linked above deal primarily with how fourth edition D&D discourages player agency. Any game, though, can suppress player agency if the GM fails to recognize how important it is to preserve.

On this matter, the OSR community has a point. Any game master of quality will warn new GMs of the temptations and dangers of railroading. And I’ve often told new players that the most remarkable thing about this hobby is that you can do anything with it. That freedom, that player agency is what makes these types of games so worth playing. To harm that freedom by telling a player who just wants to hunt for treasure “No, the king wants you to go on a diplomatic mission!” is bad game mastering.

Where I start to disagree with the OSR community is when they espouse unrestricted player agency. The idea that the GM should place no limits whatsoever on player freedom. It seems that many view the role of the GM to be one of world total world creation. NPCs may plead the players for help at a village to the north, and a sage may hint at a long forgotten dungeon to the east, but if the players want to go South West the GM damned well better be able to keep up. As fun as that sounds, I cannot accept it as the ‘correct’ way to play.

The work which goes into simply running a pre-written adventure for your players warrants some guidance from the GM. At a minimum, published adventures are thirty or forty pages long. That’s an evening’s worth of reading, plus any additional time the GM would need to create reference sheets, handouts, maps, or to integrate the module’s locations into the campaign world. And as much time as that would take, it is easily the least work-intensive method to prepare a game. Designing a high quality adventure from scratch requires creativity, and hours of preparation detailing locations, challenges, and so forth.

I always hesitate to use my own experiences as an example in an argument, because that’s simply anecdotal. However, in the years I’ve engaged in this hobby, both as a player and as a GM, I’ve never felt as though fun was lost due to the guidance of a game master. As a player, I make sure the GM knows what my player wants. If I want treasure, I’ll try to find a treasure map, or even just tell the GM that I’d like to go looking for some treasure. As a GM, I ask my players after each game what they liked, what they didn’t like, and if there’s anything they want to do moving forward. Much to my delight, they’re often too busy talking about how awesome it was when they ran away from the tribe of goblins to pay much mind to my probing.

That’s what’s really important: engaging your players. It doesn’t matter if you nudge them along a vaguely linear progression, or simply drop them in a sandbox. So long as your players are engaged and having fun, you’re doing it right. There is no excuse for half-assing your plot hooks and expecting your players to fall in line. Nor is there an excuse for dropping your players into a finely crafted campaign world and being frustrated when they want someone to give them some direction.

I don’t want anybody to think I dislike sandbox style role playing, however. I actually prepared a campaign world for one once, several years back, which I was going to play with members of my World of Warcraft guild. That game fell apart, but the more I learn from the OSR community, the more I want to give it another try with the tools and knowledge I’ve gained in the years since that first attempt. Both styles of play are an excellent way to spend time with friends, or to make new friends.

Above all, Game Masters should remember: players will always defy your expectations. It’s their job to break your game, and if you don’t know how to handle it, you’re doing it wrong.


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.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.