Why I Use Unearthed Arcana’s Weapon Groups

Cover Art for Unearthed Arcana High ResolutionSince purchasing the Pathfinder Core Rulebook earlier this year, it has almost completely replaced Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 in my affections. So many of the overcomplicated mechanics in 3.5 have been reduced to rules which are simple to memorize and enact. And many areas in which 3.5 was lacking (there were many times when “leveling up” only meant more HP) have been beefed up by Paizo. Resulting in, I think, a much more balanced and entertaining game. Pathfinder is not perfect, by any means. It even created a few new problems which 3.5 didn’t have to begin with. But the point stands that Pathfinder is an improvement.

So much so that I sometimes forget Pathfinder was designed to be compatible with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 content. With a little tweaking, most of which can be done in the GM’s head, any D&D 3.5 supplement or adventure module can be used to enhance a Pathfinder game. So while Paizo is busy doing such a good job recruiting new players into our fine hobby, many of those new players may be interested in what D&D 3.x books are worth purchasing to add to their Pathfinder collection. It would perhaps be beneficial to construct a list of the best & most relevant 3.5 supplements. I would need to read the handful I missed before doing so, but I have no doubt that Unearthed Arcana would be damned near the top of my list.

Named for the AD&D first edition supplement of the same name, Unearthed Arcana is 218 pages of optional & alternate rules for D&D. You may recall the book from yesterday’s Colorful Characters 6. The Gestalt system I used in that post comes from Unearthed Arcana. Every page of the book is worth a dragon’s horde. It holds mechanics and fluff for anything from variations on race and class, to systems for reputation and sanity. A more descriptive title for the book might be “The Big Book of House Rules,” but it’s just not as snappy. It’s the book so nice, I got it twice. For serious.

One of my favorite segments of the book is a three-page alternate rule nestled in chapter three, called Weapon Group Feats. It has been included as an optional rule in every game I’ve run since, from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder. The exact text of the rule, pulled straight from Unearthed Arcana, is available to read on HypertextD20 SRD, but I will sum it up here for clarity’s sake just the same.

Using the standard rules, all weapons are classified either as simple, martial, or exotic. Most classes begins play with proficiency either in simple, or simple and martial weapon types. Characters who attempt to use weapons which do not fall into a group they are proficient with take a -4 penalty on attack rolls. Exotic weapons are a special type which are normally more powerful than other weapons, but each specific exotic weapon requires a feat be taken in order to wield it without penalty. On the face of it, the system makes sense. Fighters obviously receive more weapon training than wizards do, so they’re able to wield more advanced and deadly weapons. Unsurprisingly, I have a number of problems with this arrangement, but I’ll go into them in a moment.

The weapon group system appears somewhat more complicated, but is ultimately quite simple. Essentially, the 3 weapon classifications are replaced by more specific ones which identify the weapon’s basic group. Examples of groups might be Axes, Bows, Heavy Blades, or Spears & Lances. Mindful of the increased effectiveness of exotic weapons, characters are still considered non-proficient with such a weapon, even if they are proficient with the weapon group it falls into. Characters must take Weapon Group (Exotic) in order to gain access to those weapons. Thus, instead of each class starting the game being proficient in either one or both primary weapon groups, each class begins play with the option to select a number of weapon groups they are proficient with. Barbarians can select three, Bards can select two, etcetera.

I resolutely believe the latter system to be superior for the following reasons:

Unearthed Arcana Warrior Studying Weapon GroupsIncreased Realism & Increased Simplicity Almost without exception, increased realism means increased complexity. Sometimes, this is an acceptable exchange, but with games like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, complexity is already high. And while the weapon groups rule would seem to be more complicated than the basic proficiency rules, it’s much more intuitive. If a character who has been using a dagger up to now finds a +2 hand axe they may be tempted to switch, but in order to determine whether or not they are proficient they need to crack open the rulebook and find the chart which details which weapons fit into which proficiency group. Using weapon groups, the player need only look at his character sheet to know what types of weapons he or she knows how to use.

Allowing Player’s their Weapon of Choice You don’t have to be a GM to realize that players care about the weapon their characters use. It’s often one of the first parts of the character concept they come up with. “A dwarf paladin who fights with a trident,” “an elven rogue who is a master of the kukri,” “a halfling fighter who specializes in spear fighting.” If players are so interested in the weapons they get to use, why should the game pointlessly restrict them from using it? It’s not as though a wizard who uses a longsword is going to suddenly rival the fighter in melee combat. The wizard still has a -2 strength and the worst base attack bonus in the game. He’s never going to hit anything. There’s no reason to add a -4 “screw your character concept” penalty to that.

Makes Weapon Specific Feats Less Lame
There are a number of feats in the game which require the character to select a weapon to take them with, such as weapon focus, or weapon specialization. These are great feats which avoid all the pitfalls I hate about feats, players should be encouraged to take them. However, when you take Weapon Focus(Longsword), there’s always the nagging worry in your mind that you’re going to find a +5 Vorpal Scimitar in the next treasure pile. Replacing that with Weapon Focus (Heavy Blades) goes a long way towards reducing the player’s worry.

Treasure Hordes Don’t Seem Tailored
Often, partially because of the previous point, GMs feel obligated to include direct upgrades to a player’s weapon. If a player has invested a lot of time in their battleaxe skills, then eventually they’re going to want +1, +2, & +3 battleaxes. But it starts to feel painfully contrived when players just happen to find treasure hordes which include those things. If players can switch freely between types of axes without penalties, this becomes much less of an issue.

I do have one minor issue with the weapon group system as written in Unearthed Arcana. The number of proficiencies listed for each class to select at first level is far too low. There are 17 potential proficiencies listed there, yet the highest number of first level proficiencies is four for the fighter. And Druids, Sorcerers, and Wizards benefit from the system not at all. I prefer to add 2 additional weapon group choices for each of the classes. This allows everyone more freedom. Classes with a small number of proficiency selections, such as the wizard, can still know how to use an exotic weapon (which they’ll still never hit with.) And classes which are supposed to be martial masters, such as the fighter, gain some depth to their weapons mastery.

Colorful Characters 6: The Owlbear

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Monster Manual Owlbear ArtWhen The Owlbear was born, she was called Ebrya Wucen. Her parents were nobles in good standing with both the nobility, and the common people. Her father had devoted himself to the clerical magics, and never required any payment for his healing services. Her mother was an engineer, who helped design the city’s aqueduct system. Ebrya’s childhood was happy.

When Ebrya was eight years old, her family visited the court of a fellow noble family of somewhat higher rank. There, they were entertained by a jester of great skill. Up until the moment she went to bed, the young girl jabbered on about how funny he had been. Three hours later she was awakened by that same jester, who bound her tightly and propped her up against the wall. From that position, she could see that her parents had been bound as well. The Jester drew a meat cleaver from within his cloak, and began to attack Lord and Lady Wucen. Ebrya closed her eyes, but she could still hear the wet chopping sounds, and her parents muffled screams, which seemed to continue for hours.

The scene wasn’t discovered until the morning. There were no pieces of Ebrya’s parents large enough to identify. Those in the castle tried to shield Ebrya from the slaughter, but it was far too late for that. The young girl had been forever changed. The jester was caught a mere fortnight later. As it turned out, he had merely been an assassin posing as a jester. Who sent him was never discovered, and he was executed soon after his capture. Meanwhile, Ebrya left to be raised by her parent’s devoted servants, all of whom loved her dearly, and did their best to raise her as her parents would have wished.

Ebrya started sneaking out at night, just to get away from the home where she had lived with her parents. After realizing her fine clothes made her stand out too much, Ebrya took to wearing the dirtiest rags she could find. It wasn’t long before she simply blended in with all of the other children living on the streets. She befriended some of them, though never really grew close to anyone. They taught her how to survive on the streets; how to hide, steal, and fight to get whatever you needed.

One evening when Ebrya was 13, she witnessed a beating. She often saw fights. Fights were commonplace, it was how many disputes were settled away from the gilded halls of the nobility. This was not a fight. A scrawny man–she recognized him as a local sneakthief–was brutally kicking a 10 year old pickpocket in the stomach repeatedly. For a moment Ebrya was at a loss for how to help. Instinctually she ran up to the man and kicked him in the back of the knee. She was as shocked as he was when he fell flat on his back. She barely kept enough presence of mind to give him two hard kicks in the head before helping the younger child up and running off.

For Ebrya, the what she felt after that was life changing. She felt really powerful for the first time since her parents’ murder. Not only had she physically dominated a man who, while scrawny, was still much larger than her; but more importantly she had stopped further harm from coming to an innocent. She wanted to feel more of that, and so she convinced her caretakers to hire a hand-to-hand combat instructor for her.

Two years later, Ebrya left her home in the company of her parent’s most trusted servant: Refald. The old man accompanied her as she made a long pilgrimage to the Monastery Of The Moon’s Back, an ancient structure far to the north, nestled in the snow capped mountains which marked the edge of the kingdom. There lived an even more ancient order of monastic warriors. When she arrived, she begged them to accept her as one of them. They told her to wait while the deliberated, and left her outside of the monastery. She knew how much monks respect discipline, so she remained standing at attention outside the door. She remained there for seven days, save for when she slept or ate. Refald insisted that they return home, but Ebrya would not be swayed. At dawn on the eight day, the monks opened the door, and accepted Ebrya as one of them. She turned to Refald, entrusted him with the affairs of her parent’s house, and disappeared inside.

No one would see the girl again for 12 years. In that time she trained constantly, mastering every aspect of the martial skills. And when she returned home a grown woman, she found things much the same as she had left them. Refald was still maintaining her parent’s affairs, with a dozen other servants besides. More importantly, the city streets were still filled with crime and brutality. Ebrya began preparations as soon as she returned, dipping into her parent’s impressive holdings (which had continued to grow under Refald’s management) and purchasing the equipment she would need through far-off vendors, under fake names.

She constructed for herself a disguise which would strike terror into the hearts of those who would harm the weak. She kept the simple uniform of the monastery, dyed black, and added to it a great brown hooded cloak which she adorned with owl bear feathers around its edges. To cover her face, she acquired a large pair of goggles, and the beak of a real owlbear, enchanted to alter her voice. Her house staff was somewhat unsettled by this, but they had known and loved her all of her life, and supported their mistress in this endeavor.

And so did Lady Ebrya Wucen put away her name in favor of one which would give pause to those who would harm others: The Owlbear.


Ebrya is not a jovial person. You could count the number of times she’s smiled since her parent’s murder on your fingers. She feels a great deal of empathy for those in need, however, and will rush to their aid in whatever way is most appropriate at the time. As The Owlbear, she may save people from a burning building or beat an evildoer into submission. As Lady Ebrya, she spends much of her family’s wealth establishing orphanages and hospitals which she personally visits frequently.

As the Owlbear, she speaks only when necessary. She much prefers not to be seen as well, so if possible she keeps her distance from anyone she’s not fighting. As Lady Wucen, she has become a social recluse. She pours all her time into her charitable projects, and otherwise doesn’t seem to leave her manor.


The Owlbear is a ferocious fighter, and could easily stand toe-to-toe with any combat veteran. However, she much prefers to strike from hiding. During an extended combat, even against inferior foes, The Owlbear will take what opportunities present themselves to hide herself. Once concealed, she will again spring out at her opponent, taking them by surprise.

The Owlbear prefers not to draw blood, avoiding strikes to areas which bleed freely such as the forehead. Though the sight of blood does not sicken her, it does bring back painful memories of the murder Ebrya witnessed as a child. She also prefers not to kill, though neither preference is set in stone for The Owlbear. If blood or death is required, then blood and death are acceptable.

Thoughts On use

The Owlbear is a vigilantee in a large city. There are a number of ways in which the players could encounter her.

  1. The players, in performing some crime, are attacked by The Owlbear.
  2. The players, in investigating some crime, find that The Owlbear has already trashed the villains the PCs were hoping to interrogate.
  3. The players are contracted by a noble who wants The Owlbear dealt with. (Evil PCs could be given the truth, while good PCs might be told that The Owlbear is a deadly criminal.)
  4. In a political game, the PCs hear about “Strange Lady Wucen, never the same since her parents died. Now she stays holed up in her house…poor lady.”

Once in play, though, The Owlbear’s use is very simple: a distrusting friend to good players, and a relentless foe to evil players.

Interesting Facts

-Ebrya is completely asexual. She is not interested in sexuality, no matter what. Note that she is not disgusted by it. If anything, she is completely apathetic about sex.

-Many of the nobles in the city are finding their less-than-legal methods of income are being hindered by The Owlbear’s activities. There are a number of contracts out for her head.

-Ebrya has never been comfortable with jesters or other mirthmakers since her parent’s murder. It’s a large part of why she never laughs, the sound itself brings back the guilt she still feels over having enjoyed the antics of the man who would, hours later, kill her parents.

Statblock Notes

This character was built using the Gestalt alternate rules established in the brilliant D&D 3.5 supplement “Unearthed Arcana.” Since the Gestalt system was published under the Open Games License, you can view a detailed account of it at HypertextD20 SRD. However, the simple version of the Gestalt system is that the character takes two classes simultaneously, gaining the best parts of each one as they level.

I would not recommend using gestalt in most situations. In an ideal party of at least 3 PCs, gestalt builds would unnecessarily unbalance the party. Additionally, gestalt further complicates the already complicated D&D 3.X / Pathfinder character creation system, so it is inadvisable for new players. When it comes in handy is A: when there are only one or two players, and the characters need to be more powerful in order for the party to be well rounded, or B: when the GM wants to create a truly memorable opponent for the PCs. Of course, some may just enjoy playing characters who are insanely overpowered, and that’s cool too.

Ebrya “The Owlbear” Wucen (CR 17)

XP: 76,800
Female Human 16 (Gestalt Rogue 16/Monk 16)
LG humanoid
Init +8; Senses Perception +20 (+28 to find traps), Darkvision 60ft


AC 23, Flat Footed 13, Touch 23 [10 + Monk(4) + Wis(1) + Dex (4) + Ring(3) + Dodge(1)] (Cannot be caught flat footed or flanked)
Spell Resist 26
hp 116 (16d10 + 32)
Fort +11 Ref +14 (+5 vs. Traps)(1/2 dmg on success, no damage on failure) Will + 11 (+2 vs enchantments)


Speed 85ft
Melee Unarmed +17/+12/+7(3d8 + 3/x2)
Flurry of Blows +14/+14/+9/+9/+4/+4/-1
Ranged Dagger + +16/+11/+6(1d3/x2)
Sneak Attack 8d6
Ki Pool 9


Str 16 (+3) Dex 18 (+4) Con 13 (+1) Int 18 (+4) Wis 13 (+1) Cha 12 (+1)
Base Atk +12/+7/+2; CMB +19 (No AOO & +2 for Grapple, disarm, trip); CMD 29 (+2 vs. grapple, disarm, trip)
Feats Improved Initiative, Fleet, Dodge, Combat Reflexes, Power Attack, Cleave, Great Cleave, Grappling Hook Mastery, Improved Grapple, Improved Unarmed Strike, Stunning Fist, Deflect Arrows, Improved Disarm, Improved Trip
Rogue Talents Fast Stealth, Weapon Training (Unarmed), Finesse Rogue, Improved Evasion, Feat (Quick Draw), Feat (Toughness), Feat (Skill Focus: Acrobatics)
Skills Acrobatics (+29)(+37 for jumping, +57 for jumping if 1 point of ki is spent), Climb (+22), Disable Device (+31), Escape Artist (+23), Intimidate (+20), Knowledge(Local) (+23), Knowledge(Nobility) (+12), Linguistics (+23), Perception (+20)(+28 to find traps), Ride (+18), Sense Motive (+20), Slight of Hand (+23), Stealth (+23), Survival (+9), Swim (+11), Use magic Device (+20)
Languages Common, Abyssal, Aklo, Aquan, Auran, Celestial, Draconic, Dwarven, Elven, Giant, Gnome, Goblin, Gnoll, Halfling, Ignan, Infernal, Orc, Sylvan, Terran, Undercommon
Special Qualities
–Power attack
: May choose to take a -4 penalty on attack rolls in exchange for a +8 on damage rolls.
Great Cleave: If you hit, you may attack an adjacent foe within reach at your full BAB, and may continue doing so until you miss. You may not strike the same foe twice while using this ability, and you take a -2 to your AC until the next turn.
Combat Reflexes: You may make attacks of opportunity each round equal to your Dex bonus (4), and may make attacks of opportunity even while flat footed.
Grappling Hook Mastery: When using the grappling hook to latch on to a stationary object, you gain a +4 on the attack roll. The Range Increment of the Grappling hook is also 20ft.
Slow Fall: When a wall is within arm’s reach, the character takes damage as though the fall were 80ft shorter than it is.
Stunning Fist: In addition to damage, foes hit by unarmed attack must make DC: 19 fort save or be affected by one of the following conditions for one round as chosen by attacker: Stunned, Fatigued, Sickened, Staggered for 1d6 + 1 rounds, or permanently Blind / Deaf
Deflect Arrows: Once per round, when you would normally be hit by a ranged attack, you may deflect the projectile, taking no damage from it.
Purity of Body:Character is immune to all disease.
Wholeness of Body: May use 2 points of Ki to heal 16 damage.
Diamond Body: Immunity to poison of all kinds.
Abundant Step: 2 points of ki allow a single use of Dimensional Door as the spell. May not take other creatures along.
Quivering palm: 1/day, Quicering Palm attack can be declared. Roll attack normally, if damage is dealt, then within 16 days the monk may attempt to kill the target as a free action. Fortitude DC 19 negates.
Gear Goggles of Darkvision, Owlbear’s Screech, Ring of Protection +3, Amulet of Protection from Scrying, 3x grappling hooks, 3x 100ft coils of silk rope, 30x throwing knives, spyglass, crowbar, 10 pair of masterwork manacles, 5 vials of acid, 5 vials of alchemists fire, 5 tunderstones, 5 smokesticks, magnifying glass, journal, ink, quill, masterwork lockpicking tools, Wand of Scrying 27 charges, Wand of Deep Slumber 10 charges, Wand of Illusory Wall 44 charges, simple black hooded cloak & monk’s fighting clothes, 1000gp, belt containing 2 dozen small bags of holding

New Feat: Grappling Hook Mastery

You are extremely deft with the use of a grappling hook.
Benefit: When using a grappling hook to latch on to a stationary object, the thrower gains a +4 on the ranged touch attack required. The range increment of the grappling hook is improved to 20ft.
Normal: You must succeed on a ranged attack roll to latch on to an object. The range increment of the grappling hook is treated as 10ft.

New Item: Owlbear’s Roar

Aura Faint Illusion; CL 3rd
Covers Mouth and cheeks; Price 7,500 gp;Weight 1 lb.


This real owlbear’s beak has been enchanted to alter the voice of the speaker. The tone which comes forth from the beak is deep and raspy, making it impossible to distinguish who the speaker is. This item is primarily used to provide the user with an intimidating edge, granting a +2 to all intimidate checks.


Requirements Craft Wonderous Item, an Owlbear’s Beak, Magic Mouth; Cost 3,750 gp

Yes, this is supposed to be Batman. I wrote it because Arkham City came out for PC today, and my life is officially going to be consumed by it.

Sitting Behind the GM Screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What LS' Gaming Table Looks Like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts On Hero Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what if I just switched it around?

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

Pathfinder House Rule: Using Simple XP as Hero Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online Video: LoadingReadyRun’s Rarelywinter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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