Crisis on Moonfallen Earth!

Just a quick recap: we’ve discussed the expository phase and the use of complications. Now it’s time for the crisis! Technically, the crisis is the event that leads immediately forward on to the climax. While this is sometimes clear, it can be debatable which single event in a complex narrative leads to the obvious climax. In the final season of Game of Thrones – spoiler warning, by the way – for example, the crisis is the sacking of King’s Landing by Daenerys with all of its attendant wanton dragon-induced destruction.

In traditional narratives, the crisis leads to some kind of resolution by the protagonist or protagonists whose determination leads them to succeed against incredible odds. I’m thinking now of The Avengers which features a devastating attack on the helicarrier before the individual members of the team regroup and gather in New York to face the invading hordes led by Loki. The attack on the helicarrier leads directly to the climax of the film, where the avengers ass- *ahem* gather to defend Earth against an alien invasion. Narratively, this all makes sense and follows a familiar arc. Fans of Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces will note some resonance here.

But, in a game like Pathfinder Second Edition, what might happen that allows for our protagonists to experience a crisis? It is hard, for example, to have a helicarrier scene when the default assumption of the gaming engine is that the player characters are competent and able to generally handle level-appropriate challenges. Setting the challenge higher than one which is considered level appropriate is one solution, but the risk the game master faces is robbing players of agency.

If a direct challenge – generally combat or something that can be resolved by clever use of skills – doesn’t work so well, what might? Well, for starters the player characters are not omnipresent. Dungeon World includes an idea called Fronts – which I’ll deal with in more detail someday – which suggests that as the villain advances their own goals, there will be more going on than the players can necessarily deal with. Kidnapping a crucial NPC, for example, is a way to have a crisis. Another thing that is quite plausible, particularly in campaigns set in one location, is to have the villagers/townspeople/burghers/city folk/whatevers ask the heroes to leave because their presence has caused an escalation of danger.

One of my favourite short stories is “The Lottery.” This classic written by Shirley Jackson describes a town that has a lottery to sacrifice a member of the village in what is apparently a fertility ritual. The realization that things are not what they seem is a great crisis. In a role playing game, having a similar realization might give the party a chance to intercede in the ritual sacrifice, in which case the climax is an attempt to stop something that has been happening for a long time.

Another way to lead to a crisis is to have the villain make their move. In Hamlet, this is when Claudius reveals his plan to have the king of England murder Hamlet in lieu of tribute. Hamlet is forced to escape via deux ex pirateum (that’s off-screen pirates who save him?) and when he returns to Denmark his revenge plot reaches its logical end. (Hamlet dies. I’m not sorry. No spoiler warnings for 419 year old plays.)

Alternatively, something could happen within the setting that is the crisis. In my former campaign, the crisis was a solar eclipse that allowed the invading aberrations to consolidate their position and trapped the party within the town the campaign was set in. (I’m being vague, so as to avoid invoking too much of the intellectual property of my favourite gaming company.) This helped me to bring everything I needed together in one place, while removing one advantage the players had over the non-players.

The final suggestion I’ll give is this: the antagonist of a campaign doesn’t have to be actively harming the player characters to bring about a crisis. Their actions could be, for example, perfectly legal. Maybe they’ve baked an apple pie. But whatever happens, from a narrative standpoint, it should provoke the final conflict.

In my sequel campaign – I think I’m going to call it Moonfall – the players will realize there is something wrong with North Harbour fairly soon. That’s my complication, however. The crisis will lead into a final confrontation with the Witch-King of Kærth, but I’m going to leave it up to the players to decide how they approach that confrontation. There is also the possibility that the remaining moons will do something magical and potentially world altering, like waking up the dead or causing the entire population of a town to transform into ravenous hordes of werebadgers or something like that. Who can say?

For next week, it’ll be the penultimate installment in this series: Climaxes!

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Favourite Thing Friday: The Order of the Stick

The Order of the Stick is a long-running webcomic that follows the adventures of the titular order as they attempt to prevent the destruction of the universe at the hands of a power-mad lich and a divine mistake. I love it, and I bet you will too. Check it out at http://www.giantitp.com.

Madness Rules

I’d like to preface this post by stating something important: I am not a mental health professional, and this post does not and should not be taken as any kind of serious examination of real-life mental health issues, therapy, or advice. It is a discussion of rules which attempt to simulate, in some sense, the effects of mind-bending things on characters in Pathfinder Second Edition.

There are already a bunch of rules for modelling Sanity and Madness in OGL games, and some of those can be found here:

The first of the links comes from the first edition book Horror Adventures and includes a bunch of subsystems, while the second is more or less a port of the sanity rules from Call of Cthulhu into the d20 System. (Kenneth Hite has been known to say that Call of Cthulhu is the best system ever written, and he’s probably right.

The Pathfinder Sanity rules essentially create a pool of mental hit points along with a mental armor class, and use ability score damage to model a character’s descent into madness. I hate ability score damage, and I don’t think it exists in Pathfinder Second Edition (if it does, I’ve repressed that knowledge). In terms of porting something to Pathfinder Second Edition, this doesn’t really appeal to my sensibilities and potentially creates a bunch of extra book keeping that I don’t want to do.

The d20 rules are similar, but have a kind of death spiral mechanic in them: the more you are exposed to things which cause insanity, the less resilient you are to them. The differences in how skills work in the d20 System and Pathfinder Second Edition are too great to just start using those rules either.

One solution would be to create a set of Mental Health conditions that mirror the death and dying rules in Pathfinder Second Edition. In this case, in the immediate context in which a character’s mental health is damaged, they would gain the Stupefied Condition; however, if a character failed a second will save, they might gain an affliction.

There aren’t any mental health afflictions in the core rules, so I’ll have to write some, and those will come next week.

In the meantime, I’m not sure I’m entirely satisfied with the result here. After my character saw a doppelganger change form, the GM gave me a temporary insanity, but it was later cured with a Lesser Restoration spell. I’d like something that is a gamable system, while also having some more lasting consequences, but that also preserves player agency.

Until next time…

Monday Musings: Metaphysical Interlude

I’m taking a quick break from my narrative structure series to ask the question: are the Kærthi people, as antagonists, irrevocably evil kill on sight types?

In traditional fantasy rpgs, it is just fine to kill IRC’s and goblins without much thought. They are “Always Chaotic Evil,” so it’s fine. After all, murder hobos gotta murder, right?

But the Kærthi people aren’t orcs, and might not even be evil. I mean, I’m leaning that way since their leader is named The Witch-King, but I also want the game to be about the mortal capacity for evil. Part of this goes to motivation: the Witch-King is trying to corrupt North Harbour’s leadership, but why? Are the Kærthi all this way?

One idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time is something I call The Well of Souls: the only entrance to the underworld is a physical well, and spirits must travel to the well in order to pass into the afterlife. I’m imagining that Moonfall somehow affected the operation of the well, perhaps by reducing its functions or even preventing spirits from moving on at all. If the Yellow King is involved, perhaps it is that he is siphoning off these spirits to fuel some kind of project.

The Witch-King of Kærth might also want to access this source of power. But why? Maybe the Witch-King is possessed by a spirit estranged from the rest of their family. Maybe the Wotch-King is seeking a way to restore the proper functions of the well. I’m not saying they need to be sympathetic, just that there needs to be a good answer to the questions around why he’s doing what he’s doing.

As for the problem of what to do with the Kærthi, I’m still not sure of what to do. They are the ostensible bad guys. On the other hand, I don’t want the setting or rules to enforce the idea that it’s ok to just kill these dudes.

Next week, Crisis on Moonfallen Earth!

Favourite Things

Last week, I recommended Pathfinder Wiki. This week, I’m recommending the Pathfinder 2 Easy Action Tree. This is simply the best organized online rule reference for Pathfinder Second Edition that I’ve seen anywhere. It appears to be comprehensive, and I just really like it a lot. I used the Pathfinder SRD a lot during first edition, but before finding the tree, I wasn’t happy with most of them.

NPC / Monster / Hazard Creation Rules Preview

Paizo posted an excerpt from the upcoming Gamemastery Guide Monster and NPC creation rules, and since I’m signed up to use the compatibility licence (you can tell because I’ve got the fine print and logo at the bottom) I got a heads up in my e-mail! (If you’d like a copy of your very own, click here.)

If you’ve read through Pathfinder Unchained or the monster creation rules for Starfinder, there shouldn’t be any surprises here. Basically, there are a bunch of modifiers listed by level and categorized as Extreme, High, Moderate, and Low, and then you add on relevant abilities. Keywords have abilities attached to them, so if you’re creating an Aeon of some kind, you can make sure that they don’t feel left out when they go to the meetings. Suggested patterns of modifiers are also suggested for different roles of creatures.

These rules look much easier to use than the monster creation rules from Pathfinder First Edition – seriously, I made some creatures and had to find software to manage the numbers – largely because instead of using the same rules for PC’s monster creation is here focused on what players are most likely to notice. One section advises specifically against giving monsters invisible abilities (like Bless) since those raise stats but are not necessarily interesting.

The list of rules systems in the Gamemastery Guide is also previewed, and I think I’m going to buy a copy. Lots of optional rules systems will appear in it, and since I’m playing in Paizo’s sandbox, I won’t try to come up with my own entire systems, when I can look at additions and modifications of theirs.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll create some monsters and NPC’s using these rules and post the results on The Lost Muse Gaming Blog. At first read, I like it a lot. It looks like it will be easier to use, and let me spend more time working on plot and characterization rather than doing math problems. (Fun math problems are still math problems.)

Ysoki Heritage Feats

If this is the first bit on Ysoki you’re reading at the blog, check out the previous posts:

One thing I want to define is the role of the Ysoki in my sequel campaign (sequel campaign? check out the Monday Musings series), and so far I’ve decided that I want them to be good at ritual magic, and also to provide food for North Harbour. I also want them to have an unsettling presence, and to be good at sneaking things. At this point, I’m just going to write the first level Ancestry feats – I’m not sure if the sequel campaign will run beyond the first few levels at this point.

Ysoki Chanter (Ysoki) Level 1
Ysoki Chanters can use Arcane, Nature, Occult, or Religion in place of the primary skill when they are casting rituals. Rituals cast by Ysoki Chanters take one hour less to complete for each additional Ysoki Chanter participating in the ritual; ritual casting still takes a minimum of one hour.

Regurgitation (Ysoki) Level 1
As a reaction you may expel one item from your cheek pouches into your hand.

Unsettling Aura (Ysoki) Level 1
Once per day you may cast Daze.

These ones meet my initial needs to define the role of the Ysoki during my sequel campaign, but typically there is a racial weapon feat, and for the Ysoki I’d also add a couple of options to improve their alchemy and crafting abilities.

We just started playing the Lovecraftian adventure path, so next week I’ll probably look at the sanity/madness rules and how they might be updated to Pathfinder Second Edition.

Monday Musings: Complications & Campaigns

Last week, I wrote about exposition; this week, it’s time for complications! In a narrative, the complication is the part which introduces the conflict. It’s Gandalf asking about the Ring at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Captain America receiving the super-soldier serum just in time to capture the enemy agents sent to steal it, or Lovecraft’s nameless narrator discovering a collection of notes or a musty tome left behind by your grand-uncle. The complication marks the real beginning of the plot. And, as I pointed out last week, the shorter an expository phase can be, the sooner the conflict can begin. Exposition is necessary to understand the conflict, but not necessarily interesting.

When I’m planning to run my Pathfinder Second Edition sessions, I generally try to locate the complication as close to the start of the session as possible; in the first session of my previous campaign, I began with a quick description of the setting (a forest filled with mist on the outskirts of a village), their reason for being present and together (members of the Crimson Coast Trading Company), and then had them roll initiative because they were being attacked by orcs who had just raided the aforementioned village.

For this sequel campaign, I’m trying to reduce the reliance on combat as the signal that a plot development is taking place. The campaign’s villain, the Witch-King of Kærth, is under arrest and in North Harbour. I imagine a kind of house-arrest, in which the Witch-King is permitted to occasionally leave their quarters and is occasionally summoned to advise the city council, with a compliment of North Harbour city guards as the status quo into which conflict must be introduced.

Part of that conflict might be expressed in a kind of struggle among the Ysoki, who keep North Harbour supplied with food and act as a kind of underclass. Perhaps the Witch-King is able to gain allies among the Ysoki, who begin performing favors for him: a little extra food, distributing items and reagents, that kind of thing.

The central plot of the campaign should arise from the complication, and lead directly into the crisis – which I’ll discuss next week.

Favourite Thing: Pathfinder Wiki

This week, my favourite thing is the Pathfinder Wiki. When I’m playing or running a game set in Golarion, this is an indispensable resource. Want to know which deities are which alignment, what a city is like, or key information about metaphysics? Pathfinder Wiki. Check it out.

When I started running games back in 2001, I bought a copy of The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting for D&D 3e. It laid out, kind of like an encyclopedia, its titular campaign setting; however, if I wanted to know about connections between places, people, and the overall meta plot, I basically had to know the book from front to back. Wikis are the best thing because of the interconnected nature of how they present information.

Adventure writing is easier and faster because the research is easier and faster. Coming up with character backgrounds is also a snap, because I can pluck out a thing that’s interesting and write it into my background.

Next week I’m going to have some links to online rules sources.

Ysoki Part 2: Heritages

Ysoki can select any of the goblin heritages. Blog post complete!

Just kidding, although that’s a good start; I imagine the Ysoki in a fantasy setting being industrious and adaptable to a variety of environments. In my sequel campaign (see Monday Musings) the Ysoki could be primarily aligned with Kærth, but that would almost automatically force them into a outsider role.

So, then, the question I might ask is what role do I want the Ysoki to play in North Harbour? And how does North Harbour sustain itself?

Ysoki could have an ability that lets them scrounge and scavenge to fuel ritual magic, and that would let them turn cave fungus, wandering murder hobos, and very small rocks into delicious food.

What if the Ysoki are the reason the city has sustainable food supplied? How would they do that? One way would to be allow them to create food magically somehow. The spell Create Food is second level, though, so it would be fairly unbalancing to allow these rat-folk to just cast it. Similarity, the magical mansion spells are great at feeding a lot of people, except they range from seventh to ninth level. Summoning spells are explicitly not an option according to the rules as written (the creatures cease to exist at the end of the spell) to supply food. Ritual magic is a nice solution: Ysoki NPC’s can ensure a daily supply of food while also quietly directing the affairs of North Harbour.

So, here it is: Ysoki Heritages

Scrounger: Ysoki Scroungers are Trained in Crafting, and may break an unwielded item in one action.

Carrier: Ysoki Carriers may store up to one bulk of items in their cheek pouches. It takes a single action to store or retrieve a stored item from a cheek pouch.

Caster: Ysoki Casters are trained in Arcana, Religion, Nature, or Occult, and gain a +2 bonus on checks to complete ritual magic.

Skulker: Ysoki Skulkers are trained in stealth and gain a +2 bonus to Stealth checks.

Next week, I’ll come up with some ancestry feats for Ysoki.

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