Encounter Sheets

One of the things I don’t like about running combat encounters? Keeping track of all of the stat blocks. Somewhere along the way, I started creating tables that listed the stats for the creatures I was including in combat, along with some notes about what actions they would be taking in combat. And now, I’ll share this handy technique with you.

First, click here to access a copy of the Encounter Sheet.

Then, fill in the stats for the creature or creatures that you are going to include. I like to print these out, and they don’t take up much space, but do let me have a variety of creatures all together on a single page. With the first edition, I would sometimes summarize, or leave off information I wasn’t going to use, but it sure helped with big set-pieces to keep everything straight.

Characters and Adapting the Tempest

The first few scenes of a play are dedicated to introducing the cast and explaining the initial situation. In Shakespeare’s version of The Tempest, this exposition includes having a ship hit a sudden storm, brief exploration of the relationships between Prospero, Ariel, Miranda, and Caliban, and some explanation as to Prospero’s motivation to cause a shipwreck in the first place.

In this adaptation, I’ll need my exposition to serve similar purposes: the player characters (and their respective players) will need to learn something about the island, get some sense of what it is they could be doing, and since the game rules I’m using is Pathfinder Second Edition perform some exploration, downtime, and of course have a couple of fun combat encounters.

A big question I’m asking is this: Why are the player characters on the Island?

Prospero can’t be the protagonist. So, his goal of reclaiming his Dukedom by marrying of Miranda isn’t the main plot of this adaptation. To the extent that he is sympathetic, Caliban probably shouldn’t be the protagonist either: he has set motivations and knowledge and could be an interesting character and/or people group for the players to interact with though. In this scenario, I’m bringing in a group of 4-6 characters who don’t necessarily know the play, and definitely have their own ideas and agendas. I think this gives me a couple of options:

  1. Have the events of the play as a backdrop to something else.
  2. Take the basic situation, and spin it into something that resembles but is definitely not The Tempest
  3. Make the events of the play a thing that the PC’s are involved in.

The trouble with #3 is this: the events of the play are weird and Prospero is at best an antisocial patriarch. I’m not a huge fan of #1, but I really like #2.

The basic situation: at some point about twelve years before the start of the scenario, Prospero and his daughter Miranda escaped Milan in the midst of a coup d’etat. After arriving on the Island, Prospero frees Ariel from their magical prison while also making them his slave and briefly enjoys a peaceful relationship with Caliban before also enslaving him (which may or may not have involved an attempted rape of Miranda). Eventually, Prospero’s brother sails by the Island with the King of Naples and Prospero uses magic to waylay their vessel while also scattering the crew and passengers around the Island. Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples, meets Miranda and perhaps falls in love with her. Prospero torments Ferdinand while torturing those responsible for his downfall before agreeing to allow Ferdinand to marry Miranda and then reclaiming his title, freeing Ariel, casting off his magical power, and leaving the Island to Caliban.

If I were to determine a level for Prospero based on the things he does in the play, I’d suggest that he is capable of casting Sleep, can summon and control spirits, and perhaps cast the spell Freedom. Freedom isn’t in Pathfinder Second Edition, but was a 9th level spell in the previous edition. I could make Prospero a 20th level Wizard, but I also want a group of relatively low-level characters to play through this adventure, so, maybe I’ll give him some access to ritual magic, but put him in around level 4-6 somewhere. I think there’s also an argument to be made that Prospero has at least some Bard leanings, so I’ll keep that in mind for when I stat him out.

Caliban is another problem. He’s supposed to be extremely strong, but he is easily frightened by apparent displays of magic. I’d say he’s probably a barbarian or a ranger, but too low a level to be a threat to Prospero. One way to adapt the play would be to say there are more people than just one enslaved by Prospero, so there could be a whole race of who identify as the Caliban.

I’m not going to slot Miranda into any particular role yet – I want to see how this develops.

Then I have some of the ships crew and some assorted nobility and middle class folks scheming to profit in various ways from being trapped on the Island.

Oh, and there’s also the player characters.

I’m not a lot further into this adaptation than when I started, but I’ve at least identified that I have a few key presences on the Island:

There are the spirits, as represented by Ariel. There are the Caliban, who are being exploited by Prospero. And then there’s Prospero.

In order to balance things out a bit, I’m going to say that Prospero has an entourage which includes Miranda and a few other counselors – a bit of a court away from court. This includes Ariel, but also some regular mundane folks; it can also help to explain how Prospero isn’t overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the Caliban. He’s perhaps the highest level mortal on the Island, but not invincible.

Ok, I think this is a good spot to leave it for now. Check back later for some more development of the Island and an outline.

Ancestry Option: The Whoms

The Whoms, those plucky celebrators guard the Spirit of Christmas and their annual celebrations prevent the incursion of unspeakable eldritch abominations into the material plane. For countless generations, the Whoms have kept up with their annual celebration, eventually forgetting its original purpose and staging ever more elaborate ceremonies including the exchange of gifts, children playing with noisy toys, a feast, and standing in a circle singing. Their annual rituals were initially designed to pass instruction down through the generations, but the elaborate ceremonies all too soon proved a distraction to their more significant rite.

Whom – Ancestry

Hit Points 6

Size Small; Speed 25 feet

Ability Boosts Wisdom, Charisma, Free; Ability Flaw Strength

Languages Common, Whom

Additional Languages equal to your Intelligence modifier (if it’s positive). Choose from Aklo, Draconic, Elven, Dwarven, Sylvan, and any other languages to which you have access (such as the languages prevalent in your region).

You Might

  • Craft and wear garish and overly elaborate clothing or equipment
  • Sing quietly to yourself at all times
  • Get especially excited about holidays

Others Probably

  • Notice your tendency to speak in rhyming couplets
  • Have never seen another Whom
  • Mistake you for a child

Alignment and Religion

Whoms value the artistic process and community above all else. They have a strong sense of friendship and tradition, and find joy in every day events. While they are not always singing, they yend to break out into apparently choreographed song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat as they work together to achieve collective goals.

They typical Whom is Neutral Good. They tend to revere nature, and focus more on their annual rituals than codified worship of any specific deity.

Adventurers

Whom adventurers are often work as diplomats or heralds, and try to broker peace between opposed groups. When they leave their homes in Whomville, it is to discover something new or find something that has gone missing from their world.

Typical Whom backgrounds include Animal Whisperer, Charlatan, Detective, Herbalist, Hermit, Sailor, Street Urchin, and Tinker (Engineer). Whoms excel as Bards and Druids, and often take dedications in Alchemist.

Heritages

Seeker Whoms – Searching for deeper meaning or understanding, Seeker Whoms may cast Guidance 1/day.

Warner Whoms – Those Whoms who seek to defend tradition without understanding it are called Warner Whoms. Warner Whoms are trained in Society and Whom Lore, and gain the Dubious Knowledge general feat.

Tall Whoms – Tall Whoms may spend an action to increase their reach by five feet until the end of the round.

Ancestry Feats

Decorator [Feat 1]
If you should fall while decorating, you treat critical failures on Acrobatics as regular failures and take damage as though you had fallen half the distance.

Feasterator [Feat 1]
You treat oversized items – particularly foodstuffs – as though they took one less bulk than usual.

Chanterator [Feat 1]
You are trained in Perform (if you are already trained in perform, you may become trained in another skill). When you hold hands with other Whoms in a circle, each Whom gains the benefit of your proficiency bonus to Perform. (A large group of Whoms typically has at least one expert Chanterator, but rumors persist of a Legendary Chanterator who could cause those who heard a Whom-sing to move their alignment one step toward good.)

Getting Started With Pathfinder Second Edition

In lieu of a favourite thing this week, I thought I’d write a post about getting started playing Pathfinder Second Edition. While the core rule book is currently about $65 Canadian, it is possible to play Pathfinder for almost free.

Almost Free:

  • Dice-you could make some chits and put them in a hat, but you probably have a smart phone and can find a dice rolling app. I’ve got one called d20 Calc just in case I need to roll 47d6
  • Character Sheets-there are a bunch of PDF character sheets out there, or you can just write on notebook paper.
  • Pencils-there’s a lot of math, and pencils are best because you can erase and change things.
  • Access to the Pathfinder Second Edition System Reference Document. The Archives of Nethys is the official one, and contains all the rules in the core book.
  • Miniatures-these aren’t strictly necessary to play, and you probably have some board games you can steal pieces from. A chess board or a big easel pad with a one inch grid for a grid is again, nice.

Assuming that you use a dice roller app and have some chess pieces handy, you’re looking an everything you need for about $20.

Just the Basics:

  • Everything from Almost Free
  • Dice – a set of dice costs about $10-15.
  • Core Rulebook – about $65 Canadian.

You’re still using surrogate miniatures but also have a copy of the book and some physical dice.

Game Master Starting Out:

  • Everything from Just the Basics
  • Pathfinder Beginner Box – copies can be found for less than $50 – this give you a bunch of Pathfinder Pawns (which are awesome), an adventure, and a grid.

This is the level I’m at for Pathfinder Second Edition. I have a pretty substantial Pathfinder First Edition library, as well as a variety of other RPG books and ebooks, so I’m not buying things unless they have something I need in them.

Optional Extras:

  • Prepainted plastic miniatures – these are a lot of fun, and can be found online, through the Paizo store, or in your Friendly Local Game Shop.
  • GM Screen – not everyone uses one, but these give you a place to roll in secret, hide your notes, and keep miniatures and things out of sight until they are needed.
  • Campaign Setting – Paizo has the Lost Omens World Guide, or you can choose from any number of other settings. Stuff published for D&D 3.5 was close enough to Pathfinder First Edition that it was fairly easy to use, but any setting not written with the Pathfinder rules in mind will require at least a little bit of work converting NPC’s, magic items, spells, and monsters.
  • Adventures – Paizo publishes monthly installments called adventure paths. If you want to play a level 1-20 campaign, the second edition ones are supposed to go the distance. They come with lots of useful material for adaptation at home. There are probably also some good third party materials available for Pathfinder Second Edition.

Happy gaming!

Downtime Activities

One of the new things in Pathfinder Second Edition is the division of some activities into the category of Downtime Activities. These activities are:

  • Craft (Crafting)
  • Earn Income (Crafting, Lore, Performance)
  • Treat Disease (Medicine)
  • Create Forgery (Society)
  • Subsist (Society, Survival)
  • Retraining

Today, I’d like to discuss one of the options from a narrative perspective: Craft (Alchemical Poisons)

Poisons are typically something associated with the antagonist of a text – Vizzini, from The Princess Bride, for example – but I can think of one really great character who is a protagonist (at least, sometimes) and also uses poison: Merlin. (The version I’m thinking of particularly comes from Jack Whyte’s The Skystone series of historical fiction about the rise of Camelaud in a post-Roman Britain. I really enjoyed those books when I was in high school and early on in university.) Now, in the series in question, Merlin does things like infiltrating an enemy camp to assassinate their general and protect Camelot and eventually Arthur.

Before I get too far into the weeds, a flavor option could be making this an option that falls under Medicine with an attendant skill feat to make poisons. I’d probably also allow a player trained in medicine to use their knowledge to attempt to harm someone if they were so inclined to try it.

Unlike in previous editions, poisons in Pathfinder Second Edition apply hit point damage and conditions – which is so much easier to run than applying ability score damage – but they are often things that don’t imply a narrative. For example, the level 2 poison Belladonna “is a widely available toxin produced from a plant similar to a tomato.” The spirit of downtime is to condense fairly low level difficulty and low stakes events so that the party can get back to the main events of an adventure, but adding just a little bit of narrative – even as a player – will make the fairly mundane event of finding a tomato-like plant and collecting its leaves and fruit more interesting.

Mort climbs the garden wall, locates the poisonous nightshade, carefully wraps it in leather, places it in his pouch, and escapes before anyone can notice.

vs

Player: I’d like to craft some Belladonna.

GM: Ok. Make a Craft (Alchemy) check.

Player: 17?

GM: Wait, can you afford this?

Player: no problem.

Both need to happen, but one of my theses is that more specific detail is ultimately more interesting. Any rules system is going to abstract detail as a concession to ease of play, although the extent to which this happens is allowed – or not – by the GM and players.

As a Game Master, I think about poisons much more in terms of how a story might form around them. In Hamlet, for example, the ghost claims to have been killed by Hebanon, a “leprous distilment” which causes sores to break out all over the body while the victim’s blood clots. But what if, in making the Pathfinder version of Hebanon, it takes a really long time to work – something on the order of days – and the party could attempt to find and return with an antidote. (Or, the antagonist’s minions could similarly attempt to revive their master.) Then, this item with a few lines of text describing it becomes the spur to something greater.

I’ve got a few more ideas around poison, so check back next week to see them. Also, I’m very excited about my Tempest adaptation, coming soon.

Monday Musings: Adapting The Tempest

The Tempest is often regarded as Shakespeare’s last great play, and it has a lot to offer an audience: shipwrecks, romance, faeries and magic, and lots of courtly intrigue. The protagonist Prospero has orchestrated his brother’s shipwreck as part of an elaborate revenge plot in which he will reclaim his title of Duke. His daughter Miranda is a key pawn in this plot, and along the way Caliban and some of the servants seek to overthrow their masters in this brave new world.

In terms of adapting this dramatic work into a Pathfinder Second Edition module, there are some things that can be taken and some which are less useful. I can definitely take the names of characters and the general situation. There’s not much of a setting to speak of: a weird island with a small house on it, but there are spirits and a history of magic and witchcraft, and the city states of Milan, Tunis, and Naples as possible other locations. The plot itself may be of some use, but more than likely isn’t going to be one of the elements that is good for the player experience.

In terms of key characters, I’m thinking:

  • Prospero (wizard, but also bard is a compelling option)
  • Miranda (maybe a wizard as well, but could be a bunch of other classes too, bard is again a compelling option)
  • Caliban (I’m thinking barbarian, but that’s also a little on the nose; ranger might also be an option)
  • Ariel (definitely creating with monster rules, but has powers of illusion and summoning and might be the secret big bad)
  • Sycorax (ok, so she’s only mentioned by name, but I’m taking liberties, right?)

This could be it for characters, especially if I want the party to have a Prospero experience, where they land in the island, slowly explore and discover things, perhaps meet Miranda, and then must find a way to survive or overcome his magical onslaught. I’m also tempted to have more people from the Island that just Caliban. (Caliban is technically not native to the Island, but descended from outsiders; however, this distinction might be lost or less important in my adaptation.)

On the other hand, some of the Milan and Naples folks might be useful, so I won’t completely ignore them as I move forward.

Now that I have at least a few characters, I do need to ask what the players are going to do, and I should also think about the five phases of the narrative: exposition, complication(s), crisis, climax, and resolution(s). I also need a sense of scale for the island, if not a complete map, and its distance from the outside world.

So, until next week, happy gaming!

Favourite Thing: Tabletop Babble

First, thank you James for the shoutout! It made my day!

Tabletop Babble is one my my favourite gaming podcasts-James interviews designers from across the world of tabletop. And when I say across the world, I’m not joking. This week, he interviewed Zedeck Siew and I was fascinated by the discussion of decolonized gaming in a post colonial environment. (Quick quick definitions: post colonialism looks at the after of the colonial process and its affects in a society, while decolonization looks at how to dismantle colonial structures and ways of thinking.)

If you want to know more about this hobby, you should be listening. If you’re interested in learning systems and designers you should be listening. If you want to launch a publishing imprint (like me), you should be listening. I’ve learned and incorporated many ideas and techniques into my gaining practice, discovered games like Harlem Unbound, and appreciate the high quality of the interviews.

So, check it out.

The Mad Character

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and this post is about treating mental health conditions appropriately and with some respect.

Here’s the thing, it is easy to affect a tic or randomly blurt stuff out and play a caricature of mental illness, but this may become mockery and at my table I’d call that behaviour out.

There are two ways to consider: use mechanics, and/or add signals of madness to your characterization.

Mechanically, I might have a penalty to saving throws or use something like the corruption system from Pathfinder First Edition to model effects in my character. Or I could use the conditions to show that my character affects madness.

For characterization Hamlet is my go-to: he claims that he will put in an antic disposition and then later appears to do so by dressing and acting strangely. One easy way to use this in role playing is to narrate in third person changes in the characters appearance. For example, Mort’s smeared mud through his hair, and cut long slashes into his beard, but the most shocking thing about his appearance is that he has removed his family rest from his armour. You can say that, and not mock mental health conditions.

I’m still waiting for a chance to play test my madness rules so for now this series is drawing to a close. Soon I’ll start looking at downtime activities.

Happy gaming!

Campaign Plot Structure: Resolutions

It’s the end of the road for this series (next week I’m going to start working through an adaptation of The Tempest to Pathfinder Second Edition that you won’t want to miss) which means we are talking resolutions.

The resolution in a narrative is the reestablishing of the status quo, and one big thing that impacts the kind of resolution we want is the genre we are working in. For a serialized fantasy game, the resolution might simply introduce the next challenge the player characters have to overcome as they do their heroic things to ultimately triumph over a major antagonist. In The Lord of the Ring films, this is Sam and Frodo having survived their travels and arriving at the edge of Mordor, Aragorn resolving to hunt orcs, and Boromir’s body going over the falls. On the other hand, in horror games the release of something people were not meant to know (either creatures or knowledge) is deferred but the increased experience the player characters have of what’s really going on (perhaps The Lacanian Real) leaves them changed. In Marvel movies (which I love), the post credits scenes typically introduce the next part of an ongoing saga. All of these are kinda of resolutions.

In Pathfinder Second Edition and other role playing games with levels, levelling up is a kind of resolution: through a series of challenges, the player character has struggled, succeeded, and now grows in strength. On a session by session basis, I typically avoid having much explicit narrative resolution. The climactic challenge of a session as represented by combat is in some senses self resolving when the player characters may finally rest and heal. (Quick tip: one way to increase tension is to prevent the party from resting too often; scarcity of resources will increase narrative tension.) But a campaign as a whole should have a resolution: in my last campaign, I gave each player a quick summary of what happened after: one went to hell and rose through the ranks, another fell attempting to fight the Quiet Lich Imprisoned in Paizo’s Campaign Setting, and a third discovered a lost city in the mountains and prevented an ancient wizard from escaping. These were well received, and helped to create a sense of continuity rather than just ending with all the characters dying.

I think we can distinguish, then, between narrative resolution and systematic resolution. Narrative resolution should be reserved for the ending of a plot arc. At this point, The Simpsons might discuss what they’ve learned, while Captain Cisco stares broodingly out into space and expresses his thoughts via voice over. Asking things like “how does CHARACTER feel about this?” could be appropriate, or you might just narrate that particular ride out into the sunset. Systematic resolution, on the other hand, uses game mechanics to reset the status quo. This might be healing and getting spells back, or could be levelling up, spending character points, or some other way the system presents of dealing with the accumulated wear and tear your player characters have experienced. This kind of end of session resolution can also involve dividing up treasure, engaging in downtime activities, or gaining new intelligence.

So, my advice with resolutions is this:

  1. Don’t try to make a narrative resolution every session, using game mechanics is ok too.
  2. Do have a clear resolution at the end of a plot arc.
  3. Try to use resolutions to imply continuity, even if the actual campaign is over.

Happy gaming!

Campaign Climaxes

We’ve talked exposition, complication, crisis, and it has all been building to this: the Climax! From a narrative standpoint, this is the thing that the whole campaign is about, but Pathfinder Second Edition games can be tricky to plan climaxes for: just because I as the Games Master have some sense of what will happen, does not mean that it will happen. In my initial campaign, I planted a scroll of Fireball for the party to find because I had planned for the session to end with a mob of monsters attacking the village the party was in.

They accidentally set it off attempting to copy the spell. (If you’re wondering how, it has to do with the Natural 1 rolled in that attempt.)

In terms of campaigns, there are two kinds of models we can follow: serialized storytelling and episodic storytelling. In a serialized campaign, there is a set of overarching plots which run over the course of the campaign; on the other hand, in an episodic campaign the events are not necessarily connected from session to session. These are not mutually exclusive. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural have ongoing storylines while also featuring monster-of-the-week episodes.

As a rule, I like to plan an overall shape of the campaign, and then revise session by session, eventually reaching a climax for the campaign. But, I also like each session to go through the phases of exposition, complication, crisis, and climax. I find that in practice, it’s tricky for me to get through all of these stages in a four hour session. The genre requirements of fantasy role playing use combat – or at least conflict – as a way to signify progress in the plot in the same way that musicals use songs to signify progress in the plot. These conflicts take time to resolve; in my previous campaign using Pathfinder First Edition, I could generally get two combat encounters and a handful of social encounters through in an individual session of 3-5 hours.

Practically, this means that exposition and complications take the form of some introductory scene-setting and a short combat encounter, and that the crisis (the event leading into the climax) is some kind of news leading into the second longer combat encounter. (I’m not saying they have to be fights, but Pathfinder has a whole lot of rules about fighting. Other systems are much better at facilitating other kinds of conflict resolution; Gumshoe games, for example, focus on investigation rather than combat.)

All of this leads into a resolution – the establishing of a new status quo – which is something I’ll deal with next week.

But back to the climax. To achieve a climax, a couple of things need to happen:

  1. A climax is conclusive: while the plot may not be over, somehow progress must occur. This could be facing down a boss, achieving some kind of quest milestone, or engaging with some kind of objective, but the party needs to be able to do or achieve something meaningful.
  2. A climax is significant: whatever the conflict is over, it needs to be important. It could be capturing a Macguffin, it could be stopping some part of the enemy’s plan, it could even be failure, but there need to be consequences rippling out from the climax or it is less than climactic.
  3. A climax is earned: the players need to work to reach the climax of a session, and they definitely need to work to reach the climax of a campaign. The climax is the moment when obstacles are overcome, and it is necessary to have resistance to meet the point of the climax for it to achieve the feel that a climax should.

I can’t really write about my sequel campaign as an illustration because I don’t want my players to know in advance, but I can tell you that next week I’ll be discussing resolutions. Happy gaming!

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