Sunday, April 26, 2015

Today marks the end of my Arcana High campaign

Candlekeep, by William O'Connor

Back in the date of August 5th, 2014, I was a groupless gamer.  Half the old crowd of high school buddies moved out of the state, and for a while I've debated whether to give online gaming a shot.  I could try typical fantasy fare like so many others, start slow with time-tested ideas and do yet another fantasy adventure.  Or even a test adventure of "clear out the kobold cave" to be dropped as a one-shot.

I could've played it safe, but to hell with that.  I had an idea of mine brewing in my head for quite a while.  An idea given fruit by years spent reading Harry Potter, of watching shows like X-Men and Chip Cheezum's Let's Play of Wonderful 101, of masked figures in Assassin's Creed traversing the rooftops of a medieval city as pursuing knight-templars gave chase.

I wanted a D&D game; I wanted a magic high school game; I wanted a fantasy superhero game.  And I was so set on this idea that I was willing to test it out on players who've I known and chatted with, but never gamed together.

I wanted Arcana High.

It was then that I found my new gaming group, a group of four friends I got to know and have fun with for these past months, a group I will continue to play with even after this campaign's end.  It's been a great run; I had an overarching idea for the game, but no plan survives contact with the enemy and many of the games' plots, characters, and story arcs took on a life of their own.

There are some gaming groups who continue a game until they get tired of it and try something new; there are some gaming groups who've been playing the same campaign for decades.  Every group has their own style, but for me I like to wrap things up with a definite conclusion.  A satisfying ending which brings closure on a story, after a heroic triumph, that is the way we wanted to go.  The way which felt best.

I'm happy, and yet sad.  Happy that these many months of collaborative story-telling created an epic campaign we'll remember for a long time, yet sad that it had to end.  For the time being I want a break and wish to try out other games, but there's a part of me which knows that someday I'll return to that world once again.  The bustling streets of Brancean, with its street vendors selling kebabs to hurrying apprentice mages on their way to school; the tower-neighborhoods of the Undercity and its subterranean shrine the Glittering Dome; the vaunted halls of Highstone Academy, home to wood elf wizards with talking rabbit familiars and drow artisans setting up dungeon obstacle courses for would-be adventurers.  I'll miss the daring battles with supervillains such as the terrifying dungeon-builder Deathtrap, the Kingpin-esque crimelord Theopolis, the unseelie king Orpheus, and the fallen gold dragon Dorethal whose centuries of witnessing and battling great evils sent her over the edge.

I once sought to collect my stories in a campaign journal like so many other groups, but the time spent prepping for an ideal game week after week (along with jobs and self-publishing projects) made this a failed endeavor.  Hopefully, one day, in some form or another, I can share the many wonders of this world with you as well.

Farewell for now Arcana High, it's been a great run!

Friday, April 17, 2015

In which a Gnome Stew apology post brings me to discuss history of D&D's min-max subculture

Here's the article in question.

I figure that a lot of folk are familiar with the concept of min-maxing, although in many circles it has negative connotations.  Some of it is justified, in that there are players who use their rules mastery to ruin the game or to engage in showboating.  However, I often seen the disparagement come a little too frequently, or in the worst case scenarios willfully overlooking genuine design flaws because the person who discovered the glitch in question's a min-maxer (who must certainly be up to no good)!

Accidental Optimization

I have an interesting story to share I saw several years ago on a D&D message board.  Back in the early days of 3rd Edition D&D, there was a group of players which included a Fighter and  a Druid who happened to score a prime spot of land for settlement.  The adventurers wnt about making their home base in the area and doing some domain management.  It was an exciting time for all at first, because who doesn't want to build a super-cool castle/secret base/etc?  The Druid could be the nature dude tapping into primeval wellsprings while the Fighter gets to be a noble commander and leader of men as portrayed in plenty of fantasy media.

Things didn't work out that way.  The party druid realized that his class abilities could contribute greatly to domain management.  Wild shape into a harmless-looking bird and survey the area while being able to rain down lightning bolts on enemy encampments.  Diplomacy was a class skill, meaning that the wildman was better able to negotiate with the other land barons at high society functions than the poor Fighter.  The Fighter's bread and butter, his vast array of potential feat selection, was mostly limited to combat-related tricks he'd have to wait for another level to learn, whereas the druid could swap out his entire spell selection every day.  And not just that, but the druid could wildshape into great beasts, potentially being able to strike enemies 15 feet away or even chaining up to 4 attacks at once on a full charge with Pounce (something martials could never replicate without excessive dumpster-diving for feats and prestige classes through scores of sourcebooks).

So what happened?  The fighter's player accused the druid's player of showing him up and gaming the system, intentionally stepping on his toes and making his contributions to the party irrelevant.  The druid was not utilizing 6+ combinations of splatbooks, nor juggling disparate modifiers to end up with insanely high bonuses.  His player was merely using the resources given to him at his disposal, almost all of which were in the Core Rulebooks.

You see, 3rd Edition is one of the most unbalanced versions of D&D, even more so than a lot of OSR games.  The way the game is structured is that a lot of restrictions on spell-casters in earlier Editions got mitigated or removed, and the bread and butter for martials (feats and class features) were much more restrictive than magic.  Even more so, martials did not have great access to many skills, and a lot of the "role-playing skills" were based on mental scores or not class skills, meaning they got outshined by spellcaster and thief classes in that department.  There's also been a demand among the playerbase and even a few game designers to limit noncasting martials to the domain of real-world physics (or more accurately what they imagined real-world physics to be like) crying "overpowered" whenever 3.X Fighters got nice things.

Lack of transparency led to the demand for min-maxing

The main problem in the previous example was fellow players thinking the worst of others at the table and jumping to conclusions, but this case of accidental upstaging is sadly very common in D20 games.  3rd Edition has not been playtested past 12th level, and the designers played the game like they did 2nd Edition AD&D, not utilizing a huge portion of their own new rules such as leaving spell slots open (which has been imported to Pathfinder) or playing non-healbot clerics.  In fact, Ivory Tower Game Design intentionally left in trap options in the game which looked cool on paper but were not so much in actual play; this was an attempt to reward system mastery.  Dragons were intentionally under-CRed to make them even more threatening to parties (leading to a lot of TPKs for poor GMs who were going by the game's rules and could not foresee it).

D20 is a great and versatile game system, but it's deeply broken.  To prevent accidental nerfs and party members suddenly becoming useless at their own roles, min-maxing became a demand to help people avoid trap options.  Combined with the sheer versatility and options through the amount of sourcebooks, as well as 3.0 being the first Edition to be birthed around the time of a widespread Internet, resulted in a subculture of sorts to grow on Wizards of the Coast's message boards.  A community of min-maxers grew.  Sometimes they tested out the limits of the system by creating utterly broken builds for theorycraft; sometimes they were more practical, writing handbooks which were the D&D equivalent of video game strategy guides; sometimes they helped out non-min-maxing player groups with advice on their current games and any potential mechanical pitfalls which may be lying in wait.  Beyond just this one subforum, D20 min-maxing communities became known as "Character Optimization forums," or CharOps for short.

Sadly, the illusion of D20 balance has carried over to Pathfinder, which hailed itself as being an updated version which solved much of 3rd Edition's problems.  Sadly, old problems were replaced with new ones, and the trends which led to imbalance in the first place (splatbooks full of new spells, unnecessary nerfs to martials, etc) were repeated over the course of the games' history.

Compare this to the OSR, which specializes in Original and Basic D&D and retroclones.  They don't care about game balance, but there's no illusion of their games being such.  It's generally accepted that certain classes are going to be more powerful than others at various levels of play, or characters in parties might contribute less due to poor die rolls and choices at character creation.  However, this is more in the open, and the power disparity between casters and martials in these Editions isn't as wide (OSR fighters have the best saves in the game, unlike D20 D&D).  As a result, there is not as much incentive for a CharOps culture to grow in the OSR because of this.

The disruptive min-maxer has a sad element of truth

D20 D&D is a rules-heavy game.  In fact, it's one of the rules-heaviest RPGs on the marketplace.  The sheer volume of text and sourceboks is unlike any other Edition, and while DM Fiat can be employed, small changes to the system ("we're removing alignment") result in ripple effects on all the smaller related rules.  Like a small cog in a great machine, its removal can result in the whole system malfunctioning.

D20 D&D players who min-max often operate on a different wavelength in games than folks who choose options based on the value of how cool it sounds on the surface.  In some cases, a min-maxer player might see one PC who's going to end up becoming a drain on party resources, or who is adamant on sticking to an underpowered option.

Combined with the earlier druid story and the Stormwind Fallacy being a frequent attitude in some gaming circles, min-maxers can often feel attacked for their play-style or feel as though they're part of a different fandom entirely from fellow D&D players.  It's unfortunate, then, that some min-maxing communities end up taking a hostile attitude towards others.  In some cases it may go so far as to dictating how other players should build their PCs, creating an overpowered PC to prove some point against the DM and/or gaming group.  In worst-case scenarios they might go as far as to assume that their encyclopedic knowledge of build combinations and rules exploits makes them an intellectual ubermensch amid a sea of idiots who just want to game without worrying so much over builds and balance.  Frank Trollman and his fanbase among the Gaming Den are a good example of these previous attitudes, and their attitude for starting flame wars on other boards (including Pathfinder's open playtest) has helped contribute to said negative attitudes simply by being the loudest and most negative voices.

A Personal Conclusion

The odd thing is I consider myself a min-maxer, but when it comes to actual games I don't always have the time or resources to build PCs and encounters to such rigorous positions.  As a DM I often wing it or shift around monster attributes or reskin existing enemies to make for a challenging fight which doesn't become a curbstomp battle.  Sometimes I pick sub-optimal choices deliberately for NPCs, and I've moreso relied upon the advice of other CharOps folks for PC building than trying to do the work required myself.  In spite of agreeing with a lot of their positions I don't really play as one very often.

I do think that hanging out among min-maxers for years has helped me become better as a gamer, and has helped D20 D&D in several ways.  You see, in spite of being very critical of the many flaws of 3rd Edition D&D and its D20 spin-offs, min-maxing communities still enjoy and play the game and find ways to change or work around said flaws.

3rd Edition D&D is one of the most imbalanced Editions on the market.

Its inclusion of trap options "to reward system mastery" is a terrible idea.

Roughly 50% of the games' levels see a dynamic shift in how the core of the game is played, and the prep time of the DM goes up exponentially as they have to patch problems the playtesters never discovered or touched.

I can hold all these opinions, but I can still love this game in spite of its flaws.  Their knowledge of the rules means that min-maxers are very good at being critical of their own game and still loving it.  This is a good tool which can help one avoid the adopting the more obsequious behavior in the tabletop fandom: things like "Strength caps for women are NOT sexist!  Otherwise you're calling Gary Gygax sexist!" or "People who are unhappy with this latest bit of errata should stop complaining and play another game".  I think that the willingness towards relentless self-criticism of one's own games is a much more valuable lesson than all the Handbooks and class guides put together.  Without it, so much more of the D&D fandom would remain stagnant and unwilling to change, willfully blind to its own flaws in fear of losing the love they have for their own game.

PS JaronK's tier system for classes is another good read, examining game balance between classes (or more so the lack of it).  It's a great thing to show to D20 newbies, and this post examines how the various classes interact with each other.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

All of Quasar Knight Enterprises product off 40% for one day only!

Although I price my work at very reasonable rates in comparison to other D20 products of similar size, at 40% off you can get a lot of content for a few bucks.  My selection is sure to please Pathfinder and OSR fans, especially folks who find the idea of monstrous PCs, cool fighter feats, and alignment-free games appealing.

If these books are new to new, I'll give a brief rundown on what each one can enhance your play experience.

The Abstract Thief is a Pathfinder base class based around the mage-thief archetype.  Basically the class is a talented person who sees the threads binding all of reality, and can manipulate said threads to steal essential concepts from others, such as luck, youth, vitality, knowledge, and more!  The Abstract Thief has a diverse skill set of roguish traits such as Sneak Attack, is a prepared caster who specializes in subtle arcane magic (such as enchantment and illusion), and has access to Abstractions which usually take the form of a ranged debuffing attack where they "steal" an intangible trait from an enemy.

A Fine Bunch of Monsters is a mini-bestiary of 12 new monsters for Pathfinder.  The game is very short on monsters of Fine and Diminutive size which aren't some variety of insect swarm, so I rectified the situation by making varied monsters for a wide range of Challenge Ratings.  It contains unique entries such as the grubalugs, gluttonous walking miniature mouths with extradimensional stomachs; animated vegetables which distract and splat against enemies; the magebeetle, every wizard's bane and consumer of arcane knowledge.

Death to Alignment is by far my most popular product.  It is a supplement with one simple purpose: to alter Pathfinder's game mechanics, from class features to spells, so that GMs can run alignment-free games without little unforeseen consequences such as paladins getting nerfed now that they don't have smite evil.  Also included are sample variant morality systems, such as evil being measured in Corruption Points or a 3-axis alignment of good/neutral/evil.

Nice Things for Fighters is intended to appeal to the demographic of Pathfinder players unsatisfied with the lack of game balance between martials and spellcasters.  The book provides a sampling of new feats both easy to qualify for and intended to shore up martial weaknesses.  For example, Dancing on the Wind allows your PC to jump vast distances by gaining an effective 1-round fly speed; Mighty Lungs and Thunderclap where super-strong heroes can blow gusts of wind with their breath and create shockwaves with a strong stomp.  Also included are new archetypes such as the Grappling Cord Acrobat and Warrior-Poet.

Old School Monster Classes is a Labyrinth-Lord Compatible Product which not only provides racial classes for iconic beings such as the giant and medusa, but also new interesting cultural details to provide setting incentives for how their societies might coexist with baseline humanoids.  Giants are the mighty descendants of a fallen empire; nagas are serpentine magical guardians of ley lines and planar crossroads; doppelgangers are sneaky hunters of forgotten lore created by a mysterious organization of scholars; and harpies are tainted human women fond of the arts who find ample demand for their natural flight and mesmerizing voices.

Playable Monsters, Vol. 1: Fantasy Iconics & Mythology is like Old School Monster Classes, except it utilizes the Pathfinder ruleset.  It also contains 2 new races not present in the former, the Boggard and Sahuagin.  Basically my monstrous variants contain the creatures' most iconic abilities, only scaled down when necessary to be balanced alongside the "core races."

I hope that at least one of these sound appealing to you.  I'm grateful for any support you can give me, whether it's purchasing my work or sharing the page with folk you know who might find it interesting.  Although my specialty right now is in Pathfinder, over time I plan on writing more supplements for other game systems, and funds I gain from sales of current work will be utilized for the creation of even more products!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Magic School Campaigns by System and Setting: Scarlet Heroes

Artwork by Eric Lofgren

Back in May 2013, Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine Games published a series of free supplements for his Red Tide Campaign Setting known as Black Streams.  One of them, Solo Heroes, proved to be an incredibly popular pick.  It dealt with the mechanical aspects of how to run a game of one DM, one PC in a way which wouldn't break the game or result in one-sided battles.  More than that, the underlying math largely worked, and it was compatible with most existing B/X D&D and retroclone adventures.

One year and one Kickstarter later, Crawford expanded the concept into a full-fledged OSR game of its own, complete with its own setting, bestiary, DMing advice, and even rules for true "solo gaming" where you can play a Scarlet Heroes game with nobody but yourself.

Mechanical Considerations

Scarlet Heroes works very well for a magic school campaign, in that the character creation method is very forgiving for a player willing to go against type.  Unlike other retroclones, ability scores are generated using 4d6 drop the lowest, assign the results to scores of your choice.  Additionally, results where the highest score is below 16 allows the player to bump an ability of their choice to 16.

Race is separate from class, allowing for halfling mages, dwarven clerics, and the like.  Racial abilities are turned into "traits" which are a simplified pseudo-skill system which cover things like "acrobat, friend to secret society, vibrant health" meant to provide open-ended bonuses to rolls where they can be a factor.

What's more, a PC is not locked into their class, and can forestall gaining an additional level in their existing class upon leveling up in lieu of taking a level in a new one!  A 4th-level Magic-User may pick up a 1st level in Fighter to gain increased damage with weapons and hit points, or a Cleric may balance out levels with Magic-User to become adept in both arcane and divine spells.

Unorthodox Races: By seeking an alternate to the race-as-class system and boiling down racial features to pseudo-skill traits, Scarlet Heroes allows for the easy creation of new races and the implementation of existing ones.  Generally speaking, humans gain 3 trait points to spend as they wish, while non-humans gain 1 trait point to spend as they wish plus 1 trait point in a pre-determined skill reflecting the races' innate abilities.  Generally speaking the latter should be their most iconic feature and impossible for other races to take as a trait.

House Rule: Let's say we wanted to turn the Serpent Folk, a classic sword-and-sorcery staple, into a race.  As these ancient reptilians have a renowned ability to take the shape of humanoids, we'll give them 1 trait point in "Magical Visage," reflecting their keen ability to appear like a normal human and hide their true nature.  To balance this ability, we'll make any attempts to disguise themselves as a specific human require a skill check (which the 1 trait point applies as a bonus to).  Other than this, Serpent Folk gain 1 free trait point to spend as they wish.

Student Budget: Clerics are able to access potentially any class spell provided they are at a level capable of casting it, but Magic-Users aren't so lucky.  In order to add new spells to their spellbook, they must copy it from an existing spellbook or scroll or be taught by a teacher.  As even the cheapest method (scroll or spellbook-copying) takes 100 gp worth of ingredients per spell level, the GM for a Scarlet Heroes game should provide some means of spell access if they're going for a more Harry Potter vibe where the heroes aren't amassing great hoards of wealth while doing adventures at school.

House Rule: Beyond the spells a 1st-level Magic-User knows, every level gained in the class allows the PC to select two Magic-User spells of their choice to add into their spellbook, provided that they are at a level they are capable of casting.  Such knowledge represents the PC researching the accumulated lore they came across in their adventures.  As there are 50 Magic-User spells in Scarlet Heroes and this method allows them to gain 23 spells at most by 10th level, this is a reasonable value.

Naturally, Magic-User PCs are more than free to add spells they find as a result of scrolls and spellbooks borrowed/stolen, and favors gained from fellow sorcerers.

Arcane Lore: The creation of magic items and copying spells are expensive endeavors.  If sitting on literal piles of gold feels unseemly, the GM can substitute a portion of treasures in exchange for "Arcane Lore."  This may be in addition to or separate from the Student Budget houserule above.  Generally speaking, Arcane Lore is pseudo-treasure representing the scribbled writings of cultists, esoteric ingredients from unnatural beasts, mind-melded knowledge from otherworldly entities and the like which grant a spellcaster ability to create magic items and learn new spells.  They can range from research notes and insight-producing consumables, the latent power of a specific area (where the ambient energy is used by magical artisans while building/researching there), and strange ingredients.

Arcane Lore is treated as individual treasure values, but can only be "spent" for the purposes of creating magic items and the learning of new spells into one's spellbook, or trading in exchange for such material.  Here are some sample lists:

Random Value:

Arcane Lore
1d6 x 20 gp
1d10 x 50 gp
2d10 x 100 gp
1d6 x 1,000 gp
Types of Arcane Lore:

Cultist’s Scribblings
Inquisitor’s Journal
Memory-storing Crystal
Dragon’s Knowledge
Witch’s Herbs
Elemental Salts
Earthshield Plates
Fey’s Dreams
Tarot Deck
Alchemist’s Lab Materials
Meteorite Metal
Unicorn Horn
Crushed Moonberries
Runic Stones
Sigil-embroidered Cloth
Spirit-Possessed Mask
Strand of Prayer Beads
Bardic-enchanted Writings
Magical Hieroglyphs
Quill of the First Library
Local Lord’s Library Resources
University Library Resources
Wizard’s Library Resources
First Era Library Resources
Curio Shop Trinkets
 Augury Bones
Demonflesh-stitched Tome
Raw Souls
Weak Ley Line Location
Druidic Grove
Location with Spiritual Resonance
Geomantic Planar Crossroads
Household Shrine
Village Shrine
City Shrine
Holiest of Shrines
Gnomish Cookbook
Basilisk’s Eyes
Dragon’s Blood
Fur from the Wolf God
Bloodstone Crystals
Onyx Skull Gems
Leprechaun Gold
World Tree Flowers
Zombie gallbladder
Wight’s teeth
Bottled Nightshade Spirit
Lich’s phylactery

Sufficiently "rich" wizard PCs over time will pepper their lairs and laboratories with the flesh and bones of magical monsters, cauldrons brewing with liquid shadows, shelves lined with crystals mined from the deepest dungeon trenches, and a small library of tomes penned by archmages, legendary bards, and other folk touched by the otherworldly.  As magic doesn't abide by the laws of the mortal realm, you might allow the PC to spend the gp value of treasures for the creation of otherwise-unrelated magic items.  Perhaps the Basilisk's Eyes (normally used for petrification and stone-related rituals) and a set of Wight's Teeth can be used to make a Purifying Oil, as the inherent "curses" of such creatures' essences overwhelm any latent magical debilitations on an applied person or object.

Quest-giving NPCs might grant the heroic adventurer things like access to a legendary forge worth an arbitrary amount of gold pieces for crafting the perfect blade in lieu of raw gold.  Adding such treasures, even if they're cheap things like macabre preserved monster fetuses from a curio shop, can add a hint of eldritch wonder to one's campaign.

Magic Schools of the Isles

The Sunset Isles are home to many civilizations with their own local magic traditions.  Although the Magocracy of Tien Lung is home to the grandest (and most cruel and dangerous) arcane academies, they are by no means the only realm with wizarding schools and temple-shrines.

Altgrimmr: dwarven magic-users bear runic stones as their "spellbooks," the traditional means of storing magic in the old times.  Apparently the long-forgotten dwarven civilization of the old Isles was home to grand underground spires brimming with magical energy.  Although the Underking has yet to find a way to harness their true potential, such spires provide indispensable aid against the many underground horrors poised to invade their country.  The inevitable attraction of dwarven mages caused magic schools to sprout up around these spires, which the local communities welcome because few of their own can hope to control the spires' great magical energy.

Hohnberg Pact: a devoutly religious folk, the Makerites of Eirengard devote significant resources to the upkeep and maintenance of holy shrines, statues of saints, and other divine sites meant to honor their patron.  Even Magic-Users are expected to follow in the religious traditions, supplementing their spell invocation with holy incantations and ritual prayers.  Young men and women who show a gift for magical manifestation, be it arcane or divine, are often brought to live in theurgist chapter-houses.  Here they are raised by monks and scholars under strict moral guidance so that they use their powers for the betterment of society and the Maker's glory.  Naturally, differing religious sects have varying interpretations on the nature of arcane magic, and it's not uncommon for rival schools to develop resentment and open disputes over theological interpretations.

Magocracy of Tien Lung: In comparison to Xian, Tien Lung seems at first to be a freer society for mages to carry on their magical research and work without pesky laws and moral codes restricting them.  A Learned (the magic-users of the country) can do what they want to the common folk without much in the way of consequence, and the lore of the otherwise-forbidden Stitched Path is the most common form of sorcery at the Academy of Refulgant Wisdom.  However, this "might makes right" society causes Tien Lung's wizards to be ruthless and paranoid, and it's not uncommon for even academy students to resort to sabotage and murder to preserve their social standing and surpass their fellows.  The school's teachers often force students to pledge loyalty to them, and cloak-and-dagger espionage is often carried out by their apprentices against their rivals.  Studying to learn astrology under the Stargazer's class might preclude an apprentice from attending necromancy lessons if the two teachers despise one another.  Mages who end up multi-talented earn both great respect and even greater suspicion, as the theft of scrolls and spellbooks is almost certainly required to accomplish this feat.

Mandarinate of Xian: The remnants of the Ninefold Celestial Empire are a shadow of their former glory.  Once the province of the nobility, now old and established families cannot afford to be so picky when their heirs produce no magical talent.  The magic schools of the capital are full of heirs to old money as well as the sons and daughters of well-off "commoners" and non-Xian foreigners, whose donations are too generous to refuse or overlook on the manner of xenophobia and elitism.  There is significant wheeling and dealing by the political powers of cities to woo a promising student to work for the local government or the private mage of a noble family upon completion of their graduation.  It's not unknown for even the teachers and faculty to incorporate local errands and favors as part of an apprentice's "training."  The magic schools of Xian are some of the oldest and most well-respected, but the deep incorporation of their residents into the societal power structures affords little respite for mages who wish to remain non-political.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Interesting 3rd Party Finds: Rule Zero: Underlings (Pathfinder)

Artwork by Jason Bulmahn

I love Pathfinder.  I love its versatile options for characters.  I love the plethora of material, both official and third party.  I love the myriad adventures and adventure paths, and all the cool settings.  I love the cool hybrid classes like the alchemist and the magus.  I love the Bestiaries and the Tome of Horrors for the 1,000+ monsters these books present as neat options, both classic and original.

But there are things I don't like about Pathfinder.  Namely how the rules can stack up over time to the point that they can bog down the game.  This is especially prominent in combat, where managing large numbers of monsters can be tough, and even low-CR opponents can get a lot of hit points.  The archetype of a master swordsman cutting down hordes of enemies in mere seconds is very hard to do in Pathfinder, unless you're a spellcaster with an Area of Effect spell.  Stat blocks can be a pain to build, especially when it comes to spellcasters.

Rule Zero: Underlings is an attempted fix to the above problems, by designing a new kind of enemy known as an Underling whose primary purpose is to be quickly-statted mooks who challenge the PCs in groups of 4 or more and yet can be easily defeated while still outputting a reasonable amount of damage.  As one who's been using Rule Zero's content for several months in my Pathfinder games, the Underling option works very well for its intended purpose.

Basically Underlings are streamlined NPCs whose core abilities are factored off of the Group Challenge Rating, which represents 4 Underlings of the same type.  Regardless of whether the Underling's are meant to represent giants, mages, vampires, or the like, Armor Class, skill bonus, attack bonus and damage, saving throws and Wound/Kill Threshold are based off of the Group CR.  Instead of tracking hit points, Underlings are dropped if a single damaging attack exceeds their Kill Threshold, or get wounded twice (like Kill Threshold, only half value of the Kill Threshold); damage below this does not affect the Underling.  This, combined with a static attack and damage dice (the latter which can take the average in lieu of rolling) really speeds up the creation process, it's far quicker to design an Underling stat block than a typical NPC, and their low power levels make fights with a large number of opponents more manageable if they're used as the excess minions.

An Underling's "race" (which can represent humans and dwarves as well as broad and popular monster types such as giants and demons) factors in special abilities, which skills their "Class Skill Bonus" applies to, and which saving throws have the "good" and "bad" progressions along with some other minor things.  Finally, Templates are things which can grant Underlings a special attack or mimic the class features of iconic archetypes such as Sneak Attack.  Generating spellcasting Underlings is a simple affair of choosing a total number of spell levels from the cleric or sorcerer/wizard list equal to half the Group CR, and said spells are cast 1/day as spell-like abilities (or at-will for 0 level spells).

One of the best features is that there are Underling races for otherwise high hp, high CR monsters such as the Fire Giant or Mummy.  As the Underling Group CR is a recommended guideline rather than a restriction, there's nothing preventing you from making CR 12 kobolds or CR 1 Ogres.  With this, even a Fighter of middling ability can cleave through several towering brutes in a single round, something which doesn't really happen in core Pathfinder unless you're building a min-maxed Barbarian ubercharger or something to that effect.

Concluding Thoughts

Although it's a short 10 pages, Rule Zero: Underlings is more than worth its $3 price tag, and it's one of my favorite DMing tools for the game.  The toolbox of races and templates are versatile enough to mimic all kinds of fiendish minions and monsters, and even evil assassin-thief archetypes meant to challenge mid-level adventurers can be built in 1-2 minutes with these rules!

Rule Zero Underlings can be purchased on Drive-Thru RPG, RPGNow, Paizo, or D20Pathfinder SRD.  It also has a free supplement, Rule Zero Underlings Bonus.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

I now have an

Here's the link. The "E" is for Enterprises.

For those not in the know, is basically a social media site which allows you to ask questions (anonymous or by username).  It's a pretty interesting website, in no small part due to various folks in geek culture having their own profile, such as Let's Play's slowbeef or Pathfinder's F. Wesley Schneider.

I used to have an old account,, but I deactivated it several months ago.  I changed my mind, but to my dismay I could not find an account retrieval option.  So I decided to make a new one.

So if you like my posts, are a fan of my work, or just feel like asking stuff, come and check it out.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Drawing Inspiration for RPGs: the Byzantine Empire

Artistic rendition of Constantinople in Antiquity

A recent pet peeve of mine is that a lot of fantasy settings which focus on a recreation of medieval Europe tend to begin and end at the British Isles.  They ignore the myriad other cultures and lands beyond surface examinations and folkloric monsters to introduce as adversaries.  Fortunately there's been a gradual branching out to other lands, as can be seen in the popularity of Skyrim and the show Vikings on the History Channel in regards to Scandinavian cultures.  Even then, there's a lot of European regions which need some more love.  In this post, I'm going to tell you why the Byzantine Empire's an awesome place to draw inspiration from for D&D games.

Since August of 2014 I've been running a game set in a fantasy counterpart Byzantine-style city, and the long-running game influenced me to do further research on the real thing.  What got my interest in the first place was  Parsantium: City at the Crossroads.  It is an excellent system-neutral setting sourcebook also based upon a fantasy counterpart Constantinople.  Don't let that Pathfinder logo fool you; over 90% of the contents can be used easily enough for other retro-clones and Editions.

This is not meant to be a guide on how to play D&D in the "real world Middle Ages."  Rather, it examines various interesting cultural and historical details of the Byzantine Empire, and how they can be transferred into a wholly original and fictional world.  For an example, think of how Al-Qadim drew inspiration from real-world Arabic culture and folktales to create a setting inspired by both.

The Mediterranean region has long served as a fertile basin for many world powers.  Greece, Egypt, Rome, the Islamic Caliphate, and the Ottomans among other civilizations touched its waters.  The city of Constantinople has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires for its key strategic location between the trades routes between the Aegean and Black Sea.

Whereas Western Europe was devastated during the fall of the Roman Empire, in the east the infrastructure was maintained for centuries.  The Byzantines (and the rest of the world) still referred to themselves as the East Roman Empire, in part because they managed to not only survive but thrive for a thousand years until the Ottomans sacked the capital and absorbed its lands into their own empire.  The preservation of Greek and Latin tomes allowed the Byzantines to preserve knowledge which was lost in the rest of Europe, and being in close proximity to Africa and Asia meant that the populace had a wide exposure to many kinds of cultures and the trade goods they had.

Foreign travelers from the Dark Ages to the early Renaissance marveled at the beautiful architecture in Constantinople, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Valens Aqueduct (which remained in working order up until 1403).

Implementing this in a game: A Constantinople counterpart serves many purposes.  Its status as an international trading hub makes it known across many continents.  For this reason it provides an easy explanation for incorporating different fantasy counterpart cultures and PC concepts with minimal fuss.  In addition to the Greek-speaking native population, the Byzantines interacted with Armenian, Slavic, Germanic, Scandinavian and Turkish people at various points in history, so it was no stranger to foreigners from lands hundreds of miles away (even if they weren't always assimilated into the general population).

It can also provide a dual sense of grandness and history, while being the remnants of a fallen empire in your home setting.  The higher level of lore and technology while being surrounded by a less developed world reinforces this while at the same time allowing for a city of splendor in a more gritty "Dark Ages" game.

The old Roman Emperors had an elite cadre of troops known as the Praetorian Guard, and the Byzantines were no different.  Whereas the Praetorians had a nasty track record of killing their own Emperors for political favors, the Byzantines drew upon mercenaries from Germanic and Scandinavian tribes who overall were more dependable and loyal.  This was done for several reasons; one, such people were far enough removed from the Byzantine area of influence that they were least likely to harbor resentment against the government and had less incentive to care about local affairs.  Secondly, many northern European clans had cultural practices of loyalty oaths which extended service until one's death.  Thirdly, many of them had experience in warfare, so when necessary they could head armies in defense of imperial strategic holds.  Chroniclers wrote fearfully of how the Varangians, when deployed in times of greatest need, "were frightening both in appearance and in equipment, they attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds."  This might be a possible reference to the berserker fighting style practiced among some Scandinavian warriors.

On a related note, mercenaries formed a great part of the Empire's army.  As they were the wealthiest nation in Europe from the Dark Ages to much of the Middle Ages, they did not have to worry much about other nations bribing their soldiers to fight for the other side.

Implementing this in a game: The not-Byzantine Emperor is going to draw the cream of the crop to guard his side, so having foreign warriors is not going to be that strange except for highly xenophobic regimes.  It provides a good excuse for PCs hailing from distant lands, as current or former members of the Empire's martial wing.  A mercenary-focused military means that there's plenty of incentive for traveling adventurers to accept quests on behalf of the government.

The Byzantine's definition of barbarian was not limited to the designation of a technologically primitive warrior given to bouts of rage, although such folk would certainly fall under this label in their view.  It was a much more broad generalization regarding any foreign civilization.  The term barbarian was due to xenophobic Byzantines joking that the languages of outsiders sounded like nonsense "barbarbarbar" to their ears.  As an international trade hub often tasked with serving as a shield against Muslim conquests from reaching mainland Europe, the Byzantines could not afford to ignore events beyond their borders.

The Bureau of Barbarians was a government office which served many purposes: the interpretation and translation of foreign languages in written and spoken form; foreign spying and intelligence in European, northern African, and Middle Eastern nations; diplomatic envoys and organizing visits from foreign ambassadors; and the signing of treaties among other things.

The arranged ceremonies for foreign dignitaries spared no expense in elaborate rituals to show off the Empire's might and wealth, communicating that this was a great country and leaving lasting impressions on visitors.  The Bureau relied upon merchants, priests, and other folk who traveled often to serve as diplomats, in part due to the social and economic clout they wielded as well as their increased exposure and knowledge of foreign cultures.  Naturally, they sent back reports of all their findings to the government, which the Empire used to keep abreast of situations which might affect them.

For these reasons it's believed that the Bureau of Barbarians was the earliest known example of a governmental intelligence service.

Implementing this in a game: Aside from being an awesome name, it makes perfect sense for an empire's foreign intelligence service to serve as a multi-purpose storehouse of outside customs.  Bureau agents can be anywhere, serving in a variety of capacities: they're merchant clans who buy dwarf-forged weapons to sell in human lands, the office-workers who sell deeds of land to foreign PCs in imperial country, and the assassin who steals the Green Blade of the Mistwood elves to plant on the body of Argrax the orcish warlord.

One of the Byzantine Empire's greatest-kept secrets was the recipe behind the substance known as Greek Fire.  Believed by modern chemists to be a kind of petroleum, it was responsible for key naval victories for its ability to burn on top of water.  Byzantine naval craft would use pressurized nozzles to spray the liquid onto enemy troops and ships, and made a distinct impression on invading Crusader and Arab armies.  Even when enemy forces managed to capture these primitive flamethrowers, they were unable to reverse-engineer the substance and produce it themselves.

Implementing this in a game: Apart from its similarities to alchemist's fire, this provides for a great background for alchemist characters.  In a world full of magical materials and monsters whose corpses can be harvested, the alchemists of a Byzantine counterpart culture might produce a host of other marvels beyond primitive napalm.  Fire-proof remorhaz hides tanned into leather armor, cockatrice glands which act as a petrifying agent, and displacer beast hearts distilled into potions which allow the wearer's form to fluctuate are but a few possibilities.

In spite of several noble families holding power, the Emperor's authority was near-absolute.  Considered by many to be the closest to God, the head of the Empire was a representation of heavenly authority itself.  A peculiar tradition arose out of this: an Emperor who became crippled or mutilated was weak and imperfect, no longer a proper reflection of greatness.  In spite of the vast powers they wielded, rivals and enemy factions within the government made a habit of cutting off the body parts of Emperors as a way of removing them from power.  This was also performed on the sons of Emperors who fell out of favor or seen as a weak link, forever barring them from the highest station in the land.

Implementing this in a game: In spite of its illusions of order and absolute authority, the courts of fantasy counterpart Byzantium are a chaotic affair where outright violence and maiming is just as deadly as the tools of gossip and rhetoric.  With access to magical rituals and artifacts, it might be trivial for the Emperor to stand head and shoulders above the throngs of subsistence farmers dotting the countryside, and he or she may also have levels in cleric if royalty is divinely ordained.

For adventure potential, a noble and just former Emperor, crippled and disgraced, may petition the PCs to find a legendary artifact of healing and renewal.  He must become his former self if he is to take back the throne; otherwise the new Emperor responsible for the coup will plunge the realm into an age of darkness!

Byzantine history saw a merging of Greek and Roman dishes with the importing of foreign trade items, resulting in a delicious mishmash of European and Middle Eastern flavors.  Open-air restaurants in Constantinople known as tavernas sold meals and street food to middle and lower class citizens, while the dining halls of the nobility were full of spices, fruits, and sweetmeats.  Byzantine omelets and salads were renown, while garum (fish sauce) and olive oil were popular choices of condiments among upper and lower social classes. 

Implementing this in a game: "What do they eat?" is a very popular question in fictional world-building, and a great way of adding layers of immersion in one's fantasy games.  Feel free to draw upon modern Mediterranean meals as well.  Merchants and laborers in a hurry might buy shish kebabs to eat on the go, while Turkish-style coffee houses provide a common social gathering spot.  Flatbreads might be used to dip into sauces, and even a meager farming family might have flavorful salads for dinner!

Special Thanks

Raineh Daze and Syrasi, for answering all my questions about the Byzantine Empire and helping in the world-building process of my Arcana High campaign.

Richard Green, for writing Parsantium and kickstarting my interest in a fantasy counterpart Constantinople.

Ask Historians,  for being a fun and high-quality subreddit.

Wikipedia, for being my go-to source for brief overviews of Byzantine culture and the many dishes of Greek and Turkish cuisine!