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Two Thorns in the Grand Lion’s Paw

AAW-SonicCicada-colors01Creature design can be a tough road to walk and even the most seasoned, stalwart player can lose their nerve when their nefarious monster brings them low.

This isn't a sign that either one of you is necessarily doing anything wrong; as far as I'm concerned, it means that you're about to crest the wave of serious immersion. Drama is high and there is a real, palpable danger to the PCs and if they aren't preparing their things to go home, you've done it and you're riding the wave.

How do you stay on the board? Weaknesses: one generalized and (to get unique) one rare.

 

My favorite example of this is from the Paizo core rules - take a look at the Jabberwock—specifically, DR 15/Vorpal and cold vulnerability.
That's pretty specific and you know what? That's great. A dedicated party of high-level adventurers would still be able to drop this creature, whether properly equipped for the task or not. The latter will prove to be a real challenge, but the former won't be a pushover.

 

If you're making any monsters yourself (and you should be - always throw a curve ball at your players) take a note from the Jabberwock.pyro

This creature brings into focus one of the principal elements in monster design. It's clearly in the realm of high-level encounters, and it shows without having to read the slew of offensive abilities at its disposal. Following the progression of the Pathfinder Monster Creation Rules, its hit points, AC and saves fit the bill and are on average what they ought to be, so why the weaknesses?

 

The answer is a simple one: high-level encounters mean high-level abilities and powers.

A formidable, high-level combat-proficient PC (barbarians, fighters, paladins, rangers and rogues) will unleash a considerable amount of damage each round from weapons, chipping away at that stack of hit points with a fair amount of success (at that point, the frequency of critical hits rises quite a bit). Without a truly effective form of damage reduction—take a seat, adamantine—the Jabberwock will fall far sooner than any GM is going to be happy about. If a potent spellcaster is around, this wonderful "dragon" would be biting the dust if it wasn't loaded with resistances.

 

The specificity of the vorpal enchantment means that the PCs are unlikely to have more than one or perhaps two weapons capable of completely ignoring it's physical buffer, and the resistances (at double the value of the DR) do the same for magical attacks—any lower level spells, like fireball, are going to be practically ignored unless they produce a cold effect.

 

Gremlin final cropMonsters like the Jabberwock are unique examples of truly creative design work. This one creature can easily occupy a huge number of opponents, withstand the attacks of fell foes, while still possessing an attainable Achilles' heel to reward the smart, prepared adventurer.

 

If you're making a mid- or high-level monster, make sure to learn the lesson of the Jabberwock - prepare for the worst (buffer) and hope for the best (selective and generalized weakness).

[Hey, did you know I have a twitter account? The myths are true. -MM]

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A Simple 5-Step Approach for Complex Characters

A couple of weeks ago we got quite a response to an article (10 Ways to Run a Better Tabletop Game) and several folks responded with how they implement in-depth character creation—thank you! One of these approaches is so simple that its originator, John Hughes, broke it into a simple sketch. His thoughts on that area of game design are below. Enjoy! 

Image_Portfolio_104_Fantasy Jason Walton 60It's never easy coming up with a character concept—knowing your character's goals, hopes, quirks and foibles. Too often we ignore the intangible qualities of our imagined hero and focus on the mechanics of the numbers and abilities instead. During a World of Darkness campaign, a dear friend (but lackluster roleplayer) came up to me one day, proclaiming proudly, "I've got a new character concept for a vampire: Dominate plus Telepathy."

That's not a concept—that's two powers strung together—and while that might be the extreme of mistaking mechanics for personality, I believe that all of us occasionally make this trade-off. Whether the setting is a casual pick-up game or a convention event, when faced with a different group at the table and a new piece of paper in hand, the temptation as the player to develop only a cursory profile can be overwhelming. Additionally, other players might enjoy the game for the sake of the combat and don't want to divert time and effort into fleshing out their creation.

Over time, I've developed simple steps that, regardless of playing style, encourages quick but meaningful examination of a hero that more fully invests players in their creations.

 

Step 1: Five AdjectivesA PC in 5 parts
The first step is to come up with five adjectives to describe your character; the idea is not to just develop a string of five words from the same category: e.g. physical traits like strong, swift, lithe, nimble and sure-footed. Without variety, five adjectives are no better than one. Instead pick one word from each of the following five categories to give a character instant depth:

Past     This should describe something about how the character arrived at today.

  • Where did they come from?
  • How did training or other major events change and shape them?
  • What was their family situation (or lack thereof) and how did it affect their adolescence?

Future     You have one word describing the hero's formative experience, now imagine the more aspirational facets of this individual.

  • How do they want to be remembered
  • What word best describes what this character hopes to do?
  • What mark do they want to leave or what role would they like to fulfill?

Image_Portfolio_1.27_Fantasy Romans-Robots 01Self     Bringing the time vista back to the present, now we'll look inward.

  • What word best describes the character in behavior, philosophy, or appearance?
  • Is this a way the hero presents themselves as a facade, or does this represent a true personality facet?

 

Others     Look around the hero and empathize with how they must feel about the world.

  • What word best describes what your character think about others? (The definition of others could be other tribes, races, traditional enemies, close allies, nations, classes, alignments, religions.)
  • How does your character treat them?
  • What does the hero expect outsiders to think upon meeting?

Stuff     How an individual deals with other people can be completely different from how they deal with objects.

  • What word best describes the character's relation to goods, services and social bearing?
  • Do they show an interest in tangible objects like weapons or wealth?
  • Does the character prefer intangibles like fame or power?

Gary Dupuis - Kargrin-CRemember, the quality of adjectives count! Why be "happy" when you can be cheerful, joyful, enthusiastic or even maniacal? This step is a great opportunity to break out those words you only memorized for the SAT; you may never use "nonagenarian" in a sentence, but it could be the perfect word for your wizard, who might also be decrepit or wizened (assuming your wizard is a human—for an elven wizard, "nonagenarian" is the equivalent to immature or untried.)

Don't be afraid to try unconventional words for your concept! Many people can see a cleric as devout, but what if hanging around the temple all the time instead has made the disciple ingratiating or even sycophantic? Words with greater context or specific meaning will produce a more concrete vision of the character from this exercise.

Step 2: Draw Your Character
When describing the five areas above, I'll draw little pictures to help visualize what I mean—I also draw in an effort to overcome any resistance or fear of this next step. This part of the exercise tends to draw heavily on the class, armor, or weapon of a character, so in some ways the illustration serves only to reinforce the role of those mechanics. Nonetheless, by encouraging the players to draw the character, the image triggers other areas of the brain, giving visual context to both the adjectives and the mechanics. The drawing doesn't have to be great or even good, but encourage the player to try—the rewards are immediate and the practice makes the next time easier.

Note: I can't claim to have devised this step entirely on my own—I came across a version of this idea in On The Edge by Jonathan Tweet and have been using it for two decades.

Elve_ThiefI discourage names from movies or books when players flesh out the last part of the character. An original name reinforces ownership of the hero—names like Bob or Fred can disrupt the fantasy mood—so put some effort into a plausibly authentic name.

Hopefully this quick, easy exercise will help make characters more interesting for both you and your companions during your next adventure!

 

Submitted by Jonathan Hughes [who also submitted these pictures as examples]
[Edited by Mike Myler]

Do you have a contribution or idea for Meta Thursdays?  Send us your ideas (after reading the submission guidelines) to submit(at)adventureaweek.com with “Meta Thursday” in the subject line!

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3 Approaches to Improbability

0655-FrancisGrose-1208x1060Sometimes the dice abandon us. This doesn't pose a huge problem to GMs - we can conjure more creatures or challenges into the story to make sure it remains an adventure rather than a cakewalk. No, the problem with improbability that I'm tackling today is those few cursed ones utterly bereft of fortune. Those players that constantly roll 1s, that never break the 10 on a d20 in three consecutive games and for whatever reason, simply defy the nature of probability. 
Nearly every game I've played in enjoys a house rule to compensate for these situations in some form or another (something I've had to do away with for playtest balance). The options being digested here are as follows: objects of fate, depleting powers and the Luck attribute.

 

Orc-BeserkerObjects of Fate

The first of these are things that players can get easily within the core rules and are a good solution for the luckless member of a group, but should be granted carefully - some are extremely valuable and if the PC passes away in a situation where their equipment is not compromised, it can become problematic. Stick to the lower level roll manipulation magic items and don't get overzealous about it. This also, of course, can be very frustrating for other players and the last thing a GM needs to be handed is a group with multiple rerolls for each and every member; its tedious and your game is going to ultimately suffer for having such a wide breadth of consequence evasion. While I love the Deck of Many Things, the fact of the matter is that it's a really good time because the randomness inherent can be vastly unbalancing (with joyous, dramatic, stunned and horrified expressions, as well as everything inbetween). I'm a perfect example of the kind of player that really enjoys those kinds of game tools because they never seem to sour on me - I walk away with 5 wishes or some other unbalancing element that aggravates all my companions, who more often than not have suffered a grievous loss.

 

Depleting Powers

The second option is something I've referred to before and is definitely a dangerous terrain to cross. If you choose to go this route, I recommend using either the rules given (for Pathfinder, just make them play a halfling with the adaptable luck racial trait) or to model your own off of them. If you're using 3.5, I can tell you from personal experience as a player who enjoyed the Auspician class - it is to be avoided by all but the truly cursed (or at the very least, watered down). That class can be a game changer in a very serious way and if you're not any good for quick improvisation or seamlessly weaving unexpected elements into your story,  consider banning it.

 

KaleLuck as an Attribute

Luck, as a seventh attribute, is my preferred and favorite way to bring some 'entropy' into the mix for die rolls. In the days of yore, before I had to adhere to Pathfinder Core Rules for everything, this was what I used for my home games. Everybody gets one (I preferred them to be at 12 or above) and this replaces The 2 Rule. "You're about to lose your grip, but the plate guarding your arm snags the rope, giving you the instant of relief needed to regain your resolve and hang on for dear life!"

If it's getting really god awful, allow the PC to make a saving throw (determined by how generally improbable their request is, but usually a DC 10) that will grant them a reroll on the original check. Sometimes (for those truly lucky players that net an attribute score of 18) this is going to get out of hand, but there's a solution for that as well: either give major NPCs a Luck attribute of their own, or keep a "Karma" or "Fate" track and make sure that eventually, the PCs achieve balance with all their rerolls (having to make saves to avoid rerolling the checks you really want to hit them with).

 

Do you have a contribution or idea for Meta Thursdays?  Send us your ideas (after reading the submission guidelines) to submit(at)adventureaweek.com with “Meta Thursday” in the subject line!