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Confessions of an Evil GM: Boring vs. Evil

rotd-diceA few weeks ago I went on about fudging dice rolls; Brian Wiborg Monster had so much to say about it, he’s getting an entire post.

Enjoy, folks. -Mike


 “The boulder crushes you underneath and you take 50 points of damage.”

Ahhrrww I am dead then, well I guess I have to roll up a new…”

What, no, wait, you only take 12 points of damage.”

Oh then, I’m still up”

The above exchange between a GM and player exemplifies everything I hate about fudging dice rolls, even if the convention can be necessary to keep the game going. Fudging to keep a character alive can be essential, but when a weak GM takes away the thrill and excitement from the game it is wrong on so many levels.


medieval-fashion-1We all love playing in extended games, but most of us have stumbled upon a campaign or GM where something is off. We can’t quite put our finger on it…until someone avoids certain death by blatant interference from the GM (oh no, I ended up in one of those boring campaigns where you can’t die!) Now I know we have seen games where the GM plays favorites, but that subject is for another day; this is purely about campaigns where the characters are immortal because the GM is afraid to let anyone die.

It takes away from the excitement and tension; if my character can’t die, why should I even think about his actions? Without real consequences, he’ll just do everything on a whim. We will never run or surrender, just keep fighting against overwhelming odds (because we know the GM will save us). I must say, I despise it.


All this rambling leads me to the sentiment that I am an evil GM. Or am I? Perhaps instead I’m a GM that runs campaigns where actions have consequences (balanced consequences I like to think).


I recall an occasion where I used an unconscious character as a hostage – I gave her back, but by then she was bound to a lit witch’s pyre while an evil psyker directed mobs to block the remaining characters’ from reaching her, with screams of “burn the witch” echoing down the alleyways.

This was set on a pleasure planet in a certain dark future of mankind setting (Where there is only war! -MM). Should the character have died horribly? Yes, she should have. That would have made me evil, but details ensured her survival. First, the group really worked well together to rescue her. Secondly, the planet was in lockdown due to a festival (yeah you know the adventure now, don’t you?) that would have made it difficult to get a replacement character. Thirdly, I was having a good day! No, seriously, the group worked together and legitimately saved the character.


In said campaign, a few rules were made painfully clear when playing with me as a GM:

1) Don’t split the party.

2) Don’t run down dark corridors on your own, unless you want to spend the rest of the session doped up on painkillers to function after your chest has been shredded by combat shotguns fired from ambush.

3) Don’t trust a clergyman, ever.

4) Don’t split the party. Never ever.


Now I might add, forget rule #1 and #4, because if I want you to split up, it will happen. It is my experience that the coolest things happen when the party is divided, because those times are the most risky in terms of character death and maiming. With that said, it is important to remember that the rewards in those situations should be higher as well.

Sneaking alone after an informant to a clandestine meeting is dangerous, but learning where the identity of other members of the cult makes the risk worth it. Being discovered eavesdropping on a secret cult meeting will most likely result in a ritual sacrifice to send a message, with you being that sacrifice, unless you run and run fast.

Evil? Yes.

Fun and exciting? Yes.

Boring? No way.


To sum everything up:

-Don’t be afraid to kill characters. It keep players excited and interested in their own charges as well as those of the rest of the group.

-Don’t kill just for the sake of it. Say to yourself, “What would BBEG (big bad evil guy – MM) do to a hostage at this point in his plan?”, and act accordingly. It is not a James Bond flick where the BBEG traps the hero, explains his grand scheme and how the hero could theoretically stop him, all the while laughing like a madman.

-The players should not necessarily fear you, but they should fear certain things in an environment, a name, a place, or a situation.

forest picture

If they end up hating you for my ramblings, or should you find them useful, remember one thing:

Oderint Dum Metuant

Let them hate, so long as they fear


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Confessions of an Evil GM: Sandbox vs. Railroading

B1_map_GMWhen I started playing RPGs, railroading was the only way ahead. Then something called a sandbox came along. I initially thought, “isn’t that where children play and cats do their business?” That’s only partly accurate; sandbox design is a way of making the campaign world more alive.

More alive? I just wanted to kill things with my character. Still, over time I came to love the new, open worlds previously unavailable to me – it was mind-blowing just thinking that I could go anywhere. I ultimately found sandbox design to be amazing and used (or perhaps abused) it for years. I went off the track just because it was expected that I could, and I could have been a better player if I hadn’t.

To this day I still expect a GM to know the proprietor of every tavern in the campaign setting. Now that I’ve taken up the gamemastering reigns myself, my views on the sandbox approach have changed…or have they?

renaissance-clothing-5Let’s consider it against its most polar counterpart: railroading.

I hate pure sandbox; learning everything in a campaign setting by heart? No thank you. Because I have a life, you ask? No, because there are too many cool campaign settings for me to reasonably do that (although I might add that I do have a life). For me the sandbox is of infinite size, both as a player and a GM. The player side of me loves the opportunities, but the GM part of my brain despises it, as the party can run everywhere and expect you to be prepared. This might be because my players are an evil lot, but in my opinion it is because if you give them a possibility, they will seize it. I know I would, so it is only fair that they do so when I’m the GM.

To combat the infinite size of the sandbox, I turned back to railroading. As we played around in the sandbox, we discovered the failings of railroading; it was restrictive and often proved to an impediment rather than aid to the GM. Basically, there’s a good way of railroading, and there is the bad way of doing it. Let me give you examples of both.

Morsain Castle interiorThe wrong way:

The party is summoned to the count’s castle. A railroading trick, the players are summoned by a powerful NPC so that no one tries anything, because the NPC is so powerful.

You must go to X and before the next full moon. Another trick, make sure the distance and time given allows for no or little leeway.

Carry this treasure/ransom/document to X. Make sure the item in question is so valuable that the party will not take any chance that might endanger the item.

Arrive at X, and sit in an antimagicfield and watch the villains take off with the ransom. This is the result of bad railroading; now we can wait until next time, where we will be sent off to somewhere else.

Did this actually happen to me? Yes, and I hated it; it was boring and restrictive.

The right way:

THE TORESTUS FULLGive the players an awesome handout. A map, a prophecy, or a book, if you are so inclined (I am looking at you Mike Myler, giving them a book, talk about raising the stakes for the rest of us.) Seriously with a handout like a map you can control their most likely path of travel (and compensate for going off the trail) and the same goes for a prophecy; any handout that controls some of or any part of their whole journey will help you narrow down your sandbox, which will help you make the passage to the destination more believable. You can prepare a few encounters and read up on the most likely towns they will visit, thereby making sandboxing a breeze.

I must admit that I don’t make handouts for all campaigns, but putting together an intriguing verse or prophecy gets easier with practice.

Checklist for a successful sandbox campaign:

1) Get familiar with or prepare a couple of backwater villages, including a small inn where the party can stay should they go too far from the path.

2) A list of names for quickly naming minor NPCs, so we can avoid the Hanson family of farmers, and the brothers Jonas.

3) You should know where the clerics that are capable of raising and resurrecting are located in the world – there is no free resurrection in every little village.

4) A list of rumors with details conveniently located on or close to the path you want the PCs to take.


5) Lists of the various city guards and mages might come in handy as well.

 To sum up my ramblings:

Narrow down the sandbox.

Use an awesome handout (prophecy, map or otherwise) to influence the PCs path.

Prepare lists of useful details for the campaign.

Submitted by Brian Wiborg Monster

[Edited by Mike Myler]

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Slapping your Players

As a rule of thumb I’m a kind GM; as I’ve stated previously, I think roleplaying should fundamentally be a positive, empowering experience for the people involved. This motivation comes from a desire to see the storytelling process along and doesn’t force players to invest themselves, it invites them to.

Sometimes, though, you should slap your players in the face.

Not literally, of course (well, maybe if the circumstances truly warrant it) but ultimately in the more metaphorical sense. In my ‘house projects’ the party may as well be superheroes – they have to fight to win, and sometimes it may look like they’ll lose, but they’re the prime motivators of the story and the world exists around them, not separately. Total Party Kills are not part of the agenda.

This week I’ve been designing things for two companies (*cough, fantasyflight, cough, froggod, cough*) and they do not play by my aesthetic rules. One of them specifically says, “This should be really, really hard.”

My box needed to be stepped out of and to that end, this weekend we did our first playtest of some of that material; there were a few things that went down which really stood out to me as important.

Today, we’re going to discuss sowing paranoia among your players; not just making their characters scared, but actually scaring them.

You can see how I prefer to go about that by checking out the upcoming Mysterious Peaks of Baranthar (I promise this is my only plug for that!), but there are ways to do it that do not require you to adhere to any specific story element, setting or theme.

Here’s what I noticed worked very well in that regard:

fantasy-tavern-31) Apologize when they arrive to game.

Keep a grin on your face, explain that there’s a good chance somebody is going to die, and otherwise keep your cool. This is the time to take advantage of meta-gamers; only one of my players didn’t take any bite off that hook and I commend him for it (props to Jack – somebody is getting extra loot). If they seem totally unimpressed by this subtly played ploy (and please, be genial when you go about it, not condescending), you’ve got your work cut out for you.

2) Sow the seeds of fear.

If you know that there’ll be talk between players prior to game, seed a festering thought in their minds sometime during the week before you sit down to play.  I promise, what they imagine is going to happen to their beloved character is going to be far worse than whatever you have in store.


medieval-people-13) Divide and Conquer

Take them away from the table to speak with each player exclusively as often as you can justify doing so. This will have the same effect as the previous point; we are playing games of imagination, aren’t we?


4) Avoid maniacal laughter. 

Don’t deny it – we all love doing it, and there’s absolutely a time for it, but resist the urge. Cackling is not only unattractive, it’s offensive. This is not to say that you should not laugh – by all means, a well placed chuckle can do far more to incite fear than a dubious booming retort. Just make sure to be considerate about when and how you go about it. Quietly mumbling, “ohohohohoho, I forgot about thaaaaat,” isn’t just more rewarding, it’s more effective.

5) Get graphic. 

Don’t shy away from dark, vivid descriptions; don’t say, “the axe head has lots of blood on it,” instead say, “the head of the axe is encrusted with the dried blood of those long dead, making the new bits of flesh adorning the sharp edge all the more vibrant.” Force them to envision it in their heads.


Beauty & Blood6) Make it difficult.

Just because the creature they are fighting is an animal does not mean it cannot use tactics – check out wolves or their many cousins. Force them into tough positions and if you notice ‘stop and sleeps’ becoming an all too regular pattern – and this one kind of breaks off my initial goal of avoiding messing with story/character elements – throw something unavoidable at them. Earthquakes, forest fires, animal stampedes; some of these things just happen and have no Snidely Whiplash to blame. Their search for a cause could become a hazard in itself if you like, but play the whole thing out like there really is something awry – don’t just tell them, “it’s obviously a natural effect”, just imply it.




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IRONWALL GAP MUST HOLD – Interview with author Jachob Michael

cover1. Why should I read Ironwall Gap Must Hold?

Because instead of a traditional trip into a dungeon to find treasure, or a mystery to stop a deranged killer in town, the PCs find themselves in charge of an entire fort, which they have to lead to victory against an army that vastly outnumbers them (using the new mass combat rules in Paizo’s Ultimate Campaign sourcebook). Also, orcs shouldn’t be low-level fodder and in this adventure, they’re a deadly, overwhelming force arrayed against the PCs.

2. What makes Ironwall Gap Must Hold unique?

Unlike most adventures, the PCs aren’t primarily going out adventuring or solving a mystery. Instead, they’re playing the role of defenders of the “dungeon,” giving an experience unlike most modules. It gives them the chance to turn the tables on the monsters, setting up traps and defenses and letting the threats fight their way to them.

3. What neat stuff is in Ironwall Gap Must Hold?

Catapults! An orc horde! a 30-foot-tall new monster! A fully fleshed out mountain pass fortress! A new magic item that can turn your enemies against each other (or do the same to the PCs, in the hands of a cruel GM)! Plus, lots of use of the new mass combat rules in Paizo’s “Ultimate Campaign” sourcebook!

4. Which part of Ironwall Gap Must Hold was the most fun to design?

I really enjoyed devising the orcs’ tactics for assaulting the fort, especially with the way they interact with the mass combat rules. The orc horde certainly rushes forward in all-out attempts to take the wall by sheer force, but the enemy is smart enough to use subterfuge too. If the PCs aren’t ready, plenty of dire consequences wait for them, and they could soon find their forces routed and orcs pouring through the gap.

beard bro5. Is there a specific part of Ironwall Gap Must Hold that you identify as your favorite?

I feel like that’s equivalent to asking if a specific part of my dog is my favorite. I love all of her (the dog) and it (the module)! More seriously, I think I’m most pleased with the role-playing aspects. There are a lot of difficulties that can be solved through role-playing and fully fleshed-out NPCs, both as allies and adversaries, to interact with. I like that the NPCs have their own stories going on, which inform and shape their roles in the adventure.

6. What kind of gameplay was the focus for Ironwall Gap Must Hold?

I don’t focus on a specific type of gameplay, as I think a good adventure should have elements of everything. In addition to the previously mentioned role-playing possibilities, there are a couple mysteries to solve, some sandbox-style exploration, a variety of monsters to fight, and mass combats where you must lead your small garrison against the massive horde of orcs.

7. Did you have any inspiration for Ironwall Gap Must Hold?

One of my favorite memories as a younger player was our party having to retreat to a house deep in the woods and set up traps as we prepared for a coming enemy. I no longer recall why we couldn’t keep running, but I had so much fun digging our own spiked pits and getting to play “defense.” Ironwall Gap is intended to do that, albeit on a larger scale. It also takes inspiration from any number of siege stories/seemingly hopeless battles, particularly Jim Butcher’s “Cursor’s Fury” and the battle of Helm’s Deep from Peter Jackson’s movie adaption of “Lord of the Rings.”

8. If any theme dominated Ironwall Gap Must Hold, what would it be?

Holding out against overwhelming odds, with hundreds of lives depending on your actions. This is a fight not for treasure or secrets, but survival.

armydill9. Are there any particularly interesting monsters or NPCs in Ironwall Gap Must Hold?

The PCs get to know several interesting NPCs in the fort. With a hundred soldiers under incredible pressure, not all of them react well to the situation and some are even partly responsible for the chaos in the garrison. PCs also get a chance to meet at least one of the orc leaders, putting a personal face on the enemy. Finally, a throckha — a new, Colossal beast with the ability to smash through stone and metal — will test the very limits of the fort’s defenses and the PCs’ own mettle.

10. What part of Ironwall Gap Must Hold did your playtesters enjoy most?

They really enjoyed the basic setup itself of the module, with themselves being put in charge of this border fortress and having to lead a garrison against a vastly larger force.

11. Is there a specific scenario in Ironwall Gap Must Hold that is going to stick with me?

I think the climactic battle should be a good challenge, with several different enemies harrying the PCs. Another scene, sort of a “charge of the light brigade” action — which ironically only happens if the PCs fail in their attempts to avert it — really grew on me through development of the module. I’m excited to hear about players’ experiences as they’re forced to abandon the protection of the fort’s walls to rescue some of their soldiers from disaster.

12. In one sentence, what can I expect from Ironwall Gap Must Hold?

A thrilling, non-traditional adventure pitting the PCs into a desperate, last stand against the forces of evil, chaos and destruction.

Jacob W. Michaels’ earliest memories of gaming are from 30 years ago, when he was introduced to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in the third grade, filling in blue dice with a marking crayon before looking for laser guns in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Since then, he’s played and run countless games, enjoying Champions, Shadowrun, Toon, Gamma World, Battletech, TMNT, Torg, Talislanta, Marvel Super Heroes, Vampire: The Masquerade and even several home-made games, but always coming back to the sword and sorcery genre: Dungeons & Dragons for many years and more recently Pathfinder.

His beginning steps in designing games for a wider audience than the friends in his gaming group came at the end of 2011, when he decided to throw his hat in the ring for Paizo’s RPG Superstar 2012 contest. His haunting glass was a popular choice among the judges and his second-round entry, the Unfettered, garnered popular acclaim during public voting. (His Round 3 monster won’t be mentioned here, as he’s still trying to live it down.) He’s incredibly excited to have his first module, Ironwall Gap Must Hold, published with

When he’s not gaming, Jacob’s a newspaper copy editor in eastern Pennsylvania. He lives with his faithful hound, Holiday, who hasn’t inherited his interest in gaming, but enjoys when her dog friends come over during games. His parents and younger sister have always been supportive of his hobby since his earliest days playing in New Hampshire, and he appreciates his girlfriend’s encouragement, even if her reaction to watching her first (and only) gaming session was “there are some things you can never unsee.”


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An Alternative Approach with Myth and Magic

jormungandr-3Myth & Magic is from a company called New Haven Games; I was one of the many backers of the Kickstarter for the player’s guide (there’s a free starter guide available here) and DM guide. As with many of these projects out there, things have been slow and the fate of the ultimate outcome doesn’t look too promising but as a backer I got a PDF copy of the aforementioned player’s guide, a PDF of the player journals that were made and I simply use a copy of the DM starter guide. I sent it all to Kinkos and use these as my primary books, along with my old 2nd edition AD&D tomes and the Pathfinder rule set.

In a nutshell, Myth & Magic keeps the 2nd edition feel by using weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. Classes have choices, but less than they have in Pathfinder; they’re more structured as opposed to ‘pick anything you want’ and the spells are a bit more old school than the more polished Pathfinder magic.

091-Costumes-of-Priests-01-priest-q97-642x1096The are two reasons I looked for a new system (and don’t get me wrong I love Pathfinder) ; first off, I was spending too much prep time before each game, especially at higher levels and if I didn’t prep, I wasted time looking up rules and page flipping at the game table. Secondly I noticed that my group was going through the motions when playing. Sure, we had fun and laughed but I wasn’t getting the old excitement from the games like I used to back in the day. So I started looking at my old stuff but over the years we’ve advanced too far to go back to something too simple like 1st edition D&D, and while 2nd edition D&D was my big chunk of gaming it was clunky. At the Paizo boards I came across Myth & Magic and it’s great; it puts the DM back in charge without too much rule searching and I can make more things up on the fly.

Currently I’m running my players through the Pathfinder Adventure Path “Carrion Crown” and we are having a blast, and I use the stats mostly as written in the books. Since it’s Paizo’s attempt at a gothic horror setting I’m also incorporating old Ravenloft games/characters into the plot as well; when I use the old stuff, it easily converts. I’m spending less prep time for each session which helps me focus more on story elements, and by having a few less rules it puts most of the decisions back in my hands and my players have gone back to being more creative.

The Pathfinder/3.5 feel of the system comes from using ascending armor class, the three saving throw stats and instead of feats, they have class talents (and there are not as many of them); all in all I like it. They’ve also created the Base 20 system, where the DM sets most of the DC numbers (referred to as TC for Target Complexity). The challenge of the task to accomplish is chosen to be Basic (a TC of 5); Average (a TC of 10), Superior (a TC of 15) or Exceptional (a TC of 20). There’s also a Legendary category with a TC of 25. Proficiencies are ranked and provide bonuses to rolls rather than regular skill ranks. This isn’t true of combat, but applies to pretty much everything else.

medieval-clothes-5BASE is the acronym in use here. To search a room a PC can use the nonweapon proficiency (NWP) Perception or simply make a Wisdom check, depending on which system you use (as proficiencies are optional). You can have Basic, Average, Superior or Exceptional skill level in each NWP (+2, +4, +6 and +8 respectively) although no first level character can be more adept than Average. Attributes are treated as 1-for-1 in terms of providing modifiers, making an 11 +1, a 12 +2 and so on and so forth.

For example, a first level thief with an Intelligence of 14 gets a +4 modifier. He spends his NWP points to take Average skill level in Perception. When searching a room, he rolls D20 + 8 (+4 Intelligence and +4 Average level) and is trying to beat the TC the DM sets (which is based on how easy or difficult it would be to find something hidden.) Meanwhile a cleric with a Wisdom of 18 has a +8 modifier to search the room, simply rolling an attribute check (which comes out to the same D20 + 8 to roll.) Please note that Myth & Magic has charts for each ability and the ability check modifiers are higher than either 2nd Edition was or Pathfinder is. For example, a Wisdom of 18 gives you a +8 to all Wisdom ability checks, but only a +3 to your Fortitude Saving Throw. There’s separate columns for each of these under the relevant attributes.

dire rat

Instead of the party’s thief taking 10 to search for traps, then opening the door, seeing giant rats, make a hit to throw torch at them and so on, we were treated to him making a Perception roll, spotting the beady red eyes, throwing open the door and making an acrobatic leap up onto the tower walls to get out of the way as he hurled the lit torch at the pack of rats scurrying out to attack. Later he stylishly did a back flip over the party (being in the front and landing at the rear) to avoid the oncoming haunt approaching them, the sneaky bugger!

There are enough options to keep the players happy but more structure to keep character creation and leveling changes to a minimum. True, most of what’s described above is just that and easily mutable, and I can do that with the normal Pathfinder rules, but this new hybrid is working out better for us and ultimately that’s what matters at the gaming table.

Dennis Pascale

(edited by Mike Myler)

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Ashenbone Axe

Ashenbone AxeAshenbone Axe

Aura moderate enchantment; CL 7th

Slot none; Price 8,320 gp; Weight 12 lbs.

Description This well-crafted axe appears to be made from the shaped thighbone of a large humanoid and the double-head of the weapon is as unique as the handle; a pair of jagged and razor-sharp steel blades are firmly fixed to the end of the haft, chipped and encrusted with decades of gore. Attached to the pommel of the weapon is a fine chain of metal, a few bone tokens strung along it. Each ornament is marked with a magical rune of power, that gently pulses with energy. Occasionally the faint sounds of battle can be heard coming from the finely wrought greataxe, and the magical runes never seem to be exactly the same (in number or type) from one day to the next.

This medium-sized+1 greataxe has an eldritch glow that sheds a slowly pulsing amber energy (equivalent to a light spell: a bright light within a radius of 20 feet and shadowy light out to 40 feet). In the hands of a raging character (whether via a class ability, racial ability or spell effect) this weapon deals an extra 1d8 points of damage. When used by a character that is not raging (regardless of their capacity to do so) the damage of the weapon is instead reduced by 1d4.


Requirements Craft Magic Arms and Armor, rage; Cost 4,320 gp (320 xp)

History     A character that makes a Knowledge (local) or Knowledge (history) check to learn about the item identifies the following fragments of lore:

DC 20     This weapon was reputedly created by the berserker adept Danyathos the Grey nearly four centuries ago. Designed to enhance the damage of his tribe’s champion during their frequent and bloody raids on other clans in the region (both human and humanoid), the axe was forged from the best steel that they could acquire whilst the haft and the magical tokens were created from the thighbone of a heavy-set frost giant. Every tribal champion who had the honor of wielding the Ashenbone Axe added another token to the chain through a bloodsoaked ceremony, gradually granting his own fury to the weapon’s savage wrath.

DC 25     The clan, along with Danyathos the Grey, disappeared many decades ago in the cold lands of the north during a conflict with a large tribe of hobgoblins under the leadership of a creature simply known as Il’ixicu’us; a powerful devil of some sort, although speculation remains heated about his exact type.

DC 30    It is said that the two tribes met in battle and fought each other to mutual destruction over three days, the human champion banishing the devil back to the infernal planes of Baator with the last swing of his weapon before succumbing to exhaustion and numerous mortal wounds. The enchanted greataxe was lost to history afterward and has not been seen since.


Created by Jonathan Ely



Do you have an idea for an enchanted sword, arcane-empowered armor or unique magic item that you want to see wrought into artwork? Take a look at the submission rules and send a brief summary of your proposed enchanted item titled ‘Armory of Adventures submission’ to submit(at) with the following:

  • the nature of the item (weapon, armor or wondrous)
  • one or two sentences about its appearance
  • what the item in question does
  • the components and spell(s) used in its construction