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Balancing House Rules (or How I Learned to Love Critically Failed Attack Rolls)

Overgrown RuinsThe critically failed attack roll, the new player race, the designed spell; you know them, you love them or you hate them but Home Rules are as integral to the game as the tabletop itself. The thematic elements of your game are important (indeed, sometimes vital) but how do you balance the statistical bonuses oftentimes inherent to these setting-based feats, spells and rules?

If it’s a matter of newly designed content – original items, house feats and the like – consider the worst and best scenarios for the object in question and compare them to similar statistics (“The Pathfinder Method” – check under the “Magic Item Gold Piece Values” heading.) There’s a science behind all of this, but ultimately the wealth of material to use as a barometer to determine what is or is not balanced is where you should go. Personally I find this to be most useful when you’re creating a new creature entirely as the variety for comparison is fantastic.

AgiSepthoronShould you be making a new race, Pathfinder has guidelines for that (a great place to start if you’re doing something for 3.5, too) and while there is some contention as to how balanced that particular product may or may not be, it’s a wonderful guide to get you moving.


These are just disclaimers; what I want to expound upon today is the House Rule. To even begin accounting for every one that is or could possibly be is a herculean task far beyond my ken; instead I’ll just share a few of the steadfast variations that endure in my games.


1) The Critically Failed Attack Roll

Rolling a natural 1 on an attack roll in my house games is a perilous endeavor but to be honest, it always seems to go better for the PCs than their enemies. There’s still a confirmation roll (rolling what would have been a successful attack roll negates the critical failure, still not a hit) but should the attacker fail at this as well, a number of things can happen.

On difficult terrain? You fall prone as you accidentally stab yourself in the foot for 1 damage!

In melee? You provoke an attack of opportunity as you misread your opponent and swing wide, or your weapon falls to the ground!

Ranged attack roll? Your sling unfastens itself, the bowstring snaps or your weapon slides out of your hands on the back swing!

B&W Skeleton Warriors

2) Minimum Half Hit Points

This started as a concession for an unfortunate player that always seems to get 1s on their hit die when they level – any roll under a 4 for a cleric means that they rolled a 4 (in Pathfinder, anyway). Typically in my games if it’s not a Major NPC, the total hit points are calculated at half die value anyway, which leaves the PCs at a slight disadvantage even with this rule (losing 1 HP per 2 levels that NPCs keep).

Gnome Engineer-Rogue3) The Athletics Skill

In Pathfinder especially, the skills system is severely reduced to make for faster, easier statistical work and smoother gameplay. In the spirit of this, Climbing and Swimming get combined into one skill in my games – Athletics (this includes Jump for 3.5, but not Tumble and certainly not the full breadth of Acrobatics in Pathfinder). To this end, I bet Michael Phelps can ascend a mean rock wall and all the climbers I know can swim a mean lap. Moreover, if the character is focused enough on either of these skills to make them integral to the game, I let them have both – my games are about epic heroes and daring adventures and a PC focused on athleticism should be an Olympian, not just specialized in one aspect of physicality (although people have done so anyway, and kudos to them!) Most importantly it allows for all characters to have a passing proficiency in getting around, which facilitates world exploration and gameplay at large.


The question to be addressed here is how balance is maintained for the entire game with these broad brushstrokes over the established rules.

Here it’s simple – nobody gets dealt a bad hand; PC or NPC, they’re all equally effected by each of these changes. The bar has obviously been raised, but the new height for both sides is the same.

For rule #2 this means that damage output is going to play a less critical role (which it already does in Pathfinder because of increased class hit die, among a retinue of other small variations) but each side is going to be disadvantaged more often because of rule #1 anyway (provoking attacks as often as they get critical hits). Rule #3’s balance is pretty straightforward, but rarely comes into play given that NPC exploration is a fairly limited endeavor.Hand-Organ-or-Dulcimer,-and-Violin-q75-818x948

 These examples, however, are quite limited in scope; they are universal and their balancing act is far simpler because of it. Later on we’ll tackle how to incorporate cultural and historical house rules in your game, so keep an eye out for the next time the ever-avaricious AaWBlog turns its attentions on the feast that is the House Rule!


What House Rules do you use in your games? Why? What gave you the idea?

Leave a comment below and let us know!

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Where the Records At?

During the first playtest of The Damned Souls of Fenleist the PCs took an entirely unexpected avenue of investigation and now it’s become a bit of a running joke in the group.

One of the playtesters practically lives “outside of the box”. This is the guy that spends valuable combat rounds pounding a piton into the surrounding landscape for a wild contraption and the next time (after the contraption failed to be set up in time), rather than doing something sensible, has managed to acquire adamantine pitons. Gully is very high on my list for people to test things for reasons like that.

13-5-20 ciudad gruaAfter arriving in the town only to be attacked by a truly strange assortment of creatures that literally appear from thin air, they learned of Fenleist’s woes from the surly constable and got into researching the curse. The first thing out of this player’s mouth was, “I’m going to search the town records.”

Me: “What?”

Gully: “The town records. There’s a town hall and a town council right? They must have records or something.”

In my head I’m kind of blown away. ~What? Town records? Are you serious? These people are mostly illiterate, don’t have running water, electricity or even steam engines, but you expect town records?~

Me: “Sure. Constable Vandersmythe nods thoughtfully and agrees to open up the town hall so you can investigate. It’s a reasonably sized stone structure right beside the jail and the Constabulatory and inside you find documentation about Fenleist. Give me an Intelligence check as you search through the sheafs of scrolls.”

115-At-the-bookshop-q75-1701x1772Rolls were made. If I recall correctly, somebody rolled pretty high.

Me: “Okay, you look through the records and a few things are quickly determined. The Kortez family is the most prominent bloodline here and the longest residents of the town, and apparently the first and only mayor was a halfling named Fizzlewik – the fellow that created the crane you used to drop lumber on that crab swarm. That was literally centuries ago.”


Gully: “Alright, alright. That’s not what I wanted to find though.”

Doug: “What about the temple? Let’s check there.”

They did and once again I was flabbergasted. I just decided that all the documentation there was financial and that no analysis of them yielded anything of great value, except that Harold Gorden had become a pretty crappy merchant over the past few years (that’s a sub-plot you can go read about here).


I tossed some more bait out there for the intended routes of investigation but they just would not bite. It was like flyfishing in a tempest. So they went to the Kortez Mansion after that and what did they do?

That’s right!

They looked for records.

None were to be found but while snooping about the residence, I finally got them to bite on the line and things took off from there. Until they were done slaughtering the legions of undead in the Kortez Graveyard anyway.

Me: “So allow me to understand. You are going to pull out and remove the coffins in this mausoleum, searching each and every one, to find what exactly?”

Gully: “Records! Maybe they kept a journal or diary or something and buried it there.”

Doug: “Should we be doing that? Aren’t you not supposed to do things like that?”

Mike: “That does not make any sense. At all.”

Gully: “Do I care? I open the coffins and search for records!”

Me: “Okay. You pry off the ancient stone lids and find skeletons inside. Many are dressed in costly livery and still have boots that might be worth some coin, but no, there are no records or journals of any kind inside. Because why would there be? Dude, seriously? Most of these people probably weren’t even literate!”

Gully: “Damn! I really thought I was going to find something that time!”

450b-Tottering-Under-the-Weight-of-Knowledge-q97-693x1252It’s become a running joke and now we tell Gully he’s got Records Sense +1 and Records Finding.


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Avaricious Advancement – Dealing with Greedy PCs

Not everyone plays a roleplaying game the same way intentionally, and the results are often spectacular when you get those players to step outside of their comfort zone.
I know this because I am one of those players.
rogue 1Unless there’s a vow or alignment restrictions (and sometimes despite my best efforts even then) there’s deceit and greed aplenty that just seeps into every PC that I bring to the table. More gold, more fame, more powerful items (heck, more items); you name it, and Boris/Rankir/Fedlin/Krathar/etcetera want it.

You’ve talked with me, you’ve told me outside of game that it’s stressing party tensions, you’ve tried bribing me with food and drink but it never seems to change.

What do you do? There’s a few ways to go about it.

The first option I’m going to present is typically the worst way to go: appeasement. History has taught us time and again that this just doesn’t work, but a roleplaying game is a more contained object than the world at large. Hooking this player up with loot is an option that carries its own dangers though (which you can read my solutions to here) and should generally be avoided if you can help it.
If it’s a matter of stealing from party members, give the suspicious PCs a circumstancial bonus when the heist is going down. It shouldn’t be a staggering thing, but it should get progressively harder as time goes on (paranoia will do that to you.)
Are they continually winning the loot lottery? Make specific items they don’t have the racial or class requirements to use.


154-Beggar-with-Hurdygurdy-q90-602x950The second option is probably the best one but is by and far the most time intensive. One of the biggest problems with me and people like me is that way too much game time gets spent amassing wealth (and the various dangers associated with doing so via dubious means).

To break open more time to game as a group, indulge the player with individual sidequests. Even if they don’t walk away heavy with loot (and they are probably less likely to, since you’ve got something prepared and can fully explore all the ramifications of their actions) they’ll still get some play time out of it and an opportunity to affect the game’s plot, and that is ultimately why they are there.

The acquisition of items and wealth are a reflection of their desire to express greater control in the game world and you’re granting them that with their side quests. As a result you’re going to have a happier player and a more active gaming group.


You don’t have the indulgence or the time for either of the above suggestions and you don’t want to just kick them out of the group; what else is there to do?

This last option is by and far my favorite, but should be avoided unless you’ve developed a bit of talent for manipulation and can deal with someone initially being quite frothy with you.

fighter 8Give them a cursed item. Not just a cursed item, but an intelligent one, an unusual one. Check out the Deck of Many Things (which is not a solution, because every single time it’s been introduced to me, I draw like 7 cards and walk out two levels higher with wings) and get a good look at the Knight/Page of Swords/Jack of Hearts, and when they ask you about this cite that card in the artifact.

This cursed item, whatever it may be, only activates when grabbed by the greedy or those consumed by avarice. Make it shiny and golden, something that they won’t leave a dungeon without. Once they’ve taken it, it never ever leaves them. When sold or thrown away, it reappears in their pocket. Research reveals that it bonds to the user’s soul until death (removable only via true ressurrection or wish).

The next time they wake up, they’ve gained the services of a (Character Level – 1) Lawful Good fighter (effectively granting them the Leadership feat for this companion). It looks exactly like them and always keeps within a few feet as long as possible, obsessed with guarding their well-being. This is because the fighter is a manifestation of their inner goodness, their desire to submit to the rules and laws of civilization and to respect all they encounter. It cannot be damaged or harmed by the PC in any way – indeed, it is a physical manifestation of themselves, which is why it can harm the PC, and it will. Whenever they get into the swing of looting, their lawful good companion must make a Will save (DC 10+1/2 character level+highest stat modifier) or both immediately take (1/2 level x d10) damage and are fatigued if they get greedy, attempted to steal or force a poor trade or are otherwise dubious.

Over time the value of this free feat (which is pretty sweet all told) will easily outweigh any additional loot they get their hands on in both terms of statistical advantage and roleplay.

There are other solutions of course, but these are where I typically go to when the situation is reversed and I’m behind the screen.

Treasure Golem

What do you do in these situations? What have you tried and failed with? Succeeded with? Not sure yet? Leave a comment!


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Magic Items Gone Wild – When Excalibur Becomes More Than A Tool

004Whether you admit it or not, I think you love loot.  Everybody does. Magic Items are often the frosting on the cake for me as a player; unless I’m specifically trying not to, I’m always playing a rogue in cleric/fighter/wizard/etc.’s clothing (yes, I will get to a post about how to deal with people like me later, although the Pathfinder Gamemaster’s Guide has some novel ideas) and the acquisition of more impressive and unique items is always among my priorities. We are playing swords and sorcery type games, right? Gimme that enchanted bling!

There are occasions, however, when in our infinite wisdom and kindness as the arbiters of player fates that we may get too merciful and give out a bounty that really is just too good. Whether it’s the keystone of a plot, a weapon wielded by an NPC that was never intended to fall into player hands or just a whimsical allowance for an obscene treasure roll, there’s no shortage of GMs that have made the mistake of handing out something that should have stayed in the books.


What happens? It depends on the circumstances. In a game years in the past my group was doing a wizard’s academy thing (Harry Potter was popular at the time – I think we may have stopped after the DM had enough of me asking when the quidditch match was going to happen; either that or I left for college) and our low level characters, on a holiday, encountered a fledgling dragon terrorizing a small town. To make the whole scenario more plausible inside of an academic schedule, we’d been given a scroll of teleport to speedily return home from whatever our intended goal was. Fortunately everyone knew magic missile and we had no shortage of castings at our disposal (there may have been a wand or two to boot) and much to the surprise of everyone, we beat the pants off that beastie, which in typical draconic fashion fled to fight another day.Dragon Red


This was what the plot called for – next time we got a chance, our more experienced characters had a dragon to face down. As I mentioned previously, however, I am always playing a rogue, and I wasn’t about to let that get out of my hands, no sir. After about five minutes I had convinced everyone that the thing to do was teleport to the dragon’s cave and ambush it when it came back since it was nearly dead anyway (“We’ll return as heroes in a caravan with valuable magical components!”); it worked like a charm. The very experienced DM of my youth had his bases covered though and used that surprising scenario to expedite other plot events and did an amazing job of integrating it into the overall story.


That’s one way – unexpected mobility. This instance was just a single scroll of a potent spell, but it easily could have been a flying carpet, ebony steed or any other movement item. If it’s getting your players out of reach of your enemies, grant some special ranged attacks or put them in environments where that just isn’t a viable option (maybe the winds are too fierce to ride easily or the walls are covered in a strange hazard that negates Slippers of Spider Climbing). You are the master of the game! It is well within your power to create obstacles that match the abilities of your players, keeping things challenging without diminishing the extraordinary talents at their disposal. If they’re using an item in a way not described or immediately calculated by the creator, don’t hesitate to do the same; just try to be fair about it.


mite__simon_buckroydPerhaps more common (and probably more difficult to deal with) is when an overpowered weapon falls into a PC’s hands. Everybody loves a magic armament that amps up their combat prowess and I’ve known several players that go to great lengths in regard to their arsenal of weaponry. Of course this can be a solution as well as a hindrance – powerful tools of combat are sought after by many parties and anyone that loses their favorite item is going to be quite prepared to collect it from whatever party took it.

This is a good time to mention this: if you haven’t picked up Sean K. Reynold’s File Off the Serial Numbers ($2), do it now – it’ll give you some brilliant ideas on how to take unique creatures and quickly substitute them for more mundane NPCs that fit your immediate needs. This is going to be especially useful for anyone who’s dealing with the problem described above – that flaming sword isn’t so good against the misguided hound-archon-statistics-block-turned paladin with ‘fire resistance’ cast on it. Check it out.


Fighter 13

What about armor that is continually giving someone an invulnerable advantage? There’s always combat maneuvers and if the disparity is truly great, this is a wonderful opportunity for a dual sequence combat (where the PC in question is faced off against one ‘prepared’ foe and the remainder of the party gets on with things as usual.) Don’t just run a side battle – run a small side quest. Make their success (which should have something to do with that terrific item they’ve got) have real-time consequences on their allies, or vice versa.


PotionThen there are the unique items. I’m guilty of abusing the Bag of Tricks myself, and were I in my gamemaster’s place, it would have stopped working the third time a summoned animal was forced through a trap-infested hallway. Instead, there would be a bonus or something when the use is friendlier to the spirit of the item. Maybe they emerge with an advancing template or instead of pulling one, you get three or four lesser creatures from another version. If you don’t offer your PCs incentive to do more playing by the rules, why should they?


Of course, maybe that’s an integral part of your game. Instead of letting that one character’s powerful magic item take the stage, give everyone a proverbial mic that lets them stand out as well. Every PC can have an item that amplifies their racial or class abilities, or better yet, fits the behavior of the character. If the Bard is always rushing headlong into battle, grant them something that boosts their Bardic Music ability when they do so. If the Monk is always taking a contemplative, peaceful approach to obstacles, give them some awareness-based item or a piece of gear that enhances their social skills when they are following The True Way. Without Excalibur there is no Arthur, after all.


This is going full circle though – the ultimate answer is you. Whatever you do to ameliorate the situation, remember not to play the ‘god giveth and god taketh away’ trope. Nobody likes having their toys taken away and in my experience it’s easier to bring something out of your own play chest rather than deal with a (rightly) angry player.



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Empowering Experience – Setting aside CR

036-letter-writing-correspondence-q90-1974x1052Everyone has their own concept of what an ideal tabletop experience should entail. Sometimes this means a rigid adherence to every detail to really drive home the simulation and aspects of reality inherent in a roleplaying game, right down to the carefully maintained inventory of carried equipment and penalties for anyone a pound past the limit. This is where it’s at for some groups.

That’s just never been the case for me.

 When I sit down to run (or play in) a game ultimately the reason is to participate in a story. It’s all storytelling. This system takes a nuanced approach whereas another is far broader and you can pick and choose your favorite (personally I’m waiting for my fiancee to grab a copy of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen for our anniversary; apparently it only uses coins?) but ultimately I think there’s a place in every tabletop gamer’s heart for the original, the irreplaceable, the indomitable: Dungeons and Dragons. But as I mentioned above, everyone’s idea of what makes a good game is different. For me it’s about the story and certainly not the numbers. You sit down to engage it as an empowering experience and getting bogged down in math just doesn’t sit with me (although I’ve seen plenty of satisfaction when someone’s critical mathematical plan falls into place and that is great).

pyroThis doesn’t mean you should go fudging dice willy-nilly. If anything it should deter you from doing so. The beautiful thing about roleplaying games is that the story generated is extremely organic – a good session of dice rolling can go places that nobody could have anticipated! When the final hour of play is coming to a close my players aren’t asking me how many experience points they garnered from the encounters because that’s just not how I do it.

In an ideal (or programmed) world every adventure I design still would not reward the exact amount of experience required to properly level a party of characters from 1st to 20th. The imposed structure would diminish all the places the story could go and place responsibilities on the whole of it that would make the module unto a novel or tome. The beauty of the organic structure would be hindered and the story would ultimately suffer for it.

Instead I design encounters by the appropriate CR, adjusting as necessary (via HD enhancement, simple templates or just more foes) to keep players on their toes, making sure that there’s some questions about the scarcity of resources and various other dramatic afflictions (environmental, medical, timed quests, etc). Nobody levels in the middle of the night after killing a randomly encountered animal the day before; they do it when a story arc is complete.

Really that’s the point of the XP rewards system. The difficulty of each entry increases given its CR on a statistics table that corresponds with the experience rewards system (in three different tracks for Pathfinder!).

Goya_ForgeRemoving the numbers, especially if you’re playing in the aforementioned rules set (which does away with the experience cost to create magical items), accomplishes a few important things of note; players are more driven to engage the investigative and social elements of the game since now the rewards aren’t in the slaughter but the story instead. Character development quite literally carries its own rewards now.

When I am using a proper experience point system, there’s always room for grabbing some points on the side. Canny conversations, clever use of resources, innovative approaches to obstacles; all of these get you something for your troubles, as they should.

But what about the players that just don’t have the skills to outwit a castle guard in conversation, or the bard at your table that insists on singing in real life every time they do so during the game?

I get liberal with the gift giving (I encouraged that bard to be as reckless as possible – his singing was atrocious) and find ways that they can shine (such as the inspiring bravery suggested above) that don’t require a dice roll or a quickly solved puzzle. Did they give somebody a ride to game? What about recounting the events of last session? Maybe they can be the group cartographer?

You want every player walking away from the game feeling as though they engaged the story and played an essential part; make sure that if you are using numbers that this is reflected in the characters statistics. Nobody wants to take an hour out of game to go searching the woods for a creature to pop just so they can get that next level, right? How many wild hogs will  it take to get my next feat is a question no GM or DM wants to be asked.


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