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Six Tips for running a Scene in Social Scenarios

 00-machines-of-war-castle-glossary-994x525

1) Small Sandbox

Most social encounters in a game happen within a very small area, which is also the case with this week’s upcoming Sidequest Saturday. The Veresovich Manor is easily laid out in your head—ballroom, several antechambers, kitchen, a dozen bedrooms, library, and so on.
First of all, decide which of these areas are off-limits for guests; the bedrooms (in which it is considered odd to see guests prowling around), the kitchen and library (where work is to be done and delicate objects stored), and so forth.
This is fine because the sandbox here doesn’t come from the area but from the multitude of NPCs within it to interact with. Do a quick outline of the rooms and layout and familiarize yourself with the statted NPCs, but most importantly, the secrets and the information that needs to be conveyed for the plot to advance. Then you are set to invite the players inside of the magnificent location of the social encounter.  

2) List of Traits for NPCs

One of my little secrets (one many people use, so not really my secret) is lists. Make a list with ten, maybe fifteen different traits that make an NPC stand out—not for characters with full statistics, but for the un-statted NPCs that the PCs are bound to interact with.

We all know the situation: “I will try to engage the servant with the tray in conversation and avoid the monocle wearing man in the tails and top hat twirling his moustache”.
Who hasn’t been caught flat-footed by a player doing the opposite of what was intended? With a list in hand, your answer will be, “the servant with the slight limp, or the servant who has been sending flirtatious smiles all night?”
It is a simple, quick, easy way to make it seem as if you have spent hours preparing for impromptu moments. Until the first question to the servant is, “what’s your name?”—oh no, they caught us flatfooted!
Or did they? Read on…

Old_book_bindings3) Lists and More Lists

My biggest problem was always names. In one game I played in, we visited the Hansons on a farm and their neighbors the Jonas brothers lived on the next property. The GM did not do it on purpose, but Hanson and Jonas were the names that popped up!
Make a list of first names and surnames, and mark them off as you use them. This can be used throughout the whole campaign! In the next sidequest a list of titles will come in handy, just remember there can be more barons at the same location, but most likely only one captain of the guard in any given city.

4) Flexibility

This is an important one—when the PCs avoid the dastardly looking moustache-twirling man, don’t worry; remember the first tip! Familiarize yourself with the information needed to advance the plot. It doesn’t always matter who conveys the information so long as the adventurers get it—use your own NPC created from the lists you’ve compiled and the players will be none the wiser.

00-Knight-and-Hermit-q25-1600x12005) Roleplay

Go overboard! These social encounters will be more memorable if the party met Baron von Shnozzult, who ends every sentence with a nasal laugh, or Mrs Plushkin who goes teary-eyed every time she mentions her deceased small dog Dougy (which happens often). The adventurers may like the moustache twirling man, but he has been done so many times—imagine a villain driven by a desire to raise her only companion, Dougy; weird and freaky.

Don’t be afraid to roleplay some of the mannerisms of the NPCs—it will also help yourself to distinguish between the cast of characters as the adventurers interact with the wide circle of people available to them. The social encounter is the GM’s chance to seed and implement a plethora of different roleplaying situations, so enjoy it!

6) Sounds and smells

Finally the devil is in the details—remember the sounds and smells at any gathering of folks; music, food, and alcoholic beverages among them, to name a few. These can all be used to lure a PC away from their fellow adventurers should the need arise, but between the retinue of encapsulating sensations and the small sandbox only a very paranoid party will not take the bait and fall to the temptation to go on a little exploring of their own (especially rogues and mischievous characters).

 

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The Divine and the Recreant – Prayer Effects & Divine Synergies

She's not really the bargaining kind...

Some GMs create elaborate pantheons of deities for their campaign settings, while others choose to utilize preexisting gods. Whether divine influence in your game comes from the fantastical or historical, why should only devout characters reap the benefits of prayer? While gods and demigods may choose to bestow special favor upon those who show devotion and dedicate their lives to their cause, it only makes sense that they would also hear the laments of those less faithful.

One way of doing this is to integrate prayer effects into your game world—here’s one example of how such a system could be designed:

Most deities have one or more aspects to their persona. For instance, a “god of war” would focus on aspects of combat tactics and strength, while a “goddess of magic” would instead lean towards the arcane and esoteric. Providing small (but relevant) temporary bonuses in return for prayer not only provides the sense that the divine truly interact within the game world, but also gives motivation for non-devout characters to seek the aide and guidance of many different gods and goddesses.Image_Portfolio_1.27_Fantasy Romans-Robots 03

Perhaps a god dedicated to learning could provide a temporary luck bonus to Knowledge skill checks, or a goddess dedicated to the hunt could provide a temporary morale bonus to attack rolls. The possibilities are endless, and can be easily defined to reflect the personality of virtually any deity.

Prayer effects should be limited to minor (though still beneficial) bonuses, and only for a limited period of time between prayers. One hour of dedicated prayer would result in a character being granted 24 hours of favor from the deity prayed to; 48 hours if the prayer occurred in a temple or shrine dedicated to that god or goddess.

Divine synergies are another potential design for such a system. If the character praying is of the same alignment as the deity being entreated (or perhaps has the same favored class or race of the god or goddess) the bonus granted might double or see its duration extended. To be fair to those characters who have dedicated themselves to a deity, the prayer effects associated to any one god or goddess could become permanent as long as that character remains devout.

GladiatorThere are endless fun ways this could be integrated into a game world to provide a true sense of worth in faith and value in characters knowing (and understanding) their chosen pantheon.

 

 [Submitted by Justin Andrew Mason]

 

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A Design Exercise in 4 Steps from Concept to Mechanics

hobgoblin_leader__storn_cookThe character in your head (PC or NPC) fits the vast majority of thematic requirements for the game or campaign you’re about to join, but none of the abilities available fit what you want. Homebrew is hardly unheard of, but nobody wants to waste time arguing over some house rules—you need a strong set of mechanics that the GM and other players can fully approve of.

#1) Idea
Where do we start? How do we take an idea from our brain and onto the table in an intelligent, responsible fashion? First, obviously, we need an idea.
For today’s purposes, we’re going to be using “Speedball” from Marvel Comics as our example (I was a big fan of his up until the whole Penance business—I’ve even got most of the first run of the terrible solo issues). making up a very basic framework for an equivalent in Pathfinder. For those not in the know, Speedball could basically make himself into a big bouncy ball, redirecting kinetic energy.

#2) Search
The first thing to do is see if the tools are there already or not. While the PRD is fantasticwhen it comes to designing something for Pathfinder, you should be using d20pfsrd.com. John Reyst and his slew of minions are constantly adding 3rd Party Publisher material (so you know your design is unique), have a more accessible search engine (use those quotation marks, folks) and you can break up results by category (this saves an enormous amount of work vis-a-vis magic items, classes and spells).

133-Chained-library-at-Wimborne-Minster-1709x1021Let’s look up some keywords for Speedball’s abilities: “bounce”, “bouncing”, “kinetic” and “redirect”. Whenever possible, we want to mirror or incorporate the established mechanics set up within the RPG in question, so don’t be lazy about looking at what comes up. Most of the page counts shrink as well for some reason, so sally forth!

Bouncing Spell—We’re not really doing anything with this. If I was writing an entire base class, this would absolutely become a part of it somehow, but we’ll stick to levels 1-5 if we go that route, and feats or a simple archetype if not.
Greater Ring of Bounce—A cursed item that gives a +10 bonus to Acrobatics check for jumping, but a -10 for any other use, CL 7th. This sounds like something we can use, so we’ll put a star by it to remember, and maybe a note. [***attack ability?]
Bounding Hammer—From Pathfinder Companion: Dwarves; on a successful hit with a thrown hammer, the feat makes it land in your square. [*** feat to catch thrown weapon]
Roll With It—This goblin feat looks like we’ve struck gold. Take a melee hit, make an Acrobatics check (DC 5 + damage) as an immediate action, success means that you take no damage but move in a straight line (in a direction of your choosing) 1 foot for each point of damage you would have taken, halting after half your speed in movement. Run into something and you take 1d4 damage and go prone, and all that movement provokes AoOs. Worse yet, you are staggered for a round after attempting the feat. [***fundamental]
Tumbling Descent—This roof runner rogue archetype ability from Ultimate Combat fills another great gap: so long as there are two surfaces no farther than 10 feet apart to bounce against, they can fall indefinitely with an Acrobatics check (DC 10 + 5 for every 10 ft. increment descended beyond the initial 10 ft. drop) [***fundamental]
Shield of King RytanRicochet Shield—This is an interesting combat trick; a -2 attack roll penalty to bounce a thrown shield around an 
obstacle, with a note about range increments for total distance traveled rather than from wielder to target. [***attack ability?]
Bouncy—Another goblin feat from the Pathfinder Player Companions; the first 1d6 lethal points of falling damage are automatically converted to nonlethal damage, and you get a +2 Reflex save to avoid unexpected falls. [***the cushion effect]
Kinetic Reverberation—This 2nd-level wizard spell lasts rounds per level, allows for SR and a Fortitude save. On a failed save, the weapon striking the target enchanted by this spell takes the same amount of damage it dealt to the target. Doesn’t effect natural attacks. [***fundamental]
Impact—For the equivalent of a +2 weapon enhancement bonus, increase a weapon’s damage die; CL 9th. Good stuff to know. [***fundamental]
Redirect Attack—This advanced rogue talent allows a once per day redirect of a melee hit to strike an adjacent creature as a free action, requiring the attacker to roll a second time. Definitely high part of our core concept. [***fundamental]
Flowing Monk—This guy has quite a bit of what we’re looking for: redirection, unbalancing counter, flowing dodge and elusive target (as well as the Elusive Redirection feat) fit the bill for our core concept. [***fundamental]

At least he's not weaing skin-tight red leather...

#3) Assess
Our design ends right here. We could break some of this down and rebuild the pieces, creating a more specific monk archetype (the bouncing goblin, perhaps?) but as it is, a goblin flowing monk with the right feats, a few errant class levels or new magic items and a bright attitude should do it.
A lot of our work is done for this guy—let’s assume we make a goblin flowing monk 5/rogue (roof runner) 2. They can flow around attacks via flowing monk abilities (and, of course, the Crane Stance feats), with the Roll With It feat they can redirect movement from a solid hit, they can bound downwards with tumbling descent and slow fall, and on top of all that, jump extremely far thanks to high jump. None of the flowing monk’s abilities prohibit shields, so next level we grab up fighter and a feat for tossing things, keeping a few hammers around for the purpose; if we can manage it, with the impact quality. For good effect, I’d throw in the Mobility feat somewhere to avoid those AoOs.

I’m not at all bummed, by the way. We didn’t even it make it to the repeat of step 2: searching for 3PP material to see what else can be (or has already been) done (hint: Trick Shot from Psionics, along with other Marksman things). That’s one of the reasons Pathfinder is so excellent—there’s rampant versatility even within the core rules. We’ll take another shot at something totally original next time..

#4) Design
What didn’t we pick up along the way here? We’re going to miss out on Redirect Attack, but that’s hardly the end of the world. Kinetic reverberation is something we can work with however.
Let’s head back to d20pfsrd.com, do a search and click on magic items—nothing shows up, so we’re clear for liftoff.
Of course, firsthand knowledge never hurts (ideally I’d be hip-deep in Paizo books for “research”) and I have an example from a Magic Item Monday back in September. While I obviously liked it, we want our goblin flowing monk/rogue to use some kind of impact weapon anyway. We could get the quarterstaff enchanted, but then the shield aspect is gone.
Instead of enchanting the weapon, what about making an enchantment that activates a kinetic reverberation?
gauntlet-12We want something like a cape of the mountebank—activated on command with limited uses per day. This is a math problem now [(CL 3rd) x (spell level 2nd) x 1,800 gp] divided by (5 divided by 3 charges per day) = 6,480 gold. It’ll be costly to buy at 12,960 gold pieces (assuming we don’t have a buddy with Craft Wondrous Item), but our goblin flowing monk will now have bracers of rebounding strike that can be activated 3 times a day, granting 3 rounds of weapon damaging, kinetic action
 (Fort DC 13) with each use.

Maybe next time we’ll get lucky and hit the fields, but today we’re staying in the stables. Now, however, I am genuinely interested in putting together an elusive little goblin monk and am surprised I haven’t already…perhaps that will be something to be see in the upcoming Sidequest Saturdays? 😉

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4 Tips to Stop the Monotony in Random Encounters and Surprise Players

Image_Portfolio_101_Fantasy Jason Walton 12Everybody can enjoy the nocturnal prowling of beasts, but eventually troll raids can get a little bit stale. When the party goes off-course and the third evening of animal attacks comes to pass, consider a few alternatives to keep your players on their toes. Any NPC could be led to act as a random encounter for the party, hired or tricked by rivals or nemeses, following a falsified bounty or another case of mistaken identity or even simply be opportunistic bandits.

Here are a few of the things I keep around when I’m GMing to make sure my group remains alert and engaged when they’ve fallen foul of a random encounter:

  • Keep a collection of pre-generated NPCs near the party’s level (if you’re trying to save space or ink, keep it to NPCs of a higher level than the party.)
    • Don’t have the time to stat them all out? Do you have old character sheets? These are good to have around for surprise guests at the table or if a player dies unexpectedly at the beginning of a session and doesn’t want to miss out on all the action, but can definitely stand in as mercenaries, bounty hunters or misguided enemies.
      • For some extra fun, get your players to lend you their old sheets; just make sure to reward additional XP, not to give out too many magic items, and of course to change the NPC’s name.Image_Portfolio_1.14_Fantasy Butch Mapa 12
  • What about the plethora of NPCs here at AdventureAWeek.com? There are dozens of adventures for parties of every level. Bookmark your favorite characters (they all have hyperlinks for both D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder) when you browse through the modules for referencing later!
  • For the Pathfinder players out there, there are three extra suggestions I have for you:
    •  The first is the simplest: get familiar with the NPC Codex. There are characters for every core and NPC class, levels 1-20; I bought a copy and am super happy that I did.
    • The second is a little bit more complex but ultimately worth it: grab File Off the Serial Numbers. Within it, Sean K. Reynolds explains how to quickly strip down a monster and have it act in a different role (turning monsters into monks, clerics, wizards and paladins).
    • Don’t forget about haunts and cursed items! The AaWBlog has been consuming them for some time, and there’s already several in its gullet!
  • Sometimes monsters are unlikely or in unexpected places. If your campaign setting is a place of moderate to high magic, what’s to say an awakened animal (which could quite easily gain fighter levels) or creature far removed from its normal stomping grounds hasn’t taken the territory by chance?

Image_Portfolio_1.13_Fantasy Rudolf Montemayor 08

Whether the party is in a dungeon, on a mountainside, sailing the seas or resting in a wooded grove, if they’re there, there’s always the possibility that similar adventurers or explorers might be as well. Don’t be afraid to challenge your group with some of the suggestions above if things seem to get dull.

 

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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]

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