Borrowing from Video Games: Action Traps

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Harbinger has a good post discussing the problems with traps in D&D and some potential solutions. It got me thinking about how traps are typically handled in video games as opposed to tabletop. I’ve been playing an awful lot of Spelunky, as well as some Torchlight 2 and Guild Wars 2. The traps in all of these are similar to many other video games: traps that are not exactly hard to notice, but might be difficult to avoid. Where D&D has typically featured “gotcha” traps, where the real trick is just finding them in the first place, in most video games, the only way you won’t notice a trap is if you’re moving really quickly, but the trick is not blundering into it even though you know it’s there.

This post talks about ways to include these “action traps” (Harbinger would probably just refer to them as terrain hazards) in D&D/Pathfinder, but some of the ideas might be relevant to other systems.

Problems to Overcome

The major challenge in using action traps in a tabletop game is that, in video games, they’re more frequently traps for the player, not the character. There’s no question that your character can avoid the trap, if your reactions on the controls are fast enough to tell her to get out of the way. To really capture the feel of this kind of trap, they to some degree need to feel like challenges for the player; it’s not particularly fun to just suffer bad dice luck and fall onto spikes. Interestingly, this was the original method of traps in the earliest forms of D&D. Finding traps was all about paying attention to clues in room descriptions and describing cautious use of ten-foot poles and other tools to proceed safely; ideally, if you fell onto the spikes, it was because you were moving too quickly and not paying attention. It was only with the addition of the Thief and his Find and Remove Traps skill that the situation moved more to the pretty boring “roll to find the trap, now roll to disable it” system we’ve been trying to make more fun ever since.

And that’s the second problem: now that the Thief/Rogue is part of the standard adventuring party, moving to action traps tends to pull his niche right out from under him. The simplest solution in 3.x/Pathfinder is probably just to double the bonus from Trap Sense if you also have Trapfinding; that is, the Rogue becomes the character best at dodging environmental traps. You send him out in front not because he’ll spot the trap before it goes off, but because he’ll pull some Matrix shit and just get out of the way, and now everyone else knows it’s there and can deal with it. If you still have a few “gotcha” traps, Trapfinding works normally.

Once you’re using these traps, disabling them is only rarely about making a skill check. Instead, you’ll often need to do something creative to set them off, jam them up, or block them off. Or you can just avoid them and try not to forget them when you head back later. A lot of these are helped by having wandering monsters or some other kind of time pressure. Sure, you could laboriously lower the Cleric down into the pit so he can safely tiptoe through the spikes and get pulled back up, but ideally you want him to seriously consider trying to swing across because the safe way would take too long.

Monsters and Traps

In any dungeon that has both traps and monsters, you need to consider how the monsters interact with the traps:

  • They’re invulnerable to them: The most difficult for players but the most sensible for a dungeon designed to include mobile inhabitants, some creatures can ignore some traps. Fire traps with fire resistant creatures, gas and water with creatures that don’t need to breathe, and any kind of kinetic trap with incorporeal creatures are all ways to really up your combat traps to player-annoying levels.
  • They’re vulnerable but aware of them: Any kind of intelligent but not super powered creature that chooses to live in a trapped dungeon should probably know how to avoid the hazards. They’ll typically set up in ways that they can make ranged attacks from across the traps or try to shove heroes into them, but if you can turn the tables they can die to their own defenses.
  • They’re vulnerable and unaware of them: This is most common for unintelligent monsters that weren’t originally meant to be in the dungeon (or just this part of the dungeon), or intelligent monsters that just got here recently (or were lured here by the PCs). This kind of interaction is most appropriate early on (to warn the players that traps are in this area when a monster blunders into one) or toward the end (when players have been slowly earning trap mastery over the dungeon and now deserve the opportunity to turn the traps on the enemy).

Methods of Use

In Combat

Combat use of action traps is the easiest place for them to shine. They typically take the form of “bad things happen if you move into/past this particular square.” Often they’ll do something as an immediate action, but some things might be timing puzzles (see below) that, in combat, mean essentially “don’t end your turn here.”

These are completely adequate for 3.x/Pathfinder’s Bull Rush and other repositioning maneuvers, and 4e has even more methods to shove targets around, but you can make them even more dangerous and fun by introducing the idea of getting casually knocked back into traps when you’re hit. Under this system, any square adjacent to an action trap isn’t safe to stand in; while you’re standing still on the grid, in actuality you’re moving around a lot and a hit might force you to put a foot wrong and stumble in. Whenever you take damage in one of these squares, make a Reflex save with a DC equal to the damage taken or trigger the trap/fall in (that’s the simplest option; you can probably work out a more complex option that better tracks the standard Reflex bonus vs. damage taken at a particular level).

Navigation Hazards

Outside of combat, the heroes theoretically have all the time in the world to figure out how to bypass normal action traps that are just in the way of forward progress. This is the best place to introduce some kind of time pressure as discussed above. In a dungeon that’s not meant to be a long-dead tomb, these are also good to use for ways to bypass certain areas (e.g., if you get across the spike pit, you don’t have to fight through the barracks), so if getting past them safely is more work than just taking the other route, it remains an interesting choice.

One interesting way to set these up is to have them be relatively easy to disable, but with a consequence. The simplest form of this is “you can just trip the trap, but it might be loud and alert the next room.” Another option is situations where breaking the trap has follow-on mechanical consequences: triggering the dart with a stick means it hits the treasure/explosives/captive/currently-docile-monster instead of you, jamming the mechanism that rewinds the blades may cause them to violently tear free of the wall, etc.

Timing Puzzles

Situations like the Breath of God from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Chompers from Galaxy Quest are perhaps the hardest to do well in D&D. These are traps that trigger in a regular sequence, or moving past one sets off another requiring you to quickly move past, and so on. Traditional round-by-round action makes these almost unusable: either they interrupt as soon as you move into their threatened area, or you can easily move dozens of feet as one action before anything else gets to go. Just turning them into a skill challenge where you have a series of rolls to jump and tumble is possible, but removes most of the player skill aspect of the traps.

A solution may be to essentially speed up rounds when bypassing these hazards to half a second or so: you can move five feet per round at a full move if you’re at 20 ft or 30 ft speed. While you can still jump more than five feet, each five feet of the jump takes a round (during which you’re in midair with limited ability to dodge hazards). The active player goes, then the traps go, and in fractions of a second whole squares may be essentially impassible (e.g., “there’s a giant blade swinging in this square right now, if you enter it, you’ll automatically get hit”). The player choice should come from certain squares being safe for a couple of rounds, multiple paths through the hazards, and somewhat-predictable randomness to the hazards. If done well, it would be an incredibly memorable encounter; if done poorly, your players may become Gwen DeMarco shouting, “Whoever wrote this episode should die!”

Example Traps

Taken mostly from Spelunky (which means they’re mostly from Indiana Jones), but also cribbed from other games:

  • Spikes and Pits: No need to hide these under a trapdoor; a spiked pit is threatening even if totally uncovered if it’s big enough to be hard to clear or lurking on the edge of a combat area. A spiked wall isn’t just for the impossibly goth as long as there are things that might push you into it.
  • Shooting Traps: Triggered by some kind of obvious floor plate or just getting within a certain range, these are often darts but could be some kind of magic bolts. They’re often the hardest to justify if there’s no active maintenance to reset them, but they have the greatest reach. Keeping an eye on these is important since they can hit you anywhere in the room.
  • Proximity Traps: The easier-to-reset version of the shooting traps, these are spikes, blades, bludgeons, or energy jets that spin or shoot out into a defined nearby terrain. They may respond to proximity (hitting their target squares immediately or after a delay when someone steps in) and require time to reset (but reset automatically) or be on a regular (or randomly regular) release/reset cycle.
  • Trapdoors: A trapdoor doesn’t necessarily have to be a “gotcha” trap to be dangerous. They can also be perfectly serviceable as floors for a few moments or until something else happens to trigger them. If there’s nowhere else safe to stand, the space that’s going to be unsafe in a moment may be the best option right now.
  • Crushing Traps: Perhaps the hardest to reset, these have the greatest potential for mayhem: from a rolling boulder, to the classic collapsing ceiling, to more-targeted thwomps. These are often saved for areas where you no longer care about the structural integrity of your dungeons; if an invader’s gotten this far, you want to pulverize them no matter the cost.
  • Surprise Monsters: As long as they’re something that makes sense to sit in a box indefinitely, surprise monsters that pop out can be exciting. What stops this being a “gotcha” is that you establish that sometimes these types of boxes have a treat, and sometimes a trick, and it’s up to the players whether they want to risk smashing them all open to see what falls out.
  • Surprise Bombs: Even if you don’t have gunpowder, magic can substitute in a pinch. The important thing is that these have a “fuse;” when one pops up, it’s less about getting instantly annihilated and more about whether you can finish up what you were doing in the room before it becomes so much scrap, and whether you’ll push that time limit.
  • Water: Water is exciting because it’s not necessarily directly lethal, but it can certainly be full of lethal creatures. Falling into water often severely limits mobility for other problems to occur in a moment. And if you’re in it for too long, particularly if a lid closes on you, you have to worry about getting out before you drown. If it falls on you, it’s a combo water and crushing trap.
  • Lava/Acid: It’s like water, but it kills you pretty much instantly! And it destroys items that fall in, which may hurt even more. This is way harder to justify in any kind of realistic game, except in some very rare locations, but can really step up the danger when you can include it.
  • Immobilizer: A field full of bear traps is a problem even if you’re not worried about breaking an ankle. You might be menaced by a mountain lion! A trap that immobilizes even for a few moments increases the danger of other traps and monsters in its vicinity.
  • Darkness: Not exactly a hazard in and of itself, the ability to turn out the lights (either supernaturally or just with a sudden gust of air that may blow out torches) makes all the other traps (and any creatures that don’t need light to attack) much more threatening. Normally-well-lit areas that randomly (or on trigger) turn pitch black can really complicate a seemingly simple navigation hazard or timing puzzle.

Horror: Painful Success

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A lot of recent games have introduced the concept of paying to turn a failure or minimal success into a full success. If you roll well, you succeed fully, but if you have a near miss you can turn it into a success with consequences.

I was reading an old Delta Green scenario and noticed a frequent use of success at a perception roll resulting in additional information… and Sanity loss. This is almost the opposite of paying a cost to turn failure into success: success always costs, while failure leaves you blissfully ignorant.

I figured that might have room to expand to a more general mechanic for use with horror games (I’ll explain the thinking at the end). The mechanics for this are left purposefully nonspecific to retrofit onto your system of choice.

Rules

Every character has one or more fairly granular traits that indicate progress toward a severe consequence, and may cause problems even before reaching the ultimate end. The prototype for this is a sanity meter, but other traits could be added for fatigue, pain, stress, or even just grime (the authorities are much harder to convince when you’re unkept, sweaty, and covered in gore, after all). You can even use hit points, if they’re granular enough in your system. Some of these may be easier to repair than others, but most should be pretty had to repair during a scenario: the point is that they get used up as the characters are ground down.

And how do they get ground down? Any challenge may have a cost to one of the progress traits. You saw the monster you’re facing, but went a little mad from it. You barricaded the door, but wore yourself out doing it. You got away, but you’re all sweaty and winded. Not every test should have a cost, but the players don’t necessarily know how expensive it will be until they roll. Thus, when they roll, there are four possible results:

  • Major Failure/Fumble: You don’t get the benefits of success, but you pay the cost anyway. You saw enough of the monster to bend your brain but not enough to learn anything useful. You put a lot of exertion into a hopeless task.
  • Regular Failure: You don’t get the benefits of success, or pay the cost. You missed the monsters entirely, or your brain filtered out everything about it to save your mind. You realized you weren’t up to the challenge before you wore yourself out trying.
  • Regular Success: You get the benefits of success, and pay the cost. You saw the monster for good and ill. You wore yourself out but accomplished something.
  • Major Success/Crit: You learn the cost and then can decide to take a failure instead if you don’t want to pay it. You still pay the cost if you take the success.

Use your system’s normal rules for retries after failure, possibly stepping up the eventual cost of success or major failure if the player keeps rolling. As an optional rule, you can let a player turn a failure into a success by paying double the cost.

In general, less than half of tasks should have a cost (but the players won’t necessarily be able to predict which ones); really just the ones that seem like even success would be dangerous or tiring. The costs should be low, particularly early on and for traits that are hard to repair. Big costs should have big payoffs in information or improving chances of success. The goal is to have a reasonably successful scenario leave the characters only largely expended: they shouldn’t go mad or pass out without making a bunch of unnecessary or ill-advised rolls.

Why?

Players sometimes have a hard time with genre emulation in horror: PCs wind up being extremely proactive in a way that’s not necessarily appropriate to the fiction. The fiction is usually about everymen out of their depth that hole up, try the dead radio, and argue with one another, only striking out to save themselves when pushed by circumstance, not well-coordinated heroes that immediately start a grid search and materiel collection.

What these rules should do is make players more cautious about just trying a bunch of actions to see what works. Highly ambitious characters get worn out, leaving the more passive ones to shine at the climax. It may even result in a level of desirable passive aggression and drama, where the PCs try to goad one another into taking risks while keeping themselves fresh.

Ultimately, expending resources early should mean acquiring information and advantages that make it much easier to succeed at the end, so the game will hopefully become a careful dance of only attempting things that are necessary or dealing with problems as they’re required.

Transhuman Thrillseeking

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Inspired by the cloning process in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and the trailers for Transcendence.

Digitizing

As computing capacity increased in the 21st century, it was inevitable that we’d digitize human consciousness. Finally, toward the middle of the century, we believed we understood the brain well enough to try.

The early adopters were patients with terminal diseases, as the process required destructively scanning a brain, slicing it up thinly post-mortem to make sure every cell was accounted for. Even if an in-depth scan of a living brain were possible, few were comfortable with the fact that doing so would have meant only making a copy, rather than a true transfer of consciousness.

They all came out wrong. At best they were sociopathic, at worst they quickly developed into inhuman caricatures of their former selves. Something essential had been lost in the conversion. They were carefully boxed; firewalls and programming strictures put in place to keep them from getting unfettered access to the internet. We’d all seen the movies about the dangers of insane AI.

Eventually, nanotech reached a point where we thought we could try again. Maybe the problem had been the postmortem scan; nanotech could scan in place, destroying cells to image them while the rest of the brain still lived.

This worked much better, but the digital minds were still crippled. With enough data, we determined that the best transfers were the slowest and the ones where the patient remained conscious. The programmers had put in failsafes to prevent a massive mental failure: the nanobots that were imaging the brain tried to begin simulating it to keep the rest of the mind from shutting down when it got no responses. The slower the process, the more context the simulation had. What we’d been missing was the way the brain changed in response to active stimuli: emotions.

The perfected process is slow, but reliable. A patient’s brain is colonized by nanites in thousands of places. They record the cells near them in all relevant contexts and only replace the cells when they’re certain they can simulate all proper responses. From the brain’s point of view, signals passed to the new cybernetic clusters are no different from those passed to the previous living cells. The nanites then begin observing other nearby cells before expanding again. The individual seamlessly transforms from wetware to hardware, gradually becoming more and more accustomed to thinking with a brain that’s increasingly cybernetic. Consciousness is fully preserved, and, given the increased efficiency of the silver matter over gray matter, new capabilities slowly come online. Individuals benefit from increased cognitive function, the ability to install downloaded knowledge directly, and access to augmented reality and networking. By the time the brain has been fully replaced and the individual is ready to transcend the material form, he or she has become more than human.

The catch is the context required: over and over, the individual must experience the full range of relevant emotions. A distressing number of patients die before becoming fully digitized, pursuing the emotional highs necessary to convince the nanites to expand, some of them quite dangerous. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Rules

Make a list of emotions relevant to the game intended. This can be a simple list or a complicated one. The longer the list, the more permissive the GM should be on whether they’re met.

As the player believes his or her character has experienced these emotions, and the GM agrees, check them off. Once all have been checked off, the nanites expand, and the character gains new mental capabilities. Make a list of options for the players to pick from for each upgrade, including mental attribute improvements or specific bonuses to certain cognitive tasks, the ability to add new downloaded skills, and AR and networking features. Essentially, experiencing a full array of emotions becomes a player-directed XP track for cyberware upgrades.

Optionally, players can choose to force the upgrade. Put a -1 next to every emotion that wasn’t checked off (cumulative with existing penalties to that emotion from previous attempts to force it). That penalty applies to all future rolls relevant to that emotion (particularly social rolls), and if it reaches -3 the character gains a mental illness relevant to having reduced capacity to correctly utilize the emotion.

The GM should indicate how many upgrades are required before the brain becomes fully digitized and can be backed up for a digital afterlife. At that point, there is no further benefit from pursuing the emotions, except that it’s potentially a habit.

D&D: Another Magic Item Creation System

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The magic item creation system in 3.x/Pathfinder remains one of the things that I obsessively try to revise until I’m happy with it, so here’s another attempt.

As a restatement of principles, my problem with the default system stems from several source.

  • First, it tends to devalue found treasure. Since you can sell most things for half value, and craft for half value, interesting items that weren’t exactly what the players wanted get sold and converted into something flavorless that does exactly what they want.
  • This is the second problem: the system seems to assume that a significant portion of character magic item wealth will be in situationally useful item and consumables. However, too-custom crafting means that everything a PC is wearing is laser-focused on that PC’s goals. Cool utility items never get kept or used.
  • Finally, odd breakpoints in the creation math mean that letting players have the ability to customize precisely can result in items that are underpriced for their benefit. The classic example is the wand of cure light wounds: it heals half as much as a wand of cure moderate wounds for one sixth the cost, and it is almost always the most cost-effective way to heal up out of combat (though I hear that the new flavor of the month is a first level spell that gives Fast Healing 1 for ten rounds).

The following systems are another attempt to address these perceived weaknesses.

Recipes

No permanent magic item can be created without first having a “recipe” for that particular type of effect. The simplest recipes are gained upon learning to craft a particular type of item, while others must be researched. The shape of the item (including the weapon or armor type for arms and armor) can vary, but the effect must be learned (e.g., once you’ve learned the Flaming enhancement, you can apply it to any valid weapon, but you still don’t necessarily know how to apply Frost).

A combined item does not require a special recipe, just having the recipes for each effect and paying the normal additional costs to combine multiple effects in one item.

An aside: I’ve chosen to minimize the use of Spellcraft in these systems, as the potential range it can take at even mid levels is huge and makes setting DCs almost impossible. A Wizard with high Intelligence, Skill Focus, and a +5 item has Character Level +20 or more in the skill, while a more skill-point limited, non-Int class might have significantly less. DCs impossible to meet for a Cleric might be basically unfailable for a Wizard. I think a lot of the default magic creation and research rules in Pathfinder suffer from this problem; making a Spellcraft check to accomplish something is a negligible cost for some characters unless you make the DCs insurmountable by others.

Default Recipes

Each crafting feat comes with a set of default recipes. All others must be learned separately:

  • Craft Magic Arms and Armor: You can add any level of straight enhancement bonus (assuming you meet the normal prerequisites) to weapons or armor.
  • Craft Rod: You can make any metamagic rod for which you have the matching metamagic feat and meet the other prerequisites.
  • Craft Staff: Pick three medium staves; you have the recipes for those items.
  • Craft Wondrous Item: You can make any ability-score-boosting item for which you meet the normal prerequisites.
  • Forge Ring: You can make rings of protection for which you meet the normal prerequisites

Learning Recipes

There are three ways to add recipes to a character’s list of options:

Training

If you assist in the crafting of an item that you would be able to craft if you had the recipe and are there for the full duration of the crafting, you add that item’s recipe to your list. This can be assisting another PC or an NPC (and NPCs may charge a fee of their own devising for learning their secrets).

Reverse Engineering

If you obtain an item that you would be able to craft if you had the recipe (and which is not somehow immune to dissasembly), you can dismantle it to gain an understanding of how it works. This takes about the same length of time as it would take to craft in the first place. When done, the components can be sold for approximately 25% of the item’s value (instead of the 50% you can usually sell an item for).

Research

You can take approximately as much time as it would take to craft a particular item (that you could craft if you had the recipe) to attempt to work out how to make it. This consumes money/resources (but not XP, if you’re using 3.x) equal to the crafting cost of the item (and an item is not produced at the end of the process) and has a small chance of success. The GM sets the chance of success depending on how obscure the item is and how little she wants it in her campaign. Suggested chances are:

  • Item from the core rulebook: 30% + 1% per CL the character has above the item (e.g., a 10th level caster researching a 7th level item has a 23% chance of success).
  • Item from other primary sourcebook: 20% + 1% per CL above item
  • Item from non-primary sourcebook: 10% + 1% per CL above item
  • Item from third party book or player-suggested: 0% + 1% per CL above item

A failed roll doesn’t mean the researcher goes away empty handed. Roll on the standard treasure table that most closely approximates the item being researched (e.g., if researching a medium Wondrous Item, roll on the medium Wondrous Item table). Through some fluke of research, the character learns the rolled recipe instead.

Other Changes

Brew Potion

While the change to Craft Wand below may bring them closer to parity, in general I’ve seen players profoundly uninterested in making potions: they cost over three times as much per use as a wand, they take more actions to use, they’re slower to create, and they’re less versatile. So I’d suggest:

  • Potion value is equal to Level x CL x 15 gp (instead of 50 gp; this brings the cost for 50 potions equal to the cost for a 50-charge wand).
  • If you’re making several of the same type of potion, you can make up to 1000 gp worth per day (instead of four per day if under 250 or one per day if between 250 and 1000).

Craft Wand

Wands have a minimum CL of 5. (This means that a wand of Cure Light Wounds should have a much more consistent comparison in cost to wands of higher-level healing spells.)

Pathfinder: Card Draft Chargen

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Harbinger had a really cool idea about drafting from custom cards to make a character for an RPG. Go read it for the explanations, as I’m just going to riff on it here for Pathfinder.

Under this version:

  • For each player, pull 11 cards plus one per player (so if you have four players, pull 15 per player or 60 total). Keep the extra to the side in a blind-draw pile for players that get stuck with only cards they can’t choose (certain cards prohibit keeping further cards of the same type). 11 cards results in 21-point-buy characters, so increase or decrease the number of cards (at 3 points per card) if you want stronger or weaker PCs.
  • Shuffle them thoroughly and then distribute to the players to draft per Harbinger’s guidelines. There are two options
    • Give them all the cards at once, evenly distributed. This gives the players maximum control over their characters but they’re going to see the same cards over and over.
    • Separate them into smaller pods of as few as one more than the number of players (so every set of cards goes around once and leaves one discard). This makes character creation far more random, but makes it far more likely that you’re going to feel like the hand of cards you get at the start is full of possibilities for you.
  • Every player should ultimately keep 11 cards, which should leave a discard pile of unchosen cards.
    • The player gains the listed KEEP effect of every card in his or her hand. If the player kept a DISCARD card, only the listed ability score matters.
    • The GM should look at the remaining cards not held by any players. Any DISCARD effect on those cards now applies to the campaign. The ability score and any KEEP effects on the cards are ignored.
  • Every player should total up the number of cards of each ability score, and raise the ability score from 8 using those points (e.g., if you have three cards in Strength, you have a Strength 15, because it takes 9 points to go from 8 to 15 using point buy).
    • Once all scores are assigned, take the remainder points and distribute them freely (e.g., if you have two cards in Dexterity, you have 13 with one point left over, because it would take seven points to get to 14; you can move that extra point to push something else up to the next level, or find another point somewhere else to raise Dex to 14). Scores cannot go above 18 (which would require at least seven cards of the same ability).
    • If you want more integration of PCs, you can have each card be worth 2 points to the player that kept it and 1 point to the player to his or her right. This will likely result in PCs with scores closer to the average.
  • If a player did not keep any cards that assign a race, he or she may choose Human, Half-Elf, or Half-Orc. If a player did not keep any cards that allow access to a class, he or she may choose Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard (and must justify later multiclasses into a class not among those four with in-game training with a member of the class).
  • Players should now know their race, scores, class options, relationships, quests, and secrets. They will also know if their discards created ramifications for them in the campaign world. They should start discussing character backgrounds to fulfill all these details and the other stated goals of the campaign.

I’ve made printable cards for the examples listed below. You can download the PDF here or the editable DOC here.

Example cards:

STRENGTH

  • CLASS – KEEP: Barbarian; You may start play as a Barbarian, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Druid; You may start play as a Druid, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Monk; You may start play as a Monk, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Paladin; You may start play as a Paladin, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Cavalier; You may start play as a Cavalier, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the local captain of the city/town guard
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the local leader’s personal bodyguard
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Weapon; One of the weapons you purchased at creation is your family weapon; it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: The Dragon; You know the exact location of a dragon’s hoard… now you just have to take care of the dragon
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sporting Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Str- or Dex-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sibling/True Friend; You are the sibling (or lifelong friend if different race/also lovers) of the PC* with the matching card; Aid Another to help sibling/friend is +3 instead of +2; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Built like a Bull; You are massively built and able to exert surprising strength; you gain +4 to all Strength-based rolls to open, break, or move inanimate objects, but you’re automatically as tall and heavy as possible for your race and gender (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Halflings; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Halflings start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Gnomes; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Gnomes start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Arcane Fear; Recent unexplained phenomena cause fear of Arcane spellcasters; all characters revealed to have this ability start at one disposition step lower with most locals

DEXTERITY

  • RACE – KEEP: Elf; You are an Elf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Halfling; You are a Halfling (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Ranger; You may start play as a Ranger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Sorcerer; You may start play as a Sorcerer, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Gunslinger; You may start play as a Gunslinger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the leader of the local Thieves’ Guild
  • SECRET – KEEP: Secret Passage; You know a secret route past the nearest city wall and a secret route into the nearest fortress/castle
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Weapon; One of the weapons you purchased at creation is your family weapon; it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: Pirate Treasure; You have a treasure map to a lost island and a pirate’s long buried treasure… but the island is now infested with monsters
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sporting Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Str- or Dex-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Classmate; You went to school with the PC* with the matching card; When you both roll a skill you have ranks in for the same challenge, you both get to use the higher d20 result (plus your own skill bonus); *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Flexible as a Cat; You are little, double jointed, and extremely flexible; you can squeeze through any opening big enough for your head, but you’re automatically as short and light as possible for your race and gender (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Eyes on the City; Due to better trained and positioned guards and a strong neighborhood watch, +2 DC all Bluff, Disguise, and Stealth checks in local cities and towns
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Crime Wave; Due to an ongoing crime wave, there is a 20% chance of a pickpocket attempt on the PCs during every scene set in the streets of local cities and towns
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Rats!; An infestation of plague rats means that any time the PCs visit the local slums or sewers, there is a 10% chance each visit of encountering a Rat Swarm at some point

CONSTITUTION

  • RACE – KEEP: Dwarf; You are a Dwarf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Gnome; You are a Gnome (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Barbarian; You may start play as a Barbarian, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Blackmail; You have blackmail material on the General of the nearest army
  • SECRET – KEEP: Parentage; You know the identity of one of the local leader’s bastards and have proof of parentage
  • SECRET – KEEP: Immunity; The first time you fail a save vs. Poison, you’d secretly been building up an immunity to that toxin, and get to reroll the save (and subsequently get to keep the best of two saves whenever you’re affected by that toxin again)
  • QUEST – KEEP: Heirloom Armor; The armor you purchased at creation is your family armor it is automatically masterwork and has hidden magic potential unlocked via quests
  • QUEST – KEEP: Key in the Blood; Your family has passed on a blood-based immunity to the deadly magical defenses of an ancient fortress, which might be a powerful retreat or hold wondrous riches, if only you could get through the surrounding guardians
  • QUEST – KEEP: Unpetrified; For some reason you’re immune to the petrifying gaze of a Medusa; how you found that out is a story for another time, but there are rumors of just such a creature terrorizing the wilderness a few weeks’ ride from here
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Lover; You are in love with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale to Attack and Damage against any enemy that attacked your lover on its last action; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Classmate; You went to school with the PC* with the matching card; When you both roll a skill you have ranks in for the same challenge, you both get to use the higher d20 result (plus your own skill bonus); *An NPC if there is no match(pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Healthy as a Bear; Your natural healing of hit points and nonlethal damage is doubled, you need to make half as many saves to end a disease or poison effect, and alchemical effects with a duration (even beneficial ones) only last half as long for you (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Elves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Elves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Half-Elves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Half-Elves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • CLASS – DISCARD: War Weariness; A recent, damaging war causes a pacifistic dislike of soldiers; all characters revealed to be Fighters, Barbarians, Cavaliers, or Gunslingers start at one disposition step lower with most locals

INTELLIGENCE

  • RACE – KEEP: Elf; You are an Elf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Bard; You may start play as a Bard, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Alchemist; You may start play as an Alchemist, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Magus; You may start play as a Magus, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Witch; You may start play as a Witch, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Cipher; You know the cipher for the local leadership’s favorite secret code
  • SECRET – KEEP: Convergence; You found a place of powerful magical convergence, and sleeping on it gives you an additional spell slot of your highest arcane spell level the next day; trouble is, the spot is on grounds owned by a local noble
  • QUEST – KEEP: Break the Curse; The ruler of these lands has promised a great reward to whoever can destroy a cursed artifact, and you just happen to know a legend about where and how that might be accomplished
  • QUEST – KEEP: Riddling Rhyme; Your parents used to put you to sleep with an elaborate rhyming song, that you’ve never heard anyone else repeat, and you recently a rumor that’s right out of the song… maybe it was secret instructions or prophecy?
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Intellectual Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Int- or Wis-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Business Partner; You work well with the PC* with the matching card; Double downtime income when you and your partner both use the same Craft or Profession skill to earn money; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Memory like a Fox; You have an eidetic memory, and recall the details of anything you have witnessed (+4 on any relevant rolls), but you cannot easily forget your fears: take one point of Charisma damage any time you fail a Will save vs. a Fear-based effect (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Sectarian Violence; A recent religious conflict causes intolerance among the various religions; displaying religious symbols or divine casting abilities causes the PCs to start at one disposition step lower with all locals not of the same religion
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: No Funding; Due to lack of public scholarly funding, there are steep fees to use the local libraries and PCs pay double to make use of scholarly NPCs like Sages or to borrow spellbooks to copy spells
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Poor Item Trade; The limited local magic item trade means that there is half the expected chance of any given item being for sale in the local shops

WISDOM

  • RACE – KEEP: Dwarf; You are a Dwarf (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Druid; You may start play as a Druid, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Monk; You may start play as a Monk, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Ranger; You may start play as a Ranger, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Inquisitor; You may start play as an Inquisitor, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • SECRET – KEEP: Infiltrating Aide; You appear to be the only one who’s noticed that one of the local leader’s top aides is constantly wearing a disguise
  • SECRET – KEEP: Illness Charm; The first time you fail a save vs. Disease, you’d secretly been taught a charm for that illness, and get to reroll the save (and subsequently get to keep the best of two saves whenever you’re affected by that toxin again); gain +4 to Heal checks to treat others for it
  • QUEST – KEEP: The Secret Master; Your village was insidiously taken over by a powerful mind-controlling creature; you barely resisted its domination and fled, hoping to become skilled enough to return some day soon and save the town
  • QUEST – KEEP: Illusory Hillside; A hillside you frequently travel past always struck you as strange; recently, you managed to disbelieve the illusory wall and see that it protects a dungeon full of elaborate illusions and traps
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Intellectual Rival; You have a healthy rivalry with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale bonus on any Int- or Wis-based skill check to accomplish something your rival just did successfully; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Business Partner; You work well with the PC* with the matching card; Double downtime income when you and your partner both use the same Craft or Profession skill to earn money; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Empathy of the Owl; Lies make you physically ill; gain +4 to Sense Motive to detect lies, take one point of damage whenever someone lies in direct answer to a question you asked, and take 1d6 points of damage whenever YOU knowingly tell a lie (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • CLASS – DISCARD: Crime Wave; A recent crime wave causes distrust of anyone with criminal sympathies; all characters revealed to be Rogues or Bards start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: The Big Store; A grifting syndicate has come to town; in each scenario, there is a 50% chance of adding a “helpful NPC” that is actually a con artist looking to scam PCs
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Alignment Static; Recent planar events have caused alignment static in the local area; Protection from Alignment spells do not prevent mind control and all Detect Alignment spells treat targets as 5 HD lower for determining aura strength

CHARISMA

  • RACE – KEEP: Halfling; You are a Halfling (pass all further RACE cards)
  • RACE – KEEP: Gnome; You are a Gnome (pass all further RACE cards)
  • CLASS – KEEP: Bard; You may start play as a Bard, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Paladin; You may start play as a Paladin, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Sorcerer; You may start play as a Sorcerer, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Oracle; You may start play as an Oracle, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • CLASS – KEEP: Summoner; You may start play as a Summoner, or multiclass into it without further in-play justification
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Performing Partners; You are part of an entertaining group with the PC* with the matching card; +2 to all Perform checks when your partner is performing with you; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Performing Partners; You are part of an entertaining group with the PC* with the matching card;
  • +2 to all Perform checks when your partner is performing with you; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Lover; You are in love with the PC* with the matching card; +2 Morale to Attack and Damage against any enemy that attacked your lover on its last action; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • RELATIONSHIP – KEEP: Sibling/True Friend; You are the sibling (or lifelong friend if different race/also lovers) of the PC* with the matching card; Aid Another to help sibling/friend is +3 instead of +2; *An NPC if there is no match (pass the second copy of this card)
  • PARAGON – KEEP: Grandeur of an Eagle; You are strikingly attractive, probably outshining all locals in your good looks, but this makes you unforgettable and instantly recognizable to those that have seen you before without a disguise (pass all further PARAGON cards)
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Dwarves; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Dwarves start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • RACE – DISCARD: Racism vs. Half-Orcs; Due to an unfortunate strain of racism, all Half-Orcs start at one disposition step lower with most locals
  • SITUATION – DISCARD: Class Warfare; The social status levels in the local area are highly stratified; start at one disposition step lower with most locals unless you are dressed in the same style and properly introduced (and even then, take the penalty if they “know” you aren’t their status level)

Compression Revisited

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I realized, suddenly and months later, that I was over-complicating the compression system for auto-scaling the world as the PCs level by using a chart lookup.

This system should have pretty much the same effect in making the world seem a little less striated into exponentially greater power levels, but be easier to remember. It also makes the PCs’ level more relevant, as it can be keyed into mechanics like Action Points.

Tier Descriptions

Tier Types of NPCs Approximate
PC Level
0 Mooks and commoners N/A
1 Minor threats and skilled townsfolk N/A
2 Local opponents and early rivals 1-3
3 Local Lieutenants, regional opponents, and very skilled townsfolk 4-7
4 Local bosses, regional lieutenants, national opponents, and local leadership 8-11
5 Regional bosses, national lieutenants, global opponents, and regional leadership 12-15
6 Global lieutenants and global leadership 16-18
7 National bosses 19-20
8 Ancient/Godlike lieutenants Mythic
9 Global bosses Mythic
10 Ancient/Godlike bosses Mythic

Using Tiers

Player characters start at Tier 2 and gain approximately five increases in tier throughout their careers. Tier increases should occur around the levels where they gain an ability score increase, but in-play this can be saved for significant accomplishments rather than automatic at level.

Every NPC in the world has a tier as well. Unlike PCs, the tier of the NPCs rarely changes (usually only for significant events like the PCs turning an ally into a cohort or otherwise bestowing increased relevance on an NPC). Instead, compare the NPC’s tier to the PC’s tier, and apply the difference to the PCs’ level to generate the NPC’s level. For example, if an NPC is Tier 5, while the PCs are level 3 (and Tier 2), he’s CR 6; once they reach level 18 (Tier 6), he’s now CR 17.

This scales the world for the reasons explained in the original Compression post linked above: the PCs feel like they’re growing more powerful relative to threats in the world without the dissonance of trivializing revisited individuals. At level 1, mooks are CR 1/3; at level 16, those same mooks are CR 10 and probably less of a threat than they were at first level but much more dangerous than they’d be if they stayed CR 1/3. Similarly, if the adventure path is meant to end at level 16 with a fight against a CR 20 boss, that boss is Tier 10 (20-16 + PC Tier 6 at that point); if they somehow take an early shot at him at level 6, he’ll be CR 13 and a huge threat but possibly not an instantly lethal one the way he’d be if he was already CR 20.

Remember that the NPCs with PC ability scores and gear are approximately CR = level, regular NPCs are a CR or two behind their level, and really weak NPCs might even be three CRs behind their level. If you’re using a module, the easiest thing to do is just figure out the Tier at the time the NPC is encountered. If the NPC is two CRs higher than their level, he’s two tiers higher than whatever they are right then. If they encounter him again, remember his tier to scale him up.

As mentioned, tier can be known to the players. It should serve as a pool or bonus for metagame currency like action points. While they may intuit that recurring foes are getting slightly easier when they go up a tier, they’ll immediately feel the extra resources.

Ballast: Modern Group Chargen

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This is yet another riff on group background generation, intended for a modern, single-city-based setting (but potentially useful in others). It’s a little lighter weight than my normal Smallville pathways riffs. The main intention is to get players to give you significant background details, motivations, and ties to places and NPCs in as concise a manner as possible. The details are probably most useful to a Fringe or Butterfly Effect style of game, where alternate presents are in the offing, but is useful just for its prelude-generating effect.

One: Reflect on a Choice

Pick a choice, explicit or implicit, you made in the past that resulted in your current circumstances. This can be something:

  • As thought out as which college you attended or which career you pursued
  • As spur of the moment as picking a fight that led to a catastrophe or jail time
  • That you could have had no inkling of the ramifications of when you made the choice like a call you didn’t make that might have delayed a loved one long enough to not get in an accident

The important thing about it is that you often reflect on how your life would be different if you had made a different decision. Maybe it’s something you’d change if you could, or maybe you’re happy that you dodged a metaphorical or literal bullet.

Two: Pick a Location

What location was central to the results of the choice? This is your chance to add significant places to the setting; either inventing them wholesale or ascribing plot significance to a location in the real city where your game is set. Expect to see this location come up in game and remind you of your choices. Err on the side of places you’d want to have as scene backdrops in game.

Is it the school you attended, the bar where you got in a fight, or the intersection downtown where the crash happened?

Three: Put a Face on It

Invent a (still living and active) NPC that was involved in or that you met as a direct result of the choice. This is a character you should have strong feelings about and expect to see come up regularly in the game.

Is it one of your family members or a favorite teacher at college, the opponent you maimed in the bar fight or the lawyer that got you through the trial, the cop who delivered the bad news or the friend who you were with when you forgot to call?

You can only pick the same face once, but the other players can choose that NPC as the face of one of their own choices (as long as he or she makes sense based on the inventing player’s description). Total up the number of players who picked each NPC at the end of the cycle, and that NPC becomes a free background/merit of that level for each player. For example, if three players picked the same NPC, she might be a Mentor 3 for her college student, a Contact 3 for her friend, and an Ally 3 for her sibling. (Obviously adjust these options for the traits available in your game system.)

Four: Choose a Symbolic Item

For each choice, invent an item that you can touch to remind yourself of your choice and sense of self. This should usually be something you own and can carry, because it may take on mystical significance in any kind of occult game. You can describe holding it or using it when you want to bring the background it represents to the forefront of the game.

Is it your class ring, your sobriety chip, or a keepsake from your dead loved one?

Repeat

Have each player go through this cycle for his or her character multiple times until you feel the background is rich enough and the players have enough “free” NPC relationship stats. All these steps are meant to be discussed with the group at the table, even if they aren’t necessarily common knowledge in game.

Further cycles don’t have to come from different time periods (e.g., teenagers make a lot of choices that will define their futures) or be in any kind of sequential order, but they do have to define the play space (e.g., if you didn’t go to school anywhere near the setting city, it’s probably not a relevant choice for the game).

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