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.

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.

D&D/Pathfinder: Simplifying Trash Encounters

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Background

The Encounter Level system that was instituted for 3.0 and carries through 3.5 and Pathfinder is based on a very simple concept: an equal level encounter should use up about a fifth of the party’s resources. The first encounter of the day has very little chance of resulting in failure, but each successive one becomes a little bit more dangerous, and five equal level encounters should have ground them down and have a real chance at killing one or more party members.

Of course, judging an encounter level is far less precise in practice, and you can go up and down in difficulty in various ways, but the consequence of the system is that modules tend to include, in MMO parlance, trash encounters. These are fights that are not particularly hard, and have an almost negligible chance of seriously impacting the party, but serve to wear down the party a little bit to make later encounters more of a threat. Even an encounter that doesn’t successfully damage a single PC may have caused one or more players to blow a per day ability or expend some spells, leaving less resources available for later encounters.

The problem with these things is that 3.x combat is not particularly zippy. Even if it’s a foregone conclusion that your players are going to kill the creature in the first round with very little effort, there’s still a chance that it’ll manage to do something before it dies. So you have to set up the map and minis, roll initiative, and have the players start making tactical decisions as if this was a major fight (which, as far as they know, it might be). Even a total rout, thus, takes session time.

Geek Related has a post on experience points that suggests a neat idea: have the players level up on a schedule fixed on real time (where they meet the max level for the campaign in about as much time as you want to run it). If they’re having a hard time with a section, they take it slow and level up earlier than the adventure series expects, thus making it easier to get through difficulties. If they’re having an easy run, they’ll get ahead of the expected level and start having to slow back down as they become increasingly underleveled. But all of this assumes that outleveling something would allow you to “catch back up” due to the ease of encounters, and I think there might be a point where the minimum time to set up and play out even incredibly easy encounters may put you further into the hole than you’d like.

And even if you’re not using a system like that, playing with limited time for a session means that you’d probably like to end on something interesting for the night. I frequently find myself running into “well, we have about half an hour left, and that’s probably not enough time if you start a fight in the next room, so let’s break until next week.” And that’s often due to “wasting time” on trash encounters.

So this is a system that attempts to abstract encounters that are only threatening in the aggregate so they have an effect on the PCs’ resources without taking much time to play out.

The System

As a GM, you can use this system for any combat in a module that you feel would take more time to play out than it justifies. That is, it’s not particularly interesting, doesn’t advance the plot, and/or is little more than a speedbump to the PCs. This uses Encounter Level and treats the entire combat as that single number, rather than using the individual enemies and CRs in the fight (and if the EL isn’t attached to the encounter for you, you’ll need to use your edition’s math for determining the EL from multiple creatures’ CRs). It will usually be used for ELs lower than the Average Party Level (APL), but includes notes for equal or higher ELs (for if the fight is really boring and unlikely to seriously hinder the party).

Subtract the APL from the EL:

  • -4 or worse: 0 checks, no experience points (this isn’t even a speedbump)
  • -3: 1 check, half experience
  • -2: 2 checks
  • -1: 3 checks
  • 0: 4 checks
  • +1: 6 checks
  • +2: 8 checks
  • +3 or greater: You should probably play this out, even if it’s boring

The checks listed are per party member, and represent a chance of that party member taking damage or expending resources.

For most monsters, they’re simple attacks vs. AC, using the EL as the attack bonus. If the attack hits, it does twice the EL in hit point damage. Like normal attacks, it misses automatically on a 1 and automatically hits and has a chance to crit (doing double damage) on a 20 (don’t use expanded critical threat range, as that’s probably paid for somewhere else in the EL).

Before they are rolled, party members can choose to take attack checks due other party members onto themselves. For example, the party tank might choose to just have all the checks rolled against him. The balancing factor is that, in their normal distribution, the checks are usually unlikely to kill any one party member unless already seriously injured, but if you take a bunch of them thinking your high AC and HP will save you, you could still die to a string of lucky rolls.

If there are enemies in the encounter that use spells or abilities that call for saves, you can have one or more of the checks instead be an appropriate saving throw. This is rolled by each player, and is made at a DC equal to 10 + EL. A successful save means only half damage (equal to EL), while a failure is normal damage (double EL). Evasion and similar effects apply normally. Party members may not choose to take one another’s checks for saves (as they often indicate AoEs or ranged attacks that are hard to interpose against).

For both attack checks and save checks, players may choose to expend resources instead of taking the checks:

  • Highly limited per day abilities (such as Smite Evil or Wild Shape), remove one check from all party members.
  • Abilities with many uses per day or rounds per day (e.g., Bardic Music, Rage, Ki Pool, bloodline/school/domain basic attacks) require that the players spend uses/rounds equal to the EL to remove a check from all party members.
  • Casters may expend total spell levels equal to the EL to remove a check from all party members.
  • Players can mix and match between these options, each contributing uses, rounds, and spell levels to total up to a certain number of checks removed.
  • If there is a mix between attack and save checks, the players can specify which they’re removing (but have to remove the same ones from all players).

For example, the players are fighting a single Gorgon (EL 8) when they are 9th level. It’s -1 to their APL, so they’re owed three checks. The GM decides that two of those are attacks, and one is a Fortitude save from the breath weapon). The paladin expends a Smite Evil* to reduce that to two checks (removing the save check). The bard uses two rounds of music, the barbarian two rounds of rage, and the wizard a 2nd level spell, a 1st level spell, and a use of his school ability to eliminate another check. The party is left with one check each, and the paladin and barbarian each take two attacks, leaving the bard and wizard to take none.

This system may not always make perfect sense on a per-encounter basis (e.g., a monster with only single-target attacks that would probably focus on one target manages to do a little damage to everyone), but it should even out in the long run. The goal is ultimately to provide some kind of structure to: “this is boring but somehow related to the balance of this adventure so we can’t skip it entirely; so lose some resources, gain some experience, and let’s move on.”

* The paladin in your game doesn’t blow his smites reflexively on seeing a scary monster even if it’s not evil? The one in mine does.

D&D: Optional EXP as Karma

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Adventure paths tend to assume that the PCs will be a certain level at a certain point. Especially since Pathfinder removed the experience cost for crafting magic items, it’s very easy to go, “okay, you guys just finished the latest act of the adventure, level up.” That is, tracking exp is bookkeeping that’s largely meaningless; the module writers put in exactly as many encounters as were needed to get you to the next level, and if somehow you miss some, you’ll probably want to put in some optional ones to get the PCs back to par.

But sometimes the modules play with optional encounters and rewards: random encounters, side encounters, and quest rewards in experience points. If you’re just giving players level ups when the story suggests they should have them, bonus exp isn’t an incentive. The following system is designed to give a use to bonus experience points when you’ve decided to just level the players up when appropriate.

Earning Karma

Karma is a party resource (i.e., there’s no need to do the math to divide it among party members). The GM can track it, or whichever players likes to do party resource bookkeeping can track it instead.

The players get Karma equal to the experience points they would have gotten in the following situations:

  • Defeating an optional encounter (one that was not required to progress the story) that did not have a treasure reward or other story-based result (i.e., the exp would have been the only reward)
  • Defeating a random encounter that did not have a treasure reward
  • Getting a quest or ad hoc reward in experience points (remember to multiply by the party size if the reward is phrased as “give each party member X experience points”)
  • Giving up treasure (a lot of adventure paths want the players to do this at certain points; if they do, give them double the cash value in Karma)

The players do not get Karma in the following situations:

  • Defeating an encounter that was required to progress the story
  • Defeating or bypassing an encounter that was in the way of progressing the story (i.e., it was not truly optional)
  • Defeating any encounter with a treasure reward (either as enemy gear or in a horde or cache the encounter was protecting)

Spending Karma

Players can expend Karma (permanently removing it from the party’s resources) for the following ends:

  • Pay the sale value (i.e., half total value) to sell something that is otherwise unsellable (i.e., it either exceeds the local purchase limit or is something weird that the GM can’t see anyone needing, like large weapons).
  • Pay the basic sale value to sell something at +10%, cumulative (e.g., if something would sell for 1000 GP, spend 1000 Karma to sell it for 1100 GP or 2000 Karma to sell it for 1200 GP) to a maximum of +100%.
  • Pay the purchase value (i.e., full total value) to buy something that is otherwise unavailable (i.e., it either exceeds the local purchase limit or is something weird that should be hard to find). The GM is welcome to introduce a delay for items that are very specialized (as the universe is conspiring to make an item available for sale in a weird place).
  • Pay the basic purchase value to buy something at -10%, cumulative (e.g., if something would cost 2000 GP, spend 2000 Karma to buy it for 1800 GP or 4000 Karma to buy it for 1600 GP) to a minimum -50%.
  • Pay the normal spell scribing cost to borrow a spellbook to scribe spells; you still have to pay the scribing cost, but not the +50% surcharge for borrowing (e.g., a 5th level spell costs 250 Karma and 250 GP to scribe, rather than 375 GP). The GM is welcome to introduce a delay for rare spells (as the universe is conspiring to introduce the players to a friendly Wizard).
  • Pay twice the cost for basic nonmagical goods, services, lifestyle costs, and other incidental expenses to get them for free (i.e., because you’re such big damn heroes that people will help you out with the basics). It’s the GM’s discretion what counts as an incidental expense.
  • Pay the current party level times 1,000 to get a clue, get out of a tight spot, or otherwise recover from confusion or bad choices. The GM is expected to vary this multiplier down for incidental aid (e.g., a clue to something unimportant or which is clearly frustratingly tedious to solve) or up for significant aid (e.g., escaping certain death from poor decisions).

Time as Value, Grind as Virtue

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This ramble starts off with some general theory and goes onto some vague implications for game design (mostly video game design) at the end.

Sipping from the Firehose

Humans have a natural and obvious tendency to value more of something. Most of us will accept a moderate decrease in quality for a large increase in quantity (up to a certain point and relative to the circumstances). This makes a lot of sense in most cases, but it’s a little weird for media, where “quantity” equates to “requires more time to consume.”

Really since the advent of the public library, but especially since the internet, we live in a world of media post-scarcity. If you could backup the internet as it exists right now and lock someone in a room with nothing to do but access that backup through a terminal, that person would take lifetimes to consume all the media online worth consuming, even without adding access to anything behind a paywall.

In many cases, decision paralysis is a worse cause of boredom: you just have so much you could read, watch, or play that it’s hard to settle on one thing. I have a whole stack of Steam sale games and shows and movies in my Netflix queue that are simply daunting, especially when I look over at my growing stack of unread novels and RPG books.

Which is all to say that it’s kind of weird that we put so much stock in things that take longer to consume, when a story or game that was shorter but still packed in all the fun and emotions would allow you to more easily move on to the next thing in your list. TV has been gradually learning this lesson: more and more really good shows are moving to the BBC model of 6-12 episode seasons with a more concentrated story and without filler.

Extra length does have a benefit: it allows you to add a lot more things that create immersion, making the consumer feel like the fictional world and characters are real and full of texture, like you would like to escape there. But while it allows that, too often what it does is present creators with more space to fill and not enough creativity or money to fully utilize all that space.

All Payment Options Lead to Grind

Video games, in particular, have a bad version of this problem. There’s a lot of commentary on how going from a “pay for it once then own it” model to an “all you can eat subscription” model drastically increased grind, and “free to play but with lots of options to buy things” model made it worse, but all three have their problems:

  • Box Only: Games that are less than 10 hours have a really hard time convincing consumers to purchase them at full price. Even though a matinee of an hour and a half movie has crept up to $9, and you’d thus easily be paying $60 to spend ten hours in the theater, paying $60 for a ten hour game is a very hard sell. So rather than giving you a game that’s a few hours long and packed with unique art and story, designers need to turn the money that would pay for a certain amount of amazing content into a lot more less amazing content. Frequently, since it’s very easy to repeat combat encounters and make them take time, you wind up with fights that are time fillers struggling to change just enough that they continue to be fun.
  • Subscription: Subscription games have it worse, particularly for “content heavy” games. The longer you can make a game take to complete, the longer the player keeps giving you $15 a month, and you have to somehow create enough stuff to do for players that are in game hours every day while not making players that can only play an hour or two a week feel like they’d never get anywhere. A Kill Ten Rats quest is drastically easier and cheaper to build than something heavily scripted and unique that would take the same amount of time to play, and an “end game” gear grind lets you make the casuals feel like they’re making progress while still having a much more time-intensive option for your hard cores.
  • Freemium: Freemium games, no matter the marketing speak, exist for one reason: in a subscription game, you’re leaving money on the table for both hard cores that would give you more than $15 a month and casuals that might not give you $15 but would give you something. The model essentially demands that designers create situations where you can progress through the game in a way that’s not particularly fun but is free or one that is fun and costs money. Sometimes that “fun” is just “getting access to cosmetic things to make you not look like one of the boring free players” but quite a lot of the time it’s “getting to skip some of the grind.”

And all of these issues flow from a perception that longer is better, intensified by the need for a persistent multiplayer environment.

Virtuous Grinders, Sinning Payers

But the weirdest thing, the thing that inspired the whole article, is how that mindset has resulted in weird behaviors regarding the transition to Freemium that most MMOs are making. Most players seem to hate the idea of “Pay to Win” with a righteous fire: the concept that you could buy something with cash that they spend game time achieving is enraging and that you might buy something better than they can get from playing is anathema. Because, deep down, players recognize that they’re being forced through a skinner box to try to get the thing that is actually “fun” and being able to skip that process doesn’t seem fair. It’s often couched as “earning through skill,” and how it’s not fair for someone to get to skip that learning and earning process, but there’s relatively little in most MMOs (except possibly at the bleeding edge of the endgame) that can’t be obtained by just slogging through whatever obstacles are in place. Designers simply can’t make a large-scale, content-heavy MMO that prevents less skilled players from progressing, so the only real “skill” is perseverance.

What this winds up meaning is that having free time to play the game becomes the only virtuous way to play; if you have less free time, it’s seen as sinful to pay real money to catch up to those with more free time. Even though, from the business side, the players that are paying you more money to see less content are exactly what you want. Developers would love to make more money while only producing their best ideas as content. But the norm for games is that players would rather have padded content for less money and actively stigmatize players that want to pay more for less padding.

I don’t actually have a solution for this. It’s just a trend I’ve noticed recently, and I’m curious whether anyone else has solutions, and whether players that hate the idea of Pay to Win feel that I’m mischaracterizing their motivations.

Mythic 6th

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So as a second option to easier world building in a D&D paradigm to last week’s post, there’s Epic 6th (E6). In this game build, once your players reach 6th level, every successive level just gives them a feat. Not only does this keep gameplay in the heroic “sweet spot” much longer (largely by keeping players from being able to fling level 4+ spells), but it also greatly compresses the competence level. In last week’s post, miscellaneous level 1-3 NPCs remain relevant because you keep leveling them up behind the PCs; in E6, they remain relevant because a level 6 character is still slightly threatened by a bunch of level 1 guys (especially if they Aid Another).

Paizo just came out with Mythic Adventures, an alternate take on how to do epically powerful things in a D&D game. Instead of working like Epic levels, which are a particular flavor for leveling past level 20, Mythic tiers can be added to a character of any level, and PCs are intended to be Mythic throughout much of their leveling process. Rather than adding power directly similar to a level (e.g., more BaB, more saves, more spell levels, etc.), they instead offer interesting new tricks that complement level-based gains. You get new attack and defense options, rerolls, what’s essentially mythic metamagic for certain spells, and so on, but your essential numbers don’t go up too much. A 6th level character with several Mythic tiers is probably significantly less worried about a bunch of 1st level characters than a fresh 6th level character, but still more worried than a character in the teens would be.

You increase Mythic tiers by completing special deeds (essentially quests), but it’s not directly linked to experience points. The default assumption is that players will get Mythic tiers at roughly one per two regular levels, ending as a Character Level 20, Mythic Tier 10, but I think the system should be able to handle Character Level 6, Mythic Tier 10. That is, it should be possible to offer players Mythic tiers in an E6 paradigm instead of making them rely entirely on getting feats instead of a new level. This should feel much more exciting to players and preserve the feel of regular leveling, while still making world building easy. That is, a CL 6, Mythic 10 character is probably at least as interesting to players as a CL 16 character, but still has much less distance to standard NPCs of low level (particularly in that you still haven’t let them fling around level 4+ spells). You even have more reason, lore-wise, why there aren’t a bunch of high-level guys that have just shown up now: the default assumption of Mythic is that Mythic PCs are some of the only Mythic beings in the world.

And since it’s not quite crunchy enough to end the post on “so you should try combining the new sourcebook with that link,” here are some altered E6 rules to fit the M6 paradigm. These are heavily borrowed from the link at the top, but adjusted for the following purposes:

  • Account for new traits from Pathfinder that 3.5 didn’t have (e.g., some Domains get a new power at 6th, some at 8th).
  • Move away from the feat-based advancement (which tended to marginalize the advantage of Humans, Fighters, and other bonus-feat options).
  • Let the Mythic system carry most of the character improvement, with experience past 6th used more for rounding out a character than raw power.

Leveling in M6

Characters in Mythic 6th should probably use the Slow experience advancement speed. Not counting the rare Mythic characters like the PCs, 6th level characters represent the pinnacle of mortal development, and it should feel like an accomplishment to get there. Unlike a normal game, you don’t need to race the PCs to 6th level, because they’re already gaining Mythic tiers on the way there to round out their sense of advancement.

PCs gain Mythic tiers per the Mythic Adventures rules, and probably start gaining them very early.

Once a character reaches 6th level, further experience is spent on Upgrades (see below). The amount of experience for one upgrade should probably be a round number somewhere around the difference between level 6 and level 7 (so 15k or 20k on the Slow track). As the players become more Mythically powerful and fight more and harder enemies, you might want to gradually increase the cost for these upgrades if you feel like the players are starting to get them much faster: they’re meant to be a way for players to round out characters and realize a little bit of advancement between Mythic tiers, not be a constant stream of power.

At 6th level, all players should be given the periodic option to respend feats and selected special abilities by taking a few weeks to retrain. Unlike normal E6, the players aren’t getting an ongoing stream of additional feats, and are limited to the ones they got from leveling. As their access to higher prerequisites gradually improves, or just their conception of their character changes, they’ll want to make different choices for how their abilities and feats are allocated.

Upgrades

The following options can be purchased with a single Upgrade. Unless otherwise noted, they can be purchased more than once:

  • Capstone: A single-classed characters profits from the choice to specialize (can only be purchased once per character, see below).
  • Skill Training: The character gains 3 additional skill ranks.
  • Further Education: The character adds an additional skill as a Class Skill.
  • Skill Focus: The character gains a Skill Focus feat.
  • Combat Training: The character treats Base Attack Bonus as one higher for purposes of qualifying for feats; this can be taken multiple times to access even higher-level feats (e.g., a Level 6 Fighter with two of these upgrades qualifies for BaB +8 feats like Improved Critical).
  • Power Extension: The character gains any one of the “Extra” feats that provide more per day currency (e.g., Extra Ki, Extra Rage) but not any of the ones that add more abilities (e.g., Extra Hex, Extra Rogue Talent).
  • Expanded Knowledge: The character gains a single additional spell known of any level the character can cast.
  • Expanded Casting: The character gains a single additional spell per day of any level the character can cast; the character cannot have more spells per day of a higher level than of a lower level (i.e., you can’t just buy high-level slots with this indefinitely; past a certain point you need to buy more low level ones too).

Capstone

The capstone upgrade gives the character a few of the special abilities that the class would grant over levels 7-9 without the actual numbers of those levels. For classes not listed, try to add a similar level of their next few improvements, but never add level 4+ spells. Even if a character gains an ability from a higher level, it still uses 6 for all level-dependent variables.

  • Barbarian: DR 1/- and +1 Rage Power
  • Bard: 7th level for spells per day and known and Inspire Competence +3
  • Cleric: Channel Energy 4d6 and 8th level Domain Abilities
  • Druid: Venom Immunity and improve Companion as if 7th level
  • Fighter: Armor Training 2, Weapon Training 2, and +1 Bonus Fighter Feat
  • Monk: Wholeness of Body and Unarmed Damage 1d10
  • Paladin: Aura of Resolve and +0 2nd level slots (as if leveling to 7th)
  • Ranger: Woodland Stride and +0 2nd level slots (as if leveling to 7th)
  • Rogue: Sneak Attack 4d6 and Improved Uncanny Dodge
  • Sorcerer: 9th level Bloodline Ability
  • Wizard: 8th level School Ability

Rituals

You may want to add certain 4th and 5th level spells that fulfill vital game functions back in as rituals. These require additional casting time to what would be normal for the spell and consume spell slots. The suggestions are below, but you may want to alter these based on how frequently you want these rituals used in your game. You may choose to charge a player an Upgrade for each ritual and/or have them be workings that require secret tomes and prepared ritual spaces of great value. You might allow multiple 6th level casters to cooperate on a ritual, reducing the time and sharing the spell slot costs among themselves. You must have the Ritual on your spell list as a 4th or 5th level spell to use it (e.g., only Druids can use the Reincarnate ritual).

Rituals can be upgraded to Mythic spells.

Adept Rituals

These require an additional hour to cast beyond the listed casting time, and one slot each of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level.

  • Bestow Curse* (Arcane)
  • Death Ward* (Divine)
  • Dimensional Anchor* (Arcane)
  • Dismissal* (Divine)
  • Planar Ally, Lesser (Divine)
  • Reincarnate (Divine)
  • Remove Curse (Arcane)
  • Restoration (Divine)
  • Sending (Divine)
  • Stone to Flesh (Arcane)

Master Rituals

These require an additional three hours to cast beyond the listed casting time, and two slots each of 1st, 2nd, and the 3rd level.

  • Atonement (Divine)
  • Awaken (Divine)
  • Break Enchantment (Arcane)
  • Dismissal* (Arcane)
  • Hallow/Unhallow (Divine)
  • Permanency (Arcane)
  • Planar Binding, Lesser (Arcane)
  • Raise Dead (Divine)
  • Sending (Arcane)
  • Teleport (Arcane)

* This ritual can be “held” by the primary caster for up to 24 hours and then activated as desired as a standard action that cannot be interrupted (but does provoke an Attack of Opportunity). For example, a caster could prepare four Death Wards over four hours, sleep for eight hours to regain spells, and then have twelve hours to trigger the first ward when it is needed (beginning its six minute duration).

Compression: Turning Twenty Levels into Four

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One of my conceptual problems with D&D 3e and all its inheritors is how it forces world fiction to account for high-level characters. The leap in power from level to level is greater than in any previous edition, and requires a GM really interested in building an internally consistent setting to work out the meaningful consequences of higher level character in the world. Assume that high-level characters are rare, and you have to justify where all the challenging opposition is coming from once the PCs get up there. Assume they’re more common, and you have to explain why at lower levels the PCs were dealing with major threats that an invested high-level NPC could have safely and easily handled instead.

This is much easier to do when your world is more of a sandbox, especially if it features the traditional amoral adventurers just in a dungeon for treasure. Generally, in those cases, you give the players agency enough to go after threats they think they can handle and wait on the ones that are too big. But it’s much harder if you’re trying to tell a long-running story, and becomes especially hard if you’re working out of a module series that, by its nature, has to be fairly linear.

In these cases, events can start to seem extremely convenient if looked at for more than a second. Wherever the players go, they’re in the Goldilocks Zone of challenges, with the traditional breakdown of most at within one encounter level of the party and the rest within three or so to either side. You can put thought into it to try to make sure the players are changing world areas according to some kind of estimation of their abilities, seeking out harder foes as soon as they’re able, but even then you get oddities. Why are these 10th level thieves serving as minions to the 14th level crime boss when they could be lords of the underworld in their own right back in the city the players started with (where, somehow, a third level crime boss controlled the local trade until the PCs got rid of him)? Why couldn’t the villain have spared a few of these 16th level monsters he has just sitting around on guard duty to back up the agents provocateur that the PCs took out when they were sixth level?

4e had an interesting, if little-advertised, solution to this problem. Even though it had a wider range of levels than 3e, conceptually it had fewer. Instead, you could gradually downgrade enemies from boss, to elite, to normal, to minion. A level 3 Hobgoblin Soldier is a normal enemy, and he’s basically the same guy as the Level 8 Hobgoblin Warrior… who’s a minion. The PCs have gone up five levels but, if you assume that it’s basically meant to be the same hobgoblin, all they’ve really done is increase in power by the difference between a normal and a minion. If they’d encountered that same hobgoblin at level 1, he might have been a Level 1 Elite. The monsters all basically level up with the players and just downgrade in quality, so the number of quality downgrades is the real measure of how the players are improving.

3e (and, therefore, Pathfinder) doesn’t have the same capability to bend levels. There is no equivalent to the minion/normal/elite/boss breakdown. But you can simulate it by limiting NPCs to bands of levels that are keyed to the PC’s levels. An example of how to do that is:

PC Level A B C D E F G H
1 1/3 1/2 1 2 4 6 8 10
2 1/2 1 2 3 5 7 9 11
3 1 2 3 4 6 8 10 12
4 2 3 4 5 7 9 11 13
5 3 3 4 6 8 10 12 14
6 3 4 5 6 8 10 12 14
7 4 5 6 7 9 11 13 15
8 4 5 6 8 10 12 14 16
9 5 6 7 8 10 12 14 16
10 5 6 8 9 11 13 15 17
11 6 7 8 10 12 14 16 18
12 6 7 9 10 12 14 16 18
13 7 8 9 11 13 15 17 19
14 7 9 10 12 14 16 18 20
15 8 9 11 13 15 17 19 21
16 8 10 11 13 15 17 19 21
17 9 10 12 14 16 18 20 22
18 9 11 13 15 17 19 21 23
19 10 11 13 15 17 19 21 23
20 10 12 14 16 18 20 22 24

Compare the PCs’ level to the column for the type of NPC you want, or vice versa. On a 13th level module, a CR 15 enemy is a type F. If they encountered him earlier, at 6th level, he’d be CR 10, and if they fought him again at level 20, he’d also be level 20. At the start of their career, type C is a normal fight, and by the end it’s type F: they’ve technically moved up four types over the course of their career. Even though that increase in power occurred over twenty game levels, in story terms they made a much smaller shift.

The types are largely arbitrary, but what they can mean is:

  • A: Creatures that were never a threat to the PCs, like goblins or kobolds. They start out only a threat in waves, and eventually become mostly a nuisance. But because they reach 10th level when the PCs are 20, they still might remain useful damage sponges for a boss in large enough numbers.
  • B: NPC-classed characters and others that are meant to be just behind the PCs in potency reside here; over time, the PCs dramatically eclipse them, but they might still be able to contribute in some small way to a fight.
  • C: These NPCs start off basically on par with the PCs, but gradually get left behind as the heroes perfect their skills.
  • D: Serious threats at low level, such as lieutenants or obscure monsters, these characters are surpassed by mid-level, but can never be ignored as a threat.
  • E: Small-time bosses not big enough for the wider world, the PCs surpass these characters in their early teens and move up the food chain.
  • F: Major players in the world, these characters would utterly wreck the PCs at low level without extremely good luck, and remain on par with them to the end.
  • G: Story arc bosses or right hands to the global-level threats, these NPCs start out terrifying, become viable (if difficult) fights at the early teens, and remain difficult fights for the PCs throughout.
  • H: The big bad of the setting, these characters start an order of magnitude more powerful than the PCs, and remain a major and difficult fight until the very end.

The trick with this system is that, if you’re running a module series, it’s almost entirely descriptive and requires no extra work if enemies are encountered when they’re meant to be encountered. All it does is give you a framework to place the threats of the module in context with the rest of the world. The PCs make friends with a CR 2 guard when they’re 4th level; that means he’s type A, so he’ll be level 8 when they’re 16th level. An 8th level module features an optional side-boss that’s CR 12 (and, thus, F). If they don’t get to him during the module (or one side runs away) but run into him later when they’re level 13, by that point he’s 15th and still a threat (though less of one that he would have been at the time).

You can also use it to establish why friendly NPCs aren’t just taking care of all problems themselves. For example, in the Curse of the Crimson Throne series, Vencarlo Orsini is a well known dueling instructor in town; officially, he’s 9th level, but his stats don’t appear in a meaningful way until the third module, when the players are also somewhere around 9th level. You could assume that means he’s actually type D or E; if the players somehow convinced him to help out physically in the first module, he’d only be a couple of levels higher than them. It’s enough to sell him as an experienced duelist, but not enough that he would just roll over their foes the way he would if you assumed he was already 9th level at that time. It begins to make total sense why a party of PCs might have a valid role in the schemes of higher level NPCs.

Using this system requires a few mental adjustments, particularly in conceiving of how spells might work. At the lowest level, there are no threats in the world much more powerful than CR 10; reconceive of anything more powerful as that powerful early in the game (you’ll mostly be running their antics through pure narration anyway). At the higher levels, there are no meaningful entities of low level anymore; by 20th level, the weakest characters that matter enough to have stats should be 10th level.

For example, typical green peasant levies in a kingdom’s army are probably CR 1/3 or so when the players are starting out, and the biggest threats in the setting might be able to whip out a Cloudkill that could eradicate whole companies. But by the time the PCs are 5th level, those same peasant levies are now CR 3 (and therefore have more than 3 HD since NPC classes take a penalty), so no longer die without a save to Cloudkill. You have to be careful not to make too big a deal out of exactly what dark magic the big bad is using and exactly how effective it is; from a story perspective, the NPC is powerful enough to fight an army singlehandedly, and it’s not good to get too hung up on the actual magical methods.

Interestingly, while this doesn’t work totally seamlessly with spell levels, it does explain why the PCs would ever actually care about a conventional army by their teens. In the standard conception, most armies are full of first or second level Warriors with a tiny handful of leaders of slightly higher level and/or a PC class. They’d quickly wipe against the PCs or any of the threats the PCs are dealing with. But if you assume they’re all type A, B, or C in this system, while they may be individually outclassed by the PCs’ primary antagonists, they can at least put on a good showing. Even against foes appropriate for 20th level PCs, a horde of CR 10-14 soldiers can do something meaningful in a way low-level soldiers cannot (even if the thing they do is just die slowly enough against the hordes of darkness that the PCs have time to pull off their strike against the big bad).

Ultimately, this system blows up a lot of the simulationism inherent in how 3e is put together. But my argument is that the Goldilocks Zone of the encounters in a typical story-based campaign already blow up that simulationism. Instead of a 20+-level world-building framework where the top-end can easily annihilate opponents even in the upper half of the lower end, you get an eight-level framework where the top-end can’t totally ignore the bottom end and may seriously have to worry about characters toward the middle. And that kind of world-building is much easier for me, at least, to use to tell stories without constantly worrying about the power-level imbalances.

The Saga: Session Logs with Bonuses

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This is written up for D&D/Pathfinder, but could work for any system with some tweaking. It’s a way to turn your session history into a Beowulf-style saga of deeds, or to create a Jaynestown-style exaggeration of past activities when the PCs return to a location. It works best for a traveling group of PCs with no fixed agenda other than doing great deeds and building their legend.

Writing the Saga

At the end of every session, the players should summarize their activities. Ideally, each player picks one interesting thing that happened that session as a result of the party’s activities (this action doesn’t have to have been performed by the PC suggesting it; just pick the most interesting actions). These are the deeds that the characters will be remembered for in song.

Depending on the style of your campaign and the interest your players have in making poetry, you might encourage them to form these details into a stanza of iambic pentameter, two haikus, or something of similar length. The goal is to boil the events down into an iconic format that the players will remember easily, and limiting the available syllables helps this end.

Once the players have roughed out a stanza, have each player pick one of the following adjectives to apply (players can pick the same one twice):

  • Brave
  • Clever
  • Stalwart
  • Uncanny
  • Wise

If the GM feels like any of those adjectives is not supported by the text of the stanza, revise the text to exaggerate until it qualifies. The legends the characters are known for might not be entirely true.

On the saga sheet, track the totals of each adjective in two sets: Established and Pending.

You can move points from the Pending list to the Established total by succeeding at a Perform check after a week of performances of the saga. (You can hire a bard to do this for you if none of the party members are performers.) The result of the Perform check -10 is the maximum possible total for any adjective. For example, the party has Brave 20 (5 pending) and Clever 15 (3 pending). The Perform check result is 32, changing the totals to Brave 22 (3 pending) and Clever 18 (0 pending).

Using the Saga

You can add the total of an adjective divided by five as a bonus to any social rolls to convince someone (who knows who you are and knows of the saga) of something related to the adjective. For example, if you have 22 Brave, all party members get a +4 to rolls to convince others that they are brave. This is intended to be fudged somewhat, so the players can get the bonus by calling upon their legend and working it in, no matter how tangentially, to the topic at hand in true declaiming saga hero style (“Are you saying that I am not brave? That could be the only reason you would not want to join with my forces in glorious battle, because you think I am a coward that would desert you! Know that I shall lead us to death or glory!”).

Additionally, for every 10 points (rounded down, as usual) in an adjective, the party gains “points” of that adjective that refresh at the beginning of the session and can be used for various ends:

  • Brave: Reroll a failed Strength-based (attack, skill, or raw ability) roll, Charisma-based roll to influence animals (Handle Animal and Wild Empathy), or failed save vs. Fear. Turn a successful attack roll against a superior (higher CR) opponent into a critical threat.
  • Clever: Reroll a failed Dexterity-based (attack, skill, raw ability, or Reflex save) roll or failed Bluff or Disguise check. Produce a small, non-magical item with a GP value equal or less than the party’s Clever total that isn’t listed on any equipment sheets but could help with the current situation.
  • Stalwart: Reroll a failed Fortitude save or any other failed roll related to endurance or surviving in hostile environments. Reduce the damage from an attack by your character level (after damage is announced but before you deduct HP).
  • Uncanny: Reroll a failed Intelligence-based (skill or raw ability) roll or failed Intimidate or Use Magic Device check. Force an opponent to reroll a successful save against an Arcane effect.
  • Wise: Reroll a failed Wisdom-Based (skill, raw ability, or Will save) roll or failed Diplomacy check. Force an opponent to reroll a successful save against a Divine effect.

For example, the party with Brave 22 and Clever 18 can use two of the Brave benefits above and one or the Clever benefits above per session.

Any player may claim any of these benefits (though usual table etiquette should prevail to keep some players from too often using more than their share).

Protecting the Saga

Either as a sideline to the normal course of adventuring or as the primary means by which the party hears about adventures (GM’s preference), communities will send to the player characters for aid based on the strength of their saga adjectives. The GM can choose whether to target a quality randomly, or pick one that matches an adventure idea/module the GM has already. A rough guideline is:

  • Brave: The community is plagued by a mighty but (they think) easily understood threat, usually a single powerful creature like a dragon or a giant that has slain all townsfolk that tried to stop it, no matter how prepared they were.
  • Clever: The community is plagued by a threat that comes at them sideways, possibly through stealth or with the backing of the law. If the threat would come at them honorably, they think they might be able to stop it (they may be wrong), but because it won’t fight fair they need someone who can cancel its advantage.
  • Stalwart: The community is plagued by an overwhelming force of smaller foes, such as a horde of goblins. With just a handful of them, the town wouldn’t be worried, but they need someone able to throw off a whole army and/or help them withstand a siege of evil.
  • Uncanny: The community has no idea what it is facing: strange creatures or magic threats beyond the knowledge of the townsfolk. The threat could be powerful or weak but mysterious; the townsfolk simply know that it is outside of their experience and dangerous. Simply unraveling the mystery saves face (turning it into a threat of another quality which the PCs are then free to declare is a job for more-specialized heroes; but if the PCs can deal with it, so much the better).
  • Wise: The community is being attacked by undead, demons, or something else that is dangerous both for its power and ability to corrupt the defenders of good. Even Brave or Stalwart men might be vulnerable to its power, so the community must turn to wise men who can resist.

The average CR for the adventure is equal to half the adjective’s total. The party with Brave 22 and Clever 18 will get invitations to deal with level 11 Brave adventures and level 9 Clever adventures.

The party initially hears simply the broadest terms of the adjective in question (“South Kingsford has put out a call for Brave heroes, and asked for you by name!”). At this point, the party can choose to ignore the call with no loss of face (“Send our regrets, but we have already made promises that we must keep soon.”). However, if the party refuses several adventures for a single adjective in a row, it might count as a loss of face.

If the party journeys to the location, they get to hear the town’s spiel about the problem. At that point, if they choose to abandon the task, or fail it, they will lose face (likely with an Unferth around who challenges them to not punk out on the task). Losing face means that the party must choose a whole stanza to wipe out that includes at least one point in the adjective in question. That passage of the saga is now lost to history, and the players lose all the points that stanza awarded. For example, a party chooses to abandon a Brave adventure, and chooses to lose a stanza with Brave x1, Stalwart x1, and Clever x2. The party loses one point in Brave and Stalwart and two points in Clever from the running total. Ultimately, players that over-focus on one quality may find their legend quickly getting away from their ability to sustain it.

GMs should regularly do calls to adventure at the end of a session (rather than prepping a scenario that the players might refuse before even hearing out). If the GM thinks that the scenario in question is difficult enough that the players will have a decent chance of refusing it even with the loss of face, that might be done at the end of the session too. The goal is to avoid over-prepping, while maintaining the players’ agency to choose where they want to adventure.

Bonds for Occult Antiheroes

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I’m sure something like this has been done before, but I got the idea watching Hemlock Grove. It’s a mechanic for games where the players are meant to be fairly unheroic, selfish individuals that are forced by circumstances to become protagonists even though they’d rather while away their days filled with angst. You know, your John Constantines, Angels, Nick Knights, Duncan Macleods, and such. They’re only heroic in the circumstances because they’re not actively villainous and they have a handful of things that are important enough to them to step up and defend.

Bonds

Each player character starts the game with five bonds. These are five nouns important enough that the character will go out of her way to defend them. Three of them have to be people (friends, family members, or just people the character idealizes and wants to protect, but not other PCs). The other two can be additional people or places, objects, or ideals. If they aren’t people, there has to be some defined way the thing could be destroyed. For example:

  • A building could burn down. A secret lair could be exposed.
  • An item could be stolen. A treasure could be destroyed.
  • A loyalty could be betrayed. An ideal could be proven false.

Essentially, each bond must have a clear way it could be destroyed, killed, or otherwise rendered permanently unavailable to the character. The more ways that this could happen, the better (the point is that the GM is going to threaten them regularly, so making them only have a limited angle of attack will either make it repetitive or the GM will ignore it, making it worthless).

A player may only have five bonds at a time. If one is destroyed, a new one can be purchased with one experience point (multiplied by whatever value payouts are multiplied by, see below) and justification for why this thing is now important to the character.

Threatening Bonds

A GM will frequently threaten the bonds of the characters. Threatening a bond adds 1 experience point to it. The GM must follow several rules:

  • A bond may only be threatened with sufficient warning that there’s a chance to save it (at least at the beginning of the scene where the bond is in danger).
  • A GM may not destroy a bond without threatening it.
  • If a GM threatens several of a character’s bonds at once (such that it is likely that saving one will doom the other without extreme success), he must pay an additional experience point per each bond threatened (e.g., if three are threatened, each bond threatened gets 3 exp placed on it).
  • Bonds can only be threatened if the owner of the bond must take difficult action to save it. If the bond is not really in danger, such that the owner’s inaction would not result in its destruction, it is not worth an exp.

The GM should try to threaten at least one bond per player per session.

Destruction, Retirement, and Revenge

If a bond is destroyed, the player gains all the experience points currently placed on it. Essentially, the player must protect the bond at least once to do more than just recoup the cost of purchasing the bond, and protecting one several times creates greater exp profit.

The exp is multiplied by whatever factor makes sense for the system (e.g., if the system expects players to earn 10 exp per session, and the GM only plans to threaten an average of one bond per player per session, it should be multiplied by 10). This may be the game’s primary (or only) source of experience points.

If the bond gains a total of five or more exp, the player may choose to retire it with story justification. A bond to a character may mean that the character moves away from the area and out of danger, or just gets empowered sufficiently to no longer be in greater danger than the PC (sometimes, this just means informing your friend why he’s been targeted by all these crazy things recently). The character may leave the place to no longer keep it in danger, or just may somehow protect it so it’s no longer targeted. An item may be placed somewhere safe so it’s not in constant risk. A retired ideal means that the character has internalized it sufficiently that it’s no longer at risk of being disproved.

A retired bond gives half its exp value to the player, rounded down (i.e., you get paid more for the angst of loss than fully protecting the bond; a player that retires a bond has grown fond enough of it to sacrifice a bunch of exp to keep it safe). It usually leaves the story to live happily ever after. If there are brief visits from the bond later, it should never be in any particular danger unless the players choose to keep pulling it back in (or some other player decides to take it as a bond…).

When a bond is destroyed, instead of accepting the experience immediately, the player may choose to declare revenge. The bond changes to “Revenge for the [death/loss/etc.] of [the bond]” and cannot be replaced until the revenge is completed or abandoned. The player may abandon the revenge at any time and gain the original experience value of the bond.

For every session that the player character expends effort toward fulfilling the revenge (investigating to find the killer, paying back the killer in kind, etc.), the bond gains an additional experience point (to a maximum of double the original value of the bond). When the revenge is finally consummated (by killing or otherwise ruining the person or organization most responsible for the destruction of the bond), the bond is cleared and pays out its full accumulated value.

Non-Deadly Destruction

Players may specify bonds, particularly to people, in a way that means that death is not the only way to destroy them. Generally, this is something like maintaining the innocence/ignorance of the subject. Your friend finding out your secret (which will cause a permanent rift in the friendship), or your sibling being turned into a monster like you may be almost as terrible for you as being killed.

Large-Scale Threats

When a threat targets a region large enough that it might destroy multiple bonds, it doesn’t count as a threat to those bonds until there’s only a short time left to save them. For example, if the players find out several hours in advance that there’s going to be a city-wide death ritual, but they could just call loved ones and tell them to evacuate with plenty of time to spare, that’s not a threat worthy of an exp. If the players deliberately dawdle until there’s no way the bonds could escape without stopping the threat, or don’t even find out about it until it’s too late to escape, then it does count as a threat to all of the bonds (it might still not count for multiple exp on each bond, since saving one doesn’t necessarily make it harder to save another if one success averts the crisis). In general, GMs should be careful about large-scale threats (perhaps saving them for arc finales where the giant exp payout is intended).

As Aspects

These bonds can double as Aspects in a Fate game (and may replace them entirely). In that case, you can obviously invoke the Aspect when the bond is being threatened. All threats to a bond are also Compels, but the GM can Compel the bond without threatening it (for situations where the bond is in trouble, or will get the PC in trouble, without actually being in mortal danger).

Ongoing Flashbacks

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Most advice for flashbacks in RPGs tries, unsurprisingly, to replicate how flashbacks are used in most media: as the occasional one scene that can appear whenever it’s relevant, or sometimes a whole episode devoted to explaining a crucial issue. However, pioneered by Lost (or at least that’s the first place I saw it) and now used in a slightly different way in Arrow, another option is the ongoing flashback, where up to half the time is set in the past. In Lost, this was a second story giving more background to a character whose choices were central to the episode, but each episode could have a completely different flashback and there was no particular order. Arrow, on the other hand, show something far more gamable: the flashbacks are in a linear order and are effectively a second ongoing plotline that happens to be in the past rather than another location. The past plotline tends to conveniently parallel whatever’s going on in the present thematically and introduces any facts and abilities the main character’s theoretically known all along but weren’t relevant until now.

This could be a huge having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too idea for games where the protagonists are meant to start ultra competent with minimal advancement featuring players that like to spend exp.

How I’d do this kind of thing (using Fate lingo, but could really work with anything skill-based) is:

  • The players start in the present with a full pyramid of skills, but only a bare minimum of aspects, stunts, and powers. Effectively, their options are going to increase over time, but not their power level.
  • The players start in the past with a greatly reduced pyramid of skills, and probably zero aspects, stunts, or powers. They’re going to learn everything in the flashbacks.
  • When a player is ready to spend exp (or just get an increase on a fixed schedule), he or she tells the GM in advance of the session. Part of that session’s flashback involves picking up the new trait (it’s up to the player to justify why it never seemed relevant to use it until now).
  • The characters in the flashback gain skill points at a fairly accelerated rate. If the player raises a skill in the past higher than that of the present version, it’s suggested that the player use the normal rules for flipping skill ranks to make sure they continue to match up.
  • The player is free to use tricks he or she thinks will be on the final list in the present in situations where they don’t matter to the rules (e.g., to show off) to drive home the idea that the present character knows everything the character in the past knows, just hasn’t figured that it’s relevant yet.

The GM, in setting up these sessions, should do a few things:

  • Plan the advancement path to parallel the course of the chronicle. Once the flashback versions of the PCs have the same skill pyramid as the present versions, it’s getting really close to time for the end of the past to become the beginning of the present, and wrap up the arc. This could be a complete finale, or just a timeskip to even more badass versions of the characters later that have new flashback moments.
  • The events of the past storyline should be somewhat flexible in your mind, as they should stay thematically related to whatever is happening in the present. If the present winds up with the players going after someone that is theoretically an old foe, you want leeway to bend the flashbacks to show when they first met him. If something in the present is showcasing a failure of fatherhood, the flashbacks can call out one of the PCs’ own relationships with father figures.
  • In the flashbacks, the PCs are obviously in no danger of dying (unless there’s room for a surprise reveal that one of them is a clone with the original’s memories or something). But you can raise the stakes by having a rousing cast of NPCs that the players would like to keep alive. You can even run whole flashback arcs that largely involve protecting an NPC, and if the NPC survives and the players liked her, she soon after appears in the present timeline showing up to help out and reward the players for helping her in the past. You might also build to threats in the present by having flashbacks focus on how much information they were learning in the past: a flashback failure may result in the players having less information and fewer assets in the fight against the present threat.
  • Ideally, the PCs have been working together for some time (though you may start off the flashbacks with a “you all meet in a tavern” moment) so you don’t have to split the party in the flashbacks. If the story or character concepts absolutely demand that the PCs were mostly or entirely solo in the past, try flipping focal episodes. Each session, another PC’s past is what’s relevant to the present issue (and that’s the PC that gets to buy new stuff), and the other players are handed lightly sketched supporting NPCs to portray in the flashback. Make sure to give each player a roughly equal number of focal episodes.
  • In an actual session, borrowing from TV act structures is a good idea. That is, be on the lookout for a surprise beat to flip between past and present scenes, particularly:
    • Something that might become more potent for being drawn out (“and then a bunch of guys with guns kick in the door… and… flashback”)
    • Something that is directly relevant to flashing back (“the assassin pulls off his hood to reveal… Captain Stone” “Who? Wait, the random captain who was piloting our plane? We don’t really know him.” “Flashback! On the plane to your destination, you hear over the intercom, ‘This is the captain. I’m getting some unexpected contacts on the radar. What did you people get me into!? Oh hell, missile lock, hold on…’”).
  • Make sure your story is sufficiently about secrets revealed and tight-lipped protagonists that the whole mechanic continues to feel relevant. If you’re not sure it works for a whole campaign, consider just doing it for periodic one-off episodes where someone’s past is extremely relevant. This is a lot more like just the way every RPG suggests to do flashbacks, but at least alternating regularly between flashback and present between scenes preserves some of what’s different about this format.

 

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