GM Tricks: Arbitrary Links as Imagination Seed

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My Beyond the Wall game is a Westmarches-style hexcrawl, for the most part. The players are from a small village situated on the edge of a deadly wilderness, but the “settled” lands are also filled with adventure locations (largely safer ones for low-level characters not yet ready to venture into a forest of razor-sharp thorns). I’ve been thwarted for years by attempts to make a hexcrawl, due to the sheer amount of creation involved, until, finally, for this campaign, I hit upon the following idea.

First off, I didn’t try to fill every single hex with content. Instead, I used BtW‘s conception of distance bands (near hexes are those within a close radius, moderate hexes are the next band of that distance, and far hexes are the band after that), and decided that I’d use an alphabet key for each band. Basically, of the 37 “near” hexes, only 26 have significant content, as do 26 of the “moderate” hexes. Other than the players’ home town being A1 right in the center, the hexes that got a letter were determined randomly.

This still leaves space for things I might decide to add later, but coming up with 52 locations across a 7-hex radius was much less daunting than filling in every single one of them. I had a pool of general ideas for locations I might want to have in the game (like a haunted farmhouse, a crossroads, a giant inn, and the old watchtower required by one of the threat packs I’m using), and then filled in the rest with the random location generator from BtW.

But none of that is the trick.

The trick is that, at this point, all I had were some vaguely atmospheric locations and a few ideas for how some of them hooked into the overall campaign themes and threats. So next, I made a spreadsheet*. In addition to salient data about the location’s key letter, name/description, and overall position within the world, it got a couple of useful columns: clue to near, and clue to moderate. Each location would hold some kind of clue to how to find one other location in the near band, and one in the far band, and some kind of useful details about those other locations. And each location would get used the same number of times (so each location essentially has two out clues and two in clues).

Some of the locations were easy. Obviously the haunted farmhouse (which was secretly the home base of goblins trying to scare people away) would be a good place to put a clue to the goblin market location. But most of the connections wound up being fairly arbitrary: when you only have one location without a clue, and one location that can take a clue, you match them up.

And this became the trick to filling in these locations with interesting details. On the spreadsheet, I could now see that each vague location had some kind of clue to two other vague locations. And that clue would inform both sides.

Why is the estate of rival nobles getting a clue from the old battlefield and sending a clue to ancient ruins? I already know they’re nobles that are good at farming, but maybe they have an inferiority complex about it. Maybe they’re trying to find proof that they’re actually an extremely old noble house in order to raise their prestige among the other nobles. Boom. The old battlefield now has a roleplay encounter with archaeologists hired by the family to dig for relics of the family’s armies, and if the players follow it up they can get hired by the noble family to hunt for further proof in the ancient ruins.

Not only is every location now findable without just having to go hex-by-hex, but each location has four data points to spur imagination about why it’s interesting and how it fits into the larger world.

And the GraphViz of the connections is pretty neat too:


* My next step is almost always to make a spreadsheet.

Savage Angels, Conversion Rules

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I’ve been running the No Soul Left Behind campaign for Better Angels for several months now. While the campaign is great and the setting of the core RPG is awesome, we couldn’t really wrap our heads around using the trait system effectively. I’ll probably get around to doing a system review one of these days, but the upshot is that the translation of abstract vices and virtues into concrete rolls to accomplish something never gelled, and my players finally asked me to convert to a system with a more traditional trait system.

I wound up choosing Savage Worlds, for a few reasons: it seems pretty resilient to hacking, I already have the Super Powers Companion for a game that never wound up happening, and it’s pretty easy to grok (plus one of the players already has a lot of Deadlands experience and was one of my review playtesters when I originally tried Savage Worlds).

My goal was to keep the central struggle of Better Angels, which is that the more powerful you become, the closer you are to getting dragged to hell. So the main change to Savage Worlds supers proper is the bolting on of a translation of Better Angels‘ vices and how they relate to powers, sinning, and damnation. This conversion also takes a lot of inspiration from Smallville, insofar as the vice you pick to roll is based on your agenda for the conflict.

The below assumes familiarity with Better Angels and Savage Worlds (and its Super Powers Companion).


Your wild die (a d6 in standard Savage Worlds) is replaced by a die for whatever vice is your primary motivation for the conflict/scene (e.g., if you have Greed d8, Espionage d10, and Breaking and Entering d6, you’d roll d8+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to steal something but d10+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to get information).

  • Greed: Your motivation in the conflict is to gain something for yourself (typically of permanent value): this is generally something that you feel will be useful to you, particularly in the long term (short-term gains may actually be another motivation). If no other value seems appropriate, Greed can also be used for crime- and economics-related challenges.
  • Espionage (with elements of Gluttony): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your physical needs (anything that makes you feel good physically, including getting into a fight not because you’re angry, but just because you enjoy the thrill) or to discover something secret. If no other value seems appropriate, Espionage can also be used for academics- and perception-related challenges.
  • Cruelty (with elements of Wrath): Your motivation in the conflict is anger: you are pissed off in general and that’s driving your behavior or you specifically hate the opponent. If no other value seems appropriate, Cruelty can also be used for violence-related challenges.
  • Cowardice (with elements of Sloth): Your motivation in the conflict is to not be involved in the conflict: you have no other agenda beyond not submitting to the opponent’s agenda or not being bothered in the first place. If no other value seems appropriate, Cowardice can also be used for athletics-related challenges.
  • Corruption (with elements of Lust): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your psychological needs: generally this is an urge to be loved or otherwise appreciated, but it may involve going after something that will make you feel good emotionally in the short term. If no other value seems appropriate, Corruption can also be used for seduction- and impression-related challenges.
  • Deceit (with elements of Envy): Your motivation in the conflict is to try to exceed the qualities of someone you feel is better then you, to spite someone who has something you don’t have, or to pull one over on a sucker. If no other value seems appropriate, Deceit can also be used for stealth- and deception-related challenges.
  • Pride (Special, See Below): Your motivation in the conflict is to prove your superiority over someone else and prove that you’re the better person (or villain); since this could theoretically apply to almost anything for prideful characters, any other appropriate value should be considered as motivation first before pure pride is the dominant value. If no other value seems appropriate, Pride can also be used for diplomacy- and leadership-related challenges.

Raising Vices

In any scene in which you used a vice (or a power keyed to a vice) and your demon is active, the rating of your vice can go up by one die step. You must have both used the vice and accomplished one of the following things (as argued by the Screwtape):

  • Greed: Stole something you didn’t need (double bump for something priceless you didn’t even want)
  • Espionage: Gloated in victory or consumed something bigger than your head (double bump for totally suborning someone with illicit knowledge or consuming something so big you shouldn’t be able to do so)
  • Cruelty: Killed or permanently maimed a person/lovable animal or destroyed something of real value (double bump for a massacre or mass property damage)
  • Cowardice: Humiliated someone or sat by idly while something awful happened that you could have easily stopped (double bump for killing someone with a death trap or permanently maiming someone through torture)
  • Corruption: Made someone your minion or seduced someone that should know better (double bump for getting lots of minions all at once or completely suborning a hero’s ally through your charm and wiles)
  • Deceit: Betrayed and mocked someone that trusted you or seriously hurt someone because you were jealous of them (double bump for killing an ally or ruining someone out of jealousy)
  • Pride: Claimed that you were invincible and proved to your enemies that you were right; also special:
    • Whenever a vice would be raised over d12, it resets to d8 and your Pride goes up by one die step. (If you get a double bump while at d12, your Pride goes up by one die step and your vice resets to d10.)
    • If your Pride would exceed d12, this begins the process of dragging you to hell (it goeth before a fall… needless to say, don’t claim you’re invincible unless you’re planning to job it and get beaten).


In order to lower a vice, you must forego a wild die for the whole scene (rather than using a vice-based wild die), succeed on at least one test where the outcome matters, and accomplish something opposed to the vice you want to lower:

  • Greed: Help someone with no expected gain or give away something of high value to yourself
  • Espionage: Learn something new and important through above-board means or deny yourself something physical you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Cruelty: Demonstrate mercy when it would be much safer and more expedient not to or protect someone at actual risk to yourself
  • Cowardice: Lose a conflict that costs you substantially (rather than running away) or go out of your way to accomplish something the right way when there was a much easier way to do it wrong
  • Corruption: Admit that you did something wrong and work to make up for it or deny yourself something emotional you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Deceit: Tell a truth that is injurious to you or your interests or help out someone you hate at cost to yourself because you know your hatred is irrational

In order to lower Pride by one step:

  • You must lower a vice below d4 (it resets to d8).
  • You must simultaneously humiliate yourself in a lasting way that will have huge consequences for your reputation.
  • If Pride would go below d4, instead reduce another vice by one step (the dominant vice still resets to d8).
  • If all of your vices are d4, you can attempt Exorcism.


The normal Savage Worlds skills are replaced with:

  • Pretending to Be What You Ain’t (Acting/Deception)*
  • Playing Sports and Shit (Athletics)
  • Hacking, Cracking, and Social Media (Computers)
  • Grand Theft Auto (Driving/Piloting/Boating)
  • The Old Ultraviolence (Fighting)
  • Taking Slugs Out of Your Buddy (Healing)
  • Scaring the Hell out of Someone (Intimidation)*
  • Digging up Dirt, Looking for Clues (Investigation/Tracking)
  • That Shit You Learned in School (Knowledge)**
  • Breaking and Entering (Lockpicking/Security)
  • Good Looking Out (Notice)
  • Getting People to Do What You Want (Persuasion)*
  • Making Shit and Fixing It (Repair/Crafts)
  • Downrange Violence (Shooting/Throwing)
  • Lurking, Prowling, and Generally Skulking (Stealth)
  • Being Down With the Street (Streetwise/Gambling)*
  • Camping and Outdoorsy Shit (Survival/Riding)
  • Being a Mean Girl (Taunt)*

* Uses Charisma bonus
** Not required to be bought as individual skills (unlike normal Savage Worlds)

Powers and Aspects

Powers and Aspects are rebuilt using the rules from the Super Powers Companion as a guideline. In general:

  • Powers scale in effect pegged to the associated vice die (roughly equal to the value of the die; e.g., at a d6, it’s got 6 power points worth of effect, and at d12 it’s got 12 points worth of effect).
  • Aspects scale in effect pegged the higher of the two associated vice dice (roughly equal to twice the value of the die; e.g., Darkness-Shrouded was Devious, so it’s now pegged to Corruption + Deceit, and if your Deceit is d10, it’s got 20 points worth of effect).
  • I’ll give you little summary blocks to show where the power is at at each rating.

For how they work:

  • You can always use powers, but if you use them your demon is active and raising the associated vice is on the table for the scene (even if you didn’t roll that sin’s die at all).
  • To turn on an aspect, roll the dice for the two vices associated with the aspect:
    • If the demon is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step down the value of the vice).
    • If the mortal is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step up the value of the vice).

Example Power, That Hideous Strength (Cruelty):

  • d4: Super Strength (p. 43) +2
  • d6: Super Strength (p. 43) +2, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d8: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d10: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)
  • d12: Super Strength (p. 43) +4, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)

(For example, if your Cruelty is currently rated d8, you have the Super Strength power from page 43 of the SPC at +3 steps, and the Attack, Melee power from page 22 at the first rank.)

Other Demonic Abilities

  • Sinful Perfection: Step down the vice the player is rolling before the roll is made, but add +4 to the roll’s result.
  • Demonic Endurance: Death is not usually on the table for a hellbinder when Incapacitated. If there’s an easy way for you to escape, when Incapacitated you escape (possibly in a no-body, no-kill kind of way). If your opponents have you in a situation where that’s impossible, they’ll find themselves compelled to arrest/capture you rather than killing you. You’re only in danger of dying past Incapacitated when dark magic is on the table in the hands of someone at the end of her rope (i.e., usually, only other hellbinders can actually kill you, or a mortal that’s been pushed way too far).
  • Devilish Creativity: Use the system in the book and replace the virtue costs with Resource units. You can break one big money unit from crimes into 4 Resources. You also accumulate 1 Resource each per scenario to represent your legitimate income. When you want to make a device/improve the lair, spend Resources equal to the book’s costs (in Generosity and Knowledge) and step up a meaningfully related Vice by one. Boom, you have the device.


Secrets and surprises from Better Angels work as special-use Bennies: you can expend them to reroll a test for which they’re specifically relevant.

Character Conversion

  • Make characters normally for Savage Worlds. You don’t have to take an arcane background to get your powers (as per SPC). Edges that don’t make sense may be off the table (most of the supernatural ones, anything that makes you rich, etc.).
  • Award Savage Worlds XP based on how far you are into the campaign.
  • Convert your current Generosity to spare Resources, and your various vice ratings to the new vice rating (1 dot is a d4 up to 5 dots is a d12; if you’ve zeroed out a vice, it’s at an X and no powers associated with it function).

Disaster as Random Chargen Filter


One of the problems with holding onto a love of random character generation is that it originally went hand in hand with another major facet of D&D: if you rolled poorly on your character, that character would probably die quickly and you’d get to try again. Conversely, it’s probably likely that players that rolled really exceptional characters had a decent chance of getting overconfident and losing them. Ultimately, that meant that the dungeon was serving as a filter: weak characters tended to die (or be lucky enough to be very interesting to roleplay), and, in the long term, it was hard to get stuck with a character meaningfully weaker than other PCs for the campaign.

Meanwhile, in modern games, most tables that I’m aware of don’t really have a high PC body count. If you use random chargen and roll poorly, you could be stuck as the effective sidekick to the more powerful characters in the party for the whole campaign.

I had an idea while attending the Horror in Gaming panel at Dragon*Con this year that would allow you to reintroduce the filter in a specific circumstance. My original idea was for something I’ve seen in modern action horror movies like Freddy vs. Jason and House of the Dead: dozens of teens at a rave in a dangerous location, suddenly fleeing when monsters attack. It also works for disaster-movie scenarios. But the idea possibly best in that old D&D trope: survivors of the big bad wiping out a village.

I may expand this idea to a loose module in the future, but the basic idea is:

  • The GM (with the help of the players, if they’re interested) generates a bunch of extremely rough character descriptions and puts them on notecards. This would be the kind of details you’d notice in a crowd scene of a disaster or horror movie: race, sex, hair color, age, and a significant item of clothing (possibly just using something like the Pathfinder Face Cards instead). It’s enough to give the players some idea of whether they’d like to play the character long term.
  • The players take turns claiming cards (or get them randomly) until they have an equal number of characters.
  • The GM sets the stage for what’s going on. Players used to games where they improvisationally portray characters with no stats might pick a character or two to do a bit of ad libbling.
  • Something awful starts killing everyone, and the crowd scatters to escape. The PC cards might represent the whole crowd, or be surrounded by NPCs also getting slaughtered.
  • The GM puts obstacles in the way of escaping: dodging monsters and explosions, having to scale walls and fences, stumbling lost in the dark, remembering how to bypass something, soldiering on through choking smoke or light injuries, and begging others for help.
  • Each of these obstacles is an attribute challenge (e.g., in D&D 5e, an ability check for skill or save). When characters get to it, roll up their applicable stat and make the test. Characters that make it through might, if the context makes sense, help those that failed (but not all of them). The goal is to have pretty heavy carnage of characters that fail challenges.
  • After every such obstacle, give the survivors a new character trait (possibly also randomly chosen) like name and other personality highlights (e.g., again for 5e, background, then personality, ideal, flaw, and bond). Allow a little time for roleplaying if the players want to: they should be figuring out which characters they might want to play.
  • Also after every obstacle (or round of obstacles, if the characters split up into different mobs), have the players hang on to one or two characters they like the most right now, put the rest back in the middle, and then redraw until everyone has an even number. This is just in case players have a different rate of attrition.
  • You might also give the players a small set of rerolls to use across all their characters, to get characters they’re growing attached to through a poor roll or two.
  • Repeat obstacles until the character pool has been whittled down to one PC per player (possibly with a few left over to be backup characters/friendly NPCs). If attrition was high enough that not all the necessary attributes and personality traits are chosen, roll those now.
  • Narrate the last of the PCs escaping to a moment of safety long enough to catch their breaths… and worry what they’re going to do about the thing that just wiped out everyone around them. Finish generating the characters (such as picking a class and everything that goes with it).

Ultimately, this method should wind up with PCs that are above average and more-or-less on par with one another, but that still feel random. And you’ve also got a nice baked-in traumatic experience and plot hook to motivate roleplay from there on out.

Dynamically Static Initiative


I’ve never been a tremendous fan of the “roll initiative at the start of combat and then just cycle that order until combat is over” school of initiative that has existed in a lot of games, but most notably D&D from 3e on. In my experience, it makes everything feel very static, and can lead to problems with players getting distracted while they just wait for a turn. In the past, I’ve worked on other solutions to the problem, with my most common being group initiative (based on this Ars Ludi post).

A friend recently linked me to this joke monster:


from here

The Percolating Haste mechanic struck me immediately as a potential solution to the boringness of cyclic initiative; you can just apply it to everyone, to get a much more dynamic combat where high initiative bonus matters past the first round of combat. I’d implement it in the following way:

D&D (All varieties post 3e)

Roll initiative for the first round of combat normally. Each time you end your turn, if subtracting 20 from your initiative total would not reduce your score below 0, subtract 20 and go again on that initiative tick. If this would reduce you below 0, instead add your initiative bonus to your current initiative score upon ending your turn (unless you have an initiative penalty, in which case just stay where you are).

Haste-type effects might reduce the subtraction amount (making it easier to go twice in one turn).

Beyond the Wall

Determine initiative for the first round normally (in BtW, this is a fixed initiative total equal to level plus Dex bonus plus 0-2 from class choice). Each time you end your turn, if subtracting (Your Level + 10) from your initiative total would not reduce your score below 0, subtract (Your Level + 10) and go again on that initiative tick. If this would reduce you below 0, instead add your initiative total to your current initiative score upon ending your turn. (Very few BtW characters should have an initiative that’s negative, particularly past the first couple of levels even with a very low Dex.)

This method has the subtraction amount scale by level since your initiative bonus scales drastically by level; it should result in high-init characters getting similar amounts of extra actions as they level.

Benefits of the System

To my mind, this system has a couple of major benefits:

  • Due to different initiative bonuses, characters are likely to change order through the course of a fight. You can’t guarantee that you’ll get a turn in the same position every round; that skeleton that went after you this round—but has a higher initiative—might go before you next round. This in itself should make the fight a lot more dynamic-feeling.
  • High-initiative characters, over a long combat, will get to go more often (making up for the fact that the benefits of high initiative tend to become less and less after many rounds in a fixed initiative order, and also compensating for a high initiative but bad roll).

Of course, the system is a little fiddly for a GM to keep track of round to round. One solution is to ask players to track their current initiative score and just do a countdown initiative call, but another is to use the program I threw together to work as an initiative tracker.

Initiative Tracker App

Here is the app.

As usual, this is a simple Windows form app (someday I’m going to get around to learning to make web and mobile apps) that I solemnly promise is not going to do anything bad to your computer. Just put it in a directory and run it.

The Main tab is where most of the functions lie:

  • Once you’ve added characters, you can select them from the combo box and click Add to add them to the current initiative list.
  • Click New to add a new, default character to the current initiative list (and the combo box).
  • Click Remove to remove a character from the initiative list (it remains in the combo box to be added back later).
  • Select a character in the initiative list to see its stats in the text boxes underneath. You can change them and they’ll update on the fly (if you put something that’s not an integer in the non-name boxes, it will default to 0):
    • Name: The character name that will appear in the lists
    • Increase: The amount that will be added to the character’s initiative count after every turn that didn’t result in a second turn (i.e., initiative bonus)
    • Decrease: The amount that will be subtracted from the initiative total to determine if the character goes again
    • Current Init: The character’s current initiative total (overwrite this every combat if the players hand-roll their scores)
  • The Current Character label indicates which character is currently up once you’ve started combat (and stays the same even if you select another character for editing).
  • Click Next Character to move to the next character in the initiative order (and modify the scores of the last character to act). This replaces the Current Character label and selects the character in the list (so you can easily edit it if necessary). If no one has gone yet after starting a new encounter, this selects the first character in the initiative order.
  • Click New Encounter to reset the initiative count to the top of the order (and possibly reset current initiative scores based on Settings).

This doesn’t currently support delaying/holding actions. I’d suggest just moving on and remembering that the character has a floating ability to act; for a delay, you can hand overwrite the character’s current initiative).

The Settings tab allows you to change a few things:

  • Use the radio buttons to select what you want to have happen to everyone’s current initiative scores when you click New Encounter. By default, leaving them unchanged is selected. The first two options reset them to a generic value (either Increase or Increase + 10; the first option is for Beyond the Wall). The third option rolls a d20 and adds Increase (essentially a normal first-round initiative roll if you’re using Increase equal to init bonus).
  • Change the New Character defaults to whatever you want a new character to begin with when you click New on the Main tab.
  • Uncheck Modify Initiative on Advance to turn off all the fancy changing and use this as a normal cyclic initiative tracker.
  • Click Save All Characters to File to create “InitiativeTrackerCharacters.txt” in the same directory as your app executable. This writes all the characters currently in the combo box to the file, and the next time you open the app it will load them all back in from that file.

There isn’t currently an in-app way to delete characters. You can manually remove them by editing the text file.

Pathfinder: Ability Point-Based Supers

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Two unrelated things that became related in my brain:

  • It would be reasonable to model Captain America’s superpowers (from certain eras and writers) as just “human max attributes.” In D&D/Pathfinder, that’s 18s (or maybe 20s) in all six ability scores.
  • While I have my misgivings about the fungibility of the race features in the Advanced Race Guide*, I couldn’t help but notice that the point scales involved in race building seemed fairly similar to the points used to buy ability scores. In particular, I wondered if it would be fair to do something like allow a player to be an aasimar (a 15 point race) in a party of players handbook races (9-10 point races) in exchange for the aasimar PC having 5 fewer points for ability scores.

Those ideas gelling in my head, I did do some additional math and found out that, indeed, the race point balancing is relatively close to ability point balancing. To wit, if you made a PC with all 18s it would cost around 90 ability or race points (not counting the first 15 points that normal characters get); for race points, it’s using the +2 ability score bonus with no strings that increases in cost for each cumulative +2. The price is likewise similar (around 130) for all 20s. Since the math is close enough, let’s move on to the system below.

* In that my intuition and experience is that it leads to players ditching rarely used but interesting features for boring features they think they’ll use more

Point-Based Supers

You can turn Pathfinder into a supers system by just giving out bonus points that can be spent on ability scores or racial features. A character of around Captain America’s power level gets 100 or so points. Notably, these characters will be hella awesome for first level characters, but scale normally through character level (and mythic tiers, if you’re feeling particularly gonzo).

Character points can be spent in three major ways: enhanced ability scores, racial features, or spell-like abilities.

Ability Scores

While the normal point buy rules stop players from buying over 18, it’s easy to extend the costs indefinitely upward: the cost for each ability score increase is equal to the modifier for that score (e.g., it costs 5 points beyond the cost of 19 to get to 20, because 20 grants +5).

The extended chart is below:

Score Total CP Cost Score Total CP Cost
7 -4 22 37
8 -2 23 43
9 -1 24 50
10 0 25 57
11 1 26 65
12 2 27 73
13 3 28 82
14 5 29 91
15 7 30 101
16 10 31 111
17 13 32 122
18 17 33 133
19 21 34 145
20 26 35 157
21 31 36 170

So someone that had 100 points and went all in on an ability score could start with a 30 or better.

Racial Features

Most of the racial features from creating new races (p. 215 of the ARG or here) are probably viable for building heroic abilities. Hell, you need a pile of superhero points to afford to be a robot (sorry, “construct”).

Specifically, leave out the racial features that modify ability scores (use the point costs above) or grant one-off spell-like abilities (see below). Otherwise, anything the GM and player agree works for the character’s power concept should be fair game for the prices listed.

Spell-Like Abilities

The real bread-and-butter of making supers is the freedom to pick spells to use as spell-like abilities. Want to be a blaster? You can do worse than Scorching Ray. A teleporter? Dimension Door.

The costs in the ARG seem relatively cheap for this purpose, though: it makes more sense to sell players a second level spell per day for 2 points when they’re going to have less than a dozen points, but that’s a LOT of scorching rays if you have 100 points to spend.

So I suggest for this purpose you cost spell-likes as their level squared. So:

Spell Level CP Cost
1 1
2 4
3 9
4 16
5 25
6 36
7 49
8 64
9 81

You can also work out with the player how many uses are required for something to become an At Will spell-like ability, or an always-on supernatural ability. For attacks and other primarily-in-combat powers, I’d work out how many times I genuinely expect the player to use it in a day, and make it At Will once that many uses are purchased. For utility abilities, particularly long-duration ones, it may only take a few per day to become a self-only, always-on supernatural ability. Healing and other things that become really good out of combat with unlimited time should probably never become At Will.

Like racial spell likes, the caster level for these abilities is equal to total character level/hit dice, and the save DC is equal to 10 + spell level + the most relevant ability score modifier (but don’t let the player browbeat you into setting the save DC to the ability score he’s raised to a crazy high level if that doesn’t actually make sense).

And with all of that, you’ve hacked in superheroes. Either turn them loose on the normal fantasy classes and setting, or strip down the core classes to run something more traditional for supers.

D20: A Facing Hack


Facing is admittedly complicated. Third edition D&D removed it, and subsequent editions haven’t seemed to have cause to question that decision. Particularly in the already tactically dense 3e and 4e, tracking facing would be another complication on top of a bunch of other rules that could slow down play.

But Attacks of Opportunity, flanking, and the rules for the Stealth skill are also complicated. I’ve often wondered whether the complexity saved by removing facing really saved much effort after the rules that had to be put in to preserve some level of simulation.

So this is a small hack (mostly for 3.x/Pathfinder) to see whether the cheese can be moved a bit to try to make those other rules a little simpler to allow slightly complex facing rules, as follows:


facingDuring combat, each character is always considered to be facing in a particular direction. On a grid, the facing is always centered in the direction of one of the eight adjacent squares. The character’s total facing is essentially a cone covering the square in the center and the nearest two other adjacent squares (see diagram).

A character making a move action is normally considered to be facing in the direction of travel while moving. If a character wishes to specify facing from square to square while moving (e.g., to keep from turning her back on a target while moving away or past), the character moves at half speed for that move action.

While stationary, on her turn, a character may choose any facing desired (e.g., you can make an attack against a character on one side of you and then make your next attack against someone on the other side). A character must pick a final facing upon ending her turn.

A character may also change facing during any other character’s move action in order to center facing on the moving character (i.e., you can always turn to face someone who’s moving to keep them from moving around behind you). However, you can’t turn when another character takes a non-move action (so be careful if you turn to face a target when that target’s ally is already adjacent to you). You also must be aware of the other character to turn to face her (see Stealth, below).


You can generally only make an attack on a square within your facing (as noted, you can change facing at will on your turn).

Attacks against a target from squares not covered by that target’s facing count as flanking (gaining a +2 bonus and Sneak Attack). This applies whether or not there is another ally involved and works with melee or ranged attacks (do not turn your back on a rogue archer).

You may use an Immediate or Swift action to make a melee attack against anyone that is not facing you, if the attack would otherwise be legal. (This is why you might want to keep facing toward someone and back away: they can use their Immediate to hit you with a melee attack if you turn around completely to run, or just try to go past them.) (Note to GMs: Adjust Combat Reflexes and other sources of AoO as makes sense to you.)


You can use the Stealth skill as if you had concealment if none of your enemies have you within their facing. That is to say, a character using Stealth may use it to move from cover to cover if no enemy is facing in a way that covers her path, and may use Stealth to get behind a target and make a Sneak Attack, even while combat is ongoing.

Enemies that aren’t facing you still get to make a Perception check to become aware of you (and then may turn to face you as you move), but it is possible to make the Stealth check even if you’re out in the open. (It’s up to the GM whether some kind of special tricks are needed to regain the ability to Stealth after enemies become aware of the character the first time; this is mostly so that you can start the fight by sneaking up to make a Sneak Attack in a way that’s logical but is normally extremely complex to pull off in Pathfinder due to the lack of facing.)

Fantasy Timekeeping without the Sun

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A while ago, a friend was talking about running an Underdark-style campaign in a world of his own creation, and was stuck on how people would tell time and handle scheduling/logistics without the sun. The official Underdark uses various forms of magic for this purpose, and it was clear that he wanted something similar that made sense in his campaign. But I reached a different conclusion:

What if societies living underground didn’t actually keep careful track of time?

In the real world, humans deprived of time indicators will usually settle on a circadian rhythm of a little more than a day, but the exact amount varies from person to person. Fantasy races, particularly the long-lived elves and dwarves so common in stocking local underworlds, might have an even longer one. Deprived of an external conception of a day, does a dwarf sleep the same number of times as a human in a given lifespan, the dwarf’s days just longer?

From day to day, in pre-industrial societies, loose timekeeping by the sun has a lot to do with just making maximum use of the sunlight. You don’t want to be caught hunting far from the village when it gets dark, or fail to get vital chores done around the farm that you can’t do in the dark and which won’t keep until tomorrow. But if your fantasy underworld already supposes some form of chemical or magical artificial light, the actual time of “day” doesn’t make much difference to your ability to function.

Longer-form timekeeping is mostly for tracking the seasons, primarily for food production and preparing for winter. But, again, presumably whatever climate and food sources prevail underground don’t really vary that much over the course of a “year.” You only really care how long things take if you’re reliant on shipments from outside your locale, and I argue that you can just as easily judge those by consumption as on time (e.g., “We usually put in a new order for grain from the surfacers when the silos are about half empty, and it winds up showing up in time.”). Rules of thumb based on travel can also emerge (“The regional peddler usually has done three circuits through his territory by the time the grain shipment comes in, and he’s done four so it’s well late.”).

At the very least, a campaign predicated on fuzzy timekeeping would be an interesting head trip. GMs would have to revise their descriptive language. Instead of, “it takes you until noon to get to the ruins,” you say, “it takes you a little while to get there, and you’re starting to get hungry.” You have to track sleeps instead of days and distances traveled instead of hours. I suspect the feel of the campaign could become rather dreamlike, particularly in long journeys through the dark that take as long as they take.

It could also result in some interesting fodder for worldbuilding:

  • Chaotic societies are always awake. Each individual sleeps when his or her own circadian rhythm calls for it, resulting in a haphazard rotating schedule. Canny adventurers can wait for an opportunity when most of the guards happen to sync up their sleep and the fortress is understaffed.
  • Lawful societies are regimented by the ruler’s preferred rhythms, employing loud bells and civil employees to wake the populace with their leaders, and trying to regiment the day as best as possible. Without access to a true mechanical clock, however, it’s all guesswork leading to a layer of frustration and sleep deprivation among many.
  • Crafters, particularly high-end ones, will complete your item at some arbitrary point in the future but can’t give you any specifics. Dwarves are especially likely to zone out on a job: the item you ordered is twice as good as you expected, but showed up excessively long after you needed it.
  • Time varies drastically from region to region, even in lawful societies, as it’s hard to maintain any kind of regularity across distance. Passage from place to place is a strange dream where it’s never the time you expected when you return.

Ultimately, I think it would be an interesting experiment in making the Underdark feel truly alien to the surface world. You go beneath the world and lose time upon your return… not from any faerie magic, but just because of your own untrustworthy internal clock.

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