The Skip-Combat Dice

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I’ve subscribed to the Pathfinder Adventure Paths since the beginning, and run quite a few of them. One of the things I’ve come to dislike about the experience is the accountancy of combats involved in published modules of all stripes: especially since D&D 3.0 set forth the logic of shooting for four-to-five even-CR encounters per day and 13 such encounters to level, the traditional format of modules has been to pad the content with fights that aren’t particularly interesting. Sure, the module authors try to make them interesting, with all kinds of tricks, but at the end of the day there can only be so many encounters that are relevant to the story arc, and a bunch of things that are in the way.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if I were more willing to retune encounters to be a more interesting fit for my party, instead of speed bumps. Brandes does a lot of this kind of thing: his games feature fewer, more challenging fights. But, to me, the main virtue of purchasing an adventure path is that most of the crunchy work has been done for me, and if I’m going to adjust all the combats it’s not much of a stretch to just doing the whole thing myself.

A few years ago, a Bioware employee stirred up a controversy about her suggestion that story-focused players in CRPGs be able to skip combat as easily as combat-focused players skip through conversations. At the risk of creating the same flavor of offense, I think this kind of thing could work in D&D as easily as in a CRPG. I’ve actually made a stab at something similar before, aimed more at trash encounters, but it’s not exactly a total solution. This week’s system is simpler and thus easier to remember, but more encompassing. It steps away from trying to convert to resources directly, using modifiers that are optional to convert back into D&D stats.

Because, in general, this is for skipping combat all the time. The vast majority of module fights are foregone conclusions, designed to eat up time at the table and amuse a group that wants to shift between roleplay and tactical skirmish wargame. But my theory is that an adventure path could spend way more time on the things I and many of my players like—roleplay, strategy, and investigation—if combats, possibly all combats, were skippable in a way that seems fair.

Core System

Each player character can be in one of four states:

  • Rested: This is the beginning state, and the state to which most PCs return after plenty of rest. It represents a character with full heath, spells, and abilities.
  • Spent: This state indicates that the character has spent a significant portion of resources, in an abstract way. For a spellcaster or other character type with a lot of per-rest abilities, it indicates most of them have been used. For martial characters, it may actually indicate that health is starting to dwindle and the party’s healers are running low on healing. For certain encounters, it may indicate longer-term negative conditions.
  • Injured: By this point, the character has expended almost all rest-renewable options, and is getting low on health with no easy way to get it back.
  • Incapacitated: A character in this state is out of health or otherwise taken out. In a truly dire fight where the stakes were announced beforehand, the character might be dead.

For each combat, each player rolls a single Fudge/Fate die, and the party totals the results and adds it to their party level (e.g., if you’re 6th level and roll a net +2 on all the dice, you count as 8th level):

  • If the result is equal or greater than the encounter level, the party triumphed with no particular issues and only negligible expenditure of resources (these are the fights where everyone wins initiative and nukes the monster before it even gets to go, barely even using any spells).
  • If the result is less than the encounter level, the difference is resource drain, as described below.

If the fight used up resources:

  • In order of the players whose dice rolled lowest, assess a -1 to the state counter. Do this for one player per point of the difference. For example, if you had a -3 to the encounter level, three PCs expend resources, starting with the ones that rolled -1 (or the ones that rolled 0, if somehow nobody rolled negatives and it still went against you). For ties on the dice, impact the least injured characters first (e.g., if two players rolled -1 and only one needs to expend resources, the one that’s Rested will take the hit if the other one was Spent).
  • If the number is greater than the party size, wrap back around until it’s used up.

The GM, with input from the players, then narrates the results of the fight. If it went very well, describe a flawless victory with the players that rolled +1 doing particularly awesome things and the ones that rolled -1s squeaking by as their mistakes didn’t cost the party. For results of -1 to -4 total, describe a more brutal fight, with the players that lost resources getting the worse end of things and players that rolled +1 doing useful things that swung the fight their way. For results of -5 or worse, it might have actually been a loss, with the GM describing how the PCs had to cut and run to escape foes too mighty for them (this is the “it’s only 10 levels above us and we’re rested, the worst that could happen is a couple of us get incapacitated, but we still win” rule; mild negatives are usually a win, but this isn’t an excuse to take stupid risks).

Each character typically recovers by one state level when resting overnight.

Additional Options

If you want to model how much an extra PC or two helps out in modules tuned for four-member parties, ignore one -1 on the dice for each additional party member past four. For example, with five members a -1 -1 0 0 +1 result is read as a 0 instead of a -1 total, but a 0 0 0 +1 +1 is still just a +2.

If you want to create more of a death spiral, assess the following penalties at reduced states:

  • Spent: A rolled 0 counts as a -1.
  • Injured: A rolled +1 counts as a 0 (and the effects of Spent).
  • Incapacitated: Automatically contribute a -1 (don’t roll).

To simulate consumable magic items helping a fight, grant items that can be discharged or consumed to allow rerolls/best-of-two (for an individual player or the whole party) or flat out additional pluses to the party effective level.

To encourage strategic play, grant similar bonuses to magic items for advanced preparation that would make a big difference in the fight if you were actually to play it out.

Math Notes

I haven’t done a deep model of the stats on this, but my simple “lots of random results in a spreadsheet” check indicates that this should work fairly close to the four-to-five encounter math, particularly if you assess penalties for worse states. In particular, what should happen is that (assuming mostly even-level fights) there will be a couple of fights that cause no problems whatsoever, a couple with mild resource drain, and maybe one with a larger hit. After a few fights, even if only a couple of members of the party are Spent, they should start weighing the risk of the next fight rolling low enough to knock someone to Injured (which requires another day to recover), and thinking about camping. In situations where you’ve engineered time pressure, it should make the players very nervous about fighting things they don’t need to fight, and whether they should plow deeper into the state tracker to go ahead and get things done.

And, note again, this is all very abstract. I don’t expect you to try to model this back out to the standard trait system. In fact, it’s possible that you could do this whole thing with extremely minimalist stats that gloss the D&D/Pathfinder tropes (“I am a level X Y of race Z”) without needing to fiddle with the math. Obviously, there are a lot of people for whom fiddling with the math is a huge part of the fun, but this isn’t really for them… all of D&D is normally for them.

Beyond the Wall: Ally Playbook

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Based on last week’s notes, this week it’s a playbook (similar to PC playbooks in provided stats and skills) that allows allies to transition from null-stat hirelings to fully fleshed out characters that could serve as replacement PCs if the existing PCs die. Apply these stat improvements when it’s appropriate to answer the questions (i.e., one per adventure completion with the party).

What are your native talents?

Pick two ability scores to start at 10, the rest start at 8.

What happened the first adventure after you became an ally?

  • You had to flee and/or get help. +2 Str, +1 Dex, +1 Con, Skill: Athletics or Riding
  • You had to help scout/stay on guard duty. +2 Dex, +1 Con, +1 Wis, Skill: Alertness or Stealth
  • You were deep in hostile wilderness. +2 Int, +1 Wis, +1 Con, Skill: Animal Lore or Survival
  • You mostly got to stay out of danger and help with the food. +2 Cha, +1 Wis, +1 Con, Skill: Cooking or Hunting
  • You had to help with the injured or sick. +2 Con, +1 Wis, +1 Str, Skill: Healing or Herbalism
  • You helped with terrifying ancient mysteries. +2 Int, +1 Str, +1 Cha, Skill: Ancient History or Forbidden Lore
  • You got deeply embroiled with the fae or other strange creatures. +2 Cha, +1 Dex, +1 Int, Skill: Faerie Lore or Folklore
  • You were involved in mystical or philosophical weirdness. +2 Wis, +1 Str, +1 Dex, Skill: Magic Lore or Religious Lore
  • You had to be on your best behavior among polite society. +2 Wis, +1 Int, +1 Cha, Skill: Etiquette or Politics

After your second adventure as an ally, what’s your favorite part of adventuring so far?

  • The fights! +2 Str, +1 Wis
  • Games and riddles. +2 Dex, +1 Int
  • Proving your toughness. +2 Con, +1 Cha
  • Learning lore and secrets. +2 Int, +1 Dex
  • Learning about strange new folks. +2 Wis, +1 Con
  • Making new friends. +2 Cha, +1 Str
  • Being generally helpful and needed. +1 Str, +1 Con, +1 Cha
  • Learning a little from everyone. +1 Dex, +1 Int, +1 Wis

Now that you’ve been on three adventures as an ally, which of the party members do you look up to the most?

  • The strongest warrior in the party. +2 Str, +1 Cha
  • The most nimble scout in the party. +2 Dex, +1 Wis
  • The most stalwart protector in the party. +2 Con, +1 Int
  • The smartest and cleverest person in the party. +2 Int, +1 Dex
  • The most patient and considerate person in the party. +2 Wis, +1 Str
  • The one that you have a crush on. +2 Cha, +1 Con
  • The one that’s lost without your help. +1 Str, +1 Int, +1 Cha
  • The one that doesn’t need you, but lets you help anyway. +1 Dex, +1 Con, +1 Wis

After four adventures as an ally, the party is clearly starting to expect you to fill a role. What do you see your purpose in the party as?

  • The muscle, standing firm on the front lines. +2 Str, +1 Con, Skill: Athletics or Intimidation
  • The scout, hanging back and looking for opportunities. +2 Dex, +1 Wis, Skill: Alertness or Stealth
  • The protector, taking hits so the weaker ones don’t have to. +2 Con, +1 Cha, Skill: Riding or Survival
  • The brains, knowing details and secrets. +2 Int, +1 Dex, Skill: [Any Lore]
  • The heart, keeping track of and coordinating the party. +2 Wis, +1 Str, Skill: Healing or Socialize
  • The soul, keeping everyone happy and helping with outsiders. +2 Cha, +1 Int, Skill: [Any Social]

After five adventures as an ally, some of your negative tendencies are starting to become apparent. What’s your biggest problem?

  • I’m lazy, and don’t like to do my fair share. -1 Str, +2 Dex, +1 Int
  • My clumsiness tends to get us all in trouble. -1 Dex, +2 Con, +1 Cha
  • I keep getting sick and injured. -1 Con, +2 Cha, +1 Dex
  • I can’t remember all the things I should have learned. -1 Int, +2 Wis, +1 Str
  • I just don’t pay much attention and break things. -1 Wis, +2 Str, +1 Con
  • I’m secretive and distrustful. -1 Cha, +2 Int, +1 Wis

After six adventures as an ally, you’re starting to seamlessly blend with the hero that serves as your leader, learning from her example and shoring up her weaknesses.

Add +2 to the ability that your leader has lowest, and add either +1 to the ability your leader has highest or add the skill your leader uses the most.

After seven adventures as an ally, you’ve learned almost as much as you can in a subordinate role and are getting ready to strike out on your own.

Add +1 to your highest ability and +1 to your lowest ability.

Example Hirelings

The following were the blurbs I presented to my players as their starting local options for hirelings.

Mages

  • The Ostra-Goth (Witch): A weird guy in his late twenties that likes to wear all black and who doesn’t have many friends. He badgered the Witch for some training a few years ago, but she quickly got tired of him. He has the Hexing cantrip, the Call the Swarm spell, and no rituals.
  • The Chamber Maid (Order): A teen serving girl at the manor who was around the room a lot when the Apprentice Court Sorcerer was being taught by the Court Sorcerer, and seems to have picked up a few things. She has the Second Sight cantrip, the Abjuration spell, and the Sorcerer’s Steed ritual.
  • The Fae-Struck Boy (Fae): A touched young man in his late teens that barely responds to stimuli but is mostly biddable, he’s been like this ever since he wandered out of town as a child. Many think he was bewitched by the fae, as he has strange powers. He has the Glamour Weaving cantrip, the Obscurement spell, and no rituals.
  • The Imperial Novice (New Sun): An overly-cheerful young Imperial girl who came to town with the imperial priest and serves as his altar girl and gofer. She doesn’t seem to have any understanding of why people are so distrustful of her. She has the Blessing cantrip, the Inspiration and Word of Courage spells, and no rituals.
  • Horse Girl (Witch): This girl LOVES HORSES. She is really, really annoying about it. The innkeepers started paying her a small wage because they couldn’t stop her from helping out in the inn’s stables. She’s picked up some things from doggedly following the Assistant Beast Keeper on her rounds with the Witch’s menagerie. She has the Beast Ken cantrip, the Wild Call spell, and no rituals.
  • Mr. Helpful (Pagan): This guy is possibly in his forties. He has a polite smile for people, helps them get to their homes at night, and is just on the good side of being creepy about it. Most suspect he worships some weird old god of hospitality. He has the Mage Light cantrip, the Phantom Skill spell, and the Goodberry ritual.

Fighters

  • The Huntress: A woman in her thirties, she’s remained happily unmarried and spends her time out with the other hunters. The villagers joke that she’s married to her bow. She’s specialized in longbow and has the Great Strike knack.
  • Sword Guy: He’s slender, getting older, he’s not nearly as sexy as he thinks, and, yes, he does a weird dance where he balances his sword on various body parts to try to impress people. He’s specialized in longsword and has the Defensive Fighter knack.
  • The Ol’ Battleaxe: She probably shouldn’t have gotten married to a guy that thinks he’s as funny as her husband does, because the kind of woman that works as a woodcutter has a particular nickname that’s appropriate. She’s specialized in greataxe and has the Resilience knack.
  • Big Mouth: Big guy, big mouth, won’t shut up about how much he’s going to kick your ass, never really does, has about the reputation you’d expect because of it. Nice enough guy, when he’s not drinking. He’s specialized in battle axe and has the Great Strike knack.
  • That Weird Flippy Kicky Girl: She’s your age, just kind of washed up in Heimbach with traders a few years ago, barely seems to speak the local language or any other anyone knows, and wakes up every morning at dawn to practice her martial arts forms. She’s specialized in unarmed combat (and seems to have the Unarmed Combat trait) and has the Fleet knack.
  • Infantry!: He’s been in the wars, man. He won’t stop telling people about it. And they’re like, yeah, man, a lot of people have seen war, what makes you so special? And he’s all, I was part of an elite polearm fighting team, man, you wouldn’t understand the camaraderie of the training. He’s specialized in halberd and has the Defensive Fighter knack.

Rogues

  • Comrade Stinky: This guy has an imperial accent, lives like a hermit out in the woods, and doesn’t bathe, but seems to know what he’s about. He has the Animal Lore and Survival skills.
  • The Gumshoe: This young teen is an extremely middle child, and Nancy Drews her way around the village solving “mysteries” and would love to go solve a real one. She has the Alertness and Investigation skills.
  • The Freerun Artist: Heimbach has just enough architecture that some kid was going to invent Parkour, to the great chagrin of business owners across town. He has the Athletics and Stealth skills.
  • The Oldest Professional: Sliding gracefully into middle age, but cognizant that her future employment prospects are waning, she might be amenable to some adventuring to try to lay in a nest egg for her retirement. She has the Pickpocketing and Seduction skills.
  • Major Bored-o: One of the heralds at the manor is pushing thirty and has heard about a lot of great people, but seems to wonder if there’s something more than this provincial life. He has the Ancient History and Etiquette skills.
  • Ms. Science!: One of the town’s schoolteachers is a whip-smart young woman in her early twenties that has learned some surprising things about machinery through unknown methods of experimentation. She has the Engineering and Trapping skills.

Beyond the Wall: Expanded Hireling and Ally Rules

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After five total sessions (three of which were spent miraculously avoiding harm and two of which they got cocky and got seriously injured both times), my Beyond the Wall players have finally begun to look into embracing the old school ethos of bringing along hirelings. So I finally really looked at the rules for them, and realized they were a little too vague for my liking. Thus, I proceeded to create the following house rules, which should be pretty compatible with the existing material.

Hirelings

While your player characters represent some of the most dynamic youths in your town, there are others that don’t have your lust for adventure but might be persuaded to help out for cold, hard coin. Given time, they might become secure in the lifestyle, and more interested in the long term, revealing their own talents.

Recruiting Hirelings

Your home town and other settlements will have a selection of individuals that can potentially be recruited to adventure with you (see Hireling Growth, below). In order to recruit a hireling, you must make a Charisma check with a penalty equal to the number of hirelings and allies that are known to have died or gone missing on your adventures (for you personally) and a bonus equal to the number of hirelings known to have been promoted to allies (for you personally). (This known status is obviously a touchy subject; if you eventually make it impossible to recruit hirelings at home, be very careful how much information reaches the distant towns you try to recruit at.)

For example, if two of your allies and four of your hirelings have died during your adventures, and you have two allies left, you probably have a net -2 to your attempts to recruit new hirelings (-6 for deaths, +4 for allies).

Failing to recruit a hireling marks that one as unavailable until you level up or do something else impressive for the hireling’s town that changes his or her opinion of you, and that hireling will be unwilling to go with the group for this adventure (even if another hero attempts recruitment). Getting just the highly Charismatic heroes to attempt recruitment has its own problems: that individual must manage all the hirelings attached to her, and is on the hook if they die.

You can technically have an unlimited number of followers at any one time.

Hireling Management

Hirelings deduct a half share of XP from the party for each hireling, but do not actually accrue XP (e.g., if you have five PCs and two hirelings, group XP awards are divided by six).

Hirelings generally expect a half-silver (five copper) per day per character level for non-dangerous days, and double that on each day they were in physical danger (e.g., a day with a fight, every day in the Hedge, etc.). They also expect a 20-silver-per-level death benefit paid to their families if they don’t return from an adventure, in addition to their monies owed. For example, if you spend 10 days in the Hedge with a second level hireling, and that hireling dies, you owe 50 silver to his family on your return.

Hirelings will generally try to hang back in a fight, and minimize their risk of actually getting attacked. They often prefer to use ranged attacks, and, particularly for melee fighters, to not engage until the second round of the fight once enemies have started beating on someone else. Getting them to take greater risks requires their manager to make a Charisma (Command) check, with penalties based on how risky the action seems. If the party starts taking serious injuries, managers must also make Charisma (Command) checks to keep their hirelings from having morale failures and fleeing.

Hireling Traits

Hirelings are treated as if they have perfectly generic ability scores, either through actually being mediocre or just through not putting in that much effort. They make most ability tests/skill checks at 10 (though rogues generally will have at least two skills defined). They do not gain ability bonuses or penalties to combat stats.

Hirelings have average HP for their levels, rounded down, like monsters do.

Hirelings rarely have particularly good gear or training:

  • Fighters generally have leather armor and either a two-handed weapon or a one-handed weapon and simple shield (d10 damage and 12 AC or d8 damage and 13 AC). They represent people in town with more athleticism than cleverness.
  • Rogues generally have a good weapon or leather armor, but rarely both, and track their Fortune’s Favor as an AC bonus (d8 damage and 12 AC or d6 damage and 14 AC). They represent people in town with more cleverness than athletic potential.
  • Mages generally have a fractional complement of spells and rituals, a minor weapon, and no armor (0-2 spells, 0-1 rituals, d4 damage, 10 AC). They represent people in town that seemed like promising apprentices to the local mages, but who were rejected for being ill-suited before they learned much. They can attempt to learn new spells and rituals from available books (testing as if they had a score of 10, for a 50/50 shot of learning most spells and rituals).

Hirelings gain their class abilities, hit die, base attack, and saving throws. They do not have Fortune Points.

Hireling Growth

Before their first adventures, hirelings generally just have a nickname and short descriptive blurb. You don’t particularly care about their names, and they likely won’t tell you much about their backstory.

After surviving his or her first adventure, you generally learn a bit more of a sketch about the hireling’s backstory and talents (and additional skills may become apparent).

After surviving his or her second adventure, you generally learn a hireling’s name and may choose to promote him or her to an ally (for the hero that has been serving as manager most often).

Allies

Allies are either hirelings that you’ve bonded with enough to learn their names and general personality, or named NPCs you meet in the world and form a bond with.

Recruiting Allies

You may have a number of allies equal to four plus your Charisma modifier. This represents total allies you’re maintaining ongoing relationships with, not just allies on the current adventure. If you want to replace an ally without him or her dying, you either have to figure out a way to trade with another hero or allow that ally to return to counting as a hireling (which may reset that ally’s growth if later returned to ally status). Allies are generally available to go on adventures as needed, and may not count against your total if they are often doing their own things.

Ally Management

Allies continue to deduct a half share of XP, but actually gain it and can level up.

Allies expect the same pay rate as hirelings, though may be willing to negotiate for a share of potential treasure instead based on their experience with how much the party has earned in the past. They generally expect any of their gear upgrades to be provided by the party, rather than out of their own income.

Allies are generally much more willing than hirelings to put themselves in danger for the party, but still may require a Charisma (Command) check to get them to do something very dangerous or to maintain their morale.

Ally Traits

Allies have tracked ability scores (see below) and calculate their HP in the same way as player characters.

They can have and use better gear (if the party provides it, see above).

They do not track Fortune Points, but can fortune bond magic items if provided and can mirror their manager’s use of Fortune Points on the same turn, if appropriate. Rogues continue to reflect their Fortune’s Favor class ability as +2 AC.

Ally Growth

Allies slowly gain ability scores over the course of several adventures, until they are similar in power to heroes. They may do this ad hoc, or through an ally playbook (see next week’s post).