Pathways Fantasy World Creation

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This is kind of the opposite of my previous Pathways World Creation idea: rather than making characters first and the world to suit, this is an experiment in doing pathways creation without player characters involved. See the linked Smallville tag on this post for more information about doing Pathways creation, if you haven’t played Smallville or previously read my other posts on this topic.

As usual, start with a big blank sheet of paper for drawing nodes and connecting lines. Unlike usual, do not add the player characters to the map initially (you’re developing a world for the players to eventually create characters to fit). The goal of this is ultimately to create a world-first setting, where the player characters aren’t necessarily attached to anything from the start, but to still give the players buy-in to all the primary elements.

For every step in this process, I’d advise that the GM should be treated as a player (i.e., getting to add and connect things at least as often as the players do). Traditionally, the GM does not participate in the Pathways process, but that process is often in a framework of a greater setting that the GM has already bought into. Since this is generating so much about the world, giving the GM the ability to poke at the process to highlight ideas he or she likes makes it easier to roll with the game indefinitely.

Step 0: Theme and Conflict

This step is special: it may be done normally, with the players going around the table, or may be entirely pre-seeded by the GM to get some initial core input into the important elements of the world (i.e., this is set up so, if the GM already has some seed ideas for the campaign, it’s possible to just put them as the core for the whole framework).

  • Add a short theme (triangle) to the map. This should ideally be a single word, and certainly not more than a very short sentence: it will gain more definition as other elements link to it.
  • Add an antagonist (hexagon) or macguffin (pentagon) to the map. This should be a short but evocative name; the actual details of it will be generated from linking to other elements.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.

Step 1: Peoples and Places

  • Add a location (box) to the map. This should be a whole country or region. As usual, give it an evocative, short name, and allow details to come out from connections.
  • Add a race (double-ringed circle) to the map. The GM may veto any races from the rules that he or she doesn’t want to deal with, but this is otherwise a way to say that that race is important to the setting in some way. If your game system doesn’t have mechanical races, give a short, evocative name for a culture instead.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to a location or race and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from a location or race to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.
  • Draw an arrow from a race to a location and give it one of three types of label: “homeland” (where the race is from), “Stronghold” (the race is politically dominant in that location), or a negative label (such as the race being banned, enslaved, or otherwise mistreated in that location). These can double or even triple-up if it makes sense logically (e.g., the elves are politically dominant in their own homeland, but are also widely feared by all other races in that land).

Step 2: Politics

  • Add an NPC (circle) to the map. This should be someone very politically important to the setting, but not directly villainous (that would be an antagonist). As usual, give the NPC a short evocative name and wait for details to fall out of connections.
  • Add an organization (star or double-ringed pentagon) to the map. This will become a politically important secret society, knightly order, wizard cabal, thieves’ guild, etc. As usual, a short, evocative name is important.
  • Draw an arrow from an NPC to an antagonist or macguffin and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to an organization and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from an NPC or organization to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.

Step 3: Further Linkages

  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element that is not currently connected to a theme to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb. (If all elements are tied to a theme, tie one to a second theme.)
  • Draw an arrow from whichever (non-theme) element currently has the least connections to any other element, and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element to any other element and define the relationship.

Step 4: Secondary Elements

  • Add your choice of another one of the following: antagonist, macguffin, location, race, NPC, or organization.
  • Draw an arrow from any element with no connections to any other element (except themes), and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any element (that is not currently connected to a theme) to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.
  • Draw an arrow from whichever (non-theme) element currently has the least connections to any other element, and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element to any other element and define the relationship.

If your map is still sparse for your group’s tastes, repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’re satisfied with the map.

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 3)

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Apparently, I had a lot more to say on this topic than I thought, and it’s taken me until the third post to get to the item list that was the core of why I started writing this series in the first place. So without further ado…

Types of Items for Sale

Trinkets

Not every vendor in the market has epic items that will change your life forever. Probably the majority of them are a lot like their mortal counterparts: selling the everyday things that visitors to the market might need. Depending on the weirdness of the average customer, this could vary from goods that wouldn’t be out of place at any mortal market to items that have similar functions but alien appearances. Mostly, for mortal visitors, this winds up basically being tchotchkes: the kind of slightly unusual token you bring back to show your neighbors that you’ve seen wonders they couldn’t even imagine.

They might even accept your own coin or unusual goods for trade, letting you dip your toe in the market without bartering anything you aren’t prepared to part with.

Snacks and Merriment

It wouldn’t be a fair without delicious food, drink, and revelry to part you from your coin. As mentioned previously, they’re probably not glamoured fruits that will make you sick to death or tricks that keep you from ever leaving faerieland. At least the reputable vendors don’t sell that kind of thing. But the foods are delicious, empty calories, often spun into daring shapes that can’t be accomplished in human ovens with mortal gravity, and the entertainments are… extremely memorable.

Many of them are even touched with magic and might give you a small bonus to something relevant for an hour or two.

Exotic Goods

Beside the trinket vendors are the merchants with the things that are truly beyond what you can get in the mortal world. They sell bolts of cloth or fully-tailored clothing better than anything you’ve ever felt, metals that mortal metallurgists wouldn’t believe could exist, gems made of captured light, and chemicals that would make a mortal alchemist or baker weep at the possibilities.

Many of these things don’t last long outside of the market, falling apart under coarse mortal hands or turning into leaves with the dawn. If you can keep them up, the maintenance requires care and/or magic almost (almost) beyond what it’s worth. But they still might be useful for as long as they last, particularly if you’ve been invited to an event and aren’t properly attired.

Some of them might last, of course, if it suits the whimsy of the GM for them to persist. In particular, raw materials might survive into the mortal world… what better way to vex mortal crafters that try and fail to work them?

Secrets

If you need to know a particularly useful and hidden bit of lore, the market is the place to ask around. As noted previously, information at the market changes hands like physical goods: you’re paying not just to know something, but to be the holder of an exclusive (or, at least, extremely limited) piece of data. You can get weaknesses of your enemies, quest hooks, lost histories, and even spells from the right vendor for the right price.

Of course, the fact that you were asking around for these things is strangely free of the limited nature of secrets… the fae might gossip about your desires to almost anyone. That might particularly include someone who desperately wanted to know a secret that you now exclusively own.

Enchantment Shifting

To mortals, “permanent” magic is static, but, to many of the fae, it’s much more fluid. Have a curse you need taken off of you? Have a magic weapon that’s not your specialized type? There may be someone that can help you move that enchantment to a home more to your liking.

Magic as Commodity

The standard consumables are just the start for the types of magic you can buy at the market. Virtually any spell could find a home in a crafted good: to the fae, it’s not enchantment, just their own particular brand of handiwork. As noted previously, these should often be much easier to get than the rules expect, because of the spoilage factor.

Memories and Talents

Of course, the core currency of the market can also be an end in itself. Need to boost an ability or skill? Someone else may have paid in the right qualities that a merchant could distill the draught for you.

These bonuses should range from the slight to the overwhelming, and from the momentary to the permanent. Maybe you only need the memories of a genius or the muscles of a troll for a moment to solve a problem, or maybe you’d like a slighter bonus for longer. The pricing for this should probably start similar to a potion that boosts an ability for a short period, adjusted for magnitude and duration, and discounted for drawbacks.

In addition to the normal drawback of spoilage, the hidden drawback of this kind of thing is the danger of taking in someone else’s identity.

Mental ability scores and skills tend to come from a constellation of memories and emotions, not all of them healthy. Is it worth it to be smart, if you suddenly have a genius’ pedantry and arrogance? Is it worth it to be incredibly charismatic and artistic, if you are suddenly wracked with depression engendered by a long-lost muse?

Physical ability scores and skills can be even more troubling, drifting into the realm of body horror. The muscles of a troll may come with many of the troll’s other physical characteristics. And sometimes the stories of being turned into frogs are just an offended merchant selling a particular distillation of a potion of agility…

Teaching a Mortal to Fish

Perhaps the most efficient purchase you can make, if you’re mystically inclined, are the secrets used to build containers and fill them with currency. With sufficient dedication, you can spend the weeks until the next fair gathering dross from your own home town out of dreams, emotions, and secrets no one will even miss, and save up for something at no cost to your own identity. For the patient and industrious, it’s the best investment you could make.

Of course, some people say that many fae were once mortal practitioners with a greed for faerie things and the right start down the slippery slope…

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 2)

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Last week, I talked about the overall themes and possibility space of market items, and this week I’ll delve more into mechanics.

The Economy of the Market

While it may move away from keeping the workings of the market seeming totally alien, it does help to have some kind of rational economic basis in your head as a GM. The fae merchants absolutely haggle, and some things may be arbitrarily expensive or cheap as a way of modeling alien values, but this is theoretically still a place where fae merchants do what mortal merchants do: sell items for a price that covers their expenses plus profits. Thus, having some kind of math in the background gains in verisimilitude what it loses in inscrutability. You don’t want the players getting pissed off that everything happens to cost either a negligible amount or slightly more than the most they intended to pay. Sometimes, they should just be able to buy the thing with the items of currency they’ve collected.

These items of currency are what I find interesting. This is another area where I feel like more of a mechanic provides a big gain in verisimilitude. If even the least fae merchant can, at a whim, transform core pieces of a person into coin, why are they wasting their time doing so with peasants rather than kings? Instead, I postulate the following (tweak for the nature of the fae and mechanics in your own campaign):

  • Many fae, and some mortals, can learn various tricks to see and touch the stuff of mortal identity: your dreams are real to them, your secrets have a presence, and your personal traits linger like a cloud around you flickering with signifiers. This can give them an uncanny insight into your nature, for the things you believe are hidden within the darkness of your skull are plain to see for those that know how to interpret them. More importantly, with the right tools and right circumstances, seeing someone’s trappings is just the first step of taking them.
  • These tools are made through ritual and expense, from rare material and great skill. The least fae can weave webs to hold nightmares, prepare flasks to decant lesser memories, and bake a juicy secret into a pie. Stronger fae can make much more potent containers, which can hold trappings of much greater value. And even the least fae can fill a container given by a greater crafter.

Ultimately, I divide the currency of the fae into two rough categories:

  • Dross items have purchasing power similar to a gold piece or two (or silver for games like Beyond the Wall that have more conservative adventuring economies): each one was basically a day’s work for a lesser fae to craft and fill with a trapping. They can only hold the most minor of signifiers: stolen nightmares, captured applause, the least of secrets, and pieces of your competency easily given and hardly missed. They’re the pennies of the fae world, used for small purchases and sweetening a deal, but it’s somewhat gauche to try to make a big purchase with a lot of them.
  • Unique items were made with much more expensive and time-consuming rituals to hold trappings of real significance. Each has its own story, and, once filled, mutates from its original raw form into something fitting the significant piece of identity stored inside. Each has a base value that may change based on whether the alien needs of a particular fae values that trapping for some inscrutable purpose beyond use as a currency. After all, these things aren’t just a fun version of coin: they have value because some faerie, somewhere, has a real use for them. And if you want them back, you’d best find them before they reach their final buyer.

What this means is that lesser fae probably can’t buy your youth, your health, your love’s affection, or any other things of real value to you, unless they’re shiftily working as a front-fae for a much more powerful buyer that wishes to remain unnamed. Once you start asking what of yourself you can give up for that extremely pricey item, many fae merchants may have to direct you to a more powerful trader who has the requisite container to bottle what you’re selling.

This should really give you some time to rethink the trade you’re trying to make.

Another thing to keep in mind about the fae economy is that it has its own peculiar form of DRM: mortals are used to information being easily copied, so might think nothing of sharing a secret or a memory. Most of the time, though, this is an exclusive deal: if you trade in information, you no longer have it yourself. The lesser fae make a point of only trading for data you haven’t “backed up” by sharing with someone else, so when you forget it you can’t easily get it back. The more powerful traders can absorb information from everywhere else it exists, be it minds or writing, as long as it was actually yours to trade.

So how much can you actually get by shaving off pieces of your character’s identity?

As a core rule, trades should be inherently lossy: the merchant has to pay for market overhead and ritual components, at least. Even with the best haggling roll, if you think you’re getting an even swap (say, two points of one ability score for two points of another), you’re probably missing something. It’s more likely that even the best deals will leave you over 20% in the hole when comparing apples-to-apples (e.g., trade five points of ability scores for four).

Dross should be pretty easy to come by, and only start to have major effects if the characters try to create a lot of it from their identities in a very short period. The market’s no fun if you have to worry about the long-term negative effects of minor trades. By all means be very descriptive about the lost memories, emotions, and other personal qualities spun into dross, but they probably shouldn’t have any real, long-term mechanical effect on the character (perhaps some small penalties in the short term).

Unique items, however, should quickly transition into dear purchases. Brandes is hesitant to assess permanent ability score penalties, but I think they’re on the table as long as the currency you buy with them can be used to get something whose utility closely balances the regret at permanent lost character potency (possibly just through being something otherwise unavailable through prescribed system means). In 5e or other games with systematized personality traits/aspects, those are also good to spend. Skills/skill points can go as well. Secrets are good to use if they have real in-campaign utility (e.g., the secret way into your stronghold, your own true name or that of a powerful entity, etc.). Spellcasters can give up learned spells.

And, of course, “permanent” may be relative. Most of the boosts you can buy in the market are fleeting, so actual mechanical stat penalties may last just long enough to be super annoying and then gradually recover (as you make new memories/accrue replacement identity signifiers).

Like with the nature of items, the nature of fae currency is figuring out how to get player characters to do something the characters might regret forever, but which doesn’t actually permanently ruin the players’ fun. A lot of it will come down to your own players’ tolerances for roleplayed misery.

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 1)

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My Beyond the Wall players, as mentioned in a prior post, finally decided they had enough of a handle on the campaign world to go into the Hedge searching for the market they’d learned of from a pack of defeated goblins. Their treasure from that encounter was a chest of stolen nightmares: clearly only the kind of thing human adventurers are going to get much use out of if they can find the place where commerce of that type happens. This meant I needed to think out exactly how I wanted the goblin market (really more of a faerie market in general) to work.

I’d done some improvisation on this score using Don’t Rest Your Head’s bazaar, which functions quite similarly. But what works for an extremely rules-light game doesn’t work as well for games like D&D that have a lot of assumptions built into player access to items and magic. Brandes has articles on goblin markets in general and ideas for what to find there, and you should read both of those articles before this one to be working from the same playbook I am as to what I still felt like I needed to create.

Themes of a Faerie Market

While I typically prefer the term “Goblin Market,” the poem with which that term is most linked is not exactly what I’m talking about (though well could be the pastime of the less savory merchants when they’re not at the big show). I tend to think more of the markets of Stardust and Hellboy II: massive gatherings of strange merchants with exotic wares, where you might wind up paying in coin you didn’t know you possessed.

In this kind of market, there can certainly be the wicked danger proposed by the poem, if your game wants to emphasize the Victorian morality involved. But I think you’ll often get more out of it by playing a bit more fairly with the players: purchases aren’t an inherently bad idea, but can still be extremely risky if you don’t know what you’re getting or spending. This is a fully functioning economy, just using rules that may defy the PCs’ intuitions from more mundane markets.

For my own purposes, I think the major themes to keep in mind when running such a place are wonder, consequences, and identity.

  • Wonder: At its core, visiting such a market is an opportunity to inject wonder into a game. Beings normally only encountered in frightening combats, legends, and as historical remnants are packed into a small space and going about their own personal shopping trips. You get to see them up close and may not even have to fight them. They may trade with you. This may be your best opportunity to gain information from primary sources, if you can ask the right questions. And it may be your opportunity to piss off a huge swath of powerful entities all at once, if you’re not careful.
  • Consequences: While the market may not inevitably be that of Rosetti’s goblins, tricking you into trading that which is most important for pretty poison, such an outcome is not off the table. Some merchants will outright try to cheat you, and even the “honest” ones are happy to take advantage of your ignorance to get a better deal for themselves. In particular, if you are rude or brash, you are unlikely to profit. If it looks like you got an excellent deal, far better than what you expected, there are probably hidden consequences. And, with a handshake bargain, there’s not even any fine print to read.
  • Identity: One of the classic things the market trades in is trappings of identity. You can pay with memories, beauty, youth, vigor, secrets, and many other types of coin that you didn’t even know were available to spend. The consequences are usually smaller but more obvious than a classic devil’s bargain for your soul: you get to spend the rest of your life understanding something about yourself that you didn’t realize was essential until it was gone. If you’re lucky, you can figure out how to buy it back. From the other side of the deal, what does it mean to profit from the trappings of someone else’s identity? Any boost you purchase may be powered by an essential trait of another person, taken into yourself.

The Nature of Market Items

The interesting thing about the market is the juxtaposition of seemingly fabulously powerful magics with an implied hidden drawback. Items that are normally the trappings of epic adventurers seem to be available for quite reasonable prices, even once you’ve gotten a handle on the true meaning of fae prices. How do you put such things into the game without breaking the itemization math upon which D&D is based?

I think the key is to keep most purchases fragile, fleeting, evanescent, and/or ephemeral. Not only should they mostly be consumables (as Brandes notes), they should defy the traditional D&D logic of consumables by including spoilage. In my experience, potions, scrolls, and charged items accumulate, becoming dangerous to game balance in their ability to be saved until their moment of greatest advantage. Part of their costing is based on being a reserve spell when the math said you should be out of daily resources. Making fae purchases into something that must be used now, or at least soon, can go a long way toward eliminating worries about whether they’re too cheap. Especially if the fae traders are on a schedule that doesn’t suit the whims of the PCs, it’s pretty easy to give out items that are lots of fun to use, but which won’t be available to wreck scenarios set a few days or weeks later.

Also, as noted under themes, items purchased from the fae are likely to have hidden drawbacks, not the least of which is being spun from the trappings of someone else’s identity. What shortcuts did the fae crafter take to make something so powerful that can be sold so cheaply? Does its core still carry the intentions of its originator, making it unexpectedly hard to use? Will it, even in the best case scenario, begin to warp your own identity through leakage or as a core principle of how it works?

If you can get your players into a deep anxiety about whether they were cheated or got a fabulous deal, and whether they can risk using this thing vs. risking letting it expire, you’ve properly created the item.

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.

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:

locationgraph

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

Dynamically Static Initiative

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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 http://imgur.com/r/dndnext/H4BrSMH

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.

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