Resetting the Party: Adventure Path Adrenaline

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The High Concept

In times of crisis, heroes can accumulate great functional skill and power extremely quickly. There’s little time to think, only time to act, limitations falling again and again without the indulgence of hesitation. The gods look on from the great beyond, subtly lending their weight to their champions and granting them access to magics beyond what should be possible, and insights into the universe that would normally take years to understand.

Yet when the crisis ends, there comes a crash. Just like a surge of adrenaline in a fight, you can blow past your limits for a time, but you cannot keep it up indefinitely. Inevitably, the crisis is averted, the constant fear and stress abates, and the gods turn their wills upon another area of the cosmos. The heroes take a much-needed rest, and find much of their monumental power quickly slipping away. Not long after their victory, they remain more powerful than they were when they started, but not nearly as powerful as they were when they faced their primary antagonist.

In short, they can go on more adventure paths without being massively overleveled.

The Motivation

I’m not the biggest fan of the speed of leveling in D&D, particularly since 3e. If I recall correctly, 3e assumed about 13 average encounters per level, of which you could handle around four per day: around two months of constant action to hit 20th level from 1st. 5e is even faster: if you consistently hit the expected XP per adventuring day on page 82 of the DMG, it takes 23 days to get to 20th. Combined with the consistent deprioritization of downtime, this means that most campaigns can race to high level very quickly in world time.

Obviously in real time this is probably multiple years of play, and the numbers were chosen for maximum fun. But it’s still weird. Most of the settings of D&D have the assumption that high-level NPCs took most of their lives to get there, but all the players ever see is their teenage PCs consistently becoming movers and shakers while still teenagers. So something that brings setting assumptions in line with played experience has been a quest of mine for a while.

This is also not just a D&D problem. In Brandes’ Mage: the Awakening game, we had some problems with XP expenditures. Particularly, the game didn’t stop us from just dumping nearly all of our XP into upping gnosis and primary arts, so we were very quickly able to go toe-to-toe with what were meant to be the biggest threats of the setting. The strongest mages in the setting books had a much more robust array of character traits, with high values in multiple abilities and powers, but PCs can go a long way when all they have is a giant hammer looking to figure out how to make every problem a nail.

One of the solutions Brandes and I brainstormed after the campaign ended was the seed of this post’s idea: mage PCs could only buy gnosis and arts with per-session XP, but periodically most of this XP would be ejected from these powers and spent on other character traits, resetting the powers to a more reasonable level.

Ultimately, this mechanism lets you give the PCs a rush to great power, but also a longer term play that lets them go through multiple adventure paths and gradually grow into characters with a lasting integration with the setting.

The Justification

Normally, if you want to both keep your PCs and play published adventure paths with minimal tinkering, you have a big problem. Paizo and WotC mostly make adventure paths that start at 1st level and go to the mid-teens. If you finish one of them and want to do another, you’re going to have to either re-stat everything to higher level or just assume that they’re going to blow through most of the first several books with no challenge. At best, if you prepare early you can slow down level progression and alternate between similarly-leveled modules in multiple adventure paths (straining your creativity to explain why the plot jumps around so much).

However, the trick of D&D‘s XP progression is that it’s geometric: you can start out significantly more powerful than the path intends, but it doesn’t take long before you’re only slightly higher level than expected. If you start at 6th level instead of 1st, by the time the modules expect you to be 10th level… you’ll be 10th level. Admittedly, you’ll hit 11th significantly sooner than intended, but you’re still within one level of what is expected. 5e doesn’t have the truly expansive differences in level at the high end that earlier editions did, but even if you started at 10th, you wouldn’t hit 20th level until the modules expected you to be nearly 18th level.

This means that you can leave the PCs with some sense of progression: they aren’t as high level as they were at the end of the last AP, but they’re still higher level than they were when they started it, and they get to keep their best magic items.

The Mechanics

Figure out what level the PCs are likely to end the first AP at, and at which level you’re comfortable with them starting the second path. Divide the first path’s max XP by the second path’s starting XP. That’s your ongoing divisor to generate each PC’s “true” level.

For example, in my game they ended the first AP at 17th level, and I wanted them to start the next at 6th. 17th is 225,000 and 6th is 14,000. That means that there’s an approximate divisor of 16. With 225k XP at the end, the PCs’ “true” level was based on 225k/16 (a little over 14k) XP, and, thus, 6th level.

During subsequent APs, level the PCs up normally from whatever level they got reset to (e.g., if they started it at 6th, act like they started with 14k XP and it’s 9k XP to 7th). Then at the end of the AP, remember what effective XP total they started the current AP at and subtract that out when you recalculate their true total at the end of the path. In the 17th to 6th example, if they ended the second path at 239k effective XP, you know that that was another 225k after removing the initial 14k, so they have 450k total (e.g., now at true level of 7th based on that 450k/16 = ~28k).

Could you also just have the PCs start a level higher each subsequent AP and not have to do all the math? Yes. But a lot of players are happier if they know there’s some kind of objective calculation going on in the background (even if you deliberately fiddled with the calculation to get the results you wanted, which was basically an extra level per AP).

The PCs get to keep at least three of their favorite pieces of gear they had at the end of the last AP. Assume the rest got sold for investment capital or given to a museum. In 5e, this is very easy to manage because many PCs are only going to care about their three pieces of attuned gear anyway. Give them an arbitrary amount of starting cash: the rest got spent on living through the downtime, and possibly spent on investments (in most APs, it really doesn’t make a difference if the PCs are building up impenetrably fortified home bases, since they’re traveling around wherever the adventure needs them).

Each time through, consider giving the PCs an option to rebuild their character slightly stronger. I’m giving my players an extra point-buy point and/or bonus feat/stat improvement, and also letting them rearrange class ability choices and multiclassing based on their updated conception of the character (rather than just resetting them directly back to what their sheet was when they were that level the first time). If I was still running in Pathfinder, I’d consider gradually opening up expanded class options, lowering entry requirements for prestige classes, or tacking on mythic levels.

In setting, the PCs’ accomplishments weren’t undone. They still have the fame/notoriety earned, even if they can’t still back it up with high-level spells and abilities. While if an NPC asked, they might not be able to take out a dragon like they could before, since subsequent APs are going to ask them to handle only low-level threats for a while, they’ll probably still feel like pretty big damn heroes for a long time. 6th level characters go through goblins at a hell of a clip.

The Synergy

One fun synergy of this system is that it makes the retired adventurer NPCs make a hell of a lot more sense. Modules are full of post-arrow-to-the-knee characters that supposedly adventured for years and yet are within a couple of levels of wherever the PCs are expected to be at that point. It’s likely because if they were genuinely high level, the players would be like, “if the barkeep is a 14th level Fighter, why doesn’t he just go clear out the mines of kobolds?” But it further strains suspension of disbelief in many cases.

However, under this system, it actually makes perfect sense. These characters never shot up to high level like the PCs did, because they never dealt with a world-threatening crisis: their “true” level and effective level were usually really close. It takes a lot longer to get to hundreds of thousands of XP when you’re only fighting low-level stuff. Those 4th-8th level barkeeps that used to be adventurers could have had many years of dealing with small-time local problems to get to that point, and feel fully justified in their retirements.

Converting Pathfinder APs to 5e

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I’ve been reading through the Angry GM’s stuff, particular his megadungeon series, and couldn’t help but think about how his spreadsheets for encounters per level per dungeon section might line up with the various Pathfinder adventure paths. That led me down a thrilling couple of hours banging away at a giant spreadsheet of my own comparing the encounters in an AP to the various XP and wealth progressions. I’ll start off with the rules of thumb, and get into some wonkery explaining my work afterward.

Converting Modules

First off, the bad news: there’s no 1:1 enemy conversion available.

There’s no way that 5e, with one Monster Manual, Volo’s, and a few other sources could approach the mass of opponent options in (at current count) six bestiaries, bonus monsters in every AP volume, multiple guides with NPCs, and the ability to attach class levels and templates to things. But even if they could, the math of 5e is just different for encounters than Pathfinder. For example, Pathfinder considers 12 zombies a level 6 encounter, while 5e considers them a level 5 encounter (and awards XP like a level 3 encounter, because 5e adds a difficulty premium for lots of monsters taking actions).

So you’re going to have to basically rebuild every encounter in the AP with the closest equivalents (of existing monsters or ones you custom make) that meet a new XP target.

But at least the math for doing so is relatively straightforward, since the expected encounters per level in Pathfinder is not that far off from the expectation in 5e.

Most Pathfinder adventure path modules include a target CR at the start of every room or encounter, which may be made up of multiple enemies of lower CRs within the text itself. Simply rebuild the room as a medium encounter of that level. Remember to apply the correct multiplier for multiple opponents.

For treasure awards:

  • Convert most magic items to their cash value (possibly as art) or consumables.
  • Grant half of all of the cash (including that from converted items). For example, if the encounter has printed loot of 100 gp, 300 sp, and a 500 gp value item, it instead gives 50 gp, 150 sp, and a 250 gp value art object (or consumables).
  • Only the most interesting magic items get converted to 5e equivalents. For those, try to give them a value equal to half their Pathfinder value based on the rarity values on page 135 of the 5e DMG. For example, a +3 equivalent shield is worth around 9,000 gp in Pathfinder, so gets translated to a strong Rare item or a weak Very Rare item in 5e (which, in this instance, checks out).

Expected Equivalencies

While the XP awards keep 5e characters within spitting distance of Pathfinder characters, it’s not perfect. In particular, 5e‘s first two levels go by much faster than Pathfinder‘s, while fifth level lasts much longer.

You can expect that:

  • Player characters will hit 2nd level significantly sooner than the AP intends, and will hit 3rd level around the time the AP planned for them to hit 2nd level.
  • They’ll be around a level ahead at all times until the module expects them to hit 5th level.
  • At that point, it starts to swing a little bit, but the PCs will usually be a few encounters behind where the AP expects them to be until 12th level.
  • They hit 12th level at pretty close to the exact right spot, then are close to in sync for the next couple of levels.
  • They pull ahead at 15th, and will pull further and further ahead as time goes on, to the point of hitting 20th level when a Pathfinder character would be early in 18th level. For most APs this won’t matter much, but you might want to pull back encounter budgets further past 15th level (or feel more free to skip non-plot-critical encounters).

The Wonkery

I made a long sheet with every encounter from the Mummy’s Mask AP, with a running total of XP per party member (for a four member-party) and a level lookup to make sure that the awards tracked where the modules suggested they should be. They did, and were usually pretty damned precise (almost as if the APs are created by carving up each level as an XP budget for each section of each module…).

Initially, I looked at just handing out 2/3 of the Pathfinder budget for each encounter, and that tracked as well or better until 10th level, when the XP charts diverge too much. Converting the encounter’s CR from the module to an equivalent 5e encounter somewhere between Easy and Medium created the best correspondence with the easiest-to-remember and process rule of thumb. By just targeting Medium, but assuming that there will be an overall loss of XP because of the difficulty multiplier for multiple enemies, it should be easy to remember how to convert without having to do any averaging yourself.

For treasure, I did a much less thorough comparison, and just looked at the stated Pathfinder wealth by level compared to the expected cash equivalent 5e income derived in this thread. I noted the suggested starting magic items for higher-level characters on page 38 of the DMG, and assumed those were relatively close to what you’d be expected to find in play, adding their value to the cash totals (it winds up only counting for about 15%).

The comparison of Pathfinder to 5e wealth has a ton of swing in it, but it gets pretty close to 50% for the last two tiers. Functionally, for the first tier the PCs will find a lot more wealth than the DMG expects (since Pathfinder frontloads more treasure), but there shouldn’t be a big enough difference by 7th level to justify a more complicated method of recalculating the AP’s treasure. It’s already going to be annoying enough to look up the value of minor magic items to turn them into cash prizes. Since I didn’t look super deeply at how the APs award magic items, I imagine that figuring out what to convert to cash and what to replace with a 5e equivalent will be more art than science.

Monster Hunter Hack

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I finally burned through enough of my TV backlog to start watching Supernatural from the beginning. One of the interesting things about the show setup is that most monsters seem more than a match for even the most elite of humans (at least in season 1; I’ve heard there may be a bit of power creep later). Even the guy with the best combat training in the world is screwed going up against any monster, if he doesn’t have tools to exploit their weaknesses. The monster hunters that scare the things that go bump in the night don’t do so because they’re inherently badass, and able to win a straight fight. Instead, competence is defined by knowledge of monster weaknesses, skill at exploiting them, access to materials and rituals, and ability to track them while remaining off the grid.

This is not typical for RPGs.

Normal character advancement, particularly in level-based games but even in skill-based ones, allows an ongoing ramping of combat capability. Something that is a tough fight when you start out becomes a speedbump later on, just based on sheer defense and offense.

This rules hack looks to move the cheese a bit: combat capability becomes directly tied to knowledge of creature weaknesses and ability to exploit them. Importantly, even a highly trained hunter isn’t able to mow through a squad of cops or soldiers, and is also vulnerable to unexpected or unknown monstrous threats. Your power is highly invested in your ability to cheat against the supernatural, not in becoming superhuman yourself.

The system is phrased generically, for a skill-based game with a fairly linear progression of trait ratings to power level. It probably works directly with something like Storyteller or Unisystem, but needs some additional hacking for other systems with different ways of expressing competence. It’s also deliberately simple, so it’s easy to make threats on the fly. If you prize more simulationist outputs, it makes sense to move the benefits into specific things like damage and damage resistance.

Core System Elements

  • Supernatural creatures generally have combat dice pools beyond the maximum available to even highly-trained mortals. In a stand-up fight, even the weakest creature has an advantage against a mortal with maxed-out combat traits. The most powerful creatures have somewhere around double the trait total available to mortals (e.g., in Storyteller, creatures generally have combat pools from 11-20).
  • Characters can buy Lore skills for different creature types. These are fairly granular by type: knowing how to fight vampires doesn’t help against witches or ghosts, and may not even help against ghouls. The GM should create these skills based on similarities of in-setting combat capabilities and weaknesses. For things that are similar, but not totally similar, you might allow the player to apply the similar lore at a penalty, or just roll things up into hierarchical groups (e.g., having good ratings in Vampire, Ghoul, and Zombie lore also buys up a Corporeal Undead catchall that applies to a newly encountered undead monster).
  • Characters can also buy gear access traits, which represent having reliable, fast, cheap sources for custom weaponry, ritual components, and other monster-hunting tools. These are broken up by rough classification as makes sense to the GM (e.g., Custom Metal Weapons, Herbs and Oils, Unusual Ammunition, Ritual Tools, etc.; basically anything you might be like, “I know somebody that can probably get us…”). Improving these specific gear access traits should also gradually improve a Standard Loadout trait that represents common monster-hunting tools easy to hand; high ratings represent having highly-customized weapons good against a wide range of threats, and other gear that’s been extremely efficiently arranged to be quick and easy to hand. You might make these a shared expenditure for the whole party.
  • Experience pricing should make it cheap enough to have an extensive assortment of Lores and Gear traits by the end of the campaign, along with a moderate improvement in non-hunting traits.

Fighting Monsters

  • If you are blindsided by a monster and you can barely figure out what you’re dealing with, your combat total is your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout if that’s smaller than your normal combat total. For example, if you’re jumped by a vampire, your normal Dex + Melee 7 is superseded by your Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 4. Monsters go through highly trained combatants with no monster lore just as easily as total bystanders, because they’re all basically limited to trait 0s due to their lack of lore and gear.
  • If you’re going on the offensive with a solid idea of what the target is weak to (or at least have time to set up an intentional defensible position) you can instead add your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout to your total. In the original example, Dex + Melee + Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 11 is used to attack vampires on purpose.
  • If you have a lot of time to prepare, you can replace everyone you equip’s Standard Loadout with a higher total based on acquiring customized exploits (the rolls and costs involved left as an exercise for the GM, based on the world simulation and how a monster’s specific weaknesses work; you may need to combine weapons, ammo, herbs, etc. to get the right mix of exploits).
  • Even neophyte hunters/interested bystanders/potential victims with Lore 0 can be included in the second and third point with a briefing by a character with the right Lore. A non-superstitious combat badass might go down as easily to a vampire as anyone else when blindsided, but becomes a big asset when told, “Those were vampires. Here are the things you need in order to kill them…” (Lore remains relevant, as it covers knowing a lot of very specific tricks and maneuvers beyond just a general weakness overview.)

Other Considerations

For the full Supernatural feel, it’s also worth emphasizing investigative traits and things that let you escape from danger and remain hidden from organized foes until you’re ready to strike. Even a totally clued-in master hunter would prefer to attack from surprise rather than being ambushed.

D20 Modern, Epic 1st, and Action Horror

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Ash vs. Evil Dead was a fun little romp of a first season, and got me thinking about different ways to model what it (and a lot of other action horror shows/films) demonstrate: the supernatural threat can mow through cops and soldiers like grass, but comes up short dealing with initially lucky but now badass everymen. One possibility uses the ideas of Epic 6th (E6) to go even further into the realm of grittiness.

First off, make some classes that make sense for your timeframe. If you’re doing a fantasy horror game, the standard D&D/Pathfinder classes are probably fine. If you’re doing something more modern, you might need to work to update D20 Modern’s classes (or just make your own as modern interpretations of existing classes). The important guidelines are:

  • Each class you include should have interesting tradeoffs at 1st level compared to the others (e.g., more class skills vs. more HP vs. +1 BaB).
  • They should probably get some interesting unique ability at first level.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to retain the NPC Class/PC Class split, if you want to model highly-trained characters that flat out have an advantage even at 1st level.

Most people in the world reach 1st level at adulthood, and improve further by gaining more feats. Depending on how egalitarian you feel about human competence, some people may just be born with better ability scores, or ability scores may be something you can improve over time as another way to advance. But almost no one will ever reach 2nd level.

This creates a pretty interestingly constrained system space that models reality (or at least movie reality) much better than standard D20:

  • It’s virtually impossible to get an ability score over 20.
  • The grandmaster in the world of a skill has a +12 bonus before circumstance modifiers (+4 ranks, +3 skill focus, +5 ability score).
  • The toughest character in the world has 20 HP (D12 HD, +5 from Con, +3 from Toughness), so will die to a few hits from a d8 or greater weapon. Most characters have 6-10 HP (d6 or d8 HD and some Con bonus), so will usually get dropped by one, maybe two hits from a deadly weapon.
  • The biggest badass in the world with a weapon can maybe eke out +10 attack bonus in ideal circumstances (+1 BaB, +5 ability score, +1 weapon focus, +1 masterwork weapon, and a couple points of situational feat bonuses like point blank shot).

On its own, this might be a passable way to run an extremely low-powered/realistic/gritty game. If you don’t allow a feat that gives extra skill ranks, you’d probably want to allow respeccing class-granted ranks in some way. You’d probably also want some way to gradually respec ability scores and class. But, particularly if you gave out bonus feats on a regular enough schedule, and the rest of the world was clearly on the same power level, it might hold your players’ interest for a decently long time.

But it’s also a good way to run an action horror game.

Here, the premise is simple: supernatural monsters are the only source of XP that can improve your character level.

Whatever the in-narrative source of these monsters, they’re basically an out-of-context problem for the existing paradigm. They’re going to have supernatural abilities. They’re going to have multiple hit dice. They’re going to have high AC, attack, and damage relative to what’s possible for even the best of the best that are stuck at 1st level.

So surviving an encounter with one is going to be more likely if you’re a cop or a soldier, with good combat stats and feats, but it’s far from guaranteed. Against even a CR3 creature, particularly one that uses surprise attacks so soldiers can’t get organized, it’s going to be almost pure luck who survives out of a random sample of people. When the monsters hit the cross section of humanity in a department store or a diner, the survivors may just be a bunch of everymen that happened to get some lucky hits in and somehow not die.

And then they start to level up.

You’re now telling the story of a bunch of ordinary people that have become extraordinary purely by virtue of the standard D&D advancement mechanic. Who has a greater chance of taking out a nest of monsters: a team of the very best 1st level Fighters in the world, or a lucky bunch of 6th level Commoners? You don’t go to Ash Williams to solve your Deadite problem because he’s easy to work with, forward-thinking, or able to respond to tactical suggestions. You go to him because he’s the highest level character in the world, and monsters that can threaten a whole Seal Team aren’t really that much of a bother to him.

Hail to the king, baby.

Transhuman Thrillseeking

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

Digitizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules

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

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

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

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

Compression Revisited

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

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

Tier Descriptions

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

Using Tiers

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

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

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

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

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

D&D/Pathfinder: Simplifying Trash Encounters

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Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

The System

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

Subtract the APL from the EL:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D&D: Optional EXP as Karma

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

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

Earning Karma

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

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

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

The players do not get Karma in the following situations:

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

Spending Karma

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

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

Time as Value, Grind as Virtue

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

Sipping from the Firehose

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

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

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

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

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

All Payment Options Lead to Grind

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

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

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

Virtuous Grinders, Sinning Payers

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

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

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

Mythic 6th

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

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

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

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

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

Leveling in M6

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

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

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

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

Upgrades

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

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

Capstone

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

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

Rituals

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

Rituals can be upgraded to Mythic spells.

Adept Rituals

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

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

Master Rituals

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

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

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

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