Borrowing from Video Games: Pathfinder Kingmaker’s Plotline Knitting

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It took me a long time to finally get around to playing the video game version of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I ran the adventure path all the way through a few years ago, so I felt like I’d be totally spoiled for the game (on top of other reasons, like not having the time for a hundred-hour mega adventure; seriously, how did they get this much content into a Kickstarter-funded game?).

I was right that I’m pretty spoiled on the plot beats, since it sticks close to the original adventure path for overall structure. But the interesting thing is watching how the writers of the video game wove the plot of the AP into a more coherent narrative. This pleasure is almost certainly enhanced for people that already played or ran the tabletop version, and know how it went originally.

The nature of Paizo’s writing pipeline is that each adventure path is given to six (or more) different writers to generate. In order to give each writer as much time as possible, the broad outline of the campaign is given to everyone to work on basically simultaneously, rather than, say, the writer of module 4 only starting once modules 1-3 are available to reference. Everyone knows the beats mandated in the outline, and I assume there’s some kind of during-writing conversations and then a development pass to further build everything into a whole. But it’s fair to say that individual modules don’t feel intricately linked with those around them.

Even within the same module, time crunch and trying to fill pages seems to result in elements that aren’t linked as well as they could be. In particular, I’ve long been annoyed when I find a half-page writeup on the backstory of an NPC antagonist that is just waiting in a dungeon room for the PCs to kick in the door and kill in a couple of rounds. The color is probably useful if the players actually decide to be social/take prisoners, but a lot of it is wasted prose for most tables, with no suggested way for the players to even realize there’s more information to be had.

This is not meant to especially pick on Pathfinder APs. They’re just the ones I have the most experience with. I assume other publishers often have the same issues, and if you’re running modules that aren’t linked into an AP, you have zero official connection between adventures.

The video game version fixes a lot of these problems. The central antagonist is introduced very early (and is obviously behind most of the other major problems), and secondary antagonists get similar treatment. Characters that were kick-in-the-door speedbumps before get linked in so you actually know who you’re fighting (in particular, a weird one-off evil kobold from the first module becomes a recurring foil who also introduces the enemy kingdom from module 5). The barbarian tribe that shows up out of nowhere in the book for module 4 is foreshadowed early in the video game and is heavily involved in the resolution of the previous major arc before you have to take them on. It’s clever.

Obviously, in a perfect world when you spend over a $100 on a campaign, it will do all of this heavy lifting for you. But here are some methods you can use to better link together modules you’ve purchased (or even a campaign you’ve written yourself).

Meet Your Antagonists

It’s really easy to make your players hate an NPC (it’s much harder to make them like an NPC). The bad guy just needs to show up and be mean to/betray the PCs. Bonus vengeance for slightly inconveniencing them in getting something they want.

The more and earlier the villains can be on screen, actually interacting with the PCs, the better. Text props and under bosses referring to the villain are better than nothing, but aren’t the same as getting to be snide to each other.

Most late-campaign boss enemies will have some kind of powers to justify getting to talk to the PCs and escape (dream projection, illusion projection, contingency teleportation, hospitality, etc.). It’s often a bigger trick to explain why the boss doesn’t pick off the PCs while they’re low-level.

If you can show enough of the villain’s backstory in these conversations to make the players think of them as fully developed characters rather than just obstacles, so much the better.

Conservation of Characters

There are really only so many kinds of NPCs. In the broadest sense, you can probably think of them as enemies, foils, bystanders, and allies. Each module is going to invent a lot of NPCs. They don’t know your table, so even if they had the earlier modules done to reference, the writer of the module will often invent a new NPC rather than risking that you’ve already killed off an earlier one.

You can merge these characters.

Go through and find characters that perform similar roles for the PCs (or even different roles: evolve a module 1 bystander into a module 2 helper who betrays them by module 4 to become a foil or enemy). It’s especially good if there are a couple of things you like about the NPCs but otherwise you’re not excited about them: shove all the character bits you liked from each of them into one significantly more interesting character.

Obviously don’t give the NPC so many threads that they’re going to feel too important/actually be too important for the PCs to kill off, because the players aren’t going to like being overshadowed. But if you do it right, you’ll have more fun playing the NPC and the players will get a recurring character to interact with.

Personal Rather than Generic

Since the Kingmaker video game was filling out your party with pre-written characters (rather than all player-written PCs), it could do something that published module series without pregens can’t do: make the plot hooks personal for the protagonists. It’s not just a barbarian tribe, it’s a tribe that the barbarian PC was exiled from. It’s not just an ancient artifact, it’s an artifact that a PC is searching for. It’s not just a dwarven fortress, it’s a fortress that the dwarf PC has a conflicted relationship with.

The more you learn about your PCs, the more you can do the same thing. Don’t be afraid to steal plot hooks from the NPCs and give them to your PCs.

Is there an NPC looking to find another NPC? Could that missing NPC be a PC’s connection instead? In my Rise of the Runelords campaign, Shalelu the NPC ranger got every bit of her plots carved off and handed to the PC ranger.

Is there a cool magic item that shows up later? Can you plant rumors about it early so one of the PCs is looking for it and really excited to find it? In my Jade Regent campaign, an evil artifact that’s, by the book, just a curiosity dropped by the module 1 mini-boss became something the party cleric needed to destroy (at a location they’d be going to in module 3 anyway).

Is there an interesting group/location? Can a PC be connected to it? This one often requires the most negotiation with a player to get right, since you don’t want to just have them stumble into a village and be like, “oh, hey, by the way, this is your village.” If the player wrote an extensive backstory, you can probably rewrite something in the module until it fits while still fulfilling its story goal.

If you know what you’re doing and can work with the player early on, you can help the player expand on ideas (“You know, if you’re on the run, do you think maybe you’ve been dodging Red Mantis assassins?”). Most players are going to be happy working with you on something they know is going to be paid off later somehow. Though others may have had bad experiences, and worry that backstory spotlight is negative spotlight (e.g., “I stopped writing relatives into my backstory because GMs kept killing them off for cheap pathos or threatening them to make me do what they wanted.”).

Everything is Connected

While there’s a risk of making the world feel too small by making everything connected, there are still fun links you could make that the writers didn’t think of. One little addition for the Kingmaker video game is that the first bandit mini-boss was changed to be the estranged sister of a friendly NPC, who could explain more of the mini-boss’ backstory.

This can particularly allow you some opportunities to foreshadow things that can’t be directly tied to the PCs or shown on screen. One friendly NPC always wanted to see a legendary item. Another is worried about a relative that joined an evil cult, and can hand out rumors about that group which otherwise doesn’t show up until a later module. This incidental magic item can be identified to have a connection to a person or group that shows up later.

Ultimately, the point of this whole system is making connections, because reinforcement makes it a lot easier for your players to pick up on things. Deep linkages and recurrences are how you turn a generic published campaign from “a bunch of stuff happened, one thing after another” into a memorable story.

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.

Pathfinder to 5e: Setting DCs

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I realized that one thing missing from my post on converting Pathfinder modules to 5e was how to convert difficulties for skill checks and saving throws.

The Math

Pathfinder skill checks tend to scale much higher than in 5e. Between feats, magic that improves ability scores and skills, and the base skill ranks, a highly-focused Pathfinder character could conceivably hit DC 60 without too much difficulty by 20th level. A similarly-focused character in 5e will have expertise, an ability score capped at 20, and probably the use of advantage and some kind of bonus die (like bardic inspiration). The 5e character hits only DC 36 with a similar frequency to the Pathfinder character hitting 60.

Using the theoretically most-focused character from level 1-20 in both systems, as well as a hypothetical “good-but-not-amazing” character, I worked out the skill DC curve below in a way that seems to be equivalent throughout play.

Straight up ability checks that don’t involve skills (like Strength checks to force doors) are probably closer to a wash: A character in Pathfinder can get ability scores over 20, but can’t usually apply most of the other bonuses that scale really high. 5e characters have access to advantage, and most miscellaneous bonuses (like bardic inspiration) apply to straight ability checks as easily as to skill checks, even if a high-ability-score character in 5e will be a few points behind a similarly focused character in Pathfinder. And, honestly, these checks are relatively uncommon at mid-to-high level anyway (since you can use utility magic to bypass them), so will tend to come up most frequently when characters have a similar range of ability bonuses anyway.

Meanwhile, saving throws are easier to figure out, since 5e tends to construct them into a very standardized 8 + proficiency + ability bonus. This means that you can assume DCs are almost always going to range from 10-21, and can figure out the most appropriate one by just figuring out the effective level of the threat plus the intended challenge of the threat (really easy threats are just 8 + proficiency + 0, while really hard ones are 8 + proficiency + 5).

The Conversion

Skill DCs

Pathfinder DC 5e DC
10 8
15 12
20 17
25 20
30 22
35 24
40 27
45 29
50 32
55 34
60 36

For DCs under 20, just take off 2-3 points of DC. For DCs of 20+, half + 7 gets you really close to the curve.

Ability Check DCs

If the ability doesn’t take a skill bonus, just use the printed ability check DC.

Saving Throw DCs

Figure out the approximate CR of the threat (when in doubt, just use the average PC level). Set the DC to 8 + that CR’s proficiency bonus + 0-5 (depending on how serious the threat is supposed to be).

For very quick and dirty math, just set the DC to half the CR + 10 and adjust it up or down by a point or two based on how serious the threat is.

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.

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.

Pathfinder: Ability Point-Based Supers

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Points

Two unrelated things that became related in my brain:

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

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

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

Point-Based Supers

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

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

Ability Scores

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

The extended chart is below:

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

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

Racial Features

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

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

Spell-Like Abilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D20: A Facing Hack

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

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

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

Facing

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

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

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

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

Attacks

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

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

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

Stealth

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

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

The Old Gods and the New

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It’s a bit of a busy Memorial Day weekend, so I hope you’ll enjoy some setting notes I put together for an upcoming Pathfinder game in lieu of a systems post I didn’t have the time to write this week.

To the elder races, the time when the old gods walked the world is still within living memory. To the younger races, it is the distant past. Nonetheless, all histories agree that there was an epoch when gods were flesh. When gods demanded that all participate in their great works, whether they wished it or not.

The line between the old gods and various other powerful entities from the cosmos is blurry, though scholars tend to split the difference at agendas: demon lords and the like share a nature and a mandate with an unearthly realm, while each of the old gods seemed to have his or her own unique goals, petty though they might have been.

Some were more agreeable than others. And, in the beginning, each of them gathered a following of mortals, if for nothing else than support against enemies. But those that were content to protect and rule were outnumbered by those with a towering need to reorder the world. Their conflict etched the world into the state it is in, even today.

Eventually, it became too much. Mortals sought out new gods that were less present. Entities that were more concept than flesh, with no need to reshape the world on a whim. Many believe calling them the “new” gods is a fundamental error; they were always here, but the arrival of the “old” gods temporarily blinded the world to the protectors that had always been among them.

Nonetheless, the old gods could not contend with an uprising of mortals backed by gods that had no physical forms to slay, no presence to fight directly against. Over eras, the old gods were defeated and killed.

The new gods are quieter, on the whole, content to lend power to their clerics and allow the churches of different nations to color their worship. Some are all but silent, and many prophets claim to speak for them, causing schisms. But the worst of these holy wars is but a simple disagreement compared to the war of the old gods.

The Gods

There are four gods that are openly worshiped, and two others that few will admit to worshiping directly (or even believe exist).

The Sun

Known by many names, each agrees on one salient attribute: the Sun knows everything upon which its light falls. As the Sun is also extremely fond of life and justice, those that mean ill to their fellow mortals must make their plans in darkness, lest agents of the Sun stop them before they have even begun.

However, despite its essential light and strong gifts given to its clerics, the Sun seems unable or unwilling to intervene directly through a show of force. It is also hard to commune with: sometimes, at great need, it gives visions or omens to the faithful to seek out an unfolding ill, but otherwise only clerics with strong magics may communicate with their god.

Domains: Fire, Glory, Knowledge, Protection, Sun

Nature

Few can agree whether Nature is the planet herself, or merely the ecosystems that lay upon her. Whatever the answer, Nature is unafraid to act: from titanic natural disasters to fortuitous shifts in the wind, the roused god can alter many things. It seems deeply aware of all that happens within its domain, as well, as many disasters eventually reveal a problem mortals were unaware of.

This brute-force problem-solving is important, because it is the only way Nature communicates. Any who claim to have gotten a direct message from the god, even its powerful clerics, are understood to be liars. Fortunately, Nature seems to have a mild benevolence; scholars that have done studies tend to find that the innocent are spared much more often than the guilty by the chaos of the natural world.

Domains: Animal, Plant, Strength, Water, Weather

Progress

The most esoteric of the four openly worshiped gods, each culture places its own stamp on Progress: to some, she is an artist or a freedom fighter, and to others, he is a smith or an engineer. All agree that, of all the gods, Progress is the one most inclined to work to see mortals succeed and grow. Helpfully, Progress is also free with communion and visions, often granted as dreams or just flashes of inspiration.

Unfortunately, Progress is limited in ability to act in the world and almost totally blind to what’s going on but for what its priests tell it. Minor miracles of enhanced creation can sometimes emerge as a response to prayer, but otherwise the world’s progress is unevenly and very inefficiently distributed… almost as if the god is distributing inspiration entirely at random.

Domains: Artifice, Community, Earth, Healing, Liberation

Fate

The world is flooded with prophecy. Many speculate that these are merely messages from Fate about things the goddess (often rendered in triple-form by various cultures) would like to see enacted, and will back with divine potence. Others wonder how you’d tell the difference between seeing the future and using divine might to cause it.

Most believe that Fate is blind to the present, and only able to see the world that may be. Even Fate’s priests also agree that she is the god with the least interest in helping mortals: what will be, will be, whether or not it rewards the virtuous and punishes the guilty.

Domains: Air, Luck, Magic, Nobility, Trickery

Discord

Some postulate that there must be a new god responsible for all the conflict that still exists in the world after the death of the old gods. Brutal, uncivilized cultures often seem to field clerics with access to powers different from the followers of the four primary gods, but these may be awarded by the remnants of old gods or demon lords.

Domains: Destruction, Death, Madness, Void, War

Sin

Meanwhile, another force is often invented to explain why civilized society often seems to break down from within, despite the best efforts of Progress. It’s hard to be certain whether the leaders of debauched mystery cults are truly clerics of such a deity, or draw their powers from the remnants of old gods or hellish princes.

Domains: Charm, Darkness, Repose, Rune, Travel

A Few E6 Hacks

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After all this talk about variations on Epic 6th over the past few weeks, I thought I’d devote a post to a few modular ideas for improvement I had in the process of writing them.

Bonus Feat Classes

One of the classic problems with E6 is the difficulty it causes the fighter (and, to a lesser extent, other classes that get bonus feats). Once characters have hit their level cap and started piling up additional feats, the character whose class advantage is extra feats starts to look much less attractive next to characters that have a bunch of special abilities and a bunch of feats.

A potential fix for this is that, at level cap, these classes upgrade their bonus feats to also qualifying for better feats. For each bonus feat you got as a class benefit (either a broad choice, small list, or specific feat), you also add +1 to numerical values to qualify for feat prerequisites once you start earning post-cap feats. So, for example, in straight up E6, a Pathfinder character who is a 6th level fighter gains +4 to prerequisites for his four bonus feats. He qualifies for feats that require character level or base attack 10, and treats all his ability scores as four higher for feats with ability prereqs (even a fighter with below-average intelligence can eventually figure out Combat Expertise, and one could be fairly clumsy and still try two-weapon fighting).

This bonus should probably affect Caster Level as well, to allow Wizards to potentially get higher level item creation feats. For multiclass characters, I’d suggest limiting it to doubling the effective caster level (e.g., a wizard 1, fighter 5 counts as CL 2 for feats rather than CL 5).

If the feat has any scaling bonuses, those go off of the actual score, not the modified one. This ability affects availability of the feat, but not its scaling.

For classes like ranger and monk who get access to feats that allow them to totally skip prerequisites, you may wish to not count those particular feats. But it’s probably additional bookkeeping that isn’t much of an actual limit.

Ability Score Retraining

Particularly in a modern game with a lot of downtime, there may be some degree of verisimilitude to be gained by allowing player characters to change their ability choices. Without the regular ability bumps at every four levels, E6-based games don’t really have any way to model hitting the gym.

This system has players keep permanent track of their point buy pool. Over time, you can lower one or more ability scores to return points to the pool and spend them to raise another ability. This can take as much time as the GM thinks is reasonable for a workout regimen. I’d suggest a default of 1 month per point respent (which means one could go from an average score to an 18 in about a year and a half, which seems decently realistic).

As a side effect, this can also model ability drain in a world without access to Restoration: having an ability “permanently” damaged returns its points to the pool, and you have to go through months of physical/mental therapy to restore the damage, but the points aren’t really lost.

If you’re running a version that includes one or more ability +1s from levels that are multiples of four, I’d suggest actually treating those levels as giving the character +4 additional point buy points to avoid having to deal with a weird floating +1. (I’d actually suggest doing this anyway, as it’s a good fix for the laser focus on improving prime requisites to ludicrous levels that’s so common in 3.x).

If a player deliberately lowers an ability score that was serving as a feat prerequisite below the minimum qualification, the player should replace the feats in question (and any feats dependent on them) at the same time. If Intelligence bonus goes down, the player needs to remove the granted skill ranks.

Class Retraining

As mentioned last week, E6 variants can put the spotlight on the differences between NPC and PC classes and what those mean for how much formal schooling you’ve had. Within a 3.x framework, Commoner represents having no formal schooling, the other NPC classes represent merchant apprenticeships, army memberships, and other methods of learning-while-doing, and PC classes represent being taught elite skills from the best of the best.

This leaves open the door that characters should be able to multiclass to a better class once better schooling is available. The farmer that gets called into a militia, finds she has a knack for it and stays with the army for years, then impresses an elite swordsmaster might be a Commoner 1, Warrior 4, Fighter 1. And in normal, uncapped progression, that might be fine. But in a capped progression, that character is now stuck, never able to transcend her peasant roots.

So in a capped game, the GM might allow characters to trade up levels in Commoner for a better NPC class, and in an NPC class for a PC class. This can take time and/or XP as makes sense to the GM, and should generally follow a couple of rules:

  • This isn’t a gestalt: you lose the old level, gain the new one, and retain any choices you’d made previously (e.g., skill points remain spent).
  • The upgraded class should generally be one that doesn’t require losing any abilities. Commoner, by virtue of being terrible at everything, can easily transform into any NPC class. Expert has enough skills that it can only upgrade to rogue, ranger, or other classes with at least six skill ranks per level. Warrior can only go into full BaB classes with at least a d10 hit die. Adept can only go into other caster classes. Aristocrat may require very special handling.
  • Adept spellcasting could prove strange. Ideally, if you know an adept is looking to eventually upgrade, her spell list should be pared of any divine or arcane spells that won’t be available later. Spells per day and known should remain those available to the highest level of adept taken until the PC class exceeds that (e.g., an adept 6 training into a wizard keeps casting as an adept 6 until shifted into an adept 2/wizard 4; at that point, the wizard 4 grants better casting than the adept 6, and the player can ignore the adept levels for spells per day purposes from then on).

As a side note, this system may actually work for 5th edition as well: “NPC” classes become just taking a background plus a generic small hit die and the standard proficiency bonus (e.g., you could be an Entertainer 5, which just means the Entertainer background for proficiencies, proficiency bonus +3, 5d6 hit dice, and no class features). That character can then upgrade to an adventuring class (gaining class features and replacing the d6 hit die with a bigger one, if the class grants it). You might even create a midpoint where the character has an adventuring class but not that class’ selectable template (e.g., you could go from Entertainer 5, to Bard (with no college) 5, to Court Bard 5).

Epic 10th (E6 Shifted 4)

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Let me tell you about the random idea I had in a dream a few weeks ago! Unlike most ideas that come to me in dreams and seem totally amazing at the time, this one actually held up after I fully woke.

Epic 6th is the idea of capping D&D/Pathfinder at 6th level (and getting feats for subsequent level-ups). I suggested a variation down to E1 last week, and I’ve mentioned some arguments for E8 before. This is another simple modification to the concept:

All PC-race adults are presumed to start at 5th level, and characters cap at 10th level before they start to just gain feats as normal for E6.

This should result in some interesting benefits over normal E6 (and normal 3.x in general):

  • Starting adult PCs are pretty burly, more on the order of 4e PCs with a pile of HP that means they can handle a lot of punishment. Starting adult PCs should feel like they can have a bit of backstory to them, rather than just being callow youths. You can assume the PCs already farmed goblins and wolves in their backstories, and throw them right into more interesting modules (or make them take on a really ridiculous amount of goblins).
  • If it’s important to you, you’ve plugged the problem where 1st level Wizards start much older than “easier” classes, but then anyone can multiclass and pick up their first level of Wizard almost instantly (because now that level is only 1/5 the levels the Wizard started with).
  • Discrepancies in midlevel special abilities are ironed out (e.g., in Pathfinder, some cleric domains get a special ability at 6th but some don’t get one until 8th, so normal E6 makes the 8th level bonus domains less attractive, but this way they all get such abilities).
  • Low-level NPCs are even more of a long-term threat to PCs than in regular E6: 10th level PCs have to respect being hassled by 5th level guards more than 6th level PCs have to respect 1st level guards. You get more mileage out of standard NPC stat blocks and just adjusting how many the PCs face.
  • Unlike normal D&D, you have a lot of room to run a Harry Potter/the Magicians/Name of the Wind-type school campaign. Start students at 1st level and have them level to 5th by graduation.

In a setup of this type, using NPC classes to differentiate NPCs is likely to be very important. It makes a big difference if a town guard is a Commoner, Warrior, or Fighter when they all have a minimum of 5th level. There’s a lot of room to use access to better classes as a way to differentiate characters by education. Who wins in a fight between the 10th level Commoner who’s the town brawler, the 7th level Warrior who’s actually been a soldier in the wars, and an unblooded 5th level Fighter straight out of dueling school?

The big drawback of going up to 10th level is that it opens up something that E6 deliberately excludes: the common availability of 4th and 5th level spells. In particular, daily access to Scrying, Stone Shape, Teleport, Wall of Stone, Sending, Fabricate, and Raise Dead can blow out the low-fantasy feel of E6 (and even the spells that are just continuations of earlier ones can begin to cause the linear fighter/quadratic wizard problem). GMs that try this are advised to make careful revisions to the spell lists to make sure they’re happy with what the players will get to at the high end, possibly drastically modifying problematic spells or removing them altogether. As an upside, a few of the spells (e.g., Atonement, Death Ward, Break Enchantment, etc.) are somewhat key to the math of mid-level D&D, so E10 makes them available without having to resort to house rules for rituals.

The only other drawback I can think of is some players really dislike not starting at 1st level, because they don’t feel like they’ve “earned” the levels honestly. Make sure you don’t have any players with such feelings before instituting the hack, or there might be some pushback.

Ultimately, this hack should have a number of interesting benefits gained from recontextualizing the ordinary play mode of E6, with only a slight push from the gritty, low fantasy it usually represents up into the top of heroic fantasy and the threshold of wuxia.

And since I’ve been talking about variations on E6 for the past two posts, my plan for next week is a few options for whichever variant of E6 you use.

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