It was the mountainfolk who had succumbed first. Theirs was a harsher lot than most, and upon that strife was borne a terrible desire. When the Faceless Stranger came to their homes, clad with cloak of starlight and air of ambition, they thought it was a travelling god.
It taught them new words; words that were hard for their mortal tongues to say at first, but upon which they would settle like old leather. It said these words were true-tongue, heaven-speak, first spoken when the world was good and whole. Soon, the words took hold — parent spoke to child, friend spoke to friend, stranger spoke to stranger. The sounds of these words gnawed at the fabric of things, scraping the walls and burrowing into reality.
In swift time, the words were spoken by all, save those who could sense that the speech was no true-tongue, but instead, dark carrier. They implored, they begged, but it was to no avail. Their elders decreed that only these words were to be spoken, and those who would not would be struck down with great vengeance. A meaningless proclamation for most, as dark carrier was all they now knew.
The words brought terrible anguish upon the mountainfolk. Disease and anger. Fear and distortion. The speakers were confused: had they not spoken the tongue as it had asked? Why did they suffer so? They entreated the Faceless Stranger, and begged in that selfsame speech for guidance.
It laid these miseries at the feet of the true-gods. It spun them a tale that their misery was the artifice of deities: pretenders to a pantheon that lay trapped behind reality. If they could only be freed, then these woes would surely be dispelled. Such was the mountainfolk’s lust for succor that they set about this task at once, performing the rituals and gathering the materials as demanded by the Faceless Stranger. Cryptic requirements, baroque and complex machinery, chants that lasted day upon day.
The work was swiftly finished, and those walls that had been weakened and buckled now shattered entirely. A final moment gleefully initiated by the elders that had walked many down a path of damnation. From the momentary breach stepped a beast with a million forms but no name. It consumed the believers in an instant, and oozed like tar down the mountains. Starving maws tore through fields and forest, leaving only corrupted wasteland in its wake. Soon the world would be nothing but that roiling black mass, endlessly chittering in that foul tongue.
Watching this onslaught was Ynpolari, true-god of revelations. As much as he supped upon the pain and destruction inflicted by the mass, he saw an end that was thoroughly unlikable. There was no flourish, no artistry and no intention to the beast’s action. This was most disagreeable to Ynpolari, who did not believe that such horror should be inflicted as though one were merely rolling a stone down a hill. He struck a concord with the rest of the true-pantheon, an agreement that they would unify their efforts for this one thing, in the interests of continuing the game.
The true-pantheon could see that simply destroying the creature was impossible — the energies required for such a task would surely break the world as well. Instead, they would build for it a cage of rock and magic, buried deep in the earth where no creature could hear its dark tongue. Entire quarries were emptied of stone as the followers of Metros dutifully architected and crafted to a divine design. Metros himself formed maze after maze, glyphward after glyphward, barrier after barrier until the prison stood complete: Tmygnrata-Pren, The Jail of One Thousand Walls.
Eventually, the creature’s dark shadow slid over the entrance, and the true-pantheon struck with great fury. The world shook and trembled with sonorous booms as the beast was driven down, down, deep below, into the shadows that would never see light. The glyphwards activated, the doors slammed shut, and the earth regrown over its surface till it looked much like any other patch of prairie one could find.
There it would lie, just beneath the surface, undisturbed for generations to come. Only one question still remained for Ynpolari: would there be a mortal dull-witted enough to plumb those horrid depths? Of course, he already had seen the answer. After all, people can only play Team Fortress 2 for so long.
So it feels like the pandemic is winding down, and everyone’s returning to a way that things were before. When I say this, I don’t mean that the actual virus is in check, oh no, but that people are doing more things and the UK government is allowing you to do them. It seems fairly likely that, come this winter, we’ll be in a similar situation of some form of lockdown — but until then, restaurants are open, people are travelling (locally at least), and schedules are again filled with crap that make scheduling nigh on impossible. For this reason, it felt like a good opportunity to do a retrospective on what’s been going on RPG-wise for the last year and a bit, and to elucidate my thoughts on the age old debate of playing RPGs online vs in-person. Ultimately, this decision is made by circumstance (you’re not playing in-person regularly with someone from another country), but I am lucky enough to be able to choose from time to time, and had a long span of doing things in person which was followed by the pandemic.
Like any good school essay, I’ll give you the summary of my points at the start so that you know what to expect. For all of the tools I’ve got, all of the equipment, the microphone, the software: an innumerable number of things to make playing online as high quality as it can be, there is still something fundamentally missing from the experience, which I think online play will never satisfy. While there are several delightful advantages, which I will mention in this post, I would choose to play in-person for the majority of systems where it was possible. Cool. With that out of the way, I can talk about why I think this.
A Player at the Table
There is something that feels like an inconsistency in my opinions of GMing, but I think is consistent. This probably requires a blog post of its own, but I like to think of my style as the “computational GM” — a rules-bounded method that is fundamentally reactionary. For me, I like to think of the GM as the engine by which the game is played, with all of the limitations and requirements of an engine for a videogame, or a car. A driving force that exhibits only enough control to move things forward, but does not decide direction. It’s a car analogy. While the responsibilities of the GM differ from the players in this way, that does not mean that the GM cannot have fun. It also, critically, does not mean that the GM is somehow ‘above’ the players. The engine of a car is a critical component, without which the car cannot function — but there are many other parts that also fit that description. Just as you cannot play a game of D&D5e without a GM (though someone has probably tried), you cannot play it without players either1. The most toxic environments I’ve seen for RPGs have been ones where the GM believes themselves to be some sort of god, author, or puppetmaster whose role it is to steer the players into the ‘correct’ way of playing their game. The game belongs to everyone at the table, and the GM is a player in the game as well, just with a different role.
Why am I talking about this? Well, I think playing online reinforces this GM-first viewpoint. It can feel like you’re sat in the seat of a control room, pulling levers and pressing buttons, watching a swarm of rats scurry through a maze. In a lot of online play, I’ll be spending time futzing with the software, getting it to play the sounds that I want, or leafing through character sheets and inspecting stats. The game feels less like a collaborative storytelling experience, and more like a videogame that I am in control of. I can place virtual walls and boundaries, and if you find a way of scaling that wall in the game, it is only (literally) by my hand that your token finds its way onto the other side. If I wanted to delete your character, I need only press delete on it and poof — it is gone. Does it need to be this way? Of course not, you could choose to use no software at all. Sit in a discord channel and theatre of the mind everything, have the players roll their own dice, but then we have a problem of engagement which I will touch on later. It’s a strange feeling, and this might sound like the ramblings of a madman, but I feel less like a GM and more like a sysadmin at times. I’m managing the software, trying to keep things streamlined for my users, making sure they’re not roaming around in places they shouldn’t be. To me, it feels a bit perverse.
When sat at the table, the only artifact of the GM’s primacy is a GM screen — and a lot of people will eschew that entirely. The ‘canvas’ here is the imaginations of everyone sat at the table — a shared creative space that everyone can have their own nuances and understanding of. The canvas for me online, is FoundryVTT. Maybe this is completely bouncing off you, and you’re thinking to yourself “These feel like limitations of software, not of the online component”, and you might be right, but I think the manifest spatial difference is important. At the table, people have faces. The GM is sat right there, with only a piece of card to divide them (if that). This is a space that is shared by board games, by dinners, by casual conversations. It’s a space of equals, and I think it’s something missing from the online experience.
I used to be brave. I created rooms, locations, spaces that were only constrained by what I could think up. When it came to game-time, I’d find some way of representing that space with the tools I had. Empty battlemats with squares, some absolute guff plastic tokens to represent furniture that I had in every rooms, Pathfinder Pawns and marker pens. This was my arsenal, and with it, I would find a way. The fact that these tools are so limited meant, ironically, that I never felt constrained. What I would show in the physical space with my tokens would be so far removed from the mental image that I wanted to share with the players, that I never felt the need for it to be realistic or even passable. If I wanted something to be a really big setpiece, I’d pick up some specific physical artifacts for it and that’d be a little treat. Otherwise, who cares? I trust my players to imagine the world as we’re describing it, and the physical tokens are just there to remind people of distances and enemy types. Were the enemy types properly represented by the tokens? Absolutely not — while the Pathfinder Pawns selection is extensive, it’s not exhaustive, and there were plenty of occasions when I wanted seven skeletons but only had five tokens. Guess I’ll just have to make do!
I used to be brave. Now I can’t play out a scene unless I’ve spent a couple of hours mapping it out. It’s so easy for me to make absolutely satisfactory maps with the innumerable mapping tools that I have, that god forbid we do something that isn’t mapped. You want to what? No, you can’t go to the Forest of Kelem’Dir, I haven’t spent four hours mapping it out and writing the journal entries in FoundryVTT yet. I’ll spend ages agonizing over the tokens, making sure the image is just right — after all, there’s such a selection of images on Google that one of them has to satisfy my relentless requirements. Suddenly, the space described on the screen is no longer just a mechanical aid, it becomes the space. I don’t need to use my imagination, my players don’t need to use their imaginations, and critically, the walls have been erected. “What happens if a token runs off the end of the board?” — strangely this was never a problem when it came to in person play. Everyone knew the boundaries of the physical space because you’re playing on a fucking table, but our imaginations weren’t limited to that. The Forest of Kelem’Dir wasn’t limited to a 30×30 grid, that’s just what we had for that engagement. Online though, why should I give you flowery and in-depth vocal descriptions? The map image is right there you know, just stare at it and accept it. Yes, that bush is real. No, those crates that I put there last time for a little encounter aren’t real, j-just ignore them.
I always laughed at how Critical Role was billed as being dynamic and an evolving story, but when they had encounters, Matt Mercer would bring out the most elaborate and hand-crafted of terrain pieces. It felt a bit like a food show, where they want to convince the audience that they’re cooking things off the cuff, but the chef keeps producing premade flans and yelling “STRANGE COINCIDENCE THAT I JUST HAPPENED TO MAKE THIS EARLIER”. I wondered to myself, if they did something truly bizarre, would Matt just bring out the felt tips and plastic sheet? Now look at me. That’s what I’ve become — I have to be pre-prepared for every encounter, and if I’m not, I’ll just try and steer things away from that. Otherwise, what will my players be looking at in FoundryVTT? An empty grid? After the dozens of maps that I’ve just thrown at them? How horrid! No, no the Forest of Kelem’Dir will just have to wait.
Obviously, there are plenty of people that play online and just use the most basic of tools to represent spaces. This could very well be a ‘me’ problem, but I’ve heard similar points from other online GMs. Things like the line of sight/walls feature in FoundryVTT feel fantastic when you start using them, but they funnel you down a certain direction. To use line of sight, you need to have walls. To use walls, you need to have a map, and to have a decent map with those walls on it, you probably need to have done it beforehand as the tools are a bit too finicky to do on the fly. You’re certainly going to struggle to throw a map together in Dungeondraft in time for your players to walk through the door. Foundry is a great tool in a lot of ways, but it constrains as much as it gives, and that’s something that I’m beginning to understand more and more.
Waste the Motherfuckers
Ah yes, the big one. The eternal problem that has been a problem before online play. “One of my players keeps looking at their phone and forgetting what they’re doing until its their turn, and it takes forever. AITA for shooting them in the face with a glock 17?” Is engagement worse in online play? Absolutely yes. You’re playing at a computer (most likely), and you need to have a thing called The Internet. Sadly for us GMs, The Internet also provides things that aren’t just RPGs — but a myriad of entertaining, soul-stealing activities. Those are the things that your RPG needs to contend with for attention, and those things have been finely tuned over years and years to steal engagement. Who’s going to win: you, or the thing that the ICO tells you to worry about? Spoilers, probably not you, at least not all of the time. The worst part is that it only takes a short lapse for it to be very frustrating for everyone else at the table. 20 seconds of missed attention, and then you’ve got someone going “oh sorry was it my turn? What just happened?”. This feels like slamming the handbrake in a session, and if it happens repeatedly, then you’re in trouble. Did this happen in-person? Yes. However, there’s more of a social taboo about whipping out your phone and ignoring everyone else at a table. Plus, it’s far harder to ignore people when they’re sitting right there, possibly talking at you.
There’s another side of this which I think is very important. Much like the experience of working from home, playing RPGs on your computer can make it meld in with everything else. You close the application you use for playing other games/writing/whatever, and you open the application you use for RPGs. The lack of ceremony makes it seem incredibly pedestrian. Whereas in-person play makes certain demands. You have travel time, you have food, drinks, a sense of tactility to the whole experience. Usually when I DM, I’m running things at my house, but I have to do a fair amount of rearranging to get it to a state where we can play: so even for me, there is a procedure to getting into the ‘RPG-playing-mode’. These things are important because I think they force your brain to change gears in a significant way. It also breeds a level of commitment to the game — if you just travelled 30 mins to an hour to get somewhere, you’re less likely to want to fob it off in the moment. If you’re sat at your PC, using the same actions, peripherals, wearing the same stuff as you were for the previous hours of consciousness, you’re less likely to believe that this RPG game-playing time is special.
I would even go as far as to say this extends to the very mechanics of playing RPGs as well. Rolling a dice in person is a very exclusive action unless you’re a compulsive gambler. You are highly unlikely to be rolling dice for any other purpose other than playing a game. What about rolling a dice online? Hell, I use my keyboard and mouse for basically every waking moment of my life. If I’m “rolling a dice” using those tools, then that activity has entered the most pedestrian, commonplace group that I have. It’s not just the feel of the dice as a physical object, it’s how we’re engaging with them. Physical, on-paper character sheets can lend a level of value that characters in VTT platforms just don’t have. A player is more likely to care about a character that they’ve physically had to fill in a sheet for, and have a physical artifact representing, than a character that could be easily copy-pasted a thousand times. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to care about a character you created in a VTT platform, that argument would be utterly ridiculous, but it’s a question of what mode of playing encourages what behaviours?
I haven’t talked about the advantages of playing online really, because I think they’re going to be fairly obvious. You don’t get COVID, you’re able to play with people who are very far away, it’s easier to schedule, and you don’t need to have a large-ish room to do it. There’s plenty more that I’ve missed, but there’s just an insurmountable point against the online platform. Fundamentally, TTRPGs are an incredibly unique thing — there is nothing quite like them as an activity. At a time where we have incredible technology driving videogames to be more immersive, more engaging, and more realistic, people are STILL playing roleplaying games driven by their imaginations and some dice. More and more people join this group every day. This says to me that videogames do not scratch the itch for a TTRPG, and until we’re floating in shared-mind tanks, I don’t think they ever will. Something else that reinforces the uniqueness of TTRPGs is the difficulty of describing them to someone who has never played. It feels impossible to put it into words without missing some fundamental aspect of the experience — yes, there’s a level of improv and theatre, but it’s not quite that (and some people ignore that element entirely). Yes, we’re playing a game, but you can’t really win it (though some RPGs might define that state). Yes there’s rules, but they’re not rules in the same way that Monopoly has rules, they’re more like a framework for thinking (though some RPGs might define some very hard and fast rules with very strict action spaces).
The things that make TTRPGs unique and engaging are the things that make it hard for software to deal with them. Computers do not like vagueness, they do not handle grey areas well. This is slowly changing, but for the time being, the realm of the computable is the plane of the rigid. The lovely automation features that FoundryVTT brings are constraining and shackling play to try and enable computation. Yes you can have walls and line-of-sight, but there’s these limitations and restrictions on types of wall — and you better not have too many otherwise performance will tank. You can have maps to represent the space, but there’s size limitations and predefined grid types. These little things are slowly but surely whittling away what makes TTPRGs a joy to play. They live in that grey space of uncertainty, where only a human mind (for now) can properly explore, comprehend and express. Weirdly the thing that made me realise this was happening was a module for the Pathfinder 2e system in Foundry that meant you could click a button on an attack and have it roll the attack, check if AC was exceeded, roll damage, apply damage and resistances. Surely I should want this, right? All of these things are just mathematical paperwork that could be filed away to leave time for the proper decisions?
And yet…it feels wrong. The ceremony of stating “I’m going to attack the kobold”, rolling the dice, stating the outcome…it feels like it is more than just the mathematical computations being performed. When a player says what they’re going to do, rolls the dice, and tells us the outcome, it comes more across as what they are doing. They are responsible for the whole activity, with the GM telling them whether or not their activity has succeeded. Whereas with a VTT platform, it feels more like we’re asking the computer to do something for us. The players are spectators to the computation that the software does, and in some weird way, we’re no longer in full control of the game. We have an additional player, the computer, doing things as well. This is a weird ramble, but I can’t fully express why that level of automation seems to be ‘too far’. I don’t think I’m unique in this sentiment though. It feels like the freeform, maleable, imaginative gameplay has been constrained to a box for the purposes of automating the shit out of it. When that box is there, it becomes much harder to see past it, and your choices very quickly become limited to what the software allows, rather than what you actually want to do.
Obviously a lot of these criticisms are targeted specifically at the automation software that makes online play easier — if we are defining online play in terms of “you go on discord, roll dice in person and maybe share images occasionally”, these won’t apply. In that scenario though, the problem of engagement is the primary roadblock as it’s going to be difficult for some people to sit at their computer without visual stimulai to remain engaged. Anyway, this is all a fairly moot point, because most people won’t be playing online at the moment out of choice. Just wanted to write down my thoughts on it.
1 Such wisdom on this blog eh? You can’t play a game without players, put that on my gravestone. I’m the next Socrates.
Encounters are the soul of many RPGs. They’re the meat and potatoes of several rulesets, the undeniable focus of systems like D&D5e and Pathfinder. Take a look at most fantasy rulebooks, and chances are their cover is depicting some sort of encounter. Dungeons, graveyards, city streets, outer planes. The sky (and beyond) is the limit, so why do you make boring encounters? Oh come on now, don’t pull that face; we’ve all done it. Define a room that’s about 30ft squared, add a couple of doors, maybe a pillar here and there, throw some appropriately statted enemies in and you’ve got an encounter, right? Wrong. What you have defined, is the RPG equivalent of the Street Fighter IV training stage. It is a waste. It won’t be featuring on the cover of your favourite roleplaying game’s rulebook. Here’s some questions to ask yourself for each encounter to try and avoid recreating that training stage.
How is the space of the encounter represented mechanically?
So, picture in your mind that 30ft squared room again. Let’s say it’s a room in a castle, and the players are making their way to some fiendish baron to sort them out. The room was a guard’s dining area, and so the floor is littered with cutlery, food and plates from when the players burst in. How do we reflect this fact in the encounter? Do we just give the players an opening description, give them the room as I just described it, tell them there’s six guards in there with weapons drawn and tell them to roll initiative? Perhaps, but in all likelihood they’ll have forgotten where they are by the end of the second round. If you’re playing in person, using more generic tiles/terrain, more likely it’ll be by the end of the first round. If we want the image to stick in our player’s heads, we have to give them mechanical reasons for that. So the question then becomes, how can we better represent this space in the rules of the game? Well, we might say that certain regions are difficult terrain — surfaces coated in slop and gruel might represent a challenge to traverse, so characters might have to spend twice as long to ensure they don’t fall over. That’s a start, but quite a few things are difficult terrain, and I find that just slowing people down isn’t terribly enjoyable. How about a 5-10% chance of them falling over when they run across a square that’s covered in food? So they roll a D20, and on a 1 or a 2, they fall prone. That might be a bit slapstick for your tastes, but as long as that chance is manageable (aka, they can move around the squares covered in slop, or can jump to avoid it), it should be grand.
How about a couple of the guards at the back have drawn crossbows, and kicked over a table to give themselves cover? When they do this, they scatter more of the food/slop onto the ground, and cause more difficulty in crossing the room. In doing this, we tell the players that they’re also able to do that (there’s nothing special about the guards ability to kick over tables), but we’re also mechanically reminding them of where the encounter is taking place. Naturally, these are factors that we’ll need to take into account when talking about the difficulty of the encounter (two crossbow wielding guards in a well-defended position is going to be a higher difficulty than them standing point blank). How about as a last addition, we add a bubbling cauldron of stew in the middle of the room, that was in the process of being ladled out when the players burst in. A smart player might see this as an opportunity to throw or shove a guard into it, and we might say that the cauldron causes 1d6 or 2d6 fire damage from when they fall into the scolding fluid.
This might all seem a bit simple, but in the process of doing this, we’ve created an encounter that is firmly tied to its location. There are mechanical elements at play that are attached to unique circumstances of the space, and we reward players for keeping a narrative picture in their head. The idea of setup and payoff is one that appears throughout fiction, and one that we can apply here. We setup the bubbling cauldron by describing it when they enter the room — taking care not to lampshade its existence too strongly, otherwise it becomes more of a DM instruction than a player revelation. An engaged and imaginative player then correctly positions that part of the description as a mechanical opportunity. That player might then take actions to enable themselves to use that opportunity as it has been given, maybe they run for the pot, maybe they grab hold of the nearest guard and start making their way over to it. We achieve payoff when the player takes the appropriate action, in this case throwing/shoving the guard into the cauldron, and we give them a mechanical benefit (2d6 fire damage) for doing so. Everyone wins in this scenario, apart from the guard. The player is happy, because they now feel like they’re playing in a complex world where opportunities are available to them beyond purely swinging a sword, and they’ve done something cool. The DM is happy because a player has paid attention to the world and the space, and has utilized a tool that we made available to them.
I believe I’ve said this before, but the ability to interact in complex ways with a game environment is one of the stand-out features of tabletop play, that videogames have not even come close to touching. By thinking about how our encounter spaces impact the game mechanically, we not only ensure that our players must keep the image of that space in their head during play, but we give them opportunities to exploit that space to their ends. It also gives the DM opportunities to demonstrate intelligent behaviours from their adversaries. If the players aren’t making use of that bubbling cauldron of slop, what’s to say a guard doesn’t try and throw one of the players into it?
What are the stakes?
There are a few RPG systems that ask you to setup the stakes for any roll that you do. In a nutshell, what is the price of failure here? What do the players stand to lose, and what do they stand to gain? However, this is not purely a question that we need to answer for the outcomes of rolls — I think this is a question that we should be asking for each of our encounters. In a lot of cases, the stakes are going to be ‘the lives of the players’. The expectation from our players is normally going to be that if they “fail” an encounter, their characters will be slain or captured. This is normally enforced by the system that we’re playing, but it is distinctly boring to have that be the only thing on the line. What am I talking about here? Let’s set up a room:
Now deep in the bowels of Baron Unspeakable's horrid abode, you open an iron door to an active and bustling foundry. Iron chains hang from the ceiling, while large buckets of molten metal are carried aloft by churning machinery. A collection of soot-stained metalworkers carrying forge tools work on orange-hot bars, while clanking conveyor belts haul scrap into a scorching furnace below. As you enter, several of them pick up these half-finished weapons, and wield them with grim intent.
So far, so good. We’ve got an interesting environment, with plenty of opportunity for peril, and plenty of opportunity for complex interactions. Maybe the players manage to divert one of those buckets to dump its contents over a metalworker? Maybe one of the metalworkers attempts the same, and the players have to make a save to avoid being horribly scorched? However, the stakes are still the same as last time: their lives. Let’s add a sentence or two that will completely change the energy of this encounter…
A glint catches your eye from one of the conveyor belts at the back of the room. It looks like a large, radiant metal sword has been thrown in amongst the scrap metal, and is slowly making its way into the furnace.
Ho ho, oh boy. Most players will fall into one of two camps here: one camp will treat that sword like it’s an additional bonus — if the chance to get it arises, then they’ll take it, otherwise no sweat. The other camp will attempt to get that sword no matter what, even if it possibly imperils the entire party. The lesson here is that there are things that matter to players beyond just life and death scenarios, they just have to be established properly. A world in which the players are up to their armpits in fantastically powerful magical swords won’t be the best atmosphere for the scenario above, but one where loot has been somewhat scarce, and the party is absolutely jonesing for a power boost? They’ll kill themselves going for it. Again, this is a case of setups and payoffs. We setup the scene by describing how this incredibly dangerous environment (a foundry full of sharp weapons and hazards) holds a potential reward for them. We introduce tension by demonstrating how this potential reward is in jeopardy (the fall into the furnace), and how the player party will have to act quickly to acquire an additional reward for completing the encounter. The payoff is where they either get the sword, or watch as it falls into the foundry and is destroyed. Now we have multiple layers of failure state, beyond the ones given to us by player death — some players who manage to survive the encounter, but lose the sword, will consider that a failure. Perhaps they begin to think about how they can stop the sword from falling into the foundry by using their toolkits, and the environment around them.
The idea here is to think about how we can affect the party in ways that isn’t simply reducing their health. Taking away their items is normally a sure-fire way to piss someone off, but destroying potential loot is far more acceptable to most. If the players are particularly attached to an NPC, what happens when that NPC is put into a dangerous situation and they have to choose between their own safety, and that of the NPCs? What about a location they like? They’re fighting in a house where the walls are on fire, and they have to choose between extinguishing the flames and causing damage as normal. Your mileage will vary on these things, and you might have players that are extremely unhappy with a location they’ve spent time and effort on being burned to the ground. I think the DM’s role here is to find interesting ways to add stakes to encounters that go above and beyond ‘fight or die’. Videogames typically have that and only that, but we can do better.
How does this encounter differ from the one before or after?
In my mind, there’s two sorts of bad encounter. There’s the kind of encounter where the players feel frustrated by what they’re experiencing. A classic example of this is most invisible enemy encounters in D&D5e — a heady mix of fairly abysmal rules when it comes to invisibility, and a feeling of “throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks” with regard to defeating it. There are ways of avoiding this, but some of the worst encounters I’ve ever run have used invisibility enemies, and I’d never do one without being very sure that what I’ve included makes it much less painless. The second type of bad encounter is the pedestrian encounter — an encounter that is extremely forgettable, that is only included for the sake of having one. Well, we’ve been playing for a few hours this session and we’ve yet to have a swordfight, so we’re going to have one. I’ll throw in some generic, level-appropriate enemies, we’ll bring out a 20×20 ft. space, and the next hour will be spent rolling combat dice. Now, there are some campaign settings where this sort of encounter feels unavoidable. If you’re playing a sandbox-style one, you’re probably going to have random encounter tables, and you’ll probably want regular encounters for travel. This is mostly because, as the DM, a sandbox-style experience is going to be player driven — you’re not going to be able to say, we’ll have an encounter on X mountain because you’re not going to know if they’re going to that mountain. What you ARE able to say, is “if they go to a mountain, we can have this kind of encounter”.
I’m digressing here. My hot take here is that there is nothing more damaging to a RPG session than a pedestrian encounter. When you’re in the more freeform modes of play (exploration, downtime) that D&D5e and Pathfinder offer you, there’s a chance for players to jump in when they so desire. A DM in these situations can (and should) be shunting the spotlight around to keep everyone engaged and active. When you’re enslaved to the turn order however, a player knows that when their turn has passed, it’s going to be a while before they get to act again. Their brain drifts onto other things, maybe they look at their phone. The turn comes back to them: “sorry what was the last thing that happened?”. They have to spend time looking at the game state and then taking their turn, during which the other players are possibly undergoing the same process. This sucks for everyone at the table. So the question becomes “what makes an encounter pedestrian?”. Apart from ignoring the points above that we’ve already covered, I’d say that the fastest way of doing it is by having the same sort of encounter play out again. Imagine in our dining room scenario, the party moves on through the next doorway, and they’re in another room with four or five guards. How is this meaningfully different from the previous encounter? We have to think of ways to keep it different, and if we can’t think of a way, then it’s better to not have an encounter at all. If you can’t think of a way to make an entire castle’s worth of encounters interesting, then don’t have an entire castle’s worth.
If the concern is that you’re playing an XP-based system, and you need the players to be a certain level for some content, then you can always use other mechanisms of granting XP. Pathfinder 2e enables the DM to grant arbitrary XP based on ‘accomplishments’, which are vague enough in scope that you can give them for basically anything. Again, I would rather give my players 120XP for absolutely nonsense reasons, rather than have them play an encounter for the sake of giving them that XP. So, we have to find a way of keeping each encounter fresh, and distinct from the encounters adjacent to it. In our case, perhaps after the Dining Room is a corridor through to some sort of alchemical laboratory? Perhaps this room has been enchanted with some haywire magic, and each round causes the room to flip the characters from floor to ceiling? Maybe it’s a room that suppresses fire, or even amplifies it, adding +1d6 damage? The ability to customise monsters, monster composition in encounters, and the encounter space gives us enormous scope to come up with various distinct kinds — the main limitation is going to be your ability to come up with them. Again, if you’re slow to design encounters, this isn’t a reason to create several that are very similar. It’s a reason to take more time between sessions for prep, it’s a reason to find alternative mechanisms to grant players the rewards you wanted to give them through encounters. If you’re playing a combat-based RPG, you’re going to want your players to remember your encounters, otherwise they’re not going to remember a large percentage of the game.
Where is the motion?
This one might seem a bit esoteric at face value, but bear with me here. I think the difference between a good encounter and a great encounter is a source of motion. Again, one of the worst experiences you can have in a combat-focused RPG is the sense that you’re all stood around a monster swinging your wiffle-bats at it, and chipping away at a health bar. This is again, MMO videogame shite. We can do better. Let’s take a look at the D&D Monster Manual
Apart from the fact that this is extremely good art, the art is absolutely packed to the gills with motion. The beholder is literally bearing down on them, occupying almost all of the space. We see the dwarf, tilting his body away possibly to strike, or possibly in fear. We see a fighter (?) throwing their hand up, having either delivered a blow, or readying a mighty swing. This image is absolutely PACKED with motion, even in the environment.
This is what we want our encounters to be. Fluid. Dynamic. Changeable. If we have slow enemies, we never want them to feel static or statue-like, we want them to feel inexorable. If we have fast enemies, we want them to demonstrate that: have them move around, jump over obstacles, scrabble over walls. If something has climb, make it climb. It something has burrow, make it burrow. If something’s a swarm, give it something to swarm over or out of. If your players are walking into a room, and there’s just a whole pile of spiders sat in the middle of it, that’s some distinctly MMO nonsense. Have them enter the room, weapons raised, then realise in horror that the shadows in the corners are actually countless piles of the bastards. Now, D&D5e has mechanics that make this fluid motion more difficult (because of the prevalence of opportunity attacks), but you should still do it. Have the enemies eat opportunity damage sometimes, because it’s worth it to maintain that feeling of energy and momentum to the encounter. If your enemies are moving, your melee players are moving. If your ranged players don’t have a reason to move, give them a goddamned reason to move. My favourite style of motion for this is the ‘slowly collapsing room’, where you have sections of a room slowly fall down, meaning that the players have to pay attention to the space, but also spend valuable time moving or getting uncomfortably close to the enemies. If players aren’t having to make difficult decisions when it comes to not moving, or moving and possibly putting themselves in danger, then you’re missing a trick.
In our dining room example, the source of motion is going to come from the tumbling piles of food and the characters falling over. We want that encounter to turn into something resembling Glastonbury, where slop covered swordsman fight in the remains of a shepherd’s pie. We want our guards to be tripping, shoving, attempting to throw them into cauldrons. In our foundry/smelting room example, our motion is going to come from the machinery — the buckets of molten metal, the conveyor belts, etc. We want our players to be evaluating if where they’re standing right now is the best place, and we probably don’t want that to be more than one turn in a row. We want buckets of molten metal falling from the chains, spreading hazardous surfaces across the floor. We want characters getting nailbitingly close to the edges that could send them into the roiling fire below. I watched a critique from a well-known Youtuber who said that they couldn’t understand why anyone would ever not use the three action variant of magic missile in Pathfinder 2e (where moving costs an action, so the caster is electing to stand still). This is a person who is playing encounters that largely involve people standing still, throwing hands and magic at each other. If you don’t have a reason why anyone would ever want to cast a lower power version of a spell to have the ability to move, I have three words for you. Slowly. Falling. Ceiling. I can count those reasons in D6s of bludgeoning damage.
If you’re sat there, thinking to yourself “but I want to set an encounter in a forest, and I don’t know where that sort of motion is going to occur”, then I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. Speaking of which.
Am I putting setting/worldbuilding before gameplay?
Let me deliver unto you one last steaming hot take. Every encounter should be designed in terms of what is fun and interesting first, and in terms of your world/setting/campaign materialsecond. What do I mean by this? Well, if you’re intending to set your campaign in a gigantic desert, and you don’t have enough ways of mechanically making that desert fun and engaging when it comes to encounters, then you shouldn’t set it in a desert! If your approach to designing the baron’s castle is thinking in terms of which a castle should historically have to be accurate, then working out how to make that fun and interesting afterwards, you’re going to end up with a boring session/campaign. I don’t particularly care if it “makes sense” that a castle would have three consecutive rooms of guards before anything of value, or if the alchemist’s stuff really should be in a different building — we want to make something that is fun and engaging first, then create narrative reasons to allow for that. Maybe the alchemist is best buds with the Baron? Maybe there’s very few guards because it’s a bank holiday, and they’re all down at Ed’s Easy Diner. Does this mean that there’s probably going to be plot-holes or nitpicks that people can make? Absolutely. I’d rather have a campaign that people can nitpick holes in, but ultimately still thoroughly enjoyed, over a campaign that never got off the ground because there was a complete lack of engagement.
If you think it’s fun to have an encounter with flying enemies inside the castle, then design that encounter and figure out a way of fitting it in. Note that I’m not saying you should have an absolute wacko-universe where gargantuan dragons come flying out of cupboards, what I’m saying is that your first intent should be to create an engaging encounter. I’ll forgive a cupboard dragon if the fight afterwards is the greatest goddamn thing I’ve ever played. You’ve got to find a way of making your desert campaign ‘pop’ when it comes to mechanics and gameplay — if you can’t, then it doesn’t matter how good your desert lore and worldbuilding is, it’ll die before the start of the fourth session. I don’t play your worldbuilding, I don’t play your maps or your homebrew languages; I play the game as it stands before me. Give me a thousand cupboard dragons over one day trawling a mechanically dull and unengaging desert.
I got a bit rambly towards the end there, but there you go. Some questions to ask yourself.
If there’s one thing that I can proudly say I’ve done in my ~10 years of near constant DMing, it’s horribly fail in almost every conceivable way. I’ve run terrible, unsatisfying sessions. I’ve created utterly uninspired settings, devoid of any character or pull. I’ve written massive character backstories for NPCs that players talk to for three minutes, then forget immediately. I’ve written less than a sentence of notes for locations that then became frequent stomping grounds. I’ve written mysteries with massive holes that needed patching on-the-fly, monsters where I’ve missed key statistics, and homebrew magic so ridiculous that it wasn’t worth the bytes it was stored in. I like to think, however, that through this process of constant failure, I’ve slowly honed my DM skills to the point that I avoid a lot of the common pitfalls — instead, plummeting into new and hitherto unexplored ones. This post, I’m going to talk about what obscure problems I’ve run into, and how to avoid them.
Perfect Failure, Perfect Success
There is a very common meme in the RPG space, the meme of “wacky anecdotes from when people roll 20 or 1”. The story of the dwarf who rolls a natural 20 on a pit and convinces it to close up, that moment when your fighter rolls a natural one and buries his broadsword in an adjacent friendly wizard. These are funny anecdotes, but they’re also a terrible way to play a game. Unless the system you’re playing specifies extreme events from critical successes/failures, you probably shouldn’t add them. The reason for this is fairly simple — sure, it was highly entertaining when someone rolled a natural 20 on their acrobatics check, and gained the power of flight as a result, but what do you do when it happens again ten minutes later? The same again? A natural 20 occurs 5% of the time, which is pretty damned common in a dice-heavy game like D&D, Pathfinder, etc. If you’re having absolutely catastrophic things happen as a result of natural ones, then you need to be ready for this to occur several times a session.
Most systems dial back on the importance of rolling critical results. In contrast with common house rules, natural 20s on skill checks in D&D5e do not automatically succeed. If your bard is comically weak, then it doesn’t matter what they roll, they cannot lift an object that has a DC greater than 20 + their skill mod. In Pathfinder 2e, if you roll a natural 20 but your result is 10 below the DC, you’re still going to fail1. This might feel quite cruel, because rolling a maximum result on a dice is typically a momentous event, but it’s necessary to maintain the structure of the game. If a natural 20 guaranteed success on skill checks, then the dumbest moron in the land would have a 5% chance of being as knowledgeable than the smartest being on the planet. While this might be funny, and the vibe that you want for your game, you shouldn’t do it without heavy consideration. Games that have extensive house-ruled mechanics for criticals tend to degenerate into absolute nonsense — even when using the ‘official’ critical hit optional rules like the decks for Pathfinder 2e.
Even when it comes to regular failure, you should be careful to never have the outcome be immediately extreme (unless the system is balanced around this notion). If a failure on a Diplomacy roll means that the NPC will never speak to the player again, you’re going to be running out of NPCs by the end of the second session. I think the Climb rules in Pathfinder 2e illustrate this point very well.
Wait a second, where’s the line for when you fail? There isn’t one, because failure in this instance simply means that the action is wasted. The character attempts to move across the incline, loses their footing for a moment, and stops moving. Only when you critically fail, do you actually begin to fall, and even then, Pathfinder 2e has additional rules to alleviate that. This doesn’t mean there’s no consequence for failing — the character wastes an action doing nothing in a game where action economy is extremely important.
For me, I’d summarise this whole point as being “don’t exaggerate success and failure from the result of a single dice roll”. Sure, if a character rolls consecutive critical failures when they’re attempting to move across a sheer drop, you can describe them slowly and painfully plummeting to their death. That’s the mechanical punishment for being incredibly unlucky. Singular results, however, shouldn’t mean a great deal in the grand scheme of things. A failure to Persuade an NPC means a joke that doesn’t land, or an argument they don’t fully agree with. A critical failure means a joke that offends them, or a nonsensical anecdote causing discomfort and difficulty with the conversation moving forwards: it doesn’t mean they immediately draw a crossbow and attempt to murder you in the street. Similarly, a critical success doesn’t mean they immediately abandon their life, swear themselves to your cause, and ask for your hand in marriage. Pathfinder 2e has additional caveats in conversation with the Request action: “Some requests are unsavory or impossible, and even a helpful NPC would never agree to them.“
If you want a world where it’s possible to convince the queen to give the players all of her worldly possessions after one minute of conversation, that’s fine. With a campaign where absolute nonsense has a 5% chance of occurring every dice roll, just be ready for that game to have absolutely no structure after even a handful of sessions.
Old Man Henderson
In a lot of RPGs, when it comes to character creation there is an understood ‘tiering’ of skills and attributes. Usually, every system has some sort of ‘God Stat’ — a statistic that either demands having some points in for a functional character, or one that can have points piled into for good effect. When talking about the canonical fantasy attributes (STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA), the go-to example tends to be dexterity/agility, which has enjoyed a comfortable spot in almost every fantasy RPG. With skills, there’s a bit more variance, even within the traditional dungeoneering RPGs. I’d categorise skills roughly into the following categories of ‘god stats’.
Ability to perceive (perception, spot hidden, listen)
Ability to sneak (stealth, disguise, hide)
Ability to move objects and yourself (athletics, acrobatics, dodge)
Ability to heal (medicine, first aid, surgery)
Ability to persuade (diplomacy, persuade, charm)
Ability to deceive (deception, lie, fast talk)
Ability to discern (insight, psychology, sense motive)
Rarely applies, see below.
Now, you might completely disagree with my selection here. “Where are survival skills!” I hear you cry. “What about library use!” Yes, yes. I’ve missed out quite a few, more system specific skills/attributes to allow for it to be a more general list, but bear with me here. I think I would quite comfortably say that you need to have a party with points in these things for almost any campaign. If you try to play a D&D5e campaign with a party lacking a good Perception score, you’re largely going to have a bad time. If you try to play a Pathfinder 2e campaign with a party lacking a good medicine score, you’re largely going to have a bad time2. If you try to play a Call of Cthulhu campaign with a party lacking a good Persuade/Charm/Fast Talk score, you’re largely going to have a bad time. Obviously, all of these things have conceivable exceptions, but I think these are reasonable assumptions in the main.
So the question is: why are these skills so valuable, or even required? My answer to this would be: because these skills are the ones that emerge ‘thoughtlessly’ in the course of play. If you have a world with societies and NPCs of note, then the character’s ability to interact with those NPCs is going to arise. If you have a world with dungeons (in the broadest sense of the word), then the character’s ability to scrutinise, navigate and manipulate that dungeon is going to arise. With ‘intellectual’ skills, RPGs tend to rely entirely on the player using their wits to solve puzzles or mysteries. Mostly the closest you’ll get to a ‘solve the thing’ skill is something like the investigation skill in D&D5e, or the Idea Roll in Call of Cthulhu 7e. As such, the ‘intellectual’ category lacks the god skills that the other categories have.
Now you’re wondering, “where’s the common DM mistake?”. The existence of ‘god-skills’ implies the existence of…normal skills. Skills that aren’t guaranteed to be useful for a campaign, things like Performance, Religion, or History. These are skills that are mostly taken for flavour purposes, rather than them serving a definite mechanical purpose. If you’re playing a cleric, you’re going to have a (relatively) high Religion skill. The common DM mistake is to think that it’s solely the player’s responsibility to introduce ways for these obscure skills to come up in play. It is not. It is the DM’s as well. The DM should be using the character sheets as inspiration for content — almost like a food menu at a restaurant. If a player has an extremely high Lore (Circus) score (yes, that is a suggested lore in PF2e), it’s utterly absurd to believe that the player can reasonably bring that about by themselves. Instead, as the DM, you should be looking for an opportunity to introduce that check. Maybe the party is assaulted by an aggressor, who moves in a way distinctive to a travelling show? With Lore (Alcohol), perhaps the party stumbles across a disguised noble, who’s drinking a beverage far too rich for their supposed station. If a player’s investigator has a hefty score in Accounting, put them in a situation where reading important financial documents gives them a minor clue for moving forwards.
This does not mean you need to have progression locked behind an iron gate marked “Knowledge of 15th Century Architecture”. It means that you should read your player’s character sheets, and identify opportunities to introduce content that you would not otherwise have thought of. Perception will come up on its own, social skills will come up on their own, but you need to work for the rest. I guarantee however, that when you introduce the obscure lore check that a player put points into, they will love you for it. It’ll be even funnier when they fail that check. In addition, it leads to a considerably richer experience when the players are doing something other than rolling the same five extremely frequent checks, and get to think about the (usually) more minor parts of their character.
Hootsby, the Level 17 Pigeon
Videogame RPGs like World of Warcraft or Divinity: Original Sin 2 have set a fairly ugly precedent when it comes to NPC/creature design in a levelled environment. I’ll give you a specific example of this problem: both games have settlements/civilisation that they expect the player to frequently visit for things like services, repairs, buying magic items, etc. However, in DOS2’s case, they don’t want you to be able to just murder the whole town and steal all the items, otherwise it’d lead to a horrible imbalance in favour of the players. In WoW’s case, they don’t want players from opposing factions to be able to easily rampage through the town, murdering all the NPCs and preventing other players from interacting with them. So there’s two immediate approaches here: you could flat-out prevent players from interacting with NPCs in that way, removing their agency and preventing them from imbalancing the game3. The second option, is that you make the town guard or merchant NPCs high enough level/sufficiently powerful that the players are in serious danger if they attempt to attack them. In DOS2’s case, this means that most of the merchants are weirdly capable in things like magic and swordsmanship, despite seemingly spending their lives yelling in a village square. In WoW’s case, this means that all of the town guard sit at the current max level of the players, and will usually cream the shit out of any individual starting trouble.
For a videogame, which lacks the moderating influence of a player – DM relationship, and with a computationally limited ability to adjust the world, these decisions make mechanical sense. The challenge of combat in DOS2 would be somewhat trivialised if you were able to gear yourself with the best available gear by easily slaughtering merchants at the very start4. The ‘story’ of WoW would be heavily disrupted if you could plunge a sword into the king’s head at any moment. The decisions, do not, however, make even a lick of narrative sense. In WoW’s case, a player character sat at the max level has overcome colossal challenges. They’ve fought and won against beasts from other dimensions, titans built as guardians of the world, outer gods who have come to consume the whole planet. Wielding armour and artifacts embued with holy power and arcane magics, they find themselves equally matched by a member of the town guard, wielding a mass-manufactured sword and uniform. It’s nonsense, clear baloney, but it’s a fact that the game needs you to accept (or at least, not think about) to not cause the wheels to fall off the rollercoaster.
In levelled, fantasy roleplaying games like D&D5e and Pathfinder 2e, levels do not just reflect a power change. Levels reflect a context change. There is a frequently quoted set of contexts with associated level bounds within these systems:
1 – 5
Local problems, villages, towns.
6 – 10
National problems, cities, countries.
11 – 15
Planetary problems, continents, hemispheres
16 – 20
Planar problems, material plane, universes
Not pictured, “level 0 problems”: big stinky rats.
The idea is, as the players increase in level, the context of the campaign shifts to accomodate their new abilities. Importantly, this is nothing to do with mechanical balance. This is purely to do with the narrative implications. Shifting the context at level sixteen says to the players that the mundane world can no longer offer a problem they can’t easily overcome. Their accomplishments have grown them to the point that they need to engage with transcendetal beings, or other dimensions, to be given any sort of challenge. By simply adjusting the levels and stats of otherwise mundane NPCs, you rob your players the opportunity to look back and see how far they’ve come. If the difference between a level 1 bandit, and a level 17 bandit in your world purely amounts to greater damage numbers and stats on a page, then something has gone wrong and an opportunity has been lost.
To codify this into a mistake then, the problem is merely upscaling the challenges that were faced in previous levels, instead of introducing new challenges that better fit the power the players now wield. This is something I have stumbled across in some of the PF2e prewritten content. I won’t have any spoilers, but the players go to a city that has a level 17city guard in garrison. As far as I can see, they’re not blessed by the gods, they’re not forged out of clay and given sentience through magic — they’re just normal human humanoids.
Now admittedly, the city isn’t an entirely mundane one, but my point still stands that there hasn’t been an established narrative reason for the guard to be walking gods. If you need your players to visit a city where you don’t want them to immediately tear up the place with their immense power, you probably want to set it somewhere that isn’t extremely mundane. Put the city in a pocket dimension, with divine otherworldly guards — not just ‘Todd the Guardsman’ who, for some reason, is capable of cleaving a hill giant in half. Ask yourself, if your town guard are so powerful, why aren’t they the ones solving the problems that the adventurers are? There could be a myriad of reasons why this is the case, political, religious, not just a power disparity. There just has to be a reason, otherwise you end up with WoW-world.
1 Your roll fails to hit the DC, which means it’s a failure. It’s 10 below the DC, which means it becomes a critical failure . The natural 20 only adds one level of success, which returns the result to being merely a failure, but a failure nonetheless.
2 I’m increasingly convinced that the whole system is balanced on someone having the ability to effectively Treat Wounds.
3 The Elder Scrolls games are a mix of these approaches. Sure, you can murder a shopkeeper in Skyrim, but they won’t have the purchasable catalogue of their store on the body — making the murder relatively pointless. With some NPCs, you’re prevented from killing them at all, simply rendering them unconscious despite the fact you’re burying a battleaxe into their skull.
4 Worth mentioning that DOS2 does indeed give you the ability to outright butcher NPCs. If you go back to a town having gotten several levels over it, you’re able to absolutely blow it to smithereens. Though at that point, the gear they drop is likely to be useless. I wanted to have DOS2 as an example of a non-MMO RPG, but in a lot of respects, it bucks the normal trend here.
There are two wolves. One loves to start new things, buy new games, start new RPG campaigns, take on new hobbies and do anything other than what I was doing last week. The second wolf is an incredibly impressionable one, which loves doing whatever I was just exposed to. If I’ve been watching/listening to something that’s Call of Cthulhu-esque, I’ll immediately start writing a Call of Cthulhu campaign. If I start reading a fantasy novel, I’ll start writing a fantasy novel. If I see some good art, I’ll start thinking about drawing, maybe finishing that art course that I started last year. If I see someone playing a game, I’ll probably start playing that game too, unless there’s something about it which really puts me off. These two wolves combine their energies, and make me someone who loves to start new shit, and that new shit tends to be based on whatever I was last exposed to. This is a problem.
It’s a problem because I see the creation of multi-part works, like books with future sequels, or RPG campaigns, as a promise to the people that experience them. The promise is, generally, ‘this will go somewhere, and will be concluded’. This is something that I’ve complained about when it comes to Game of Thrones (the books), and more recently The Kingkiller Chronicle – series where the author has yet to finish them, and has left the readers waiting for several years. I see it as cruel: the most dedicated readers of the work are the ones who suffer the longest and most; left waiting for a conclusion that may or may not come. There’s an element of bad craft as well. If your first few books came out with a good regularity, but your final one takes you over a decade to write, it suggests that you didn’t plan out the series and have been stuck trying to tie up ends. I think there’s a general intuition that starting things is pretty easy, but ending them satisfactorily is difficult. There are frankly enumerable TV shows that we can point to as a perfect example of this imbalance, especially in the ‘mystery box’ genre, which seems to be vogue right now.
If I told you that I never intended to finish the book that I started posting here, you’d probably think I was an asshole. You’d wonder why I didn’t warn you that it was never going to have a conclusion, and you probably wouldn’t have read it. You might even feel deceived — the feeling that people have when they buy an early-access game that never sees a proper release. I know there’s a lot of emotion around this subject, and folk tend to take the side of creators unless they’ve done something really heinous, but I think it has to be a two way street. Consuming media is not an effortless activity by an audience: sure there’s definitely forms of media that are easier to experience (TV, mobile games, etc), but everything demands some level of engagement from the person experiencing it. If you’ve read all the Game of Thrones novels, and the final one never sees the light of day, then it feels like your effort (as the audience) has not been respected. Money definitely complicates this picture as well. Some scrambled thoughts here, but I guess I’m trying to give you a picture of the internal creative trampoline I live on.
Here’s a list of stuff that I’m currently have mid-flight:
Writing a fantasy novel, chapter by chapter, on this blog.
The Pathfinder 2e system review post, the last part of which sits in drafts.
Creating a PF2e prewritten campaign for levels 1-5.
A LANCER campaign that I was meant to run for a second time, but haven’t gotten round to.
A D&D podcast idea that came about pre-pandemic, I made some moves towards starting, before it all sort of fell through the floor.
Photography bits and pieces, RPG videos using the camera that I explicitly bought for this purpose.
Miniature painting a load of minis that are due to arrive very soon.
Finishing a udacity character drawing art course.
This list goes on. It sort of sits in a priority order, and I was considering making this an actual page on the blog. “Creative projects that have yet to be finished”, but that felt like normalising the act of never finishing anything. I feared that it’d become something of a ‘Google Graveyard’. I wonder though, is this a problem? Is this the state that I just need to exist in? If I set up enough projects, when I’m inevitably influenced into working on something due to some stimuli, then I can just pick up where I left off? I’ve started reading The Wise Man’s Fear and I can already feel myself being compelled to continue writing the book on this blog. I’ve wondered if there’s an element of arrogance here as well: seeing a piece of media and then thinking I can do better. I’m not sure that I think it’s true, or helpful to think about things that way, but it’s definitely something I’ve considered.
In terms of RPG things, the most successful stuff that I’ve done tends to be in the 3-4 session length. After that, I know that my interest starts to fade, and I start to look for novelty in other things. I think what I need to do, is find a way to satiate that desire for novelty within those projects. If I’m getting tired of the direction a long-running RPG campaign is going in, then I need to find a way of spicing it up for myself. Creating fresh, exciting dungeons. New regions, new maps (I always love making maps, that seems to be the one constant throughout my trampolining) or new NPCs. The same goes for the book, if I feel myself getting bored, maybe I need to write a chapter that occurs in the future but don’t publish it yet.
Anyway, here was some scrambled thoughts, and a semi-explanation for why I’ve stopped posting so frequently on this blog. Partially it’s been because I’ve been thinking about and writing the PF2e prewritten, so I might make a few posts on that just to have something going up every so often.
Now that we’ve got an understanding of why Pathfinder exists, it’s time for me to get into the system and talk about what I think works, and what I think doesn’t work. Let’s be positive and start with strengths.
Ten Up Ten Down
Bet you thought I was going to talk about the action economy didn’t you? It’s coming, but one of my favourite features of the system is how criticals work. Let’s start with an example of play.
Ko'Rosh the Obliterator, a level 17 Fighter wielding a sword and shield is locked in deadly combat with three kobolds. It's Ko'Rosh's turn, and they elect to strike at the nearest kobold. They roll a natural 20, a critical hit. This automatically hits, and doubles the damage of Ko'Rosh's blow, sending the kobold into the afterlife with a brutal slash. They use their second action to perform another strike, and they roll a 18 on the d20. When combined with their formidable attack bonuses, the value exceeds the kobold's AC by 10 or more, which upgrades the strike to a critical hit; another kobold sent straight to kobold hell. For their last action, Ko'Rosh raises their shield, adding +2 to their AC.
The remaining kobold decides to thrust their spear at Ko'Rosh with all their strength, and also rolls a natural 20. However, Ko'Rosh is adorned with the mightiest plate armour in all of Heimeletar, wielding the biggest shield in all the land. This puts Ko'Rosh's AC at over 10 above the kobold's attack, even with the natural 20. While the kobold does get the hit, it is downgraded to a regular success as a result, doing meagre damage.
I’ve used the simplest example here of strikes in combat, but this system of +10 or -10 upgrading and downgrading dice results is an excellent addition for a few reasons.
Rules that interact with criticals are no longer mostly wasted space, as we can expect them to occur much more frequently than the normal 5% on a d20. (PF2e makes extensive use of this, more on that later)
Players now have a degree of control over criticals – using AC modifying effects, they can cause them to happen more or less frequently.
Results like 19 on the dice are no longer an “aw that was almost a natural 20, but now it’s just another result”. Extremely high rolls of the dice are rewarded (and the inverse is also true).
Large level differences are exemplified – if you’re a living god, then no matter how hard they try, a kobold cannot crit you (but can hit you, a rule normally played out by ‘confirming criticals’ in older systems).
This is a very low weight mechanic (in terms of explanation and literal text), that punches far above its weight in terms of impact and excellence. I enjoy it so much that I would even be tempted to homebrew it into systems that don’t have it, provided that their critical rules aren’t completely outrageous. Point 2 in the list above is something that I think is very important to stress. I have an ongoing memory from a game of Shadowrun Fifth Edition, wherein a player managed to sneak behind a security guard that was manning some camera screens. They drew their pistol, without being noticed, and shot them in the back of the head. However, because they didn’t roll critical damage, they only did about half the guard’s health; oof. However, in the Pathfinder 2e world, we’re increasing the chance of critical damage as well – so enemies that are flat footed (from being unaware, for instance) are also more likely to eat a fat crit. Neat!
Another element of this, which is a positive or negative depending on your viewpoint, is that Pathfinder 2e can also feel much more lethal than D&D 5e. Damage numbers have remained mostly comparable, with d6s/d8s plus bonuses remaining common, but the amount of crits flying around has increased considerably. This can make encounter design a bit more challenging, as an enemy that was intended to be a minor speedbump might turn into a critting machine. Of course, the inverse is true, with players occasionally mowing their way through enemies that you may have expected to last longer. I tend to be more of a “watch the world burn” sort of DM, so the fact that combat can occasionally be incredibly swift and brutal is perfectly fine with me. A common complaint of these systems is that encounters can feel gruelling and slow – for levels 1-5 at the very least, I can say I have not found this to be the case for Pathfinder 2e.
Alright, let’s talk about it. This is the most commonly lauded part of Pathfinder 2e, if you’re looking for a reason to try PF2e, this is probably it. There is a scourge that afflicts RPG systems, a scourge by the name of action types. If we look at Pathfinder 1st Edition, we have six kinds of action…
I tend to believe that if you have keywords that are so close that they’re nearly synonyms, you shouldn’t use them. Could you tell me the difference between an Immediate action and a Swift action, without knowing anything about PF1e? The PFSRD page for the action economy in first edition is an absolute atrocity. So what about D&D 5e?
While these will be more familiar to most than the Pathfinder 1e terminology, we still have some ambiguity with what exactly a bonus action entails. I’m sure this won’t be a problem for someone who’s a career D&D 5e player, who doesn’t play anything else, but for someone who swaps systems frequently, this can become incredibly tedious; especially when those systems will often use the same terms for different mechanics, or the same mechanic with different terms. So what do we have in Pathfinder 2e?
Actions (Costing 1-3 Actions)
Full disclosure, the rulebook specifies a fourth type called “Activity”, which is the term they use for things that cost more than one action to do; but I find that categorisation actually makes the rules more confusing. The reality: you have three actions, and one reaction by default. The vast majority of things are in the 1-2 action cost range. Let’s have an example of play.
Ko'Rosh the Obliterator is locked in combat with four town guard, having successfully stolen three kegs of ale from a local tavern. Ko'Rosh moves to the nearest guard, clocks them in the face with a mighty punch, and then raises their shield expecting retaliation.
One of the guards moves in with cudgel in hand and attempts to sock Ko'Rosh in the head. They roll high enough to hit Ko'Rosh, but they block with their shield in response - mitigating the damage.
Moving was an action, striking the guard was an action, and raising their shield was an action for Ko’Rosh. Blocking the hit from the guard with their shield cost a reaction. So not only do we have a system that enables a character like a Fighter to indulge in activities that aren’t just moving forwards and swinging a sword, due to the flexibility of having three actions, but we have clear costs for performing those things. If Ko’Rosh had decided to draw their sword, that would have cost an action, which is fine because we have three to play around with. In D&D 5e, having an action cost for drawing a weapon would be extremely punishing, so you have a bizarre situation where doing so is free in the rules (for the first thing drawn). This means that D&D 5e has a bizarre edge case rule for this, (see stackexchange) which Pathfinder 2e does not need.
This follows onto a lot of other activities beyond just drawing a sword. As PF2e is able to divide your turn into thirds, we can have a much smaller delineation of actions, rather than having actions just be “a part of your move”, which is a very mechanically unsatisfying answer.
I’m having this be a subcomponent of the action economy, but the decision to have movement cost an action is one of the best decisions they made with the system. To ask a philosophical question, what is the purpose of space and movement within an RPG system? There’s lots of simulation-y answers here, but in gameplay terms, we have them because they create interesting choices and situations. By having distance, and by requiring effort to cover distance, we enable characters and classes that aren’t fantastic up-close, but excel at longer range, to exist. Pathfinder 2e has an established cost for moving up to your movement speed – one action. That action is fungible, which is to say, it could have been drawing a sword, making an attack, recalling knowledge on an enemy, opening a door, etc. By doing this, movement and positioning becomes important – being stood in the right place means getting an extra attack next turn, it means being able to draw the two handed battleaxe on your back for the final blow.
If we have the movement cost be non-fungible, ala D&D 5e, we no longer need to make that choice. While there might be circumstances like terrain that change that, my character being here, and my character being 25ft away are identical situations in a world where I can move 25ft for free (broadly speaking). Naturally this consistutes a problem, because a game in which everyone can move for free every round, means that characters which want to fight at longer range can essentially guarantee that. This is where attacks of opportunity come in, to try and dissuade you from taking that free move, because it now has the cost of potentially eating a chunk of damage. So we’ve gone from movement being free, to movement having a variable cost mostly based on a dice roll – a cost that few are willing to pay, so they don’t. The irony of this situation being that a game where movement is free, frequently involves people standing still because they don’t want to trigger attacks of opportunity.
Pathfinder 2e has thrown that out. Attacks of opportunity are very rare among monsters and NPCs, and are the property of a specific set of classes. If you are a Wizard, you are not going to be stabbing someone with a dagger as they move away from you. The cost of movement is (usually) well defined, and the decision to move is one that is (usually) well informed. Example of play time.
Ko'Rosh the Obliterator and his travelling companion, Maralanor of the Big Owl, have attempted to capture a renowned bandit with a hefty price on their head. After several rounds of brutal combat in a warehouse, a broken oil lantern has led to the area that Maralanor is stood on being ablaze, and their quarry making a hasty run for the door. With two actions remaining having drawn their spellbook, Maralanor has a choice: do they move out of the fire and avoid possibly fatal burns, or do they remain in it and attempt to cast Paralyze on their fleeing foe?
In a system where movement is free, the question of “do you move out of the fire” is a pretty simple one, outside of some extremely edge-case scenarios. However, in a world where movement means and costs something, we can create scenarios where that question is much harder to answer. In this instance above, there’s a good argument for Maralanor staying in the fire and casting the spell in a PF2e world. In a D&D5e world, there’s absolutely no reason (in the setup above) that Maralanor wouldn’t use their move action to extricate themselves from the fire, then cast Hold Person with their action. I want to believe that combat RPGs are more than just swinging a sword at a goblin – they’re about making decisions in high intensity scenarios. While there’s a limit on the number of choices that people can reasonably pick from, I think movement is something that people should need to consider carefully before doing it. This is something that Pathfinder 2e has managed to do, and I think it’s a much better system for it.
I am a shieldman. I love shields, I love the aesthetics of shields, I love the physicality of shields, I love it all. If a game gives me a chance to have a shield, I’ll normally take it. This is why my heart bleeds for the implementation of shields in D&D 5e. What an absolute waste! Here’s the roll20 version.
Is that it? +2 AC? Look at what they did to my boy. Now to be fair, there’s a feat called Shield Master, which allows you to shove as a bonus action, add that +2 to your dexterity saving throws, and avoid all damage instead of half for effects that’s relevant for; but it’s still not enough. So what have we got for Pathfinder 2e? A lot more.
I feel that shields are a great example of where the streamlining of D&D 5e took a little bit too much out. A shield is more than just the AC bonus it provides, and Paizo realised that. So there’s a whole slew of ways that shields have better mechanical depth and more rewarding gameplay – let’s go through some of them.
Shielding as an Active Thing
In Pathfinder 2e, you don’t simply strap a shield to your arm and call it a day – the act of shielding requires an action called Raise a Shield, which grants you the AC bonus until the start of your next turn. While this might seem like a painful requirement at first, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the early levels, you will frequently have actions to spare. As a result of strike actions scaling such that your second strike in a round is at -5, and your third at -10, it’s usually a waste to use actions on them. At later levels, there are feats that either mitigate, or outright remove the need for the action. But, right from the off, shielding is something that is done, not something that just happens – this is a step in the right direction.
Combine this with a level 1 general feat called Shield Block. Shield block is fantastic because it combines the theme of deflection (increasing AC) with the theme of mitigation (damage absorption) that shields have. Instead of the interaction with a shield being purely your opponent needing to get past it, you can now choose to let your shield take some of the pounding. It’s worth mentioning that on the deflection side – AC improvements are valuable in PF2e because not only do they reduce your chance of getting hit, but they reduce your chance of being crit; so characters with low to middling AC still find value in increasing it, even if most enemies will still hit them in a fight. Let’s go to an example of play.
Aremie Riddlesworth, the level 1 paladin is locked in combat with two street thugs, one wielding a pair of daggers, the other wielding a two handed club. She can hear the footsteps of the town guard on their way, so she only needs to hold out for a round despite her wounds. She's up first so she elects to trip one of the street thugs, move backwards 20ft, and raise her shield. By tripping the street thug, she forces it to spend an action standing up (an action that could have been spent attacking) - between standing up and moving after her, the street thug only has one action left for an attack, which misses.
However, the second thug moves after her, and has two attacks. The first attack hits, and threatens to knock Aremie unconscious with 7 damage, more than her remaining 5 health. She uses shield block to mitigate the damage. Her steel shield eats five of the damage with hardness, and the remaining damage bleeds through into her health and shield. The second attack from the thug misses due to the -5 (from multiple attacks) and the +2 AC from Aremie's steel shield. The round ends, and four town guard round the corner, making for a much more even fight...
In this instance, Aremie used the shield in two different ways at level 1 – increasing her AC and also mitigating damage. If we wanted a more trite example, she could have used it to Shield Bash (which is a supported weapon in the system, requiring no homebrew).
Shields as Something to be Specialized In
If Aremie was wielding a shield with Shield Spikes, then it would start to do more reasonable damage. If she had the level 6 feat Shield Warden, and there was an ally stood adjacent to her, she could use the shield to block damage to them. If she had the level 1 feat Reactive Shield, and the blow from the thug would have been prevented by the additional shield AC, then she could have raised her shield in reaction rather than as an action. This is a subset of the available feats that we could have, and the complexity increases with levels. This is also not including complexity added by magical shields! This one thing, largely a footnote in D&D5e has been given a new lease on life.
This is not least because the Champion class makes extensive use of shields, and has several class elements that interact directly with them. They’re now an item that is worth looking at in depth, and helps bring a shielding character concept to life.
A not-inconsiderable amount of the Core Rulebook is dedicated to a pillar of the game that Paizo has called “Downtime“. Downtime is a tricky thing, because it’s something that a large group of players will simply never interact with. If you’re an adventuring party that goes from dungeon to dungeon, slaying and looting from dusk till dawn, you might never need to use them. However, if you’re running a campaign where the characters have something more akin to a life, then at some point you’re going to run into the question of “what does my character do when they’re not plunging a dagger into the back of a cultist”. I think that the downtime rules provided have given substance to that need, and made clear to the players what their options are. There are a set of downtime actions that are available to everybody (long term rest, retraining, buying and selling goods etc), and then there’s downtime actions that are given to us by the skill system (more on that later). Time for the example of play.
Aremie, having just avoided a unsightly end in the alleyway, retreats to her tavern room to recover for the night. The following morning, she resolves to earn some coin to repair her shield and sleep in a better bed, so she chooses the Earn Income activity for the day. Using her formidable knowledge of Religion, she elects to be an acolyte at the local temple. The DM sets the "task level" of this at level 1, with a DC of 15, as it's an entry level job with little risk of skill required, in a middling part of town. She rolls her religion, and beats the DC. Looking at the Earn Income chart, as she is Trained in religion with a task level of 1, she earns 2sp from the day.
If Aremie desired, she could continue to work the job for the rest of the week, keeping that amount of money - which in 4 more days, would leave her with 1gp to spend. Not a huge amount, but a start.
As the Earn Income rules are so extensible, they act as a great catch-all for when the players just need a little bit of extra money to do something. Furthermore, because almost anything can be used as part of an Earn Income activity, it means there’s always something to do for a player with spare time on their hands. While some might see this as unnecessary mechanisation, and were happy for this to be decided on the fly by the DM, I am not one of those people. I’ve made good use of this ruleset already, and I consider downtime to be an important part of any adventure. You cannot have hot without cold, and I feel like you need to have some normalcy to make the dungeoneering feel more exciting and meaningful.
If I had a criticism of these rules, it’d be that the craft times for mundane items seem incredibly extreme, with a minimum of four days. They can also be a bit hard to wrap your head around at first, with some players being more happy for the DM to just decide this all for them with hand waving. I consider them a good opportunity for the DM to introduce “clocks“, which I think are a fantastic RPG system. If your players are looking to build something themselves over an amount of time, like a bridge or a house, then the earn income/craft rules give us a great shorthand to achieve that. Set the value of the bridge to some value (500gp for example), and then have them do an Earn Income (Craft) check to determine how long it takes them.
To be dramatic, I don’t think there’s anything that makes a DM scratch their head more than travel in a combat-y fantasy RPG. It is the white whale of this genre of RPG, a beast that will spawn infinite stack exchange posts with questions like “How do I run overland travel in [system]”. A beast that will birth infinite subsystems and homebrew concoctions, each with a thousand rollable tables, each requiring new forms of mathematics to determine how far the party can walk. A beast that threatens to grind any session to a halt, with the rulebooks hitting the table, and the “lord of the rings travel playlist xxBongRipZxx” running out of songs.
It represents the fly in the ointment. In combat-focused RPGs, encounter-mode is the quantum world, and overland travel is classical physics, with no system describing both of them to a satisfying degree. Until now. Ah, that’s not true, it’s still somewhat painful – however, PF2e gives us a toolset for handling play that primarily involves moving from A to B, which they’ve wrapped up into the pillar of the “Exploration Mode“. The same concepts of movement speed and actions are present here, but a glaze of vagueness has been applied to enable more narrative gameplay. Again, an example of play.
Clamwater Belchkins, Trudy Grobbsnobbler, Price Snaggleport and Roger Vergie are travelling from their local village to the magical city in the hills. With a minimum speed in their party of 25ft, they're capable of travelling 20 miles per day at 2.5 miles an hour (8 hours of travel). At this rate, they expect to arrive at the city in three days, as it is 60 miles away. They set forth, and the DM asks them how they're intending to travel.
Clamwater says that they're going to keep a sharp lookout in case they're ambushed. The DM translates this to the Scout activity, and adds the bonus to their initiative in the event of combat. Trudy says that she's intending to look for traps or items on the ground. The DM equates this to the Search activity, and will roll her Perception in secret if the party stumbles across something. Price says that he's going to be looking for magical auras using Detect Magic, and so the DM will let them know if they stumble across any auras. Roger intends to keep their shield up in case they're ambushed, so the DM goes to the Defend action.
With all of this settled, the travel speed is adjusted as these actions reduce their speed by half. The Magical City in the Hills is now six days away, but they'll be all the more prepared if anything comes up along the way. Which it does.
While this ruleset doesn’t tell us how characters travel over a map (you’ll have to look at the bad hexploration rules for that, more on that later), it does give us a really nice package for the more narrative-y travel sequences. If characters know where they’re going, and you know the route they’re taking, these rules provide an excellent framework to solve that problem. The trickiness arises when those things aren’t the case. The highest level (of abstraction) solution to this problem is for the players to succeed on a Sense Direction check, modified with bonuses from any information they’ve gleamed, with a DC determined by the sort of terrain. However, it doesn’t give you much for what happens when they fail, beyond “they don’t know what direction they’re going”, so there is still a fair bit of DM work to be done here. The “fail forwards” answer to this would be to have failure cost time, which is a potential solution.
It’s worth mentioning that these travel rules are embedded alongside everything else that PF2e considers ‘exploration‘. There is a lot to unpack here, and I do wonder if it would have been better for there to be a specific ‘Travel’ trait, but I also see the argument for keeping it bundled together. Exploration encompasses literally everything that isn’t combat, or specifically defined in the downtime section, so you’ll see rules for travelling over great distances knocking against rules for identifying magic. As I said, a lot to unpack, but I think that the travel rules are a boon for the system in the main.
I like to believe that I’m someone who straddles the crunch – fluff axis. I enjoyed playing Pathfinder 1e, and I enjoyed playing Monster of the Week. This is to say, I’m not someone wedded to the idea of having rules exist for every possible interaction or decision in a roleplaying game if the players and DM have a good framework to arrive at a sensible solution. In Monster of the Week, you don’t need to have specific rules to handle a character kicking someone, versus punching them. The game provides you with an abstraction (Kick Some Ass) which handles both those scenarios perfectly well for the type of game that MotW is, and the experience it wants to provide. Conversely, Pathfinder 1e and 2e are tactical combat games first. Encounters are a puzzle to be solved, and the players have everything on their character sheet available as a solution. As such, we want a certain level of definition and mechanisation, to allow the players to meaningfully work within those options, and solve a given problem. If I tried to summarise it in a one or two sentences, Monster of the Week gives you mechanics and rules to act as abstractions for what you (the player and the DM) want to happen narratively. Pathfinder (mainly) gives you mechanics and rules to act as tools to achieve what you want to happen narratively.
As an example, in Monster of the Week, you describe narratively how you’re going to punch the clown in the face, which we translate to the Kick Some Ass action and roll appropriately. In Pathfinder, you punching the clown in the face narratively is given by you using the mechanisms that the system provides (striding 15ft to the clown, using the strike action with fists to hit them). While these two scenarios could be altered to reflect the opposing view, I think the intention of the two systems is the key (rules as an enabler vs rules as a descriptor).
I don’t see crunch as an inherently negative thing. If the rules serve the sort of story and experience that the system wants to provide, then it’s grand. For some, having a well codified ruleset for governing many interactions makes the experience of DMing easier, because they don’t need to come up with options on the fly. Almost all of the strengths I have listed above are areas where I think having better codification has pushed Pathfinder 2e ahead of other fantasy RPGs. With more mechanical depth to shields, common questions like “can I hit them with the shield” now have a mechanical answer. With more mechanical depth to travel, questions like “how can I look out for traps while travelling through this forest” can now be answered within the language of the rules. These enable players to have expectations for how these decisions play out, which enables planning, and payoff. If a player gets an amazing result on an Earn Income roll, they don’t have to rely so heavily on the DM making a call in their favour: the rules provide that.
Similarly, with the ten up ten down system, we now have a mechanical framework to reward players for rolling close to but not quite criticals, rather than DMs having to fiat something for when players roll a 19 on a Performance check. For some, this is unnecessary legwork, and they’d be happier with dictating it as the DM. For me, I enjoy not having to think about those things in a fantasy combat RPG, because it gives me more time to think about what actually matters (encounter design, magic items, etc). This does however, make for a fat rulebook and an unappealing first impression. This is not a system I would DM as my first outing, or my second, but we’ll get onto that.
While this isn’t an all encompassing list of everything I like about the system, I think it covers a good portion of what I enjoy. If I wanted this post to be a million miles long, I’d also cover how I think the monster generation tables are excellent, and how the rune system for weapons is pretty good when you get your head around it. Next post will be about what I think the system is really weak at, and then considering it all in totality, so stay tuned.
I am an eternal DM, so it’s worth bearing in mind that this whole thing is going to be coming from the perspective of someone who hasn’t played this as a player. I’ve run PF2e from levels one to five, with three campaigns in a mix of in person and online. I tend to go through campaigns like I go through milk so it’s more like 1.5 or 1.75 campaigns in terms of length. Another important caveat, I’m talking about my experience with the system from only the first five levels. If it completely falls apart when the players reach level six, I don’t know about that. I tend to enjoy systems at the low levels anyway, and there’s a few people that point out things like D&D5e aren’t really meant to be played at level 15+ anyway. Last caveat, I usually don’t play prewrittens, and I haven’t done so here – if the prewritten campaigns are bad (and I’ve not seen glowing reviews), I couldn’t tell you. I have looked over Age of Ashes a bit just to get a feel for what Paizo intended. With all of that out of the way, let’s begin.
As I’m not an engagement seeking parasite, I’ll give you a summary immediately. I’ll then talk about what the system is, strengths and weaknesses, and some closing thoughts.
Pathfinder 2e offers a more playable experience than the first edition, and more mechanically sound gameplay compared to Dungeons and Dragons 5e, but finds itself sat on the fence between two worlds of crunch and fluff. If you’re looking for a fantasy combat-focused RPG with a bit more to it than D&D5e, but were intimidated by older systems, then it’s worth giving PF2e a go. The core rulebook can be an absolute nightmare to use, due to its size and complexity. In addition, it’s an open question as to whether it’ll enjoy a long life, as later content from Paizo has been a bit questionable. As for the DM experience, no major headaches there, with the Gamemasters Guide (GMG) filling in a lot of the gaps left from the core rulebook. NPC generation is handled particularly well with a slew of tables for doing it quickly and easily. There’s some great additional rules included in the GMG, alongside some poor ones.
I’ll likely keep playing it, but it’s going to be a divisive system for most, just because of its positioning between PF1e and D&D5e.
What & Why
Pathfinder Second Edition is a d20 based, combat-focused, character-based roleplaying game with an interesting pedigree which I will get into later. The system primarily supports fighting monsters, acquiring treasure, and exploring dungeons, but not without a good portion of rules for doing other activities like earning gold from working, crafting items, and other actions that the system groups into “downtime”. The journey that the system wants to portray is a story of your characters becoming more powerful as they achieve great deeds and victories, with the scope of problems faced growing alongside them. Is this a system that to tell a tale of subterfuge, diplomacy and investigation? No. There is an extensive skill system (more on that later), but all of this is very much geared towards moving adventurers to dungeons – not having those skills be the bread and butter of the game.
Your average session of PF2e will look something like this (if you’re not playing a sandbox game). The player characters are exposed to/provided a hook which angles them towards some greater unknown or mystery. They might engage with people from settlements to learn more, or perform their downtime actions – but this is primarily done to improve the player’s ability to adventure, or learn where they might do so. After acquiring the requisite information or preparation, they then go to the location, and are challenged with a dungeon; it might not literally be a dungeon, but it will be somewhere with traps, monsters, NPCs and treasure. If they succeed, they are awarded with treasure, XP (if not using the milestone system) and perhaps further information that points them in the direction of another dungeon. Repeat.
While this might sound like a negative description, it really is the core gameplay loop that the system wants you to perform as the DM. I’m actually a big fan of simple loops like the above, so any negativity is coming from my nascent crassness. Worth mentioning that the loop above, is also the core gameplay loop of D&D 5e (despite how many homebrewed settlement management systems might try to tell you otherwise). This is a tried and tested gameplay loop, and I think it’s stood the test of time. Dungeon -> Downtime -> Improvement -> Dungeon.
So why does Pathfinder Second Edition exist? To answer that question, we really have to look at why the Pathfinder series exists at all. If you’re looking for the precise history, the wikipedia article will give you that in detail, but I can give you the abridged version. Paizo, the company that makes Pathfinder, started out as a publisher of D&D 3rd Edition magazines in 2002. This continued until 2007, when Wizards of the Coast (the new publishers of D&D at that time), decided to end that contract. Later that year, WoTC would announce D&D 4th Edition, published under a more restrictive game license (too much to talk about here, but check out the OGL and GSL pages). The latter would come to foreshadow the kind of company that WoTC would become, and the former made a lot of people very angry, and was widely regarded as a bad move.
To continue the “spirit” of the D&D Revised 3rd Edition (D&D 3.5 as people call it), Paizo decided to create their own backwards-compatible system under the OGL called Pathfinder, which kept large chunks of the D&D 3.5 ruleset, but also had a variety of changes. While this might seem utterly unbelievable to someone more new to the RPG scene, Pathfinder was the most popular system for a considerable amount of time, holding the top spot in terms of sales until the release of D&D 5th Edition. Now, that factoid might be a bit deceptive, as I wouldn’t be surprised if the RPG scene had grown ten-fold in the last three years, but I think we can quite comfortably say that Pathfinder has played a significant role in RPG history, and would have been a system that a lot of older RPG players engaged with. So what sort of system was Pathfinder 1st Edition then?
If we’re being generous, I’d use the term involved. It’s interesting that, the history of D&D looks something like a bell curve in terms of complexity, with the earliest editions and 5e being relatively simplistic, and the middle editions the most complex. Pathfinder 1e inherited that complexity. This is not a pick-up-and-play RPG, this is not an RPG that you suggest to your parents over Christmas. This is an RPG that required time, effort, and sometimes software intervention to run properly. Note, I’m not saying that the rules are good or bad; I have some extremely fond memories of PF1e campaigns – what I’m saying, is that there was a gigantic barrier to entry. In combination with all the additional content, sourcebooks, I’m quite confident in saying that I couldn’t make a PF1e character now without access to something like Hero Lab, and I played the system for a good couple of years.
So what’s my point here?
The biggest accomplishment of D&D 5e is accessibility. The system is filled with things that rely on DM fiat (which is easier than having hard-cast rules), simplifications, and greater homogeneity. The corners have been rounded off, and the system is far more approachable as a result. It is not a coincidence that D&D 5e is nearly a household name after this change, and while it’s impossible to concretely prove that it was accessibility that drove popularity, there’s a strong argument for it. Pathfinder 1st Edition on the other hand, sat on a throne of splatbooks, founded on a ruleset that was over a decade old. With a core fanbase that loved the system, if you weren’t already playing it, or you didn’t know someone who was playing it, you weren’t likely to start.
When looked at through the historical lens, Pathfinder Second Edition starts to make sense. A chance to blow out the cobwebs of an aging foundation, to sand off some of the sharp corners that were making the system hard to approach, and also a chance to sell some new rulebooks I suppose. However, Paizo sat in a very difficult and risky position. If they made too many changes to the system, they risked alienating a core fanbase that had stuck with their products for years, whom had (partially) moved over due to a dislike of D&D’s direction. However, if they threw a coat of paint over the first edition, they risked simply splitting their existing base between the two systems, with no influx of new blood to keep the machine going; a wasted endeavour. If you’ve ever googled or looked into PF2e, you probably already know the direction Paizo took.
PF2e is not backwards compatible, meaning that Paizo have left behind nearly two decades worth of material, which was an incredibly brave decision. If I was being extremely reductionist here, I’d say something along the lines of “Paizo thought that the direction WoTC took was the correct one” when it came to simplification and accessibility. I think there’s a lot of nuance that gets left behind with that take, not least that Pathfinder Second Edition is still a more complex game than D&D 5e. However, the sentiment of that sentence smells correct to me – the second edition exists to solve the problem that an aged, monolithic first edition could not; ease of play. I can only imagine that there were dozens of things that Paizo wanted to do with Pathfinder, but weren’t able to because they felt shackled to backwards compatibility. If there wasn’t, I doubt they would have made 2e at all.
While a lot of the above is my reading between the lines somewhat, a great picture of why Pathfinder Second Edition exists is an interview with the lead game designer at Paizo, Jason Bulmahn.
It’s more art than science. First Edition was science, this [Second Edition] is more art.
Pathfinder 2E Interview – Jason Bulmahn – The Creator of Pathfinder
Now, full disclosure, they’re talking about monster design, but I feel like it represents a big motivation for the system, and for TTRPG system design direction in general. Systems are more willing to rely on the DM as a source of reality, in place of a fully codified ruleset. Sentences like “the DM may award a…” have become more and more commonplace. PF2e is very much a product of that environment.
This has, again, positioned Pathfinder Second Edition in a very strange place. It is much less rules heavy than the first edition, but is a fair bit heavier than D&D 5e, and there’s a real risk that this is a game that was made for…nobody. Veterans of the Pathfinder series stick with first edition for the mechanical depth and control, people more familiar with D&D 5e stick with it as they find the depth of Second Edition intimidating. Is this the case? I’ve got a bit of anecdotal evidence that this is happening on some level, but I think the ultimate arbiter will be sales figures and engagement moving forwards. As this is a review, I’ll give you my personal perspective: I think Second Edition offers an experience that First Edition and D&D5e do not, and consequently, I don’t necessarily see it as a replacement. I’ll talk about this later in part two, but there’s nuance to the system that is worth exploring, with elements that Paizo clearly thought they couldn’t do in the first outing of the system.
Something I find quite interesting is that another RPG released by Paizo called Starfinder, “Pathfinder in space”, is meant to be mechanically closer to 1st Edition than second. If I was being cynical, I’d see this as Paizo somewhat hedging their bets by offering Starfinder as an alternative to jaded 1e veterans. I don’t think this is the case, but it’s food for thought. It’s far more likely that some of the mechanical changes that were mid-development for PF2e, made their way into Starfinder, and were field-tested there.
Anyway, I hope this short post has gone somewhere towards answering the “why” of “why does Second Edition exist”. Next time, I’m going to be talking over what I like about the system, what I dislike, and what I’ll give it in terms of a grade.
On March 31st last year, as part of his ongoing actual play series Far Verona, Adam Koebel roleplayed the unconsented sexual assault of one of his players. Despite some initial, considerable outrage, he continued to release content for his channel until the 4th April, with an apology on twitter that he posted the day before. On the 8th of June, in a blog post to his personal website, he says that he is moving on. A few blog posts here and a couple of tweets there, have been all the online activity I’ve seen. An announcement from July of that year, about his removal as a writer from the Dune RPG, is the last RPG post that I can see. For now, it does seem like Adam is “gone” in the online sense of the world.
I will lay my cards on the table. I was a huge fan of Adam’s show Office Hours where he took questions from listeners on TTRPGs. I sent two questions in, which Adam answered and was extremely nice towards. I never watched any of the actual play pieces he did; I’ve tried repeatedly to watch podcasts like Adventure Zone and Critical Role, but I invariably bounce off them after a time. I’ve come to accept that I just don’t like the format, and I’m going to stop forcing myself to like it despite the great popularity it has. I thought that Office Hours was an important series because the DM principles that Adam outlined seemed so essential. His views on the role of the DM resonated so profoundly with me that I would not be surprised if my style shifted overnight having watched his series. He captured nuances and talked in details that I didn’t think any other Youtuber was covering, and I ate it up.
I will joke about things that make me uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve always done, and it’s definitely gotten me into trouble before, and will get me into trouble again. It’s a coping mechanism for sure. There’s another element of this which is a very poor reaction to stress that I have. Stress causes me immediate and obvious pain, I’d describe it like painful pins and needles or a light burn that sort of throbs across my body. It’s very bizarre, but this also causes me to spasm, usually involving my hands. Uncomfortable situations cause me a great deal of stress, stress causes me pain and spasms, pretty simple – so I joke with people, I joke to make those uncomfortable situations go away. I’ll joke with people, and then go and privately spasm on my own time (as is my right). Maybe everyone does this and it’s not just me, I’ve not really asked.
Why am I talking about this? Because I joked at Adam’s expense about the events above. While I didn’t go onto twitter to send bile at him, I was incredibly bitter about the series of events with friends. For a moment, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I really did hate him. This was a heady mix of him violating the DMing principles that he espoused, with a subject (sexual assault) that someone operating in his political sphere (TTRPGs being a pretty left space) should know better about. I wanted to tear him out of my life, and so I did. I unsubbed (gasp!), removed any mention of him from my RPG discord, disconnected a bot that fed videos from his channel to it. I left his community discord, and went about my life. Maybe there’s a sense that, by doing this, I was somehow unburdening myself, but judging by the fact that I’m writing about it now, that clearly wasn’t the case.
I felt like I had been betrayed. I felt like someone who I looked up to, who I agreed with the principles of, had exposed what their real character was. Everything else was for show, everything else was a fraud. This feeling wasn’t borne from some sense of moral revulsion, it’s far more basic than that. I had been lied to, I felt like a sucker – and nobody likes feeling like a sucker. Here I’d been, sending questions into, following, and recommending the videos of someone who clearly didn’t believe what they were saying! Now everything he said was tainted, how much else had he lied about? There’s a sense that, in sharing these videos and taking pleasure in featuring in a couple of them, I was now partially responsible for what had taken place.
In his blog post titled ‘Moving On’ on June 8th 2020, Adam talks about the community reaction to what happened:
I continue to be the recipient of hate, vitriol and targeted abuse both in public and in private spaces. I’m being emailed anonymous threats of harm if I ever return to broadcasting or attend a convention, messages telling me I shouldn’t exist at all let alone be allowed to “come back” — voices shouting that nothing I had previously said or done or made mattered in the face of my mistake. People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible.
Whenever there’s a public figure who has committed some awful act, it seems fairly common that they bemoan the effect it has had on them. My mind goes back to the apology letter from a certain Dota 2 commentator, accused of sexual harrassment, who stepped away from the scene while simultaneously saying they did nothing wrong, and that the toxicity in response was impacting their family. There’s a gut response here of like, fuck you. Don’t act sorry and wounded because people are rightfully disgusted by what you did. Don’t play the victim when you were the perpetrator. Don’t talk about yourself when you should be talking about who you wronged. I feel no sympathy in the Dota 2 case, possibly because I wasn’t terribly attached to that person, and largely because I feel what they did precludes them from working in that industry ever again.
If you look at some of Adam’s tweets, you’ll see the responses he’s describing in the post. You’ll also see a lot of supportive comments, and a lot of “head in sand” comments from people who don’t think Adam did anything wrong. The line from the blog that resonates with me most is the “People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible”. Does that not terrify everyone? I feel like this idea of people just being “damaged goods” that cannot be fixed leads to so many terrible things, with the least bad of them being “them getting harassed on twitter”. But simultaneously, would I want that Dota 2 commentator back in the spotlight? Would I not be utterly outraged if they were given air time? Is this a question of ‘degrees of bad’, where what Adam did was awful, but not so awful as to knock him into the “you’re never allowed to make content again” world?
I don’t know. If Adam came back today and started making Office Hours again, I wouldn’t watch them. As much as I loved the series, and as much as I thought Adam’s advice in it was incredible, my trust has been broken. But there’s a part of me which feels like people should be able to look back on the series, watch, it and learn. There’s a part of me which feels that if he did come back, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wanted to watch them – it just wouldn’t be for me. I’m not equipped to say how long Adam should be shunned for; I don’t think anyone is. I think it’s a personal decision for everyone who watched his content, or would come to watch it. I do think that people who sent Adam messages, saying he’s an awful human, threatening harm, whatever – those people need to take a look in the mirror. There isn’t a space in the TTRPG community for what Adam did, but there’s also not a space for that either.
In my day job, I try and find systematic reasons for why people have made mistakes. These aren’t mistakes in the Adam Koebel way, but mistakes in terms of programming and other worky-type things. It’s important for me to do this because I don’t think we get anything from blaming individuals in the workplace. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help create an environment where those mistakes aren’t so common, with a recognition that it could have been anyone who made it. I don’t buy the “personal responsibility” angle that basically defines the right wing, and enables people to hold some truly horrific views of other human beings. I want to do more to blame and hate broken and unfair systems, rather than the people that live in them. The question is how I can reconcile this with a belief that Adam screwed up, and that I won’t watch his content again? How can I reconcile this with a belief that I never want to see that Dota 2 commentator’s face ever again? What’s the system that led to them doing what they did? I don’t know.
The simple, systematic answer for the response harassment is that Twitter, Facebook, and other bits of social media are so bad. I feel like the lesson of the last 15 years, possibly the lesson of the 21st century, will be that these platforms were a mistake. I want to believe that, at some point in the far future, people will look back on this period in tech and think “what the hell were they thinking”. If that doesn’t happen, maybe the future is far bleaker than I want to believe. We’ve gained nothing from their existence. They’ve not promoted greater commonality of man, they’ve created factions and ingroups. They’ve not given us a venue to express our compassion, they’ve promoted hatred, publicized bile, and given a platform for ideologies that should have been destroyed long ago. Why should anyone be surprised that these awful comments are rife, when absolutely nothing about the platform inspires people to interact with any sort of candour or understanding. All of that UI design, that A/B testing, making it as easy and friction-free as possible to tell someone to kill themselves in 280 characters or less. Whatever we got out of this, it wasn’t worth it.
So what’s the summary of this blog post? Have I come to some eureka moment, where everything’s clear and delightful? No, not really. I’m still bitter about what Adam did. To my own chagrin, I cannot bring myself to watch the whole scene from Far Verona. I have tried on numerous occasions, but I just can’t stomach it – I close the video every time. Maybe there’s an element here that I don’t want to see someone who I looked up to, doing something so awful. There’s also the tiny fact that I don’t want to watch someone roleplaying sexual assault. I guess, if there was a summary of this it would be “how bloody awful this all was”. However, I am feeling better about having written it all down, so there’s that.
I won’t be posting about this again: despite the shortness of this post, I don’t think there’s anything more I want to say on it. What I will say, is that there’s still a void in my needs where Office Hours used to sit. I’ve tried getting into Matt Colville’s Running the Game series, and I do watch them from time to time, but I disagree with Matt on so many things, and dislike the lack of focus. It feels like the diet version of the series I loved. It’s like your favourite TV series getting cancelled, so now you have to watch the Netflix produced equivalent and it’s fine, but that’s all it’ll ever be. C’est la vie.
Today, as advertised, we’re going to be talking about the jobs and industries that are present in New Melyne. It’s quite rare in RPGs that players will actually work at their established occupation; most of the time it’s background material that explains “why they’re the way they are”, not expecting them to spend a session working as an Architect or Blacksmith. I do, however, think that it’s important for NPCs in a town to have established reasons for being where they are. In a dangerous place like New Melyne, we want our townies to have good cause for not catching the next iron caravan out of the place, and into a safer place to live. A lot of the time this might be family, or lack of money, but it’s equally likely to be their profession necessarily ties them to the land. So let’s give some colour to New Melyne and chat about what we expect folks to be doing on the day to day.
Firstly, let’s use donjon’s Medieval Demographics generator as a solid foundation for us to start on:
This will be the canvas we work on. Thankfully, we’re not going to have to create twelve separate shoemakers as that’s not a typical RPG haunt, but it gives us a good expectation for what the general townie of New Melyne might look like. There are some trades that I would say are mandatory for a town if it is to be an effective setting for a traditional adventuring game:
This is not because the town could not function without them, because obviously there’s a lot of trades that the town wouldn’t function without. This is because these are trades that our players are likely to interact with at some point in their campaign. By setting this up now, we enable what I think is the “optimal play experience” for a player in a settlement; needing some form of trade, and knowing where to get it. It’s normally a pretty miserable experience for a DM when a player asks where they can buy something like a disguise kit, if you don’t already know where that might come from. It leads to something I’m going to call “pop up shopkeeping”, where no trade in the settlement feels permanent, they just manifest in reaction to the players needing them. While this is bound to happen at some point, by pre-planning what’s here, we can avoid having to do it quite so often.
Conversely, a player knowing where they’re able to get certain things means that they’re more likely to be immersed in that settlement. When you leave your house to pick up groceries, you probably don’t need to rediscover where you get them every time. Similarly, when a player knows details about a settlement (“Dontov’s Roasts is the place to go when our characters want to talk over food”), they’re more likely to form an emotional bond with it. If you ever want to do a campaign where a settlement is destroyed, make sure the players know the names of at least three places that are going up in smoke, otherwise it’s no different from when they torch a kobold nest or goblin encampment.
Out of the jobs we have here, players are most likely to interact with Blacksmiths, Carpenters, Inns, Taverns and Doctors. These fulfill the very basic adventuring needs1 of “Somewhere to buy things that kill, somewhere to rest after they have killed, and somewhere to feel better if they have been (nearly) killed”. For this reason, we’ll focus on flushing them out first. From the donjon list, we’ve got one blacksmith, five carpenters, one inn, three taverns and zero doctors. This is problematic; we already established that New Melyne is a town with fantastic access to iron, so having a single blacksmith feels like a missed opportunity. We don’t have a doctor, and we have five carpenters, which feels extremely excessive. So we’re going to adjust those values a bit: we’ll have three blacksmiths, two carpenters, one doctor. Let’s just say that two of those carpenters decided to pick up the hammer and tongs, and one of them decided that medicine was the life for them (maybe after some horrendous, saw based accident).
Let’s talk about these three blacksmiths. Three is a good number, because it allows us to inject some character into each one, distinguishing them from the rest, while not being too odeous a task to plan. I always like the idea of shops having specialisations, because they become an easy shorthand for the players to remember them by. Similar to real life, we understand that certain supermarkets are better at certain things (stocking that flavour of crisp you like) versus others, even though they’re all supermarkets. Blacksmithing has some fairly obvious “specialisations” to me – weapons, armour, household and industrial. Weapons and armour are self explanatory, household would be anything that you could imagine in a normal house, utensils, pots, pans, and locks for instance. Industrial would be things like picks, nails, cart braces, anvils2, horseshoes etc.
We don’t necessarily need to limit a blacksmith to doing only one of those specialisations, as they might be of differing size. For instance, one of the three might be the best for weapons and industrial blacksmithing because they’re larger and older than the other two. In fact, why don’t we make that the case?
Specialization: Weapons, Industry
Huxler's Arms is the first and oldest blacksmith in New Melyne. Owned and operated by Wallace Huxler, one of the original setters of the town and close friend of the Founder, the smithery is home to some ten to fifteen employees, apprentices and smithery aids.
A small front building with a shop, primarily selling arms, backs onto a large courtyard where the sounds of blacksmithing and forging ring out. A medium-sized workshop building contains most of the smithing equipment, and a large water tank holds water used for the quenching of metals.
New Melyne Armour
While New Melyne Armour is the most recent blacksmith to appear in New Melyne, it has landed with some recognition and quickly established itself as the premiere smith for anyone looking for protection. The owner, Kios, became famous when she challenged one of the townfolk to stab her through new halfplate. The event ended with a broken blade, and an injured hand.
The building is too small to have a shop area, and Kios prefers to conduct business on the workshop floor. There are no display racks of armour here, everything is made to order and made to last. Though, there is a small outside area where the handful of employees may catch a breath of fresh air away from the soot and smoke of the forges.
The Blessed Machine
Specialization: Household, Industrial
Situated just off the main road, the business has been a fundamental part of New Melyne for almost ten years, selling industrial materials and household items through to the various shops and merchants in the town and beyond. Jointly owned by sister and brother Rivia and Marcos Zhorest, their business has gone from strength to strength as components created in their smithery are nationally known for their machined precision.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the building was never used due to its cleanliness and relative quiet, but the Zhorest siblings value tidiness and organisation over all else. Employees of The Blessed Machine can often be seen leaving the shop with soot-covered overalls and faces, but return pristine the next day. As a result, the building housing the smithery is deceptively small, with space utilised efficiently. A small office is where most business is done.
So now New Melyne has three blacksmiths, with plenty of opportunity for us to flush them out later, and lots of potential starts for quests. Perhaps the Zhorest twins have discovered a small fire elemental in one of their forges, and have requested the players to remove it? Perhaps Kios charges the players with looking into a potential conspiracy, where a trader has claimed that her armour fell to pieces and killed a client? It might also be the case that the players simply interact with them to sort out their weapons and armour, but with the little detail we’ve included above, those interactions become flavourful and meaningful.
Now, it’s time to do what might be the most important aspect of the town’s trade, the inn.
The Unturned Stone
The Unturned Stone sits in the very centre of the town, and is one of the largest buildings in all of New Melyne. Primarily of wood and stone construction, a great deal of care and attention has been involved in its architecture. Its walls are thick, and while there are wooden slatted windows, they are small to avoid loss of heat. There are two entrances, a large set of thick, wooden doors that act as the main entryway, and a second, smaller entrance at the back of the building for intake of stock. Curiously, the main entranceway boasts a set of iron braces for a barricade, that can be dropped into place via a lever and chain. This was a specific request from the Founder.
The ground floor is a large, open plan tavern area with enough seating for fifty tavern-goers at a time. The first floor hosts a collection of sleeping quarters, with enough beds to support twenty people. These are a mix of dormitories, with basic floor space for bedrolls and beds, to private rooms with animal pelt rugs and hearthplaces. There is a public washroom where warm water is brought up and decanted into baths - a common haunt for miners when the grime and dirt becomes too hard to shift through rags and scrubbing.
The owner of The Unturned Stone is a woman by the name of Bogod Harrien. She is renowned for her fiery temperament, and willingness to throw ne'er-do-wells out of her establishment. Privately, she was a good friend of the Founder, who mostly paid for its construction at the very beginning of New Melyne's history. She is protective of her employees, and couldn't be forced to part with the inn at spearpoint. She has a deep and profound adoration of New Melyne, and if she thinks something is amiss, will not hesitate to act.
We now have our very first inn! Innkeepers are normally important characters, especially in small towns/villages, so with Bogod, we have great opportunities to introduce potential quests and politics into a session. It could be the case that the players enter the inn, Bogod sees that they’re capable of handling themselves, and asks them if they’re interested in work. Given that this is the only inn in the town, if the players aren’t roughing it out at night on their bedrolls, they’re going to cross paths with this place.
We can always add more detail to these places, but I’m a firm-believer that more detail will come in play. Maybe Bogod’s history was being a Captain of the Guard, or a mercenary, and she has a selection of weapons mounted on the walls as fond memories of that time. (and to have them available in a pinch…) But with a firm foundation, we have enough to give to the players on that first glance. However, The Unturned Stone is not the only establishment in New Melyne; we need a selection of taverns as well. With taverns, I find it’s important to have a spectrum of places: one that is fancy enough to act as a ‘victory lap’ for the players after coming by a hefty chunk of gold, one that is shady enough for them to conduct or disrupt illegal business, and one that can act as a catch-all for anything else.
The King’s Riddle
The King's Riddle (referred to as just "The Riddle") is a small, hole-in-the-wall tavern, constructed about fifteen years ago, it has served as the quiet drinking location of a select few. Its small size (only allowing for a maximum of twenty drinkers) has created something of a tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody, and while the tavern is open to everyone on paper, the reality is that strangers are regarded with a degree of hostility. It's not impossible to become a member of this community, but it will be through invitation if at all. The low ceilings and generally low light makes it a perfect spot for one to conduct more unscrupulous business - but only with the consent or involvement of the owner.
The King's Riddle is owned by Mandos the Old, an old smuggler who hasn't quite managed to shift his desire for illicit activity despite his old age. He did not know the Founder, and largely kept out of his way, however with the Founder's disappearance, Mandos has somewhat expanded his reach. There are rumours that he is attempting to form some sort of syndicate, but rumours are just rumours...
Quentin’s Magnificent Chalice
Strange aromas, wistful stringed instruments and the meaningless conversation of those who just like to talk. These are all things one would find on a nightly basis at Quentin's. Secluded down a pathway between two buildings in the center of New Melyne, one must knock and check their weapons at the door to gain entry. While Quentin's is available to anyone who wants to wet their whistle, the prices are the primary barrier to letting just anyone walk through the door. Ergo, Quentin's is the primary locale for traders, property owners and visiting nobility: who might be inclined to drop a hefty sum of money on something as ephemeral as a shot of liquid claiming origin from a thousand miles away.
The business is owned by the eponymous Quentin, who made their riches selling armaments and magical artifacts to the highest bidders. While they might describe their escapades in more fruity language, it is fairly clear that Quentin is a war profiteer with little to no regard for the consequences of their actions. To Quentin, life is temporary, and those who have lost at the game of life are just that: losers. While this latest business is in Quentin's own words, their retirement, it's a possibility that they will just up sticks and leave if the desire takes them.
The Silver Boar
Located in the industrial district of the town, The Silver Boar is a miner-owned and miner-run establishment. A squat building with a single floor, rough furnishings, and a utilitarian look, The Silver Boar offers a perfectly acceptable drink at a more than reasonable price. What makes its location inconvenient or even unpleasant for a regular townie, makes it perfectly well suited to those working in the more industrial part of the town.
What started as a break area or resting room for miners finishing their shift has ended up as a fully functional tavern. With the disappearance of the Founder, and the emergence of the town council, the miners promptly unionized to avoid exploitation. The tavern is, legally speaking, owned, operated and subsidized by every miner in the union. It might not be the place for a quiet drink, but if you're looking for somewhere to forget the day's toil, it's the place to go.
Well, we’ve added some flavour to the town from these, especially from The Silver Boar, where we’re beginning to talk about the actual forces and powers at play. With them in place, we shouldn’t be lacking a locale for our players to undertake most activites that one would in a tavern.
While carpenters aren’t likely to see as much activity as Blacksmiths, it’s worth having them planned out to enable those who might not use metal (druids) or prefer bows and such.
Specialization: Furniture, Construction
Melyne Carpentry was one of the first businesses to appear in New Melyne, created by some of the workers that performed initial construction on the mine and camp. Situated on the north side of the town, close to the treeline, is a large warehouse for storing planks and lumber. Accompanying this is a sawmill for the processing of wood provided by the local lumberjacks.
While the carpenters was started by a collection of workers, the de-facto leaders are considered to be Mary Sawtooth and Gregory Radler, who were largely responsible for the carpentry needs of the town during its founding. They're a bit longer in the tooth than many of the new carpenters, but their knowledge is without match.
Three Tree Bowyers
Three Tree Bowyers is a relatively new business, started six years ago by Kheri Strangeblood. Despite the dangers involved, the Bowyery is set outside the boundaries of the town, in the forest. While not being so far away from the town as to be without protection, the building is more akin to a small fort than a normal carpenter's building. The walls are made of stone, the doors are thick and heavy-set. All work takes place inside, apart from the testing of bows, which happens on a small firing range outside.
Kheri Strangeblood firmly believes that the finest bows can only be made in the shadows of trees. She chases the platonic ideal of a bow, with her designs becoming more and more simple as time goes on. Despite their simplicity, their deadliness is without question - the only challenge that Kios of New Melyne Armour has refused is one where the weapon was a Strangeblood bow.
Phew, that’s quite a few locations. We haven’t done the Doctor yet, but I have a plan for them, which we may cover in the “Powers” post which I will be doing next! What does that leave New Melyne looking like?
Still a bit bare! We’ll need some houses and markets in there, but we can cover that later. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I’ll catch you next time for “Power and Power Brokers” section of our journey here.
1 Unless you’re playing a very survival focused game, food and water are unlikely to be mechanised, and we normally expect players to receive them from inns and taverns; if I was to add another trade here, it’d be some sort of food market stall.
2 Somebody has to have made the first anvil. Right? …Right?
Arguably, the rulebook is the most important part of a system. I’m not just talking about the rules (which define the system), but I’m talking about the actual artefact that is the rulebook. An incredible system that has a terrible rulebook is a game that people aren’t going to play, because they’ll never get at that incredible system. Conversely, a fairly average system that has a well laid out rulebook is something that will likely do very well.
In this post, we’re going to talk about things that rulebooks consistently get wrong, get right, and some other stuff.
pdf – “pretty damned frugal”
This is tangentially related, but I don’t think it’s right to talk about rulebooks without bringing this up. This is something Wizards of the Coast with 5e had previously been very bad for, but have somewhat improved of late. Stop charging nonsense prices for PDFs/virtual copies of your game material. If I want to get Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus on DnDBeyond, it costs me $29.99, which is roughly £22. If I want to get a physical copy of it from Blackwells, it’s £26.34 with free shipping. Now admittedly they’ve got it on sale, but most retailers have it floating around at £31. You’re telling me that the difference between the physical printed book, and the virtual version (locked to the DnDBeyond platform iirc) is between 4 to 9 pounds? That’s nonsense, unless those online transactions are being carved onto gold bullion.
Paizo (publisher of Pathfinder, Starfinder) has a far more reasonable pricing scheme. If you want a hardcover copy of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, you’re looking at about £36-40. If you want to get the PDF off Paizo (with no strings attached, just a normal, searchable PDF), it’s 14.99$, which is £11, a full £25 cheaper than the cheapest physical printed copy, and a full $45 cheaper than on Paizo’s own store.
If Paizo, a far smaller company, can sell a much larger product (the core rulebook for Pathfinder Second Edition has a lot more content compared to the Player’s Handbook for D&D5e which is also $30), then Wizards of the Coast can do the same. There’s no reason that physical copies should be even remotely competitive with PDF pricing, so something has gone very wrong here. What’s even more frustrating is that publishers have a far better revenue stream in all of the other game-adjacent shite they can sell you. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love game-adjacent shite.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I will buy game-adjacent shite till the cows come home. The key thing is, I think G.A.S is a critical element in a fair and successful TTRPG business. Saps like me, with disposal income, will buy crap like spellbook cards for £25 a pop, despite the fact that they’re literally plastic with text written on, and probably cost less than half a micropenny to make (something that Wizards of the Coast has plenty of experience with). As they’re overcharging on these unnecessary pieces, this should mean that they’re able to offer fire-sale prices for the rulebook, even selling it at a loss if they need to. The videogames industry has been doing this for yonks with consoles, selling consoles at a loss to get people into the ecosystem, enabling them to buy overpriced games1.
So people who don’t have the disposable income can afford to buy the rulebooks, (hardcover and PDF), subsidized by the rich shmucks who’ll buy the crap like spellcards, battle maps, miniatures and coasters. Everyone gets access to the rules, the system creator makes plenty of money, the shmucks get to stare at their G.A.S. To go even further, you can make the lions share of the rules free online, without all of the lovely art and stories of the rulebook, and make buying the PDF/hardcover a luxury option as well. This is what Paizo have done with Pathfinder, so if we were being very snarky, I’d say that this is purely a problem for Wizards of the Coast2, with their incredibly meagre offerings in the 5e SRD. By making your rules free, and your PDFs cheap, you get people into the game and more likely to buy stuff like adventures. If you don’t do this, people just pirate the PDFs, and then you get nothing.
lore of the land
Rulebooks are for rules first, everything else second. It doesn’t matter if it’s not strictly called a rulebook: whether it’s a Player’s Handbook, Agent’s Handbook, Investigator’s Handbook, its purpose is to explain how the game is played above all else. If it contains incredible prose, fantastic artwork, phenomenal worldbuilding, but you don’t come out the other side with a good understanding of the game system, then it’s a bad rulebook. Do not get me wrong, I love a fat 600 page rulebook. I’m an absolute sucker for those double page spread full artworks. I delight in the short stories, or the world maps that I’ll never play on. But the rules have got to be there, crystal clear, first.
I might appreciate all that art when I’m sitting in bed, reading it on my free time – but will I appreciate it when I’m flipping through in the moment, trying to find a rule that a player has just inquired about? A great example of the “style over readability” problem is the Shadowrun Fifth Edition rulebook, which is full of instances where rules text has been squashed to accomodate pieces of lore or art. Where they’ve done a great job of making it look like it’s some sort of futuristic computer, but a less good job of making it nice to read.
I’m not sure if this is something that has been improved in the sixth edition – I hope so. For a rulebook that I think gets this just right, I’d look to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Fourth Edition core rules, which comes in at a lighter 350 pages, but is packed with lore (which almost entirely sits at the front of the book). The artwork is fantastic, but also used sparingly – I never feel like a part of the rules are far harder to read as a result of the formatting. The lines are nicely spaced, the font is appropriately fantasy-ish but legible.
I’m sure someone will be tempted to say “but Oli, it has far fewer rules compared to Shadowrun! They can afford to have space and nicer formatting”.
The fact that Shadowrun is a much denser, more rules-heavy game is exactly a reason that it should have better formatting. Games that are very rules-lite can afford to be wistful, with plenty of art and blank space. Games that you’re going to need to flick through quickly to reference certain sections need to be far more concise and diligent.
No matter how you cut the cheese on this, it is a decision to have a dense book; nobody is forced to make it that way. If Shadowrun 5e’s rulebase was so large that it demanded this formatting, then the lore and world aspects should not be in the same book – they should be in a separate book or resource. D&D 5e has nailed this by having the Player’s Handbook be a short (~300 page) book with only what the players need, with the setting, worldbuilding and GM elements moved into the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). I’m much happier to swap books occasionally, than I am having to fight my way through a gigantic tome full of information that isn’t useful in the moment. Bad formatting like this is a choice, and one that shouldn’t be taken.
lead by example
Give me examples of play you bastards. Not just one at the start of the book that shows how much fun and excitement one can have while playing, but one for every single major rule or section in the game. Examples of play are so good for learning how a particular set of rules work, that I will frequently read the example first and then the rules after. Even the most complicated of rules, when expressed through a near-life example can become far more comprehendible and appreciable. The stand out example of this for me is in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition’s (CoC7e) Keeper Rulebook, where we are essentially following the adventures of a character called Harvey Walters.
CoC7e has some fairly complicated rules in it, and it would be easy to get lost in situations such as “lifting a heavy object as a group” or the general framework for Chases/Pursuits if there weren’t great examples of how those rules are used in these little snippets. Monster of the Week has only a couple, but those examples give us a great window into how the creator intended the game to be run. This is another big benefit of them – often, unless you run a prewritten adventure or scenario, examples of play give you the firmest picture of how the game creators intended the game to be…played. Not just demonstrating specific rules and their usage, but giving us the tempo and temperature. It really shocks me that more games don’t have them throughout their rulebooks, as there are definitely instances of rules in CoC7e that I would have just bounced off without them.
Dark Pursuits, a prewritten adventure for the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition RPG, is one of the worst prewritten campaigns that I have ever run. It is extremely detail-light in parts, expecting the DM to do an extreme amount of work outside of the text to keep things going. It feels extremely rushed, where players and DM are whirled through a series of encounters at breakneck speed. It is also set in one of the densest, most complex entities in the Warhammer 40k universe: a ‘Hive City’. As a DM, cities are one of the hardest parts of any RPG; requiring you to manage a lot of (most likely sentient) characters, goods, government and services – all of which are contained within the same space3 with many potential interactions. Hive Cities are like this, but on space-meth. They are astronomically large, containing innumerable souls, and are socially complex, where all the various elements that make up the Imperium of Man interact with one another.
The Dark Heresy ruleset is a fairly dense one at that, boasting more complex rules than an entry level RPGer might come to expect. So we have a fairly complicated system with an adventure set in one of the most complicated settings that a campaign can reasonably be set in. I’ve missed one detail. This is the starter campaign for the game. Oh yes.
I’m absolutely in the target audience for Dark Heresy. I have a decent knowledge of the 40k universe, having played the tabletop game as a kid, and having played most of the videogames that are set in it. I’m an absolute sucker for dark, investigatory style games with terrors from beyond. A diverse party of strange, biomechanical humans wielding a collection of arcane and futuristic weaponry to solve mysteries and banish evil in a morally grey universe? Sign me the warp up. However, I bounced so horribly off this starter campaign that I’m not sure I’ll ever touch the system again. Having read stories online from other people running it, while they might not describe it as negatively as I do, there is a lot of “we went completely off the rails”, or “oh just make that detail up”. I do not want to “make it up”, that’s the whole point of a prewritten campaign4.
The starter campaign for your system cannot be “budget”. This might be a player/DM’s first experience of your system, so it has to land. If it doesn’t, they might (like me), never play it again. When I say budget, I don’t mean that it can’t be short – in fact, starter campaigns should always be short because folks will often play them to get a sense of a system before delving into it more. I mean that it can’t be low effort, something stuffed at the back of your Core Rulebook with a few pages dedicated to it and a little bit of artwork. It has to be low friction, smooth learning curve, with a lot of material to ease players into it. Contrast this with the Starter Campaigns for D&D5e (Lost Mines of Phandelver) and WFRP4e (Wacky Slip on a Pie Time), which are both complete products with prewritten character sheets and plenty of G.A.S to make the experience as smooth as possible.
They also, critically, contain cut-down versions of the rules that give a beginner an easy window into the system for the purposes of the campaign.
Full disclosure, I have not finished running the WFRP4e starter campaign, due to a couple of Real Life Things getting in the way (along with a global pandemic), but it already feels like a more complete experience than what Dark Heresy offers. It’s clear that a lot of effort and thought went into it. “But Oli, those starter sets are paid for, whereas the Dark Heresy campaign came free with the rulebook”. Ignoring the “it’s free” argument5 for a moment, the Dark Heresy 2e rulebook would have been better if those pages were used for nearly anything else. A separate product (that they could have charged for) with the same care and intention that Cubicle7 and Wizards of the Coast gave theirs, would have been a vast improvement. There’s a parallel world in which they did that, and I’m still playing the system.
You get one shot with this. It doesn’t matter if the first published Dark Heresy campaign after the rulebook is an absolute corker, because the well has been poisoned for me. I would also say it’s quite rare for someone to go and buy a full campaign for a system that they’ve not played before. It’d be a hard sell for someone new to 5e to immediately buy Out of the Abyss (and also a poor intro to the system), and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect beginners to do that. So, don’t throw in a “gratis” starter campaign as an afterthought into your rulebook – either dedicate time and material to it, or don’t and look to creating a separate product. Full-arse it.
use your noggin
The Pathfinder Second Edition rulebook has a lovely little feature. On every other page, there’s a bar that tells you where in the book you’re currently reading.
A lot of rulebooks have this in the header, rather than on the side, telling you what section you’re in. Here’s it in the CoC7e rulebook.
Is this a big thing? No. Is the PF2e bar probably a whiff too large? Yep. Is this something that every book should have in it? Absolutely. My preference would be for a full bar, but some indication where you’re reading is great, especially given you might be in a section covering a large body of rules (like Combat). Here’s the LANCER one:
Like everything else in the rulebook, it’s absolutely beautiful. Do you want to see the 5e one? Of course you do, you cheeky little scamp, but you have to be careful or you’ll scare it off.
A whisper in the night, found only at the very bottom of the page. I love little stuff like this because it isn’t much, but it makes for a much more readable rulebook, and they’re all generally getting it right. I’d like for rulebooks to trend towards what PF2e has done, but with more restraint.
back against the wall
I have given you a selection of three rulebooks to peruse. Which one do you like the most? Alright, I’m cheating slightly because the one on the right is from the Collector’s Edition of 5e. They’re also being crunched slightly by my bad lighting and phone camera, but we work with what we’ve got. Let’s break this down in an analytical manner, that only the backs of rulebooks could deserve.
Dungeons & Dragons 5e
The Collector’s Edition cover is a feast for the eyes. No text, because if you’re buying the CE, you probably know what it is. The symmetry is awesome, the colours are fantastic (I heartily recommend looking at the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which is my favourite of the CE versions), and it features the prominent iconography of the D20, and the ampersand which has become the logo of the Dungeons and Dragons series. Top shelf stuff. However, this is cheating, as the CE version is much more expensive and rare, so here’s the normal one.
Arm Yourself For Adventure. A solid tagline, and especially fitting given this is the book where players will be creating, customising and quite literally arming their characters for adventure. The content in the body text below is, sure enough, an honest representation of the game. In fact, I would say that this blurb has a better idea of the strengths and focuses of the D&D5e system than most of the people playing it; but that’s a post for another time. The font is luxurious, as with all the fonts chosen in the book, and the colouring is solid as a rock. White text on a blackground is a personal favourite, and contrasted with the red of the angry fire pup on the right hand side, it practically jumps off the page at you. Lovely use of blank space, clear and concise, with a great summary of the book contents and game. Top marks.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e
A Grim World of Perilous Adventure. Oh yes indeed, life in the Old World of Warhammer is cheap and bleak. Gone is the mystique and majesty of the firey pup, and instead we have a bleak, smoggy scene from what is most likely Ubersreik, one of the major cities in the universe. This back cover says to you “your foe will most likely not be some mythical, majestic beast of flame, instead, it’ll be typhus. Or dysentry, whatever gets you first”. The little blurb on the back promises not a clean adventure of heroism and righteousness, but instead, boldly states that you’re going to be a scumbag who probably kills for coin. And it’s right.
Stated entirely in character, it fits in well with the rest of the book where you get the feeling that you’re reading the musings of some unreliable narrator, rather than some lofty god giving you the objective truth of the world. All is shades of grey (like the cover), all is relative. I do like the fact they’ve listed a time of “1-4 hours” like it’s some sort of board game, feels oddly quaint. The fonts are good, while sacrificing a slice of legibility for that Warhammer feel, and the logos along the bottom are clean and nicely pushed out of the way. Watch out for that barcode, though – it’s so large that I dare say that Ubersreik is thoroughly imperiled.
Pathfinder Second Edition
Admit it, you knew this was coming. When I showed you the gallery, you knew there was an ugly duckling in there, and it is a very ugly duckling. Advance Your Game. What game? The game of Pathfinder that I have yet to start, as I am an earnest rookie RPGer, holding the book in their hands for the first time? Perhaps, the game of life? Have I picked up the right book? Thank goodness they included the tiny “rulebook” indicator at the top, as they’ve made it as hard as possible to determine that from anything else. The centrepiece of the cover is the most bizarre part for me. The artwork is very good, apparently they knew this because the art is used again in the Alchemist class pages. But why the Goblin Alchemist? My suspicion is that they wanted to make a big deal out of the playable Goblin ancestry, and the core alchemist class, but would you care about either of these things if you weren’t already a Pathfinder player?
The summary of the game given by the text is justified in my experience of playing it, however the justification of the text is wack as all hell. They’re trying to form it around the Goblin art, but almost any other layout would have been better. It really does feel like somebody had five minutes to put some text on the back, and the clock was ticking. The strangest part is, the front cover art is actually extremely good.
This just makes the contrast between the two even worse. On one face, an epic battle depicting beloved Pathfinder characters engaging in combat with a beast that many will recognise, looming over a delightful pile of gold! On the other, a…goblin…looking at us. Why? I’ll stick by my “they wanted to sell the goblin and alchemist stuff”, but what a baffling decision that is.
Something I will chuckle about for a while, is that the logo for the Pathfinder series is just the word “Pathfinder”. Which means, on the back of the book, in the logos…
This is the same logo used on the front cover. If you don’t know you’re playing Pathfinder, then forget about finding paths, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. For full equivalence, here’s a picture of the Special Edition.
It’s…fine? I actually prefer the normal rulebook despite being a big fan of minimalism with these things. I’d take the back from that one though.
Anyway, that’s enough ranting about the backs of rulebooks. Maybe I’ll do another post about the fronts of them too, who knows. 2021 is a year of possibility.
1 I’ve been ranting about this with friends for a considerable amount of time, but the price rises in console and PC games are utterly ridiculous, and I’m stunned more people aren’t up in arms about it. £70 is not a reasonable price for a game, and if everything else inflated at the same rate that games have (despite making MORE money through additional revenue streams), we’d all be living in boxes.
2 Though Chaosium seems to think ~£21 is an acceptable price for a book that retails at around £32 in hardcover. Not quite as bad as Wizards, but still.
3 Hive Desoleum (the hive that the campaign is set in) is described as “taking several days of weeks to cross”. Do you have a map for this? No, or at least, not one that I’ve found.
4 I do not like prewritten campaigns, but I normally run them the first time that I’m playing a system if they’re easily available and not gigantic. Expect a blog post on this.
5 If I came up to your birthday cake with a grater and an onion, and began shaving the onion onto the cake, the fact that the onion was free doesn’t seem very relevant.