Archive for April, 2010

Why “animated” doesn’t mean “lively”

April 28, 2010

Today’s monster from the Pathfinder Bestiary falls into the category of Everyday Objects That Want to Kill You.

Now, this general idea was covered very well in Head Injury Theater’s Celebrating Thirty Years of Very Stupid Monsters article, which I originally linked to back in this blog’s debut post. However, I think there’s another way of looking at these kinds of creatures – below, I group them into three types.

The first and most respectable are actual monsters who are able to camouflage themselves as manufactured things. The mimic is probably the best-known example of this. I can respect this kind of creature because it seems like the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a fantasy world with so many different kinds of monsters. In nature, some animals survive and even hunt by blending in with their surroundings. In a magical world, this is true also…just taken to a much greater degree.

The second gradation is intelligent magic items. These are oft-forgotten, but can be insidious because if played right, they’re right under the PCs noses the entire time but are never suspected. After all, a magic item is a magic item…until it starts using its powers when not commanded to, speaking to you, or even taking over your body. Done correctly, and your PCs will be suspicious about every new magic item they come across, all too aware that the very treasure they covet could be plotting against them

And then…then we have these guys:

ANIMATED OBJECT

The animated object is a catch-all monster for ordinary objects which have been magically imbued with locomotive abilities and can lash out at people. That’s it. And I have to tell you, unto itself that’s pretty lame. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I stood in my living room and thought “god damn…if my couch could move, it would totally kick my ass.”

The major reason why animated objects suck is because they’re really just robots made out of furniture. There’s no cognitive ability there whatsoever. So if you’re hoping to get something like this:

You’re going to be disappointed.

I do, however, have to give Paizo props for the artwork they commissioned for this particular monster. This is the first picture in the Bestiary thus far that truly conveys a thousand words on how best to use the depicted creature. Let’s go over it in detail.

The immediate thing that you notice is the skeleton in the center, so much so that it takes a second to realize that the manacles are flailing about of their own accord. That’s the first major hint over how animated objects are best used: as support monsters for other creatures. After all, a walking cage is bad enough…a walking cage that shoves you into it where a bloodthirsty skeleton is waiting is worse.

Conversely, the picture at left also hints at the idea of using an animated object as a sort of surprise monster. Imagine entering a room where a major encounter is awaiting the party. After several rounds, they decide to flee, only to find that the door won’t open for them – worse, when they try to force it, it suddenly swings open to slam them in the face before closing again. That’s right, it’s the old animated door trick, and now the PCs have to stay and fight (or get creative about getting out of there).

So yeah, animated objects may be the least inspirational of the monsters that look like ordinary things, but maybe the lesson here is that even the lamest monster, when used creatively, can still be an effective challenge for your party.

In the meantime, whip up a kitchen-full of deadly animated objects and let your PCs be their guests.

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Solar; so then…so what?

April 27, 2010

Finally continuing on with the commentary on the Pathfinder Bestiary.

ANGEL, SOLAR

The solars sit at the top of the angelic hierarchy, and indeed, almost at the top of the hierarchy of monsters in the Bestiary, standing at CR 23. Back in 3.5, these guys were the toughest characters in the Monster Manual; here, they’re eclipsed only by the Tarrasque.

The solar is also the first monster to get a two-page spread, giving ample room not only for its stat block and the illustration seen at left, but also for quite a bit of flavor text. And I have to admit, I’m quite impressed with the way Paizo has written these heavenly do-gooders. The text about them being responsible for mortals with celestial bloodlines or powers is a nice backstory just waiting to happen.

Of course, the Theosophic roots of the angels is maintained with the solar, as it was with the previous angels, but doesn’t serve to define what solars are all about. The flavor text maintains that some solars patrol the sun for attempts to darken it, for example (how they do this I don’t know, since they have no innate immunity to fire), while others may perform any number of other tasks.

Personally, I like to see the nomenclature behind the different strata of angels as being indicative of the area they protect. While astral devas are hard to define under this system (perhaps it’s exclusively astral travelers?), planetars are the protectors of entire planets (e.g. just one is responsible for an entire world), while a single solar is tasked with watching over an entire solar system.

That strikes me as a rather cool way of looking at angels in Pathfinder, particularly since it alludes back to the idea that angels are tasked with protecting mortals, if not on an individual scale (there are no “guardian angels” who watch over an individual their entire life, for instance) then at least on grand one. Of course, planetars being mere CR 14 creatures hardly makes them able to handle truly world-threatening events, but the solar seems tough enough that, if you’re not venturing into the realm of epic levels, it really could stand against truly apocalyptic threats.

Of course, if you are playing at epic levels, you’ll need a much tougher solar.

Beyond that though, it seems like you’ll rarely get to use a solar in your game. Even beyond the standard problems that come from using a good monster, the sheer power of a solar makes it too much of a game-changer in a game where the PCs are supposed to be the stars of the show. One way I didn’t mention before of using a good monster in game is, if they’re weaker than the PCs, they can be the person who needs to be rescued…but it’s hard to see that with a solar, since it’s stronger than even the top-tier demons and devils.

The best-case scenario for using a solar in-game is that the PCs use a gate spell, or similar  ability, to bring one in to fight for them. Even this can get tiresome, since it’s essentially them calling in a ringer (not that they really need it by the time they’re that level).

Ultimately, the solar works best as a backdrop that helps drive the narrative, rather than taking part in it. Having one be the great-great-great-grandfather of your sorcerer with the celestial bloodline, or single-handedly holding off a horde of demons while the PCs race to slay the demon king, is what they’re best used for. The solar exemplifies why angels are best used as window dressing for the larger universe, letting the PCs be the movers and shakers.

Hail to the king, baby.

April 24, 2010

Yesterday, I received my copy of Pathfinder #32: Rivers Run Red, the second part of the new Kingmaker Adventure Path. Unlike previous Adventure Paths, this one is much more open-ended, in terms of allowing the PCs to explore various locations – and meet various combat encounters – in almost any order, and largely determine the pace of the adventures themselves.

This issue is significant, however, in that it has the rules for building, sustaining, and expanding a kingdom. About a dozen pages long, the rules are very intuitive, measuring a kingdom’s stability, loyalty, and economy over time, while also keeping track of unrest. PCs (or NPCs) can occupy one of eleven various official roles (from ruler to general to royal assassin, and others), which have effects on the four aforementioned scores (Stability, Loyalty, Economy, and Unrest).

But that’s not all. Various activities can be undertaken, but most cost Build Points (the abstraction of your kingdom’s wealth). So by spending BPs, you can make various edicts (promoting your rule, throwing festivals, or raising/lowering taxes) and engage in new acts of expansion and/or construction. Hence, you can build a new library in your city, and it will raise your kingdom’s Economy and Loyalty by +1, but it will cost you 6 BP to construct.

Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. Every month the ruler must make various checks to determine the state of the kingdom, pay the Consumption Cost (where a certain amount of BPs must be paid as the simple monthly cost of keeping your kingdom up and running), and check for unexpected events happening, among other things. So yeah, these rules do a pretty good job of letting you run your own kingdom in the Pathfinder RPG.

Recently, though, I came across something rather amusing. On a thread on the Paizo messageboards, one person noticed that among the various official roles, the “ruler” one allowed for up to two characters to occupy it at the same time, e.g. a king and queen ruling together. This is different from all the other roles, which can only be held by a single person at a time.

What was so amusing though was that this poster joked about the nation’s ruler having a harem instead of a co-ruler. This generated some gentle ribbing from the other posters, and even from Paizo’s own James Jacobs himself, but of course there wasn’t any sort of rules-based answer. That’s not the sort of thing that the mechanics for running a kingdom – which necessarily includes some level of abstraction – are designed to deal with.

I got a good laugh from the idea of having rules for a harem among the kingdom-building mechanics, though, and so just for fun I thought I’d make some up. So here they are, the rules for making your kingdom include a royal harem:

Harem: A harem is a collection of individuals dedicated to serving the realm’s ruler in a personal capacity, usually as confidants, entertainers, and concubines. Establishing a harem is a type of promotion edict. It does not grant a Stability bonus; instead, having a harem grants the ruler a +1 circumstance bonus to his Charisma score when adding his Charisma bonus to the nation’s statistics (see the ruler entry under Leadership Roles). Establishing a harem increases a kingdom’s Consumption by 2 BP.

A ruler may increase the size of his harem. This edict may be made multiple times, and the Charisma bonus and the Consumption costs stack. If a realm has two rulers, only one gains this Charisma bonus, though the second ruler may start a separate harem to gain a bonus for themselves.

Sexy, ain’t it?

The above rules serve as an adequate representation of the costs and benefits of having a harem. Namely, that it’s an extravagance that has little practical value to the kingdom as a whole. After all, paying for a lavish lifestyle for several people who don’t do anything but be available when the ruler wants to be entertained can be quite expensive, but doesn’t really do much for the nation, besides serving to make the ruler seem more virile.

I’ve deliberately ignored the specifics regarding how many individuals are in the harem, what their levels are, etc. Those details are simply too minute to make a difference in the kingdom rules Paizo has written. For those who want such particulars however, I recommend the following: a harem has 1d4+2 individuals (each of whom has a Charisma score of 12+1d6), with 1d3 NPC levels each (usually expert, but if you have it I recommend using 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming’s courtesan NPC class, from Paths of Power). This increases by another 1d4+2 individuals each time the harem edict is used.

And there you have it – rules for one of the perks that comes with wearing the crown. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? Well, that’s up to you to decide, because making the big decisions is what you do now: you’re the king.

Positively-reinforced role-playing

April 23, 2010

I cruise a lot of D&D/Pathfinder/RPG forums and blogs, and I notice that there are some commonalities among the many different discussions, debates, and debacles I see there. Hot topics are things like game balance, power creep, edition wars, etc.

One issue that doesn’t seem quite as volatile, however, is one that seems to have been around longer than most – problems of players (and DMs) who don’t role-play their characters very much (or very well for that matter, but that’s another issue). All too often I’ve heard about how role-playing is being eclipsed by “roll-playing.” That is, trying to figure out just who your character is, and playing him as such, gets ignored in favor of optimizing him for combat encounters.

Now, I’m certain that there are a lot of groups out there that are overflowing with players who do a great job role-playing their characters. I’m sure a lot of people develop a fully fleshed-out back-story for their character, complete with personality quirks, odd beliefs, distinguishing features, etc. What’s more, they bring these things up during game-play, and even *gasp* speak in-character while sitting around the table.

Most groups that I’ve known, however, don’t have such mavericks. The majority of the groups I’ve played in are content to move things along fairly quickly, with various dice rolls settling character interactions, until they get to the killin’. Heck, I’ve been guilty of doing that myself, which is why I think I know what the problem is.

It’s not a question of being embarrassed to stand out when playing with your friends (though that can be daunting), nor is it that people just prefer hack ‘n’ slash gaming to other modes of play (though some people might). Rather, it’s simple apathy in regards to the parts of the game that, to a lot of people, just don’t seem to matter.

Dig, if you will, a picture: role-playing games are reward-focused. While they are supposed to be fun in-and-of themselves, the sense of accomplishment comes from the cookie you get when you “win” various parts of it, such as a combat encounter. You earn experience points, which increase your character’s abilities; you earn gold/equipment/magic items which can be used to enhance those same abilities. You get solid, concrete rewards for engaging in certain parts of the game, so those are the parts that players are eager to engage in.

Given that, I believe that the way to encourage better role-playing is to offer mechanical rewards for doing so. That which benefits the PC in a tangible (that is, rules-based) manner will be gravitated to – so adding benefits to the parts of the game you want the PCs to spend more time in will draw them there.

Of course, this raises questions of how to do it? Yes, the DM can just hand out ad hoc awards, but this is a poor solution, since players prefer consistency and objectivity in terms of what they receive for the actions they undertake. Why is it that Player #1 received a 500 XP bonus for feeding a beggar, but Player #2 only got 150 XP and some copper coins for guiding the lost child back to his parents? Issues like that quickly undermine what the DM is trying to accomplish as players grow frustrated with an inscrutable and arbitrary reward system.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any concrete system that categorizes good role-playing, which is what you’d need in order to hand out rewards for it. Luckily, I do know of two sourcebooks that have a method for rewarding certain types of good role-playing.

The first is a little gem tucked away in the pages of Fiery Dragon’s book Mastering Iron Heroes. Tucked away in chapter seven are some guides for alternate experience point systems, one of which is that PCs don’t gain XP for killing monsters, but only for gold they spend, on a 1:1 basis; moreover, it must be spent on things that have no mechanical impact – spending 10 gold pieces on ale earns 10 XP. Spending 10 gold pieces on a new longsword earns 0 XP.

Now, I personally incorporate this rule into my games, but keep it alongside earning XP from killing monsters. This still encourages PCs to be heroes who go out to put evil to the sword, but also gives them incentive to spend treasure they find in ways that their character would like to spend money. The majority of it still goes towards new magic items and such, which is expected, but some of it will be spent on things that the character enjoys or places value on. One PC might tithe some of it to his church. Another might have a wife and kids that he sends payments to. A third might decide to just blow his share of the treasure on ale and whores.

Now that’s what I call good role-playin’.

The second supplement is bit more specific in how it operates. Rewarding Role-Playing, from Spes Magna Games, deals in action points for what it offers, so you’re out of luck if you don’t use them in your game (though I suppose it’s easy enough to offer something else instead). Basically, you create various personality aspects to your character ahead of time, and when you bring them into play, you receive an action point. There’s more to it than that, of course (the book also has a dedicated section on uses of action points, by monsters as well as PCs), but that’s the gist of it. It’s a good idea, simple and elegant, and I’m quite honestly surprised that no one else has done it before.

Those are the best, and the only, methods I’ve found for mechanically encouraging PCs to become better role-players. What techniques do you use? Sound off in the comments below!

The planetar – Heaven’s own General McClellan

April 22, 2010

Continuing with the review of the monsters from the Pathfinder Bestiary.

ANGEL, PLANETAR

Appropriate to being the “middle child” of the angels, the planetar has the least development. It receives only a single paragraph of expository text, which talks about how planetars are the generals of the angelic armies, focusing on destroying fiends.

Right…let’s recap the major effects of planetar-led armies attacking the planes of evil:

  • The Abyss: The realm of the demons is infinite, and contains an infinite number of demons in turn. The best that the forces of good have ever done here was to overthrow a weakened hegemony of demons, which accomplished absolutely nothing since all that happened was that another one rose up to take its place (and even this was done by the eladrin; Pathfinder’s azata. See WotC’s Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss). So yeah, any planetar general who wants to take his army here is pretty clearly stupid, suicidal, or one some sort of “death and glory” bender and as such should be mutinied against at the first available opportunity.
  • Hell: Asmodeus is the only being in the cosmos who rules over an entire plane of existence, and there’s absolutely no indication that anything about that is going to change any time soon. The other players in Hell may go through an upheaval every so often, but that seems to be more due to Asmodeus’ whims than anything else. So yeah, I fail to see what a few companies of angels attacking Hell  has accomplished.
  • Fiendish Incursions: And this is the biggest reason of all why I personally can’t help but roll my eyes at the idea of an army of angels: because they seem to do absolutely nothing to stave off the worst disasters. Where were they when the forces of Orcus invaded? What about when Demogorgon tried to unleash a savage tide across the world? How about when Asmodeus’ servants dragged a good god’s temple into Hell? It was a freakin’ holy place – going in to rescue it was all but required, and yet there’s not one celestial in the entire adventure! Clearly, the angels must have had trouble getting the pearly gates open or something.

So yeah, it’s hard to respect the generals of the angelic armies when they seem to have accomplished jack and squat, and yet still want to go back out there for more. Personally, I think that they’re overcompensating for something.

Shout-out to Joe the Lawyer

April 21, 2010

I just wanted to take a moment to thank Joe the Lawyer for mentioning my blog over on his own. As one of countless new blogs trying to make itself heard in the vast cacophony of the internet, I really appreciate the mention.

For those who haven’t visited Joethelawyer’s Wondrous Imaginings, I recommend that you click on the link and check it out (and hey, the link opens to the post about me – what a coincidence!). I first started reading it almost a year ago, when Joe graciously saved and reposted a piece of satire I’d written on EN World that mocked a particularly infamous post by Joe Goodman.

I’d written that in a flurry, mostly just to get a laugh out of people, before dashing off to work, not realizing that it was almost certainly due for deletion by EN World’s moderators. Luckily, Joe had the foresight to archive what I’d written. It was a good thing he did, as it turned into a minor internet sensation (at least for me) when it was later referenced by RPG Blog II’s Best & Worst of Gaming 2009 awards (check out the silver medal for “Worst Public Relations”).

Needless to say, all of this was a big factor in my decision to enter the RPG blogosphere. So in a way, this blog is the result of Joe’s generosity.

Thanks Joe!

Send me an angel

April 20, 2010

With today’s entry, we come to the first in what will shortly become a parade of good-aligned monsters. Despite their benevolent nature, any Dungeon Master worth their dice knows that good creatures come with their own suite of problems.

The biggest problem with good monsters is, of course, how do you use them in your game? When your Player-Characters are all heroes, campaigning against the forces of darkness, it seems counter-intuitive to have full combat statistics for creatures of light – after all, if they’re doing their job right, the heroes shouldn’t ever find themselves fighting angels.

Worse, the stark nature of D&D’s alignment system totally eliminates the areas of moral ambiguity that would usually be called upon to tap dance around this particular problem. In Dungeons & Dragons – and Pathfinder – good is Good, and evil is Evil. The only shades of gray are explicitly Neutral. Hence, you won’t often run into situations where the angels are telling you to sacrifice an innocent person for the sake of thousands of others; it’s clearly spelled out that such a thing is evil (albeit not in the main books – but the Book of Exalted Deeds and Book of Vile Darkness, while fairly lackluster in venturing out of the “comfort zones” of alignment, are still pretty clear on what constitutes absolute good and evil in the D&D game).

Usually, the way this particular hurdle is overcome is just to make good creatures evil. For whatever reason – a personal failing, the result of a magical accident, or by some evil creature’s dark designs – a good monster has turned to the dark side, and needs to be put down. More rarely, the PCs will have decided to buck the established “let’s play heroes” convention, and will be playing neutral, or even evil, characters. It makes much more sense to have antagonistic good guys then.

Ultimately, though, most of these answers are unsatisfying, simply because they’re excuses to try and get around the problem of trying to set up a plausible heroes vs. good guys scenario. And really, there’s no good way to get around that issue (at least not with such absolute alignments). Without this “just in case” clause, the issue of good monsters with stats largely devolves into a bland statement of rationale about how there must be good creatures in the world, since there are evil ones (albeit a lot more evil ones), and it wouldn’t make sense not to stat them also.

But even so, your PCs are more likely to run into fallen angels than the run-of-the-mill ones. Be prepared.

ANGEL

It seems almost too fitting that the angels start off the roster of good outsiders in the Bestiary. I mean, it’s like they just deserve to be at the head of the line, and they know it, you know? Just like that kid at your high school graduation who never missed a day, always got straight A’s, and was student council president, you sort of take it for granted that he’s going to be the one giving the speech.

This is particularly funny considering how all of the good-aligned outsiders begin with the letter “A,” but the angels come first. Yes, it’s technically alphabetical – “angel” comes before “archon” and “azata” – but still, notice how the agathions (aka the guardinals, in v.3.5 terms) were conveniently left out of the Bestiary? Nobody upstages the angels, especially not some animal-headed freaks; agathions shy away from the law/chaos aspects of goodness, whereas angels bitch-slap them.

Fun fact: Back in the days of Second Edition (and maybe late First Edition, I’m not sure), having repudiated using the terms “demon” and “devil” in D&D, TSR also renamed the angels. Their new appellation was “aasimon”. Hence why their scions, aasimars, are called what they are today.

ASTRAL DEVA

The lowest ranks of the angels are devas, and already the gremlin of groan-worthy monster names is rearing its ugly head again.

Yes, I know that devas are beings from Hindu and Buddhist theologies. I also know that the correct way to pronounce their name is “dey-vuh.” But I’m willing to bet that most people still take one look at this name and said it as “diva,” even if you knew better. It’s like one of those bad jokes you can’t stop yourself from making.

As such these angels tend to be taken less seriously, being the butt of comments like how they should really have bard class abilities, or how they must be filled with vain self-importance about being “messengers of the gods of good” and “sponsor powerful mortals.” It gets to the point where you’re sure that you can feel that celebrity smugness oozing off of them.

Moreover, the description for astral di-, er, devas in the Bestiary mentions that they carry scrolls with divine messages and prophecies, and that they never let anyone peruse them. I can just imagine what that scroll-envy sounds like among the gossipers in Heaven…

“Oh my gosh, I heard that Theliana was like, totally all over Barakiel the other day.”

“Seriously? That girl needs to get off her high cloud. He’s like, way too good-aligned for her.”

“Tell me about it. You just know she wants him for his scroll.”

“Oh for sure. But can you blame her? I caught a glimpse of it under his robes the other day and it had to be like, a foot thick. Just thinking about it makes my halo tingle.”

Let’s hope that the higher-tier angels are more respectable.

Incorporeal undead – D&D’s social virus

April 18, 2010

There’s a strong theme running throughout most undead in general, but incorporeal in particular. Said theme is that these creatures – the ghosts, spectres, wraiths, et al – all became undead because they all had some sort of personality problem.

Think about it for a moment. People who become incorporeal undead do so because of their mindset – that is, there’s something going on in their head that makes them will themselves into their undead state; worse, because this is the mental/emotional state that made them become undead, it (the mental condition that makes them reanimate) tends to be magnified and often warped.

Consider the person who dies in a state of extreme rage and becomes a grudg-, er, a ghost. Being livid with rage is a personality problem, but only in terms of being so temporarily overcome with anger that it drowns out your rationality. But now that person is locked into that state in their undead existence; they don’t ever calm down or get over it – their personality problem persists until they’re destroyed (though, at least for some haunts, if you do figure out what their original problem was and solve it, they’ll get over it – and in doing so negate the visceral reaction that keeps them animated).

Now, unto itself none of this is particularly surprising; it’s sort of assumed that restless spirits are restless for a reason. Whether something awful happened when they died, or they were just truly horrible people who couldn’t stop being horrible even postmortem, these are people who are responsible for their own condition.

The create spawn power changes all that.

Incorporeal undead with the create spawn power can turn anyone they kill into the same kind of undead as themselves (for the most part). This is interesting when you remember that incorporeal undead are representative of a magnified personality problem, e.g. being unspeakably enraged. In essence, undead that create spawn aren’t so much spreading undeath as they’re using it as a mechanism for spreading the same mental/emotional disorder that they themselves have. An angry ghost is spreading anger, through the medium of creating more angry ghosts.

This makes incorporeal undead into a sort of social virus – a single germ (the ghost) attacks a healthy cell (a living person), and turns it into another germ (a newly-created ghost, via create spawn), and the two then part ways to continue the cycle. While I’m sure that doctors and microbiologists everywhere are cringing at my crude analogy, it’s still an apt description. Ghosts are the viruses of society.

With that thought in mind, let’s turn our attention to today’s monster, a pathetic little creature even as far as social bacteria go.

ALLIP

The allip is…not in the Pathfinder Bestiary. Actually, this little guy is found over in the Bonus Bestiary, a sort of ghetto-monster book Paizo made for the dozen or so creatures that they thought were too lame to make it into the Bestiary proper. Well sir, on my blog we don’t look down on monsters that aren’t as well-known or often-used as some of their colleagues, and so we’re going to cover all of the Bonus Bestiary monsters right here alongside their mainstream counterparts.

And it’s a good thing for the allip’s sake that that’s how I roll, because it’s a pretty crappy monster.

Let’s break it down: the allip is the spirit of someone who went insane and committed suicide. Now, on the surface, that sounds like it could certainly be pretty freaky. Imagine someone who was so desperate for the voices in their head to stop that they slashed their wrists and bled out…only to find that death has made things worse, and the voices are louder, more violent, and utterly irresistable in what they say.

That sounded pretty scary…and then I remembered that “crazy people who kill themselves” also includes guys like Frank Grimes, and suddenly the allip didn’t seem nearly as fearsome.

One good thing that can be said about the allip as it appears in Pathfinder, however, is that its touch of insanity only causes temporary Wisdom damage. This is a change from D&D v.3.5, where it causes permanent Wisdom drain – imagine facing off against a CR 3 monster, and discovering after the encounter that those 5 points of Wisdom you lost aren’t coming back. Hope you weren’t a cleric or druid.

Now, to be fair, a restoration will cure that right away, but that’s a 4th-level spell, which means that you need to be 7th-level to cast it…so yeah, your 3rd-level character is screwed. Making the damage temporary means that you can cure it with an appropriately-leveled lesser restoration instead. Yeah, it can still drain 1 point of Wisdom permanently on a critical hit, but that’s still far less daunting than how it used to be.

Of course, having the damage be temporary does make things a bit more awkward in one other regard…

See, while the allip doesn’t have the create spawn power, its flavor text does note “Targets reduced to 0 Wisdom by an allip’s touch become catatonic, frequently starving to death and becoming allips themselves.” The problem is, being reduced to 0 Wisdom from temporary damage is that it’s temporary. One day of rest (and if you’re catatonic, you’re probably resting) and you’ll gain back 1 point of Wisdom…2 if you do nothing but rest for 24 hours.

In other words, the only way that someone could remain catatonic long enough to starve to death and become an allip (and lets be honest, saying that starving to death from catatonia is madness-induced suicide – which is how allips come into being, remember – is certainly stretching it pretty far; I mention that just in case you thought I was reaching by using Grimy as an example) is if after you become non-responsive, the allip stays right next to you, whacking you over and over again for days on end, so that you never get a chance to recover your Wisdom.

Is it just me, or does that seem incredibly petty? No wonder Paizo didn’t want this jerk rubbing elbows with the more respectable monsters.

The D&D Superbowl

April 16, 2010

So, I’ve been watching Zak Sabbath’s web-show I Hit It With My Axe for a little while now. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a video of his D&D group, the majority of which are porn actresses. It’s quite good, and I look forward to seeing future episodes, but for all its good qualities it’s just not what I consider to be the ideal show about D&D. I mean, if I’m going to watch a program of other people playing, rather than actually playing myself, I’d want it to be more than just camcorder footage cut into a show.

To me, the best way to watch a program about people playing D&D would be to make it like the Superbowl.

Imagine the setup being like this: first, the dungeon setting is lavishly decorated. Not just a fancy map, there should be 3D terrain in use for the walls, doors, etc. All of the PCs, NPCs, and monsters should have beautifully-painted minis. I’m torn on the idea of there being music in the background – if done well it can add to the feel of things (remember, this is set up for the benefit of the people watching at home), but it could easily become a distraction. The camera should film things either from a top-down or three-quarters isometric perspective, so that we’ve got a clear image of where everyone is on the board at all times, including during movement. And of course, it should capture all die rolls (the DM’s possibly notwithstanding).

The basic goal with the arrangements described so far is that as much of the environment should be on display as possible; since TV/internet videos are a visual-based medium, the audience needs to be able to intuitively understand how things are going when they see the screen. But we’ve only just started to describe how this should work…

On the screen, probably along the bottom, there should be small boxes indicating each PC’s current hit points (and possibly their total, e.g. 11/32) so that the viewers can know how much health they have left. Some other information may be on display too, but it’d be tricky to determine what, since it’d have to be very relevant and easy to understand at-a-glance, so as to avoid screen-clutter.

There should be broadcasters giving us a play-by-play commentary of how things are going. That alone would seriously elevate things in terms of entertainment.

“Now, Diari’s casting her fireball at the bugbears, rolling 26 on the damage dice. This is one of her two third-level spells, so she must think these guys present a real threat to be breaking it out this early. ”

“I agree, Jim. And it looks like she may have been right to think that. Three of them just made their saving throw, but the other two are still standing even after taking full damage. Clearly, these are advanced monsters.”

“No doubt about it, Mark, and because of that she’s almost certainly going to want to fall back with her remaining action so that the fighters can-, yep, there she goes.”

In fact, after a combat encounter, these guys should be able to do an instant replay of what moves were made, complete with little camera tricks like drawing lines with arrows on the screen to follow character movement, maybe showing the replay for dramatic dice rolls in slow motion, etc.

Start throwing in special presentations before the game of how the characters have advanced over the season (that is, the campaign), maybe an interview with the players after the game ends, and of course a kick-ass half-time show, and that’s a D&D game that’d be just as much fun to watch, if not more, than to play.

The aboleth: antediluvian horror or misunderstood cuddle-fish?

April 16, 2010

Today’s monster is Lovecraftian in nature. It’s meant to be one of those eldritch horrors lurking in some forsaken part of the world that no one in their right mind goes to (which means adventurers usually do), and spends its days doing horrible, sanity-blasting things that would make any sane person squick. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to evoke.

In reality, the aboleth, alongside most other aberrations, tend to just be another class of enemies that are there pretty much for the purpose of being killed by the PCs. The whole schtick of being “creatures that are so utterly wrong that just the sight of them can drive you mad” falls flat on its face. In large part, this is a meta-game fault – D&D just isn’t written to encompass Lovecraft’s style of horror. What’s interesting to think about is how this lack of Lovecraftian flavor translates into the game world. People aren’t shocked into insanity by aberrations (at least not without some special power on the aberrations’ part) – why not?

Personally, I think it’s because the average person in a D&D world takes it for granted that there are really awful things out there, so while actually running into one can be terrifying, it doesn’t shake your perceptions of reality to their foundations. Consider, even your average peasant knows that there are evil gods out there, who exist seemingly solely to do terrible things to people (and encouraging their worshippers to do terrible things to people).

Demons and devils, who both want to have your soul for a snack, are likewise usually presumed to exist. The undead are also a commonly accepted fact, even if the average person virtually never sees them. Both demons/devils and the undead usually tend to assume some other planes of existence, so the idea of a greater cosmos teeming with unknowable things is also in the back of the mind…all of that and more add up to it being a damn dangerous world out there, with plenty of horrors lurking in the shadows, waiting to get you! No wonder that the sight of some tentacled horror isn’t quite as bad for Joe Peasant as it would be for you or me.

So yeah, the overwhelming psychological advantage that an aberration would have in the real world isn’t quite as great when they’re sharing the stage with liches, pit fiends, red dragons, and several hundred other monsters. It’s with that disadvantage in mind that we turn our attention to the number two monster in the Pathfinder Bestiary:

ABOLETH

So the aboleth is a three-eyed fish…

Blinky the three-eyed fish

No, no, not like that. A twenty-foot long three-eyed fish, with four tentacles.

The aboleth, as it appears in the Pathfinder Bestiary

That’s more like it. Now, this guy has gotten one heck of malicious reputation over the life of our favorite RPG. Third Edition’s Lords of Madness described them as being survivors of a previous multiverse, with racial memories that stretch back to that time, and told of how they tried to enslave the nascient sentient races that emerged into the new universe. Sounds like they were pretty bad news.

But there’s more to it than that. These guys also created some monsters that are truly awful in their own right. Paizo’s Dungeon Denizens Revisited holds the aboleth up as the creator race for the cloakers and the mimics (the latter of which is expounded upon considerably in Sean K Reynolds Games’ Darkness Without Form: Secrets of the Mimic). Open Design’s Kobold Quarterly #13 posits that the aboleths were created by the ill-defined Elder Things, and subsequently created the shoggoths (and, by extension, gibbering mouthers and black puddings).

So yeah, by any account, the aboleths are ancient monsters who’ve done horrific things and unleashed many terrors upon the world. In this light, they quite clearly deserve nothing more than to be destroyed for everyone’s sake.

But what if they’re not really so bad after all? What if they were just misunderstood?

Let’s look at the Pathfinder incarnation of the aboleth more closely. First off, it doesn’t have any really major magical abilities. Those that it does have are almost all illusions – what better way to try and make itself and its surroundings look more inviting to potential new friends? Similarly, its two non-illusory power is to charm creatures, and make a hypnotic pattern – these are, respectively, the quintessential “please like me” ability, and a way to make something interesting for its new buddies to watch.

And that’s it for its magical abilities. There’s nothing to support that it can create all sorts of monsters. Clearly, these ideas that they created cloakers and mimics and such are all highly partisan rumors spread by anti-abolethonists.

But I’ve saved the big one for last. The total proof that the aboleth is in fact a benign, affectionate creature: the mucus cloud surrounding it.

Now I’ll grant that that certainly sounds disgusting, but lets examine it closely. This lets non-aquatic creatures breathe underwater when it gets on them – what better way to let air-breathing friends join it in the comfort of its underwater home? Beyond that though, pay attention to the fact that A) this water-breathing only lasts for three hours, and B) the cloud only radiates five feet from the aboleth’s body. Now, if you’re going to stay over at the aboleth’s place, you’ll need to get at least a good eight hours sleep. Given that you can’t afford to wake up choking every three hours, the only thing to do then is to sleep cuddled up adjacent to the aboleth so that its mucus cloud keeps reinforcing your water-breathing.

In other words, the nice fish cuddles you closely, like a big scaly teddy bear, all through the night so that you’ll be okay. It’s the very soul of beneficence.

So remember, the next time you’re ready to write off a creature as an evil monster just because it’s a huge, slimy prehistoric thing that dwells in some remote corner of the world, try to get to know it first – it might actually be a kind and gentle creature, like the aboleth.