Archive for June, 2010

Today’s Message is Brought to You by the Letters “T” and “A”

June 26, 2010

A little while ago, I read an editorial over on IGN entitled “Why Do Booth Babes Exist?” It was a very insightful article, putting to words what I’d previously only perceived as a vague unease. I’ve never cared much for booth babes…okay, that’s a lie. But rather, my attraction to them is tempered by the impression that these are the free version of strippers – that gawking at women who’ve been retained to stand around in sexy outfits is one step down from paying women to take their clothes off. And of course, strippers themselves are just one step down from out-and-out prostitution.

The article ultimately makes a very calm, well-reasoned, and scathing rebuke of the whole idea of booth babes. Specifically, it points out the embarrassing truth: that while it’s normal for men to follow even the hint of sex, chasing that hint when it can’t possibly lead to sex, and we know it but still go after it anyway, is pathetic.

There’s more to the article than just that, of course, but that point is where the article’s main idea intersects most strongly with that of tabletop gaming. Much like the booth babes found at (fandom) conventions, tabletop role-playing games are infamous for adding sexual elements that seem to serve no purpose except to titillate for the sake of titillating.

Now, that’s a charge that’s mostly true, but not entirely. Fantasy artwork, usually associated with tabletop RPGs, is usually the worst offender in this regard. However, whereas a booth babe to promote a Mario game is utterly without context (unless she’s dressed, say, as Princess Peach), sexy artwork can simply be relevant. A picture of a succubus, for example, is erotic because a succubus is an erotic monster, and the illustration is simply reflective of that.

The above is a flimsy rationale, but still a valid one. Unfortunately, most fantasy artwork that aims for the groin doesn’t even try to cling to this level of reasoning. Instead, they often present sex in a manner that’s often wildly incongruous with even the minimal context set up by the picture itself. Does it make sense for the barbarian woman to be wearing nothing but a chainmail bikini when she’s fighting off the orc horde? Nope, but that’s how she’s dressed.

"Scorpion Girl here, reminding all you GMs to use giant scorpions in your adventures. Giant scorpions: when you need a monster that's all about the tail."

This is even more true when it comes to trying to integrate sex into the actual game-play itself. The problem is that, since tabletop games lack even a visual element (aforementioned illustrations notwithstanding) to act as enticement, there’s nothing left but to verbalize the sexual lure that’s being dangled in front of a PC. Doing so, however, is active rather than passive, and invariably makes explicit the sexual innuendo that’s implicit in almost any other medium.

Suddenly, it’s painfully obvious to everyone around you that you’re at least somewhat aroused, and willing to pursue the object of that arousal even though it’s an unreachable fantasy…which makes you look, as stated above, pathetic. If there’s no hope of actual sex, why are you focusing on it so much? It’s that, more than anything else, that brings about such derision for any aspect of eroticism in RPGs, and for the people who enjoy eroticism in RPGs.

In summary, as someone else once said, “fantasy violence is cool because nobody actually gets hurt. Fantasy sex is stupid because nobody actually gets laid.”

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He’s Like the Green Arrow, Except Not Green, and Doesn’t Use Arrows

June 25, 2010

Okay, it’s been too long since I’ve reviewed a creature from the Bestiary, especially since we’re almost out of the very first letter. So without further ado, let’s move on to the last group of creatures, who are also, thank the Seven Heavens, the final group of good Outsiders. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the

AZATA

The paragons of Chaotic Goodness were formerly called the eladrin in previous editions of the game. I’m guessing that Paizo changed the name because A) they thought this name was cooler, and/or B) they wanted to avoid using the name of the teleporting elves from Fourth Edition. (And before anyone says it, I know that “eladrin” is an original name by WotC, but you know what? A mistake on their part put it into the SRD, so Paizo could have used it if they’d really wanted to).

But issues of nomenclature aside, the azata are perhaps the coolest of the “big three” good outsiders (yeah, you still don’t count for shit, you Neutral Good agathions). This is because they exemplify the spirit that a lot of PCs seem to want to cling to; a devil-may-care, go-where-I-want-and-do-what-I-want attitude. Even the flavor text for azatas, while still trying to cling to that “hang in the background and influence mortals” schtick, can’t help but admit that they’ll very often just say “screw it” and move in to kick some ass.

In fact, the major problem with the azatas isn’t with their nature as paragons of Chaos and Good; they do that quite well. The issue with them is how they end up being pseudo-fey. What that means is that the fey overtones are quite clearly there for them, but at the same time they’re still not truly fey beings. They look a lot like them, act a lot like them, and even have a similar social structure…but aren’t them.

This makes for some awkwardness when trying to figure out how they relate to each other. Are azatas as far beyond fey as fey are beyond mortals? Are they cosmological neighbors who happen to share a lot of similarities? Or is it all nothing more than a couple of coincidences, with the rest of us drawing parallels that aren’t really there? I don’t know, and nobody else seems to either.

Having said all of that, let’s look at the first of the azatas.

BRALANI

You know, despite how a lot of gamers seem to look down their nose at anime, I’ve always been a big fan of it. Moreover, I like a lot of the concepts it introduces into tabletops games.

Gigantic pointed ears are not one of them.

Seriously, pointed ears should look the way they look on Mr. Spock, not like this! Who thought it was a good idea for anyone to have ears that jutted up over his head like antenna? Do they lift up when he’s happy and droop when he’s sad?

I’m sorry, but these things just bring way too much baggage with them – when someone gets around to finally writing the Ecology of the Bralani, please make sure to put that they have the ear version of a bris for little bralani newborns, so that they don’t have to go around looking like an extra from Record of Lodoss War.

Of course, for all the earful I’m giving you about that, we haven’t really gotten to the stupid part yet. Can you tell what that is? Look very closely at the picture there, and see if you see it. No? Okay, here’s a hint: try looking at what’s not there.

If you said “his arrow,” then you’re right! He’s actually holding his bow, and pantomiming nocking an arrow! What the fuck? Why is he doing that? It’s not that he’s got some sort of power to magically create new arrows when he draws his arm back – there’s no power like that in his description. He’s just pretending to get ready to fire one, like Garth in Wayne’s World going through the motions of making a toast even though he didn’t get a glass.

I can only guess that he’s run out of arrows, and is hoping that if he acts like he’s going to fire more, he’ll somehow frighten his enemies away through sheer badassery. Can you imagine the results if he actually makes his Intimidate check here? “Oh no! He’s acting like he’s got an arrow in his bow! Even though he was using arrows before, this must mean that he has some sort of arrow-related special power! Run away!”

You can really tell that the bralani has the power to assume a wind form, because this guy is really full of hot air.

Detection Correction

June 21, 2010

I’m a fan of the d20 System not only for its Open nature (the OGL is, I firmly believe, a truly great thing), but also for its variability. It’s really a system that can handle almost anything, though with the caveat that you’ll sometimes have to change it to some degree in order to make it really do what you want it to do.

It’s that line of thought that brings me to today’s point. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of urban fantasy novels that have the protagonist acting as a sort of “magical sleuth,” hunting down criminals via magic (bonus points if you can guess which novels). Often, this means that the criminals were using magic themselves, and a lot of the detective work involves figuring out what spell it was, how it was used, and why the person cast it.

For a while, I’ve been wanting to try and recapture that same sense of detective work in a Pathfinder game. The problem is, strictly speaking, that investigating an incident of magic after the fact is very difficult. The detect magic spell does let you examine auras for spells after they’re cast, and determine the spell’s school…but even these have problems. Namely, that spell auras linger for a very short time, and simply identifying the school of magic often isn’t enough.

Hence, I’m introducing some variant rules here, to try and make detect magic more viable in terms of investigating after-the-fact spellcasting. The following replaces the listing for the “3rd Round” entry of the detect magic spell description:

3rd Round: The strength and location of each aura. If the items or creatures bearing the auras are in line of sight, you can make Knowledge (arcana) skill checks to determine the school of magic, and even specific spell, involved in each. (Make one check per aura: DC 15 + spell level, or 15 + 1/2 caster level for a nonspell effect – if you exceed this DC by 10 or more, you identify the specific spell; see below for details.) If the aura eminates from a magic item, you can attempt to identify its properties (see Spellcraft).

A character that beats the Knowledge (arcana) DC by 10 or more learns the specific spell that created the aura, if they are familiar with that spell. In general, characters are familiar with spells in their spellbook or on their spells known list (for arcane spellcasters), or with the spells from the Core Rulebook that are on their class spell list (for divine spellcasters), of a level they can cast. Characters who identify a spell that they are not familiar with gain a general (i.e. one-sentence) description of that spell. The GM has final say over what spells a character is and is not familiar with.

Similarly, the following table replaces the one found in the detect magic spell description for how long lingering auras last:

Original Strength                                  Duration

Faint                                              1d6 x 10 minutes

Moderate                                       1d6 hours

Strong                                           1d6 days

Overwhelming                                1d6 weeks

These changes allow for more time and more accuracy in allowing characters to determine what magic was used somewhere. This, in turn, is likely to make characters more hesitant to cast spells, knowing that they can be identified later (and also thus more likely to try and find/create/purchase methods of defeating this identification).

While there’s more to a magical-mystery game than this, hopefully these alternate rules are a good first step to letting you run a CSI: Golarion adventure.

Into the Stone Age: Introduction

June 17, 2010

Having started playing D&D back in the days of Second Edition, one of the things I enjoyed most about the game was the myriad campaign settings for it. Virtually all of them had a setting that was quite dissimilar to other campaign worlds, and by extension, created a very different “feel” for the game. You had campaign worlds giving you a fantastical Arabia, a mystical Orient, a Gothic land of terror. They hit most of the classical high points for fantasy game worlds, with one exception.

The Stone Age.

Now, I really can’t blame TSR (nor WotC, nor Paizo) for that. You see, I tried to put together a Stone Age game once, and it didn’t take me very long to come to the same conclusion that I’m sure those companies came to: setting an RPG in the Stone Age is fucking difficult to pull off! In fact, I’d call it the most difficult of all campaign settings to create, simply because so much is so different from any other sort of campaign. So many things that are taken for granted – particularly basic materials – just aren’t there.

Hence why I’m starting this new series of articles. Into the Stone Age will examine various parts of what it means to set a Pathfinder game in the Stone Age. I’ll be covering each part of the game – such as races, classes, equipment, etc. – in its own post. For this post, we’ll start with a basic overview of what a Stone Age game really means.

Setting a game in the Stone Age means defining what exactly the “Stone Age” is. According to Wikipedia, it began somewhere between 2.5 to 2 million years ago, and ended a few thousand years ago, depending on what part of the world you’re looking at.

More germane to the idea of an RPG setting, the Stone Age was not entirely devoid of inventions. Quite a few weapons were developed during this period, including the bow and arrow. The first attempts at artificial structures were constructed. Basic pottery was made. Food was still mostly acquired by hunter-gathering, but around the last part of the Stone Age – the Neolithic period – even this was starting to give way to the rise of agriculture.

Of course, the Stone Age still lacks many basic elements that more developed campaigns take for granted. For example, there is no writing system. The domestication of animals, much like agriculture, begins right around the end of the Stone Age. And of course, tools and weapons were created with bone, wood, and the eponymous stone; there’s no metal whatsoever. Presumably, these limitations have some fantastic equivalents in a Pathfinder Stone Age game – regarding things such as the invention of magic, the advent of the gods, and the rise of certain races; any of which may not have occurred yet, or is in the very early stages.

Starting next time, we’ll go through Pathfinder topic by topic, examining and critiquing them for a Stone Age game, until we’ve found the path we want this campaign to take. Stay tuned.

Next: Player races of the Stone Age!

How Many People Wanna Kick Some Axe?

June 13, 2010

There’s an unspoken understanding when designing a monster for Pathfinder. While it’s rarely spoken, it’s understood that when gamers expect that new monsters will have new abilities. Usually one is sufficient, though the stronger the monster the more likely it is that they’ll need more than one new power to really satisfy the readers.

Why is that, you ask? Well, because unique powers make for unique monsters – only X monster has X power, after all, so it really sets them apart from all of the other monsters. Bear in mind that I’m not advocating this particular design philosophy; I’m simply pointing out that, for better or for worse, it exists.

Of course, this rule isn’t universal. Between a suite of standard monster abilities (see Appendix 3 of the Pathfinder Bestiary), and how weaker monsters aren’t expected to have very many powers (the inverse of what was mentioned above about stronger monsters having more), you can sometimes have weaker monsters who don’t need mechanics to differentiate them. After all, if you only look at the numbers, there’s very little difference between a goblin and a kobold…it’s the nature of how they appear in the game world that separates them.

Sometimes, however, you end up with a monster that really doesn’t seem like anything more than the sum of its parts. Oftentimes this is a high-level foe that is just a collection of universal abilities (“okay now, poison? Check. Spell-like abilities? Check. Spellcasting? Check. Regeneration? Check.” etc.), but sometimes you’ll find it among weaker creatures too.

Today’s monster examines such a low-level creature. With absolutely nothing to recommend it, coming to you straight from the Bonus Bestiary, it’s the…

AXE BEAK

Right away, the axe beak fails to live up to its name. See, it’s called what it is because of how its beak is serrated, presumably in a manner similar to an axe – though I’ve yet to see a serrated axehead; I guess the name “saw beak” didn’t work quite as well – but there’s no corresponding mechanic to really drive that point home.

Paizo, was it really so unfathomable to give this creature a heightened critical threat range and/or multiplier, along with maybe a short description noting how that was because of its serrated beak? No, instead we get a short power about how when this thing charges, it can make a trip attempt on a successful attack. Man, nothing says “axe for a beak” like making someone fall on their ass, am I right?

Personally, the way I would have written this monster would have been to treat it as an animal from prehistoric Earth. Now, I’m not sure if a creature like this ever actually existed, but given what we know about the relationship between dinosaurs and birds, I’m betting that there was some very similar creature roaming our world at some point in time. Because really, there just aren’t enough stats for dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters for Pathfinder – this thing could have been one of them, instead of just another monster with very little monstrous identity.

Ultimately, there’s very little to recommend the ostrich’s psychotic cousin here as a threat to most PCs. The one redeeming feature that the axe beak has is that it works best not as a monster, but as a mount. A fair amount of space is given to describing what it takes to train this thing, and its stats as an animal companion. And in all honesty, that’s how this creature works best – trying to act as a substitute for that one player who has chocobo-envy.

I wonder if axe beaks come in bright yellow?

I’m Feeling Just Vine

June 9, 2010

Returning to the review of all the monsters in the Pathfinder Bestiary, I’m fairly amazed that I’m still trapped in the A’s. At my current rate of progress, given how often I update and the frequency with which I post on this particular topic, it’s going to be quite a while before we finish this off.

Now, I don’t particularly mind that this project is rather monumental in scope – I’m quite happy to dig a tunnel through this particular mountain using only a needle. Why, you ask? Because I get to examine, critique, and make a mockery of some truly excellent monsters. It’s a joy to think about what I’m going to say regarding the succubus, the lich, or the tiefling, for example. And then we have guys like today’s monster, which while not Bonus Bestiary bad, isn’t the sort of thing that entire adventures revolve around. So, gentlegamers, I present to you, the…

ASSASSIN VINE

Now, I’d think that the name alone would be enough to clue you in to this monster’s schtick. It’s a carnivorous plant, attacking through stealth and strangling its prey, right? Okay, thank you, next!

Yeah, I suppose there’s a bit more to this, but not really. Yes, it has the ability to make nearby plants entangle things, but that seems weird to me…that level of tactics seems to require some sort of sentience, but this plant has none of that; hence, that means it’s using its entangle ability every single round as long as it senses something nearby. So really, your first clue that an assassin vine is near is when the dandelions at your feet start wrapping around your shoelaces.

And while the picture above may look pretty cool at a glance, I don’t recommend giving it any more than that, otherwise you’ll start to notice some disturbing aspects to it. The most obvious being that the plant seemed to have been orally raping that person when they died; clearly, this particular assassin vine must have been from Japan.

Also, what the hell is up with that skeleton’s eyes? Seriously, look at the shape of those sockets. They’re these oblong cavities arranged in such a way as to be slanted downward on the face. WTF was that thing? Based on those bones, I’m starting to be glad that this particular freak of nature, whatever it was, ended up being plant food.

In the meantime, the assassin vine remains one of the lamest plant-based monsters in the Bestiary. With no real intelligence or powers, besides wrapping you up with daisy chains, this is nothing more than another hazard dressed up as a monster. Once your PCs figure it out, they’ll almost certainly never be caught by it again, and will likely try to use it against their enemies; imagine the look on the evil vizier’s face when his salad starts to bite back!

Personally, I’d have re-branded these as “assassin grapevines”; not only does it become a serious threat to nearby living things if you want to start a vineyard, but I’d also add another power or two so that you could literally hear things through them. And after that, well…

Just imagine what their raisins would do.

Go Home and Be a Family Man!

June 6, 2010

A little while ago, I got around to making up the back-story for my PC in my Pathfinder game. As I sat down and wrote out my war master‘s personal history, I found myself grimacing as I got to the part about his aging parents and sheltered girlfriend.

This, I thought to myself, is just asking the DM to screw with me.

I imagine most people reading this blog will intuitively understand the above sentiment. For those of you who don’t quite grok why I had that thought, allow me to explain. Realistically, PC’s shouldn’t exist in a vacuum – they’ll have various people in their lives who are important to them, such as parents, significant others, children, best friends, etc.

The thing is, these are virtually always going to be NPCs, usually with fairly insignificant levels. Hence, they tend to fall into the background; when was the last time you role-played your PC going to visit his little sister on her birthday, for example? That’s the sort of thing that usually gets entirely glossed over – sometimes there’s an unspoken assumption that this sort of thing is done during the down-time between adventures, but just as often it’ll be forgotten/ignored entirely. These NPCs just don’t have any impact on the campaign in general, or the PC specifically.

…except when they’re in trouble.

And make no mistake, if the DM remembers that they exist, they’ll be in trouble at some point. After all, since the PCs are heroes, their career involves kicking evil in the metaphorical groin; so at some point they’ll piss off a villain who’ll stoop to attacking their loved ones in revenge. Suddenly, those insignificant NPCs are in the spotlight, because they’re being subjected to some horrible fate and you’ve already established that your character cares about them too much to be okay with that.

In other words, making up that your character has NPCs that he cares about – and who are too weak to defend themselves from your character’s enemies – usually means that at some point they’ll be used as a plot hook to drag your PC into danger. Now, is that good role-playing? Yes, since your character is acting out of concern for something other than XP and loot, but it still sucks that the only in-game effect of fleshing out your PC in this way is that some enemy will eventually use it to try and screw with you.

To that end, I’ve taken it upon myself to try and rectify this. After all, if you’re basically leaving yourself vulnerable – albeit in a way that doesn’t have any mechanical penalties – you should still be compensated for that with some sort of bonus. Hence, the following defects.

Some quick background on these mechanics. First introduced in Skirmisher Publishing’s Nuisances, defects are very similar to Unearthed Arcana’s flaws; taking one gives your PCs a penalty, but doing so lets you pick a bonus feat. Unlike flaws, however, defects can be 1) selected later than 1st level, and 2) you’re not limited to just two defects (and for that matter, 3) the defects in Nuisances are much more colorful and amusing than the flaws in Unearthed Arcana – Pyromania, anyone?).

As such, here are two new defects for having weak NPC loved ones:

FAMILY TIES

You have loved ones at home, none of whom are especially martial.

Detriment: You have family members (not necessarily blood relatives) that you have a strong, positive emotional connection with. Work with the GM to determine the number and levels of these NPCs (typically 1d4 NPCs with 1d3 levels each).

Special: This defect is a declaration of your character’s mindset; they would want to help these family members if they were in trouble. If your character later has a falling out with some or all of these family members, they are either replaced with new ones (work with the GM to establish who these new NPCs are), or you give up your next feat slot to buy off this defect.

BRING HOME THE BACON

You are the primary breadwinner for your family.

Prerequisite: Family Ties.

Detriment: You spend 10% of the money you learn – including loot, treasure, and other goods gained from adventuring – on your family’s expenses. These expenses are effectively consumed by your family; you do not gain any additional items or services from this expenditure.

Special: This defect is a declaration of your character’s mindset: they want to spend this money to help support their family. As such, taking this defect means that your character doesn’t try to get around the 10% fee (such as by abdicating their share of the treasure into the party fund, which they can then draw upon as needed).

Note that the money doesn’t make its way to your character’s family automatically – the character will undertake reasonable methods to ensure that it gets to them safely.

And there you go; these saddle your character with about the same level of responsibility that having NPC loved ones usually brings, but at least now you get bonus feats for it. Isn’t family wonderful?

Welcome to the Mushroom Kingdom

June 2, 2010

So, today’s monster is a giant puffball; for those of you who grew up in less urban environments, you’ll remember them as those little round things that you stomped on as a kid to watch them burst like a half-filled balloon. Now, imagine one of those being ten feet in diameter, and rolling around on their own, and you have today’s monster.

As you probably guessed, this is one of those rejects from the Bonus Bestiary.

ASCOMOID

Completely nonsentient, the ascomoid is one of those creatures that’s really more of a hazard than a monster. It basically rolls around trying to crush anything that it feels moving nearby, and will sometimes spray spores at someone, but otherwise it’s a non-entity. Heck, if you can find a way to defeat its tremorsense, it’s pretty much never going to realize you’re there.

Given the way it advances towards you once it senses you, though, I can’t help but picture Mario just stomping on these ugly things as they mindlessly advance. That’s right – ascomoids are the goombas of Pathfinder. Just don’t mistake them for magic mushrooms.

In the humiliating circumstance that your character is actually killed by an ascomoid, however, don’t despair. Your character now shares a similarity with President John F. Kennedy – killed by a gassy roll. *rimshot*

Yeah, that’s a bad joke, but I just had to make it. I’m a fun guy.