Archive for July, 2010

When You’re Evil

July 25, 2010

The stated goal of Dungeons & Dragons – and by extension Pathfinder – is to be a role-playing game where the players play heroes. What it actually is, however, is a role-playing game about killing creatures and taking their stuff.

The disparity between what the game comports itself to be and what it actually is is usually bridged without too much difficulty. After all, just make sure that the creatures you’re killing and looting are evil monsters bent on wreaking some sort havoc, and you’ve pretty well solved the dilemma. (I won’t get into the issue of other play-styles beyond the usual “killage-and-pillage” here, since I’m painting in broad strokes.)

The above merger, however, starts to fall apart if the players or DM try to push things too far in either direction. A character who starts to really push the heroic angle can quickly derail things if he starts to, say, put too much value on the life of other sentient creatures. After all, contemporary heroes place a premium on all life, even that of their enemies – when’s the last time you saw Batman kill some thug and smile about it?

…okay, bad example there, but the broader idea still stands.

Likewise, the reverse is also true; PCs that become excessive in their use of deadly force can quickly slip away from any resemblance to a heroic archetype. We usually see this used as a gag in things like Knights of the Dinner Table and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising where the “heroes” are bumping off NPCs left and right with attitudes ranging from nonchalance to outright joy and amusement at their demise, usually to the frustration of their Game Master.

"So, we're all cool about that peasant I set on fire? Seriously, I still say he looked like a demon."

The above sentiment – that supposedly-heroic PCs who act like homicidal psychopaths are a perpetual joke of the genre – was about all the thought that I’d given the matter. After all, that was good for a joke or two, but that was it; you couldn’t really take that sort of game-style seriously in D&D/Pathfinder…it eschewed the goal of being heroic, and that’s not what the game is geared towards. ’nuff said.

I started to think differently, however, after a player in my Pathfinder game was telling me about the Dark Heresy game he played in. I know I’m butchering this (which seems somehow apropos), since there’s no aspect of Warhammer that I’m familiar with, but he was going on about his (home-brew) space marine character who functions as the fanatical inquisitor in an evil empire, dedicated to rooting out not only internal weakness and rebellion, but also fighting external threats such as aliens and daemons.

"Say 'Blood for the Blood God,' again. I dare you."

After hearing several stories about how his character, in a very Darth Vader-esque manner, killed minions of the Empire who were too incompetent or fearful, I commented on how his character sounded rather Lawful Evil. He nodded enthusiastically, and outlined that the entire Empire was pretty much Lawful Evil, and most of the enemies it fought were Chaotic Evil, with a few Good types out there somewhere.

This got me thinking…why don’t we have something like this for Pathfinder? I’m not talking about a bunch of supplements outlining new (and mostly unnecessary) rules for evil characters, or a grim and gothic new campaign setting where there are no “points of light” to be found, but rather…why not make an adventure, or even an adventure path, for evil (or at least non-good) characters?

Would that really be so hard to do? An adventure where the PCs are retained by a mysterious patron to invade a temple, steal a religious artifact, and deliver it back to him for a hefty sum of gold doesn’t really change that much if you make it a temple dedicated to the God of Good. How difficult is it to make “rescue the princess from this stronghold she’s being held in” instead be “Kidnap the princess from this stronghold where she lives”?

Not all adventures can be so easily re-skinned, of course, which is fine. The same way not all good adventures lend themselves to an evil adaptation, great adventures for evil characters would usually be original ones too. Imagine, for example, a quest for a higher-level group of evil characters where they’re retained to attack a small town and take its population into slavery, perhaps on the behalf of an evil cult that requires a large number of sacrifices.

Such a setup would make for a great sandbox-style adventure. What targets do you attack first to help knock out the town’s defenses? How do you round up the townsfolk without killing them (since you don’t get paid for the ones you don’t deliver alive)? Can you deal with the surprise attack by would-be rescuers as you’re marching them off to be sold? Throw in some situational mechanics – such as giving bonus XP based on taking key NPCs alive for valuable slaves, making an incentive for the PCs to pull their punches against the deadlier good guys – and you’ve got a great adventure on your hands, perfectly suited for evil characters.

Should Paizo's next adventure path be...evil?

Now, there are some issues that come up in evil games that you don’t have to deal with when playing good guys, it’s true. These are largely problems of intra-party fighting, and some people being uncomfortable with the actions of other PCs. These aren’t trivial concerns, since they can quickly ruin peoples’ enjoyment of the game, but it’s important to remember that these are issues regarding the group, not the game itself. If the players can act maturely, respect each other, and work things out like reasonable adults either beforehand or as problems arise, there’s no reason why an evil campaign can’t work as well as any other.

After all, if an evil campaign lets friends to get together and have a good time, then it’s serving the real goal of the game: for everyone to have fun.

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Play That Deadly Music, Baby

July 22, 2010

So, today’s post comes from the depths of my idea file – the document where I scribble thoughts for topics that I’d like to write about, but hadn’t fleshed out at the time.

Today’s material covers musical weapons; weaponry with a musical instrument built into them. Of course, fans of a certain show will immediately recognize where this idea originally comes from…

…man I never get tired of hearing that! Seriously, there were other reasons that the Green Ranger was awesome, but having a dagger that was also a flute which could be played to summon and control a giant dragon-robot was a large part of it!

But beyond sheer fan-wankery, what’s the real value of a character having a weapon that also makes music? Well…in all honesty, not that much. The major benefit seems to be in conserving the actions necessary to sheathe a weapon and draw an instrument. Beyond that, there’s not really much to recommend it; after all, you can’t fight with a weapon that your playing, and if it’s damaged or destroyed then you’ve lost something with twice the functionality of a standard item of either type.

But just because it doesn’t grant any major plusses doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile! After all, even window dressing is important if it helps you to make the PC you want. As such, here are the rules for musical weapons, with three listed.

WEAPON-INSTRUMENT: A weapon-instrument is a weapon that is constructed to have some musical ability built into it. This function must be built into the weapon at the time of its creation; it cannot be added to an existing weapon (or instrument) after having been made.

A weapon-instrument costs 50 gp more than a weapon of the same type. For example, a daggerflute would cost 52 gp, while a masterwork daggerflute would cost 352 gp. A weapon-instrument is either masterwork or non-masterwork for both its weapon and instrument components.

In all other respects, a weapon-instrument functions normally as both the weapon and instrument of its type.

Axelute: This greataxe has a thicker haft than usual, allowing for six strings to be strung down its length. A small hollowed-out area between the axeheads allows for the necessary acoustics when the strings are plucked.

Bowharp: A favored item among elves, this is a longbow or a shortbow with several additional strings which can be played as a harp. While it doesn’t have the same draw as a traditional bow, the additional strings compensate for this.

Daggerflute: A daggerflute has a hollowed-out hilt with a mouthpiece on one end of the crossguard. Small fingerholes on the hilt allow for different melodies to be played when the mouthpiece is blown into.

Of course, reading these over it’s pretty obvious even to a layman like me that these would almost certainly never work if you tried to construct them in real life. But you know what, in a world filled with magic and monsters, gods and demons, dungeons and dragons, I think there’s room for suspending disbelief a little bit where a few unrealistic weapons are concerned.

Until next time, readers, may the Power protect you.

Where Can I Buy a Dicebag +5?

July 17, 2010

In my Pathfinder group, there’s a guy who recently bought a used set of crystal dice (that is, transparent dice) from a former member. And I have to tell you…these dice are magical.

Ever since he got them, this player has rolled spectacularly well. It’s not unusual for his d20, for example, to see around eight natural 20’s in a single session, and most of his other rolls are in the high teens. This d8 tends to roll 7’s and 8’s more often than other numbers. Even his four-siders turn up a disproportionate number of 4’s.

Now, we’ve all made jokes about how lucky his dice are, and even kidded that they must be loaded, but I’m honestly beginning to wonder if they are improperly weighted. Unfortunately, there’s no way that I know of to conclusively check, and asking/telling/demanding that he not use them seems petty, since without definitive proof it just makes me look jealous of his presumed luck.

It also seems, to me anyway, that he’s begun to overshadow the rest of the group thanks to his unbelievable rolling. When everyone else is undergoing a tense battle to bring down their own foes, this guy’s erudite (a variant psion, from WotC’s Complete Psionic) will invariably blast the enemies around him to cinders in one or two shots. There’s still dramatic tension, of course, but a significant amount of it is being undercut thanks to the Superman in our midst.

Given that this seems like an unsolvable problem – how do you nerf a set of miracle dice?  – I’m asking for suggestions. Is there any definitive way to tell if dice are loaded? I really want to check his, if only to put this issue to rest once and for all. If not, what should I do about the fact that this player is simply doing too well?

She’s Giving You That “Come Zither” Look

July 10, 2010

At long last we come to the final entry among the A monsters of the Pathfinder Bestiary, and this curvaceous creature is one that makes sure this section ends with a bang. Let’s take a long look at the

LILLEND

What to say about the lillend? A picture is worth a thousand words, and really, they’re necessary. She’s a woman above the waist, a snake below, and she has wings to boot. The Freudian imagery is so thick here that I’m sure there must be a shrink somewhere using this picture as an aid in checking patients for psychosexual disorders.

Needless to say, we’ve come to yet another of the Bestiary’s pin-up girls. Far from the chaste aasimar or the ghaele, the lillend is the most prurient (in terms of appearance) creature we’ve seen yet.

Or is she?

Part of me (I won’t tell you which part) wonders if maybe the fact that the lillend is going around pretty much topless is her overcompensating. After all, most ordinary men are going to balk at the idea of fucking a girl who’s all scaly down there; hence, wearing nothing but pasties with the chain between them is her way of trying to make sure guys’ eyes stay up top.

The “I’m a sex object!” getup aside, the Bestiary talks about how the lillends are the artists of the azatas, giving us some fairly blase information about their love of music and protection of pastoral splendors and inspiration of artists, etc. It’s nothing to write home about, which is a shame, since I think they really could have put a more interesting spin on things.

Back in 2E, lillends were noted for all wearing masks that were heavily stylized, so much so that no two lillends’ masks were the same (this may have been specific to Planescape, I’m not sure). I think Paizo should have taken that concept and expanded upon it. Not the masks, per se, but rather the thematic idea that all lillends are artists who express and define themselves through body art.

My interpretation of the lillend is that she sees her own identity as an artistic abstraction – the idea of “who she is” is something that must be expressed rather than simply answered, and her body is the canvas on which that expression takes place. Hence, lillends spend their eternal existences looking for new ways to paint, pierce, modify, and otherwise alter their bodies in a way that defines them; a never-ending quest to find the perfect representation of who they are as art.

Of course, given that, the lillend pictured above must be uninspired at the moment. She’s not so much feeling blue as she is feeling blank, which is a shame.

Won’t someone grab his brush and apply a few coats to her?

Into the Stone Age: Races

July 5, 2010

Okay, it’s taken me way too long to get back to this particular topic, so here we go.

One of the first questions that comes up in a Stone Age Pathfinder game is what races will be available. On the surface, this seems like a pretty standard query; after all, there’s no real reason not to have the standard seven races available, right?

Wrong. See, setting a campaign that far in the past brings up questions of creationism versus evolution, and depending on which answer you choose, there’s more questions after that.

Let’s say that you decide that all of the PC races are available, and that they’re all the beginnings of a long evolution for those species. Hence, you now have cave elves, cave dwarves (which seems a little redundant in nomenclature, if not execution), cave gnomes, and cave halflings all living alongside cave humans.

Now, even overlooking the oddity of neanderthal elves and cro-magnon gnomes, this hurts the suspension of disbelief somewhat. For example, it’s usually understood that in most campaign worlds, elves already have a flourishing civilization that’s at its high point when humans are still struggling with weird new concepts like agriculture and domesticated animals. Given that, if you go back so far that elves are just cave-dwellers, shouldn’t the humans still be monkeys?

In other words, going with the evolution answer brings up issues with how these races, due to both their staggered lifespans and reproduction rates, and probably somewhat due to emerging cultural differences as well, develop at different rates. So much so that – notwithstanding the “universal early renaissance” period most fantasy RPGs are set in – it’s very difficult to put all of these races at the same level of development, either biologically or socially.

This may make it seem more tempting to go with the creationism answer, which lets you hand-wave the races into existence whenever the gods decide to get around to creating them. “No, there are no elves in the world at this point. Why? Because Corellon Larethian hasn’t made any yet.” And in fact this is a perfectly valid answer, so long as you’re using it to remove a given race from the campaign world entirely.

Where creationism fails is when you do want to use it as the answer for a given race existing at a primitive level. If you want to have cave elves and cave humans living side-by-side, for example, and justify it by saying that cave humans evolved from monkeys whereas cave elves were made whole-cloth by Corellon, you start running into some problems.

The big one being, why did their god create them at such a primitive form? Why didn’t he just make them as the “renaissance elves” that they become later on? If he’s the god of swordplay and magic, why not create them with a civilization that has metallurgical and thaumaturgical studies?

The above questions don’t even get into the harder theological questions, like “do mortals predate their gods, and so THAT’S why they didn’t just give us a better civilization?” Cosmological problems of this magnitude will be dealt with in a future article though, so don’t worry. Here at Intelligence Check, we don’t duck the hard questions!

But back to the races. Unless you’re planning to ignore the question altogether (“Your character doesn’t know enough to ask why the elves are still a prehistoric culture, despite having existing for far longer than your own race, okay?”), having all of the standard races share the world as primitive hunter-gatherers can race some difficult meta-game questions from players who think it through.

In fact, the easiest answer may be simply to reject the premise of the question altogether. After all, this campaign may be set at a prehistoric level of development, but that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily evolve into the standard fantasy game world. You could just as easily say that yes, all of these races do co-exist as primitive peoples, and that means that someday the humans will be the FIRST to develop a culture, with elves eventually becoming the young race that comes into their own during humanity’s twilight years.

Once you’ve settled the question of what your characters will be, then you can turn to issues of what they can do.

Next: Classes of the Stone Age!

There She Is, Miss Elysium

July 1, 2010

Continuing on with the monsters from the Bestiary, we come to the next of the azatas.

GHAELE

And immediately, we’re again struck with how-the-hell-do-you-pronounce-it-itis. Seriously, does anyone know how to properly vocalize this name? Is it “gale”? “Gha-el”? “Gay-lay”? None of the above?

You know, back during the later days of Second Edition, TSR’s home page (or maybe it was WotC’s page by then, I’m not sure) had a download that answered questions like this. For Planescape, it was a series of .wav files of people speaking various words like “tanar’ri” and “baatezu” simply so you’d what they sounded like. From what I can tell, that’s since been lost to time, but man does Paizo ever need to bring back something like this for Pathfinder.

But let’s take at look at our ghaele ghirl here.

Despite her being fairly pretty, I waffled as to whether or not this monster deserved the pin-up girl tag. After all, she really seems to be armored up pretty well, eschewing the traditional skimpy armors that a lot of women warriors wear. So really, the ghaele seemed to be trying more for practicality than enhancing beauty.

However, the more I thought about it, the less true that seemed. Yes, her armor does cover a lot of her…but there’s still a fair amount of skin on display here. Take, for example, her legs; her knee-high boots are impressive, but above that: nothing.

That by itself wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t seem to be wearing a chainmail miniskirt. I can’t believe I actually just typed that, but there it is – a chainmail miniskirt. I’m sure that it’s actually some real piece of armor that served a particular function, and had its own weird name that almost nobody remembers today, but we let’s dispense with the plausible deniability. The chainmail miniskirt is more respectable than the chainmail bikini, but not by much.

Further up, as if to truly put the issue of “which comes first: form or function?” to rest, we find that there’s a large hole in the armor covering her torso, which shows off her cleavage quite nicely. Tip for lady adventurers here: if it’s puts your chest on display, don’t use that armor. I’m just saying.

But then, we come to the cherry on this particular sundae. As if Paizo wanted to make sure that we couldn’t take this particular monster seriously no matter how hard we tried, they added the finishing touch to the ghaele’s ensemble: a tiara.

I really don’t know what to say about this. Why is she wearing a tiara? It’s not a status symbol; the book says they’re the knights of the azata race. Did she just finish the “armor & eros” part of a planar beauty pageant? Or maybe she moonlights as a runway model? It’d certainly explain the pissed-off look she’s got, since models seem to be forbidden from smiling on the job.

Between this picture and the relative dearth of descriptive text we’re given, it’s hard to know what to make of the ghaele. In all honesty, she seems to be like a contemporary superheroine – intent on fighting evil, and dressing to impress while doing so for no reason that can be determined. It’s not necessarily unwelcome, just undefined. Still, as we’ll see next time, there are much more audacious azatas…