Archive for August, 2010

Putting the “Sex” Back in “Contsextual”

August 28, 2010

Recently, a friend of mine commented on the post I wrote about sexuality in RPG materials. While he agreed with the gist of what I wrote, he did mention that he thought I was too blanket of my condemnation of sexuality in RPGs in general (and Pathfinder in particular) – particularly, he noted, I completely ignored the issue of actually role-playing a character with any sort of sexual dimension.

As such, I wanted to clarify the message that I was making in my previous post. I’ve got nothing against RPGs having a sexual aspect to them. What I don’t care for – and what a lot of people don’t seem to care for – is erotic material that’s utterly without context to it. If it makes sense in the course of the game, if it’s a natural part of the campaign world and the characters, if it’s adding something to the game, then I’m all for it. When it’s out of context, however, and lacks justification for why it’s been included, then it’s just puerile.

(The above statements are made with the understanding that, regardless of context, issues of sex never become so prominent as to become prurient – otherwise you might as well be playing F.A.T.A.L.)

True fact: After appearing in the BoEF, this succubus went on to star in the D&D porno, "Tomb of Whores."

It’s this lack of context, I think, that’s soured people to the ill-fated Book of Erotic Fantasy. Unto itself, it really wasn’t that bad of a book (though it certainly needed another round or two of rules editing, and the experiment with the photoshopped images of real people was interesting, but ultimately no substitute for actual illustrations), but it just dumped a boatload of sex-focused rules on DMs, without any built-in method of adding them into the game world.

To be fair, a lot of the time a theme-based rulebook doesn’t need to trip over itself with methodology for contextualizing its new rules. A sourcebook on deserts will naturally come into play when the game shifts to a desert setting. A sourcebook on new spells will become relevant when new spells are introduced – either obtained by the PCs or used against them by NPCs. A sourcebook on sex…yeah, that’s going to need some more effort to integrate into the game world.

Now, the BoEF did make this effort, but it was brief and half-hearted. Briefly going over the erotica of the alignments, reviewing the sexual habits of various creature types, some new deities, and giving a short overview of a handful of sex-focused organizations is a good start, but it’s just a start. There’s no pre-set way of actually working in the new classes, feats, spells, items, monsters, etc. The DM could do it himself, certainly, but just suddenly adding new sex-themed mechanics – even piecemeal – tends to be difficult at best.

Between that, and the aforementioned photoshopped pictures and need for more editing, it’s little wonder that the BoEF wound up being a failure. The publishers learned the hard way that context, not mechanics, is king.

So when do we get cosplayers of the characters in this book?

Ironically, very few people seem to be aware of a book that I like to think of as the successor to the BoEF: Sisters of Rapture. Written for 3.5 by a little-known third-party publisher called Fantastic Gallery, Sisters of Rapture clearly knows what the BoEFs mistakes were, and avoids making them itself. The rules are solid. The pictures are illustrations instead of photos. And the book focuses on a sexual organization that exists in the game world, with the new rules revolving around that in addition to plenty of flavor text.

And, by making this one not-so-little change in presentation, the book works. The emphasis on erotica is tied to this organization and its members, allowing it be emphasized or de-emphasized by how much these NPCs appear in the game, limiting and defining the subject matter within the scope of the game world rather than awkwardly trying to re-flavor things around new mechanics. Of course, because of that there’s naturally fewer new rules here than in the BoEF, but it’s hardly a loss since those rules all gel with the flavor text so well.

So yeah, I don’t have a problem with sex in RPGs – I just want it, like every other part of the game world, to make sense within the framework of said game world. From differing equipment lists to winged blue goblins, if there’s a sense of internal consistency and interconnectedness in what you’re adding to the game, then it’s something I’m all for.

And if, in addition to all that, the women are topless, then that’s even better.

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Into the Stone Age: Classes, Part One

August 17, 2010

I seem to be making a habit out of being late to return to series that I’ve started. But still, better late than never. This time we’re back to focusing on what it’d be like to try and run a Pathfinder game in a Stone Age setting.

Classes are perhaps the most important part of character design – which, since the characters (those run by the players, at least) are the center around which the campaign revolves, makes them the de facto most important part of the game. That’s an oversimplification, to be sure, but not that much of one.

For a Stone Age game, perhaps the most salient detail regarding classes is knowing which ones not to allow. Yes, you read that right: there are some classes which should be completely ruled out as viable choices, not only for PCs but for any characters. The reason for this is self-evident, in that some classes are simply to “modern” in their feel for a game set in a prehistoric world.

A more in-depth way of looking at this principle is that the more you cut out, the more what’s left over is magnified to fill the void. If you remove several spellcasting classes, those left over become much more important, since they’re now the only viable choices for spells. Also, the feel of a campaign is largely defined by what’s available – removing certain choices makes a campaign setting feel distinct in the variety of things that can be taken.

In essence, this bit of design philosophy is the flipside to introducing new crunch into a campaign; whether you’re adding new material, or taking existing material away, what’s left is what determines the paradigm for your campaign world.

With that, let’s look at the various Pathfinder classes and analyze how they’d work, or not work, in a Stone Age setting. We’ll look at the Core PC classes, the NPC classes, and the new classes from the Advanced Player’s Guide.

Adept: The adept functions quite well in a Stone Age game; it’s already a primitive divine spellcaster, akin to a shaman, and such roles are highlighted in a prehistoric society. This is the mysterious hermit or witch doctor who communes with the spirits, making sense of the world by interpreting the inscrutable forces that drive how things operate. Verdict: allowed.

Of course, an NPC class is still an NPC class. Players hurting for class choices might be tempted to consider the adept (or another NPC class) as a viable choice. While there’s nothing wrong that taking levels in adept, it should be discouraged – the players will be lacking in so many things in a prehistoric game that taking levels in a class not meant for PCs will only end up further handicapping them. As we’ll see, there are PC spellcasting classes that are viable choices – steer the players in that direction if they start contemplating taking adept levels.

Alchemist: This is an easy one. The alchemist can be safely ruled out for a Stone Age Pathfinder game; the entire concept is simply too advanced for a primitive culture. People haven’t yet tumbled onto the idea of chemical extracts, bombs, mutagens, etc. Verdict: banned.

But if you just replace the dress and goblet with a leopard skin and hunk of meat, she'd fit right in...right?

Aristocrat: Do I really need to say anything here? Verdict: banned.

Barbarian: Again, this class seems like a no-brainer, but in the opposite direction from the previous one. The barbarian is perhaps the most common combat class in a Stone Age setting. It already has a primitive slant to it, and fits right in with the idea of living in a savage, untamed world. Verdict: allowed.

Bard: The bard is one of those classes that occupies the grey area between what’s acceptable and what’s not for Stone Age classes, depending on its overall flavor. On the surface, it seems easy enough to toss this one out – after all, the professional minstrel won’t come into being for millenia. But on the other hand, toss out the more refined, cultured bard and you get the idea of the primitive war-chanter, singing songs and dancing around the fire at night, or howling a wordless tune during a fight to rally his tribesmen, and you have a more palatable idea.

That aside, however, focusing on the class powers, this character still seems a bit too modern as-is. Arcane spellcasting, for example, is ill-defined for bards, seeming to come from the bard picking up a little bit of everything on his travels. That’s too slick for a Stone Age character; magic is a mysterious, ill-understood force – not something that you can just pick up along the way. Verdict: banned (but may be allowed if you can find fitting alternate class features).

Cavalier: No, just no. While some classes might have the odd animal companion as a mystic ability, having a dedicated mount through non-magical means is beyond what people accomplished in the Stone Age. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, domesticating animals is one of the hallmarks of advancing out of the Stone Age; presumably using them as mounts and other beasts of burden is a step beyond simply keeping them for food. Throw in the idea of joining orders, and this class is altogether beyond the pale for a Stone Age game. Verdict: banned.

Cleric: Like the bard, the cleric occupies a broad enough theme that it’s difficult to immediately rule them out – however, the cleric has a more strict sense of what being a member of this class entails. Even if it’s only through comparison to the druid, the adept, and other “primitive” divine spellcasters, the cleric is the refined, modern priest who treats his faith as his occupation.

Clerics are characters who actively proselytize, minister to the faithful, advance the agendas of their god, etc. They see their deity (and quite likely all members of a specific pantheon) as being not only understandable, but worthy of service based on the ideals and portfolio that they represent. This is antithetical to a primitive view of gods, which sees them as primal, poorly-understood, omnipresent entities which must be placated in order to get along in the world. Even overlooking mechanical issues such as how clerics can casually toss out healing or harming energy, the cleric is a little too polished for the rough world of the Stone Age. Verdict: banned.

Commoner: The single most flavorless class, the commoner’s only failing is just how common it is. That is, in a savage world where people survive by hunting and gathering, can a mere commoner survive? If not, then what class represents the common, non-adventuring people? Looking this over, I’m of the opinion that discarding this class as being too weak to survive in the Stone Age is probably going too far – life back then was surely a struggle, but even in a fantasy world rife with monsters, it wouldn’t have been a constant battle. Commoners still work just fine to represent the everyman, even in a prehistoric society. Verdict: allowed.

Meet the villain for your Stone Age Pathfinder game.

Druid: The druid presents an interesting conundrum. It’s orientation as a nature-themed class seems to line up perfectly with a campaign set before the rise of any true civilization. However, the very fact that the druid lives in such harmony with nature, drawing power from it and acting as its protector, seems to fly in the face of the whole “nature as savage and uncaring” angle that seems to fit better with a prehistoric game.

This, however, is one of those times where the flavor of a class is easily discarded. Instead of the “druid as nature’s proxy” angle, it works better to look at them as a person who’s given up their humanity for power. The druid isn’t some tree-hugger who feels that nature as an abstraction is deserving of worship; rather, he’s the loner who has given up being a person in favor of the sheer ruggedness that animals display, gaining mysterious powers (e.g. spells) and other unnatural abilities. Treat the druid like a blood-thirsty Mowgli, and you’ll have a Stone Age class with a flavor all its own even without changing any mechanics. Verdict: allowed.

Expert: A specialist in a single area, the specialist seems benign enough, but carries with it the hint of civilization. After all, the idea of working in a specific area to the point of specializing in it falls apart when you realize that, that far back, there weren’t any skills that required that much practice. Yes, making fire was hard, and drawing those cave paintings wasn’t so easy either…but can you really see a tribe of people having a dedicated cave-painter or fire-maker? I can’t. Hence why I don’t think the expert is viable in a Stone Age game. Verdict: banned.

Fighter: Ah, the fighter. Usually seen as the most mainstream combat class, its Pathfinder incarnation has a slightly different flavor from earlier editions, and of course every class is different, even if only a little, in the Stone Age. The fighter can be thought of as someone who makes their living in fighting, like a soldier or a mercenary…both things you won’t find in prehistoric times. While combat is certainly no stranger to people even that far back, the idea of individuals who focus on fighting professionally, instead of as needed to secure food and shelter, is more difficult to reconcile.

Further, the Pathfinder fighter is notable in that it gains specific bonuses with weapons and armor – things that, as we’ll see, are more limited in the Stone Age. Does that mean we shouldn’t have fighters at all, though? That’s more difficult to answer. Tentatively, I’m going to say that fighters are redundant compared to barbarians…there are clearly differences between the two, but in such a primitive age, there isn’t enough latitude for those differences to be developed to any meaningful degree. It’s enough that there’s already one class focused on hitting things hard until they stop moving – having another one requires it to bring its own unique twist to that idea, and the fighter doesn’t rise to that level. Verdict: banned.

Next: Classes of the Stone Age, part two!

The Gobblin’ Goblin

August 13, 2010

After a hiatus of far too long, I’m finally returning to the original series of articles that debuted on this blog – our spotlight on each and every monster in the Pathfinder Bestiary! Today, we begin to make our headway into the B’s. And opening that letter, we have the

BARGHEST

There’s a minor bit of the ubiquitous “it’s pronounced how?” problem with the barghest’s name, but not so much as to really be worth mentioning. I’ve always held that the “gh” is vocalized as a hard “g” sound; hence the monster is a “bar-guest.” A fitting name, given the monster’s ravenous nature.

The barghest is one of those monsters that’s been around for a while, through multiple editions, and its age is starting to show. For example, it’s described as being a possible fiendish relation to the various goblinoid races. Now, given its Lawful Evil nature, that made sense back in the day when most goblinoid races were Lawful Evil, and included things like kobolds and orcs (who were Lawful Evil back then).

Now, however, that doesn’t quite seem to hold up. There are only three goblinoid races in the Bestiary – the Chaotic Evil bugbears, the Neutral Evil goblins, and the Lawful Evil hobgoblins. So why is it that the Lawful Evil barghest can take the form of a goblin, rather than, say, a hobgoblin? For that matter, why is its other form that of a wolf? Goblins hate dogs, and I’d guess that hatred extends to wolves as well; wouldn’t a worg or goblin dog be a much better choice?

I’m all for “legacy” parts of the game – the things that are holdovers from earlier editions. I like how they represent a clear connection to the game’s history and traditions, things I think are important. However, when those don’t make sense unto themselves anymore, they go from being valuable mementos to being baggage, and baggage just weighs things down. The barghest’s nature should have gotten a makeover here – nothing too radical, but at least a few cosmetic changes to smooth over the aforementioned rough spots. Make it Neutral Evil and polymorph into a worg instead of a wolf, and you have a winner.

Of course, all of that’s really window dressing for the creature’s most central power: its ability to gain strength by devouring creatures. Wisely, Paizo limited this to non-evil creatures, otherwise these things would quickly start munching on the goblins it says they like to lord over.

Given the hands-off nature of monster advancement that Pathfinder has adopted, the barghest’s ability to grow stronger by eating creatures is handled fairly elegantly. In fact, it’s now so simple that it’s almost a different power altogether. Any non-evil humanoid that a barghest eat grants a “growth point” and when it gains 4 such points, it becomes a greater barghest. The only limit to this is that it can only gain 1 point per month.

Compare this to 3.5, where the barghest’s feeding power had no time limit, but worked on any humanoid that had a number of Hit Dice/levels equal to the barhgest’s HD. It required a total of nine such creatures to become a greater barghest – more than twice its Pathfinder counterpart – and being devoured like this made it seriously difficult for resurrection magic to bring you back.

What’s my point with all this? So glad you asked – this is the flip-side to updating monsters from earlier editions of the game. Some legacy aspects are kept when they should be removed, while others are removed when they should be kept. Adding the non-evil and once-per-month stipulations to the barghest’s feed power was a cool move on Paizo’s part, but lowering the number of people it needed to eat, making them viable targets for feeding even with low Hit Dice, and entirely removing the effect this had on trying to resurrect such a victim, were all things I’d like to have seen retained.

Like moving into a new house, moving to a new edition requires carefully checking what should be kept, what should be thrown out, and most importantly, why. Failing to do that can result in making a new game that feels so utterly divorced from its roots that it alienates longtime players, driving them away from your new creation instead of having them embrace it as early-adopters who help bring in new players.

Of course, I’m sure no company would ever do something like that.

And So I’m Back, From Wildspace

August 10, 2010

Wow it’s been too long since I’ve updated! My apologies for the interminable delay, dear readers. In fact, I went to Gen Con Indy 2010, had an absolute blast, and have had trouble making my Fortitude saves since I got back. Hence why it’s taken me so long to get back in the swing of things.

But what a swing it is! I’m very pleased to announce that Intelligence Check is now a member of the RPG Bloggers Network! You can find their link (it’s the only one with the picture) over on the right side of the screen now, under my blogroll. It’s great to be accepted to one of the biggest collection of RPG blogs on the internet, and I hope I can make a noteworthy contribution.

Rock ‘n’ Role-Playing

August 1, 2010

Recently I was thinking (for no reason that I can recall) about that now-famous statement Johnny Depp made about his character, Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Depp stated that he portrayed the character in the manner of a rock star (specifically Keith Richards) because pirates were the rock stars of their time; that is, their fame preceded them.

This is significant, I think, because the same thing is true for adventurers in a fantasy game. Think about it, the most excitement your typical commoner gets is hoping for a natural 20 on his weekly Profession check. For that poor schlub, hearing the exploits of that group of adventurers that slew a deadly dragon, rescued a pulchritudinous princess, and took its heaping hoard for themselves is the closest thing he can get to attending a rock concert or seeing a blockbuster action movie.

Amiri charges a chimera.

"You'll all remember this as the day you almost killed Amiri of the Six Bears...if I wasn't about to decapitate you, I mean."

Given that, and given that people are people wherever you go, you can predict how the inhabitants of some sleepy little hamlet will react when these living legends show up in their town (presuming that it’s not because some really bad shit is going down). Young people – who still dream of maybe living that life one day – will go completely crazy, trying to sleep with the heroes, steal a souvenir off of them, convincing them to take them on as an apprentice, etc. Others will try to pull off some sort of scheme (from diabolical to hare-brained) in hopes of parting the party from their money. A few will sternly preach that these loose cannons are corrupting the youth and contributing to the social breakdown.

Now, it goes without saying that this is usually more trouble than it’s worth for the adventurers. Oh, it’s nice having people fawn all over you, your choice of the local girls (or boys), and generally being treated like royalty. But it makes it impossible to arrive in a place, or investigate, covertly. Scandal and gossip follow them endlessly. And there are legions of fans and hangers-on who all want something from them. There’s no peace to be had when you’re on a pedestal.

Now ask yourself, when’s the last time your PC dealt with that in your Pathfinder game?

I didn’t think so. As such, here’s a defect to simulate having to deal with this problem on a regular basis. Originally this was posted over on the Skirmisher Publishing forums, but I’m tweaking it a little for its re-release here.

DEFECT: GROUPIE MAGNET [GENERAL]
Adventurers are the rock stars of a fantasy world, and this character is one of the most famous.
Prerequisites: Character level 6+, Charisma 14+.
Detriment: As a result of being a famous adventurer, a character with this Defect is so well-known that whenever he enters a populated area he’s surrounded by (character level)d4 groupies (75% of which are of the opposite gender of the character) after (30 minus character level) minutes. These groupies follow the character wherever he goes in the local area, usually necessitating a disguise in order to escape them.

Groupies are all low-level NPCs. Unlike followers and cohorts, they don’t take orders from a character with this Defect, but rather just crowd around him and gawk, shriek, make shameless advances, and try to steal his stuff for souvenirs (treat this as a Sleight of Hand check made to steal from the character each round, with a bonus equal to one-half the character’s level).

A character may request a favor from one of their groupies (DC 5 Diplomacy check), but this rarely turns out well. Groupies cannot keep a secret in regards to the object of their affection, and word about the favor rapidly spreads, becoming common knowledge after 1d4-1 days (DC 10 Diplomacy check to gather information about it). This “news” is often embellished wildly; a groupie who lent their idol money will boast about how the character now owes them a favor, whereas a groupie who slept with her idol will talk about how she’s now pregnant with his “love child,” etc.

Now, most of the specifics here have been left deliberately vague. There’s no set level for the NPC groupies, for instance, and how asking them for favors comes back to bite the PC in the ass is left up to the GM (though, as a general guideline, the more the PC asks their groupie for, the worse it comes back around).

The most obvious problem this will pose for a PC with this defect is that they’ll be swarmed anytime they’re in public, forcing them to adopt a disguise (ranks in the Disguise skill will likely follow taking this defect). Obviously, this might not happen in every town the PC ever sets foot in, but the GM should err on the side of overstating this effect; think of how people in your town would react if they suddenly realized that [insert mega-famous celebrity’s name here] was right there among them.

Still, if you want a character who’s a celebrity among the populace of the game world, this will give you that fame…with all it entails.