Archive for April, 2011

They’re Creepy and They’re Kooky

April 24, 2011

Paizo’s current adventure path, the Carrion Crown, evokes an undertone of gothic horror. It takes place in a haunted, benighted land where the bumps in the night are something to be feared, and there just might be monsters under the bed. It’s a great atmosphere, one that I’ve loved in D&D ever since I discovered Ravenloft.

Having said that, the most atmospheric part of a good gothic horror campaign isn’t the setting, nor is it the mechanics (even if they do use special horror-themed rules). It’s the PCs. If you have players who get into it, and a GM who works to weave their backstories and choices into the campaign thoroughly, you can create stories as gothic as any classic novel.

One of the best – or most popular, certainly – ways to go about this is to make the heroes into creatures that aren’t quite “people,” at least to everyone else. While it’s become so prevalent in post-modern fantasy (particularly urban fantasy) to make angst-ridden monster anti-heroes who bemoan their eternal damnation yet still continue to do good in a vain hope of someday being redeemed, the core essence of what made this trope so popular remains. What’s more, it thrives in a role-playing game.

The Gothic Hero

The basic element of this emo characterization is that these are characters who A) are laboring under some sort of condition that separates them from “normal” people, and B) could easily separate themselves from the human condition altogether if they decided to embrace their monstrous nature. Now give those motivations to PCs, who regularly engage in violence with intent to kill, and – presuming that they have some sort of “humanity” that they want to protect – you actually have some opportunities for great role-playing.

Taking all that into account, what’s left is to create player-characters that have some sort of dehumanizing condition. This is somewhat harder than it seems, because we need something that represents something beyond the control of the character, even as it’s part of what the player chooses. This is significant because classes tend to be representative of a character’s in-game career decisions. A necromancer isn’t a necromancer because he was born that way; he’s a necromancer because he went to wizard school to study necromancy. There’s some wiggle room with classes like the sorcerer, but for the most part this has to be a condition that exists independent of personal choice.

That pretty much leaves the PC’s race. Luckily, thanks to Paizo and other third-party publishers, there are plenty of gothic races that your character can play as. We’re going to go over a half-dozen or so here and outline just what makes them such excellent choices for a darkly atmospheric campaign.

As a note, these choices were selected not for how monstrous they are – there are plenty of options out there for playing succubi or liches. What makes these such good options is that these are the creatures that are standing on the proverbial doorstep of humanity. They look human (for the most part), and they might even have been human (or still be part human), but they fundamentally are not human, and they know it, and anyone who gets too close to them will invariably know it as well. And as emo as it seems, that should be a point of pain for them, since almost no one will accept them when they find out what they really are, and those who do accept them will likely come to a bad end for it, whether at the hands of monsters or a fearful lynch mob.

When your PC sees his best friend strung up purely because they were friends, and knows he can’t go out there and save him or he’d be lynched too…that’s gothic.

So without further ado, the gothic races of Pathfinder.

Tiefling: The most well-known race on this list, tieflings are caught between their mortal and fiendish heritage. In all likelihood, their planar heritage is an obvious part of their physique, leading to prejudice before they’ve had a chance to say or do anything. And of course, their mortality makes them unsuited for life among the evil planar denizens.

While they might be able to form communities among themselves, this is unlikely to create any sort of better life for tieflings, as such enclaves are likely to be little more than ghettos. Moreover, if there are typical features, or even powers, among tieflings with particular fiendish heritages, then these ghettos might very well be further divided among gangs that fight with each other in a struggle destined to never accomplish anything. Now imagine this being the background of a budding adventurer…

Tieflings can be found in the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary, but supplemental information can be found in Pathfinder #25: The Bastards of Erebus (such as the aforementioned variant tiefling statistics based on fiendish heritage), as well as in the free Council of Thieves Player’s Guide (the practical material here is largely restricted to a single trait that nerfs your tiefling, saying their fiendish blood is watery).

Changeling: The changeling is the new girl on the block, having debuted in the recent Pathfinder #43 – The Haunting of Harrowstone. Changelings are the immature form of a hag; when a hag has a dalliance with an unsuspecting man, the changeling is what she gives birth to later. Looking mostly human save for a few odd features like mismatched eyes or pale skin (subtler than the tiefling, certainly), they’re abandoned on the doorsteps of human villages until their mother attempts to mystically call them back and have them undergo the ritual to change them into a full hag.

Needless to say, the gothic backstory for this character is built-in. Sooner or later, a changeling PC is going to come face-to-face with her hag mother, as the latter tries to make her daughter into a monster like herself. This brings up a lot of issues regarding family, particularly in contrast to the changelings adoptive family and the families of the other PCs. A changeling who lost her family to violence after the town sage discovered that their daughter was a larval monster, for example, would be conflicted between trying to live a peaceful life to honor her dead family, or giving in to her grief and rage to lash out at the world that took them from her. Guess which one her hag mother would encourage?

Dhampir: Introduced in the Bestiary 2, the dhampir is, like the tiefling and changeling, born to cursed parentage. In this case, the union of a mortal and a vampire, something that leaves the dhampir with a lifelong thirst for blood. They gain no nourishment nor powers from drinking it, however, and can no more easily become a vampire than anyone else, leaving them trapped between the world of the living and that of the walking dead.

While the dhampir is able to pass for human fairly easily, their monstrous nature becomes obvious in other ways. Their sensitivity to light and the fact that they react like an undead to positive and negative energy are clues, to be sure. The most striking part of their vampiric nature, however, has no mechanics associated with it: their lust for blood. A good player will emphasize this, as it adds a second layer of struggle beyond just their human vs. monster ancestry. A dhampir wants to drink blood, despite knowing it serves no purpose for him – he’s like an alcoholic, desperate for another sip, while everyone around him is carrying full glasses of liquor waiting to be imbibed.

If you use Liber Vampyr (see the Revenant Vampire section, below), consider giving a dhampir character the Sanguine Aspirant feat for free, or giving them an automatic blood pool of 1 and Gain Power as a bonus feat. Also, whenever their blood pool is at less than maximum, require a Will save (DC 10, +1 per subsequent day; maximum 20) to resist the urge to forcibly take blood from someone who comes within 5 ft. of them.

Obitu: The beginning of this article talked about how most of these races looked human, and had a connection to humanity, both of which only served to highlight their inhuman aspects. The obitu stretch this particular philosophy quite a bit…because they lack flesh or organs, being living skeletons.

Not undead, obitu are created when undead creatures are infected with a virus that consumes negative energy. It kills the undead creature, and actually causes a new life to spontaneously generate in their bodies (which become skeletal if they weren’t already). Take a few months for the new intellect to mature, and these are the obitu.

Needless to say, obitu PCs are different from all of the others here, both physically and in their genesis. An obitu has none of the memories of the person whose bones it wears – it’s smart enough to understand how it came to be, but its life began when the virus consumed the undead thing that it was, leaving it with no identity regarding the person its body previously belonged to. And of course, as a living skeleton, the obitu has virtually no chance of passing for human; even the most open-minded person would think it to be an undead skeleton (or worse) and attack instantly.

Given all of this, role-playing an obitu isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. Even figuring out how the character came to meet and become companions with the rest of the adventuring party is likely to be quite a back-story, and the character will have trouble with even the most basic interpersonal relationships.

All of this, however, is part of the challenge of role-playing, especially for an obitu character who desperately wants to figure out who their body used to be, and perhaps completing that person’s unfinished business, or even atoning for what they did after becoming undead. The obitu is the ultimate quest for identity, trying to piece together a past that spans life and undeath…a past which was never really theirs to begin with.

The obitu are found in Alluria Publishing’s Remarkable Races Pathway to Adventure: Compendium of Unusual PC Races.

Revenant Vampire: Presented in Necromancers of the Northwest’s Liber Vampyr, the revenant vampire is one that, alongside the other options presented in that book, is specifically designed for PC use in a Pathfinder game. While its worst weaknesses and greatest strengths are both nerfed, by and large it’s the vampire that you know: a creature that maintains a strong link to its past, since its connection to humanity is both obvious and null at the same time. It looks entirely human, and remembers its life as one, but alone among all of the creatures in this article, it is truly undead.

Unlike a dhampir, a revenant vampire must consume blood to survive, and so its human facade can never be perfectly maintained; even for other party members, it’s hard to trust a creature that might be weighing the options of feeding on you right now. A revenant vampire is isolated not only because its a predator, but also because other people can’t stand the thought of being prey. Worse, a revenant vampire that embraces its vampiric nature grows stronger…so long as they can maintain a deeper blood pool, requiring more and more feedings.

At what point does the PC vampire decide that feeding on innocent people is acceptable if it gives it the cruomantic (blood magic) power to defeat greater evils? At what point do potential allies become enemies and/or victims because of the revenant vampire’s growing need for blood to fuel its powers? And at what point do the other members of the party decide that their comrade’s blood lust has grown too great, and needs to be stopped?

Werewolf: We’ve all heard that with great power comes great responsibility, but for the werewolf, both the power and the responsibility may not even be realized for quite some time. A PC werewolf – something best played with A Necromancer’s Grimoire: Marchen der Daemonwulf, by Necromancers of the Northwest (as it’s written with the intent of making werewolf PCs) – might not even realize what’s happened at first, going off to hunt on the full moon and never realize the next morning that he took a life last night.

Of course, eventually they’ll figure it out, quite likely when a fight goes against them and they transform right there. However, it won’t be long before they figure out how to control it and remain (mostly) in control during a transformation. Even further, how will their friends feel when they deliberately avoid seeking out a cure because they begin to realize just how much power the transformation gives them?

Like a vampire, the rest of the party is likely to feel threatened, but whereas a vampire can control his urges, there’s always a threat that a werewolf will go berserk and devour the rest of the party. But this can be far worse depending on how the werewolf’s powers develops. What if he gains the ability to curse others with lycanthropy via a bite? Will he accidentally spread it around the next time he loses control? What if he empowers the party’s enemies when they escape a fight? What if the lycanthrope is drunk on his own sense of power and wants to infect the other party members to make them all stronger? Even if none of these happen, the lycanthrope’s monstrous nature will likely show through in other ways…who else can gain power by eating the corpses of his foes, for instance?

Werewolves gain great power from embracing the beast within, and the great responsibility that comes with this is likely to fall on their PC companions’ shoulders. What happens when they get tired of bearing the burden for the beast in their ranks?

Restless Soul: Sometimes death isn’t the end – it’s the beginning. For some characters, their very soul is too restless to lie easily in the afterlife, and so comes back not as an undead creature, nor brought back to life, but simply exist in the mortal world as a solid, incarnate spirit. These are the restless souls, featured in the Rite Publishing product of the same name.

Unlike the other creatures presented here, the restless soul needs most of its gothic nature mandated by the GM regarding exactly why it can’t rest easily in the afterlife. While its basic attributes – specifically the un-healable scar from the wound that killed it, and its amnesia regarding how it died – are helpful in this regard, they don’t provide a concrete answer to this. A back-story needs to be worked out here between the player and the GM. Did the character’s soul escape from the afterlife in order to perform some duty it simply couldn’t let go of? Was it exiled from Heaven and Hell both? Or is the character so slippery that even death itself wasn’t able to fully ensnare him?

These questions are necessary because they shape the character’s reaction when his afterlife catches up with him. Maybe the character won’t be hunted by angels or devils eager to return him to his proper place (though that’d certainly be dramatic), but the restless soul template makes the character an extraplanar entity in the mortal world; one dismissal and they’re sent back to where their soul was meant to go. Will they need to adventure to escape again (perhaps a solo adventure for the player, or a group adventure for the other PCs to retrieve him)? Or perhaps they’ll need to cut a deal to return again (if they didn’t before)? And of course, this same banishment also happens if they die in the mortal world…

Like the other characters here, restless souls have a great deal of gothic potential, but unlike them the GM needs to establish the precise nature of it ahead of time. How they died, and why they didn’t stay dead, are major questions that should have powerful answers…answers strong enough to make the character’s soul so restless.

Ultimately, the most important part of any role-playing game is the people playing it, and that’s especially true where a gothic game is concerned. If everyone invests in their characters, works out who they are, where they’ve come from, and what they want, then the GM will have a rich pool of material to draw upon and weave into a grand and horrific masterpiece. If done well, the campaign will be one that the entire group will remember for years…with shudders running down their spines.

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Are you still Master of Your Domain?

April 17, 2011

First off, allow me to apologize for having disappeared from the web for so long. I know I have at least one dedicated reader out there (hi Mom!), and having this blog go almost four months without an update is something I won’t let happen again.

While I don’t like to go into personal details about why I wasn’t able to maintain the blogging schedule I wanted (simply because it sounds like making excuses), I’ll say that real life was kicking my butt all over the place, but I’ve finally managed to turn things around and start delivering some kicks of my own. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way for a while, and I’ll keep turning out the articles. Speaking of which, let’s turn our attention to today’s.

Spare the Rod, but keep the Rulership

It seems like lately there’s been a lot of buzz about what makes for good high-level and epic-level gaming in D&D/Pathfinder. Now, to be fair, much of this is buzz that’s been around quite a bit before and I’m just noticing it now, but there are some interesting points here. I’ll talk more about epic-level gaming another time, but in this case I wanted (since I’m a bit rusty) to aim a little lower and talk about a part of the game that typically only comes into play at the higher levels.

More specifically, I wanted to go over the idea of high-level gameplay as the vessel for introducing rulership and politics into the game.

Guess who is the rogue in this party.

Now, by itself, this sounds like an idea that’s worthy of groaning and eye-rolling. “It’s a game about killing things and taking their stuff,” gamers say, “why muddy that up with things the game wasn’t meant to handle?”

Well, I could mention that the game used to handle those pretty well, insofar as older editions had built-in assumptions about fighters getting keeps, clerics getting temples, wizards getting towers, and thieves getting guilds (see the article on Grognardia, linked to above, for more on this), but that’d be something of a bait-and-switch on my part – after all, this is a Pathfinder blog, not an OSR one.

So why introduce those things into your Pathfinder game? Well, largely the same reason you’d introduce anything else: because it’s fun, specifically by introducing new dimensions to your characters and the game world, and in doing so opening up new ways to interact with them. This won’t be for everyone, of course, and people who prefer to keep raiding dungeons and slaying monsters should have no problem doing so. But what should you do if you want to start branching out into a more political sort of gameplay?

Making a King

Canny fans of Pathfinder will, by now, be saying that this problem is one that already has a solution. After all, less than a year ago Paizo released the Kingmaker Adventure Path, which has your PCs founding and growing their own nation, dealing with everything from rabble-rousers in the public to international war. Isn’t that political enough?

Well, yes…and no.

The major aspects of the political dimension that Kingmaker introduces into Pathfinder are threefold: exploring and claiming land, growing the rural and urban elements of a kingdom, and leading armies. Now, by themselves these are very fun additions to the game. Having GMed the first half of a Kingmaker campaign (before we decided to put it on hiatus because one of my players was very eager to run his homebrew world), I saw firsthand how into it my players got when it came to nurturing and sustaining their fledgling kingdom.

However, people who are familiar with these rules will know that none of them replace the core elements of the game: the aforementioned killing things and taking their stuff. The political aspects form a compelling backdrop, and are interwoven into the adventure very nicely, but ultimately the PCs still set out in their own little band and go slay wicked monsters.

By itself, this isn’t a bad thing. The Kingmaker rules function as an adjunct that allows for the PCs to have goals beyond simply earning personal treasure and leveling up. In fact, I’ll go one further and say that if you’re looking for a Pathfinder game that has multiple aspects to it, then the Kingmaker rules are great, since they let you shift the focus from action/adventure to political resource management very well.

So what’s the problem then? Well, the problem is that, if you want to de-emphasize the combat portions of the game in favor of rulership and politics – whether because you don’t think that the king going off placing himself in mortal peril with his buddies is logical for a budding kingdom, or for some other reason – the Kingmaker rules don’t help very much. Your character still advances by earning experience points, and it’s hard to do that using just the Kingmaker rules.

How many hit points does the body politic have?

Now, to be fair, it is possible to earn XP using just Kingmaker. You get XP awards for hitting various size thresholds in your kingdom (both in land claimed and cities developed), it’s easy to assign story-award XP for meeting various goals, and of course you gain XP for when your army vanquishes another army. But these are still relatively small awards that more often than not are one-time affairs, so they’re not a reliable go-to (unless your kingdom is constantly going to war, which it may very well be…just look at the United States *rimshot*).

Worse than this, though, is that fact that leveling up (as well as most magical gear) is an individualized process, with a strong focus on tactical combat. You gain a level of fighter, and it by-and-large makes you better at killing things. You gain a new level of spells, and most of them are either for killing things or preventing things from being killed, etc. Yes, you get skill points, which are usually non-combative in nature, and some spells and feats are like that also, but for the most part a leveled-up character is simply a better killer.

I Have the (Political) Power!

So if the reward system in Pathfinder/D&D is based around increasing personal martial power, and the personal acquisition of treasure, what’s the solution if you want to run a more politically-focused game? By changing the nature of how the players earn their rewards. Try some of the following suggestions:

Alternate Experience Awards – Give the players a new rubric for earning experience points. Having a new source of XP – one that can be anticipated and quantified ahead of time by the players – will quickly point them in a new direction.

A good idea is to make each BP spent on improving their kingdom worth 100 XP per PC (that is, if you have four PCs, 1 BP is worth 400 XP, etc.). You may need to rework this value depending on how low- or high-level your game is, but it gives the PCs much more incentive to build up their kingdom. Since the in-game nature of experience points (the “experience” part of them) is highly abstract, it’s easy to rationalize this as being the experience gained from managing and growing a country of their own.

Bear in mind that this doesn’t invalidate any of the existing methods for gaining experience points (mentioned above). They should still gain XP for having their kingdom reaching certain sizes, for completing certain story points, and of course for killing things. But since spending BP occurs in monthly increments of time, this method helps to reinforce the fact that PCs can train, learn, and grow during “downtime.”

Don’t forget, also, that PCs that donate 4,000 gp to their kingdom’s treasury gain another BP to spend, which grants them all XP. Another idea, one that I’ve blogged about previously, is that PCs can spend personal wealth to gain XP directly, so long as they’re spending it on things with no usefulness in regards to the game’s mechanics.

Public Treasure – The Kingmaker rules lay down a great method whereby characters can acquire a large degree of the treasure they want without having to adventure. It’s possible to withdraw BPs for gold pieces at a ratio of 1:2,000, though using the above system of XP for BPs will most likely discourage these sorts of withdrawals.

If you’re worried about the “Christmas Tree” effect, the above idea isn’t a bad thing, as it forces characters to choose between gaining treasure or XP per BP spent. On the other hand, if you want them to have an additional source of material wealth, consider revisiting the Profession skill. After all, government workers perform a service and so should earn a salary, right?

Ordinarily, the Profession skill earns a character half the check result in gold pieces for a week of work, which under the Kingmaker rules (wherein units of time take place across one month increments) allows for four checks per unit of time, or make a single check and have them earn double the check result in gold pieces – representing a month’s worth of time – if you want to cut down on rolls. Consider allowing characters to add a bonus to their check equal to their kingdom’s Economy value (since, as government officials, their fortunes are directly tied to the health of their government). Alternately, simply have them draw a stipend equal to some value multiplied by their kingdom’s Economy score (e.g. 10 gp x Economy bonus) per month. Be careful not to set this too high though, as the PCs may be tempted to save up for something big and then spend it all at once.

Similarly, don’t worry about magic items that the PCs may want. The Kingmaker rules already allow for certain types of buildings in a city to put various magic items on the market, so the PCs will have ample opportunities to spend their money. They may take it upon themselves to try and directly commission locals to build specific items for them. That’s fine, but you may want to have special orders cost more (anywhere from costing 1.2 to twice the market price, with half paid up front to cover creation costs) – this discourages the players from simply going magic item shopping, and the in-game rationale is that special orders simply cost more since they’re putting all other business on hold.

None of these will make the PCs rich, of course, but they’re not supposed to. They’re just supposed to make sure the PCs aren’t destitute, and have some method for gaining wealth without killing monsters for treasure.

Make Politics the Adventure – This is should be self-evident if you’re running a campaign with political concerns front and center, but it bears repeating. The above suggestions will help bring the rules inline with the type of game you want to run, but rules alone do not make a campaign. Good planning and smart design do that.

Pathfinder has political power over 9,000!

In order to make sure that a political campaign is fun, develop a large cast of NPCs, both in the PC’s nation and in surrounding nations. Come up with intriguing plot lines that allow for a developing story, one which reacts and grows with the PCs decisions. What do your PCs do when people from a neighboring country flee into theirs and ask for asylum even as officials demand them back (possibly with threats if the PCs don’t comply)? How will they handle having several powerful noble families vying for political influence and clout, all of whom are strongly influential among the kingdom’s people? What happens when the head of a major church puts pressure on the PCs to declare their church the state religion and push other religions out?

And of course, as mentioned above, don’t be afraid to let things come to fisticuffs every so often. Even with alternate ways of leveling up – and even though smart players will have found ways to turn even the most martial classes towards non-martial developments (ideally through skill and feat selection, traits, spells learned/known, alternate class abilities, etc.) – it can be fun to change pace from time to time, just to keep things feeling fresh and exciting.

A Game of Thrones

A political Pathfinder game has a different focus than most Pathfinder games, simply because it’s not where the system is designed to go. But changing that around isn’t nearly as hard as most people think it is. Even without diving into the plethora of third-party sourcebooks out there for alternate materials, it’s simply a matter of changing the rewards and tweaking character builds; manage those, and you can quickly make Pathfinder into any kind of game you want.

And, as a final note, there are several third-party supplements that are perfect for this sort of thing. In particular, I recommend checking out Dynasties & Demagogues, and its sister supplement Crime and Punishment, for some great mechanics specific to political d20 games. Likewise, if you’re a fan of Kingmaker, check out the Book of the River Nations series of products from Jon Brazer Enterprises – Exploration and Kingdom Building, Mass Combat, and Feats, Spells and Secret Societies, all of which will soon be compiled and have new material added in the forthcoming Book of the River Nations: Complete – which reprint and add new material to the original Kingmaker rules from Paizo Publishing.

Until next time, dear readers, may you enjoy running a game for your political party of PCs!