Archive for December, 2011

The XP Train(ing)

December 30, 2011

Have you ever looked, I mean really looked, at the NPCs in the Pathfinder GameMastery Guide? Specifically, at the NPCs listed under the “Villagers” heading in Chapter 8: NPC Gallery? Yeah, it’s fun to laugh at the village idiot entry, but what about the others?

More specifically, take a look at the entries for the farmer and the mayor. It doesn’t bother a lot of people, but it’s always rubbed me the wrong way that the farmer has not one, but two class levels; this is to say nothing of the mayor having ten. True, they’re all NPC class levels, but the salient question remains: how did these guys ever get the experience points necessary to level up?

It’s unlikely (though possible, albeit far-fetched) that these were the results of story XP awards. I find it hard to imagine exactly what the story there was, however. Perhaps the mayor got an XP award for winning the local mayoral election? But what would the farmer’s XP awards look like? “You survived another unbelievably harsh winter! Gain 100 XP!”

It’s only slightly more plausible that these characters gained XP the same way most adventurers do: by killing things. Partially this implausibility is due to how ridiculously weak both characters are (the mayor is a CR 8 character, but she wasn’t always that high-level). It’s hard to imagine a level 1 commoner wracking up enough kills to advance in level. True, he may fend off the occasional rat (100 XP) or two, and perhaps the rare goblin (135 XP), but those are still a long way from the 2,000 XP necessary to hit 2nd level on the medium XP track.

What I’m trying to get at here is that these NPCs likely gained XP in a way not covered by the Core Rules: training.

Training Troubles

Training as an XP activity is something that’s usually left out of most Pathfinder – and other d20 – games. The usual reason for this is that most GMs don’t see a need to include a nod to verisimilitude in regards to a meta-game function like earning experience points; particularly when doing so often seems to leave the system open to abuse. In other words, it offers too little gain for the headaches that come with it.

Because it only deals Charisma damage.

These headaches are usually found in a player saying that they want to have their character spend some drastic amount of down-time training, then hand-wave away that time having happened, and re-introduce their character now that they’ve leveled up (“okay, so I spend the fifteen years at the monastery, and when I come out I’ve gained eight levels of monk! Let’s go adventuring!”)

To be fair, it’s easy to shut this particular problem down at the beginning of a campaign (e.g. the GM says “No, you’re not starting with a 45-year-old graduate of the war college. You’re just like everybody else, a teenage knucklehead just starting out!”). The problem often comes after the campaign has started, when the GM has already laid out the training rules, and it’s suddenly harder to hand-wave things away (“We saved the village right? Why can’t I buy a house there and teach magic at the local mage’s college for a while? Let someone else rescue the duke’s daughter.”)

All of these issues, however, are actually symptoms of a single problem: the GM is making training too good.

Rate of Return

The solution here is simple – training grants XP at such a low rate that it shouldn’t ever be worth it to your PCs. The rate of return should be so abysmally small that it’s never worthwhile to contemplate if there’s any other avenue of XP acquisition available (and, for your PCs, there always is).

So what rate is so horrifically low that it’d scare off your players? There’s all kinds of rates you can set, but the one I usually stick to is that one day of training grants 1 XP. Given that – plus the fact that no one can realistically train every single day – most characters would need around six years just to make it from 1st to 2nd level (using the medium advancement track). It’d take roughly another eight years to make it from 2nd to 3rd, and about twelve years to go from 3rd to 4th. At this point, your character has spent a quarter-century training, and hasn’t even made it to casting third-level spells yet.

Can you spot young Elminster in this photo?

One interesting side-effect of this system is that it gives demi-humans (that is, elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, etc.) a plausible reason for being generally higher-level than humans…though not much. They’ve had more time to train; the diminishing rate of returns, however (as it takes more and more XP to gain a level) ensures that this will keep most demi-humans from having super-high levels from training alone (getting to 6th level using this system would take almost one hundred-fifty years of training!).

Of course, this brings up a salient point – if it takes lifetimes just to earn a couple of levels, how do guys like the aforementioned mayor get to be 10th level? Ah, but that’s the nice part about NPCs not needing to earn their levels through actual play – you can say that she actually did earn them fighting monsters or winning story awards. Perhaps the mayor personally lead the charge against an invading orc horde, despite having no military training (and killed several, earning XP). Or perhaps she uncovered political corruption in town (for a story XP award). At 10th level, the mayor should have some sort of noteworthy background.

Ironically, these low-XP training rules can be of help to PCs as well. Perhaps if the PCs find themselves just 200 XP short of the next level, they decide to take six or seven months off from adventuring to train and earn those last few experience points. That’s fine; remember, our goal is to stop the training rules from being abused, not make them absolutely useless. This is also a nice way to prevent your adventurers from going to 1st to 20th level in less than a year (something that seems to happen a lot).

Work Hard, Game Hard

Most likely, at some point while reading the above, you wondered to yourself, “why use training rules at all? If we’re keeping the PCs away from these, I can just make my NPCs whatever level I want.”

Leaving aside how, as mentioned above, these rules aren’t meant to repel the PCs but simply discourage abuse, the last phrase is true; there’s no reason the GM can’t set their NPCs with whatever level they want. The training-for-XP rules aren’t meant to shackle the GM; they’re meant to be a good shorthand for measuring a character’s age-to-expertise ratio, where their age is how long they’ve been training and their expertise is how much XP they’ve gained for it.

This guideline lets you quickly determine that a character that’s been a farmer for thirty years has about 10,000 days of farming, which means he has about 10,000 XP, which makes him about 4th level. Once you’ve got that, you can easily adjust the totals by providing other reasons for how he got his experience. Suppose you want your farmer to be a younger fellow, but still 4th level. Then he must have gotten some of his experience another way – did he go adventuring for a bit and then retire for some reason? Is he a local celebrity for having performed some incredible deed? Just like that, the training rules have helped stimulate our back-story for an otherwise-ordinary character.

Training, and providing a means by which ordinary people improve without killing monsters or completing quests, helps to flesh out the world just a little bit more. In doing so, it makes the game world a little more vibrant, and thus more fun, for everyone involved.

The 1% of Pathfinder

December 20, 2011

A while back I posted an article about how much your PC would need to retire. It assumed that your character would be trying to acquire enough money to retire and live extravagantly for the rest of their life. Of course, the numbers soon showed that that was exceptionally difficult to do, although retiring as merely “wealthy” was much more feasible.

But what about everyone else in the game world?

It’s a Hard Knock Life

The main purpose to this article is that it provides a quick shorthand for determining an NPC’s economic status – that is, where they fall under Pathfinder’s cost of living designations. This provides GMs with a better understanding for the background and lifestyle that their NPCs come from, helping to flesh them out more.

Of course, sometimes an NPC’s background doesn’t matter.

Simply take their bonus in one of the three skills discussed below (if they have more than one, use the one with the highest bonus, or whichever one best fits the background you want them to have), and add 10 (as an average, or as taking 10 on the check) and check on the results given below.

Working Hard for the Money

Pathfinder assumes that, other than finding heaping hoards of treasure, the main ways to earn a living are via skill checks. Specifically via three skills: Craft, Perform, and Profession. Let’s look at these skills and see how much money a typical NPC can earn in a year.

Craft and Profession

Craft and Profession both require a one-week period when making checks to earn a living. You bring in a number of gold pieces equal to one-half your check result for that week.

Our method assumes the following: that you always take 10 on your check, adding in whatever skill bonus (and/or penalty) you have to get an average result. We then figure out your lifestyle – from the aforementioned cost of living rules – by multiplying the results by 52, and comparing them to the cost of living thresholds multiplied by 12 (as those are based on monthly income).

This gives us the following breakdown:

Destitute: The only way you could possibly end up this poor when taking 10 on a Craft/Profession check is if you have enough negative modifiers that it brings your check result down to a 1 or 0. In this case, you likely have a seriously low Intelligence or Wisdom, and likely a curse on you too. You’ll likely want to switch to Perform checks (see below), and if that’s not an option then consider adventuring/suicide.

Poor: Poor is what you are if your adjusted Craft/Profession check result is a 2 through 4, in which case you’re still struggling with some serious negative modifiers, since you took 10 on the check. Likewise, it’s worth noting that this will be your economic status if you have no ranks in either Craft or Profession, and are an untrained laborer earning a measly 1 silver piece per day.

Average: Overwhelmingly, you’re likely to have an average economic lifestyle when you rely on these skill checks to support yourself. Any check result from 5 to 46 will put you somewhere in this range. There are still gradations, of course, but for the most part you can take comfort in belonging to the middle class.

Wealthy: You’ve pretty well got to be the god of whatever it is you do in order to become truly wealthy by doing it. Your Craft/Profession check needs to hit a whopping 47 or higher to break into this category, which means that you’ve got a +37 to your check. Enjoy your goods, and know that all the little people are cursing you as a min-maxer.

Extravagant: Don’t even consider living at this level on skill checks alone. Seriously, just don’t. You’d need to have a skill total of 462 to hit this level, and I don’t care how good you are, nobody has a +452 skill modifier (and if you do, then get your point-whoring ass back to the CharOp boards where it belongs).


Unlike the latter skills, Perform is made once a day to bring in an income (the skill description says that it may be made as little as once per evening, but the intent seems clear). Also unlike Craft and Profession, Perform’s ability to generate revenue isn’t based directly on your check results; rather, you get a certain amount of money at certain DCs (the amount of money earned has likewise been averaged for the results given below). Hence the following:

Destitute: This is how you live if you can’t hit a DC 15 on your Perform check. True, you earn no income at all if you get less than a 10 (which, again, would only be possibly if you have some penalties), but even a 10 through 14 won’t generate enough income to even rise to the level of being poor. Speaking of which…

Poor: Remember that we’re taking the statistical average of the die rolls made for Perform checks. So when it says “you earn 1d10 silver pieces per day” we’re interpreting that to mean 5 silver and 5 copper (a 5.5 on the d10). Based purely on these statistical averages, you won’t ever be “poor” using the Perform skill. You’ll either be destitute because your results were so bad, or you’ll roll high enough to become average.

Average: This is the result of having a 15 through 24 on your Perform checks. Earning silver pieces, either 1d10 or 3d10 per day, you’ll make enough to live as well as any other ordinary person.

Wealthy: If you can consistently hit a 25 or above while taking 10 on a daily Perform check, then you’ll live as one of the wealthy. You’ll be more secure in this particular income bracket if you can instead hit 30 or more, but it’s still wealthy either way. This is, quite literally, as good as it gets using this skill.

Extravagant: This one is impossible. Literally. The best you can get with a Perform check is making 3d6 gold per day. Even if you always got all 18s (and if you do, why aren’t you using them to roll up new characters?!), you still wouldn’t make enough to live extravagantly. You’ll just have to settle for being wealthy instead, isn’t that a shame?

Hard Work is Hard

Ultimately, what this says about working for a living in Pathfinder is that it’s true to real life in that hard work can pull you out of poverty, but rarely makes you rich.


“Give me back my +2 stapler!”

In fact, between this and the previous article on the subject, you may be asking yourself, how does anyone live an extravagant lifestyle in Pathfinder?

There are two answers. The first is that the “extravagant” cost of living isn’t meant to be sustained indefinitely; rather, it’s how you can live for a few months when you’re particularly flush with cash. No, it’s not fiscally sound, but if you’re someone who makes a living from raiding old tombs, extravagance is the “living fast” that accompanies the inevitable dying young.

The second answer is that those who live extravagantly aren’t actually financing that lifestyle based on their own work. Much like actual feudal lords, their wealth comes from a combination of inheritance and collecting money from serfs, alongside various large-scale business enterprises (to say nothing of profitable criminal activity).

Of course, the real lesson here is that it’s ultimately more economically feasible for your PCs to be adventurers (just look at the Character Wealth by Level values!), as they’ll be much more likely to strike it rich that way. And, of course, playing Sir Stomp-Evil the Paladin is much more fun than playing Joe Nobody the Farmer anyway.

Playing Mechanical Dress-Up

December 12, 2011

The demise of Dragon magazine – its print incarnation, at least – left a hole in our hobby that’s never truly been filled.

That doesn’t mean that many other publications haven’t attempted to do so, of course. The biggest one, Pathfinder, is something of a hybrid between Dragon and its sister publication, Dungeon. Despite its technically being a book and not a magazine, Pathfinder (the monthly adventure path, that is) is in many ways the post-3E Dragon.

It’s not the only one, however. Kobold Quarterly makes the rounds every few months or so, having a nice a diverse selection of articles – and like the older issues of Dragon, covers multiple game systems. This is a trait also found in d-Infinity, Dragon Roots (before it unfortunately folded), and any number of OSR-themed periodicals.

Covering multiple systems was also the purview of a small, print-only monthly magazine called Loviatar. I say “was” here because, although the mag does still cover multiple game systems, it’s slightly smaller in its coverage than it used to be, having recently excised all d20/Pathfinder content.

This purge happened in the fourth issue. In the introduction, the editor recounts the story in which he arrived at this decision:

In the past year or two I have tried very hard to wrap my mind around Pathfinder and 4e. I think it’s important to remain flexible and to be open to new ideas, but I have to accept that perhaps I am not the target demographic. To illustrate this, I’d like to share a recent conversation from my game table.

“I want my Fighter to take a level of Bard.”

“Cool. Is this a role-play decision? Are you going to be some kind of warrior-poet?”

“Huh? Nah, I need an arcane spellcaster level for a prestige class.”

“Oh. But why Bard?”

“Good skills and access to healing magic.”

“So this is a meta-gaming decision?”

“Uh, yeah!”

What struck me was that of course it was a metagaming decision. Duh! That’s how new games are designed. If you aren’t optimizing and min/maxing you are setting yourself up to fail. Furthermore, you must optimize so that you don’t let down your fellow players, who are relying upon you to select feats, spells and classes that compliment their own.

Needless to say, I found this pretty unappealing. Partially, this was due to the fact that I’d just signed up with issue #3 (and purchased the first two back issues), only to find that the content I’d wanted most was now being cut.

Another reason I frowned at the above reasoning is that I think it over-emphasizes the differences between how “new games” and their older counterparts are designed. While I won’t say that there are no differences between older and newer games (as vague and imprecise as “older” and “newer” are here) – the existence of the Old School Renaissance alone is a testament to it – I don’t think that newer role-playing games are necessarily more meta-game heavy than old school games.

What I would stipulate to is that, in the wake of the d20 System, a lot of RPGs have focused on providing rules-sets that were “comprehensive” in scope. What that means is that they try to give rules that unambiguously define the results of virtually any action that characters can undertake – no rulings on the part of the Game Master are needed (how well these games succeed at making their rules comprehensive tends to vary depending on who you ask).

This is in contrast to old school games, which tended to use the rules to provide a framework that the Game Master could use when making a judgment call. Of course, even this definition of the difference between new school and old school games is fraught with exceptions, and likely to be debated by someone who finds it wanting, but I think it summarizes the “gamer divide” reasonably well.

What bothers me most about the decision that the editor of Loviatar made, however, is that, if it really was based on the quoted exchange between himself and one of his players, then it’s ultimately based on a misunderstanding:

The player’s decision was not meta-gamed.

In-character. Out-of-Character. I’m the Guy with the Plan.

Let’s look back at that exchange between the GM and his player. They’re discussing the next level that the player’s character is going to take. In general, we can break the player’s line of reasoning down into three points:

  1. I want to take levels in X prestige class.
  2. In order to join X prestige class, I need levels (at least one) in an arcane spellcasting class.
  3. My next level will be a level of bard, since it not only casts arcane spells, but also A) offers good skill points/class skills, and B) can cast healing spells.

Now, the player presents these as being meta-game decisions, and the GM receives them that way, it’s true. What I take issue with, however, is that these aren’t truly meta-game issues; that’s just how they’re portrayed. Let’s examine each of those three points again.

In the first point, the player wants to join a prestige class. Now, the game is fairly silent on what exactly it wants prestige classes to be, from an in-game standpoint. As one of my favorite blogs once said:

First, the game never defined what a PrC is. Is is membership in an elite order with special training? Well, maybe. Is it a special skill you picked up? Well, maybe. Is it an inborn talent which you randomly possess? Well, maybe. Any of these could be defended, and it could easily differ by campaign setting. However, all of this got tossed into a blender.

Indeed it did. As such, it’s going out on a limb to say that the prestige class the player wanted to take was necessarily represented by an in-game group or organization. However, odds are the GM could have found some way to represent what it means to take a level in a given prestige class in the context of his campaign.

Whether it was joining a particular college of war-magic to become an eldritch knight or an ancient dragon who can shepherd him along the path of the dragon disciple, there’s room to represent this PrC in the game world, and thus give in-character context to what this player wants his character to do.

The second point deals with what class he’s taking as a means to the aforementioned prestige class. This is also the easiest point to resolve, simply because virtually all of the classes represent what the character does, rather than what they are. This is little more than a shift in focus in the character’s career, and virtually presents itself for an in-game explanation…especially when that explanation is already given as “I want to join [that prestige class’s in-game representation].”

This brings us finally to the third point, the one that notes that bard was the chosen class because of its skills and healing spells. This one is also the most damning to consider, as on its face it’s about little more than the mechanics of building a strong character.

Again, however, the nature of the problem is blunted by considering that these mechanics have in-game representation. Bards, by virtue of what they do as bards, are skilled individuals – this skill is learned, rather than being inherent. It’s distinctly possible that a relatively-unskilled fighter would want to learn to do things like bluff convincingly, present a diplomatic face to people, and sneak about silently. All things that bards learn how to do.

This goes double for magic. While bardic magic is learned in an ad hoc manner, their use of healing spells would be fairly obvious to anyone who knew of bards (something easily done; that’s what downtime and backstories are for).

So, putting all of that together, the player and the GM could very easily have had the following conversation about the same exact set of circumstances:

“I want my Fighter to take a level of Bard.”

“Cool. Is this a role-play decision? Are you going to be some kind of warrior-poet?”

“Not exactly. My character wants to join the Universitae Belli, but they won’t accept anyone without arcane spellcasting ability.”

“Oh. But why Bard?”

“Well, he was pretty impressed with how resourceful that Bard NPC was a few adventures back – that guy could sneak into the king’s treasury, talk the guards into believing he belonged there, and pick all of their pockets clean on the way out! Plus, what soldier wouldn’t want to be able to cast healing spells on himself if things get ugly?”

“So this is a role-play decision?”

“Uh, yeah!”

And just like that, the problem of meta-game versus role-playing has been solved, in role-playing’s favor.

So if the editor of Loviatar is reading this, I look forward to more 3.5/Pathfinder content in future issues.