On the Vigilante

I’ve been spending some time on the Paizo subreddit since one of my players told me I was on it and, in doing so, that it existed. For the most part it’s very similar to the Wizards boards I frequented in the 3.0 and 3.5 days (40% optimization advice, 30% rules questions, 15% roleplaying/DMing advice, 10% gaming stories, 5% other) but all in one place instead of split by topic across various boards, which is…nice, I guess?

It was there I learned Paizo had a system that allows players to playtest rules before they’re officially released on a book, which I think is a really neat idea as long as you can get past the “I loved this feature in playtest, and now it is gone, ruined forever” tendency. I am disappointed in the length of the playtest, though. Each round of testing lasts for a month, which isn’t long enough to get a feel for a class. I normally play in/run ongoing campaigns where I can’t build a new character, slot them into the campaign in place of my current character, and adventure with them at various levels to see how the class grows. It’s like the playtest is designed for a campaign where people can play more than once per week, with different people and parties each time, in a way that doesn’t require an ongoing storyline so characters can sub in and out at will and the DM doesn’t oh I just got it.

Still, when I saw there was a vigilante class playtest I jumped on it. After reading over the class I commented to one of my players that it felt like a class that seemed separate from the normal D&D party system. A vigilante really wants to be a lone wolf, hiding behind their persona socially but also charging first into combat but also casting spells and so forth. When a vigilante is in a party with other character it seems like an obvious Law #4 violation. Her reply was “then why not have a whole party of vigilantes, so they all do things the same way?”

So our all-vigilante campaign starts this weekend. And during character creation, we got seven people with various levels of media background and system proficiency together to pull apart the class and put it back together again, and then a month to process between session zero and session one (late July / early August is a terribly busy time for growns-ups). We’ll be too late to participate in the playtest, but we have formed a couple of opinions on the class.

For one, the vigilante has a lot going on. It gives a player two identities, one of which requires one of four specializations (one of which requires a further specialization), and each identity has an independent set of talent trees. This is spread over fourteen pages of text with no art and few paragraph breaks. There’s no “glance at the vigilante to see if I want to play it”. It’s more “sit with with a coffee and get ready to understand a lot of moving parts.” Before even reviewing the abilities themselves it’s clear this is not a class for new players.

But while the whole of the class is overwhelming, parts of it can be anemic. Here is the full and complete talent tree for a vigilante’s social persona:

  • Renown
    • Safe House
    • Loyal Aid (L3)
    • Feign Innocence (L5)
      • Subjective Truth (L9)
    • Great Renown (L7)
      • Incredible Renown (L11)
        • Instant Recognition (L13)
  • Social Grace
  • Many Guises (L5)
    • Everyman (L11)
      • Any Guise (L17)
  • Quick Change (L7)
    • Immediate Change (L13)

At fourteen items it doesn’t look that bad. But a vigilante gets one of these every two levels. He’ll end up with ten of these fourteen items, which doesn’t leave a lot of options. Also, look at it level-by-level. At L1 he can take renown or social grace. If he took renown at L1 he can take a few things at L3. If he instead took social grace, now he can take renown and only renown. A vigilante who doesn’t want a reputation doesn’t exist. It took us a few minutes to piece this together; the talents are sorted alphabetically and visually scanning for “must be Xth level” wasn’t helping us. Eventually we gave up and made a tech tree like this just to make sense of it and realize, yes, if you want to avoid a specific talent the rest of your build is largely hard-coded.

Speaking of hard-coding, the vigilante only has a few mandatory features. A vigilante must have two identities: vigilante and social (a nitpick: if you’re going to have two halves of a character, don’t give one the same name as the class. You might as well name them “primary” and “ancillary, don’t worry too much about it”.) A vigilante must inflict fear when he attacks an opponent unaware of him. That’s it. Everything else is controlled by talents, specializations, talents within specializations, or talents within specializations within specializations. While this means that class has a lot of variation, it also means its identity is weak. It boils down to “you have two names and people are scared of you”, which is any class that can use skills.

The optional features are all over the place. Some of the vigilante talents are a feat with an additional benefit (Fist of the Avenger: Improved Unarmed Strike, but your fist and gauntlet attacks deal an extra level/4 damage). Some of them are far better than this (Mad Rush: full attack after a charge, which was an epic feat back in my day). Some are so good they’re almost mandatory (Arcane Training/Divine Power: Gain a new level of spells, and in fact it’s the only way to gain any spell slots at all). Some grant features from other classes (Evasive: …evasion). On the bright side this means you can have a campaign of vigilantes without similar builds. But it also means there’s no way to balance them all, and what we’ll actually see is an influx of the most mechanically viable vigilantes and a whole bunch of unused features taking up space.

We still haven’t discussed the first thing I said about the class: it’s not for parties. A vigilante’s job is to do their own thing and hope the rest of the party doesn’t mind. The class’ core mechanic, the social/vigilante split, is built around NPCs not knowing both personas are the same character. Well, when the townsfolk see a fighter, cleric, wizard and Jim Johnson enter town, and a fighter, cleric, wizard, and the Vermillion Mask saving orphans, they’re going to put two and two together. Unless the character disassociates at least one persona from the party their core mechanic and flavor buy-in is shot.

This may sound like a hypocritical complaint considering my very last post was about how splitting the party is okay, but it’s actually another side of the same coin. The vigilante wants to always split the party. That’s not a storytelling tool, it’s a power grab to control the narrative spotlight. I’ve had more than my share of “separate the party so only I get to act” players, and a class whose hook is to facilitate and encourage that sort of behavior rubs me the wrong way. That said, it is definitely possible to run a vigilante in a normal party, even when he goes lone wolf. I’ve also had plenty of “separate the party to make things more entertaining for everybody” situations. But it takes a certain kind of player, group, and DM to do it effectively. Without a “this class is for intermediate gamers” warning the vigilante is asking for trouble.

I kind of feel like the vigilante shouldn’t be a class, but the Pathfinder version of a theme (re: the first link in this post). That is, a character has two advancement trees: class and theme. The class works like normal Pathfinder. The theme tree instead covers advancement in a profession or other secondary characteristic, and characters only advance in it via quests. It’s a lot like mythic tiers but significantly less game-breaking. When a player does enough vigilante things, they get to choose a new vigilante talent and built their second identity, or get a lair, or strike fear in the hearts of their enemies, etc. This strips away most of the vigilante, gets it down to a couple of pages, and lets players have the mechanical benefits of being a masked crime-fighter without giving them an overly complicated class where they don’t even get to read 60% of its options. It would requite a new theme mechanic, but you can’t convince me a player wouldn’t jump at the chance to have her own day-in-the-limelight quests while advancing her secondary career as a superhero, or a government official, or a magical sage, or royalty. Heck, I might just write it.

I won’t be able to have a complete opinion about the vigilante until I see how it plays, and even then I’m only going to see how a specific group of players handle L8 vigilantes (and a couple of L4 vigilantes/L4 something else, because why not) in a specific environment. But the first step to playing a class is reading it and the second step is building a character with it, and if we have seven people all agreed that the vigilante has problems in the first two steps I’m not sure how many times the final product will even get to the table.

Posted in Game Design, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

Splitting the Party

I have a guilty pleasure when it comes to DMing. In fact, I probably have several, but one came up recently as I was browsing the Pathfinder Reddit: splitting the party.

Splitting the party is generally considered A Bad Thing™. The Reddit denizens (Redenizens? Renizens? I’ll workshop it.) are against it almost universally, impressive for any online community. TV Tropes agrees (…usually). I could swear it was one of the taglines for D&D 4E or Pathfinder promotional material, though I don’t have too much of that lying around. People have even written songs about it.

Why is splitting the party bad? A few reasons, all related:

  1. It divides the party’s abilities. In an archetypal party, splitting in two means only one side has a healer, or a slashing weapon, or something else. Characters form parties specifically because each member offers something the rest of the group doesn’t have, and splitting the party negates that advantage.
  2. It breaks the power balance. Most adventures are designed for a group of X people, each with a certain number of actions per turn and a certain set of resources. Charging into a battle like this with only X / 2 players is a good way to run into a TPK.
  3. It divides player attention. When the game is focused on group A, group B isn’t doing anything. The players are watching other people game and waiting for their turn. It’s boring.
  4. It divides DM attention. Now he or she has to remember two groups, their progression, their location, and what the world around them is doing. Multitasking like this leads to slower, more confused play and frustration.

Reading them in a list they seem like good reasons: splitting the party leads to a bad gaming experience. But I’m not convinced these are problems with splitting the party as such.

  1. Resource consumption is going to happen whether the DM intends it or not. Eventually the cleric will run out of healing, or the ranger will shoot her last arrow, or the fighter will go unconscious. That’s why characters have backups (a wand of cures, the rogue’s quiver, a summoned monster to hold off the enemies for a few rounds). One of the DM’s responsibilities is to make sure the game never gets to a point where it’s impossible to advance, and part of that is not basing survival or progression on a specific player having a specific resource at a specific time.
  2. Power balance in combat design is mutable, almost to the point of being unbreakable. If half the party stumbles into a room where a DM planned to have six orcs, she’s well within her right to change it to three orcs. Only the DM really knows how many fireballs the enemy wizard has left, or where the pit trap is, or whether the cult leader has Dodge or Toughness or Skill Focus (Perform [oratory]). A TPK isn’t any more likely for half a six-person party than it is for a three-person party when the challenges are in flux. Only the most rigid DMs can’t handle any change in their plans.
  3. The nature of having specializations means that as some point somebody is going to sit out. If the party is fighting undead, the enchanter can’t do much. If the party needs to disarm traps, only the rogue gets to play. If the party is talking to NPCs, the face of the party is doing it, whether that’s the actual party diplomat or the de facto diplomat by way of being the player most comfortable with it. That’s built into the game, and we’re not even getting into situations where a player simply isn’t interested in what’s happening at the moment. If everybody is acting at all times, you don’t have a tabletop game, you have a shouting match.
  4. The DM’s job is to manage monsters, NPCs, plotlines, maps, settings, the players, etc. all at once, and do it in an entertaining, engaging way. If the players split up, the cognitive load of trying to handle two rooms at the same time isn’t going to drive a DM to tears and force him to start killing PCs to lighten the load (which is, and this is true, an actual consequence that players legitimately discussed on the above Reddit).
There’s a trend here: the DM should be able to handle a split party. If he or she can’t, that’s not the players’ fault.*

I’ll admit to having a bit of a formative experience here. In the first session of one of my earliest campaigns as a player, we split up to explore an absurdly spacious sewer and look for…something. Along the way, half the group stumbled upon bandits, and these bandits promptly squashed that half of the group. The fracas alerted the melee-capable members of the party who ran to the rescue in time to save us from dying. I distinctly remember the DM complaining about it the next week, completely nonplussed that the party (who had all met twenty minutes ago, who’d by that point only taken a walk and killed a spider together, and who hadn’t shared both their first and last names with each other) would do anything but walk joined at the hip, trusting each other with our lives in a place where we did not believe lurked any immediate danger.

First off: never tell the players dying (or nearly dying) was their fault. Wait for them to say it first. More relevantly, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of my love for splitting the party came from this. That is, if a bad DM DM we didn’t like was adamant that splitting the party was bad, maybe it was good when handled by a DM we did like. I ended up with a lot of opinions from that campaign, some of which I still hold and all of which came from watching this DM and doing the opposite. So I probably feel more strongly about this than is wise or adult.

Still, I’ve managed to split the party several times over the years, and for the most part they’ve been great successes. I am aware of the above problems (even if I think players over-inflate them, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist), and I try to counter them like so:

  1. Divide the party across very specific lines, or let them divide themselves, so the most necessary resources are split appropriately. If I tell the party “you’re splitting into two groups of three”, they will make certain both sides have somebody capable of healing. If I give them more information, like “group A will be protecting the stationary teleport crystal while group B will be sneaking through the catacombs to find the source of the corruption,” they can specialize even further, and usually in a more helpful and character-relevant way than pushing the whole group into one or the other.
  2. Design for the half-group. Often I leave myself some wiggle room in the encounter design. For example, whichever group has the wizard gets a bunch of minions thrown at it while the other gets fewer normal guys, and the group with the fighter gets attacked by her mortal enemy while the other gets a summoned devil. A little change like that gives both groups different encounters while staying within a balanced challenge range.
  3. Switch at meaningful points. If one group is entering combat, I try to time the other group to hit combat at the same time. Then we run a single combat, just spread over two maps, and the only time somebody’s out of action is at the very end when one group has finished. If there’s no combat to be found I jump at dramatic times, the same place I would put a commercial break to increase tension. Every once in a while I have a player run an NPC so they have something to do during another player’s turn, and almost every time it’s amazing. But in general players are mature enough to know not every thing that happens must involved them, and as long as I don’t test their patience they’re unlikely to revolt.
  4. Know what’s happening. Usually I can keep track of all the players and their actions, but if I get lost, I just ask where we were. My players aren’t the sort who would lie to me for a game advantage, and sometimes hearing their version of what’s going on creates a new path for the following scene. The extra cognitive load isn’t so frustrating that it outweighs the joy of giving every character and player a chance to show off, do what they want without putting it through a party vote, and explore the setting in a more personal, dynamic way than they would as a group.

Splitting the party isn’t for everyone, or every session (looking at you, every story game ever). Certain campaigns and DMs handle it better than others. It’s almost always a good idea to stick together in pull-no-punches situations like Lair Assault or the Temple of Elemental Evil. A hardline simulationist DM would never tweak the setting to match the situation; if he’s decided the lieutenant never leaves the general’s side, the druid who stumbles across the general is going to have to deal with the lieutenant because that’s what makes sense. And no matter what, dividing a group takes some tweaking and a certain amount of thinking on your feet beyond a normal session. D&D is a game about parties, it’s written with that assumption, and usually it works best that way.

But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that the party should never, ever split up, any more than it’s a hard and fast rule that goblins can’t be bards. Some of my favorite sessions have come from splitting the party, sometimes without their consent and sometimes for far longer than they expected, and not once has a player told me it led to a negative play experience. It’s as good a storytelling tool as any, and we need to stop rejecting it out of hand just because it takes a little finesse.

By the way, if you’re in my upcoming campaign, feel free to treat this post as foreshadowing.

* — Unless the DM flat-out says “Guys, I don’t want to / don’t feet like / can’t handle splitting the party right now. I really prefer / suggest / need that you all stick together”. That happens sometimes, and often it’s a legitimate request. If the players ignore that and split up anyway, then it is their fault.

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On Unearthed Arcana: Variant Rules

After I spent all that time gushing about the variant alignment systems for Pathfinder, it’s only fair to point out when Wizards does something similar. The latest Unearthed Arcana (not to be confused with Unearthed Arcana or Unearthed Arcana) dropped, and it includes an alignment system that’s different but still really neat.

There are other rules in the preview, but we’re going to ignore the “players roll all the dice” options that’s exactly the same as every other system for the same thing but with more confusing language. We’re also going to leave alone the variant hit point system that drastically increases on-the-fly math during play, adds more bookkeeping to every character and monster, creates more precarious combats, and exacerbates the problem it purports to solve. Not that there’s nothing to say there, but I feel I’ve already beaten that horse.

Instead we’re looking at “custom alignments”. What’s interesting about this is that it’s exactly the same alignment system D&D already has. We’re not throwing out the three-by-three (-by-three, if you’re in my campaigns) alignment grid. We’re just changing the labels. Instead of good/evil and law/chaos, this system create new dichotomies specific to the campaign and world.

For example, imagine a campaign setting where an ecological crisis engineered by a cabal of necromancers threatens to transform the world into a dead wasteland. Forming one alignment path are the opposing forces of life and death. Like the choice of good or evil, this conflict defines the setting, and you would expect most player characters to be aligned to life or at least neutral with respect to their support for the necromancers’ plans.

Dear person at Wizards who creates these rules documents: you put tabs between every word. Last time you put newlines between every word. This is not how text happens. Is this because you are using Microsoft Word’s function for converting a file to PDF? Do you need help with text formatting? Please call me.

Now, this alignment system does specifically say “create one axis where all players are on one side and all enemies are on another, and another axis with some freedom.” The story of 5E is that there are bad guys and there are good guys, and all good guys are good and all bad guys are bad and there is no room for bad guys who are sometimes good or vice versa. If we ignore that and jump straight to the “gritty” variant, we can make two alignment axes where players can fall anywhere within them.

What we’re doing is changing one of D&Ds fundamental metrics (and no matter how much the designers say alignment is a “handy label” or “quick summary”, as long as the rules leverage it we have to treat it like any other stat) to something specific to us. The world isn’t about good versus evil, it’s about Montague versus Capulet, or Britain versus France, or orcs versus elves, and neither side is objectively the heroes. It could be that good and evil aren’t tangible character traits, or that they’re too mutable and subjective to work as they do in normal D&D, or that we simply don’t care whether somebody is good or evil because that’s not as important as the side they’re taking in the central conflict.

But this gets really neat when we do acknowledge that D&D has rules for alignment. We don’t have detect evil any more, we have detect Capulet. We don’t have angels (or if we do they’re on both sides), we have monsters or characters with the orc subtype. If a paladin fails to act in the manner dictated by her oath to France, she loses all the magical powers she had as an emissary of the country. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds awesome.

This also brings us out of the Saturday morning cartoon alignment trap. We have two opposing sides. Both regard the other as a moral enemy, both see the world in terms of their fight, both are convinced their side is noble and righteous and destined to win because the other side is evil, and both are probably very wrong. With this we can tell a deeper story, as the players double down on their cause and fight on, see the errors in their own side and either resolve them from within or join the enemy, or acknowledge both sides have faults and seek a middle ground. It’s exactly the sort of story the current alignment system avoids.

Again, this is what I want out of Unearthed Arcana (the web series). I want rules, options, variants, and features that add to the game. The “rename good and evil, but otherwise leave everything alone” variant doesn’t mean anything because it’s just a reskin. Calling a scimitar a khopesh is well and good, but we don’t need a book for that. We can do it on our own. But seeing Wizards acknowledge the possibility that there are players, campaigns, and characters left out of the current rules and working to correct it isn’t just encouraging, it’s the point of publishing new material at all.

Posted in Commentary, D&D 5th Edition, House Rules | Leave a comment

Campaign Report – Zelda Maps

It occurs to me that I have a blog about DMing and only rarely talk about what’s happening in the campaigns I run. Mostly this is because I think the day-to-day minutia of somebody else’s campaign is somewhat boring; there’s only so much I can say about “the players explored the second third of the dungeon and got the Hookshot*”. But there are some interesting bits in this campaign, especially the pseudo-video-game nature of it, and I’m no stranger to self-aggrandizement.

The biggest thing in terms of time and effort is the dungeon mapping. My current campaign is based on the Legend of Zelda and I’m trying very hard to make it feel like a video game (running it in 4E helps this a lot). In Zelda games, dungeons have a map, which shows most if not all of the rooms of the dungeon, and a compass, which flags important things like treasure chests and the boss. The map and compass represent important landmarks in exploring the dungeon because they give the player agency to go from “just wander about” to “solving the necessary tasks”. I couldn’t very well skip them, and taking five to ten minutes to sketch the dungeon map on our game board (and doing it again every subsequent week) would break the game flow.

Instead I went with my favorite tactic, giving the players feelies. For each dungeon I made a map on a piece of paper. Then I put the map inside a transparent sleeve and drew icons with a Sharpie. When the players find the map they get the paper, and when they find the compass they get the sleeve.

Here’s the first six dungeons:

Astute readers will notice a few things:

  • Yes, I have gotten better over time, thank you for saying so. But the dungeons have also gotten more elaborate, and longer.
  • A skull marked the boss room in the first dungeon and nowhere afterward. By the time I did the second map I’d forgotten I’d labelled the boss room like that. I wish I’d kept it up. It would have made things much more interesting when the sixth dungeon had no such label.
  • The fourth dungeon was, in fact, a town. Not a ruined town overrun by monsters, but an active, thriving town (…overrun by monsters). One of the specific requests from the players was unusual dungeons, so the progression so far has been cave -> open-air forest -> maze of rotating rooms, all alike -> town -> giant pool of poison -> jail. The seventh dungeon was tame by comparison. Dungeons eight, nine, and ten are not.

Unusually for me, I haven’t slipped any foreshadowing for a campaign-wide mystery into the maps so the players look back at the end and say “it was there all along!”. Something like that doesn’t feel very Zelda. But I do let myself have a little fun, like using a different font for every map or making sure the background color on the map label is the same color I use in LiveGameScreen for the dungeon boss.

We’re maybe halfway through the campaign now, so I expect it to wrap up in a year, attendance permitted. At that point I’ll post the remaining maps.

* — Technically there’s nothing in-character telling the player what an item is called. The player may pick up an item and say “this is a bow” but not “this is the Fairy Bow” unless there’s a text box that explains it. It stands to reason that a player may give an item a totally different name without this guidance from the developers. So in this campaign, while the item description for the Hookshot clearly calls it the Hookshot, the players generally call it the Graspyshoot.

Posted in Campaign Writeups, Campaigns, DMing | Leave a comment

An SRD with Charisma

D&D Stats in Simple Langauge has more legs than I thought. It’s come to my attention that it’s now a part of the Pathfinder d20 SRD. It lists most of the descriptions as “d20pfsrd.com Custom Content”, or unofficial content the editors thinks readers might want to see. My descriptions for Strength are technically part of the table with official information; I expect this is an oversight but I like the idea that the SRD thinks Paizo adopted them.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled. I have content on the SRD! That’s usually something reserved for actual game material, like official rules or at least published third-party monsters. There’s something special about having something I’ve written right next to Paizo’s work, especially in the sort of article new players are likely to read early.

On the other hand I’m upset because it’s uncredited. There’s only one other “custom content” tag on the entire site, and that’s the flowcharts for grappling, which have been helping me for years. It includes a contact link for the creator. But the custom content for ability scores just says “descriptions are determined by d20pfsrd.com editors”. That’s not true. I wrote this list during the 3.5E era, before Pathfinder and thus the website existed. I’m none too pleased that the site’s editors found what I wrote and retroactively took credit for it.

So I’m miffed, but not enough to write an angry letter to the people behind the website. It’s still neat that one of my posts is part of the SRD, and that it’s one of the helpful posts instead of the ones where I rant about how the designers are all jerks.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments