I ran the first draft of these items by each player, but I didn’t mail the entire group. I wanted everybody’s item design to take place in a relative vacuum. Each player knew the early levels I posted in March, but nobody knew how everybody else’s items progressed until they were all almost done. This wasn’t to avoid an arms race or prevent players from working together for ridiculous combos. Heck, I want ridiculous combos as long as they’re cinematic instead of blatant rules manipulation. But I thought it would be easier to get something each player wanted if they weren’t worried about how it would interact with anybody else. Balancing things was my job, not theirs. The versions posted here are the canonical item descriptions, so you’re finding out about this only slightly after the players themselves. I hope you’re proud.
Sarai wants gears. Her player asked for the ability to escalate when situations seemed especially dire, to have a well of power or resources she doesn’t tap until it’s time to disable her limiters. Pathfinder hates that, and it has no design space for characters getting stronger as the situation gets worse. I had a whole character build based on it in 3.5E and not a single thing in that build got ported to Pathfinder, so I just stole things from a previous edition. Sarai’s desperation mode is based on the alternate barbarian rage from the 3.5E Player’s Handbook II, and her limit break is the logical extension of it. Besides that all she really wanted some some extra accuracy so her big attacks hit more often, so I had a bunch of room to come up with weird abilities for a scholarly magic/fighter snake who worships a bug of camaraderie.
One thing I do like about Pathfinder is that it goes out of its way to avoid dead levels, or points where a character gains no new abilities. I tried to mimic that in these items. At every level a player gains either a new ability or an improvement to an old one. It’s not always big and obvious, but it’s always there. I charted it to make sure.
Liam’s item was harder than everybody else’s. I had to make a healer and support character interesting, and I wanted to do it in a way I hadn’t before, so I couldn’t just steal things from the healer class I rewrote. Luckily, Liam’s player gave me a large list of things she wanted to see in the item, larger than any other player had. Unluckily, she then built several of those abilities into her leveling plan so I had to go back and redo a large portion of the item. But that forced me to get creative and look outside of Pathfinder for ideas, which was the explicit point of the entire exercise, so in the end I’m thankful for the inconvenience. It let me give Liam powers to fit both his focus in music and his role as the party’s chick without dwelling too hard on what the rules think a skald should be.
If there’s a single running theme across all signature items, it’s that they’re objectively powerful. Consider today’s item, where the capstone ability is a more powerful, more useful version of time stop, a top-tier 9th-level spell. This is one of the few occasions where a player worried their item was too powerful, specifically because he could use it, damage his allies with something like inflict mass wounds, and give everybody three or four rounds to buff themselves while the enemy had to sit and watch. But the theme for this campaign is super-powered action anime. If I’m not giving the players bosses for whom they desperately need several rounds of preparation to have even a fighting chance, I’m not doing my job. The power level of these items isn’t a gift, it’s a warning.
Jace had one big ask: he wanted murderous command to be his signature spell, like Goku’s Kamehameha or Naruto’s Rasengan or Gon’s going on hiatus. The problem was making it flavorful and usable at higher levels. It’s a spell with a one-round duration that affects one enemy only if they fail a saving throw where the DC starts low and doesn’t scale. That’s fine in 5E, but in Pathfinder Number Party we had to ramp up what it did to keep it competitive. A lot of Jace’s neatest abilities come with an additional cost, and that’s intentional. I’m giving the players a lot of power but I’m also not stupid.
Back in March, when I posted the signature items I’d written for Faith, that was actually everything I had at the time. I wanted to give the players something when they reached L2 and I figured I wouldn’t get them done before they reached L3, so I wrote the first two levels of those items. Since then I’ve been working on them, going back and forth with each player to understand what they want and what they need, and I think we’re all pretty pleased with the results.
Sildroag, the party’s ostensible leader, had two problems he wanted to solve. First, he’s the party’s tank in an edition that doesn’t have many ways to force enemies to attack you besides standing directly in their way. Second, his key power, bloodrage, is only available for a certain number of rounds per day. If bloodrage runs out in the middle of a fight, he loses a bunch of power and gains a penalty for a while. That’s fine from a power balance perspective but it’s not especially cinematic. To solve these, his item grants him a few 4E-like defender abilities and lets him go beyond the impossible by ignoring his bloodrage limit, at a cost.
I’ve spoken before about the roles characters play in a group, but there’s also merit in considering the roles of players. Various books talk about the sorts of players a DM might find at his or her table: the thespian, the min-maxer, the person who’s not really paying attention, and so on. For a decent primer on that I recommend the curiously-capitalized Pathfinder GameMastery Guide. But that’s not really a list of roles. I’m not talking about personalities or payoffs, I’m talking about at-the-table duties and the people who fill them.
For the most part groups tend to have people who regularly volunteer for certain tasks or to whom those tasks are naturally assigned. For example, there’s the rules expert, who can answer questions about the system faster than most players can look them up, so she naturally becomes the person players (and/or the DM) ask about tricky situations. There’s the cartographer, who lovingly sketches dungeon maps on note paper or takes charge of the markers on the battlemat. There’s the accountant, who keeps track of loot so the party neither forgets their spoils nor needs to adjudicate doling out money after every battle. Some groups have a career DM, or a person who brings the best snacks, or a person who has the house or dorm room where the game happens. Like character roles, not every group has all roles and some players fill several, but there’s wisdom in finding the relevance for each role.
Over time we’ve added a role to our gaming circles, one we didn’t engineer specifically but one that developed naturally over time: the story accountant. Continue reading