A Note About Stories

I’ve been telling a lot of gaming stories here lately. Especially dedicated readers may recall some of these stories from my guest appearances on a local podcast, and especially pedantic readers may note that my retellings here do not exactly match the stories as I told them before. I’m aware. The problem with telling stories years after they’ve occurred is that I don’t fully recall what happened. That’s how we get discrepancies like this:

Those of you with encyclopedic knowledge of D&D 3.5E may recall that gray slaads do not have dimension door at will. But this character was definitely a slaad, and he definitely teleported at will. I don’t know how to reconcile this.

Sometimes the story changes in the telling, so it becomes a more dramatic version of itself. Sometimes I forget a key element and I have to fill it in with guesswork or estimation. Though I can’t think of a specific situation in which I’ve made something up entirely, I can’t be one hundred percent certain I haven’t. My memory is faulty and mostly occupied by encyclopedic knowledge of 16-bit video games. So I think it’s worth noting that any given part of these stories, like any part of any story, may occur on any of the following levels of reality:

(a) what happened
(b) what I believe happened
(c) what I would like to have happened
(d) what I want others to believe happened
(e) what I want others to believe that I believed happened.

I understand this list comes from Yes, Prime Minister, though I came across it by way of a professional wrestling Q&A blog because I am a bard and I only acquire knowledge esoterically. I try to tell stories that exist on level (a), but I can only guarantee level (b). If my stories conflict with something else I’ve said, please feel free to believe whichever version you find most entertaining.

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The Theft of the Magical Wall

It’s hard to keep secrets from players. They have a tendency to wheedle key information out of the most unreasonable places, bullying NPCs or casting high-level divinations to get plot details far before they should. In my experience, most of my plots are spoiled by blind stupid guessing, where the players hear an NPC’s name mentioned in passing and somehow immediately assume he’s going to be key to a plot they don’t even know about yet. It’s like every one of my sessions is a terribly-written murder mystery. But by sheer accident, I once stumbled upon the perfect way to keep players from predicting a crucial plot twist: make sure I don’t know about it myself.

Let me tell you about the theft of the magical wall. Continue reading

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Group Checks

Most rolls in D&D are made by a single character. Only the cleric makes a saving throw when she looks at a medusa. Only the rogue tries to disarm a trap. Only the fighter swings his sword at the goblin. The party isn’t Voltron (note to self: make rules for a Voltron session). But sometimes there are opportunities for a check from the entire group because everybody is engaged in the same activity, like making Constitution checks as the party travels across the desert or dodging the same cone of cold. It’s a moment of camaraderie as everybody faces one challenge together, and it’s a chance for the most skilled party members to shine as they shrug off effects that would destroy a normal person and/or bard.

The group skill check, however, is a special sort of problem. It either goes very well or very poorly, almost every time, and that’s because the rules have been doing it wrong. Continue reading

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Lan, the Perfect Fight

I would never go so far as to say that most of my sessions turn out the way I plan, but often they’re reasonably close. My players rarely look into a murder, check the crime scene, interview witnesses, research the victim, and start coming up with theories only to abandon their investigation and go traveling instead. (Note that I say “rarely”—this example isn’t hypothetical, it’s anecdotal.) In general, if I think something’s going to work a certain way, I’m usually correct within one standard deviation of that way. This is especially true for game balance; the fights I intend to be challenging are usually challenging, if not always for the reasons I expect. When I set up a boss encounter and the players don’t struggle, I consider that a problem. But sometimes that problem manifests in a very specific way, bringing things back around to awesome.

Let me tell you about Lan, the perfect fight. Continue reading

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House Rule: Guns

Concept: Alternate gun mechanics
Tested in: Various Eight Arms campaigns

What it is: D&D assumes a standard medieval fantasy setting, and Pathfinder assumes a medieval fantasy setting that likes to pretend it isn’t standard. The Eight Arms world time-advanced that setting to a Victorian or Edwardian era, with trains and factories and terrible labor laws. By the early 1900s swords and full plate weren’t the technologies of war they once were. To literally put the era in the PCs’ hands, I felt we needed some sort of gun. But Pathfinder didn’t have guns, not yet. The Eight Arms and the Shadow Invasion predated Ultimate Combat and its firearm rules by three months. We had to make our own.

The Eight Arms firearms are glorified crossbows. By these rules a pistol is a light crossbow, almost exactly. A rifle is a heavy crossbow with slightly higher damage. A revolver is a repeating light crossbow, but it’s a martial weapon because I have no earthly idea why it takes an Exotic Weapon Proficiency feat to figure out how to pull a lever. There’s also a hunting rifle, and it’s basically the normal rifle with a faster reload time. That’s pretty much the extent of it. We don’t have Pathfinder’s rules for misfires, gunpowder, or touch attacks within the first range increment, and all the prices are scaled down so a low-level PC can afford them.

What I wanted: Firearms are an accessible part of the world but not its focus. Players can use them in a pinch, and they don’t overshadow the swords-and-magic combat that makes Pathfinder work.

How it went: In the context of what I wanted, the gun rules have been an unmitigated success. PCs use them as sidearms, falling back to them when something prevents them from taking their normal class-based actions. When an enemy pulls one out, the players don’t have to drop everything to deal with it because they know its presence doesn’t automatically indicate a master marksman. But somebody can specialize in guns if he or she wants to, and they’re not limited by exorbitant costs or a dearth of ammunition.

In the years since I made this rule we’ve expanded on it. A player brought a gunslinger to the table, and the class worked with these firearm rules after some very small modifications. Another player used this concept as a base and created his own personal minigun, a glorified bow that sprayed an alarming number of attacks at enemies. I’ve not heard anybody ask to use the Pathfinder firearm rules. In a fact, a few players have said they prefer these to the official rules, mostly because the official rules exist in a weird balance space; when firearms work, they’re this close to unfairly good, and when they don’t, they’re this close to unfairly bad. By tweaking and reskinning crossbows we treat guns as a normal weapon instead of a lottery.

What I learned: When you add something to the rules, make it fit the system instead of the other way around. Be wary any time you have to add several new supplementary mechanics (gunpowder, misfires, first-range-increment touch attacks, scatter targeting, etc.) to allow one new thing. It can work, but you may be doing far more work than you should.

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