One of the things more industrialized settings sometimes do for an rpg campaign is open up new avenues of adventure. While there is nothing at all wrong with tuning an abandoned mall into a dungeon, or a wrecked spaceship into a haunted house, or treating an alien progenator as a dragon in its layer, sometimes it’s fun to play with new possibilities as well.
And if you have a setting with multiple homeworlds drawing together in a confederation with representative officials from different worlds, each with its own method of selecting said officials, that means politics.
While in some games PCs might actually be candidates, and some system of determining who wins an election might be useful as a subsystem, the idea of political action adventures can be introduced without going nearly that far. Much as you don’t need a subsystem on fighting epidemics in order to rush antidotes to a plague-ridden city and don’t need rules on the impact of an alpha predator on an ecology not designed for it to hunt down the bullette destroying a forest, you can do a lot with politics as a motivator without ever getting into voting, caucuses, poll taxes, or even issues.
As with many RPG-related adventure ideas, you can borrow heavily from fiction for inspiration. While these are by no means an exhaustive list of movies with politics-driven action plots, and it’s certainly not a commentary on the quality of any of these movies, they are things that a good GM should be able to easily borrow from to throw some political adventure into a modern or science-fiction campaign. All of these have at least some elements where it’s easy to envision PCs of any level getting involved, either accidentally, as catspaws, or as a politically appropriate measured response. While it might be important in some cases to downgrade the action from centering around a chief executive to simply a minor representative who’ll cast a decisive vote on something, the core ideas are still easily lifted.
And obviously, I leaned towards those movies with cool ideas and set-pieces over those with believable politics.
Air Force One
Bridge of Spies
Enemy of the State
Escape from New York
The Hunger Games tilogy
In the Line of Fire
The Manchurian Candidate
Olympus Has Fallen
The Pelican Brief
The Purge: Election Year
Speaking of Politics
Well only sort of. But politicians need supporters… and so do I! I have a Patreon, where I have set up pledge levels to explain how much you’ll actually be charged (within a few cents) even under Patreon’s weird new pricing scheme. Check it out!
“After several weeks of increasing accusations, rumors, and news reports, The Patriarch, long-time leader of the government-sanctioned hero team the Patriot Patrol, has made a public statement regarding the sexual misconduct controversies he’s been the center of for some more than a month now. We present his comments, made from the Patriot Palace, in their entirety.”
“My American Friends and Neighbors, this is an unusual moment for me, and I find it difficult to know how to strike the correct tone. Normally when I speak publicly in this way, it’s to warn of an impending invasion for another dimension, or to assure citizens that a tidal wave or volcanic eruption has been mitigated due to my actions, or those of others in the Patriot Patrol. Never before have I faced claims that I have acted inappropriately that so caught the public attention that, as leader of our premiere line of masked defenders, I felt the need to address them. I do this not because I feel I am unable to do my job defending the innocent, but because there is clearly a cultural movement in play at the moment, and I do not wish speculation over my reaction to recent events become a distraction from the important work that lies ahead for us all.
“As I am sure everyone is aware, a number of women have made public statements indicating that I used my position to coerce sexual acts rom them, or gave preferential treatment in return for such acts, or had interactions with them that made them uncomfortable. Several of these women are people I have known and worked with for years, and I am obviously hurt that they felt the appropriate step for them was to speak to the media rather than to me, but that’s where we are now.
“Let me be clear. It was never my intention to intimidate, harm, or belittle any woman. The majority of the incidents that have recently been made public occurred outside of my official duties as leader of the Patrol, and my perception of them was very different than the recollections of the woman now making accusations. Other accusations are patently false, and the timing of these claims supports my view that they are politically motivated, rather than the cries of a repressed class of victims.
“In particular, while it is true that I had relations with several cadet members of the Patrol, and with a few of the women we monitored as part of the Forlorn Force villain work-release program. All of these women were consenting adults, and all the activities engaged in legal in the municipalities where they occurred. No crime was committed here.
“Further, for those who feel such relationships may have shown poor judgment, I will point out that I am, literally, from another time. As a citizen of the 40th century, I come from a time where there is no power imbalance between men and women, and thought that in the 75 years since I became a costumed agent in this time that we had moved American society to the point where it had reached the same ideal. When seen from this perspective, my actions are clearly without malice or improper intent.
“Obviously there is a process in place within the Patriot Patrol to investigate serious accusations of misconduct. That level of evidence has not been meet, but I am nevertheless directing the appropriate committee to begin an investigation into the most serious of these accusations, which I have no doubt will fully vindicate me. Since I am the head of the committee, I have directed Captain Quantum to take over for this specific investigation. I’ve known the captain for more than a decade, and believe him to be above reproach. His conclusions will surely be accepted by all fair-minded people, and but this issue to bed once and for all.
“Until that time, obviously it is unfair to those citizens that depend on the Patriot Patrol to protect them from the machinations of the Cathedral of Crime, or the J’kund, or any of a dozen similar potential threats for me to step down and leave my fellow Patriots short-handed. So while I am temporarily stepping back from the various oversight roles I have filled for over half a century, I remain on the job, overseeing you all as a Patriarch should.
“Finally, I would remind you when you go to news-sites and listen to broadcasts about these issues, that we live in a complicated world. Between shapeshifters, Computiac, telepaths, and evil alternate reality versions of our own with groups like the Penal Patrol, not everything you see or hear is trustworthy. While news agencies obviously believe they can perform a level of due diligence to ensure they don’t produce fake news, when their reporting suggests a well-known and trusted hero has committed such terrible social violations, it may be time to trust us, and not them.
“Thank you, and know that I’m watching over you all.”
The fatigued and exhausted conditions are designed to be simple. First, you take a –2 penalty to Strength and Dexterity, and can’t run or charge. Then if you suffer another level of fatigue, your penalties jump to -6, and you move at half speed on top of other limits.
One hour rest takes you from exhausted to fatigued. Eight hours of rest takes you from fatigued to fine.
That’s more granular that my (too frequent) experience with exhaustion, but that’s fine. Simplicity is worth some increased granularity. Part of the question for me is… how simple is that? Neither the jump from -2 to -6, nor the differences in how long it takes to recover from the conditions, feels intuitive to me. Also, it strikes me odd that once you are exhausted, maintaining things that should fatigue you have no effect.
So, that brings us to the ideas of degrees of fatigue.
Instead of going from fatigued to exhausted, you keep taking degrees of fatigue. Each degree has a -2 penalty to Strength and Dexterity, which stack. Once your Strength and Dexterity both drop below 10 as a result of these penalties, all your movement rates are cut in half. If your Strength or Dexterity is reduced to 0, you pass out until the penalties reduce to allow you a positive ability score.
Two hours of dedicated rest removes one degree of fatigue. (Anything that would end fatigue removes one level, anything that would end exhaustion removes up to 4 levels.)
I don’t know if this is actually easier, but it’s something I’d love to playtest and see how it works out.
Hopefully you aren’t tired of hearing me mention this. I have a Patreon. The pledge levels tell you (within a few cents) how much you’ll actually be charged for your support. Please consider giving me a few dollars of support!
Left Hand, Meet Right Hand
I am angry that Patreon is changing the amount they charge my patrons. It seems so obvious they should now that’s NOT the right thing to do.
And it turns out they do know that. You can find them telling you that on their own site.
So, this is the official Pateon position on “Why can’t I edit my reward tier amount?”
So, if I raise prices on my patrons without asking, that’s bad. But if PATREON does it, that’s… what? A quest for appropriate valuation of their synergistic paradigm change?
Yeah, despite being angry, I am still using Patreon… for now. If you want to back me, you can see the “$3 level” costs $2.57, and so on. That’s my effort to give my backers what they always got at those levels without charging more.
Obviously that means I am making less per patron, so I could use any extra support you decide to throw my way.
Sometimes, it’s the weird little corners of your world that players will latch on to. In a post-apocalypse campaign I ran, the players ran into an old, fully automated factory that made self-heating cans of “Joe,” an artificial coffee-flavored meal substitute. I noted that there were some faded old signs (“Start Your day with a Big Cup of Joe!”), and that there was a trading village down the hill from the factory.
Before the players ever got to the trading village, they had formed dozens of theories about how the Joe Factory got raw materials (from roving “acquisition drones” who had once picked up cargo runs, but has simply adjusted to become automated hunter/gatherers dumping crops and game and ore in the Joe Factory intake hoppers) to how the village used the Joe cans to survive. Drinking it, of course, but also hammering out old cans to make tools, opening a dozen cans in a pot of water to heat and sanitize it, to pouring the thick Joe on thin rocks, letting it dry into a vinyl-like fabric, and making clothes out of it.
It was all much more interesting than what I had planned, so by the time the players got to the village, and I adapted and expanded off their best ideas to create a culture that was part cargo cult, part hipster battle clans (with the Blak, Sprezo, and Mhokah the most powerful factions).
So, sometimes a throwaway line or idea is just a drop of color in the impressionist painting that is an RPG campaign world… and sometimes it’s a jumping-off point for a much more fantastic and interesting element that’s explored in depth.
As a result when I have a weird idea, I often make sure to note it down and roll it around in my head a bit. Maybe nothing comes of it. Maybe I mention it once next time I am running a game off-the-cuff.
But maybe it’ll pay much larger dividends.
So, I told you that story to tell you this one.
In the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, there is a lizardlike race known as the vesk, who have their own empire, and a weapon like an axe with spikes instead of an axe-blade called a “doshko.”
Between the stress and exhaustion of the apst few weeks, and the OTC cocktail I’ve been using to try to sleep at night, an idea popped into my head, unbidden.
A phrase, really.
“Drink Dochcola, the Taste of War. … Or Else!”
I like the idea of a soft drink called “Doshcola,” though I presume it’s sold by a megacorporation that has very little to do with the vesk. Some vesk might even see it as an insult, a dishonor to their traditional weapon of war and symbol of their warlike god.
But that could be interesting, too.
So, as a jumping off point, I present the best slogan I came up with for Doshcola.
“Conquer Your Thirst”
“Give Your Lizard Brain a Drink”
“Spiked with Flavor”
“Now in new Plasma Doshcola Falvor!”
“Get a Taste for War”
“Doshcola. Deadly Serious.”
“4 out of 5 inhuman mercenaries prefer the sharp taste of Doshkola, over blood and dirt.”
“Doshcola. Because what else will you drink, beer made with Dwarf Sweat?”
“Now with 72% less Skittermander Tears!”
Speaking of Weird Little Corners
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I’ve been toying with what it would take to create a different kind of d20 game. One where just a few key choices, that don’t take a ton of planning or prerequisites and that don’t require *exactly* the right tactics to use, can make a major impact on who a character is and what neat, exciting things they can do.
I posted about it some yesterday.
So, of course, now it’s stuck in my head. There’s TONS of stuff I’d have to do to make this overall vision work (like rewrite all classes so they all have three lines of abilities, two tied to one ability score each and a third not tied to any ability score)…
But for now I’m still just exploring interesting revisions to feats many people tell me are either terrifyingly dull, or actively frustrating.
Agile Maneuvers (Combat, Revised)
You’ve learned to use your quickness in addition to brute force with performing combat maneuvers.
Benefit: You add your Dexterity bonus to your base attack bonus and Strength bonus when determining your Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Bonus. When a creature attempts a combat maneuver against you and fails, it provokes an attack of opportunity from you (separate from any AoO provoked when it attempted the combat maneuver, and even if it the attacker doesn’t provoke AoO when attempting a combat maneuver). However, you can only use this attack of opportunity to attempt your own combat maneuver (which does not itself provoke an AoO). You can only perform one AoO per round using this feat, even if you have multiple attacks of opportunity each round.
Alignment Channel (Revised)
Choose chaos, evil, good, or law. You can channel divine energy to affect creatures with this alignment.
Prerequisites: Ability to channel energy.
Benefit: Instead of its normal effect, you can choose to have your ability to channel energy heal or harm creatures of the chosen alignment element. You must make this choice each time you channel energy. If you choose to heal or harm creatures of the chosen alignment element, your channel energy has no effect on other creatures.
Special: You can gain this feat multiple times. Its effects do not stack. Each time you take this feat, it applies to a new alignment element. Whenever you channel energy, you must choose which alignment element to effect, or a combination of elements. For example if you have selected chaos and good, you can choose to affect all chaotic creatures, all good creatures, or just all chaotic good creatures.
Arcane Armor Training (Combat, Revised)
You have learned how to cast spells while wearing armor.
Prerequisites: Light Armor Proficiency, ability to cast 1st level arcane spells.
Benefit: You do not suffer arcane spell failure from light armor. When you cast an arcane spell that gives you an armor bonus while wearing light armor, you may choose to increase the armor bonus of either you light armor or the spell by 1 for the duration of the spell. If you can cast cantrips, you can also use magic to put on or remove your light armor as a move action.
Augment Summoning (Combat, Revised)
Your summoned creatures are more powerful and robust.
Prerequisite: Ability to cast a conjuration (summoning) spell that conjures a creation.
Benefit: Each creature you conjure with any summon spell gains a +2 enhancement bonus to melee attacks and damage and +2 hp per Hit Die. Additionally, if the spell has a duration of 1 round/level, it increases to 1 hour/level when outside of combat. But if the creature is in a combat (even if it neither attacks nor is attacked) each round of combat reduces the spell’s duration by 1 hour.
About my Patreon
I have a Patreon, and normally I’d link directly to it from here. It seems small, but it’s an important part of my income. My patrons allow me to do less formal freelance writing, which gives me time to do more, longer, better-considered articles and essays here.
But there have been changes to how Patreon charges my patrons.
As a result I wrote a blog post discussing some changes I have made, and while I would love for you to choose to support me, at the moment I’d ask you go check out my thoughts on how to handle changes to Patreon before you go pledge. 🙂
I’ve literally been playing and writing for d20 system games since before D&D 3.0 came out. That long experience has led me to not really fear overpowered characters. If characters are overpowered it’s actually very easy to upgrade encounters in a consistent manner until they’re challenge, and the vast majority of things that cause groups to decide a specific build or ability is overpowered are tied as much to play style as objective balancing of rules.
What I AM afraid of is characters that are boring or frustrating. Players will put up with a lot if they find their character interesting, including a GM modifying pre-written encounters in a possible slightly haphazard way, if they enjoy and are engaged with their characters. All too often, however, feats become a source of both frustration \(as long lists of prerequisites, carefully worded language that excludes numerous combinations, and situational bonuses that may never come up in play cause a player to interact with feats negative far more often than positively. While having a predictable power curve is good for designing adventures and trying to get all players to have equal spotlight time, if brakes built into a game to provide that predictability slaps down players more often than it enables them to do something exciting it reduces fun instead of facilitating it.
Ideally, I’d like to see a d20 game where characters are defined by their feats as much as by their class and race, but only because a few feats are enough to give a character a wide range of new capabilities or augment them enough that their performance itself provides a new play experience. Such a system might well have to affect other subsystems such as bonus acquisition, action economy, and featlike powers from other sources (such as traits, favored class bonuses, alternate race traits, and even archetypes), but it also has to redefine feats to a player envisions a character being notable different in play with even a single feat.
While I clearly can’t tackle ever feat in the core rules in the space of a single blog post, I though a selection of revised feats, all based on d20 feats that are regularly derided for being useless or boring, might provide a good example of the kind of design space I am envisioning. These are just a starting point, and a game build around them would have to make some other hard choices to keep frustration levels down and ease of character design and advancement up.
Your ability to notice things is almost preternatural.
Benefit: You gain a +2 bonus to Perception had Sense Motive, and both of these are treated as class skills for you. (You gain an additional +1 bonus to each skill if it is a class skill for you as a result of some other option.) You automatically gain one rank per level in each of these skills, though this cannot give you more total ranks than your character level (if you had already point skill ranks into these skill prior to gaining this feat, you can spend those skill points on other skills). You gain each skill’s unlocks (Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Pathfinder Unchained) appropriate for the number of ranks you have +4 (so you gain the 5 rank skill unlock at 1st level, and the 10 rank skill unlock at 6th level).
Combat Expertise (Combat, Revised)
You are a master of increasing your defense at the expense of your accuracy.
Benefit: When you fight defensively (see Chapter 8, Combat) you take only a -1 penalty to your attack rolls. When your base attack bonus reaches +4, and every +4 thereafter, the dodge bonus you gain from fighting defensively increases by +1. Your dodge bonus from this feat is limited to +2 or your armor’s Max Dex Bonus, whichever is greater.
When push comes to shove, you can depend on your ability to succeed at a given skill.
Benefit: Select one skill. You gain a +3 bonus to that skill. Once per day when you fail a skill check with this skill, as a free action you may immediately instead change your die result to a 20. This feat must be selected for each Knowledge skill separately, but if taken for Craft, Perform, or Profession it applies to all of those skills.
Weapon Focus (Combat, Revised)
You are highly skills with a class of weapons.
Prerequisites: Proficiency with one weapon in the category, base attack bonus +1.
Benefit: Select one fighter weapon group. You gain a +1 bonus to attack rolls with every weapon in this group with which you are proficient. At 3rd level, you also gain a +2 bonus to damage with such weapons. When you base attack bonus reaches +8, your bonus to attacks increases to +2. When you base attack bonus reaches +12, your bonus to damage increases to +4.
Special: You can take this feat more than once. Its effects do not stack. Each time you take it, you must select a different fighter weapon group.
Special: If you have at least two levels of fighter (not just a class that acts as a fighter for feats), and you have more levels of fighter than any other class, you gain an additional +1 bonus to attack rolls with the selected weapons. If you have at least three levels of fighter (not just a class that acts as a fighter for feats), and you have more levels of fighter than any other class, you gain an additional +2 bonus to damage rolls with the selected weapons.
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One of the things I think often causes confusions among fans, and consternation among those entering the industry (or trying to maximize the creative resources within it) it that RPG creation as a whole lacks a consistent and well-accepted set of terms to describe the tasks that occur prior to editing, layout, and marketing. Many game companies use terms like author, writer, developer, and designer, but they mean different things at different companies, and sometimes aren’t well-defined even within the companies using such titles.
Further, even when the terms are fairly well-defined within a specific context, I think they are often way too broad. In the same way the ability to diagnose what’s wrong with an existing car and fix it is different from the ability to design a car from scratch is different from the ability to refuel and change the tires on a car as fast as possible, despite those all being technical fields involving car parts and performance, the writing tasks associated with professional RPG production can be very different despite cursory similarities. Without a good way to describe the various word-related tasks professional RPG creators may be called upon to perform, and note how they are different from one another, it’s hard to talk about who is good at what tasks and how they might improve at others.
This essay is not an effort to present a definitive lexicon of game creating positions. This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it. These are my first blush thoughts on the subject, and I presume not only that I would evolve my opinions as the question is debated but that I’ll discover lots of people smarter and more experienced than I will have done a lot of this categorization already. But I want to produce a fixed from of my initial sense of the various roles that word creation can play in a professional RPG setting, and cast about for other versions after that.
I’ll also note that much as the job of writing RPGs is more complex that a single skill set, I am well aware of the differences between various forms of editing, many art and graphic design and layout tasks, financing, shipping, marketing, and so on. I am focusing here on the word creation not out of a claim that it’s the only part that’s important in creating RPGs, but simply because it’s the thing I have done the most over my 20 years or being involved in professional RPGs, so it’s what I know best.
Also, these terms specifically avoid those I run into most often in the industry (such as designer and developer) because different companies that I work for use those terms differently, and no matter how I defined them I could be seen as criticizing the way one or more of my employers use them, which is not my intent. Ultimately we could name these jobs after the planets or all I care, as long as we all knew a Jupiter was the person who wrote background of a campaign setting, and a Saturn could expand on existing rule systems in interesting ways.
Many people I know in the industry fill many of these roles as needed, and some fill all of them with amazing dedication and creativity. These aren’t designed to be in any way excusive, just distinct enough that some people might be good and one and merely serviceable in another.
That said, here’s my first stab at this.
An adventure architect focuses on the overall plot and narrative arc of published adventures. The architect must be familiar enough with the game rules and themes to be able to know what kind of plots and events work well with the RPG and will be generally entertaining for it’s audience, but this is about big picture story arcs, pacing, and climaxes, no the details of how individual encounters work. The person who outlines an adventures (and even more so, a set of linked adventures) is an adventure architect.
An adventure builder can write a complete draft of an adventure from a rough outline. This requires a detailed understanding of the existing rules—how they work, what they do well, and how much of them a GM can be assumed to know vs what you need to explain (or at least give references in rulebooks for)—and be capable of producing text that is concise and interesting to read. But they also need to know how the fictional world the adventure is set in works, so the events and encounters they describe seem consistent with the continuity that has already been established. When an adventure builder is done, it should be possible for a GM and group of players to play the adventure without major problems or confusion.
A game contractor knows how all the moving parts of the rules of a game work—the themes it supports, the math behind it, the tone of its text, the play experience it’s designed to provide and how the rules support that experience—and can use those systems to create new iterations of those rules, and subsystems that work with them. A game contractor should be able to write examples for how any rules is used in play, answer rules questions, check material for game balance, and create new rules options for players or GMs that support the existing play experience of the game or (if it is the intent of a product) show ways to get different play experiences using variants of current rules.
A game inventor can create a new roleplaying game core engine, and the basic systems and subsystems needed to turn the core mechanics into a playable game. A game inventor has to create from scratch (or from a list of design goals) the things the game contractor later builds upon.
Ideally a game inventor needs to be able to outline the creation of a game, assign it to multiple writers, and collaborate with a team to see the final product is complete and comprehensive. Theoretically this might be a different job, but I really envision it as a natural extension of the core game inventor role, and thus include it here.
While I know a lot of people who are both game contractors and game inventors, I have also met a few people capable of one of these roles, but not the other.
A game polisher can take text written by someone else, and make it fit with existing text in terms of tone, balance, continuity, and play experience. This involves having a strong grasp on all of those elements, interacting with rules, continuity, and theme. While most game polishers I know are also (at minimum) good adventure builders, game contractors, or worldbuilders (and some are all three and much more), the core ability of the game polisher job itself is to be able to take the work of numerous different writers who may not have spoken to each other or coordinated their efforts at all, and adjust them as needed so the end product is indistinguishable from one written by a single author who was also well-versed in all other game products in the same RPG line.
A worldbuilder can conceive of and describe imaginary places and their residents, from single buildings to entire galaxies depending on the RPG and it’s scale, in clear and compelling prose. A worldbuilder needs to understand the rules of an RPG well enough to know what it does and doesn’t support well, but even more importantly they need to know the continuity, themes, and scope of the campaign setting supporting the RPG. If an RPG has multiple campaign settings (or none), this may require a broad understanding of each of them as well as the tropes common to the fiction that inspired the RPG (and which of them are stereotypes or motifs that have become clichés). A worldbuilder should be able to create new settings whole cloth, or expand existing ones. (While in theory this might be two different tasks, I’ve never actually met someone who is good at one and not the other, and the roles in companies generally requires both in the same person.)
Okay, not really. But if you LIKE how I kibitz, feel free to support my Patreon so I’ll do more of it!