Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Vile Madness is About to be Unleashed!

This week, on May 1st, I hope to release the first book in the “Super Genius Presents” line, titled The Vile Magic of Argonax the Mad. This book is something I’ve been working on for months, in what little spare time I can scrape together, and it’s significantly different from a typical SGG Pathfinder-compatible product. Rather than a book conceived and developed by the entire Super Genius staff, this project is much more a one-man-show, an “unplugged” version of how I write games without the (admittedly extremely useful) feedback from the other geniuses.

There’s a good chance there will be more “Super Genius Presents” books in the future. I have a long list of ideas I’ve been saving, that I’m not ready to give over to become the kernel of Super Genius products. That’s not to say I don’t value their contributions – I absolutely do or I wouldn’t be in business with them! But no matter how good a committee is, design by committee is still a different kind of activity that an entirely solo design. I love what we’ve managed to do together with our Class Options, Genius Guide, and Mythic Menagerie product lines. But I also want to stretch my solo design muscles, and offer up something a little different in scope and tone. Since I’m experimenting a bit, I don’t want to call this a “Genius Guide,” since my intent and outline are different from what we do with those books.

The “Super Genius Presents” line name is a sign that while SGG stands behind the production values of those books, they are very much the vision of their creators rather than the SGG collective. In addition to my own solo products, at least a couple of other authors have expressed some interest in making arrangements for us to do the editing, layout, and business end of things, while letting the author’s vision shine through. I have no idea if we’ll manage to make those deals work to everyone’s satisfaction, but it’s an interesting new way to try to do things.

So, what all is in The Vile Magic of Argonax the Mad? Well, the 40+ page PDF includes:
How to Use This Book
Vile Magic can be used as a sourcebook of a new element of history and cosmology for a campaign world, or as just a collection of new (and often icky) magic items, feats, and spells.
The Mad One
An overview of the history of Argonax, the insane demi-mortal spellcaster who is living multiple lifetimes, as different races and classes, in an effort to recreate the knowledge of creating major artifacts.
The Works of Argonax the Mad
Descriptions of the workbooks and journals Argonx keeps creating in his many lifetimes.
Argonax the Outsider and the College Obscura
What Argaonax is doing in the outer planes in-between lives, and how to handle that in a campaign.
The Harbingers of Argonax
A loose collection of cults drawn from multiple different cultures that wish to prepare the world for Argonax’s next lifetime.
Using Argonax the Mad in Your Campaign
Suggestions on utilizing Argonax as an enemy, ally, background figure, planar threat, or even part of a PC’s character history.
Vile Magic Items
As a guy trying to create major artifacts, Argonax has spent a lot of lvies creating new, often unpleasant, kinds of magic items.
The Powers of the Curios of Argonax
If you insist on trying to do things in ways no one ever has, there are going to be consequences. The highlight of this section is the table of 100 random magic item side effect powers, a common element in items created by Argonax, or using his notes.
Vile Armor and Shields
New armor and shield special abilities, as follows:
Attacking (melee)
Attacking (ranged)
Betraying (& improved & greater)
Charging
Dissipating
Gaze Reflecting
Impatient (& improved & greater)
Nameless
Retributive
Scourge
Tyrannical (& improved & greater)
Vengeful
Watchful
Vile Weapons
New weapon special abilities, as follows:
Elemental (and greater)
Enhancing
Featherlight
Invincible
Spectral (minor & major)
Soul Stealing
Sworn
Wearying
Vile Rings
For some reason, Argonax has never gone into much research regarding magic rings. Some scholars believe Argonax finds the symbolic ties of rings to such limits and oaths and pledges of friendship to be distasteful. Among the Harrowers, a common legend relates how early in his efforts, Argonax spoke with a powerful undead elf that had mastered all there was to know about magic rings, and concluded further study one the issue was pointless.
However, Argonax has created a few magic rings in his many lives, usually to allow him some insight into points of view he has not yet gained through reincarnation, or as defenses against the consequences of his frequent delving into forbidden and protected lore. Precisely because such rings are rare, they are highly valued prizes among Argonax enthusiasts.
Courtesan’s Ring
Deathless Band
Interrogator’s Ring
Ring of Affliction Reversal
Ring of Succor
Verminlord’s Signet
Eldritch Lense
Among the new kinds of magic items created by Argonax the Mad are eldritch lense (both singular and plural), crystals that have the mystic patterns of one or more specific spells permanently etched into them. An eldritch lense is a magic item that allows a spellcaster to convert energy from a prepared spell or unused spell slot into the spell coded within the item. This works much like a cleric’s spontaneous healing ability, but rather than converting a prepared spell into a cure spell, the magic is converted into whatever spell is within the eldritch lense.
Battle Lense
Fire Lense
Lense of Storms
Lense of the Wanderer
Peace Lense
Sage Lense
The Vile Art of Minor Artifact Construction
Though Argonax has not managed to create major artifacts, despite spending lifetimes in the quest, he has rediscovered a dangerous (and often distasteful) technique for creating minor artifacts. The full rules are presented here, though few characters will wish to pay the cost, along with one minor artifact of Argonax’s design: The Cyclopean Helm (as seen on the product’s cover).
Vile Feats
You don’t study the forbidden shadows of magic without developing some new techniques, a few of which are presented here, as listed below:
Accursed Spell
Bleeding Spell
Blinding Spell
Blood Reaping
Craft Curios of Argonax
Craft Minor Artifact
Crippling Spell
Diseased Spell
Fatiguing Spell
Hindering Spell
Necrothurge
Paralyzing Spell
Spell Leech
Spell Reaper
Terrifying Spell
Vile Spells
You also can’t study the forbidden shadows of magic without developing some new spells, as listed below, including spells for alchemists (a few), antipaladins, bards, cleric/oracles, druids (just 2), inquisitors (a few), magi (a few), sorcerers/wizards, summoners (just 2), and witches (a bunch).
Alter Poison.
Apply Poison.
Blood Fangs
Blood Fangs, greater
Blood Vomit
Bloody Terrain (I just have made a magic item that does blood vomit and then bloody terrain, but I didn’t. You could, though.)
Curse of Dread
Dimensional Bolt
Dislocate (as in, dislocate an arm)
Eldritch interdiction
Geist
Hex Harrow
Horrific Shriek
Ioun Sigil (also depicted on the cover)
Isolate
Jack’O’Lantern
Knell of Ruin
Last Breath
Nightmare Limbs
Pale Return
Pariah
Phantasmal Horror
Reckoning
Red Hands
Rend Psyche
Shrouded Afflictions
Toil and Trouble
Witchfire
Witchfire, Greater
A Harbinger of Argonax
An overview of how the Harbingers work, and stat blocks for sample Harbinger at 6th, 12th, and 18th level.
And that’s it! Just over 25,000 words of creepy arcana, wrapped around a narrative background you can take whole cloth, modify as needed, or ignore totally as you prefer!

It’s available at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG, and will soon be at Paizo. I’m very active at the Paizo boards, so if you have questions about the product you can ask them there, or here, or even at my Facebook and Twitter feeds (links at the upper right).

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Crunch, Fluff, and Game Cassarole

Though some great game designers, such as Monte Cook and Jonathan Tweet, have already weighed in on this, I’m still going to stick my neck out and discuss the question of fluff “vs.” crunch. I have a pretty strong opinion on why these terms are useful, and understanding how players react to them as separate elements is useful. And, since I’m mostly working on Pathfinder products at the moment, I’m going to use that game when I want to illustrate a point.

It is very often the case that crunch and fluff should compliment each other. But in some cases they can (and should) be presented separately, or at least with different emphasis.

Imagine if a sourcebook presented a new group, the Lady’s Sewing Circle. Officially and publicly a collection of high-society women who gather to work on textile projects and share their skills with one another while socializing, it’s also secretly a dangerous and cunning band of assassins who wield considerable political power. Outside the order, no one is sure exactly why enemies of “the Circle” tend to die in unfortunate accidents – theories include the ladies being witches who curse their enemies and/or that they use influence with their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to hire assassins to do their dirty work. But what is well known is that those who find their actions strongly denounced by the Circle must change their attitude, or prepare for an unfortunate end.

The members of the LSC all secretly worship The Weaver, a goddess represented by a spider with a loom and silver sheers. The Weaver is largely unknown by those outsider the Circle, and it is her power that allows the LSC to maintain its secrets.

Now, that’s all “fluff.” There are no games rules presented there, though a lot are hinted at. A GM can certainly see some ways the Sewing Circle can be used… but he’s also left with a lot of questions. Are the ladies actually all trained assassins? Are any of them really witches? Or are they clerics? If their influence is known but not the nature of their methods, how do they keep that a secret? What power of the Weaver prevents other people from using spies, magic, or bribery to learn of the LSC’s true nature? And, how “unknown” is the Weaver? Is there a higher-than-normal DC for Knowledge (religion) checks to identify her, her symbols, and the details of her worship? The fluff is useful, but even if a GM loved it he might feel unprepared to use it in a game. He has no objection to the general story elements, but needs some rules to support them. If he wants to discuss this issue with others, saying he thought the group needed more crunch is a quick, shorthand way to describe his complaint.

On the flip side, let’s say a book offered the following feat:

Shadowy Cultist
Your god protects its secrets, and some of yours, with a magic cloak of obscurity.
Prerequisite: Worship a god that grants the “trickery” domain.
Benefit: You gain SR 15 + level against magic effects that attempt to determine what god you worship, and any details of that worship. Additionally, the DC of any Knowledge (religion) check made to identify symbols, rituals, and elements of your worship is 5 higher than normal.

Now, that’s an odd feat, but it meets the basic “crunch” rules elements. However, if it exists entirely on its own, a GM can’t be sure exactly what it covers. If you worship an evil god and carry his holy symbol (a baby’s heart impaled on a rusty spike), does taking Shadowy Cult let you wander through town with impunity? The crunch is pretty clear, but there’s no story context on what the feat is supposed to do. It needs more “fluff.”

The obvious answer here is that the LSC and Shadowy Cult should be presented together, to complement each other. The feat’s crunch explains how the LSC maintain their secret, and the LSC’s fluff tells the GM exactly how the feat is supposed to be used.

But that doesn’t mean fluff always needs more crunch, or crunch always means more fluff.

If, instead of the Lady’s Sewing Circle, the sourcebook had presented the Iron Harrowers — a mercenary fighting company that is designed to act as “typical” fighters-for-hire — no new crunch may be needed. Pathfinder already supports money and stabbing things just fine. In fact, new rules designed for the Iron Harrowers might be detrimental and distracting – if they are supposed to be typical they shouldn’t have unique rules. Even worse if they include rules to really explain and justify a mercenary economy, that crunch may cause problems. The economy of the Pathfinder RPG is very loose. GMs have either come to accept (and possibly even appreciate) that, or have found another solution. Having more in-depth crunch about money for *just* the Iron Harrowers forces the first group of GMs to deal with similar questions about other groups, and forces the second group to somehow adapt Harrower crunch to their other economy crunch.

Similarly, many basic rules don’t need any specific fluff to support them, even though they help define what narrative will develop out of gameplay. The rules for making attack roles are universal in Pathfinder, and aside from some examples don’t have connected fluff. This is good, because if the fluff is too tightly linked to such a generic rule, it may cause confusion. If ever example of sword attacks all refer to the Swordsmen of Albenisle, readers may wonder if no one else is suppose to make attack rolls.

Similarly, many players and GMs are looking for different kinds of things from sourcebooks. Some would love nothing more than fluff-heavy examples of guilds, cities, NPC motivations, taverns, wilderness areas, kingdoms, histories, and all the other story elements that make up a campaign world. They may have no interest at all in new rules to go with those fluff elements (and when the intent is to create such fluff-heavy books, it’s important to know when you should include the rare exception like the LSC’s Shadowy Cultist feat, when you should rewrite the LSC so it doesn’t need new crunch, and when to exclude it entirely).

By the same token, many GMs already have the campaign world they want to run, and find long lists of descriptions boring and useless. They prefer new spells, feats, archetypes, classes, magic items, equipment, and the other crunchy rules-bits that can then be used to support or alter the fluff elements they are already using.

These are legitimate preferences of play style, and even if a game designer doesn’t subscribe to either of those extremes, having some terminology like crunch and fluff, and understanding when and why players might prefer one over the other, is useful to creating popular and useful game materials.

Still loving subterranean, fire-breathing lizards.

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons, or things that are adaptations of D&D, for decades. It’s an awesome game, and when people act as if it somehow is as irrelevant as buggy whips, it ticks me off. Yes, some gamers have discovered they like other kinds of things more, and there are different games for them. Yes, there are things you can do with other RPGs you can’t do with D&D. But I can prove the reverse is also true.
The geek-arrogance of declaring “That thing is dead, and we should leave it behind” appalls me. People still play chess, even though there are things you can’t do with it, and its WAY older than D&D. I enjoy D&D. So do most of my friends. If we’re enjoying ourselves, and gathering for time with our friends, and getting out of the game what we want, who has the right to say our pastime is dull, stupid, or outdated?
I love that RPGs as a field continue to evolve and expand. I enjoy a lot of new, very not-D&D games as well. And I think real progress is made sometimes — my favorite version of D&D isn’t the fantasy rules for Chainmail. But if people enjoy that version of the game, I’m thrilled for them. I also would love to politely talk to them and see what it is they prefer about it — but that’s the game designer in me. 😀

What Was I Thinking?!

Around post #20 in this thread, I was asked in regards to The Genius Guide to Horrifically Overpowered Feats , “What did you *intend* for people to do with this? Why should anyone buy it? ”

Those are entirely fair questions, and I guess I’m far enough away from the release date that I can talk about this project in less hyperbolic terms.

This project didn’t start life as Horrifically Overpowered feats. It started life as ideas and concepts cut from other projects, that I held on to as “too good to waste, too powerful to use.” For a long time I thought I might write a book on game design that used some of these as example cases, even though that’s not the kind of writing that excites the most (talking about game design is fun, writing about it is dreary). A few times I mentioned having such material, and more than one friend commented “You should just do a book of Overpowered Feats, and release them as-is.”

One of the reasons I went ahead and did that was that while these ideas are (for the most part) not appropriate for a typical campaign, that doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate for any campaign.

One of the things I suspect a lot of players just don’t understand is how subjective rules balance is in an RPG. It depends on things like number of players, number of characters, GM play style, player play style, campaign assumptions, and so on. For example, if a GM runs a campaign centered around fighting human renegades in the woods, the ranger abilities favored enemy and favored terrain can become much more powerful, because the ranger can make choices that come up in play much more often. Similar if in that same campaign most foes are chaotic neutral anarchists, determined to tear down society for the good of its citizens, a paladin’s smite evil becomes much less powerful, because it rarely comes into play. While the powers remain objectively balanced in a game with a balance of foe types and terrains, it’s easy to set up a campaign that is perfectly reasonable on its own, that changes the balance of their effectiveness.

Nor are campaign locations or foe types the only thing that can have an effect. A GM who likes to throw PCs against a single foe of their CR or slightly higher as the most typical encounter degrades the value of area effect abilities. One who loves to hit PCs with 7 or 8 less dangerous encounters in a day increases the effectiveness of abilities with no daily limit. Players who spend a chunk of their money ensuring everyone has at least a few healing potions to use in emergencies have a different need for a healing-based character than a group who only spend money on ways to increase their character’s core abilities. Groups who outlaw Leadership and item creation feats make magic items with very narrow uses less valuable than those that apply in a wide range of situations. Something as simply as how a group determines ability scores can change the value of abilities that depend on those values, or affect them in others.

One of the joys of designing RPGs is that there are so few hard limits, but that’s also one of its great challenges. When I designed the dragonrider class, I knew some groups would disallow it as “overpowered” based just on the fact it allows a 1st level character to fly, and they prefer adventures where a pit or river is a major obstacle. I’ve had smart and experienced players tell me that if a class, feat, or spell allows a character to do anything characters couldn’t do before it was introduced, it’s overpowered. (Whereas I tend to thing if it doesn’t do that, it’s actually pointless.)

Some groups feel fighters are completely overshadowed by 7th level by spellcasters, while other feel fighters make the game unfun because they can take and crank out so much damage over and over and over. In truth, I suspect both groups are right for their own campaigns.

So, there are a lot of things in The Genius Guide to Horrifically Overpowered Feats that I think groups and GMs might find useful for their specific games, even though they’d be terribly disruptive in other games. But I can’t tell you under exactly what circumstances a group should consider using them. I touched on some possibilities (epic games, low-player-count games, games designed to make the PCs the toughest things in existence), but it’s up to each GM and group to take what they find useful.

I’ve never been sure how to make that point clear in a title. Since so much of what we sell is PDF only, I like making our titles very, very descriptive. If you buy The Genius Guide to Fire Magic, you should expect we’ll be focusing on the ways to heat things up and burn them down. That’s also why I tend to do shorter PDFs – so each covers one narrow topic, allowing players interested in that one thing to buy the book for it, and not worry about also getting lots of optional rules they have no interest in.

So instead, I just went with a title (and release date) that made it clear these feats were not for common use. And I tried to make sure I wrote in a tongue-in-cheek style, to entertain through amusement those patrons who would have no interest in trying to use the feats in any situation.

So if a slew of options that only might be of any use to you, and may require a lot of tweaking to match your campaign’s style appeals to you, buy this book. If it doesn’t, and the humor seems not to your liking, don’t buy it. We’ll catch you on the next one.

What’s Vile Got To Do With It?

I continue to work on The Vile Magics of Argonax the Mad, in my “spare” time. So, let’s talk for a moment about the word “vile.” While it has the same letters as evil, something can be vile without being morally questionable. I would call a raw-tuna-and-grape-jelly sandwich “vile,” but I wouldn’t feel eating one made someone a bad person.

So obviously if I’m promising vile magic, my book needs to contain various magic effects that would seem off or bothersome to reasonable people, but aren’t (necessarily) evil. Obviously I’ll touch a bit on artifacts (as those are the focus of Argonax’s multiple-lifetime quest, and I’ll present the Create Minor Artifact feat to show his progress), but I also want to include material that can be more easily worked into a campaign. Such bits can either serve as bread-crumbs for GMs wanting to lead players deeper into the mysteries of Argonax, or as dreadful options for characters who want to take a darker turn.

I’m not even sure how many such items I’m including yet (I’ll wait to see how big the project is after I finish the crucial bits), but below are some undeveloped examples of “vile magic.”

Vile Items
Armor Abilities
Retributive
Aura: Moderate evocation; CL: 10th;
Description
Each time the wearer of a suit of retributive armor is struck by a successful attack roll, the wearer gains a +1 bonus to the next attack made against that foe. If the wearer is hit multiple times before making an attack, the bonus to the wearer’s next attack roll increases by +1 each time the attacker hits (to a maximum of the wearer’s level/3, minimum +1). A character may only have this bonus against a single creature at a time (if a second creature strikes the character while it still has a bonus on a previous attacker, the bonus against the earlier attacker ends).
Construction Requirements
Craft Magic Arms and Armor, bane, unerring weapon; Price: +2 bonus.

Weapon Abilities
Soul Stealing: A soul stealing weapon drinks in the immortal spirit of any creature it kills. If the blow that ends a creature’s life comes from the soul stealing weapon, that creature’s soul is stolen. Until and unless the soul stealing weapon is broken, the creature cannot be restored to life through any means (including clone, raise dead, resurrection,  reincarnation, true resurrection, miracle or wish), and it’s body is immune to the speak with dead spell.
A ranged weapon with this ability confers it on ammunition fired.
Once per day, the wielder of a soul stealing weapon can name one creature killed by the weapon and ask it two questions, as if casting speak with dead on the creature’s complete corpse.
If the soul stealing weapon is broken, those killed by it can be restored to life through all normal means, and their bodies become vulnerable to the speak with dead spell.
A soul stealing weapon cannot also be defending, merciful, or holy.
Strong necromancy; CL 18th; Craft Magic Arms and Armor, soul bind; Price +5 bonus plus 6,000 gp.

Vile Feats
Spell Reaper
You can regain spells using the life-forces of those you slay.
Prerequisites: Ability to cast speak with dead, Heighten Spell, Necrothurge, two metamagic feats.
Benefits: Once per round as a swift action, when a spell you cast kills one or more foes, you can use the dying target’s lost life force to restore your magic abilities. The creature killed must be within close range (25 ft. +5 ft./2 levels), and must have HD no less than 1/2 your level. If you are a spontaneous spellcaster (such as oracles and sorcerers), you regain the lowest-level spell slot you have already used. If you are a preparation spellcaster (such as magi and wizards) you may regain the use of the lowest-level spell you have already cast for the day. This feat can never allow you to exceed your normal maximum of spell slots or prepared spells.

Vile Spells
Blood Fangs
School: necromancy [curse]; Level: antipaladin 1, cleric/oracle 2, witch 1
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Components: V, S
Range: close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target: one living creature
Duration: 1 min./level
Saving Throw: Fort negates; Spell Resistance: yes
You curse the target’s blood, so it literally forms mouths with needle-sharp fangs to attack anyone who tries to heal the target. Anyone adjacent to the target who makes a Heal skill check, or uses a conjuration (healing) spell on the target is attacked by the tiny blood fangs. They strike with an attack bonus equal to your base attack bonus plus your Int, Wis or Cha modifier (whichever is higher), and deal 1d6 damage + your  Int, Wis or Cha modifier (again, whichever is higher). The blood fangs can only attack a specific creature once each round, but a creature hit while casting a spell must make a concentration check with a DC equal to the spell’s save DC, or the healing spell is lost without effect.

 

These aren’t in extrenal playtesting yet, though I have unleashed some on the players in my playtest campaigns. But overall I suspect the final versions will look at lot like these. Thoughts?