Monthly Archives: December 2020

Adventure MacGuffins 2, the MacGuffining

Yesterday we discussed what MacGuffins were, and how they could be used to drive ttRPG adventures. Now, we’ll list some *types* of MacGuffins that can help drive the action of an adventure. These are far from comprehensive, just some options a GM can consider when looking at MacGuffin-driven adventures. These can be mixed and matches as desired for a specific kind of adventure. These also aren’t rules of any kind, but more jumping-off points to encourage GMs to come up with new and interesting MacGuffins beyond the ring that needs to be thrown in the volcano, the algorithm that needs to be kept out of enemy hands, the valuable statue, or the assassin robot coming back from the future to kill the PCs.

(Art by pit3dd)

Hidden: The true nature and/or the location of the MacGuffin is concealed. The PCs might have this MacGuffin (or be the focus of it, if it is Knowledge) and not even know it, which is why they are caught up in events.
Knowledge: The MacGuffin is some sort of information which motivates those who know it. This may be a prophecy which warns against or requires specific actions, or suppressed knowledge such as one of the PCs being the rightful heir to a kingdom. It can also be information someone already has, which a faction wishes to suppress further. If the PCs all learn the true name of a demon and can command it if they ever come face to face with it, but if any more people learn the name it will change the demon’s true name so it no longer works, the PCs can’t tell anyone else, and the demon wants to destroy them so it is safe from them.
Mysterious: Some things are known about the MacGuffin, but even those aware of its existence and nature don’t fully understand it.
Object, artifact: An artifact is an object of great importance because of what it can do for one faction or another. You may need to find and acquire it so your side can use it, keep it safe so the other side can’t use it, destroy it so no one can use it, or all of the above. This need not be magical — a letter of safe passage that will allow spies to scape the search for them in a tyrannical kingdom is an artifact because of what it can do.
Object, returning: You can’t get rid of the MacGuffin because it returns to you.
Object, treasure: The MacGuffin is an object of great value that drives NPCs to care about it. It may have pure monetary value, or may have some other kind of value. A book that proves an ancient philosopher thought of humor as important as other topic and rewrites history would be a treasure even if it’s price as an antique is insignificant to the people seeking it.
One-Sided MacGuffin: Not everyone can use the MacGuffin. For example, if only those of the Blood of the Original Emperor can use the Fate-Cutting Sword, and the only such descendent left is the bad Guy, the Fate-Cutting Sword is a one-sided MacGuffin.
Rumored: Not everyone is sure the MacGuffin exists. If the Flower of Resurrection is only spoken of in legend, you can go looking for it, but don’t has assurance it actually exists. If the antagonists are convinced a prophecy says the PCs will destroy the world, the PCs are likely to feel that without proof that’s just one possible future, but the MacGuffin prophecy still can drive the action if enough people aren’t willing to take the risk.
Temporary: The MacGuffin has some kind of ticking clock or time limit. A bomb that will blow up the entire city can be a temporary object MacGuffin — if you don’t find it by the time it explodes, the adventure is essentially over. A temporary MacGuffin might also be knowledge of a specific stellar conjunction, or a photograph that proves someone on death row is innocent. Temporary MacGuffins have additional pressure, which can encourage PCs to hurry up, but can also rush them along so the players have less fun.
Willful: The MacGuffin has its own will or agenda, or can take unexpected actions with no one directing it to do so. This may be because the MacGuffin is a creature or sentient object, or it may be more complicated than that. If the MacGuffin is the knowledge that there is a 5th cardinal direction and those that know of it can appear to teleport as they walk in a direction no one else knows exists, but doing so too often has a chance of releasing vorpal wraiths that severe creatures from reality until there is less 5th-directional travel, that secret knowledge is a willful MacGuffin (and may also be why the knowledge was suppressed or hidden in a way that makes it a MacGuffin now).

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Adventure MacGuffins, Pt. 1

A lot of adventures use the literary device of the MacGuffin. That is, something that motivates the plot, but doesn’t impact it. The Holy Grail in Arthurian myth is a great example — the knights seek it, villains want it, but it almost never impacts the story itself. Your MacGuffin may come back into things in the final arc of your story, but achieving it may also just be the end of the story. Other famous examples are the Maltese Falcon of its eponymous movie, and the Ark from Raiders of the Lost Ark–which literally gets put away once the heroes get their hands on it.

(Illustration by Maksym Yemelyanov)

It’s easy to see what this would be a great trope for ttRPG adventures. Seeking a MaGuffin can have numerous legs, each needed to acquire this thing but not actually interacting with the MacGuffin itself. If you present an Unstoppable Evil rising in the Westlands, for example, stage one of your adventure might be to find an Ancient Tablet of lore that will tell you how to defeat the Unstoppable Evil. That things that can stop the Unstoppable Evil is now the adventure’s MacGuffin (replacing the tablet itself, which was a minor MacGuffin). Then, you need to seek a Retired Oracle, who is the only being that can tell you how to find the MacGuffin. This may require acquiring a Map to the MacGuffin Vault, and then separately a Key to the MacGuffin Vault. Then, of course, it turns out the MacGuffin Vault is at the bottom of a vast flooded Dungeon, in the middle of a war zone, so you need to both bring the war to a close, and find a way to adventure underwater. All the while, minions of the Unstoppable Evil seek to stop you, and agents of the Questionable Other Faction are seeking the MacGuffin for their own Mysterious Purposes, which may be to defeat the Unstoppable Evil on their own terms, or perhaps to use the MacGuffin’s power to turn their leader into an Even More Unstoppable Evil.

Sure, if the RPG campaign lasts long enough for the PCs to actually get the Main MacGuffin, you likely want a satisfying Showdown, but the MacGuffin doesn’t have to be weapon that is going to get used by the heroes. A MacGuffin could be a famous treasure (which may or may not be of great value… or even real), a document that settles a generational dispute, an object the loss of which has caused dishonor, an item that the PCs have no use for but which would make a foe immensely more powerful, or dozens of other possibilities.

A MacGuffin may broken into different pieces that must each be found and assembled, such as the classic Rod of Seven Parts, in which each part may act as a useful device, but the concept of them all combined becomes the true plot-driving MacGuffin. Some MacGuffins are clouded in riddles and secrets and the question involves answering them–the whispered word “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane drives the story exactly because no one knows what it means. Rather than eb sought out, a MacGuffin can be something you have to get rid of, an idea perhaps most famously presented as the One Ring in Lord of the Rings. The PCs may not have any interest in the MacGuffin itself, but just be drawn into other’s desires to have/understand/or destroy it, as is the case in The Maltese Falcon. (And if the PCs are the type of heroes who can be hired to go on adventures, it’s easy to draw them into Maltese Falcon-style plots of searching, betrayal, and forgery).

While cinema often gets away with not defining a MacGuffin well beyond its existence (think of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or whatever’s in the trunk in Repo Man, or in the box in Kiss Me Deadly), that tends not to work well when the MacGuffin is something the players can get their hands on (or even use resources like divination magic to learn about). It’s generally best as the GM to have a firm idea what the MacGuffin is and why people want it (or wants to get rid of it, or learn about it, or whatever is driving the action of the adventure), even if you don’t expect all of that information to be revealed.

In future installments, we’ll look at some options for specific adventure MacGuffins.

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For Starfinder: Jet Jutsu

The idea of developing a fighting style specifically designed to benefit a jetpack or other movement-boosting device is certainly not a new one, but it’s not something I have seen apply to the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. While this might grow to be a whole series of fighting techniques for soldiers to operative specializations, for the moment I’m just starting with a couple of combat feats.

(Art by matiasdelcarmine)

For the following options, “jetpack” applies to any armor upgrade or technological, hybrid, or magic item that gives you a flight speed, or gives you a bonus to Athletics checks made to jump (including items that increase your land speed enough that the increased speed gives you a bonus to Athletics checks to jump). “Using” the jetpack means being able to activate it and expending any battery power, use duration, fuel, or similar consumable required to gain the flight or bonus to Athletics checks to jump. You don’t actually need to take an action to do this, it is part of whatever action is required in the Jet Justsu option.

Jet Back (Combat)
Benefit: When you are attacked by a foe you observing (see States of Awareness), as a purely defensive reaction you can use your jetpack to dodge out of the way. You can move up to half your land or fly speed, and gain a +4 circumstance bonus to your AC against that one attack, and to any Reflex save required by the attack. On your next turn, you must take a Move action to recover as your first action. If you are prevented from doing this (such as if you are stunned), you fall prone. You are also off-target until the end of your next round.

Jet Punch (Combat)
Benefit: You can use your jetpack as part of a charge. You do not take a -2 penalty to your attack roll as with a normal charge, but your penalty to AC increases by -2 (normally to -4 AC). You add half the item level of your jetpack, to a maximum of half your ranks in Piloting, to your damage on a a successful attack.

You may also want to take Jet Charge, Mobility, Sky Jockey, and Spring Attack as part of your Jet Justsu techniques.

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Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Compatible Math Between RPG Subsystems, Pt. 1

Most ttRPGs have subsystems to handle different tasks a character might attempt, or threats they might need to overcome. For example, a game might have a rule for seeing if an attack hits a foe, a different rule for seeing how much damage it does, and a different rule for efforts to heal the wound over time. Often these rules have some sort of mathematical underpinning tied to a random number generator (dice cards, and so on) that determines success. Sometimes the systems have compatible math… and sometimes they don’t. In this series of essays we’re going to look at the pros and cons of having subsystems be mathematically compatible, and what kind of design pressure may lead to each system.

Now, to be sure, these trends of mathematical subsystems that interact with some randomizer to generate values of success and failure are not universal. Some games have only a single system and it applies to the success or failure of everything. Others manage to model success without randomizers, or even math in general. As a result the observations in this essay don’t apply directly to all ttRPGs, but only to a (broad) subset of them. For example, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow is a diceless system that uses math differently than, say Fantasy AGE. Similarly, Dread does away with random success chances in favor of a tension-building minor physical challenge, and while it’s not quite accurate to say it’s math-free (as having to do something once, vs having to do it twice, is a mathematical concept) it certainly isn’t using math the way most ttRPGs do.

However, even if these game systems don’t interact with math and randomizers in the same way as the items I’ll be discussing in more depth, that doesn’t mean some of the same pros and cons may not apply. Especially for people interested in modifying existing systems (or wanting to try their hands at designing a system from scratch), thinking about how different kinds of tasks are resolved, and whether those resolution mechanisms should be based on the same underlying rules, is useful regardless of what the game mechanics in question are.

I’ll also note that I find examining lots of different game systems useful to gain a greater toolkit of ideas and mechanics I can use for my own designs. While some mix-and-matching might feel weird (I wouldn’t recommend adding a Jenga Tower resolution mechanic to a card-based ttRPG game… at least not in MOST cases…), often being aware of a wider range of designs can help inspire new solutions to old problems (or, at least, help see potential problems and unintended consequences in advance).

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$200 of Game Publisher Advice in 60 Seconds

Game publishers sometimes pay me to consult on ideas, issues, problems, or plans they have. Unsurprisingly, often the people most interested in advice are ones who aren’t sure what their questions really are. Often the trick is to get to the core issue someone really needs help with, and once they know what they don’t know, the client can make great strides on their own.

On more than one occasion, it’s taken $200 worth of time to sift out that what the client really needs is to ask themselves these questions. The people who have paid me to get here all seem happy, and have come back to pay me for more consultation, so despite how simple this seems once it is laid out they appear to have gotten value for the time and money spent getting to this point.

But, while I don’t want to talk myself out of future gigs, I DO want anyone struggling with game publishing, who ALSO falls into the category of folks who can benefit from asking themselves these questions, to have a chance to do so much more easily and cheaply than paying me to consult and not having any idea what their core problem is.

So, here’s among my most common end result on consulting:

For your company, and each game line, and each game product, ask yourself:

What is your target market?
What market do you think you are currently reaching?
Where do you think is a better place to reach the market you want?
Are there other markets that might be interest you haven’t thought about?
What else could you afford to do, in terms of time and resources, to reach those markets?
When you do get the attention of customers in a market, can they quickly and easily find out why they might be interested in your product? Can they then quickly and easily be at a point where they can give you money for the product?

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The Battle Between Success, Improvement, and Options in ttRPGs

I could make a MUCH longer post about this… but it wouldn’t actually be much more informative. So here is the short version.

(Illustration by Наталья Новикова)

When playing ttRPGs, in general (and always within the context of preferred complexity, crunchiness, and theme):

*Players like being able to have meaningful choices in character design.
*Players like having meaningful choices in character actions.
*Players dislike a single tactic or build being sufficiently superior that other choices are perceived as sufficiently sub-optimal that it is dumb to use them.
*Players want to have a good idea of what their chances of success are.
*Players get bored if there is frequently no chance of failure.
*Players want their characters to be better at their core task than other player’s characters.
*Players want to be able to improve how good their characters are at core and non-core tasks.

When trying to design games that meet all of these goals, game designers run into issues. If a player has meaningful choices in character design, and has a good understanding of what their chances of success are, and has ways to specialize to be good at a core task AND has ways to improve, odds are there will be a single character build and/or tactic that is clearly superior to other choices. And, worse, it doesn’t matter if there isn’t REALLY an optimal choice, just if a group of players conclude there is one.

If you fix that by having elements of success be divided among enough variables that there are multiple ways to try to be good at something (for example, if in combat you can increase you chance to hit a foe but it reduces damage, or you can increase your attacks per round but it decreases your accuracy), many players end up not knowing what will actually increase their total effectiveness, and be dissatisfied if something they felt would be a big improvement doesn’t pan out in play. (And some players will apply excellent math skills to determine a given build or tactic is actually optimal, and that reduces fun even if they aren’t right).

If you fix that by reducing the number of ways you can improve a character’s success, OR by making multiple options be closely hard-coded to very similar levels of success, players often feel like they do not have meaningful choices in either design (since they can’t make choices to improve their chance of success) or tactics (since it doesn’t matter which tactic you use, as they are all equally successful).

If you fix THAT by allowing a character to constantly find ways to improve their odds of success in multiple tactic or builds, it can be possible for a player to have little to no chance of failure, and they grow bored. This is especially bad if those options are easier for some players to find than others, so one player almost never fails, and other players feel they are penalized for taking different choices.

Obviously this is a much more complex issue but the core set of opposed desires and solutions are extremely common, the battle between Success, Improvement, and Options in ttRPGs.

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Koufrawraiths – A simple d20 monster template

This is designed as a simple template for monsters in a wide range of d20 games. It has a horror/mystery theme, and the GM should consider its use carefully. Certainly it’s going to be as dangerous as a creature 1 level or CR higher, and if PCs do not yet know how to deal with it, it may be much more dangerous. On the other hand, a group could walk right past one and never know it, so it needs to be used in an intentional way with forethought, rather than as a random encounter.


(Sleepless art by likozor)

A koufrawraith is a creature that exists in the dim fog between the waking world and the Plane of Dreams. They cannot be encountered by anyone fully in either realm, but do cross into any other reality where creatures able to sleep exist. Despite the name koufrawraiths are not necessarily undead, though undead koufrawraiths do exist. Many are hags, fey, monstrous beasts,and rarer examples exist as constructs, dragons, and oozes.

A koufrawraith’s existence can only be experienced by those who are fatigued or exhausted, but conscious. For any other creature, they cannot be perceived or effected, and the koufrawraith similarly cannot directly effect those who are ineligible to perceive it. It does perceive waking and sleeping creatures, but no action it takes (including things like casting spells that leave lasting effects, such as a wall of stone) can be perceived by, effect, or be effected by such creatures. Secondary effects can be–if a koufrawraith damages an exhausted person, the damage is visible and can be healed, but there is no evidence of how it was caused. Any effort to identify a koufrawriath from secondary observation or description suffers a -10 penalty.

Also known as sleepgaunts, koufrawraiths often prey upon lone insomniacs and those suffering great loss or toil. If feeds on the suffering of the tired, and prefers to hurt and frighten its food source, rather than kill them.

The ancient order of the Wearied Guard once drove koufrawraiths to near extinction, but once they were no longer a common threat, societies stopped supporting, or even believing, those who claimed their crucial work had to be done in the still of night, while bleary-eyed and staggering from fatigue.

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Online Contacts and Real Friends

This is quite the ramble. I wrote it more for myself than anyone else. It doesn’t touch on game content, or freelancing (really), and everyone who follows me for those kinds of things should feel free to skip it.

If someone wants to build a true emotional connection to me, I make it difficult. Doubly so online.

That’s okay. I have lots of friends. None of this is a complaint. Really, it’s just an examination of my mind and experiences, brought on in part by how much more of my socialization has been online for the past 9+ months. And that, in turn, has be thinking about the nature of online “friendship.”

Yes, a surprising number of my “Facebook friends” are actually my real friends. Some I have known for more than 35 years. Others I met online, but correspond with weekly or more.

But we all know that’s not the majority.

The majority of the Facebook users I have friend-demarcated are “People who have mutually decided a weak online connection might prove entertaining or beneficial.” Or “Mutubenes” for short.
Some of THOSE people have a business plan that includes being friendly, so they look and sound more like a friend to those who are their Mutubenes.

Sadly, some people who are Mutubenes can’t tell the difference between that causal connection and true friendship. Normally in such a causal online relationship, the more popular and/or beautiful person is aware of the true nature of the online connection, while one or more less-popular cybercommoners gets too sucked into the illusion of friendship to differentiate it from reality.

This isn’t a binary friend/notfriend status, of course. There are casual friends, work friends, friendly acquaintances, Mutubenies you like slightly more than others, Mutubenies you’d happily share a drink with which might allow you to become casual friends, pure business partners, people you dislike but tolerate… a long line of degrees and types of relationships that can grow, wilt, morph, and change over time, with the right context and circumstance.

Many Beaupops are attractive women. That’s not shocking–they have careers to build along with everyone else, and are taking a thing that often causes them to be dismissed to mistreated, and trying to turn it into an advantage. Whatever each Beaupop is comfortable with is perfectly appropriate, be that just knowing that looking professional and stylish can’t hurt get attention all the way to actually being a sex worker–these approaches are in no way comparable to each other, but they often share the same online space. Sadly, too often when male cybercommoners realize they aren’t truefriends with attractive Beaupop women the cybercommoner becomes aggressive and abusive.

I think about these things fairly often, for a number of reasons. First, I work in this online social space. I want to be aware and realistic of what’s actually going on in such connections.

But, second, I have social anxiety, in part tied to my civilian PTSD. It manifests in many ways, one of which is that when I don’t understand what is expected of me in a social interaction, I can panic. Sometimes full-on panic attacks that can be hard to distinguish from heart attacks. Other times, just a rising of bile in my throat and sense of impending doom. I’ve struggled with that in therapy, for years.

At least some of that seems to tie back to one of the worst beatings I ever took in my life. It’s a story I have told before, but not often. I was at camp as a young teen. The daughter of one of the camp masters invited me to take a walk in the woods. She was older than me, though not adult. I was confused as to why—we hadn’t talked at all, I didn’t really know her, and I had never had a girl ask me to walk with them before. Indeed, positive attention of any kind from girls was foreign to me. But she seemed friendly and genuine, so I agreed.
But I was confused, and unsure of the social expectations of such a walk.

She walked me out to a clearing, where a large number of boys had dug a pit. They beat me up, threw me into the pit, and sat and stood on me. They laughed. I remember smelling the dirt, tasting it, and being totally unable to get up. She laughed with them. I remember crying, and yelling, and that only making the laughter louder.

I don’t remember how that ended. I do remember being 100% sure that there was no point telling anyone. That doing so would just make things worse. So I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone, for years.
But that sense of dread is still tied to not knowing what is expected of me in a social setting, either in physical meetings or virtual ones.

I’ve worked on that a lot over the years. I have had to. But it also means that if I am not sure what a relationship is? If I can’t be certain if someone is my friend, or just a popular or talented or beautiful person who finds an online connection to me to be more likely to be useful than annoying?

I assume it’s an entirely transactional connection. Unless I am flat told by someone that they consider me their friend, or wants a closer connection, I assume they do not. I have to. To survive. Even people I have known for years are generally kept in that circle of polite acquaintance until there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I assume praise is based on the interests of the praiser, interaction based on the value of the interaction, expressions of liking or wanting to spend time with me are weighed by the value the person expressing such interest believes they can get from it.

Which doesn’t mean that is how you should do it. Nor does it mean I think these people are disingenuous. Being friendly is not a promise of anything but polite interaction. People who want to spend time with me to benefit themselves are acting in a perfectly rational and reasonable manner. Even when genuinely like and want to be with or help someone, I assume that feeling is not reciprocated to an emotional degree, and that’s fine. Being nice to someone is not a currency that buys me any obligation from them, nor should it be.
The upside of this is that I can continue to interact with people online without panicking. If there’s a downside, it’s mostly in potentially missed connections when people would like to form real friendship or emotional bonds to me, and I don’t give them the signals they would take as a go-ahead to try increasing that bond.

Basically, if someone is not already my friend I treat their online interactions the same way I treat those of a waitress as a favored restaurant at which I am a regular. They may know my name, be friendly, say they are happy to see me. And that can all be true, within the context of my coming to their place of work and having a professional interaction with them. Especially in the US, the fact that my being happy impacts their job security and payment (especially in the case of tips) means that friendliness is contextualized differently than if they acted the same way after asking me to go out to lunch somewhere else. I certainly HAVE made friends with the staff at places I was a regular, but it involved a lot of evidence that the relationship was not purely professional, including things like being invited to the restaurant when it was closed, and having staff choose to spend time with me and play games and go drinking when they were off-the-clock.

I would much rather err on the side of polite professionalism, than even overstep socially appropriate bounds and make someone else uncomfortable. Even at the cost of coming off as distant now and then.
I enjoy having Mutubenies. I just think of them as different from what I think of as “friends.”

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Strategy Boosts for the Starfinder Soldier (Pt. 3)

We continue looking at strategy boosts, an alternate class feature for the soldier. You can take a strategy boost in place of a bonus combat feat, as long as you meet the strategy boost’s minimum soldier level.

Soldier 6
A soldier must be at least 6th level to select these strategy boosts.

(Art by Camile)

Hold the Line! (Ex): You expend 1 Resolve Point as part of any other standard, move, or full action to inspire your allies to hold their ground against enemy advanced. Allies within 60 feet gain a +4 AC bonus against combat maneuvers that change their position (such as bull rush and reposition) and special attacks that move them (including swallow whole). If a special attack has an effect other than to move a target, the non-movement portion occurs if the attack hits the ally’s normal AC, but the movement portion only occurs if the attack hits the AC with the +4 bonus. These bonuses last until an ally is moved by an attack, or 10 minutes pass. This is a sense-dependent, language-dependent ability.

MEDIC! (Ex): When you allies are wounded, you can inspire those able to patch them up to move faster and do better. As a reaction when an ally takes damage, or as a swift action, you can expend 1 Resolve Point to select one damaged ally and call for a medic. For 2 rounds, any creature within 60 feet can make a Medicine check on the selected ally more quickly. Checks that normally take 10 minutes can be performed as a full action. Those that take 1 minute can be performed as a standard action, those that are normally a standard action can be performed as a move action, and those that are normally a move action can be performed as a swift action. Additionally, creatures can cast a spell with the healing description on the ally as a move action (as long as it’s normal casting time is 1 standard action or less).
This is a sense-dependent, language-dependent ability.

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Strategy Boosts for the Starfinder Soldier (Pt. 2)

We continue looking at strategy boosts, an alternate class feature for the soldier. You can take a strategy boost in place of a bonus combat feat, as long as you meet the strategy boost’s minimum soldier level.

(Art by Mike)

Soldier 4
A soldier must be at least 4th level to select these strategy boosts.

Gear Up! (Ex): As a standard action, you can direct your allies to prepare for hazardous situations. Each ally within 60 feet able to see and hear you can draw one weapon or piece of equipment, or activate a piece of equipment already ready for use (including activating environmental protection on worn armor, but not any kind of attack.) This is a sense-dependent, language-dependent ability.

Take Cover! (Ex): As a standard action, you can direct your allies to take cover. Each ally within 60 feet able to see and hear you can move up to their speed directly toward the nearest piece of cover. Allies that do this are staggered on their next turn (even if they are normally immune to being staggered, and this condition cannot be removed prematurely). This is a sense-dependent, language-dependent ability.

I have a Patreon. It supports the time I take to do all my blog posts, videos, and other bits of free content. If you’d like to see more game-bending rule options (or more fiction, game industry essays, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!