Author Archives: okcstephens

About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

Often, ttRPGs and other tabletop games are based on an intellectual property (“IP”) not owned by the publisher of the game. These are games based on a license, where a deal is cut between the game publisher and the IP owner for a game based on that IP to exist. Many fans love licensed games, and often have a long list of “obvious” licensed games they feel should be made. Some fans think game publishers are stupid for not making such games. Some fans even make their own versions, without ever contacting either the game publisher or IP owner in advance, and are baffled when they are not able to publish their result.

In my more than 20-year tabletop game career, I have worked on numerous licensed games, from Star Wars to EverQuest, Wheel of Time, Black Company, Thieves World, Dragon AGE, Song of Ice and Fire, and more. I have learned this hard truth — licensed Games take MUCH more time and effort to make, contain major additional complications, and a game company has to pay for the privilege of undertaking that additional work and risk. It’s rarely worth it. Not never. But rarely. It varies wildly.

So, this leads to the question: if it’s so hard and expensive, why do game companies keep doing it? And the answers (like most placed where business. Reality, and games interesct) are varied.

Sometimes, a licensed game is made in an effort to boost the visibility (and thus sales) or other games made by the same publisher, or to push some specific marketing strategy. For example, when the d20 System was being rolled out in 2000, there were some licensed books done specifically to prove that the d20 System could do more than just D&D.

Sometimes, the belief is that the property will be so popular that a game based on it will sell an order of magnitude more copies. So if you would sell 2,000 copies of Stellar Battles the RPG, and make $4 profit for each copy sold, but you believe you’d sell 20,000 copies of the Star Wars RPG at $1 profit for each copy sold, the fact you’ll make $20k on Star Wars vs the 8k on Stellar Battles would make the extra risk and effort worth it.

(This is also why licenses normally end–sales dip, renewals of contracts often call for more money to be outlayed, so even if a line made money for years, that calculation changes).

Sometimes it’s about breaking into new markets, or making new fans for the company. If you have only managed to get into hobby stores, but you have the John Wick — World of Assassins RPG to offer, you may be able to sell it in places like Barnes & Noble, or even Wal-Mart. Or if you haven’t even managed to get INTO hobby stores, you may be trying to get a major distributor to pick you up if you have a good license, and hope they’ll keep you when that license ends.

Sometimes it’s a desire to make a game IP look competitive with other IPs. If you can market the Stellar Battles RPG alongside licensed Battlestar Galactica and RoboCop RPGs using the same system from the same publisher, another company might decide that means Stellar Battles is popular enough that they want to pay YOU to make Stellar Battles comics or BIGHEADKO bobblehead dolls.

Similarly, some companies will take on a licensed game to build a relationship with the IP owner, in hopes of securing a different license owned by the same people. In general, the bigger the licensed IP, the more money stands to be made, but also the more cautious the IP owner is about allowing someone to make a game using it. If a game company wants to secure the license for Huge Pop Culture Phenom, the RPG, they may have to prove they can do quality work by first making Cult Almost-Classic, licensed from the same IP owner. This tactic is obviously fraught with additional costs and risks and isn’t common, but I am aware of at least a few cases where it worked, and the game profited well in the long run.

And, to be frank, sometimes the game company has people who love an IP so much they push to get it made as fans, whether it’s a good idea or not. That rarely goes well, but game creators and game company owners aren’t immune to fan enthusiasm. And working on a licensed game for a license you know well and enjoy is much easier and less stressful than working on one you don’t know or don’t care about, so employee enthusiasm is a legitimate element to consider, even if it can’t make a bad idea into a good one.

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Appendix O: Random Ideas 1.0

From my mind… to your mind, I guess. Maybe they’ll spark interesting ideas for you.

Benecurse: Since curses are longer lasting and harder to end than other kinds of magic, a cleric-wizard of the goddess of magic created beneficial curses that only help people.

Bite Stick: A popular weapon with the Black Brigands, a bite stick is an active undead head on a short pole. Not only is this frightening, undead heads on bite sticks can, well, bite. Skull and zombie heads are fairly typical elements for bite sticks, but more powerful villains sometimes manage ghoulhead bite sticks, or even lovelorn, sinspawn, or mummified viper heads.

Cloakbearer: Aids the the Lupus Dei, the holy werewolf warriors of God, cloakbearers follow their assigned werewolves and train, aid, and protect them. Their name comes from cloakbearer’s tradition of carrying extra clothing, to place on the exhausted werewolves when they return to a naked, human state after fighting evil in wolfform.

Ice Iron: A form of steel made with no magical influence, and while warded against forming connections to natural mystic energies. Like cold iron, but actually does additional damage to fey and spellcasters, and able to dissolve spells and magic effects when wielded skillfully.

Law Against Being Undead: Tired of having to argue about whether vampires are inherently evil, the kingdom just outlaws being undead. The punishment is Death by Adventurer.

Mojex: A mojex is a spell that grants you power as long as you don’t cast it. When cast it is extremely powerful, but then lost to you forever. Only one person can have a specific mojex at any time.

Tar Shield: It’s a shield. Covered in tar. Weapons get stuck to it and become less useful. Maybe.

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What If Losing in a ttRPG Also Made Your Character More Interesting?

This is a super-unformed thought, and that’s all I have time or energy for right now. So you get to see the beginning of the sausage getting made on this, if I even ever come back around to this idea.

While it’s far from univeral, in most ttRPGs, the closest you come to “losing” the game is having your character die. The Total party Kill is a legendary example of this potentially bringing a game to a close.

And, the argument goes, death and loss of character has to be something that can happen so players get the thrill of the risk. OTOH, actually having your character die generally isn’t fun. It isn’t fun for a few reasons. First, you don’t get to play for a while. Second, if you liked that character, either you don’t get to play them at all anymore, or you or your allies are penalized (even if it’s just with a cost to raise dead) in order for your character to come back to life.

But what if it wasn’t that cut and dried?

For example, what if, when your character died, you became an Omen, or Haunt? A floating spirit that could influence the game in minor ways, on your turn, even though you are gone? Maybe you get to hand out a bonus here, or the GM gives you secret knowledge you can use to create 1-word clues for allies as they stare into their ale mourning your passing? There are a number of board and card games that give players who have been kncoked out some other task so they still have a role to play and actions to take — applying the same idea to a ttRPG has even been done, though not nearly as often.

Similarly, what if there were changes that occurred to a character after dying that left them playable, but altered? Maybe some options *are* taken away, or penalties put in place, but there are also new options that only come from being killed or starving to death or whatever? Or if rather than death, the loss-state of the game was to suffer a scar or trauma that came with penalties, but also with opportunities to be more interesting, though not more effective — we don’t want people throwing their characters into rivers of lava for the cool power-up.

It would be a delicate line, more about taking the sting out and keeping the player engaged than rewarding them for failure.

Food for thought.

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PF2 Alchemical Items: Emetics

Yep, I’m writing about the power of puke. For the 2nd edition Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

EMETIC Item 1+
Alchemical Consumable Elixir Healing
Usage held in 1 hand; Bulk L
Activate Single Action [Interact]
An emetic makes you nauseous. Drinking a dose when not sickened gives you the sickened condition with a value equal to the emetic’s potency. When you are sickened, a successful DC 15 Fortitude save allows you to imbibe the emetic despite the sickened condition. Rather than increase your sickened value, this gives you a bonus to Fortitude saves to recover from being sickened when you choose to retch. This bonus to equal to the emetic’s potency.

Emetic (Lesser) Item 1
Price 2 gp
Bulk L
This emetic has a potency of 4.

Emetic (Moderate) Item 6
Price 20 gp
Bulk L
This emetic has a potency of 5.

Emetic (Greater) Item 10
Price 110 gp
Bulk L
This emetic has a potency of 6.

Emetic (Major) Item 14
Price 455 gp
Bulk L
This emetic has a potency of 6. Additionally when you successfully retch to reduce the value of your sickened condition, you reduce it by 1 more than normal.

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New Talents for the PF1 Wolfshead Pathfinder Class

I had ideas for a few new wolfshead class talents, presented below.

(Art by Konstantin Gerasimov)

New Wolfshead Talents
These talents follow the normal rules for wolfshead talents.

Ambuscade (Ex): When you attack a creature that could not perceive you just prior to the attack (such as from using the stalk class feature), you attack deals +1d6 damage and, if it is a critical threat, you gain a +4 bonus to the confirmation roll for the threat.

Set Up And Strike (Ex): When in bedlam, if you are wielding two melee weapons but only attack with one of them, the first time in the round you deal damage with the weapon you may roll the damage twice and take the better of the two results.

New Advanced Wolfshead Talents
These talents follow the normal rules for advanced wolfshead talents.

Improved Set Up And Strike (Ex): When in bedlam, if you are wielding two melee weapons, the first time each round you deal damage with the weapon on an attack of opportunity, you may roll the damage twice and take the better of the two results.

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PF1 Wolfshead Hybrid Class Archetype: Scrapper

Here is the promised third article in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game 1st Edition Wolfshead class collection, presenting a full archetype for the class — the scrapper.

(Art by Konstantin Gerasimov)

Scrapper

Some wolfsheads focus on fighting close and dirty, using easily concealed weapons or even their bare hands to tear their opponents limb from limb. These close-fighters also learn a great deal about various combat maneuvers, using them to cripple or crush their foes. A scrapper has the following class features.

Close Finesse (Ex): A scrapper focuses on small, fast weapons she can easily conceal and use in tight quarters. When choosing weapons for her finesse fighting ability, she can only select from the blade boot, brass knuckle, cestus, dagger, dueling dagger, gauntlet, hanbo, iron brush, jutte, kerambit, kukri, kunai, lungchuan tamo, punching daggers, sap, sea knife, shang gou, sickle, spiked gauntlet, starknife, switchblade knife, swordbreaker dagger, tonfa, war razor, or unarmed strike. This ability is identical in all other ways to finesse fighting, and supplements that ability.

Close Attack (Ex): A scrapper focuses her ability to deal sneak attack damage with her finesse fighting weapons at the expense of sneak attacks with other weapons. When she makes a sneak attack with a weapon she has selected for the finesse fighting ability, she uses d8s to roll sneak attack damage instead of d6s. For sneak attacks with all other weapons, she uses d4s instead of d6s. This ability is identical in all other ways to sneak attack, and supplements that ability.

Hidden Blade (Ex): At 3rd level a scrapper adds 1/2 her level on Sleight of Hand checks made to conceal light weapons. She may also draw a light weapon (even a concealed one) as a free action on her turn. This ability replaces stalk, which is delayed to 14th level, At 14th level, the wolfshead does not receive hide in plain sight.

Parry Sense (Ex): At 4th level, a scrapper is so skilled in close combat that she gains a +1 dodge bonus to AC against melee attacks when she is wielding a weapon she has selected for finesse fighting, and is wearing no armor or light armor (shields are allowed). This bonus increases by +1 for every three levels, to a maximum of +6 at 19th level. This ability replaces the wolfshead talent gained at 4th level.

Savage Grapple (Ex): At 5th level, the scrapper takes only half the normal penalties to Dexterity, attack rolls, and combat maneuver checks when she has the grappled condition. She can make an attack of opportunity against creatures trying to grapple her even if they possess the Improved Grapple feat or the grab special attack. If she hits with this attack of opportunity, she gains a +2 circumstance bonus to her CMD against the grapple attempt. She cannot make these attacks of opportunity once a grapple has succeeded. This ability replaces uncanny dodge, and the scrapper cannot select improved uncanny dodge as a talent.

Pit Fighter (Ex): At 3rd level, the scrapper has learned combat tricks from fighting in tight spaces with few rules, such as back alleys and pit brawls. She selects one combat maneuver and gains a +1 insight bonus on her CMB or to her CMD in that maneuver. This bonus increases to +2 if the wolfshead is wearing no armor or light armor (shields are allowed). At every three levels after 3rd, the barbarian may select another combat maneuver and add this bonus on her CMB or to her CMD. This bonus can be applied to each maneuver no more than twice, once on CMB and once to CMD. This ability replaces trap sense.

Improved Savage Grapple (Ex): At 8th level, the scrapper takes no penalties to Dexterity, attack rolls, and combat maneuver checks when she has the grappled condition. She also is treated as one size larger than her actual size when determining whether she can be grappled using the grab ability or swallowed by another creature. This ability replaces the wolfshead talent gained at 8th level.

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PF1: Wolfshead Class (Index and Favored Class Bonuses)

Right now there are just few articles in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game 1st Edition Wolfshead class collection, but having an index is always useful to point back to.

Full Class Write-up
Found here.

Additional Talents
Found here.

Archetypes:
Scrapper — focuses on light, fast weapons and close-fighting.

Favored Class Bonuses
See below.

Thanks to the FaceFunding campaign I ran on Facebook, the wolfshead now gets a bunch of ancestry-specific favored class bonuses, as follows. Rather than just do 8 for the core ancestries, I have expanded it to 25 ancestries worth of options.

Core Races

Dwarf: Reduce armor check penalty of any light armor worn by 1 (to a maximum reduction of negating the penalty)
Elf/Half-Elf: Gain +1/3 on all Acrobatics, Climb, and Stealth checks in bedlam.
Gnome: Add a +1/2 bonus to trap sense.
Orc/Half-Orc: +1/2 a bonus finesse fighting weapon choice.
Halfling:  Add a +1/2 bonus on critical hit confirmation rolls with any weapon selected with finesse fighting. This bonus does not stack with Critical Focus.
Human/Half-Elf/Half-Orc: Gains +1/6 of a new wolfshead talent.

(Art by Konstantin Gerasimov)

Other Ancestries

Aasimar: Add +1/4 to the morale bonus on saving throws provided by bedlam.
Catfolk: Add +1/3 to the result of any sneak attack damage dealt after all sneak attack damage dice have been totaled.
Changeling: Add +1/6 of a witch’s hex with no prerequisites. The hex can be used only when in bedlam, and doing so expends 4 rounds of the wolfhead’s rounds of bedlam per day. The wolfshead uses her bedlam level as her witch level for all purposes related to this hex.
Dhampir: Add +1 to the number of temporary hit points gained from bedlam.
Fetchling: Add a +1/2 bonus on Stealth and Sleight of Hand checks made while in bedlam.
Gilman: Add +1 foot to Swim speed. This increase only has any effect in multiples of +5 ft.
Goblin: Add +1 to the result of any damage dealt in the surprise round.
Hobgoblin: Add a +1 bonus on CMD against disarm and sunder maneuvers.
Ifrit: Add +1/4 fire damage to the result of any sneak attack damage dealt after all sneak attack damage dice have been totaled.
Kitsune:  Add +1/3 to the DC of any talent gained from the wolfshead class that requires a saving throw.
Kobold: Add +1/2 bonus to CMD when in bedlam.
Nagaji: Add +1 to the nagaji’s effective wolfshead level when determining their level compared to a target with uncanny dodge.
Naiad: +1/3 bonus to the bonuses granted by the naiad’s token using the inspiration ability.
Ratfolk: Add +1 foot to land speed. This increase only has any effect in multiples of +5 ft.
Samsaran: +1/4 to the bonuses gained from the lifebound samsaran ability.
Skinwalker: Gain +1/2 to the skinwalker’s effective Wisdom score for purposes of their skinwalker speak with animals spell-like ability, and +1/2 to the number of times per day they can use that ability.
Strix: Add +1 bonus to the strix’s effective Strength when calculating carrying capacity for flight and the stalk wolfshead ability. this does not increase the strix’s actual carrying capacity, but allows more weight to be considered a light loud for purposes of whether or not they can fly or use stalk.
Tiefling: Select one creature type. (You do not need to specify a subtype, it applies to all creatures of the chosen type). Add +1/2 to the result of any sneak attack damage dealt to creatures of that type after all sneak attack damage dice have been totaled. Each time this damage bonus reaches a multiple of +4, you may select one additional creature type it applies to.
Vanara: Add +1 to the number of rounds per day the vanara may use bedlam.

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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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