Category Archives: Adventure Sketch

Making Combat Interesting: The Really Wild West Clockwork Platform Fight

I recently ran a fight in my Really Wild West campaign, using Starfinder rules, that took place atop a series of spinning, moving, shifting gears. Overall, it was big hit.

(Plus a hodge-podge of objective markers, miniatures, models, and standees)
(and one 3D printed mechanical dog, used to represent the old west mechanic’s steampunk canine drone)

Now, this was made much easier by the fact that one friend of mine made these big green gridded disks from flower/cake foam (to use as hills and such), and other got this spinning, sliding lazy susan tabletop. So all I had to do was tell folks the disks were big bronze gears, spin and turn them (they both rotated on their own axis, and spun around each other at different speeds), and players could rotate the whole map if they needed to see what was on the far side of the gear-pile.

I warned people that the mechanism was so complex as to be essentially unpredictable, so while I tried to follow some basic rules on how things spun and moved, if I messed up players knew that randomness was intended. While the gears were officially in constant movement I just relocated them at the end of each round, so players always had a chance to react to one position before they formed a new one (and, after all, realistically the characters are in “constant motion” as well).

On top of the big moving gear platforms, there were two sets of “control cogs,” parts of a Babbage system that controlled the movement of the gears (orange markers), and the actions of the constructs defending them (green markers). The mechanic in the group managed to get access to those things, though it wasn’t easily, and one-by-one shut down the constructs while their allies used mobility (including good Acrobatics or Athletics checks and actual mobility to avoid attacks from spinning gears as the dodged about), flight, and climbing to move around.

So, this encounter had fairly normal combatants, but a lot of other things going on as well. In fact I kept the combatants pretty straightforward (well… one had a steam-pressure triphammer than could boost for multiple rounds to gain more and more bonus dice to its next attack) just so I wasn’t throwing too much at the players.

I’ve done similar things with moving elements before–fighting on rafts in rivers choked with floating logs, conflicts on trains both mobile and stationary, running battled through tunnels with teleportation gates, stampedes as hazards with big rocks to hide behind and every other space counting as an attack of opportunity as you try to avoid being trampled–but I think this is the most complex and multi-moving-part encounter I’ve done. And my players are all veterans of gaming and general and, at 9th level, this campaign and these characters in particular.

And it’s fairly easy to spice things up with doing so far as to have two Jedi battle it out on rocks bobbing along streams of lava with guard skiffs flying by. A battle behind a waterfall makes everything wet, and drowns out all noise. Defending a wall gives all the PCs cover–or all the PC’s foes cover, depending on which side of the wall they are on. A cliffside fight is all about climbing up, down, and sideways rather than running N, S, E, and W. Fights on frozen ponds, or in hurricanes, or in grass fields that stand 12 feet tall — not only do these things give the players a new experience, it can make various class and ability options they take worthwhile. Who wants to move freely through natural terrain if there isn’t the occasional thorny bramble covering 13 of the map, with grig archers shooting out of it?

You don’t need to shake things up in every battle, but just a few props now and then, or a different kind of terrain or local hazard, can help a specific encounter be memorable.

PATREON
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Slenderman, for ShadowFinder (Starfinder-Compatible)

So, if I DO a ShadowFinder rpg, or campaign book, or Starfinder hack, or whatever, obviously it’s going to involve adventures that include fighting things (because if it didn’t, I’d pick a different game system). While part of the point of doing something compatible with an existing game system is to make all the existing options available for use as a GM pleases, we’d obviously need some other, new things.

So, what will PCs oppose in a ShadowFinder campaign?

Creepy things. Like a SlenderMan.

(Slenderman art (c) Jacob Blackmon, and used with permission. Check out his Patreon here!)

Apóleipa, Innocence-Eater (Slenderman) (Combatant)
CR 7
XP 3,200
CE Medium fey (Extraplanar)
Init +6; Senses blindsight (emotion) 30 ft., low-light vision; Perception +14
Defense HP 98
EAC 19; KAC 20
Defensive Abilities Only the Fearless (DR/Resist all energy 10 vs attacks from frightened foes), Tilted Away
Fort +6; Ref +8; Will +10;
Offense
Speed 40 ft.
Melee touch +13 (2d4+7 B), critical: staggered 1d4 rounds, 15-foot reach
Ranged warped world +15 (2d4+7 A)
Statistics
STR +4; DEX +2; CON +0; INT +2; WIS +1; CHA +5
Skills Bluff +19, Culture +14, Diplomacy +19, Intimidate +19, Sense Motive +19, Stealth +19
Languages alltongue
Other Abilities alltongue, feats (Improved Demoralize), isolation (DC 19), warped world
Ecology
Environment any
Organization solitary, pair, or infestation (3–6)
Special Abilities
Alltongue (Su): The Slenderman can speak and understand all spoken or signed languages, and is always able to be heard, even in areas of deafening sound and by creatures without a sense of hearing.
Isolation (Su): The Slenderman is a creature of isolation, and this extends to efforts to communicate with people far away by magical or technological means, or even just shouting. Anytime a creature within 300 feet of the Slenderman attempts to send or receive communication with anyone or anything not in their line-of-sight, they must succeed at a DC 19 Will save. On a failed save their radio turns to static, magic spell returns just whispered howls of pain, or their scream seems to die as soon as it leaves their throat. Once a creature fails this save, the condition prevents any communication beyond line-of-sight until it gets more than 300 feet from the Slenderman.
Any effort to record or preserve any image or sound of the Slenderman also requires a successful DC 19 Will save, with failure resulting in just a vague blur or feint whisper, or a picture of what appears to be a tall, thin, but mortal man in a suit, with a blurred face.
Only the Fearless (Su): Those who know fear find themselves nearly unable to damage the Slenderman. When a creature is suffering a fear effect (including the Slenderman’s own Intimidate check with Improved Demoralize), the Slenderman reduces damage from any attack they make by 10 points, regardless of damage type.
Tilted Away (Su): The space the Slenderman is in seems to ripple and roll away to make it difficult to make ranged attacks against it. Any ranged attack made against the Slenderman at a range greater than 2 feet grants the Slenderman concealment.
Warped World (Su): The Slenderman can reach out a long, crooked finger and cause someone to have a sense the world is spinning and twisting, wrenching their organs and insides as if they were being wrung out like a rag. This is a ranged acid attack against EAC, has a range increment of 50 feet, and has Knockdown as a critical hit effect.

Apóleipa are a form of fey native to the Plane of Shadow that represent the unformed fears of spaient creatures. As cultures form specific fears or hatreds, various apóleipa form to both try to stoke these negative feelings of natives to the mortal world, and to feed on them. Among the most recent form of apóleipa are innocence-eaters, also known as Slendermen, who feed of a sense of loss of innocence and self-loathing at having done horrid things. They operate mostly in places already suffering from great tragedy or resentment, often on the fringes of society, and seek to convince the most vulnerable members of these places to take actions that will deepen the fear and despair of the population.

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Battle of the Bands: Reskinning Chases as Musical Contests for Starfinder

One of the great things about the Starfinder Core Rulebook is that is has built-in vehicle chase rules. That framework is great for opposed efforts that just wouldn’t work well using normal battle-grid and movement rules. But once we HAVE that framework, we can adapt it to other conflicts that don’t depend on attack rolls and Stamina points as much as they do relative success.

Like a Battle of the Bands, Starfinder-style!

“Can no one defeat the Digital DeckGod? Wait… a new challenger appears. Please welcome to the stage… Cherry Cyborg Candy!”

(Art by Corona Borealis)

Okay, to run a Battle of the Bands, where two or more acts compete to win the hearts of a judge or audience (be that live in person, or while suspended on platforms above molten lava with a mad undead host calling the shots),we need to take the existing Vehicle Chase rules, and make some tweaks.

If you are setting up a battle of the bands where actual attacks are allowed, you may describe the set-up as having each band of a floating, mobile stage hovering over the crowd. then, engaging maneuvers allow members to make melee attacks, as normal.

This could be a one-time event PCs have to take part in to save a kidnapped famous singer, the only way to earn the trust of a powerful witchwarper drummer with a secret the PCs need, or even just a common part of the mystery-solving adventures of a space band.

Relative Positioning: Battles of the Bands uses the same Relative Positioning rules as vehicle chases, but rather than represent a physical distance apart, it represents relative popularity with the viewers or judges. Once you are 2 or more relative positions behind the leader, you are out of the battle. If there are just 2 bands competing this ends the battle, but in a free-for-all bands could be slowly dropping out until only 2 remain. If a single band is ahead of everyone else, they get the normal Being Ahead bonus to skill checks and attack rolls.

Musical Armor Class: Each band has a Musical Armor Class (MAC), equal to 10 plus (average ranks of appropriate Profession skill among band members). Each band member contributes only their highest ranks in appropriate Profession skills to this total. This does mean a bigger band with a few less-skilled members may have a lower MAC, but those extra members get actions each round so it may be worth it. Use this in place of vehicle KAC for actions.

Musical Item Level: Each band has a Musical Item Level (MIL), equal to 10 plus the highest number of ranks of an appropriate Profession possessed by any band members). You use this in place of vehicle item level for all Band Action DCs members of the band attempt. This does mean the better your best band member is, the harder it is for anyone to make Band Actions, but it turns out if you can’t keep up with your headliner, it sounds bad.

Phases of a Battle of the Bands: Use the normal phases of a vehicle chase for the battle of the bands, but with one crucial difference. Rather than Pilot actions, the first phase is Perform actions, representing musical actions or part of the band’s stage show.

There are the same choices of perform actions as pilot actions in a vehicle chase, but perform actions are taken with appropriate Profession skills (normally dancer, musician, orator, poet, video personality, electrician, vidgamer, and manager, though specific bands might have others) in place of Pilot.

Each member of a band can attempt their own perform action (go in order of initiative), but a band can only benefit from one successful action each phase (ie if a band member tries to break free and fails another member can try the same action, but once any band member succeeds, no further benefit can be gained from that action in that phase. All the pilot actions from vehicle combat are allowed, with the GM and players describing them in terms of band actions (“I’ll use the trick pilot maneuver to represent playing a riff that is disharmonic with all the other band’s music, making them sound worse, while reinforcing our disintegrator-rock sound.”)

If a band member attempts the same action another band member has already attempted, or uses the same Profession skill, they take a -2 penalty to their check. This applies to checks attempting in the same phase, or that were attempted in the previous round — it turns out audiences like some variety. Band members can also ready an action to aid another on an ally’s perform action skill check — harmony is a thing.

The chase progress phase and combat phase proceed normally. Even if a battle of the bands doesn’t allow actual combat, this is the phase when characters an use other class abilities, cast spells, try to demoralize foes, and so on, if they have actions left.

That’s It! You are now ready to run varied, nuanced Battle of the Band contests in Starfinder!

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Owen Explains It All – Super-Shrinking for Starfinder

Before we get to any OGL content, an editorial aside:

First, this blog has spoilers for an animated series, so if you want to avoid those, don’t read this.

Second, you may be wondering why is this tagged as an “Owen Explains It All” post, when that’s very unlike my normal marketing tone? Well, because this links into a show from the BAMF podcast I’m on, titled “Owen Explains It All!“. We do an episode every two weeks, picking new things from the zeitgeek to use as inspiration for game material, specifically the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

We have a logo and everything!

If you haven’t already gone and watched the August 29th, 2021 episode, we talk about the third episode of Marvel’s What If… series, titled “What If… the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” Obviously there are spoilers for that episode both in the OEIA episode, and this tie-in blog, so go no further if you want to avoid those.

Seriously, much more than either of the first two What If… stories, “What If… the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” has twists and reveals you may not want to know until you’ve seen it. It’s a murder mystery, and we’re going to spoil who done it, and how. Ready?

I mentioned in the blog “Owen Explains It All! – Forlorn Hope and Gadgeteer Armor,” superhero movies and TV are particularly good places to pick up ideas for Starfinder, because they are generally modern-or-later settings that include aliens, technology, magic, and small-unit action –and sometimes even starships– much as Starfinder does. In this What If…, Hope Van Dyne (the Wasp in main MCU continuity) dies before the episode begins and Hank Pym, clearly grief-stricken but also possibly driven mad by using Pym particles without a properly protective helmet (as noted as a potential drawback to the Yellowjacket armor hank’s wearing in this in the first Ant-Man movie) kills everyone tagged in the Avengers Initiative as revenge on Shield.

He does this by being small. So small, people can’t see him, and he remains free to employ both his massive genius and full-size strength at miniscule size. And that got me to thinking about how to make miniscule-but-mighty threats in Starfinder!

Now with that explanation out of the way, let’s get to the OGL game content!

Tiered Super-Shrinking

This is now added to the long list of tiered powers we have available for sci-fi Starfinder games, but also FreedomFinder and/or GammaFinder campaigns using the same rules. That link will show you how you can gain tiered powers through feats, themes, archetypes, and so on.

Super-shrinking is about more than just getting small. It is a specific form of shrinking that leaves you the full power of your personal abilities, muscles, and gear while becoming harder and harder to spot. Even movement is unaffected — your reduced weight means you can pump your legs faster or even just jump as needed to maintain the same move rate as you do at full size. The only changes that occur to your character’s game stats at each tier of shrinking are those listed with the power.

Growth-Punch: Whenever you are shrunk, you can end your shrinking as part of a melee attack against a target bigger than you. The target is treated as flanked by you for this one attack, and add your tier to the damage done by a successful attack. The stress of a growth-punch on you means you cannot shrink again (from any source) until after the end of your next turn.

Tier 1: You can become Small. If you are already Small, you shrink down to the minimize size for a Small creature. You have a 5-foot space and 5-foot reach (10-feet for any attack with the reach weapon special property), and weigh between 8 and 60 lbs. (as decided by you when you use the power). You gain a +2 size bonus to Acrobatics checks.
Tier 2: You can become Tiny. If you are already Tiny, you shrink down to the minimize size for a Tiny creature. You have a 1-1/2-foot space and 0 reach (5-foot reach for any attack with the reach weapon special property), and weigh between 1 and 8 lbs. (as decided by you when you use the power). You gain a +3 size bonus to Acrobatics checks, and a +1 size bonus to Stealth checks.
Tier 3: You can become Diminutive. If you are already Diminutive, you shrink down to the minimize size for a Diminutive creature. You have a 1-foot space and 0 reach (5-foot reach for any attack with the reach weapon special property), and weigh between 2 oz. and 1 lb. (as decided by you when you use the power). You gain a +4 size bonus to Acrobatics checks, and a +2 size bonus to Stealth checks.
Tier 4: You can become Fine. If you are already Fine, you shrink down to an even smaller size within Fine. You have a 1/2-foot space and 0 reach, and weigh between 0.2 oz. and 2 oz. (as decided by you when you use the power). You gain a +5 size bonus to Acrobatics checks, and a +3 size bonus to Stealth checks.
Tier 5: You can become Fine, but even smaller than even typical Fine creatures. You have a 0-foot space and reach, and can share a space with a creature of any size without either of you taking any penalties. You are between 0.1 and 1 inch in height, and weigh less than 0.1 oz. You gain a +5 size bonus to Acrobatics checks, and a +4 size bonus to Stealth checks. Unless an area is described as totally barren and clean, there is always something in your space you can use to take cover as a move action, retaining cover until you move again.
Tier 6: You can become Fine, but much smaller than even smaller Fine creatures. You have a 0-foot space and reach, and can share a space with a creature of any size without either of you taking any penalties. You are between 0.01 and 0.1 inch in height, and have no effective weight. You gain a +5 size bonus to Acrobatics checks, and a +5 size bonus to Stealth checks. You always have cover against any creature of Diminutive or larger size (allowing you to always attempt Stealth checks against such creatures). Unless an area is described as totally barren and clean, there is always something in your space you can use to take cover against Fine creatures as a move action, retaining cover until you move again.
Tier 7: As tier 6, but you are also treated as invisible by any creature of Diminutive or larger size that is unaware of your presence (see the Four States of Awareness). This applies to all senses except those based on thought and emption, and abilities that normally reveal or sense invisibility do not apply you.
Tier 8: As tier 7, but you are also treated as invisible by any creature of Diminutive or larger size that is aware of your presence, but unaware of your location. (see the Four States of Awareness). This applies to all senses except those based on thought and emption, and abilities that normally reveal or sense invisibility do not apply you.
Tier 9: You can shrink done to microscopic scale. As tier 8, but you are also treated as invisible by any creature of Tiny or larger size that is not using at least tier 8 super-shrinking. (see the Four States of Awareness). This applies to all senses except those based on thought and emption, and abilities that normally reveal or sense invisibility do not apply you.
Tier 10: You can shrink down to atomic scale. As tier 9, but you are also treated as being incorporeal by any creature of Tiny or larger size that is not using at least tier 8 super-shrinking, though you can attack and affect such creatures normally. Unlike most incorporeal things, you can move completely through solid objects (though not those that can stop incorporeal creatures, or that block teleportation).

Wrap Up

So, have different ideas for a Forlorn Hope campaign? Got other supers you think could be turned into archetypes? Interested in having me Explain It All for some other media-inspired content? Leave a comment and let me know! The best way to do that is to Join my Patreon, and leave me a note through that!

Owen Explains It All! – Forlorn Hope and Gadgeteer Armor

Before we get to any OGL content, an editorial aside:

So, why is this tagged as an “Owen Explains It All” post, when that’s very unlike my normal marketing tone? Well, because this links into a new show from the BAMF podcast, titled “Owen Explains It All!“.

We have a logo and everything!

No description available.
(BAMF!)

If you haven’t already gone and watched the August 16, 2021 episode, we talk about The Suicide Squad and how to implement elements of it in a Starfinder Roleplaying Game campaign. We’ll do an episode every two weeks, picking new things from the zeitgeek to use as inspiration for game material.

Superhero movies and TV are particularly good places to pick up ideas for Starfinder, because they are generally modern-or-later settings that include aliens, technology, magic, and small-unit action –and sometimes even starships– much as Starfinder does. While there are lots of other science-fantasy game settings out there (40k, Shadowrun, RIFTs, and so on), it’s a much less common combination in major media such as TVs and movies. And while superhero stories tend to focus on, well, superheroes (or, in this case, villains), a lot of the concepts and set-pieces still work well translated to a less-cape-and-mask science-fantasy setting.

For this movie in particular, I was fascinated by the idea of convict agents as protagonists on a suicide mission, and with Bloodsport’s gadget-armor, both of which seem ripe for Starfinder emulation. So that’s what we’re looking at in this article. If you want game material inspired from other elements of The Suicide Squad, or want to suggest other things for us to feature on Owen Explains It All, let me know!

Now with that explanation out of the way, let’s get to the OGL game content!

Forlorn Hope as Campaign Setting

I won’t dwell on this too much because I actually covered it pretty well in the podcast, but I still think there is a lot of value in using conscription as the framework for a Starfinder game. Note here that i am talking about doing so with the explicit buy-in of the players, not springing it on them as the GM with no warning. But some game groups really enjoy a narrative device that helps keep them on-track, especially for lengthy campaigns adapted from published adventures. Not everyone will enjoy having a controller with their finger on a cortex bomb that can kill the PC, but having an overwatch who tells you when you are wasting time moving away from the adventure can be a big help for larger groups, or those who play rarely enough they sometimes forget what is going on.

Of course just because you are playing convicts doesn’t mean you are doomed to die on a suicide mission. The term “forlorn hope” specially refers to a group accepting a mission from which they are unlikely to return, often a last stand or desperate attack. You can use this term just to refer to characters for whom death is a likely outcome (the idea of the Forlorn Hope Division is kinda too cool to let a little thing like real-world definitions get in the way), or even put a hard timing on how long the PCs will survive. Certainly there’s nothing more definitely going to bring a game to a close and keep players pushing without having their characters fully rested all the time than a 100-day countdown to cortex bombs detonating.

You can also make it almost comical, and assure players if they die, they get to bring in a new convict character at the same level in the next game session. As long as you are okay with players flinging their PCs into air ducks to jam them and wresting dragons to buy friends time to escape, this can ramp up the risk players are willing to take.

Different groups will react to these concepts different ways, so this is very much an idea a GM should pitch to their players and see how it is received before implementing, but for people who find it dramatic, motivational, and potentially funny it can be a great campaign setup.

Gadgeteer Armorer

The concept of a character grabbing various modules and pieces off their armor to snap together into different kinds of tool and weapons is very on brand for Starfinder. The main issues with turning such an idea into a character option is how to make it balanced and something that doesn’t slow down game play, while remaining relevant at a wide range of character levels. Essentially, it needs to act like a class feature, rather than as buy-it-for-credits gear. The easiest way to add class features in Starfinder while maintaining balance is to create an archetype.

There already are some abilities that grant equipment, temporarily, as class abilities. The technomancer’s “fabricate tech” magic hack is a key example, along with fabricate arms at higher level, and the Adaptive Fighting feat offers a way to let a character have a range of options without slowing down gameplay. Drawing from those, and the mechanic’s experimental armor prototype alternate class feature, I wrote up the following:

Gadgeteer Armorer Archetype

While every starfaring adventurer knows that armor is a crucial part of their gear–allowing survival in the airless void of space as well as keeping attacks of fang and laser at bay. But some explorers and mercenaries go farther, turning their armor into a flexible supply of variable gadgets to be used and changed as needed. The gadgeteer armorer archetype represents such people.

When this archetype’s features refer to your class level, use the level of class you have attached this archetype to.

Minor Gadget Block (Ex or Su): At 2nd level, you can adapt a suit of armor you wear to be gadgeteer armor. No one else wearing your gadgeteer armor gains any benefits of this archetype from it. If your gadgeteer armor is ever destroyed or lost, you can convert a new suit of armor into gadgeteer armor after 24 hours of uninterrupted work. You can take a single 8-hour rest during each 24 hours spent working, but any interruption greater than a moment of conversation requires you to add 12 hours to the time required to convert a new suit of armor into your gadgeteer armor. In addition, you can transfer the gadgeteer function of your armor and place it in a new suit of armor with 10 minutes of work.

Your gadgeteer armor has two gadget blocks, pieces of modular technology you can remove from your armor and add to other devices or turn into specific items. One used, a gadget block is inert and cannot be used again until it is renewed when you regain your daily abilities. Select three technological items or weapons (not including analog weapons) and three weapon fusions. The selected items and fusions cannot have a level greater than your class level.

As a move action, you can use two gadget blocks to temporarily construct a piece of technological gear matching one of the three technological items or weapons you have selected. The item appears in your hands or in an adjacent square. The size of the item cannot exceed 10 bulk or Medium size, and the quality of the item is average. The item persists for a number of minutes equal to your class level. At the end of this duration, the item ceases to function, and is obviously not of any value. If you create an item or weapon with limited uses or charges (such as batteries, drugs, or fuel) with this hack, you must separately provide the appropriate ammunition or fuel for it to function.

Alternatively, as a move action you can use two gadget blocks to temporarily grant the effects of one of the three weapon fusions you selected to a weapon that you touch. The weapon gains the chosen fusion for once minute per class level. The weapon can’t gain a fusion it already has or one that can’t be applied to a weapon of its type, but this bonus fusion doesn’t count toward the maximum total level of fusions the weapon can have at once.

Each time you gain a class level, you can change what technological items, weapons, and fusions you have selected.

Split Gadget Block (Ex or Su): At 4th level, you can select an additional 3 technological items or weapons, and an additional 3 fusions. These must have a level no greater than your class level -2. You can use one gadget block to create these lower-level items or apply these lower-level fusions. These otherwise follow the rules for gadget blocks, meaning each day you can either spend 2 gadget blocks for one item/weapon or fusion of up to your level, or twice spend 1 gadget block to create your lower-level item/weapon or fusion.

Gadget Block (Ex or Su): At 6th level, your gadget armor has a total of 4 gadget blocks per day.

Improved Gadget Block (Ex or Su): At 9th level, your gadget armor has a total of 6 gadget blocks per day.

Major Gadget Block (Ex or Su): At 12th level, your gadget armor has a total of 8 gadget blocks per day.

Wrap Up

So, have different ideas for a Forlorn Hope campaign? Got other supers you think could be turned into archetypes? Interested in having me Explain It All for some other media-inspired content? Leave a comment and let me know!

(This is an Extended Post, with additional material discussing operative-trick-attacks-as-flavor, and an Acrobatic Tricks operative exploit, exclusively on my Patreon for my supporting Patrons.)

Ned Kelley vs Dracula. A Timeline

A timeline.

1431. Vlad Tepes III, Prince of Wallachia, is born in Sighişoara, Transylvania.

1441. Vlad is knighted into the Order of the Dragon, the youngest noble to ever receive this honor. The order’s primary goal is to destroy the Ottoman Empire. Vlad receives the right to be named “of the Dragon,” or “Drăculea.”

1442. Vlad and his older brother are imprisoned in Tokat Castle, in northern Turkey, and held as hostages to ensure that his father, who is waging war against the Ottomans, does so honorably. The Tepes brothers are treated well, and educated and taught science, philosophy, the arts, and even allowed to continue their martial training.

1444. Chaffing under his imprisonment, Vlad III seeks additional, darker educations. He managed to communicate with a secret agent of the Scholomance, a school of sorcery that is ruled by the Devil and demands the soul of 1 in 10 students as payment. Vlad excels in these dread powers, as he has excelled at everything he has attempted.

1446. Vlad’s older brother is allowed to join his father. Vlad redoubles his efforts to master sorcery.

1447. Vlad completes a complex ritual to force fate to arrange for his release. Vlad’s father and brother are killed by Vladislav II with the support of the Ottoman Empire, and Vladislav takes control of Wallachia. Considered no threat as a deposed younger son, and having hidden his fouler education from the jailkeepers he has largely charmed, Vlad is allowed to leave as long as he vows never to take up arms against the Ottomans.

1448. Backed by King Ladislaus V of Hungary, Vlad takes up arms against the Ottomans, and Vladislav. He fuels his victories with a combination of personal combat prowess, tactics, strong leadership, and blood magic using the fresh vitae of fallen soldiers and civilian victims on both sides.

1453. Constantinople falls. Vlad III takes control of Wallachia, and continues to wage war against the Ottomans. Insisting on continuing the war does not sit well with the boyars under his command. He has them impaled, and gathers and preserves the blood for more sorcery.

1462. Vlad is deposed as Prince of Wallachia by Mehmet II. Vlad flees into the mountains, and returns to the Scholomance for further training, doubling the chances his soul will be demanded as payment by doing so.

1476. While leading a scouting party to set an ambush to destroy Mehmet II, Vlad and a small guard are themselves ambushed and his men are all slain. Vlad appears to be dead, but has been performing blood magics in preparation for this day for decades. Though his own flesh dies, its living functions are supported by the vitality of the blood he has hoarded.

Vlad flees into the mountains, and begins building a hidden network of agents and apprentices he has trained in scraps of the Scholomance lore he knows, plotting Mehmet II’s death. He sustains himself with magic performed with small, voluntary donations of blood from loyal followers.

1481. Vlad unleashes a curse on Mehmet, slaying him. However, Mehmet had powerful supernatural protections of his own, woven by Gileadian talismancers and astrologers, who were tolerated by the Ottomans. Vlad suffers massive eldritch backlash, and his need for blood intensifies. He also suffers a need to draw strength from the earth, preferably in a stone vault, and a vulnerability to many holy words and objects.

For the next 400 years, Vlad Tepes, the Drăculea, and the Gileadian champions of peace and life known as the Hieremias (or ‘Weeping Prophets,’ as they can invoke a sight to pierce illusion which turns one eye blue briefly and causes it to weep tears of blood) wage a secret occult war against one another in eastern Europe. Drăculea is impregnable in his hidden mountain fortress Nefartatul, but lacks the resources to strike far from there. He trains Sfinții Dracului (‘Saints of the Dragon’) to act as his agents and form secret cells of those loyal to him, but they cannot overcome his enemies without being revealed and then destroyed. The Hieremias seek to find a way to cut Drăculea off from the safety of the earth and stone, but must be close to Nefartatul to do so, and suffer great losses in the efforts. Over time, both groups grow weak and are vastly reduced in numbers.

1536. King Henry VIII deposes the FitzGerald dynasty as Lords Deputies of Ireland. A group of Hieremias rush to Ireland to recover and protect ancient Ottoman relics that were in the FitzGerald’s hands. A small group of these remain in Ireland, using the chaos between Catholic and Protestant forces to remain largely unnoticed. They marry in to local families, and pass on much of their mystic lore. Those families become known as “Cuidightheach,” or “The Helpful Folk,” and “Mac Óda” or “son of Óda’ (Óda being a nickname given to one of the original Hieremias to arrive in Ireland).

1691. The Irish Catholic Jacobites surrendered at Limerick. Among them are several families descended from the “Cuidightheach” and “Mac Óda,” though these names have become the family name “Cody.”  

1800. Mary Cody, a strong scion of the Cody linneage, is born in the Irish townsland of Clonbrogan.

1820. Mary Kelly ne Cody gives birth to John Kelly.

1840. John Kelly is transported to Australia as punishment for the crime of Pig Stealing.

1845. The Irish Great Famine of 1845 – 1847 begins.

1854. Ned Keely is born in Victoria, Austalia, the third of eight children of John Kelly and Ellen Quinn. He grows up to be a bushranger, a criminal who operates out of the wilderness in Victoria, Australia.

1877. Dracula travels to London by ship, consuming all aboard.

1878. Dracula is nearly destroyed by Professor Van Helsing and his allies. The Dread Lord successfully fakes his destruction, but must flee from eyes that will watch for him in England and Transylvania. Needing a place civilized enough to provide sustenance, and considered dangerous enough for his kills to not immediately raise suspicions, Dracula takes passage to Australia.

1879. Dracula uses his experiences in England to successfully introduce himself into British nobility in Victori, and begins to take control of it

1880. Ned Kelly, bushranger, famously dons heavy armor to survive various shootouts with Victoria police and army forces. Kelly’s crucifix, passed down from the Cody line, reveals one of the sheriff deputies he shoots to be a Sfinții Dracului, and realizes Vlad Tepes, the Drăculea, is present in Australia.

He begins gathering forces to support him in a crusade against the undead prince.

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Owen Explains It All! – 0-Level Starfinder Characters

Before we get to any OGL content, an editorial aside:

So, why is this tagged as an “Owen Explains It All” post, when that’s very unlike my normal marketing tone? Well, because this links into a new show from the BAMF podcast, titled “Owen Explains It All!“.

We have a logo and everything!

No description available.
(Why no, that’s NOT Doctor Dungeon… Obviously!)

If you haven’t already gone and watched that whole inaugural episode, we talk about The Tomorrow War and how to implement elements of it in a Starfinder Roleplaying Game campaign. We’ll do an episode every two weeks, picking new things from the zeitgeek to use as inspiration for game material.

As we covered in the episode, there’s a lot of good pacing and scene-setting material in The Tomorrow War that can inspire cool setups for a Starfinder game. But the most interesting idea from my perspective was having some of the characters be largely untrained… “0-Level” versions of themselves, not yet even at the base level expected for the things they had to do.

So that’s what we’re looking at in this article. If you want game material inspired from other elements of The Tomorrow War, or want to suggest other things for us to feature on Owen Explains It All, let me know!

Now with that explanation out of the way, let’s get to the OGL game content!

0-Level Characters for Starfinder

There are two common approaches you can use when starting PCs are below-1st-level of power, which I refer to as the Weak Firsters, and the True 0-Level. The Weak Firsters is much easier for the GM to implement, but less flexible for the players. True 0-Level takes more effort on everyone’s part, but it a good deal more flexible. We’ll look at both these using Starfinder Roelplaying Game rules, though the ideas can be easily adapted to any ttRPG system.

Weak Firsters

Using the Weak Firsters rules, each player still picks a character class for their character before play, and then makes a weaker-than-1st-level version of them. Species are picked and their abilities and bonuses applied as normal, but characters start with only 8 points in their ability scores. Each character can spend a single skill point and select a single class skill (which need not be a class skill for their character class — they deserve some reward for beginning at less-than-1st-level), and pick a single armor or weapon proficiency (which DOES need to be something their class starts with).

And that’s it. No other class features, no other skills or proficiencies. Everyone is suffering proficiency penalties to either armor or weapon choices, and depending on what they begin with (normally the GM will have a standard kit of starting equipment everyone begins with in a game like this, though players could be given half their normally starting wealth to pick their own gear) may suffer penalties to everything at first.

Note that this makes EVERYTHING much harder for the characters than for 1st level characters. If you want to frighten your players with CR 1/2 or 1/3 minor threats, now is the time to do it! Even climbing over a wall or driving a vehicle is challenging at this point, and it should be clear that these characters are essentially untrained civilians trying to survive in a situation they have never been prepared for. But they have a key ability score, and thus Resolve points, so at least they can stabilize when at 0 HP…

However, after each encounter, not only to the characters receive normal experience points, they get to add one element from their starting character. At first, each pick must be a class skill and skill point, an armor or weapon proficiency, one of their two missing ability score points (still limited to a max of 18), or gaining a 0-level spell known and castable (spells again being restricted to their class’s normal options), but once those are filled in, characters can start to gain their class’s actual class features, base attack bonus, base saving throw bonuses, and pick their 1st-level feat. This is trial-by-fire, and surviving a single fight with CR 1/2 wounded Mandible Beasts has the immediate reward of getting better at some thing you just had to do while terrible at it.

Once characters select all their 1st level class features, leveling occurs normally from there. This does mean many PCs will have different class skills than their core class, but if they are restricted to the same number of total class skills and skill points, that’s not a huge power boost, and it is a fair reward for beginning play so weak.

True 0-Level

True 0-Level characters have a similar set up with species abilities and 8 ability score points, but don’t have to select a class in advance. Instead each gets proficiency with light armor and small arms (since all classes start with that in Starfinder), but have only 5 base SP and HP, no key ability score, no base attack or base saves, no class skills, and just 2 skill points spend on skills.

Then they gain advances as in the Weak Firsters rules, but make their choices without a class to guide them. Each time they add something other than a class skill or skill point spent, they limit their choices in the future to only classes that have that. For example, if a player decides to gain proficiency with advanced melee weapons, they are then limited to choices matching the solarion, soldier, and vanguard (the only classes that get +1 base attack at 1st level). Once a character has assigned skill points equal to 4 plus their Int bonus, they can only assign more if there is a class available with additional skill points/level.

This is a move flexible system, where players may make careful choices to keep their options open as long as possible, but eventually get locked into a class based on what they want to advance next. Checking that each choice has at least one class that allows it is a good deal more work, and the GM may need to be forgiving of the occasional out-off-class mistake (or even allow one to each player as a bonus–it’s not the worst thing in the world if a soldier happens to have one 0-level spell known, or an envoy has a +1 base attack bonus at 1st level).

Wrap Up

So, see uses for 0-level characters in a game you want to run? Want to pitch it to your GM? Interested in having me Explain It All for some other media-inspired content? Leave a comment and let me know!

(This is an Extended Post, with additional material discussing the Deadly Character Pyramid option to go with 0-level characters, exclusively on my Patreon, for my supporting Patrons.)

Letting Dead PCs Die

I have had my fair share of dead PCs get returned to life in ttRPGs. Often they are dead so briefly, and with such little consequence, it doesn’t really feel like they died at all. Brought back by spells within 6 seconds of joining the choir invisible (not even enough time to see if they are an alto or soprano among the spirits), given reprieve by a GM retcon, or just having their life restored off-screen as part of treasure division, some characters’ deaths have no more impact on their narrative than tossing out the laser pistol they carried during the nightmare invasion of Ragesh III for a more expensive model that does 1d8 instead of 1d4.

Even among characters who needed more effort put in by friends and allies to return to the mortal coil, being temporarily dead is rarely an interesting enough part of their story than any of us sit around and recount when we are telling imaginary war stories. Being temporarily dead is mostly a hiccup, a plastered-over accident we erase because we’d all rather keep telling our parts of that character’s story.

It doesn’t have to be that way. When my wife’s cleric in IFGS (live-action foam-sword fantasy D&D-style larping) died, an entire game was written and produced for her closest friends to bring her back. Her soul wasn’t responding to normal resurrection magics, and we had to travel through her most vivid memories to find it and convince it to return. This meant playing through the biggest, most memorable encounters of her previous IFGS adventures, many of which some of us had gone through with her, and recreate he greatest victories (and, in the case of getting burned by one glyph she mis-named, we thought we needed to recreate her failure as well). All that lead to finally finding her in a kind of lesser heaven, happily keeping house, and somehow convincing her she was needed to keep fighting the forces of evil away from a world where the fire was always warm and the baked bread always fresh.

THAT return to life some of us still talk about.

But for my own characters, it’s much more often the ones who stay dead who get their stories told by other players. When the rarely heroic Pallinor flew across the chasm moat to take on 5 apprentice warlocks, keeping them from casting spells at any of his allies so they could fight their way across the bridge, his success ensuring their victory but at the cost of his own magic being snuffed out and plummeting to his death. When the Monitor overloaded the reactor in his powered armor to self-destruct and blow up himself and 7 Sentry war-bots, ensuring the young mutant girl Olivia could escape, and become the leader and heroine Emerald a generation later. Those deaths were never undone, and it made the character’s sacrifices mean more to me, and be notable enough that other people who were there sometimes tell their tales.

Because the ending for most of my characters is that the one-shot game was a one-shot, or the adventure path ended when someone moved rather than when we finished it, or the campaign’s GM lost interest, or schedules changed, or personal quarrels made a group not want to get together for that game anymore.

My fictional characters who lived are rarely as memorable as those who died… and stayed dead.

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 4

Fourth part of a series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

You can find Part One here.

You can find Part Two here.

You can find Part Three here.

Event

An Event kickoff begins with some big happening that has long-lasting consequences, and that the PCs are intentionally part of one way or another. If the PCs are all contestants in a bloodsport that determines the fate of the world (or just has prize money they all want), that’s an event set-up. If they are all arriving in the Big City for the World’s Fair, Queen’s Birthday, Anniversary of the End of the Z-Wars, Inauguration of the Jack of Graves, or Battle of the Planar Rock bands, and plan to partake of those happenings, that’s an Event setup.

An Event can often be tied to other setups, as a lead-in to a longer-lasting framework for the campaign. If the annual Demigod Trial Festival is a continent-wide celebration the PCs are all attending, with various chances to get up to mischief, and at the end of the first adventure the PCs are all going to be accepted in the Demigod Academy, then it’s an Event leading into an Organization.

An Event can be particularly useful for new players if you can have their participation in the events help showcase individual elements of the rules. If the PCs are all young adventurer-hopefuls attending the Adventure Academy Admittance Trials, those trials can highlight the game’s various systems (a mock combat, a lockpicking speed trial, tightrope walk, insult-duels, riddle contests, and so on) allowing the players to see how their PCs do in those situations and how the rules world while the stakes are fairly low.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time

The difference between an Event and Wrong Place/Wrong Time is largely intentionality of both attendance and what spawns the adventure. It can be on a large or small scale. If a dragon (or kaiju, alien starship, floating castle, demigod, zombie hordes, tank battalion–whatever is genre appropriate) attacks a city that is home to all the PCs, or is hosting a major festival the PCs are all attending, turning it into a ruin from which they must escape, that’s a Wrong Place/Wrong Time setup. If the PCs are on a train headed west when it’s hijacked by teleporting snakemen, that’s also a Wrong Place/Wrong Time setup.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time is a great way to get quickly and directly into some action. All you need is to have all the PCs in one place, and then the adventure can come to them. This works best if the action that occurs naturally leads to more adventure, so the PCs don’t just go their separate ways when the first adventure ends. For example, if the PCs are all on a fantasy-themed roller coaster, and it warps them to an actual fantasy realm, not only do they have to deal with whatever is waiting for them when they arrive, they now have to figure out how to survive in this new realm, and make a living, or make it home.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time can be a good addition to a longer campaign setup. Even if you are doing Family, Organization, Patron, or Tavern as on ongoing setup, you can start with a Wrong Place/Wrong Time to get the PCs into the action, together, quickly.

Right Place/Right Time

The difference between Wrong Place/Wrong Time and Right Place/Right Time is that while the former is about misfortune arriving wherever the PCs are, the latter is about something good (in the broad scheme of things) occurring and leading to adventure. If the PCs are all hanging out at the Taco King parking lot when a Dark matter meteorite bathes them in cosmic radiation turning them into superheroes, they have been thrust into a world of adventure by being in the Right Place/Right Time.

Right Place/Right Time can later be revealed to be Destiny, if you want. While it may seem the servants of Sir Gerginald got lucky by being present when he was slain by a dragon, bathing them all in martyr’s blood and anointing them with eldritch magics, that may in fact have been the fulfillment of the Blood Guild Prophecy. Or perhaps Mr. Cellophane has been injecting hospital patients with experimental super-serum, and the PCs as survivors of a train wreck were just the first recipients to survive his efforts (which, obviously, they find out when they see right through him).

Right Place/Right Time doesn’t automatically assume the PCs are going to agree to participate in the adventure those events open up for them, so it may be useful to combine it with anther setup. It’s easy to have Right Place/Wrong Time blends by having the triggering event be random and a mixed blessing. Perhaps the PCs were in the same hospital as the Ghoul Outbreak, forcing them to fight for their lives against bloodthirsty undead, but as a result they also have immunity to the ghoul virus, and develop various necromantic powers. The outbreak forces them to deal with the Wrong Place/Wrong Time survival threat, getting the campaign started, but it also gives them powers which are going to make survivors in the ensuing Ghoul Apocalypse turn to them for help and leadership.

Obviously there are LOTS more kickoff setups you can use, but hopefully this short list will give you some options and help get you creative juices flowing.

Game On!

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 3

Third part of a series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

You can find Part One here.

You can find Part Two here.

Organization

Using an Organization for the setup of your campaign kickoff can make things extremely easy at first, but may come with hidden work for you later-on. The simplest form of Organization setup is that the PCs are all members of the same Organization, and it sends them on missions that create adventures. This can be a military organization, a knighthood, an NGO, Star Fleet, a mercenary company, adventuring guild, thieves guild, wizards guild, the Honorable and Holy Order of Sewer Guardians, SpecterBusters, a newspaper, the FBI, a Lady’s Sewing Circle, insurance claim investigators, doctors without dimensional barriers, CDC field team, the Imperial Diplomatic Corps, starship crew, space trucker union, Lamplighter’s Guild, Library Overdue Asset Network and Interdiction Team (LOAN IT)– whatever fits the genre and tone of the campaign, and that the players are all willing to be members of.

Of course just because you start a game with players as part of an Organization (or even just trying to get in — a first session that is the Admission trials of the troubleshooter’s Union could be a lot of fun) doesn’t mean they have to stay in it. Here in my experience the two most important issues are player expectation and current player satisfaction. If you have proposed that a game is the adventures of the Stellar Alliance Battlecarrier Valorous, and you plan to have the characters all cashiered out over something that isn’t there fault by session 3, you may have a lot of unhappy players who were excited to be part of a big starship crew. OTOH, if the players end up hating how Stellar Alliance regulations hamper their desire to help non-member citizens and want to go it on their own, forcing them to stick with the organization they dislike can also be a big problem.

One good way to subvert expectations in an Organizations campaign is to have sub-organizations, perhaps secret ones, that the players can find out about and choose to join (or not). If the Lamplighter’s Guild has a secret “Bump in the Night” department that handles horrific things their lights sometimes illuminate (an awesome idea I am stealing here from my friend Carl), the players can work with that group, or look to join them, or even work against them if they think the Bit-N are actually traitorous vampire spawn.

Patron

The idea of a Patron setup is that the PCs are working for, or at least aided by, a powerful Patron who can direct them to adventures, and help them gain access to resources and/or people when it might otherwise be beyond the PCs’ reach. A Patron setup can be a nice mid-point between Organization and Wanted Posters — the PCs need not be as wantonly mercenary as an entirely Wanted Post campaign might suggest, nor as beholden to a set of rules as is common in an organization-style campaign.

A Patron might be just a wealthy or well-connected individual, but there can be other interesting options to. A Patron could be someone unable to operate in society easily on their own — a sentient magic item, or a strong AI, or a member of a marginalized group the culture won’t take serious or treat with respect. Or they could have legal or societal limitations based on standing and position — Commissioner Gauthier can’t be seen operating outside the law, but instead makes a deal with a group of vigilantes that as long as they play by his much looser rules, he’ll feed them intel and not pursue them himself.

One common trope is for a Patron to actual be evil, and planning to betray the PCs, and/or destroy them. While this is pretty well expected in some genres (noir detective stories especially, and things inspired by those tropes), I am personally not a fan of that “twist” unless it’s actually a stated part of the game’s assumptions. I find it much more interesting to do things like have the Patron trust the PCs more and more, in time setting them up to be independent or even take over the patrons wealth and power, because betrayal is no fun in real life, and when it comes in my entertainment, I like it to not be a huge surprise or have a big impact. YMMV.

Mysterious Patron

The big difference between a Patron and a Mysterious Patron is that there’s some big element of the Mysterious patron the PCs aren’t aware of. Perhaps they only communicate through a speaker in an office, send coded messages through the bottlecaps of daily milk deliveries, or meet the PCs in the back of an abandoned opera house while wearing a all-concealing cloak that suggests they have a massive hump… or maybe wings and horns. In my experience it’s much harder to get players to trust a Mysterious patron (which can be fun), and they almost always want to Solve the Mystery, which means only use this setup of dealing with those issues seems likely to be fun for you and your players.

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