Category Archives: Business of Games

Social Distance Thoughts. GM-less 5e Gaming: Part One – Skills

Pandemic changes things. For everyone’s sake, we need to adapt. For our own sakes, we need to stay sane.

At least for the next few weeks, a lot of us aren’t going out and doing the things we normally do. That leaves us with only online options to interact with friends.

RPGs are a great way to spend time with friends. And if you are willing to go theater-of-the-mind, it works great just via chat or video conference.

But, no one may be in the mood to act as GM.

So, a group of 2-4 friends sure CAN run through a pre-generated adventure without a GM, or a map. Just treat it as a board game, deal with one encounter at a time, roll targets of attacks randomly, and don’t get too hung up on things like tactics or worrying about player knowledge. One Facilitator reads each encounter as you run into it (and maybe that role rotates), and players agree to deal with things cooperatively.

You can even use these ideas to run yourself through adventures on your own, a kind of Gaming Solitaire.

But… it might be nice to have some guidelines for things like skill checks interacting with encounters, when you don’t have a GM to make rulings. So:

GM-less 5e Skill Rules

This is just the beginning of a potential ruleset for playing through a published 5e module with friends, likely online and without a virtual tabletop, and without a GM. This is a first set of thoughts—the beginning of this idea, rather than the end.

Group Skill Decisions

When you want to try something the text doesn’t give you guidance on, the group needs to decide on a DC for the effort. The player proposing the action suggests an ability and related skill, and describes how the action would work. The group then sees if they can agree that the thing being proposed would be Very Easy to accomplish, Easy, Medium, Hard, Very Hard, or Nearly Impossible. The default DC of anything the group can’t decide on is 20 (Hard).

3d illustration of low poly mystical dungeon with a gate in the rock. Game locations with poisons. Above the stone gates is a dragon sculpture with glowing green eyes. Stylized art with bokeh effect.

Ability Checks Table: Typical Difficulty Classes

Task Difficulty   (DC)

Very Easy (5)

Easy (10)

Medium (15)

Hard (20)

Very Hard (25)

Nearly Impossible (30)

Each ability score lists the skills associated with it, along with typical results for success and failure of skill checks that aren’t specifically outlines in the adventure. Have fun with these checks. Describe the attempts, discuss how the story plays out. It’s a different kind of roleplaying, but no less fun or effective for being more cooperative.

For example, the adventure says there is a locked door. Kyla suggests her barbarian should be able to shoulder the door open with a Strength (Athletics) check. The group agrees that’s possible, but given it’s a sturdy, well-maintained door, it’ll be Hard. Kyla attempts a DC 20 Strength (Athletics) check. If she succeeded, she could bypass the obstacle (forcing the door open). As it happens she fails. The typical failure for Strength Athletics) is to take Damage equal to DC -20 -2d6. That’s a base of 10 (DC 20 -10) hp of damage. Kyla rolls 2d6, and gets a 7, which she also subtracts. She ends up taking 3 (10 -7) points of damage, and the door is not open.


(Athletics) – Success: Overcome one obstacle. Cause one monster to be unable to act for 1d4 rounds. Failure: Take damage equal to task DC -10 -2d6 (minimum 0).


(Acrobatics) – Success: Overcome one obstacle. Cause one monster to be unable to affect you for 1d3 rounds. Failure: Take damage equal to task DC -10 -3d6 (minimum 0).

(Sleight of Hand) – Success: Take one item of fist-size or less from the encounter. Cause one monster to be unable to use an item for 1 round. Failure: Disadvantage on defensive rolls for 1 round.

(Stealth) – Success: Escape an encounter. Examine an encounter without triggering it. Failure: Trigger an encounter, lose turn failing to escape the encounter.


Endure a hazard or circumstance for 1d4 rounds without taking additional damage or penalties.


(Arcana) – Learn the details of one magic creature, effect, trap, curse, or similar item. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the magic examined.

(History) – Learn the details of one ruin or established settlement, or item pertaining to it. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the place or related item examined.

(Investigation) – Learn the details of one location you can examine unhindered. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the location or a related item examined.

(Nature) – Learn the details of one natural creature, effect, hazard, location, terrain, or similar item. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the natural creature or phenomenon examined.

(Religion) – Learn the details of one religion or a related creature, effect, trap, curse, or similar item. This specifically includes angels, demons, devils, and undead. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the religious subject examined.


(Animal Handling) – Success: Overcome one animal-based encounter that has not yet become a combat without it becoming one. Cause one animal to be unable to affect you for 1d3 rounds. Instruct a friendly animal to take a specific action. Failure: Bad interaction causes you to be at disadvantage with your next check with the relevant animal.

(Insight) – Success: Learn the true intentions of one intelligence creature. If the creature intends to attack you, you may take an action to begin the combat before the creature does. Failure: Bad conclusion causes you to be at disadvantage with your next check with the relevant creature.

(Medicine) – Success: Learn the nature of one disease or poison. Stabilize a dying creature. Prevent a disease, bleed, or poison from affecting its victim for 1 round. Failure: target takes 1 hp.

(Perception) – Success: Learn all elements of an encounter. Failure: No penalty.

(Survival) – Success: Live off the land without using up supplies for 1 day. Avoid one natural hazard. Locate a natural encounter and observe it without setting it off. Failure: One random party member takes 1 hp.


(Deception) – Success: Overcome one non-combat encounter with intelligent creatures. Gain advantage on your next check with one creature in a combat encounter. Failure: You are at disadvantage on your next check with the creature you attempted to deceive.

(Intimidation) – Success: Overcome one non-combat encounter with intelligent creatures. Gain advantage on your next check with one creature in a combat encounter. Failure: Creature attacks you.

(Performance) – Success: Gain advantage for the next check a party member makes in a non-combat encounter with intelligent creatures. Failure: Suffer disadvantage for the next check a party member makes in a non-combat encounter with intelligent creatures.

(Persuasion) – Success: Overcome one non-combat encounter with nonhostile intelligent creatures. Failure: No penalty.

A Request

I now depend on my Patreon for more of my income and support than I ever expected to. If you find any value in my blog posts or videos, I could use help with the Patreon. If you can spare a few bucks a month, it’s a huge help. If not, even just sharing and linking to my blogs, videos, and the Patreon itself is a huge help that just takes a moment of your time.

Thanks, everyone.

What The Heck is “ShadowFinders?”

So, I happened to mention a “ShadowFinders” campaign on social media a few times in the past few weeks, leading a number of people to ask “What the heck is ShadowFinders, and when does it come out?”

Cyberpunk katana

And now I’ll have a place to point them to, at least for the moment. And the answers are… “A theoretical modern Pathfinder campaign I have been noodling and, as far as I know, never.”

I know, not very satisfying.

The thing it, I already have TWO campaign settings mulling about that I work on when I get what I laughingly refer to as “Space Time.” I’ve been working on-and-off on the Really Wild West (a campaign hack for Starfinder), and more recently Sorcerers & Speakeasies (a campaign setting for 5e). Those are both mix-modern-and-fantasy settings, with Really Wild West having a great deal more material done for it (having begun working on it more than 2 years ago), and Sorcerers & Speakeasies currently having an actual for-sale product currently being designed by a freelancer.

So, clearly, I already have my hands full with modern fantasy pastiche ideas for two game systems that I don;t have time to move forward at full speed as it is. So why would I add another?

To some extend, I can’t help it.

I didn’t become an RPG game designer because that was my life goal. I slid into it sideways, by loving games (especially RPGs), and making up stuff for my own home games (mostly RPGs), and wanting to turn my hobby into a revenue-neutral pastime that paid for itself. (You can read more detailed accounts of my nearly-accidental entry into my 20+ year RPG design career at “From the Freelancing Frontline,” in a series of articles at EN World.)

And, it’s still one of my primary hobbies. Which means, I am still having ideas about things I’d like to run as games, or add to games, or even play in games. Now, a lot of that content ends up in products I write or develop–I find it easiest to work on a game system if I am playing that system. (I know some rpg designers prefer not to be frequently playing the game they are working on, and given how great many of those designers are I have to say that works for them. I don’t think it would work well for me.)

But a lot of it DOESN’T end up in my professional writing. Now, some of that is for legal reasons (yes I have thoughts on Jedi in Starfinder, but unless I create a totally different Owen-as-fan-only space, I’m never going to share them). Some of it is because it’s material I’d only want to use in a context where I knew the people involved and could tailor it to match their preferences and playstyles. But some of it is just because there hasn’t been a good match yet, and/or because I haven’t had the time.

And that last category is the weird limbo where ShadowFinders exists.

Cyberpunk Gun

I have several solid ideas for ShadowFinders, as a modern supplement for Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Essentially a smaller stand-alone hardback book that is a complete RPG and 100% compatible with the Core Rulebook, but focuses on a modern, urban fantasy game. I have ideas on how I’d save space (many fewer ancestries and classes, likely only occult and primal magic), how to link it to existing cosmology (some primal magic comes from Egypt, which once had strange portals to another Egypt-like land in another world, but most magic is occult material that entered the world in through strange events involving Rasputin), and how it would work with the existing rules (as a modern supplement, with material you could use in a 100% fantasy setting, or could add to a fantasy setting that happened to already have alien spaceships and guns in it in limited locations).

But that approach works best if it’s a book Paizo publishes… and that is both unlikely (I have some idea how hard it is for Paizo to manage to both maintain its currently offers AND produce a new core rulebook with a new setting), and if it did happen would  most likely not involve me in any major capacity. I have thoughts on that too, of course (involving Paizo deciding to outsource creation of a SahdowFinders rpg to keep costs and down and experiment with freelance production and development), but that’s not particularly likely either. (Never say never, but be realistic with your planning.)

So, that leaves me with a name and idea I like but that would work best in production circumstances that aren’t going to happen soon if ever, no spare time, two more similar projects already further along… and tons of ideas for a thing I can’t take time to move forward on right now.

So is ShadowFinders dead? No, definitely not. But it is in a holding pattern, neither being given up on nor getting any resources to speak of at the moment. One of the few things I know is that I never know what I’ll be working on in 3 years, and often have no idea what I’ll be working on in 1 year.

It PROBABLY won’t be any version of ShadowFinders…

Cyberpunk Butterfly

Unless, of course, it gets a huge positive response from a Patreon crowd that grows large enough to support even more of my time going to working on such things. 🙂

Teaser: Mythic Stars

“Man, I have too many projects I want to do.”

I literally did not write that, it’s from an IM with a colleague from today. But I COULD have written it and been 100% accurate and honest.

It’s a common problem for creatives of all types, but for the independent creative it can come with added pressure. I have more ideas than I have time. So I have to guess what the smart projects to undertake are, for my career development, visibility, and, of course, income.

Sometimes, those decisions happen well after a project has begun. You can be thousands of words into something, then higher-priority projects come along, and you put something down “just until you’re caught up.”

And then it stays put down forever.

So, that brings us to today’s post.

This is a teaser of “MYTHIC STARS,” a set of rules I am working on to create Mythic for Starfinder. This is incomplete, and is only a first draft, but it gives some hint of the direction I was taking this. I have a lot of design goals (no numeric bonuses, more compact presentation, hit different themes, and so on), and the project was begin something like two years ago. But it got put down, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to pick it up again.

But, of course, if it turns out the teaser gains a huge response, then maybe I’ll reprioritize. 🙂


With abilities seemingly beyond the those of ordinary mortals, a mythic character or mythic creature becomes part of a story that plays out on a greater scale than ordinary people can understand. An attack, spell, or other effect is considered mythic if it originates from a mythic source, such as a character or creature with a mythic rank.

Mythic Path

(Often referred to just as a “path.”) The theme of a character’s mythic abilities is determined by her mythic path—eldritch exemplar, eternal, mastermind, phrenic exemplar, vindex. Each path has a number of special abilities associated with it that the character can select as she advances in rank.

Mythic Power

Each mythic character can call upon this base mythic ability to influence destiny and fuel other abilities. At its most basic, mythic power is needed to use the surge ability, but it can also be called upon to use a number of other mythic abilities.

Mythic Rank

(Often referred to just as a “rank.”) Mythic ranks are used to describe the approximate mythic power possessed by a PC or creature. All creatures with a mythic rank are considered mythic for the purposes of feats, spells, magic items, and other abilities. Mythic ranks range from 1 to 10.

Attaining a new mythic rank requires completing difficult trials within the campaign’s story rather than accumulating experience points. Characters who achieve 10th rank are at the height of mythic power, and are akin to minor deities.

Mythic Trial

(Often referred to just as a “trial.”) A trial is a difficult task that awaits mythic heroes. It usually represents the culmination of part of the heroes’ story, marking it as an important point in their legend. A mythic character has to complete one or more trials in order to reach a new mythic rank. Trials and mythic path advancement are separate from XP and character level advancement, and are based on grand achievements within the story rather than individual encounters.


Any attack, spell, or effect originating from a character or creature without any mythic abilities is non-mythic. This term can also refer to a character or creature without a mythic rank.


Surge is a basic ability that each mythic character receives. It allows her to reroll any die roll she made (including d20 rolls, damage rolls, and random % rolls made regarding the character or her actions), influencing the outcome after the results are revealed. A mythic character gains one surge per day, plus one for every 2 mythic tiers.


The vindex (plural: vindexin) is the pinnacle of skill in combat. No ordinary soldier could hope to match a vindex’s skill with a laser rifle, grenade, or plasma sword, no typcial vanguard can survive blows a vindex brushes off with ease. The vindex turns aside blows and shatters shields with every movement, all while racing gracefully across the chaotic battlefield. When the screams of fallen foes die down, the vindex stands strong and defiant in blood-spattered armor, hefting a weapon and grimly moving toward the next challenge.

Role: As a vindex, your role is to put down your foes, and withstand their mightiest assaults. Using devastating melee powers, you can crush your enemies before they even have a chance to harm you and your allies. With spectacular ranged attacks you can drop foes from the sky or disrupt their every effort. Few can match your effectiveness in combat or ability to return to the fray again and again.

The vindex abilities allow you to control your foes, move easily around the battlefield, and challenge a large number of foes all at once. The rest of the party can count on you to dominate any pure combat you charge into.

Classes: While members of any class could be vindexen, those who focus on combat— especially solarians, soldiers, and vangaurds, but also more martially-inclined mechanics and operatives—will find the abilities in this path most attractive and useful. However, even biohackers, envoys, and spellcasters could find that the path of the vindex is an excellent way to augment their abilities.

Bonus Hit Points: Whenever you gain a vindex tier, you gain 5 bonus Hit Points.

Table: Vindex 
Tier Path Features
1st Vindex’s strike, path ability
2nd Path ability
3rd Path ability
4th Path ability
5th Path ability
6th Path ability
7th Path ability
8th Path ability
9th Path ability
10th Legendary vindex, path ability

Vindex Features

As you increase in tier, you gain the following abilities.

Vindex’s Strike

Select one of the following abilities. Once chosen, it can’t be changed. You can use this ability no more than once per round.

Distant Barrage (Ex)

At the beginning or end of any other action you take on your turn, you can expend one Myth Point to make a ranged attack at your full attack bonus. This is in addition to any other attacks you make this round. When making this attack, ignore the target’s cover and concealment other than total cover.

Fleet Charge (Ex)

At the beginning or end of any other action you take on your turn, you can expend one Myth Point to move up to your speed. At any point during this movement, you can make a single melee or ranged attack at your highest attack bonus, adding your tier to the attack roll. This is in addition to any other attacks or movement you make this round.

Massive Damage (Ex)

When you damage a foe, you can expend one Myth Point to do maximum damage and bypass all damage reduction, energy resistance, and immunity. If the damaging effect harms more than one target, you must select just one to be affected by the massive damage. All other creatures are damaged normally.

Sudden Attack (Ex)

At the beginning or end of any other action you take on your turn, you can expend one Myth Point to make a melee attack at your highest attack bonus. This is in addition to any other attacks you make this round. When making a sudden attack, ignore the target’s cover and concealment other than total cover. Damage from this attack bypasses all damage reduction and energy resistance, and ignored immunity.

Path Ability

At 1st tier and every tier thereafter, select one new path ability from the vindex path abilities lists or from the universal path abilities lists. Once you select an ability, it can’t be changed. Unless otherwise noted, each ability can be selected only once. Some abilities have requirements, such as a class ability or minimum mythic tier, that you must meet before you select them.

Legendary Vindex (Ex)

At 10th tier, whenever you make an attack roll against a non-mythic foe, you roll the attack twice and take the better of the two results. Once per round when you roll a natural 20 on an attack roll, you regain one Myth Point.

1st-Tier Vindex Path Abilities

You can select these path abilities at any tier.

Aerial Assault (Su)

You can charge at creatures in the air, or leap across obstacles as part of a charge. When making a charge attack, you can expend one Myth Point to take no penalties to your attack roll or AC, and to charge to any foe that qualifies for a charge within your land speed (even if that target is flying or underwater). At the end of this charge you suffer the normal consequences of your new location (though if you fall a distance no greater than your land speed as a result, you take no falling damage and do not fall prone).

Alternatively, you may replace your melee attack from this charge with a grapple attack. If you successfully grapple a creature that was airborne and you are not flying, you bring it to the ground with you at the end of your jump, and it takes an appropriate amount of falling damage for the height it was at when you grappled it.

Always a Chance (Ex)

You don’t automatically miss when you roll a 1 on an attack roll, and automatically reroll such attacks.

Armor Master (Ex)

You don’t take any armor check penalties or have your speed reduced by armor.

Backlash (Ex)

You strike back at those who penetrate your defenses. Whenever an adjacent enemy scores a critical hit or succeeds at a combat maneuver against you, that enemy also provokes an attack of opportunity from you. If you have used all of your reactions for the round, you may expend one Myth Point to make this attack of opportunity anyway.

Blowback (Ex)

When you deal bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage to a foe, without taking an action you can expend one Myth Point to knock the foe directly away from you a distance equal to 10 feet per tier, in addition to the attack’s normal effects. If the foe strikes a solid object before reaching this distance, it takes 1d6 points of bludgeoning damage for every 10 feet it couldn’t travel. If it strikes another creature, both it and the creature it strikes take half this damage.

Burst Through (Ex)

When you charge, you can move through allies and opponents almost as if they were not there to obstruct your path. You can move through squares containing allies freely, but you must succeed at a melee attack roll against the KAC of each opponent that obstructs your path to the target of your charge. If the attack roll succeeds, you may move through the opponent’s square and continue toward the target without provoking an attack of opportunity from that opponent (though you do not add the effect of any actual attack). If you fail any of these attack rolls, your movement ends in the square before that opponent, but you may resolve the charge attack against the foe that stopped you.

Clean Blade (Ex)

Whenever you score a critical hit, without taking another action you can make a ranged attack with a +8 bonus against the KAC of another opponent within 30 feet to fling the blood and gore at it. If the attack hits, the foe is off-target for a number of rounds equal to your tier. If the attack is a critical hit, the foe is also blinded for the same duration. A blinded foe can spend a full action to remove the gore and end the blindness.

Climbing Master (Ex)

You gain a climb speed equal to your base land speed. If you already have a climb speed, when climbing you treat the surface you are on as “down” unless you choose not to, and stay in place unless forcefully moved. for example, even if you are knocked prone, bull rushed, or fall unconscious, you don’t fall off the surface you are climbing unless pushed beyond it’s edge.


Enjoy this brief, incomplete look at the vindex path for Mythic Stars? The best way to send me feedback is at my Patreon!


Writing When Depressed

While I am personally a creative who suffers from mental health issues that include depression, and I know a lot of friends and colleagues who fall into that category, I don’t have scientifically valid statistics to prove that RPG creatives are often people struggling with depression. And that doesn’t really matter, because even if the numbers aren’t higher than for the baseline population, it still means that there are at least a few of us out there. I might just be talking to a tiny group today, but it’s something I am passionate about.

How do you write, draw, create, make things that are supposed to be fun for other people, when you are depressed? And I don’t mean down a bit because your favorite series ended or you can’t get that soda you like in your hometown anymore. I mean clinical depression, which can include loss of executive function, true hopelessness, sleep disruptions, and even thoughts of suicide.

I’ve talked before about how I get through my most serious depressions, but there’s one thing I haven’t touched on, or at least haven’t often enough.

Sometimes? You can’t. And that has to be okay.

Just as it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to run when your leg is broken, it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to create when your brain is broken.

If you are too far down the hole to reach any of your creative tools, please let that be, and instead seek help. That can be professional help, self-care, reaching out to a support network — whatever you can do. I’m not qualified to give professional advice on these things, but there are resources out there to find help if you don’t already have some in place. If you aren’t in a place where you can bring yourself to care about yourself, see if you can consider taking care of yourself as a way to help the people around you–sometimes I can only manage any degree of self-care out of guilt. That’s far from perfect, but sometimes I have to take what I can.

But then there’s the gray zone. Where you can try to work, but it’s terribly difficult and slow and you think everything you do is bad and pointless. Again, you have to be kind to yourself when you are here, but maybe there are ways to get a little more done if you find the hacks your brain responded to.

So, here are the hacks I use. They may not work for you, but if you try different things, and record the results, maybe you can find things to help you when work is possible, but damnably difficult.

For me some of it is habit. More than 21 years of it, at this point. If I’m not actively doing anything else, my brain naturally wonders if there is work I can do. When the thing that needs to be done FIRST is more than I can handle (sadly the project that is most important to finish often triggers the most anxiety which triggers the worst depression symptoms), I hop to something else if my brain is less opposed to it. No, that doesn’t help me get the most crucial thing done on time, but down the line it’s better to have worked on something, rather than nothing.

Some is desperation. This is how I pay the bills. Holding my own feet to the fire hurts, but it can also break through apathy sometimes. I don;t recommend this one unless you have already noticed a tendency of reviewing your situation to help you prioritize and take action. But if that is a tendency of yours, then it may be worth seeing if it can apply to creating.

A ton of it is therapy. I have learned to make my writing work for me in my battle with my brain. Often, that doesn’t actually produce anything that gets a deadline checked off. but sometimes, if produces a blog post when I need one, or at least helps me build my social media presence. And if nothing else, writing is a perishable skill. Writing privately helps me maintain the habit and edge I need to write for others.

My wife, Lj, is a HUGE help. In fact I have a lot of support group, including my public contacts. When I tell folks I am hurting, I get a lot of positive messages. People from lifelong close friends to social media connections I have never met in person also give me a lot of great private venting opportunities.

And sometimes? Sometimes I just have to melt down and give up for a bit. But Lj can hold me when I collapse and wail in great wracking sobs. When I am an inconsolable mess for an hour or two, convinced I have done so much damage to my reputation and career, that I’ll never work again. When it seems like I’ll never hit another deadline, that no one should ever trust me to get anything professional done. And that whole time, Lj tells me it’ll all be okay, and eventually I believe her.

Often, I pass out in exhaustion after that. Sleep, or at least oblivion, claims me for anything from a few minutes to a few hours.

And then, sometimes, I can write again.

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Writing Basics: Revisions

So, you have a finished draft of a game project. You’ve checked that it meets your wordcount requirements (neither too much nor too little off the mark – I try to hit within 5% of the exact wordcount total, and I consider being off by 10%–whether over or under—to be a failure to hit wordcount), the formatting is what your publisher has asked for (so if you used ANY table function of your program, you have replaced it with what the publisher’s style guide calls for), and you’ve hit all the required topics.

Now what? Now, you get ready for revision.

Revisions can have a number of steps for game writing, depending on the project, time, and circumstance, but here are some common types. A project may have all of these, just a few, or none… though try to avoid not even having time for a reread.

The Re-Read

The best way to get a good revision on your own is to put your writing down for a couple of weeks, work on other projects and then, when it’s no longer fresh in your mind, reread it from the beginning. You are likely to catch a few places where the wording got muddled, or you didn’t type exactly what you were thinking. But you may also find some more systemic problems, such as discussing concepts in length before introducing them in brief, or contradicting yourself because ideas evolved as you wrote them (or you wrote two parts of the same section days apart, and misremembered what you said the first time).

This is also a good time to play developer with your own material. Do you see a simpler way to express the same idea? Is a rule system too complex for the value it gives the game? Is an option obviously overpowered, or under-powered, and you can see a way to fix it? Does something you thought was awesome now seem dull? This is a good chance to fix all those issues.

And if you aren’t sure about something? Just flag it for your developer/editor/producer. Leave a comment explaining your thought process and concern, and that you weren’t sure one way or another. Having comments and thoughts from the author can be a huge help when a developer is first tackling a project, and it shows you’re cognizant of potential issues in your work, but trust the people you are working with. While you are at it, put notes in about anything else that might be useful for your developer. A list of resources that need to be mentioned in a OGL section 15. Which bits of continuity are canon (and where you found them), and which are new elements you made up yourself. Anything that’s an Easter Egg (or even clearly inspired by existing IP—homage CAN be fine, but let your publisher know what you are riffing off of, so they can make that decision for themselves).


If at all possible get at least SOME playtest in of any gameable elements. An adventure can be easy to do a quick playtest of—grab some friends (with your publisher’s permission to have people you are sharing the unpublished material with, if under NDA or similar restriction) and run through it once. Single stand-alone elements such as spells or feats can be trickier, but having people other than you use them in character builds can show if they are unexpected synergies, or are valued much more or less highly than similar options. Larger elements, such as entire character classes, can take months to properly playtest, but at minimum it can be useful to run a Rules Rumble playtest – have one set of players make characters without access to the new rules, and a second group make characters required to use the new rules, and pit them against each other.

If you find any glaring issues, fix them. If you find potential issues, leave comments for your developer/editor/producer.

Beta Readers

It can be useful to have people you trust take a look at your work to highlight any potential problems they see. Again, if you are under NDA or similar constraint, get your publisher’s permission for this. Sometimes projects with multiple freelancers working on it provide a way for those freelancers to go over each other’s work as it is created, which can be a great resource (but be sure you give back – if someone gives you useful feedback in that kind of environment, read through their stuff too). You don’t have to take a Beta Reader’s opinion over your own of course, but do consider their point of view. If a Beta Reader says something is unclear, for example, then no matter how obvious it is to you, you know it’s unclear to at least SOME other people.

Publisher Feedback

Publisher feedback is extremely important on any project they have the time and energy to give it to you, which is my experience isn’t that often. Ultimately if you don’t work with your publisher on their feedback, you may not get published. But the degree of how important this is varies from ‘crucial” to only “very important.”

Most freelance work written for the tabletop game industry is done Work for Hire, which means once you are paid you have no further rights to the work. You aren’t even considered the creator, for copyright purposes. When I am working on that kind of project, if the publisher gives me feedback, I consider it part of my job to incorporate that feedback, even if I disagree with it.

I ALSO consider it part of my job to point out why I think bad feedback is bad, but in the end if this is something for which I am providing content using someone else’s sandbox, and I have been hired to fill a certain amount of it with the kind of sand they want, I consider my job to be to give the publisher what they want. I often call this kind of work “content provider” rather than “author,” to remind myself of what my end goal is.

Things are slightly different if a publisher is partnering with you to publish something you retain the copyright to. It’s still crucial to consider the publisher’s feedback—one presumes you picked this publisher to be the venue for your work for a reason, but if it’s ultimately your project any feedback should ultimately be your call. (Though, you know, check your contract. Preferably before signing it.)

In Summation

The point of a First Draft is to get it done. The point of a Revision is to get it right. This can vary from tweaking a few things to realizing you have to tear out the heart of what you have written and start over (which can feel a lot like tearing out your own heart). In tabletop RPG design you often don’t have time for more than one revisions (though a developer may be coming along behind you to make another, out of your sight), so try to get as much feedback as you can, then apply what you have learned, make notes…

And move on to the next project. Never finishing revisions is a form of never finishing, and it’s often said “Game designs are never finished, they just escape their designers.”

Don’t be afraid to change things in revision, but also don’t be afraid to leave them alone if you think they’re good.

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Developing to Spec: Part 13d – Know When to Break the Design Rules

One of the general principles of good game development is not to add things to a game’s rules that was explicitly avoided by the core rulebook. For example, even though Weapon Focus gives a +1 or +2 bonus to attacks with one class of weapons in Starfinder, the book specifically didn’t give a better, stacking version of that to soldiers for an even bigger bonus. So, when we adapted Greater Weapon Focus, we avoided adding what the core rulebook was specifically designed to not have.

This is different, in very important ways, than just not adding anything new.

But it’s also a general principle, not a hard-and-fast law. Sometimes, you know better than the people who created the core rulebook. Sometimes real-world play experience shows people want unbalanced options because they’re fun. And sometimes, you are creating something everyone knows is unofficial, so you are in an environment with different needs and responsibilities.

Starfinder clearly doesn’t want to allow people to transfer Resolve Points, or duck the drawbacks of their class features. But maybe we DO want to allow those things, at least in the context of this product, which is most likely to appeal to players who want things the PF core rulebook allows for, and Starfinder doesn’t.

And that leads to today’s feat conversions.

Like Extra Lay On Hands from yesterday, Extra Mercy functions in PF by giving extra uses of an ability that doesn’t exist in Starfinder. So how can we make this feat’s name, which suggests you are already being merciful, feel like the user is *extra* merciful?

Your healing touch can restore the inner resolve of your patient, at a heavy cost to you.
Prerequisites: Healing touch class feature.
Benefit: When you use the healing touch class feature, you can also expend 1 Resolve Point to grant one target of your healing touch 1 Resolve Point. Under no circumstances can the target exceed its normally maximum number of Resolve Points.

Extra Performance gives us exactly the same problem—there’s nothing you can run out of called a “performance” in Starfinder. So, what CAN we add some benefit to that makes linguistic and thematic sense? Well, envoys have abilities that could be considered performance-related, and they have a kind of ability that takes away one of their normal benefits, the expertise die. There’s nothing in Starfinder that let’s you double-dip (getting both the expertise die and a talent benefit that normally requires you to forgo it), but as a limited, flexible resource you can gain with a feat, that should be balanced (if adding a bit more complexity than Starfinder normally engages in).

You can call upon a deep well of performative and diplomatic skill to pull off complex tasks requiring great expertise.
Prerequisites: Expertise talent class feature.
Benefit: Twice per day you can use an expertise talent that normally requires you to forgo adding the benefit of your expertise die to a skill check, and still add the expertise die as normal for that skill.

Both of these re-conceptualize the function of the original feats into a different, though thematically-related, benefit. They also do things Starfinder’s existing rule options don’t allow for, but in a controlled way that makes sense, and shouldn’t break any aspect of the game.

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Developing to Spec: Part 13c – Feats that are SO EXTRA

This is the third section of Part Thirteen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written, and I have time over the holidays to update the list) here.

In our ongoing alphabetical march we have run into another set of feats-of-a-set-type, though in this case they’re all still just general feats. These are the feats that grant “Extra” uses of various PF class features with limited charges per day. Since almost none of those powers even exist in Starfinder, somehow creating a set of feats with the same names as those designed to just boost uses/day is going to take some creativity. (These are another great examples of feat it would be worth checking if you producer REALLY wanted to create Starfinder versions of, but this project considers that question settled, so on we go).

For example, Extra Ki has all sorts of problems. First, there is are no ki points or ki powers in Starfinder. Second, those things that are similar to ki powers have been replaced by a universal Resolve Point mechanic, which already has Extra Resolve that gives you more Resolve Points, and cannot be taken more than once.

And, in that second fact we perhaps find a crack of design space. It’s likely not something the designers of Starfinder intended (aside—nope, it sure isn’t), but it should work well enough.

You have a focused pool of resolve to draw of when accessing your trained abilities.
Prerequisites: Extra Resolve, character level 5th.
Benefit: You gain a special pool of 2 bonus Resolve Points, These can only be used to fuel class features you possess that require Resolve Point expenditure.

That solution doesn’t work with Extra Lay on Hands, of course, because there’s no similar broad category of abilities we could reference. But there IS the mystic healing touch class feature, which is close descriptively, so:

You can sooth with a touch more often than most mystics.
Prerequisites: Healing touch class feature.
Benefit: You gain three additional uses of healing touch per day. In a single ten minute period, you can heal multiple adjacent creatures (expending one use of the ability for each target), though you cannot use this to apply multiple uses to a single target.

Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! Want more of this content? Want to suggest specific game systems, topics, of kinds of articles? All of that is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

Developing to Spec: Part 13b – Re-conceptualizing

This is the second section of Part Thirteen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written, and I have time over the holidays to update the list) here.

As the developer for this project, it’s getting clearer and clearer that a lot of feats didn’t get translated from PF to Starfinder because they are connected to game mechanics that have been abandoned or radically changed. (I already knew this, as it happens, and I wrote the first draft of the Starfinder Core Rulebook feats chapter, and remember how many things just weren’t relevant. But for purposes of this series of articles, let’s assume we’re discovering this for the first time.) That means we need to lean on re-conceptualizing those feats to use new mechanics, and possibly to have them create entirely new effects which just match the name of the original feats (and, hopefully, will appeal to the same kind of player).

The same issue comes up with Eschew Materials, since Starfinder doesn’t require material components for spellcasting unless they have a cost. We found a way to use Still Spell and Silent Spell despite Starfinder spellcasting not requiring words or gestures by re-conceptualizing what those feats meant. We didn’t tackle Eschew Materials at the same time, because it’s not officially a metamagic feat, but can we do the same thing to come up with a solution here? And, since it’s NOT a metamagic feat, can we step away from spells entirely to give it a broader utility?

You have learned to call forth the magic essence of various substances, passing their benefits homeopathically through your form, rather than needing to apply them in traditional ways.
Benefit: As a standard action, you can apply any serum or medicinal in your possession (that you could normally draw as a move action or less) to yourself or an adjacent creature with a touch. The serum or medicinal is expended normally, you just don’t have to have it in hand to use it.

That brings us to Extra Channel, which isn’t too bad – we have a class that has a healing channel, and two extra uses seems reasonable, though since Starfinder only has one “extra” feat (Extra Resolve), and it can’t be taken more than once, we should probably not allow this to be taken more than once either.

You can channel healing energy more easily than most healer mystics.
Prerequisites: Healing channel class feature.
Benefits: Twice per day you can use the healing channel ability without expending Resolve Points to do so.

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Developing to Spec: Part 13 – Keeping It Simple

This is the first section of Part Thirteen of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written, and I have time over the holidays to update the list) here.

The deeper we get into this project, the greater the temptation is going to become to create complex, weighty new rules to help us have enough design space to make a slew of new feats covering common conceptual tropes. But as much as possible, we need to keep things simple.

For example, while channeling feats are going to keep being something we have to adapt, Elemental Channel can be extra easy and simple, since we can just emulate the existing Starfinder feat Harm Undead.

You can use your healing channel to harm elementals.
Prerequisites: Healing channel connection power, mystic level 1st.
Benefit: When you use your healing channel, you can expend a mystic spell slot of the highest level you can cast to also deal damage equal to the amount you heal to all elemental foes (including all creatures of the elemental type) in the area. The elementals can attempt a Will save for half damage, at your usual connection power DC.

Sometimes the problem is deeper, but that doesn’t mean the solution has to be complex. The reason Endurance doesn’t exist in Starfinder is that all of the benefits the PF version grant have been rolled into Toughness (which also does pretty much what the PF toughness feat does). That means if we want to have something that feels like Endurance, we need to come up with brand-new mechanics. There are lots of places we could go with this, but since I know that afflictions in Starfinder turn out to be pretty severe, that’s the first place I go looking for options. And, luckily, there’s a really easy way to adjust a character’s level of enduring such things.

Harsh afflictions do not bring you down quickly or easily.
Benefit: You treat the onset and frequency of afflictions that have them as being twice as long as normal.

Heya folks–I am back to being a full-time freelancer. Which means, every word I write has to justify itself in time taken vs. benefit to my freelance career and/or money made.
So if you found any of this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

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Writing Basics Minis: Avoiding Word Derailment

This one is super-short, but for me super-useful.

Don’t let your search for the perfect word derail your writing flow.

That’s not to say it’s not worth popping a thesaurus open (or using the ‘related word’ function of, a site Starfinder Lead Designer Joe Pasini turned me on to) to see if you can find it quickly and easily.

But before it disrupts your produtive writing time, put it on the back burner and move on. I personally just put a description of the word I want in brackets and highlight in bright yellow, so I know when I go back through the piece later that it needs to be replaced.

A chunk of the time, describing the word I want to put in the brackets causes me to think of it. And often, when i run back into the section on a reread, at least SOME good word to use leaps to mind. But the important thing is, when I am “in the zone,” getting wordcount quickly and feeling the concepts flow easily, I am not wasting time trying to polish a single term during rough-draft-creation time.

I can’t tell you how long to spend on it before giving up. Only you can know your muse’s endurance. This is a trick for making sure you don’t spend an hour on one word when you need that time to write 500. But be aware you don’t have to get any of it perfectly right the first time through.

This applies to anything, really. Can’t think of the right word? Not sure what to make the 4th level bonus spell? Need a riddle to add some mental challenge to an adventure?

If it’s holding you up, and you KNOW what comes next already, skip it, mark it, come back to it.

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