Category Archives: Game Design

Mythic Stars: Mythic Feats for Starfinder (2)

More Mythic Feats for Mythic Starfinder.

Mythic Alien Herbalism (Mythic)
You can easily create life-saving medicines.
Prerequisites: Alien Herbalism, Life Science 5 ranks, Survival 5 ranks.
Benefit: You can use Alien Herbalism to create short-lived medicinals during the same time you recuperate*, and there is no limit to how many times per day you can do so, though it still costs a Resole Point each time.

Mythic All Hands on Deck (Mythic)
Many hands make light work.
Prerequisites: All hands on Deck, four or more arms.
Benefit: When performing labor, perhaps requiring a Strength check or an Athletics check, such as digging a hole, moving cargo, or hauling in a rope, you can complete the task in half the usual time. Tasks requiring other checks aren’t included. Alternatively, you can simultaneously perform two skill-based tasks that can be performed with two hands, such as making Computers checks on two different computers. This has no impact on combat, or tasks that require more than using your hands.

Mythic Ambuscade (Combat, Mythic)
You are particularly skilled at attacking targets who have not had a chance to prepare for combat.
Benefit: You gain the benefits from Ambuscade against any target you attack in a surprise round (whether or not they have acted), and any target you attack before they have had a chance to act in the first round of combat (even if the first round isn’t a surprise round).

Mythic Ambush Awareness (Combat, Mythic)
You are particularly skilled at fighting when surprised.
Benefit: If you are unable to act in the surprise round because you failed a Perception check, you can still act on your initiative count in the surprise round, but cannot take an action that requires an attack roll or forces targets to make a saving throw.

Mythic Amplified Glitch (Combat, Mythic)
You can create sudden distractions with technological devices.
Prerequisites: Amplified Glitch, Computers 3 ranks, Intimidate 3 ranks.
Benefit: You can use Amplified Glitch on all targets in a 30-foot radius, as long as there is a technological device able to make sound at the center of that radius. Creatures targeted by your Amplified Glitch do not gain immunity to it for 24 hours, but do gain a +1 cumulative bonus to their save against it for each time they have been exposed in the past 24 hours.

Mythic Antagonize (Mythic)
You know how to make foes quickly and repeatedly angry with you.
Prerequisites: Antagonize, Diplomacy 5 ranks, Intimidate 5 ranks.
Benefit: You can use Antagonize as a Move action. Additionally, creatures targeted by your Antagonize do not gain immunity to it for 24 hours, but do gain a +1 cumulative bonus to their save against it for each time they have been exposed in the past 24 hours.

Mythic Apt Mentor (Mythic)
Your aid is always useful in academic pursuits.
Prerequisites: Apt Mentor, Life Science or Physical Science 5 ranks.
Benefit: You automatically succeed at an attempt to aid another on an Intelligence-, Wisdom-, or Charisma-based check. Additionally, once per day you can make a Diplomacy check to gather information without taking any extra time to do so, and without your inquiries being obvious to others.

Mythic Arm Extensions (Mythic)
You have unique devices installed into your arms that allow you to extend them great distances.
Prerequisites: Arm Extensions, constructed racial trait or construct type.
Benefit: Your arm extensions extend your natural reach to 15 feet, and impose no penalty to attack rolls with weapons wielded in your hands and to Dexterity- and Strength-based ability checks and skill checks. When you use this ability to grab an object or surface and pull yourself to that item or surface as a full action, or you can anchor yourself where you are to lower yourself to another surface, you move 20 feet as if using a fly speed with perfect maneuverability, ending your movement in a square adjacent to the chosen object or surface.

Mythic Barricade (Combat, Mythic)
You are adept at creating quick cover.
Prerequisites: Barricade, Engineering 1 rank.
Benefit: When determining the hardness and Hit Points of your temporary barricade created with the Barricade feat, treat it as a piece of equipment with an item level equal to your total ranks in Engineering. Additionally, the most recent barricade you built with that feat does not collapse at the beginning of your turn 1d4 rounds after it is hit by an attack.

Mythic Basic Melee Weapon Proficiency (Combat, Mythic )
You are a master of attacks with basic melee weapons.
Prerequisites: Proficiency with basic melee weapons.
Benefit: When attacking with a basic weapon, you do not apply the penalty from the dazzled, fatigued, off-kilter, off-target, prone, or shaken conditions to your attack rolls.

*Recuperate is my proposed game term to represent when a character spends 1 Resolve Point to regain Stamina Points following a 10-minute rest. That would be defined in any product I used it in.

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Mythic Stars: Mythic Feats for Starfinder (1)

I took an initial stab at some mythic material for Starfinder in this post, from Feb 2020. And then I got… distracted.

It’s been a rough 17 months.

But I’m playing in my friend Carl’s mythic Starfinder game now, and THOSE rules are looking promising, and much more complete than the ones I I started.

But, they still need Mythic Feats.

You’d gain Mythic Feats in Mythic Stars the same way you would in the Pathfinder 1st edition Mythic rules, but that’s not the focus here. The focus of this article is to show how I would have Mythic Feats work in Starfinder, in a way that works with the math of that game system (so nothing should be just a big boost to bonuses or totals), but are still a significant increase over the non-mythic versions of the feats. Getting a Mythic Feat should give you a distinct advantage, but not cause you to be able to simply ignore challenges designed for non-mythic characters of your level.

As a sampler, I’m just going to do the first ten official feats for the game, in alphabetical order.

Mythic Accelerated Recovery (Mythic)
Your body knits back together even when you just rest briefly.
Prerequisites: Con 13, Accelerated Recovery.
Benefit: When you recuperate*, you also regain your level in Hit Points.

Mythic Adaptive Casting (Mythic)
You often have a few extra eldritch tricks up your sleeve.
Prerequisites: Key ability score 19, Adaptive Casting, caster level 7.
Benefit: When you recuperate, you regain your daily uses of spell-like abilities gained from Adaptive Casting.

Mythic Adaptive Fighting (Combat, Mythic)
You can frequently adjust your fighting style to match specific conditions during combat.
Prerequisites: Adaptive Fighting, three or more other combat feats.
Benefit: When you recuperate, you regain your daily use of the Adaptive Fighting feat.

Mythic Adaptive Resistance (Mythic)
Your training enables you to adapt and evolve formidable defenses.
Prerequisites: Adaptive Resistance, Enhanced Resistance, base attack bonus +4, early stage adaptation racial trait.
Benefit: When you change the damage type your Enhanced Resistance applies to, the change lasts until you choose to change it again.

Mythic Adaptive Upgrade (Mythic)
You have adjusted one of your armor upgrades to give yourself a additional options.
Prerequisites: Int 19, Adaptive Upgrade, Engineering 10 ranks.
Benefit: When you adapt an upgrade to function as one of your three upgrades selected with Adaptive Upgrade, it can function as any of the three, rather than just one of them. When activated, it acts as both the actual upgrade the whichever of your selected upgrades you wish, and does so for 10 minutes. It otherwise follows the rules from Adaptive Upgrade.

Mythic Add Leverage (Combat, Mythic)
With the right grip, you can push and penalize your foes.
Prerequisites: Str 15, Add Leverage.
Benefit: When you successfully perform a bull rush, reposition, or trip combat maneuver while using 1 or more hands to wield your weapon beyond the minimum required to wield that weapon, you can also choose to make the target flat-footed or off-target for 1 round (+1 round for every 5 your attack exceeded the AC needed to perform the maneuver), or knock them prone (or off-kilter, if in 0-G).

Mythic Advance Warning (Combat, Mythic)
You easily shout warnings to your allies, focusing their attention on the threats around them.
Prerequisites: Cha 15.
Benefit: As part of any other action you take, you can shout a warning to your allies, ending the flat-footed condition for any ally within 60 feet (including yourself). Once you’ve used this ability, doing so again before you next recuperate requires you to expend 1 Resolve Point. This is a sense-dependent ability.

Mythic Advanced Melee Weapon Proficiency (Combat, Mythic )
You are a master of attacks with advanced melee weapons.
Prerequisites: Proficiency with advanced and basic melee weapons.
Benefit: When attacking with an advanced melee weapon, you do not apply the penalty from the dazzled, fatigued, off-kilter, off-target, prone, or shaken conditions to your attack rolls.

Mythic Agile Casting (Mythic)
You can move, cast a spell, and move again before foes react.
Prerequisites: Key ability score 15, Dex 15, Agile Casting, Mobility, caster level 4th.
Benefit: As a standard action, you can move up to your speed and cast a single spell with a casting time of one standard action or less at any point during your movement. If you have a supernatural ability that can be activated as a standard action or less, you can instead use that ability at any point during your movement.

Mythic Agile Swimmer
You can dart around underwater even more nimbly than a fish.
Prerequisites: Agile Swimmer, racial swim speed.
Benefit: You never have to make an Athletics check to successfully swim, even under hazardous conditions.

*Recuperate is my proposed game term to represent when a character spends 1 Resolve Point to regain Stamina Points following a 10-minute rest. That would be defined in any product I used it in.

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ALTERNATE HERO POINTS FOR PF1

Hero points are a mechanic that allows players to “edit” the events of an encounter and the rules of the game to a limited degree. They give heroes the ability to do the amazing things heroes do in fantasy fiction, but with specific rules for doing so, and they encourage players to make the sort of choices fantasy heroes do in those stories, in order to get more Hero points.

A GM decides where or not to use Hero points, and while it’s most common for that to be done on a per-campaign basis, it needn’t be. A GM could allow Hero points only when the PCs are involved in something they have strong feelings about, or only in climactic plotline-ending scenes. Alternatively, a GM might use Hero points when a player can’t make it to a game session, to give the remaining characters a power boost, or use it for day-in-the-life game sessions when combat and life-or-death situations are unlikely but the GM would like to encourage players to get involved in telling social stories.

Hero points are a pure power up for characters, but they are also a way for the GM and players to have a rules-based back-and-forth with what moments each consider important to the ongoing story. Some groups like having some ability to edit events to be closer to what they want, while others feel it takes focus away from the risk-and-reward feel of the game rules. The most important thing is to find what a GM and their game group are comfortable with, and do that.

These Hero points are based on those from the M&M game, and are intentionally more common and generally more powerful than those presented in the APG (though explicitly excluding the Cheat Death option, since having that tends to discourage Hero point spending for any other purpose). Even so, you can look to the APG rules on Hero points for more ideas on how and why you might use them. For example, these rules are not designed to be used with the Hero’s Fortune feat (APG), but you could combine them with such a feat if you wished.

(This is an Extended Post, with additional material including rewritten versions of the Hero Point Feats from the APG made available exclusively on my Patreon, for my supporting Patrons.)

HERO POINTS FOR PATHFINDER 1E

Players start each game session with 2 Hero points. During the adventure they get opportunities to earn more Hero points. Unspent Hero points don’t carry over to the next session; the heroes start out with 2 points again. Use them or lose them!

USING HERO POINTS

Unless otherwise noted, spending a Hero point is a reaction that takes no action (thus not restricting your other reactions). You can spend Hero points for any of the following:

EXTRA ACTION

You can spend a Hero point to gain an additional standard action on your turn (this is an exception to the rule that Hero points are normally a reaction), or to gain an additional Move action at any time. You cannot combine multiple extra actions into a full round action.

IMPROVE ROLL

One Hero point allows you to re-roll any die roll you make and take the better of the two rolls. On a result of 1 through 10 on the second roll, add 10 to the result, an 11 or higher remains as-is (so the re-roll is always a result of 11-20). You must spend the Hero point to improve a roll before the GM announces the outcome of your initial roll. You cannot spend Hero points on die rolls made by the GM or other players.

REUSE

You can spend a hero point to recall a spell you have already cast or to gain another use of a special ability that is otherwise limited. This should only be used on spells and abilities possessed by your character that recharge on a daily basis.

INSPIRATION

You can spend a Hero point to get sudden inspiration in the form of a hint, clue, or bit of help from the GM. It might be a way out of the villain’s fiendish deathtrap, a vital clue for solving a mystery, or an idea about the villain’s weakness. It’s up to the GM exactly how much help the players get from inspiration and how it manifests, but since Hero points are a very limited resource, the help should be in some way significant.

RECOVER

You can spend a Hero point to recover faster. A Hero point allows you to immediately remove a bleed, confused, dazed, dazzled, fascinated, fatigued, prone, shaken, sickened, or staggered condition, without taking an action.

Spending a Hero point to recover also lets you convert a cowering condition into frightened, panicked into frightened, frightened into shaken, exhausted condition into a fatigued condition; convert a stunned condition into a staggered condition, or convert a nauseated condition into a sickened condition.

You can also use a Hero point to overcome the limitations of the blinded, broken, deafened, energy drained, entangled, grappled, flat-footed, or paralyzed condition for 1 round. This does not end the condition, and you cannot move from a spot the condition roots you to, but you ignore all its other effects until the beginning of your next turn.

If at 0 or fewer Hit Points and dying, you can spend a Hero point to stabilize. If at 0 or fewer hit points and stable, you can spend a Hero point to become conscious and have positive hit points equal to half your level (equal to your level if you have Toughness or Endurance, equal to 1.5x your level if you have both).

MINOR SCENE EDITING

A player may offer the GM a Hero point to make a minor edit to a scene. For example, if the player’s character is set on fire in the middle of the street, the player might offer the GM a Hero point in order to add a trough of water to the street, so the PC can jump into it and extinguish themselves. Minor editing should always make sense, should never bypass an encounter entirely, and is entirely at the discretion of the GM. If the GM does not edit the scene as requested, the player retains the Hero point.

EARNING HERO POINTS

The GM can give any player a Hero point to edit events in a way that goes against the player’s character without allowing die rolls, and in contravention of the normal rules or action order. For example, if an adventure calls for a villain to escape, and a PC has the villain grabbed, the GM can grant the player a Hero point and declare the villain wriggles free and dashes out of sight. If a PC manages to kill a major foe in a single blow, the GM can give that PC’s player a Hero point and state the foe miraculously blocked the attack at the last second.

A GM can also offer a player a Hero point as an inducement to have the player’s PC make a poor choice. This is always voluntary—the player decided whether to accept the Hero point and make the bad decision. For example, if a sketchy old man offers the PC an apple out of nowhere, and the player obviously rejects the iffy fruit, the GM could offer the player a Hero point if the PC takes and eats the apple instead. This should only be done in furtherance of the adventure, and obviously not if it means permanent negative consequences for the PC.

These options should never be used to make a character look incompetent or stupid, unless the player encourages that as part of their characterization of their PC.

If a player does something especially heroic, awesome, funny, or helpful, the GM may grant them an extra Hero point in response.

PATREON

There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

Combat Effects on Missed Attacks for Starfinder

As discussed in the articles Greater Combat Maneuvers for Starfinder, and Greater Partial Effects for Starfinder “Save Negates” Spells, there’s very little as frustrating for a player than to take their whole turn and have absolutely no impact on a conflict. We’ve talked about how to possibly mitigate that frustration for combat maneuvers and spells, but what about characters focusing on just making attacks? Certainly, constantly missing a target is no less frustrating that failed maneuvers and resisted spells, even if it is theoretically easier to accomplish and doesn’t have as high a resource cost. So, should we create minor secondary effects on failed attacks for the combatant characters?

I personally think the answer is “yes…. but.”

On the one hand, it makes sense that exactly the same factors that make failed attempts unfun for maneuvers and spells makes it unfun for attacks. On the other hand, the very fact that attacks are more likely to succeed and easy to keep trying means they need to not have all the advantages of other combat options. While we made combat maneuvers and spells more appealing by giving them minor conditions that could apply even when they failed, we can’t use the same solution for standard attacks. First, it doesn’t make sense for a failed standard attack to impose a condition when a successful one doesn’t. Secondly, if failed attacks impose conditions, even minor ones, they’ll overshadow the hard-won advances in failed combat maneuver and spells feeling impactful.

We can, however, have missed attacks still have SOME impact in combat. But it shouldn’t be a condition, and it shouldn’t be damage (not because that couldn’t be balanced with some small amount of damage, but because a large segment of d20 game players rebel at the idea of doing damage on a miss, and because the tiny amount of damage we’d have to make it be for balance would likely not feel satisfying).

So, instead, we can play with accuracy. As with all these “effects on a failure” rules this could be made a general rule, or even a general rule for characters with base attack bonuses equal to their character level, but I think it makes the most sense to present it as a feat.

Zero In

As your foes evade your attacks, you manage to zero in on their defenses, increasing your accuracy for your next attack.
Prerequisites: Base attack bonus +1.
Benefit: When you make an attack against a target’s EAC or KAC (or a starship’s AC, but not TL), and your attack misses, and the attack has no effect on any target, you gain a +1 insight bonus to your next attack against that target using the same weapon. If you attack a target with this insight bonus and miss again, the insight bonuses increases by 1, to a maximum equal to your Strength modifier (for most melee attacks) or Dexterity modifier (for ranged attacks and melee attacks with operative weapons if you used your Dexterity bonus as part of your attack bonus). If you attack another target, damage the target you used Zero In to gain an insight bonus for, or the encounter ends, your insight bonus resets to +0.

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Greater Partial Effects for Starfinder “Save Negates” Spells

As discussed yesterday in the article “Greater Combat Maneuvers for Starfinder,” there’s very little as frustrating for a player than to take their whole turn and have absolutely no impact on a conflict. Obviously in addition to combat maneuvers, which are much more difficult to succeed with than other attacks, the same frustration can be felt by spellscasters using spells that have no effect if their target succeeds at a saving throw. In many ways that is additionally frustration, because a limited resource has been expended.

On the other hand, boosting the power of spellcasters is an extremely tricky balancing act. Numerous “save: negates” spell can incapacitate a target with a single bad saving throw, and making them more effective (and thus less of a gamble for the spellcaster using them) can easily swing them from underpowered to overpowered. Further, we need to make sure that we don’t boost the power of lower-level and large-area spells by too much on a failed save, since if they retain a high degree of utility higher-level spellcasters end up with both high-level spells that work as originally designed, and a backup of more-useful low-level spells.

So, the following feat is designed to allow spellcasters to get SOME utility from save: negates spells, while carefully costing them some of their other options when casting them, and ensuring lower-level spells don’t become overpowered in higher-level games. If a GM finds spellcasters are simply all underpowered in their games, they could just make this a universal rule that applies to all spellcasters.

And again, if anyone has questions about the why of the design choices for spellcasters in Starfinder, that’s the sort of thing I am happy to discuss when patrons ask about it on my Patreon.

Greater Partial Effect

You can take time to weave more complex spells, which have a partial effect even on targets that resist them.
Prerequisites: Caster level 1
Benefit: When you cast a spell with a casting time of 1 standard action that affects only one target, and the spell is listed as having no effect if the target makes its saving throw, you can choose to cast the spell as a full-round action. If you do so, and the target succeeds at its saving throw and the spell would normally thus have no effect, the spell instead as a minor partial effect for 1 round. The partial effect is based on the target’s CR compared to the spell level of the spell you cast, as noted below.

Target CR is Equal To or Lower Than Spell Level: Target is Sickened for 1 round.

Target CR is Above Spell Level, Below x2 Spell Level: Target is Flat-Footed for 1 round.

Target CR is Above x2 Spell Level, Below x3 Spell Level: Target is Off-Target for 1 round.

Target CR is x3 Spell Level or Greater: Target is Dazzled for 1 round.

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Greater Combat Maneuvers for Starfinder

Okay, let’s get back to doing some ttRPG rules you can bring to the table, shell we?

Combat maneuvers in Starfinder are specifically designed to be difficult to pull off against a significant foe without having a fair number of bonuses in place. You have to hit an opponent’s KAC +8, which is a difficult task, and if you fail you have no effect on them at all. This is an intentional design choice rather than some accident of not playtesting (indeed, it was originally KAC +10, and after playtesting we decided that was exactly 10% too hard to achoice, which is why the weird “+8” value is used).

(If you want to know WHY we made that intentional design choice, I recommend joining my Patreon for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and ask in the comments there!)

The biggest problem with having an appealing-looking effect available but unlikely to work, is that there is very little as frustrating for players than taking a round to accomplish absolutely nothing. In a game with soft limits designed to keep a character from ever being able to specialize in a tactic to the point it nearly never fails, this frustration is worse for players who are trying to create a certain kind of “build” focused on trying a difficult maneuver over and over. The end result may be effective (if you have to try to disarm someone three times before you succeed, but disarming them makes them nearly useless and you couldn’t knock them out that fast, it’s an effective tactic), but still not be any fun.

(And yes, there are things like “save: negates” spells that have the same issue. But that’s a different article.)

However, just making it easier to perform the difficult-but-extremely-effective maneuver can break the balance of different options in the game, especially if other soft limits are kept in place.

But you can alleviate some of the unfun “wasted by whole turn” feeling by having a midpoint between spectacular success and total failure.

You COULD just add this as an alternate rule that applies to all combat maneuvers performed by everyone, or make it a built-in part of the Improved Combat Maneuver feat. However, you’ll have the least impact on game balance if this becomes a new feat option, allowing additional specialization for characters who want a better chance to impact combat with their preferred maneuvers, without making the maneuvers universally more effective.

Greater Combat Maneuver (Combat)

With one specific combat maneuver, even when you fail you often inconvenience your target.
Prerequisites: Base attack bonus +1.
Benefit: Choose one combat maneuver (bull rush, dirty trick, disarm, grapple, reposition, sunder, or trip). If your attack roll for this combat maneuver fails to hit your target’s KAC +8, but does hit their KAC +4, you manage a :near miss,” and impose a minor, temporary condition on the target. This is not considered succeeding at the combat maneuver for purposes of any other effects of yours that are triggered by succeeding at a combat maneuver.
The effect you have on a near-miss depends on the combat maneuver you have selected, as noted below.
Bull Rush: Although you didn’t move the target, you did shove them off-balance for a moment, forcing them to regain their footing. They are dazed until the beginning of their turn. (The target can act normally on their next turn, but can’t take reactions prior to that.)
Dirty Trick: The target had to twist away from you, or shield its eyes, to avoid the impact of your dirty trick. The subject is dazzled for 1 round.
Disarm: You didn’t knock the item out of the target’s hand, but you did give it a good whack, impacting their aim. They are Off-Target for 1 round, or until they take a move action to negate this condition.
Grapple: While you haven’t managed to get a solid grip on your target, your attempt to get a grip and subsequently being in-their-face makes it a bit more difficult for them to pay attention to anything else. They are dazzled for 1 round.
Reposition: Although you didn’t move the target, you did shove them off-balance for a moment, forcing them to regain their footing. They are dazed until the beginning of their turn. (The target can act normally on their next turn, but can’t take reactions prior to that.)
Sunder: You didn’t damage the item, but you did give it a good whack, impacting the target’s aim. They are Off-Target for 1 round, or until they take a move action to negate this condition.
Trip: Although you didn’t trip the target, you did shove them off-balance for a moment, forcing them to regain their footing. They are dazed until the beginning of their turn. (The target can act normally on their next turn, but can’t take reactions prior to that.)
Special: You can take Greater Combat Maneuver multiple times. The effects don’t stack. Each time you take the feat, it applies to a new combat maneuver.

While this feat doesn’t require Improved Combat Maneuver (in keeping with Starfinder’s tendency to keep feat chains to a minimum), it has obvious synergy with that feat. A character with Improved Combat maneuver (disarm) gains a +4 bonus to their disarm attempts. That means if their attack roll would normally hit the target’s AC, with the +4 from the Improved feat it’ll hit KAC +4, which is enough to trigger Greater Combat Maneuver. So on any roll that would have been good enough to damage the target that character could get some impact from attempting a combat maneuver, even if it doesn’t get the full maneuver effect.

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Your Developer as a Resource, 1. Running Short

If you are a freelance writer working on a ttRPG assignment, your developer (or editor, publisher, producer — whatever title the contact person you have for the assignment uses) can be a valuable resource. After all, they want you to produce something that meets their needs, so they are motivated to help you give them the text they want.

So if you are having problems with a project, it’s a good idea to write to your developer and see if they can offer advice or guidance. If you think you need to deviate from your outline, it’s absolutely crucial you talk to your developer first. You don’t want to be constantly bothering your developer with issues (they’re paying you to do work for them), but when you are having trouble that is going to impact the quality of your project, better to ask than not.

One common issue that can come up is feeling you have been asked to provide more words on a given subject than the subject needs, or can even support. If you are “running short” on a section, there are better and worse ways to rach out to your developer about it.

Here are some examples:

Good: “I’m having trouble finding enough material to fill out 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast. I could use some guidance.”

Better: “I’m having trouble coming up with enough material to fill out 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast without just padding it out in obvious and unhelpful ways. If we could expand the topic to cover all halfling war-based baked goods, that would give me a wider range of things to cover. Alternatively, I could do 2,500 words on this, and add 2,500 words to the section on Dwarven Axe-Beer. Or if you have ideas for what I am missing in the Battle Toast section (current draft attached), I can fill that out. How would you like me to proceed?”

Bad: “It is not possible to write 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast, so you need to tell me if I am just turning it in short, or if I can use those words elsewhere.”

Worse: “Here is the turnover. I took 2,500 words from Halfling Battle Toast, which didn’t need that much, and used them in other sections.”

Worst: “Since you assigned my more words than needed for Halfling Battle Toast, I moved 1,500 of them to the Monsters of the Bakery section, and contacted your CFO to have my contract reissued for 1,000 fewer words.”

And, yeah, all of those examples are fictional, but they are based on actual ways I have seen different freelance writers handle the issue of being short on wordcount.

Also, sooner is better for something like this. Don’t wait to tell your developer you are short on a section 2 days before the due date. The more time you give them, the more flexible they may be to help you get your section done, and get paid for it.

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Writing Basics. Keeping it Short

A LOT of freelance ttRPG writing is paid by the word… sort of. Generally a per-word rate is capped at the assigned wordcount. It’s not really “5 cents a word,” it’s “$50 for 1,000 words, and don’t go too far over or under 1,000 words.” That means that if you overwrite a project, you are getting paid less for your labor, and you’re not doing your developer a favor.

Of course, you can overwrite a project, then trim your writing to come in under wordcount. But then you are doing even MORE labor–both writing more than you need, AND spending additional time trimming it back. While this can potentially lead to more work at higher pay rates in the future if you end up with a really well-written final draft that’s extremely close to wordcount (I prefer to be within 1% of my assigned wordcount), that’s an at-best “maybe,” and there’s no reason you can’t have that same end result by hitting your assigned wordcount in your first draft.
For a lot of people, this is something that gets easier with experience. It can be amazing how fast wordcount goes by sometimes—I know nowadays that if something is supposed to be 100 words long, I have very little room for asides or flowery language to boost the poetry of a phrase. But there are also things you can do to help hitting wordcount on the first draft easier and smoother.

Decide On Your Topics and Their Wordcounts

There’s very little as frustrating as checking to see you’ve used 80% of a project’s wordcount, but only hit 20% of the topics you need to cover. While you may not know everything you need to cover when you start a project, pretty early in the process you should sit down and list out everything you believe you need to spend words on for a given project.

For example, if you are writing up a nation, think about every general description, city, region, ecology, point of interest, and adventure seed you want to cover. You don’t need to go into detail about them at this point, just breakdown what subjects you’ll be writing about, so you can estimate each section’s wordcount. I often find it useful to organize this information by thinking about the headers I’ll use.

This can also be a useful way to decide what’s important. If you have 300 words to describe 6 cities, maybe you want to spend 100 words on the capitol, and just 40 each on the smaller settlements.

Monitor Your Progress

Monitor your total wordcount as your write, as well as how closely you are hitting the wordcount of each topic. If something goes long, you can decide to cut it down immediately, adjust other estimated wordcounts per topic, or even cut topics maybe you didn’t need, adjusting as you go.

Just remember to leave wordcount for an introduction and a wrap-up, if your project needs them. Otherwise, the start and stop can feel very abrupt.

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Designing ttRPGs with Optimizers in Mind

There are people who like to explore the rules of ttRPGs to see if they can make a character that is optimized–that is, if there is a set of choices they can make which is as powerful as a character can possibly be.

Sometimes, they find ways to make characters so powerful they make the game less fun for any other player who is not similarly optimized, because they can do everything better and faster than other characters, and thus gain all the spotlight time.

(Sometimes this is done through questionable readings of the rules, or throwing logic out the door for a literal reading of rules. Sometimes it isn’t.)

Some games are more prone to optimizers than others, some groups are more prone to optimizers than others, and different designers have different levels of concern and attitudes about the impact optimizers have on the value of the game. There are a few different ways designers of ttRPGs try to foresee these problems and design games while keeping the existence of optimizers in mind. As with most game design choices, they each have their pros and cons, and work better in some game styles, and with some groups, than others.

Here are some different common tacks designers take when designing with optimizers kept firmly in mind.

Just Say No

One option is to tell gamers to not do this kind of optimization, and then state if people DO do this, the problem is with the player, not the game. This has the advantage of not removing or limiting options for players and GMs who don’t have optimizing problems, and being easy for the designer. It has the drawback of being useless to many gaming groups. It’s reasonable to feel such groups should just play with different people, or play a different game, but that’s still a limitation of this method.

Warning Signs

Another option is to highlight options the designer feels are particularly open to unbalanced optimization, so the GM can decide whether or not to allow them, or at least look at their use with a skeptical eye. One huge drawback of this is that GMs and players may consider everything else explicitly “balanced,” and if a designer misses an option (or combination of options) that cause imbalances they may feel blindsided by it. It otherwise has a lot of the pros and cons of Just Say No.

Hard Limits

Hard limits are an effort to circumvent optimizer efforts by stating that there are values or levels of efficiency a character cannot exceed, no matter what combination of options a character has. This is sometimes expressed as a a maximum numeric value for specific bonuses or game stats, and sometimes as an express limit on what percentage of spotlight time a character can receive. Hard limits can be a straightforward way for a game designer to communicate what power level the game expects characters to achieve. They can also feel stifling to many players, who feel there is a logic or realism disconnect that a character who has hit a hard limit can’t exceed it by taking an option that would make anyone else who took it more powerful. It’s also possible for a game designer to fail to place a hard limit on some aspect of game play optimizers can use to still create more effective characters than other players.

Soft Limits

Soft limits are in place when a game attempts to simply not make it possible to exceed the kinds of numerical values for powers and abilities the design expects characters to be at. There may be few or no options for raising the most important values of the game, or the game may not even have different values for different characters. in some cases soft limits games are extremely rules-light, and may depend on a GM to decide when abilities can be used and how effective they are. In other cases they are very much math- and option-driven games, but the designers have made an effort to ensure that no selection of choices can exceed the (often unstated) soft limit values.

Soft limit, rules-light games tend to be very dependent on a skilled GM, and may just end up giving players with the best ability to argue with the GM an edge in power. Some groups find they work extremely well for games with limited run times, from 1-shots to short campaigns, while others do well as long as they keep their heads in a more narrative frame of mind than game mechanical.

Soft limit, rules-heavy games take a lot of work on the part of designers to be flexible and interesting, and still not have combinations that exceed the soft limits. These kinds of games can also often frustrate players who find the soft limit keeps their characters less effective in areas that, narratively, they want to be able to improve, and may make players feel they never actually get better at anything. Also, if the soft limits are unstated and the game has extensive option supplements, later designers/developers/publishers may well introduce things that break the original design’s invisible guardrails.

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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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