Category Archives: Game Design
Yesterday I discussed the optional rules I’m implementing for my upcoming “Gatekeepers” campaign for Pathfinder 2nd edition. On top of those, I’ve gone over the following houserules with my players, and we’ve agreed to use them. Since we are using character support software, I carefully crafted my houserules to be things that won’t alter the information a player needs on their character sheet. (So no bonus feat at 4th level for no reason, or adding +1d4 damage to attacks when attacking two-handed, these are all more universal action options and such.)
These are just flat breaks from how PF2 rules are written, and I’m good with that.
Hero Points: Boosted Rerolls & Extra Actions
I like Hero Points in PF2, but I actively want to make them even more powerful. On purpose. (And, yeah, this is another in a series of power-up for players, and they all know what that’ll mean in terms of the kinds of threats I throw at them.)
If you use a Hero Point to reroll a check, it is a Boosted Reroll. On a Boosted Reroll, if the actual result on the d20 is a 1-10, you add 10 to the total. Thus the d20 value on a Boosted Reroll is always going to be 11-20. (As an aside this means you could perfectly well have Boosted Rerolls be a d10+10, rather than 1d20-add-10-if-less-than-11 without changing the math, but psychologically that weirds me out.)
There is a third way to spend a Hero Point – you can use it to gain one extra action on your turn, known as a Heroic Action. Any action you take on your Heroic Action ignores multiple action penalties for things you do this turn (normally multiple attack penalties), and does not count toward multiple action penalties for things you in the same round after taking your Heroic Action. You cannot use a Heroic Action as part of an activity that takes multiple actions.
Move And Manipulate
When you take a manipulate action that is not an attack action, and that only involves objects on your person that you can hold, you can also move your speed. Not only does this encourage a more mobile battlefield, it matches my personal experience from my days in live-action foam-sword gaming with the International Fantasy Gaming Society.
d20 = 2d10; Fumble on 2-3; Crit on 18-20
Okay, we aren’t actually implementing this one yet. But I often enjoy games with probability clumping more toward the middle than the flat distribution of a d20 (or d% for that matter). So the idea here is that all d20 checks instead become 2d10 checks. My feeling is that with the tighter math in PF2 (especially with no level to proficiency), that should work great as long as we make allowances for wanting success to go up one step/down one step more often than the 1-in-100 you’d get with fumbles on a 2 and crits on a 20. However, this also lets me make fumbles less common than 1-in-20 (which overall I like), and crits more common than fumbles (which conceptually I also like).
But none of my players have much-if-any PF2 experience (though they are all veteran gamers overall), so we’re going to stick with the classic d20 for the first few sessions, then we’ll try the 2d10 variant for at least one game session and see how we all feel about it. And, of course, I’d have to decide how (if at all) this impacted the Boosted Reroll houserule.
TOMORROW: THEMES AND BASELINES
Of course there is much, much more to a ttRPG campaign than the rules of the game. I’ve been playing with this group of gamers for 35+ years, and we’ve grown to a place where we can have an open and frank discussion about what GM and players both do, or do not, want to see in a campaign. tomorrow, I’ll discuss the planned themes and baselines of the Gatekeepers campaign.
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This is an updated index of all the articles I’ve written about my “Gatekeepers” campaign for Pathfinder Second Edition.
How I Set Up My New PF2 Game, “Gatekeepers.” Part 1: Rules Options
The initial list of houserules and optional rules the campaign began with.
How I Set Up My New PF2 Game, “Gatekeepers.” Part 2: Houserules
The campaign begins with a few pure houserules in place to alter the feel and flow of the game system.
As soon as they exist, they’ll go here.
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Grenades, and explosives in general, are tricky to write rules for in most d20-based ttRPGs. If a grenade isn’t effective enough, it feels more like a firecracker than a deadly weapon of war. If it’s too effective, it can end encounters so quickly it’s no fun for the players, or accidentally wipe out PCs in undramatic ways.
When grenades show up in action/adventure fiction, they tend to act less as damaging devices than plot devices that force people to seek cover. The threat of them is generally represented not by them killing main characters, but by forcing characters to take them seriously and possible shake off effects of shock and awe.
Example: Starfinder Revised Grenades
So, let’s try to model that behavior, specifically for Starfinder. Within that game, grenades are pretty expensive consumables anyway, so a power-up shouldn’t break the game even if it makes grenades more affective and appealing. That said, if these seem too powerful, you can limit these rules to actual purchased consumables, rather than spells and class features that allow characters to create or emulate grenades without a credit or OPB cost.
Grenades are dangerous, deadly military explosives that everyone must take seriously as a threat, no matter how tough or resilient they are. While savvy and active combatants know to duck for cover and shake themselves free of the shock of battlefield explosions, doing so comes at a cost.
When you fail a saving throw against a grenade that has an item level no lower than your character level/CR -2 that deals damage (as opposed to, for example, smoke grenades), you must either expend a Resolve Point or be staggered on your next turn. This represents the need to duck, take cover, and shake yourself back to focus after narrowly avoiding more serious injury.
Helpless characters that fail a save against such a grenade treat the attack as a coup de grace against them. As a full round action a character can make an Engineering check (DC 15 + 1.5x grenade item level) to wedge a grenade into an adjacent stationary structure or unattended object, causing it to do max damage and have only half its normal explode radius. On a failed check, the grenade explodes in the character’s hands, and they take max damage.
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Last night, gripped by exhaustion and insomnia, unable to stay up or lie quietly, with half my body burning up and the other half freezing cold, I had an amazing idea for a game mechanic. I wasn’t awake enough to go write it up, so I tried to take some notes about it, to make sure I didn’t lose this amazing idea for ever.
Sadly, the notes are literally useless, and while I remember thinking about the idea — every aspect of where I was when I had it, what time it was (3:45 am), and how much I tried to burn it into my brain so I would not forget it… the idea itself is gone. A complete blank. other than knowing it has to do with ttRPGs, I have no clue what it was like.
So, in tribute to that Greatest Game Mechanic in the World, which is gone forever, here is an entirely different RPG mechanic ideas, which is NOT the Greatest Game Mechanic in the World and may, in fact, be bad.
Most ttRPGs have some form of segmented movement, where on a character’s turn they take an action or set of actions (such as “move, draw a weapon, attack”), and then the next character takes their actions, and so on. This causes the problem that it is difficult to represent actions interrupting other actions in the natural flow of an encounter. All too often, someone either runs from point of cover to point of cover with no one having any change to shoot at them unless they have stood around waiting for just that (and let’s be honest, if someone is dashing 20-40 feet, there’s at least a chance that someone with a firearm could pop off a round at them), or is behind cover and wants to pop up, fire once, and duck behind cover, is stuck for a full round standing exposed and away from cover because they couldn’t complete the action before the end of their round. Instead of some cover, they have no cover for everyone else’s turn.
Blurred positioning accepts that even if your character is in a given place at the end of their turn, someone might have taken an action in a rush as they repositioned. At the end of a character’s turn, they state one of those positions to be their “main state” even if it’s not the one they ended at. (You may have ended standing up from cover at the end of your turn, but you spent most time ducked behind it on your round).
Each character is a legal target at every place they have been since their last turn. However, actions taken actions a position other than their end-state suffer a penalty (-4 or -20% or roll twice and take the worst result, depending on your game system).
That’s it, that’s the whole mechanic. Wherever you were at any point on your last turn, you can be targeted as if you were there. But, for al but one of those places, people are at penalties for trying to get you at that exact moment.
No, seriously, the idea I had last night was SO good.
Whatever it was.
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This is an editorial. It is not covered by the Open Gaming License.
One of the things that’s being debated in the wake of the “One D&D” playtest release is how this is going to impact D&D customers, other publishers making compatible products, Virtual Tabletops (VTTs), and the ttRPG environment overall. For better or worse, D&D has a huge influence on tabletop RPGs overall in the English-speaking world. Even if you don’t play D&D, and never have, it’s popularity can impact what dice, maps, digital tools, play spaces, game conventions, and dozens of other adjacent materials and options are available to you.
There have been sea-changes in what was considered “D&D” several times before. The release of AD&D in the late 1970s was one, and to some extent so were both BECMI and 2nd edition AD&D. The release of 3rd edition in 2000, which dropped the “advanced” in the title, along with the introduction of the d20 System and OGL had a huge impact in 2000, and the release of edition “3.5” in 2003 is seen as going hand-in-hand with the “d20 crash,” leaving a lot of companies who used the OGL in trouble. (Indeed, many ceased to exist, and others walked away from d20 System-derived games forever.) Similarly the release of the radically different D&D 4th edition in 2008, which abandoned the OGL, had significant impacts throughout the industry (not the least of which was the creation of the circumstances that lead to Pathfinder 1st edition, and by extension eventually Starfinder and Pathfinder 2nd edition).
With the exception of the switch from 3.0 to 3.5, these changes didn’t much revolve around claims that the new D&D would be compatible with older editions. The release of 5e in 2014 was a bit different, often centered on the idea that it was going to take the best ideas from all previous editions, but it also tied to efforts to be simpler and more accessible, and to have “bounded accuracy” fix many of the problems in mid- and high-level play.
One of the talking points of One D&D is that this isn’t a “new edition,” but a modification of the once-and-future D&D engine that is the core of 5e. It is, we are told, going to be compatible with existing D&D materials.
So, in this instance, what does “compatible” mean? And, what’s WotC’s goal in striving for their new rulebooks (I’m entirely convinced there will be new print PHB, DMG, and MM books, and that belief serves as one of the underpinnings of this analysis) to be in some way compatible with the material they have been putting out since 2014?
Well, firstly, I don’t expect WotC to be particularly concerned about how their decisions impact people making “5e Compatible” products, and I don’t think it’s realistic (or, honestly) reasonable for anyone else to expect that either. The only group that might feel they have some claim on WotC’s mindspace is Dungeon Master’s Guild publishers, since they are working within the WotC IP, in a space where WotC gets a cut of their income. But even then, I personally expect WotC to do what they think is best for their own company (and will thus be most likely to allow them to continue to be the best-paying ttRPG employer in North America, and maybe the world).
My best guess is that WotC is going for One D&D to be “100% Adventure Compatible.” And, in this, I may be letting myself be influenced by the fact that’s very similar to what I was shooting for in the Fantasy Age Core Rulebook, which I have been saying since its inception was not a “new edition,” but a “quality of life improvement implementing much of what we have learned since Fantasy Age Basic Rulebook came out.”
While working on that, I discovered that you can make a new rulebook be “100% “compatible” with all the old accessories and adventures, and still not be exactly the same game. You can, with skill and caution, make a game with some new mechanics, and some mechanics that work differently, and not create anything that doesn’t work with the old game mechanics.
Let me give you a concrete, and entirely theoretical, example.
Let’s say you had S.T.A.B. (Sneaking, Talking, Arcana, and Battle) 1st edition, a very d20 System-esque game, where the success of most tasks are determined by rolling a d20, and adding some modifiers, and trying to hit or beat a target number. If you d20 die roll is a natural 20 you automatically succeed, and if it’s a natural 1, you automatically fail. And, one of the persistent pieces of feedback you get, is that people hate Hate HATE rolling a 2 on their d20 roll, because they will always fail due to the game math, even though it’s not an “automatic failure.”
So, when you release S.T.A.B.B.E.D. (Sneaking, Talking, Arcana, Bards, Battle, Economics, and Dragons), an “updated rulebook for S.T.A.B., you add a new rule — anytime your d20 roll is a natural 2, you then roll 1d10 and add it to your total. If you roll a 3 you add 1d8, if you roll a 4 you add 1d6, and if you roll a 5 you add 1d4. (This is almost certainly a terrible rule, I’m using it just as a very basic illustration of “compatible-but-not-the-same’).
Now, this changes the math of the game, and impacts how the game plays in many significant ways. Someone playing with the S.T.A.B.B.E.D. book is going to have a very different experience than with the S.T.A.B. book, and you can’t really have some players use one and some use the other. But you CAN use *either* to play through the classic adventure “King of the Demonpit Webs.” And they both work with the official expansion Stabinomicon book of extra classes, ancestries, spells, and talents.
But if a third-part publisher had released BASH (“Basic Adventure System Handbook”), based on STAB, and in BASH there was a whole system for earning a “booster die,” which you added to d20 rolls, and additional rules written with notes such as “If either your d20 die, or any die you get to add to it, is a 1, you take a point of Dangit, which the GM can use to cause you bad luck,” then the BASH system suddenly isn’t nearly as compatible with STABBED as it was with STAB.
Now, that example is clearly and intentionally ridiculous. But it shows how a new rulebook can have a set of notably different game rules that still work with all the official expansion books a company has released. It is, in that regard, “compatible.” And for people who only but official STABBED books, it doesn’t matter if they play older adventures or newer “Hardship paths,” though old STAB books, and anything other publishers build off STAB, may not work with all the new material.
While obviously I don’t have any insider insight into exactly what WotC is planning beyond what they have publicly stated, I have done this kind of backwards-compatible new game book work myself. It can be done. And it’s compatible.
Just not the same.
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It’s pretty common in Pathfinder 1st edition and Starfinder for GMs to occasionally ask for a raw ability score check (1d20+ability modifier), such as making a Strength check to muscle open a door, or making an Intelligence check to see if a character remembers some tidbit of information not related to a specific Knowledge skill. The games explicitly support this idea, but of course your ability score modifiers do not increase at anything like the speed of your skill bonuses, and since skills include ability score modifiers most GMs automatically scale the DCs of ability checks as a game increases in level to keep pace with skill DCs. This *isn’t* supported by the game rules, but it is perhaps inevitable.
Interestingly both 5e and Pathfinder 2e have a different DC/bonus progression that keeps raw ability checks competitive throughout a character’s career, on-par with attack and skill/proficiency checks. Some GMs and players have even called this out as one of the great advantages of those systems over older d20 game engines, and PF1 and Starfinder specifically.
However, if a GM and players want to have raw ability checks scale increase at roughly the same pace as skill bonuses, that’s easily arranged as a house rule. You just need to distinguish between a character’s ability score modifier (which adds to things like attack rolls, damage, skill checks, AC bonuses, and so on), and the characters ability CHECK, which is what you add to your d20 roll when making a “Strength Check” or “Intelligence Check.”
Note that this will allow characters to manage superhuman levels of ability score checks by mid-level, with heroes bursting stone doors off their hinges, holding their breath for minutes at a time, running marathons, and other events that are often ascribed to heroes in real-world ancient mythology.
Ranked Ability Score Checks
In addition to the actual modifier for your six ability scores, you need to track your ranks in each ability. Your ranks add to your modifier when making a raw ability check for that ability. Your ranks do not affect anything else you normally add your ability modifier (having +1 rank to Dexterity Modifier Checks does not increase your ranged attack, armor class, Reflex saves, or Dexterity-based skill checks, for example). You cannot have more ranks in an ability score check than your character level.
Select one ability score as your focus ability at 1st level. (In Starfinder, this must be your key ability score). You gain ranks equal to your level for that score’s ability checks, and an additional +2 focus bonus to ability checks for that ability. You gain three additional ranks at each level you may assign to any other ability scores.
If you gain a feat that grants you a bonus to all uses of one or more skill checks, it also grants you a +1 to one ability score used for one of the skills increased by the feat. For example, if you take Skill Focus: Swimming, you also gain a +1 to Strength checks. If you take Animal Affinity, you gain +1 to either Charisma ability checks (as Handle Animal is a Charisma-based skill), or Dexterity ability checks (as Ride si a Dexterity-based skill).
Feats that only grant a bonus to some uses of a skill check (such as endurance, which applies to some, but not all, Swim checks), you gain no special bonus.
Putting It All Together
So, let’s do an example.
Sashette the Seer is a 1st level human oracle. Her ability scores are Str 8, Dex 14, Con 13, Int 12 Wis 17, Cha 10. She decides to make Wisdom her focus ability, so she automatically gains one rank in it. For her remaining 3 ability check ranks, she puts one each in Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. So, her abilities, modifiers, check ranks and check bonuses look like this:
Sashette the Seer, 1st level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +1 check rank, +3 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +1 check rans, +2 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +0 check ranks, +1 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +1 check ranks, +2 focus, +6 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +1 check ranks, +1 total ability check)
At 2nd level, she automatically gains 1 rank in Wisdom (her ability focus), and continues to put 1 rank each in Dex, Con, and Cha.
Sashette the Seer, 2nd level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +2 check rank, +4 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +2 check rans, +3 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +0 check ranks, +1 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +2 check ranks, +2 focus, +7 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +2 check ranks, +2 total ability check)
At 3rd level, she decides she’s not as concerned about Constitution ability checks, but really wants to be better at Intelligence ability checks. Also, she takes the Skill Focus (Perception) feat, which gives her a +1 bonus to her Wisdom ability check total.
Sashette the Seer, 3rd level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +3 check rank, +5 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +2 check rans, +3 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +1 check ranks, +2 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +3 check ranks, +2 focus, +1 feat bonus, +9 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +3 check ranks, +3 total ability check)
For many groups, the additional bookkeeping won’t be worth the utility of a GM being able to use one set of scaling DCs for ability and skill checks. For others, a set of rules that mean a 10th level raging barbarian actually has a decent chance to smash in doors and lift portcullises will be a welcome addition. And some groups may even choose to replace the skill system entirely, allowing characters to be trained in any skill that is a class skill or they have a feat to grant a bonus to, and then using ranked ability checks in place of all skill checks.
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In the upcoming ShadowFinder modern fantasy play mode for Starfinder, weapons don’t do a set damage based on their item level, and mundane, typical weapons aren’t bought with credits. Instead anything reasonably available to a typical person (bolt cutters, road flares, blue jeans, baseball bats, cars, firearms, bandages, and so on) use a wealth mechanic to see if you can find and afford what you want when you want it. Credits are used for more esoteric items, such as magic and hybrid equipment, fringe science, psychically imbued crystals, alien relics, and so on.
Similarly, rather than a set damage, weapons have their damage based on a damage tier, which is calculated using a set of rules that are being polished as we speak. If you are proficient with a weapon, it’s base damage tier is your character level. If you are not proficient, it’s base damage tier is your base attack bonus -2 (and you suffer the normal nonproficiency penalty to your attack roll). Weapons then have a damage tier modifier, often based on things like their critical hit effects and special properties.
Here’s a sample of what some melee weapons will look like, and how the damage tier chart works.
Baseball Bat (1-h/2-h Basic Melee Weapon)
Wealth Check: 10
Damage Tier -1 (B)
Properties: Analog, archaic,
Critical Hit Effect: Knockdown
Stiletto (Operative Melee Weapon)
Wealth Check: 12
Damage Tier +0 (P)
Properties: Analog, conceal, feint
Critical Hit Effect: Bleed (1d6, +1d6/5 damage tiers)
Single Target Melee KAC Weapons
Damage 1-h 2-h 1-h 2-h
Tier Adv. Adv. Oprtv Basic Basic
-3 1d2 1d4 1 pt. 1 pt. 1d2
-2 1d3 1d4 1 pt. 1 pt. 1d3
-1 1d3 1d4 1 pt. 1d3 1d3
0 1d4 1d6 1d3 1d4 1d4
1 1d4 1d6 1d3 1d4 1d6
2 1d6 1d6 1d4 1d6 1d6
3 1d6 1d8 1d4 1d6 1d6
4 1d8 1d8 1d4 1d6 1d8
5 1d8 1d10 1d6 1d8 1d8
6 2d4 2d6 1d6 1d8 1d10
7 2d6 2d8 1d8 1d10 1d12
8 2d8 3d6 2d4 1d10 2d8
9 3d6 4d6 2d6 2d8 3d6
10 4d6 5d6 3d4 2d8 3d8
11 5d6 4d8 2d8 2d10 4d6
12 4d8 6d6 3d6 3d8 5d6
13 6d6 7d6 3d8 3d10 4d8
14 6d8 9d6 4d6 4d8 5d8
15 9d6 10d6 5d6 5d8 8d6
16 10d6 11d6 6d6 6d8 9d6
17 12d6 13d6 7d6 7d8 10d6
18 14d6 15d6 8d6 8d8 12d6
19 16d6 17d6 9d6 9d8 13d6
20 18d6 20d6 10d6 11d8 15d6
21 20d6 22d6 11d6 12d8 17d6
22 22d6 25d6 12d6 13d8 19d6
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No, this isn’t going to be as focused (or authentic) as my Revised, Partial List of Very Fantasy Words (which can be found here), but if you need jumping off points for soft science-technobabble, science-fantasy black-box-magic, or technology so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic, these may be good places to start.
A few of these can be put together to maybe mean something, but don’t count on it (or feel limited by it).
Asymmetric Chronal Matrix
Half-Death Decay Rate
Haser (H.A.S.E.R; Hex amplification by stimulated enchantment of radiation)
Inverse Reactive Force
Phrenic Bus Bar
Subcritical Thiotim Breeder
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