“I want to aim for his eye! So I can blind him, and kill him in one shot!”
“Okay, his eyes widen as he sees your malicious intent, and he throws up a guard. Make an attack roll.”
“What modifiers for aiming for his eyes?!”
“None. You’re always aiming for your foes’ eyes.”
“No I’m not! I’m just trying to hit. I want to do a lethal blow now!”
“You’re always trying to land a lethal blow, unless you do something special not to. It’s a fight. Your character is always doing their best unless you say otherwise. Your attack rolls already represent the very best attack your character thinks can land. Of course you want to stab him in the eye, or cut off his head, or pierce his heart. And that’s represented by the existing combat rules of the game. And when the foe goes down, that is when you succeeded.”
“But maybe I can do those things before that!”
“Sure. It’s called a “critical hit.” in this game. A “stunt” or special maneuver in other games.”
“But I want a SPECIAL chance to kill him in one shot!”
“Okay. Do you want every foe you ever fight to have a special chance to kill you in one shot, too?”
“You’re no fun!”
“If you want to try to be flamboyant in your attacks because that’s fun, I am fine with that. That’s why I said he reacted to your effort. And if this attack kills him, it’ll be because you ran him through the eye, and that’ll be awesome.
If you want to have a reduced chance to be effective because of what you are trying, feel free to not use your full combat bonuses.
If you want an increased chance to be effective because of what you are trying, once I allow that why wouldn’t you always do that? And every other PC? And every NPC?”
We covered some of the work you need to do well before you actually make a pitch to a game company in Writing Basics: RPG Pitches (Part One). Now we can go on to What to Pitch and When to Pitch It.
What to Pitch
Okay, so if you’ve gone and done the work we outlined in Part One, you have a number of game companies you know are publishing work for the game system you want to write for, and you know what kinds of projects they publish.
So, now it is time to pitch some things very similar to what they already do. Hopefully, there are projects you are excited about that are a good fit for one or more game companies.
If no-one is publishing the kinds of things you want to write, you have some tough decisions to make. Pragmatically, I recommend you get experience and contacts and a good reputation by pitching the sorts of things publishers are already interested in before you try to pitch unique projects no one else has ever thought of. The latter is amazingly useful if done well—but most publishers are going to be dubious about your ability to do something so nonstandard well until they have some idea of who you are and the quality and tenor of your work.
The best way to earn trust to do something outside the box is to prove you understand what the box is and why it’s there. Publishers gets weird and unusual pitches fairly often—everything from people who don’t understand the legal limitations of publishing (it’s hard to lose my interest faster than by pitching a project I legally can’t do, or that required me to do a lot of work on my end to get the legal rights so you can write a thing).
Once you have written a few things for a company that have turned out well, you can begin pitching more out-there ideas.
If you happen to have any special advantages or skills that make you the perfect person to write a pitch, be sure to include that info. For example, if you DO have the legal rights to do a licensed project that seems similar to what a game company is already doing, that’s something to mention early in a pitch. Make sure you’re actually right about that—for example if you have to have a friend who is a best-selling author and casually said they’d be fine with you writing game material set in their universe get that in writing (preferably with some details on timeframe, rights, royalty needs, and so on).
Or if you are pitching an adventure set in a sewer, and you have a professional wastewater civil engineering job, that’s worth mentioning.
When developing your pitches to suggest to a company you have never worked with before, come up with projects at the shortest end of the things that publisher does. You can include one longer one in a set of pitches, but in general something short is a great first project. It’s not asking the publisher to take as big a risk, and it’s not eating up as much of your time to create. Once you and the publish have a project or two together under your belts, you’re both in a better position to know if you want to work on longer projects together.
(Also, you can make sure the publisher is fulfilling their end of the contract before you get more work tied up with them. Do. Not. Work. Without. A. Contract.)
When to Pitch
Well, as soon as you have done your homework, and know your own schedule, and have a pitch written.
“But… but… gen Con and the GAMA Trade Show and the publisher’s announced schedule and my school year…”
Yep. Pitch now anyway.
Look, there is no “perfect” time to pitch. Your schedule, the publisher’s schedule, both of your sets of needs—those things are in constant flux. Shoot pitches out there asap, and then begin scheduling when you get replies back. If you have enough work booked for 6 months you can pause, but in general even if you have some work lined up it’s worth pitching new things—just be clear in your pitch what your timeframe likely is. Chances are you won’t hear back about your pitch for weeks anyway, and if your availability is different by then, just be honest.
I only included a When to Pitch section because people have asked me tons of questions about getting the timing of this right.
You can’t. Just do it. The time is now.
The Things You’ve Wanted Me To Tell You For 2,000 Words Now
Your success is going to depend a lot on how much you have read and absorbed all the notes and processes I’ve outlined up to this point, and on being persistent and not getting discouraged when the first company you contact turns you down. And the second. And the next ten.
But yes, there are some basic things you should do once you are actually writing and sending the pitch, and for those of you who have been wanting that list, you’ve finally reached that point in my advice. For all of these steps, remember what I’ve said about doing your homework, pitching things similar to what a company already does, and being ready to actually produce once you get a green light.
If at all possible, find the company’s “Contact Us” page, and use the appropriate email to send your pitch. If you can’t find that, contact them through other (public, professional) means and ask what their process is for accepting pitches. Read their whole website and Facebook page before you do that though—getting this right the first time is a much better impression on your ability to get details right.
Begin with an at-most 2-sentence introduction. If you have any connection at all to the publisher or company, mention it here but keep is SHORT, and don’t suck-up.
Pitch 3-4 projects each time you contact a company to see if they are interested in publishing something of yours. Try to make these different enough that if the company has a gap on its schedule, at least one of your ideas is a good match for their needs. Make sure the projects are all things you are actually interested in and able to write. (Some people try to have one “real” pitch and 2-3 terrible ideas they presume no one will choose to publish. Don’t do this.)
Your pitch should include the following information about each project:
A proposed title. This can be a great chance to prove you know their game product lines.
An elevator pitch description. (That is: if you found yourself sharing an elevator with a publisher and you mentioned you were a writer, and they said “Oh yeah? Got a project you’d like to write for us?,” the description of your idea that is complete but short enough to get out before the elevator finishes it’s ride is your “elevator pitch.” 2-3 sentences, top, and one is better.)
A length, in words. (Doing your homework on the company’s project should held you estimate wordcount based on the words in similar projects.)
A timeframe when you could complete it by, in weeks. If your timeframe has other limitations (“if I don’t get started by August I’ll have school, so writing will take long”) include that information.
Your flexibility on any of these points—but only promise what you can deliver.
Anything that is likely to convince the publisher that you are a particularly good choice to write the product in question. Again, be short.
Here’s a sample pitch, though in a real message I’d add 1-2 more project pitches.
Dear Rogue Genius Games,
I read your publisher’s blog article about game product pitches, and it inspired me to write to you to see if you had interest in some projects I’d love to write for you.
Title: Bullet Points: Halfling War Muffin Recipes.
Length: 600-1,500 words.
A 1st edition Pathfinder RPG rules guide that gives options for adding combat-effective and game-balanced baking-related abilities for players and GMs who want cooking-themed character abilities. Similar in size and scope to your existing Bullet Point projects that add rules for one theme, such as 3 Things Made From Crabmen. (This could also be expanded to be a longer Genius Guide-style project, more like the Genius Guide to name Traits.)
With my current workload I expect this would take two weeks to write once we decided to proceed, although if other freelance projects get greenlit first I might need to schedule more like 4 weeks.
I’ve written numerous OGL products for Pathfinder, and worked on Gingerbread Kaiju (an edible boardgame that included a gingerbread recipe in it), and have insights on how to make this both a useful game supplement and something that appeals to foodie gamers.
Thanks for your consideration,
Owen K.C. Stephens
(You can also put your phone number here, if you actually answer your phone. I don’t.)
And that’s it!
Now, go make a dozen more pitches, and while you wait to hear back about those, write for your Blog, Patreon, social media, make some videos… throw your creative spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks.
Then make more pitches.
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I haven’t done one of these for a while, so:
TOP TEN INEVITABLE GEEK SHOWS
10. The Southsons Family Park and Morty
Irreverent animated family comedy that riffs off more popular shows, while trying to create its own catchphrases and making all the same mistakes and with less original writing.
Look, Supernatural has gone on forever, all the main characters have died (most more than once), and no spin-off has been produced. So:
Young hunky gender-swapped clones of the most popular characters–Deanne, Samantha, Charlie, and Cassielle, try to make their own path and escape the shadow of their originals.
A reboot of the T-Rex Transformer as a high-functioning sociopath robot that solves crimes. Seven episodes over four years!
7. Mithral Girls
Linda Carter heads up this heroines-of-a-certain-age sitcom when powerful, confident women who saved the world in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s decide retirement isn’t the best use of their golden years.
6. Crowd Hoot
UNIT was disbanded for budgetary reasons… but not everyone is willing to leave the Earth undefended. Every time a new threat looms, rogue “Companion’s Companions” gather a different force of people who have traveled in a TARDIS before to deal with it. All under the direction of the mysterious mastermind “DN.”
5. Agents of G.O.T.H.A.M
It practically writes itself, continuity be damned.
4. Throne of Games
Political intrigue, sex, betrayal, and war as a single shared video game universe groans under the weight of Smash Brothers, Tekken, Mortal Combat, and Kingdom Hearts all fighting to control the Grid. The mash-up you never asked for!
3. The Mighty Crusaders
Heroes are big, in movies and on TV. Archie Comics characters are making a big push on TV and streaming. So doesn’t it make sense for the heroes originally written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel to get their own show?
The Shield, Flygirl, the Black Hood, War Eagle (if the rights can be ironed out), the Shadow (again, rights), the Comet. The Crusade starts now!
2. Star Trek: Eugenics War
After the war, the records of what happened when got badly confused. The Eugenics War is now, and Khan is Earth’s last, best hope.
I mean, it’s worth a shot…
1. CSI: Brainiac
He’s stolen cities and destroyed planets to collect all the knowledge in the universe. But there are some unsolved mysteries throughout the galaxy Brainiac can’t stand not knowing the answers to. So the all-powerful artificial intelligence has gathered the best CSIs of all worlds and sets them to solve one mystery each week.
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So, real talk.
The game industry does not run on motivation. It runs on hard work. The people I see who don’t grasp that, or who can’t accommodate it, don’t last.
It’s pretty easy to write when you’re motivated. That seems self-evident (it’s pretty close to the definition of ‘motivation’), and it’s one reason a great deal of writing advice talks about how to GET motivated, and STAY motivated. When that works for you, that’s great–I’ll take a motivated day of writing over an unmotivated day any time I can. Inspirations, muses, focusing techniques–these are all things that make game design and development much easier to actually do. They may or may not impact the quality of the end product, but they absolutely make it easier to get the work done.
But they are not the end-all, be-all of making it as a successful full-time professional.
I see people struggle all the time with making the leap from side-gig or hobbyist freelancer to growing professional, and a lot of that has to do with being able to operate without motivation. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobbyist or side-gig, I did it for years in the 1990s before I finally became a true full-time professional. Not everyone even wants to depend on the game industry for their full-time career, and I don’t blame them.
But if you DO want to make that leap, you are going to have to learn how to get work done, at a high quality, when you are not motivated to do so. When it’s just as hard as any other job.
I used to be asked fairly often how I got over writer’s block, and I’d glibly say I looked at my mortgage (nowadays it would be looking at my rent due). While that was clearly an effort to be funny, it’s also more true than I realized at the time. If I didn’t feel words coming to me easily, then I worked to get the words that were hard to produce. Because motivation was inconsistent, and as a game designer looking to make this my primary source of income, I couldn’t be inconsistent.
And in time, that became a skill like any other.
That’s not to say there aren’t tricks to use to get you through periods low on inspiration and enjoying the writing or developing process. Sometimes you can take a break from a project, and discover some other kind of game work is more fulfilling. Sometime you can subvert expectations or analyze what about a project you find lacking and, by addressing that, both become motivated and make the project better. Sometimes you can shuffle the order of things and do boring scut work–whatever that is for you, be it tables, paginations, formatting, outlining, finishing touches, whatever–when you’re not feeling creative to save the “creative” work for when your muse is working.
But sometimes, you just have to tackle the grind and get the job done.
I’ve discussed things related to this topic fairly often. I’ve talked about making sure the whole world isn’t your job, coping mechanisms for impostor syndrome, watching for signs of burnout, and even balancing the needs of burnout and the rent. I’ve also talked about working sick, which is closer to the kind of doing-the-job-when-you-don’t-care skill I’m talking about here, and what I see as the basics of game industry professionalism. And I’ve made lots of posts about coping mechanisms.
But I don’t think I’ve every just come out and said this:
“To be a successful, full-time professional in this industry, you have to do the work even when you are in no mood to do the work.”
And its corollary: “If you want people to trust you to be able to get the work of a full-time professional done, they have to have confidence in your ability to work when unmotivated.”
You don’t have to start there. But you do have to GET there, eventually, or you’ll hit a ceiling of success.
I have coping mechanisms for this, too, of course. I have no idea how universal they are, because this is a topic no one ever seems to want to talk about, until we’re huddled around drinks after-hours at a convention telling horror stories. So none of this may be useful to anyone but me. I offer them up regardless.
These may not help you do the work when you couldn’t care less, but you have to find SOMETHING that can.
So what do I use?
I talk to a trusted source, and see if they can spark some excitement. To be honest, this ENTIRE blog post comes from me not being motivated to write anything for the professional end of my blog this week, and talking to a trusted collaborator who suggested that itself was a topic I should tackle. And in this case, writing about lack of motivation was a perfect task for when I’m not motivated.
I try to change the conditions of my environment. Different-than-usual music, different diet drinks, different things on my desk–anything to alter the physiognomy of my work space. Even if I can’t spark motivation, I can alter the feel of the drudgery so it’s less wearying than the same thing over and over and over.
I work in bursts. Often I am better off writing for 20 minutes, no matter how bad or annoying or 5-degrees-off-true the words are, and then taking a short break. This works especially well if I am having trouble writing, but am still okay to develop existing words. By the next day, the work is existing text, and I can make improvements to the less-than-stellar work of the previous day.
That last one hurts. It means that, at the time I am doing the work, it feels like it’s not work worthy of me, or my employer, or the project.
But for a professional, sometimes what you have to focus on is that at the end of the day, it needs to get done. Every professional I have ever discussed this with agrees that sometimes, you just have to grit it out, so there adventure is finished, the book is published, the project can move forward…
The blog has content.
This is one reason editors and project managers and publishers talk about the value of a freelancer who hits their deadlines and stays in communication before they talk about awesome ideas and inspired writing. Obviously “great” is better than “adequate,” but adequate is better than greatness so late the company has gone bankrupt.
Without people who can do the job even when the muse is silent, inspiration doesn’t strike, and motivation is lacking, you can’t have a game industry. Once careers and house payments and full-time jobs and health insurance is involved, the product must get done, even if it’s not the most inspired entry in the field. And I don’t think we do anyone any favors to hide that fact. Sometimes this career is fulfilling and awesome.
Sometimes it’s what we have to do to fulfill our obligations.
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Runeblades always have cool, evocative names… but it can be a pain to have to come with them from scratch all the time. So for all your Runeblade name needs, here’s the What’s Your Runeblade quiz!
Take the second letter of your first name, and the last letter of your last name. So, as Owen Stephens, my Runeblade name is Shadow Slayer. (Or Shadowslayer—you can run them together or not, as you prefer.)
Or, you can roll 1d100 twice to create a random name.
Or just pick something cool. 😊
Runeblade Name Beginning
(Second letter of your first name, or 1d100)
A (01-04). Ash
B. (05-08). Bane
C. (09-12). Battle
D. (13-16). Blaze
E. (17-20). Blood
F. (21-24). Bright
G. (25-28). Crimson
H. (26-32). Dawn
I. (33-36). Death
J. (37-40). Doom
K. (41-44). Fear
L. (45-48). Foe
M. (49-52. Gray
N. (53-56). Hell
O. (57-60). Ice
P. (61-64). Luck
Q. (65-68). Mourn
R. (69-72). Night
S. (73-76). Pain
T. (77-80). Rage
U. (81-84). Run
V. (85-88). Sea
W. (89-91). Shadow
X. (92-94). Soul
Y. (95-97). Storm
Z. (98-100). War
Runeblade Name Beginning
(Last letter of your last name, or 1d100)
A. (01-04). Blade
B. (05-08). Bringer
C. (09-12). Claw
D. (13-16). Cleaver
E. (17-20). Crasher
F. (21-24). Dragon
G. (25-28). Fist
H. (29-32). Flame
I. (33-36). Friend
J. (37-40). Gate
K. (41-44). Hammer
L. (42-48). Iron
M. (49-52). Master/Mistress
N. (53-56). Moon
O. (57-60). Raven
P. (61-64). Razor
Q. (65-68). Sigil
R. (69-72). Skull
S. (73-76). Slayer
T. (77-80). Song
U. (81-84). Star
V. (85-88). Thunder
W. (89-91). Tomb
X. (92.-94). Tooth
Y. (95-97). Wand
Z. (98-100). Widow
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I think it’s helpful for the name of an RPG to tell you something about what the game is (supposed to be) like.
For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars (even if some folks will always claim it is just the Ghostbuster’s rules of D&D, “reskinned”).
Dungeons and Dragons does a good job of this–it’s a game about monsters and underground locations. Yes, it’s more than that, but it still tells you something. And it’s ubiquity allows you to show kinship with it easily enough — Tunnels and Trolls is clearly giving a similar feel as D&D. Mutants & Masterminds was brilliant.
Hero System and Champions are both pretty good.
Shadowrun was not as good as Cyberpunk, originally, but it is now. Gamma World was good, but Aftermath was better, and Marrow Project at least as good.
But Omega World was brilliant, because of Gamma World.
Both Vampire and World of Darkness did good jobs with this.
Star Frontiers was better than Traveller in this department, but Space Opera may have been better than either.
I’m not comparing the quality of these games as games. Just the ease of branding offered by their names.
I think about this, when I am working on things like Really Wild West, which I hope does a good job of immediately identifying itself as a kind of over-the-top Weird West setting.
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The most recent update to the Revised, Partial List of Very Fantasy Words can be found here!
Need to make a region sound more like a Croft or Realm? Want to make sure people reading your fantasy text think of you as argute?
Well then, you need a Very Fantasy Word!
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Blackskull (and its mistress) is a location you can use as the seed of one or more adventures. It can be a side-quest, the end of a small adventure, a goal for players to claim, or even act as a patron’s home base. Legend claims it is the remains of Akash, the Titan of All Knowledge and avatar of the Akashic Record. You can set it in a vast desert, at the center of a massive barrow ground, at the peak of a dangerous mountain, or just at the edge of a small town that has spring up to house and make money off people who come to speak to the oracle of Blackskull.
The one true power of Blakcskull is the highest chamber within the skull, known as the Lore Room, which once per day allows anyone making a Knowledge check there to gain a +10 circumstance bonus to the check, as the ancient knowledge of Akash soaks into their mind.
(Blackskull cartography from Dyson Logos, and available for use by license)
For years, Blackskull was a focal point for petty squabbles among various sects of gods of knowledge and wizards who wished to use its resources to design new forms of hybrid animals. After an unfortunate incident when two such forces combined and made a small chimera-like creature with the body and one head of a racoon, wings and head of a magpie, and additional head of an tiger keelback snake, which began stealing the holy books of all religious orders, the local baron set up a challenge that Blkacskull would be granted to the scholar who could answer the most difficult question the baron could pose.
And the winning sage was the Fel Sage, also known as the Blood of Knowledge, a minor bard lich who poses as a vampire.
The Mistress of Blackskull
The Fel Sage is legendary as a “reasonable” undead. She doesn’t have any ethical limitations on her choice of actions, and would happily burn orphanages to the ground if it further her own researches one iota. However, she is also an apt historian who has a clear view of what happens to evil overlords when they become a threat to the world at large—heroes come and destroy them. The Fel Sage doesn’t want to rule the world—that sounds like a lot of work—she just wants time to read all the books, scrolls, tablets, and folios she has gathered over more than a lifetime (which is why she became an undead to begin with—to have more time to read).
So, she used the power of suggestion to convince the baron to pose a question she already knew the answer to, answered it in a public show of her vast knowledge, and laid claim to Blackskull. As a result she even has some legal protections—as long as she doesn’t break local law, it’s illegal to kill her just for being an undead. Further, she acts as a sage for numerous adventuring parties and heroes, to ensure she has more allies than enemies—part of her plot to survive forever.
Though she used trickery to win her roost, in truth, the Fel Sage is capable of answering questions well beyond the norm for creatures of her power level. If she chooses to use the akashic communion spell she can gain a +10 insight bonus to one Knowledge check, and combine that with Blackskull’s Lore Room for a +10 circumstance bonus and her archivist version of lore master that allows her to take 20 on one Knowledge skill check per day, getting most of her Knowledge skill totals to +49 to +51. Of course even when this is her plan to answer a question, she insists such knowledge comes from days or even weeks of research, and generally only promises to have an answer after a petitioner has gone and gathered some rare book she desires (or rubbings off new ruins that have been discovered, or a drop of blood from an unidentified body that might spark a border war in a conflict zone so she can cast blood biography, or anything else that might quench her thirst for knowledge).
The Fel Sage only willingly sees people under the guise of a disguise self spell, and normally thus restricts herself to one meeting a day so as not to drain her spell resources (though she has scrolls if she is forced to break that rule). She doesn’t use her disguise self magics to appear human—that’s beyond the power of the spell. Instead she uses it to appear to be a vampire, a different form of undead than her own lich status, and an undead with a very different set of limitations and weaknesses.
While she sees significant tactical benefits to being mistaken for a vampire, her main motivation is actually pride. She is an extremely weak lich, having only barely managed to transform herself and only because she found a document with the easiest, most carefully-explained lich ritual ever. She fears mockery if the world at large ever discovered she was, essentially, the weakest lich ever. But if she poses as a vampire, her immunity to daylight and ability to claim she holds off bloodlust through ancient elixirs and pure willpower make her seem extraordinary and special.
She also uses her disguise self to make her whip look like a dagger, and to make an impressive magic ring appear on her hand, which she pretends is the source of her paralyzing touch lich power.
If a group comes to her with some question that must be answered she insist on being paid in rare knowledge and books, and often has some specific quest she insists on sending adventurers on. If possible, she picks tasks that are more dangerous than they sound, hoping anyone bothering her will be killed off rather than return for an answer—but if they do return, she sees the benefit in having adventurers who will put themselves as risk for her benefit, and treats them fairly. If any seem taken with her comely vampire guise, she does her best to establish a sense of intimacy, often creating a first name she offers to allow them to call her (which she makes up n the spot, the Fel Sage has long since forgotten her “life name,” which she considers irrelevant to her new existence).
Of course she is a lich, and she is evil. Someday, even with the tenuous protection of local law, someone will decide she has to go.
Her hope is that when that day comes, more adventurers will want to keep her around than get rid of her.
The Fel Sage
Female lich (human) bard (archivist) 7
NE Medium undead
Init +2; Senses darkvision (60 ft.), Perception +19; Aura fear (60-ft. radius, DC 19)
AC 18, touch 12, flat-footed 16 (+1 armor, +5 natural armor, +2 Dex)
hp 73 (7d8+35)
Fort +3, Ref +8, Will +7; +4 vs. bardic performance, language-dependent, and sonic
Defensive Abilities channel resistance +4; rejuvenation; DR 15/bludgeoning and magic; Immune cold, electricity, undead traits
Speed 30 ft.
Melee whip +7 (1d3–1), touch +2 (1d8+3 plus paralyzing touch)
Ranged light crossbow +7 (1d8/19–20)
Special Attacks bardic performance 22 rounds/day (countersong, distraction, fascinate, inspire competence +3, lamentable belaborment*, naturalist +2*), paralyzing touch (DC 19)
*Represents an ability gained from the archivist archetype
Bard Spells Known (CL 7th; concentration +12)
3rd (2)—akashic communion, charm monster (DC 19)
2nd (4) alegro, blood biography, invisibility, mirror image, suggestion (DC 18)
1st (6)—beguiling gift (DC 17), charm person (DC 17), disguise self, expeditious retreat, hideous laughter (DC 17), memory lapse (DC 17), saving finale, touch of gracelessness (DC 17)
0 (at will)—detect magic, ghost sound (DC 16), light, message, prestidigitation, sift
Str 8, Dex 14, Con -, Int 14, Wis 12, Cha 22
Base Atk +5; CMB +4; CMD 16
Feats Arcane Strike, Greater Serpent Lash, Lingering Performance, Serpent Lash, Weapon Finesse
Skills Acrobatics +12, Appraise +11, Disguise +16, Knowledge (arcana) +9, Knowledge (dungeoneering) +11, Knowledge (engineering) +9, Knowledge (geography) +9, Knowledge (history) +9, Knowledge (local) +11, Knowledge (planes) +11, Knowledge (nobility) +11, Linguistics +7, Perception +19, Perform (oratory) +16, Sense Motive +14, Spellcraft +6, Stealth +19, Use Magic Device +16
Languages Common, Giant, Polyglot, Necril
SQ bardic knowledge +3, jack of all trades*, lore master (take 20*) 1/day, magic lore*
*Represents an ability gained from the archivist archetype
Combat Gear scroll of comprehend languages, scrolls of disguise self (2), scroll of restful sleep, wand of cause light wounds (50 charges), wand of grease (50 charges); Other Gear quilted cloth armor, light crossbow with 10 bolts, whip, cloak of resistance +1, headband of alluring charisma +2, backpack, spell component pouch, 25 gp
Blackskull in Your Campaign
You can use Blackskull and the Fel Sage as traditional villains and adventure locations if you wish–just have the Fel Sage send thugs to gather lorebooks by any means necessary, the thugs steal something from friends of the PCs, and the adventure is on! Or she can become a colorful patron, always willing to answer the PCs’ questions… in return for their taking on some dangeorus mission (which gives you, the GM, an easy work-around any time your PCs are stumped–they can get the answer to any question, as long as they do an extra adventure for the Fel Sage to make up for it).
Of a PC could become the “legal” owner of Blackskull somehow, and have to kick the Fel Sage out of it.
Or the PCs could discover some foe of their is always one step ahead of them because that foe buys information from the Fel Sage, and force the PCs to decide if they want to kill her, or buy her off to gain information of her own.
It’s easy to add some encounters to Blackskull to make it a mini-dungeon. Since the Fel Sage is CR 8, throwing together some CR 4-9 monsters is easy enough. here are some examples.
*An androsphinx waits outside, having paid the Fel Sage to find him a new riddle, and he attacks anyone who tries to go in before he has his answer from her.
*An annis hag has become the Fel Sage’s apprentice, usually taking the form of a sky maid named “Lilly.” Lilly tries to get visitors to violate any of the Fel Sage’s rules, so she can kill and consume them. Also, she makes soup.
*One of the upper elvels is protected with a flame strike trap.
*A hill giant, Onks, serves as the Fel Sage’s guard. She has convinced him he is descended from the titan Akash, and that if he serves her long enough he’ll become smart. This is a lie.
*The lowest level has been blocked off and flooded, and there’s a globster in it. because the Fel Sage read about one, got one imported to study, and now doesn’t know what to do with it. She doesn’t feed it much, so it’s hungry.
The Fel Sage has stuck a lurker above in the room off the right eye socket, to protect access to the Lore room. It knows she’s rotted meat, and has no interest in eating her.
*Two bookcases are actually Wood Golems.
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Gambling, and being a professional gambler, are common Wild West tropes, so the ideas ought to be supported in the Really Wild West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game (which, after a long rest, is going to start getting regular support from me again!).
On the one hand, those rules ought to include some way to have dramatic gambling scenes for when a game of chance has become crucial to the plot. On the other hand, most people don’t want to have to be good gamblers to play the gambler character (any more than they want to have to be sharpshooters to play gunslingers).
So the rules should be simple, and play to the character sheet as much as the player, while retaining some dramatic tension.
Step one is to explicitly allow “gambler” as an option for the Profession skill. In most cases, a character who wants to make money gambling just uses Profession (gambler). While all professional gamblers can pull from a broad toolbox to make money, the emphasis of their gambling style is determined by what ability score it’s based on. If the skill is Intelligence-based, the gambler depends primarily on knowing the odds and rules of the games, calculating the smart bet and using betting schemes to maximize wins and minimize losses. If the skill is Wisdom-based, the gambler depends more on reading other gamblers and trusting instinctive gut feelings on how to bet. If the skill is Charisma-based, the gambler depends more on bluffing, faking out other gamblers, or using a distraction to cover cheating.
Unlike most Profession skills, a character can make Profession (gambler) checks untrained *thought they cannot use it for the earn a living task if untrained). A player decides what ability score Profession (gambler) is based on when they take their first rank it in (and may choose any ability score if using it untrained).
To make things slightly more interesting, a character with Profession (gambling) can use casual betting when making the skill check for the Earn a Living task. The player bets a number of credits equal to their Profession (gambler) skill +10. Then if their skill check for the task (which they may not take 10 on) results in a d20 roll of 2-5, their bet is lost and no money is earned. On a 6-10, they win back their bet, but do not earn any additional income. On an 11-15, they win back their bet and earn credits normally. On a 16 or higher, they win back their bet and earn twice as much as normal for a week’s work. On a natural 1, they lose the bet and lose the same amount of additional credits. (Overall this option is good deal for the player.)
Once a character has used this option for a week in a settlement and made money doing so, it’s not normally available again for at least a month (as locals have learned better than to play with the character). A GM may modify this rule for cities with lots of gambling, very large settlements, and times when numerous new potential gambling partners are appearing regularly.
Dramatic gambling is only used when the GM calls for it, and normally only when there’s more on the line than just credits. This is the option when the master villain insists on playing poker to see who wins the blood-soaked contract that sells a soul to a devil, or a neutral third party won’t sell the crucial material for a required ritual, but will gamble for it. Unless all the players are gamblers (or find interacting with the dramatic betting rules interesting), this should be as rare as any other focus most players can’t interact with—it’s fine as a spotlight scene or a change of pace, but you shouldn’t build regular encounters out of these rules unless your players know the campaign is going to have a gambling focus.
Dramatic gambling can be done with Bluff, Culture, Diplomacy, Profession (gambling), or Sleight of Hand (with potential consequences). Characters must make multiple checks during a dramatic gambling event, usually using at least two different skills. Most of these skills cannot be used more than once during a dramatic gambling event. The exceptions to this are Profession (gambling) and Sleight of hand, which may always be used. If a character decides to use Sleight of Hand they are choosing to cheat, and all participants and bystanders are allowed to make an opposed Perception check with a -5 penalty and, with a successful check, spot the character cheating.
Before any rolls are made, the gambling event’s stakes must be determined. This can be as simple as an amount of money risked by each participant, but for dramatic gambling events it’s equally likely to be some sort of plot point. For example, if the PCs are trying to convince the Cattle Duke of Montana to allow them to lay train tracks through his grazing lands, the Duke might decide the issue is settled by a high-stakes game of Red Dog, as represented by a dramatic gambling event. Similarly, if the specific player is trying to pick up a legendary item using renown, a GM might decide the final task needed to do so is a throw of the dice with Death herself… again, as a dramatic gambling event.
If the stakes are money, the winner gets to double their stake, and everyone else loses their stake (any “unwon” money goes to the house, which is never a PC). If the stakes are more plot driven the GM should be clear about the consequences of winning and losing. The PCs convince the Cattle Duke to allow their train through his territory if they win, and lose any chance of a peaceful settlement of the problem if they lose. The PC wins a legendary weapon from Death with a win, and gains a temporary negative level with a loss.
Stakes should also include the cost of folding. A character can fold until the Final Reveal. Normally folding costs you half your stakes, though for dramatic gambling where the stakes are more conceptual, the GM should just establish stakes that are half as bad as loosing (the Duke won’t work with you, but will allow you to keep trying to find a new deal he likes better. Death doesn’t give you the legendary item, but the negative level only lasts 1d6 days.)
The First Deal
Once stakes are set, the First Deal is made. This represents how good a position each participant begins with in the gambling. This need not be one hand of cards, or even cards at all. It could represent luck in the first spin of a roulette wheel, how good information about a horse is, or the value of an initial die roll in a gambling dice game.
Each participant in the event rolls a d20 in secret. The die is set aside for the moment. The First Deal is used to determine the final winner of the dramatic gambling event, but not yet.
No abilities that affect d20 reroll can be used on another character’s First Deal, including things like rerolls, unless the character using the ability has successfully Read the d20 result first. Any participant can attempt to Read another participant’s First Deal with a successful use of the detect deception task of Sense Motive check. This can be attempted once after the First Deal, once after the First Deal, and once after the Raise Round, each time looking at a single participant’s First Deal. On a successful check, the raw d20 result of the First Deal is revealed. Once you use Sense Motive to attempt to Read a First Deal you can’t use Sense Motive for any other purpose during the dramatic gambling event.
The GM can ask to see anyone’s First Deal die result, but can’t have NPCs act based on that knowledge without successfully using an ability to Read it.
After the First Deal, comes the Raise Round. Each player makes one d20 roll in the open. Then, from lowest die result to highest, each participant chooses a skill to add the bonus of to d20 roll. Characters can only use their ranks + ability score for this bonus, unless they state they are using some other rule that affects it, such as a class feature, feat, racial ability, spell, or item. (Using spells or items is always considered cheating, and requires a Stealth check opposed by all bystander’s and participant’s Perception checks, to do so without being noticed). Any such ability that affects a die roll or skill bonus can only be used once at any point in the dramatic gambling event. If an operative decides to add operative’s edge to a skill check for the Raise Round, it cannot be used again in the Final Round, even for a different skill.
Once each participant has done this, and the current result of all the raise Round skill checks are known, in the same order characters may choose if they wish to change to a new skill (perhaps one with a higher bonus), or to add an ability that can impact the Raise Round skill check. If anyone does so, another round of potential chances to skills used and class features is taken, repeating until all players pass.
Any skill or ability used in this process cannot be used again in the Final Round.
The winner of the Raise Round is allowed to roll an additional d20, in the open. In the Final Round, that player can use his original First Deal d20 check, or the new d20 roll. This decision need not be made until all the Final Round actions are completed, and everyone’s First Deal is revealed.
If two or more character’s Raise Round skill check totals are tied for the highest total at the end of the Raise Round, whichever character got to that total first wins the round.
At any point in the Raise Round, a participant may Fold, in which case they lose half their stakes (or suffer the more minor penalty, for dramatic gambling events with nonmonetary stakes.)
In the Final Round, participants go in reverse order of the order used in the Raise Round. Each participant chooses a skill and declares what their total bonus for that skill is, but do NOT yet reveal what their total is with their First Deal die.
As with the Raise Round, after every participant has declared a skill and any abilities they wish to use to boost it, another round is held where characters may swap to new skills or add new abilities. After each round, characters may Fold, as with the Raise Round.
After everyone passes, everyone in the same order decides to Fold or Call.
Everyone who Calls reveals their First Deal d20 roll, adds their total bonus, and the highest total wins. Whoever won the Raise Round may swap to their second d20 roll in place of their First Deal roll after seeing everyone else’s total. In case of a tie, the character with the highest number of ranks in their chosen skill wins (better good than lucky). If there is still a tie, everyone tied rolls a d20 and the highest result wins.
Example of Play
Alex (a soldier), Janye (an operative), and Stan (an envoy) are playing out a dramatic gambling event. They establish stakes, 100 credits each.
Each of them makes a First Deal roll. Alex gets a 4, Jayne a 7, and Stan a 17, but none of those die results are revealed.
Alex decides to attempt to Read Stan’s First Deal die roll. Alex makes a Sense Motive check, opposed by Stan’s Bluff check. Alex succeeds, and learns Stan’s hidden die roll is a 17. Alex now can’t use Sense Motive for any purpose in this dramatic gambling event other than attempting another Read check after the Raise Round.
For the Raise Round, Alex, Jayne, and Stan each make another d20 roll this time in the open. Alex gets a 15, Jayne an 11, and Stan a 10. Since Stan rolled the lowest, he is the first to declare a skill total. Since he knows he has a 17 as his First Deal, he decides to use a lower skill here and states his using Diplomacy, which is +8, for a Raise Round total of (d20 roll 10 + 8) 18.
Jayne goes next. She has Profession (gambling) at +12, and is an operative with another +2 from operative’s edge. She can use Profession for both her die rolls, but can only apply her operative’s edge to one of them. Knowing she has a First Deal roll of 7, she’d like to win the Raise Round to get a reroll, but hopes she won’t have to use operative’s edge to do it. So she uses her Profession skill without her+2 operative’s edge, getting a total of (d20 roll 11 +12) 23.
Alex has a Raise Round result of 15, and knows his First Deal result is 4 and Stan’s is 17. His best skill is Culture, which is +12, and his second-best is Diplomacy, which is +9. He feels he must get the reroll in the Raise Round to have any hope of winning, and isn’t sure using Diplomacy is good enough. It would get him a 24, better than Jayne’s current total, but if she has any abilities to boost her result she could beat him. Alex decides to use his Culture to get a total of (d20 roll 15 +12) 27.
Everyone has a chance to change their skills now, again beginning with Stan. Stan decided he wants to prevent Alex or Jayne from getting the reroll from winning the Raise Round, even if he doesn’t need it, so he switches to his Bluff, which has a +12 bonus and gives him the option of adding a +1d6+1 expertise die. Stan decided to use the expertise die now, and rolls a (1d6 roll 4 +1) 5, giving him a +17 bonus for this skill check. That gives him a (d20 roll 10 +17) 27 total as well. However since Alex got that result first, he wins the tie.
No one else wants to use any other skills, so Alex wins the Raise Round. He makes a d20 Raise Roll in the open, getting a 12. Now he can use either his original First Deal result of 4, or his Raise Roll of 12, for the Final Round.
On the Final Round, participants go in reverse order of their Raise Round totals (Jayne 23, Stan 27, Alex 27). Each announced their skill total, but does not yet reveal their First Deal die. Jayne knows Alex has a Raise Roll result of 12 he can use, and she knows her own First Deal roll is a 7. She declares she is using Profession (gambling) again, which gives her a +12 bonus, and that she is using operative’s edge (there’s no reason not to), for a total of a +14 bonus.
Stan used his best skills (Bluff and Diplomacy) and his skill expertise class feature, so his best remaining option is to use his weaker Sense Motive skill, at +7.
Alex knows he has a Raise Roll of 12, but his best remaining skill is diplomacy at +9.
No one has any additional abilities to add or better skills to switch to, the everyone passes.
Jayne then must decide to Fold or Call. She has a skill bonus of +14 and a First Deal die roll of 7, so she knows her total is 21. She also knows Alex has at least a 12 (his visible Raise Roll) and a bonus of +7, also a 21. She thinks she has more ranks in Profession (gambling) than Alex has in Diplomacy, so she calls.
Stan has a skill bonus of +7, and a First Deal die roll of 17, for a total of 24. But he is afraid Jayne’s much higher skill bonus makes her more likely to win. He folds, and loses half his stakes (50 credits).
Alex thinks Jayne must have a really bad First Deal die roll, so he Calls.
Jayne and Alex then reveal their totals. They are tied at 21, but Jayne DOES have more ranks in her skill than Alex has in his, so she wins. Alex loses all his stake, and Jayne doubles her stake.
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