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Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Compatible Math Between RPG Subsystems, Pt. 1

Most ttRPGs have subsystems to handle different tasks a character might attempt, or threats they might need to overcome. For example, a game might have a rule for seeing if an attack hits a foe, a different rule for seeing how much damage it does, and a different rule for efforts to heal the wound over time. Often these rules have some sort of mathematical underpinning tied to a random number generator (dice cards, and so on) that determines success. Sometimes the systems have compatible math… and sometimes they don’t. In this series of essays we’re going to look at the pros and cons of having subsystems be mathematically compatible, and what kind of design pressure may lead to each system.

Now, to be sure, these trends of mathematical subsystems that interact with some randomizer to generate values of success and failure are not universal. Some games have only a single system and it applies to the success or failure of everything. Others manage to model success without randomizers, or even math in general. As a result the observations in this essay don’t apply directly to all ttRPGs, but only to a (broad) subset of them. For example, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow is a diceless system that uses math differently than, say Fantasy AGE. Similarly, Dread does away with random success chances in favor of a tension-building minor physical challenge, and while it’s not quite accurate to say it’s math-free (as having to do something once, vs having to do it twice, is a mathematical concept) it certainly isn’t using math the way most ttRPGs do.

However, even if these game systems don’t interact with math and randomizers in the same way as the items I’ll be discussing in more depth, that doesn’t mean some of the same pros and cons may not apply. Especially for people interested in modifying existing systems (or wanting to try their hands at designing a system from scratch), thinking about how different kinds of tasks are resolved, and whether those resolution mechanisms should be based on the same underlying rules, is useful regardless of what the game mechanics in question are.

I’ll also note that I find examining lots of different game systems useful to gain a greater toolkit of ideas and mechanics I can use for my own designs. While some mix-and-matching might feel weird (I wouldn’t recommend adding a Jenga Tower resolution mechanic to a card-based ttRPG game… at least not in MOST cases…), often being aware of a wider range of designs can help inspire new solutions to old problems (or, at least, help see potential problems and unintended consequences in advance).

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The Battle Between Success, Improvement, and Options in ttRPGs

I could make a MUCH longer post about this… but it wouldn’t actually be much more informative. So here is the short version.

(Illustration by Наталья Новикова)

When playing ttRPGs, in general (and always within the context of preferred complexity, crunchiness, and theme):

*Players like being able to have meaningful choices in character design.
*Players like having meaningful choices in character actions.
*Players dislike a single tactic or build being sufficiently superior that other choices are perceived as sufficiently sub-optimal that it is dumb to use them.
*Players want to have a good idea of what their chances of success are.
*Players get bored if there is frequently no chance of failure.
*Players want their characters to be better at their core task than other player’s characters.
*Players want to be able to improve how good their characters are at core and non-core tasks.

When trying to design games that meet all of these goals, game designers run into issues. If a player has meaningful choices in character design, and has a good understanding of what their chances of success are, and has ways to specialize to be good at a core task AND has ways to improve, odds are there will be a single character build and/or tactic that is clearly superior to other choices. And, worse, it doesn’t matter if there isn’t REALLY an optimal choice, just if a group of players conclude there is one.

If you fix that by having elements of success be divided among enough variables that there are multiple ways to try to be good at something (for example, if in combat you can increase you chance to hit a foe but it reduces damage, or you can increase your attacks per round but it decreases your accuracy), many players end up not knowing what will actually increase their total effectiveness, and be dissatisfied if something they felt would be a big improvement doesn’t pan out in play. (And some players will apply excellent math skills to determine a given build or tactic is actually optimal, and that reduces fun even if they aren’t right).

If you fix that by reducing the number of ways you can improve a character’s success, OR by making multiple options be closely hard-coded to very similar levels of success, players often feel like they do not have meaningful choices in either design (since they can’t make choices to improve their chance of success) or tactics (since it doesn’t matter which tactic you use, as they are all equally successful).

If you fix THAT by allowing a character to constantly find ways to improve their odds of success in multiple tactic or builds, it can be possible for a player to have little to no chance of failure, and they grow bored. This is especially bad if those options are easier for some players to find than others, so one player almost never fails, and other players feel they are penalized for taking different choices.

Obviously this is a much more complex issue but the core set of opposed desires and solutions are extremely common, the battle between Success, Improvement, and Options in ttRPGs.

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Koufrawraiths – A simple d20 monster template

This is designed as a simple template for monsters in a wide range of d20 games. It has a horror/mystery theme, and the GM should consider its use carefully. Certainly it’s going to be as dangerous as a creature 1 level or CR higher, and if PCs do not yet know how to deal with it, it may be much more dangerous. On the other hand, a group could walk right past one and never know it, so it needs to be used in an intentional way with forethought, rather than as a random encounter.

Koufrawraith

(Sleepless art by likozor)

A koufrawraith is a creature that exists in the dim fog between the waking world and the Plane of Dreams. They cannot be encountered by anyone fully in either realm, but do cross into any other reality where creatures able to sleep exist. Despite the name koufrawraiths are not necessarily undead, though undead koufrawraiths do exist. Many are hags, fey, monstrous beasts,and rarer examples exist as constructs, dragons, and oozes.

A koufrawraith’s existence can only be experienced by those who are fatigued or exhausted, but conscious. For any other creature, they cannot be perceived or effected, and the koufrawraith similarly cannot directly effect those who are ineligible to perceive it. It does perceive waking and sleeping creatures, but no action it takes (including things like casting spells that leave lasting effects, such as a wall of stone) can be perceived by, effect, or be effected by such creatures. Secondary effects can be–if a koufrawraith damages an exhausted person, the damage is visible and can be healed, but there is no evidence of how it was caused. Any effort to identify a koufrawriath from secondary observation or description suffers a -10 penalty.

Also known as sleepgaunts, koufrawraiths often prey upon lone insomniacs and those suffering great loss or toil. If feeds on the suffering of the tired, and prefers to hurt and frighten its food source, rather than kill them.

The ancient order of the Wearied Guard once drove koufrawraiths to near extinction, but once they were no longer a common threat, societies stopped supporting, or even believing, those who claimed their crucial work had to be done in the still of night, while bleary-eyed and staggering from fatigue.

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Strategy Boosts for the Starfinder Soldier (Pt. 3)

We continue looking at strategy boosts, an alternate class feature for the soldier. You can take a strategy boost in place of a bonus combat feat, as long as you meet the strategy boost’s minimum soldier level.

Soldier 6
A soldier must be at least 6th level to select these strategy boosts.

(Art by Camile)

Hold the Line! (Ex): You expend 1 Resolve Point as part of any other standard, move, or full action to inspire your allies to hold their ground against enemy advanced. Allies within 60 feet gain a +4 AC bonus against combat maneuvers that change their position (such as bull rush and reposition) and special attacks that move them (including swallow whole). If a special attack has an effect other than to move a target, the non-movement portion occurs if the attack hits the ally’s normal AC, but the movement portion only occurs if the attack hits the AC with the +4 bonus. These bonuses last until an ally is moved by an attack, or 10 minutes pass. This is a sense-dependent, language-dependent ability.

MEDIC! (Ex): When you allies are wounded, you can inspire those able to patch them up to move faster and do better. As a reaction when an ally takes damage, or as a swift action, you can expend 1 Resolve Point to select one damaged ally and call for a medic. For 2 rounds, any creature within 60 feet can make a Medicine check on the selected ally more quickly. Checks that normally take 10 minutes can be performed as a full action. Those that take 1 minute can be performed as a standard action, those that are normally a standard action can be performed as a move action, and those that are normally a move action can be performed as a swift action. Additionally, creatures can cast a spell with the healing description on the ally as a move action (as long as it’s normal casting time is 1 standard action or less).
This is a sense-dependent, language-dependent ability.

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Strategy Boosts for the Starfinder Soldier (Pt. 2)

We continue looking at strategy boosts, an alternate class feature for the soldier. You can take a strategy boost in place of a bonus combat feat, as long as you meet the strategy boost’s minimum soldier level.

(Art by Mike)

Soldier 4
A soldier must be at least 4th level to select these strategy boosts.

Gear Up! (Ex): As a standard action, you can direct your allies to prepare for hazardous situations. Each ally within 60 feet able to see and hear you can draw one weapon or piece of equipment, or activate a piece of equipment already ready for use (including activating environmental protection on worn armor, but not any kind of attack.) This is a sense-dependent, language-dependent ability.

Take Cover! (Ex): As a standard action, you can direct your allies to take cover. Each ally within 60 feet able to see and hear you can move up to their speed directly toward the nearest piece of cover. Allies that do this are staggered on their next turn (even if they are normally immune to being staggered, and this condition cannot be removed prematurely). This is a sense-dependent, language-dependent ability.

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Strategy Boosts for the Starfinder Soldier (Pt. 1)

Strategy boosts are an alternate class feature for the soldier. You can take a strategy boost in place of a bonus combat feat, as long as you meet the strategy boost’s minimum soldier level.

Honestly, while they are themed more around tactical concerns strategy boosts are exactly the same as Soldier Combat Feats, but with a different name and framing device for people who don’t like class-locked feats. (I tend to be fine with class-locked feats, since they have existed as long asd20 feats have existed, but I get why some people find them awkward.)

(Art by grandfailure)

Soldier 2
A soldier must be at least 2nd level to select these strategy boosts.

Fighting Withdrawal (Ex): When you affect an ally with covering fire, or hit a foe with harrying fire, the ally cannot be the target of an attack of opportunity, or the foe cannot make an attack of opportunity. This lasts until the beginning of your next turn.

Fire For Effect (Ex): When you hit and damage a foe, as a reaction you can call out targeting information to your allies to help them effectively attack that target. Allies within 60 feet able to see and hear you and see the target you selected can reroll any damage die from their own attacks against that target that show a 1 on the die. A given die is only rerolled once per attack.

Once you use this ability, you cannot do so again until you score a critical hit against a target (in which case you can use fire for effect as a reaction against that target), or you recuperate*.

*Recuperate is my proposed game term to represent when a character spends 1 Resolve Point to regain Stamina Points following a 10-minute rest.

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Soldier Feats for Starfinder

Unlike the fantasy RPG it evolved from, which has feats only members of the fighter class can take, Starfinder does not have feats that only Soldiers can take. It does have fighting styles and gear boosts as exclusive class features, but those serve somewhat different roles. As a class that is supposed to be the master of standard combat, it still makes sense that soldiers be able to use their bonus combat feats to pick up specific feats that allow them to perform actions in combat other classes cannot master. Here are some possible examples of soldier combat feats.

(Illustration by grandfailure)

Soldier Bonus Feats: These feats can only be taken using the soldier’s bonus combat feat class feature. A soldier must meet the feat’s prerequisites, but also cannot take them with feats gained from other sources–only their bonus feats gained from the soldier class.

BRACE (Combat, Soldier Bonus)
You have learned how to set yourself before an attack, trading defense for accuracy.
Prerequisites: Soldier Level 2.
Benefit: At the beginning of your turn, before you take any other actions, you can choose to brace as a move action. You gain a +2 bonus to attack rolls, and take a -4 penalty to your EAC and KAC. This penalty does not apply to your AC values against combat maneuvers, and it lasts as long as you are braced and until the beginning of your next turn even if your brace ends. You remain braced until you move, or choose to end your brace as part of any other action (which ends the brace after the action you combine it with).

IMPROVED FIRE SUPPORT (Combat, Soldier Bonus)
You know how to fire for effect.
Prerequisites: Soldier Level 2.
Benefit: You you provide covering fire or harrying fire (including when you do so while using other abilities, such as Suppressive Fire), until the beginning of your next turn the bonuses apply to all attacks against the ally you protect with covering fire or attacks allies make against the foe you penalize with covering fire.
Additionally if you take a full attack, you can use one or both of those attacks to perform covering fire or harrying fire (taking the normal attack penalty for your full attack to the attack roll needed for the covering or harrying fire to be successful).

OVERWATCH (Combat, Soldier Bonus)
You are skilled at attacking when specific circumstances arrive.
Prerequisites: Soldier level 6.
Benefit: You can ready an action to enter overwatch. While in overwatch, until the beginning of your next turn you can make an attack as a reaction to any action by others that you perceive. Your attack always occurs after the triggering action, you you do not need to declare what that circumstance is in advance. If you are knocked down or moved, your overwatch ends.

OVERWATCH MASTERY (Combat, Soldier Bonus)
You are expert at attacking when specific circumstances arrive.
Prerequisites: Overwatch, soldier level 8.
Benefit: When you are in overwatch, you can choose to take a -4 penalty to the first attack you make as part of overwatch. If you do so, you can make a second overwatch attack (also at -4) before the beginning of your next turn.

SKIRMISH (Combat, Soldier Bonus)
You can move up quickly to engage foes in melee and move swiftly from target to target.
Prerequisites: Soldier level 4.
Benefit: When you make a full attack with melee attacks, you can move up to your speed. You can move before or after both attacks, but all your movement must be taken at once, and you cannot move between the attacks. Once you make a melee attack roll against a foe while using Skirmish, until the beginning of your next turn your movement does not provoke attacks of opportunity from that foe.
Special: If you also have Spring Attack, when you use Skirmish you can break up your movement to move before, between, and after the attacks as long as your total movement does not exceed your speed.

WALKING FIRE (Combat, Soldier Bonus)
You can move while laying down heavy fire.
Prerequisites: Soldier level 4.
Benefit: When you make a full attack with ranged attacks, you can move up to your speed. You can move before or after both attacks, but all your movement must be taken at once, and you cannot move between the attacks.
Special: If you also have Shot on the Run, when you use Walking Fire you can break up your movement to move before, between, and after the attacks as long as your total movement does not exceed your speed.

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ShadowFinder Campaign Sketch

ShadowFinder is a concept for a Modern Urban Fantasy setting using heavily-modified Starfinder.

The idea behind ShadowFinder is that there used to be magic in our world, but it went away when the Gods of Old Egypt left to go a place Beyond. Then there was no magic to speak of, until a group of mystic champions arrived in Siberia during WWI to kill Rasputin, and accidentally left a few magic devices behind.

Now it’s the Modern era, and magic is common enough that most governments and many international organizations have at least one department that knows about it, and as needed deals with it. But the greatest protection a mundane creature can have is to believe magic does not exist, and so these in-the-know groups are literally protecting the world by keeping magic a secret. Further, just as vampires cannot be seen in mirror, they (and all magic effects and creatures) cannot clearly be recorded or sensed by any camera, film, or recording device, but are vulnerable to atomic weapons. So magic threats tend to try to stay out of sight, so they don’t force the whole world to grapple with their existence and potentially over-react with devastating power.

Both sides work to keep magic in the Shadows, and to find sources, allies, threats, and lost relics in those shadows to bolster their own side in a never-ending was keep just out of sight.

(Art by grandfailure)

Classes would be drawn from various sources. Soldiers and operative from the core rulebook, certainly, with little change. Likely mechanics, but with neither drones nor exo-cortexes as common options, replaced with some other variable class feature. No solarions or vanguards at all, but maybe sword saints. Warlocks and witches seem more appropriate than mystics or technomancers, though it’d be a shame to not have some kind of modern-device-focused spellcasters — again variant classes might do the trick. Biohackers are out, witchwarpers likely in. The precog is a definite maybe, depending on how it turns out.

Weapons would scale differently, with an equipment list that didn’t assume you got higher- and higher-level weapons, but instead use weapon damage benchmarks to scale up the damage a character does as they gain levels, allowing things like pistols, shotguns, and rifles to retain utility even at extremely high levels.

In a standard characters would at least initially be part of one of the groups that monitor, track, and if needed neutralize supernatural threats, and action would primarily take place in wilderness areas, abandoned towns, lonely highways, and defunct sewers, basements, and subway lines. As players got used to how the ShadowFinder world worked, some scenes might burst into the bright light of day, only to be misconstrued by the public (and maybe even misremembered by witnesses) as gas main explosions, terrorist attacks, or herds of feral hogs.

Plots could include locking down viral zombie outbreaks before they turn into zombie apocalypses, retrieving the book that got moved to a university’s accessible library that is bring people’s nightmares to life, undead serial killers that haunt campgrounds, tracking down wererat colonies that are feeding on the homeless, rescuing student filmmakers from nighthags in the woods, capturing souls that have escaped hell, slaying evil clown demons, and racing against time to beat cultists to the artifacts of power in the bottom of dungeons built in the ancient era to prevent them from falling into mortal hands. Along the way other weirdnesses might be encounters, such as cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers, giant alligators in the sewers, giant cockroaches mimicking humans, and genetically engineered giant spiders.

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The Gelatinous Cylinder, Part 2

Yep, more abilities for Gelatinous Cylinders, the bright red, reshaped gelatinous cube variant. Add then to the gelatinous foe of choice in your favorite d20 game.

(Art by the amazing Stan!, used with permission)

Phantom Faces: Though gelatinous cylinders are no more intelligent than other forms of gelatinous monster, some can form a face, generally locked into one or two expressions, and repeat overheard phrases. They often repeat things said by those they consume, from prior to the victim realizing they are in trouble. This mimicry is mindless, but the sound is so perfect it cannot be distinguished form the original voices.

Tantalizingly Preserved: Gelatinous cylinders with this ability stop the passage of time for any nonliving material stuck within them, and do not dissolve items that were not living when they entered the gel. Thus they often have foodstuffs, valuables, and even high-end clothing preserved and visible, juuuuust out of reach unless you want to plunge a hand into the cylinder…

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The Gelatinous Cylinder, Part 1

Yeah, it’s themed and silly. But there are some ideas here you can apply to gelatinous foes in your d20 game of choice.

There are more abilities in Part Two.
And even more in Part Three.

The Gelatinous Cylinder

Gelatinous Cylinders are a reshaped, deeply-red-colored offshoot of gelatinous cubes. While sages agree they are magically created rather than naturally occurring mutations, and it’s generally accepted the cylinders aren’t the desired end result, there are numerous competing theories as to what the creators were trying to do.

It’s often suggested their coloration was either an attempt to make sewer-cleaning creature that was more easily spotted by repair workers, or to make gelatinous foes more frightening by seeming to be soaked in blood. The cylinder-shape is also often held up as proof these were custom-built sewer cleaners, designed to fit through pipes. Others theorize are that they were literally made to be festive and silly-looking, possibly to serve as court jesters for the Oozing Empire of sentient slimes.

Gelatinous Cylinders can have a variety of strange powers. You can emulate a gelatinous cylinder by adding one of more of these abilities to your gelatinous cube state block of choice.

Sliceable: A gelatinous cylinder with this ability takes no damage from slashing weapons. However, when a slashing attack hits it, the gelatinous cylinder has a “slice” taken off. This slice is a gelatinous cylinder one size category smaller than the original and has the same stats, but with 20% of the original’s max hit points. The original loses 10% of its max hit points each time is spawns a slice. Slices cannot themselves form slices.

Small and Innocent Looking: A gelatinous cylinder with this ability can shrink down at rest, compressing itself to Tiny size. While in this reduced form and motionless, any ability or skill check to identify it as anything more than an innocent bit of edible food takes a -15 penalty. Once touched, the gelatinous cylinder explodes out to its full size and begins attacking.

We’ll do more gelatinous cylinder abelites tomorrow and Friday!

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