Blog Archives

Quick Kitbashing Starfinder Monsters

Sometimes you want a new foe your players haven’t seen before, or that perfectly fits a need in your adventure. (I’ve been doing this fairly often as I prepare to run Really Wild West games, for example). But you don’t want to take the time to build a minor foe from scratch.

Luckily, in Starfinder, reskinning and kitbashing new foes can be quick, easy, and do a great job of creating new enemies.

Let’s say you want a new robot foe for your PCs to tangle with. A robot dinosaur, perhaps?

Let’s make a velocirobot.

Robodino

(Art by DM7)

Since the dinosaur, dromeaosaurid is pretty close to a velociraptor, let’s start with that. First, we take away anything it shouldn’t have. So, the dromeaosaurid is an animal. That means it got low-light vision, and a +2 bonus to Fort and Ref saves. Since our velociraobot is a construct rather than an animal, we strip those out.

Next we add what a construct gets. So darkvsion and low-light, set Con to –, -2 to all saves, and +1 to all attacks. That’s all we *have* to do to make this rules-correct. (If we’d done things with subtypes, we could go through those too… but the Robot Dragon entries suggest we can also just blur those lines if we want to).

And now, in less than 5 minutes, we have a custom robot!

ROBODINOSAUR, VELOCIROBOT

Velocirobot    CR 3
XP 800
N Medium construct (technological)
Init +3; Senses darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision; Perception +8

DEFENSE                HP 45

EAC 13; KAC 15
Fort +2; Ref +3; Will +0
Immunities construct immunities; unliving

OFFENSE

Speed 50 ft.
Melee talons +12 (1d6+5 S; critical bleed 1d6) or bite +12 (1d6+5 P)
Offensive Abilities pounce

STATISTICS

Str +2; Dex +3; Con –; Int –4; Wis +1; Cha +0
Skills Acrobatics +8, Stealth +13

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Pounce (Ex) When a velocirobot charges, it can also make a full attack.

ECOLOGY

Environment any
Organization solitary, pair, or pack (3–12)

Robodino2

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Q&A with Owen for Digital Gen Con

Heya Folks!

I have an ear infection, which took me out Thursday and most of Friday. But I also did some AMA things to try to replicate the hanging out experiences of Gen Con for its digital equivalent. A lot of the good questions and answers are buried deep in threads, so I wanted to pull them together for you with simplified versions of the questions as a double-helping of blog post content!

So, just pretend this was all said while hanging out at a bar after-hours of a convention. 🙂

Image may contain: Owen KC Stephens

Q: What general advice would you give someone just starting to get into ttRPG game design?
A: Keep creating.
Seek work-life-balance.
Try new things. Write a new poker game. Do a chess variant. Look for the neat parts of games you dislike.
Listen to and read advice from everyone. Especially people with different backgrounds and life experiences.
Diversity is gold.

 

Q: Other than writing and creative writing, what skills should I develop to be a better tabletop Roleplaying Game designer?

A: I recommend looking at some game-specific skills. For example, what makes something fun? (And, I absolutely suggest A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster). Look at probability and averages and bell curves, with regards to dice. Especially if you use dice-based games.
Then, write some things for yourself. Doing it on a blog or appropriate form can help get some feedback, but the important thing is to write ALL of a few different kinds of game content.
For example, write an entire adventure.
That adventure can be just three encounters, but include the introduction, the instruction to the GM, descriptions of areas and NPC motivations, any monsters, treasure, wrap-up, and so on. For example for Pathfinder 2e: I’d say write a short adventure. Write a spell at each level, and make sure they are divided among the traditions. Write some feats. Write an archetype. Write items at different item levels. The best way to start is to *start*. You’ll learn from there.
If you want to write for a game that has multiple publishers supporting it, reach out to all of them. Find emails. Know what lines of products they publish. Make some pitches. I have some blog articles where I talk about pitches.
https://owenkcstephens.com/2018/12/10/writing-basics-rpg-pitches-part-one/
https://owenkcstephens.com/2019/01/23/writing-basics-rpg-pitches-part-two/
Also, follow and read every professional game designer, editor, and publisher you can on social media. Interact with them, politely and positively. Learn from them, both in the knowledge they offer, and how they comport themselves (you can learn from bad examples too).
Don’t just follow and interact with designers that fit one mold either. Learn from everyone. All games systems, all backgrounds, all life experiences. Diversity is golden. I

 

Q: I am often convinced my ttRPG project has no value. How do I push through and finish it?

A: Sometimes, you just have to push through. I often promise myself I’ll send a thing out to be reviewed and, if the reviewers hate it, never publish it. Self-inflicted negativity is super common among gaming pros. I talk about it at bit in this blog article.
https://owenkcstephens.com/2018/08/13/imposter-syndrome-in-the-game-industry/

 

Q: How do your organize your projects?
A:  I generally start by working on an outline. Be it a huge book. tiny article, or even a whole game line, an outline of high points and sections is the best way for me to organize my thoughts and keep track of where I am.
I personally just organize my outlines in word, using various headers.
I talk a little about outlines in this blog article, which also links to my related article on headers/
https://owenkcstephens.com/2019/10/28/writing-basics-the-freelance-work-process/

 

Q: What are the most important elements of game lore and worldbuilding?
A: Creativity
Clarity
Relatability, balanced with originality.
Utility. If a GM or player can’t use it somehow — to describe a region or culture, to inspire adventures, to explain important bakground — then why are you including it?
And a few interesting touchstones of details that are just enough to catch GM and player’s interests.

 

Q: Is the twenty-sided die the best randomizer for ttRPG rules?
A: There is no ideal. Each randomizer had pros and cons. d20 is simple, easily understood, and has a nice range of results. But 2 is as likely as 20. For some things, bell curves are good. For some, die pools. For some, drawing cards. It depends on what the needs of your game are.

 

Q: How do I acknowledge the impact previous games have had on my game design?
A: Ignoring the question of specific licenses (such as the OGL) which can complete things– I like forewords, myself. “Many amazing games and designers helped guide me as I worked on Halfling & Haberdasheries. I was particularly inspired by the Kobold Caps “hat trick” mechanics.”

 

Q: How much should I budget for art in an RPG? How much do artists charge?

A: Most concept artists have rate sheets, so you know in advance what you need to budget for them. Which runs from dozens to hundreds of dollars per piece. Also, talk to them about how they handle sketches and revisions.
Here’s sample rates, for finished art from Jacob Blackmon.

Image

 

Q: I want to learn to play new RPGs. Other than dropping in on new groups at conventions, what else can I do?

A: When life gets back to normal, you can see if your Local Friendly Gaming Store has new game nights, or a board with people offering to teach games. 🙂

 

Q: I have a project I want to send to playtesters since I can’t safely playtest in person but… what if the people I send it to steal it?

A: Get signed Non-Disclosure agreements from everyone before sending them the files. And send them to folks you trust. That’s what big companies do. And if you can, get at least one session done digitally so you can watch, it can be super-insightful!

 

Q: What are good and bad ways for fans to approach you at a convention or event>

A: My favorite way is politely and directly. “Hi, I’m a Big Fan. Would you sign my book for me?”
If I seem to be at liberty, invite me to a meal (Monica is not wrong — I got some quality time with Aaron Allston by offering to buy him lunch), or a drink.
If I am in a group, just stand in it, and if the conversation goes that way, offer to say hi.
My least favorite is barging and demanding. I have had people interrupt whoever I am talking to, or interrupt me, to introduce themselves and gush out a question in the middle of someone else’s answer.
Also, don’t ask me for a lot of time to do you a favor when we first meet. “Hi, will you go over this adventure I printed and have with me and tell me what I need to do to it so you’ll publish it?” is a bad introduction.
Nothing wrong with letting me know you’d like to know if I do such things, but work up to it in stages, and don’t expect it to happen right here and now.
Also if I am on a panel, or heading to another panel, or manning a booth and trying to sell things, don’t plant yourself in front of me and monopolize my tine.
Also, introduce yourself, even if we’ve spoken before. I can be bad at connecting name and face. Let me know the context of why you want to talk to me.”I love your work on Star Wars Saga Edition” tell me you know who I am. “You’re a designer, right? You hire people?” makes me wonder if you are just an opportunist.
Being an opportunist can be fine, to be clear, but even then I recommend using something I just said as a jumping -off point to talk to me, rather than try to jerk the conversation to your topic.
Don’t hug without asking if it’s okay (I am generally fine with it, but I am also a big believer in enthusiastic, ongoing consent).
Also, I personally recommend attaching your name badge with two lanyards, one in each corner, so it is less likely to flip around backwards.

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First Really Wild West Session — After-Action Report (Part 2)

Apparently there REALLY IS a big demand to hear more about my first session of “Really Wild West: Doomstone.” You can read Part One (which covers the first fight on a train) here, and may find some useful context from the campaign notes I developed from this session.

Disintigration Ray

After the fight, the PCs introduce themselves, and compare notes.

  • According to the Transit and Portage Guild’s bylaws, since the PCs were instrumental in defending Old Number Seven, they have the right to a payment from the train. The acting conductor (the halfling porter) offers them a cut of the valuables from the robbers, or passes for free rides any associated vehicle in perpetuity (the end date on the passes is officially “Kingdom Come.” Every PC decides to take lifetime free travel.
  • The soldier/mystic says he’s gonna talk to Vardalos, the dead Kasatha. PCs all follow, The soldier/mystic casts “grave words,” and the corpse says the following:
    • Stormfront rolling
    • The grass is all blue
    • The venom king has returned – the signet ring
    • My manticore gang – on the revolvers
    • All is lost
    • The teacup is in the meadow
    • Bandersnatch
  • One of the Fonts & Bismark agents confirms a theory of the centaur paladin that the robbers wanted to send the train over the cliff and recover the item from the bottom of the gorge.
  • The soldier/mystic goes to see Vardalos’ *very* strict and loyal pony, which he can talk to. Discover’s the pny’s training means it accepts help from and takes orders from only who its owner approves. It’s owner is now dead, but the owner had allowed the porter to feed it, so it takes orders from the porter. No PC or the porter wanting the pony, it’s decided to give it to the nice Moyer family (1 father and 5 kids, headed to a farm owned by the father’s sister, in Kansas for a fresh start. The mother died during the War, and the father need help raising the kids).
  • The mechanic roboticist helps with the bridge – cuts the repair time in half

PCs arrive in beautiful Cheyenne – which was sacked by Martians.\Is the state capital… but the state and its capital are a mess. Notes about the city:

  • Opera house biggest building left in town, serves as city hall for now.
  • The Tivoli building is almost finished as new construction. It is a Pabst beer distribution center, and has “Mr. Satin’s Satin’s House of Refined Delights (an all-race, all-gender brothel) on the second floor.
  • There is a cheap, reliable Cheyenne Citizen Hostel
  • Also some homes that will let a room

The Fenrin Bounty Hunter checks on new Bounties:

  • Chimera Kid is now worth 650c as of yesterday
  • Bounty for “That Goddamn Manticore” 1000c posted by Ranch Master Dwargus Hardfist (a dwarf), go to the Circle Axe Ranch for more information

General:

  • This place is crawling with bounty hunters, assassins, guns fire hire, bodyguards, ugh-me-toughs
  • Why? No clue.
  • Old Blue (a fenrin bloodhound on the sheriff’s porch) says a “Year and a day” ends in a couple of weeks
    • Records house burned to the ground, lots of people died, so there is a lot of land no one knows who owns it. It was decided you can lay claim to land it and if no one has a better claim within a year and a day, it’s yours. Those first year-and-a-day claims come up in a few weeks, and everyone is expecting there to be some trouble over it.

The PCs are invited to a meeting with Fonts & Bismark Station Master Ralston Adler (who turns out to be in a wheelchain) at 5pm, to discuss the mysterious package the bandits tried to steal.

  • The Item is being held for a client who’s coming to get it (no details on who or when available). The item is a Martian crystal (tripod’s power core)
  • Nineteen duplicates were shipped at the same time for security. Eight were attacked
  • About the scrap of paper
    • The handwriting appears to be that of one Felspark Klein – elf woman Regional Director for East Hudson Fur Trading Co. She is new to the position (her predecessor died choking on a chicken bone).
    • She is staying at Vicious Hippogryph Ranch, adjacent to Circle Axe
    • Significant disagreement about who owns what plots of land
      • Biggest area of dispute has all the water
    • Adler agrees to get the PCs a copy of an excellent map of that area (+4 to know where we are)
  • Adler also knows that Dwargus hardfist of the Circle Axe has been claiming for months that a Manticore is loose in Wyomingn and feeding on ONLY his cattle

PCs decide to go check it out. They will wait until the map is ready before they take off to see about this manticore, and checkout Felspark Klein.

Fonts & Bismark agrees to equip the PCs with horses and supplies. Also note that a couple of other people are asking about these events, and if Adler is convinced they are assets, he’ll diect them to the PCs in the morning to see if the PCs want to join up with them.

End of game. XPs: 650 per PC.

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First Really Wild West Session — After-Action Report

A number of people have asked for more details about the train fight in the first Really Wild West game session (with the campaign entitled “Really Wild West: Doomstone”), so I have adapted notes taken by my wife Lj who is playing a fenrin operative bounty hunter named “Sawyer.” Some context may also be available from the campaign notes I developed from this session.

RWW Good Doggo

(“Sawyer,” by Jacob Blackmon)

I specifically set up this fight to bring the player characters together with a common interest. Here’s the set-up.

PCs:
Female Fenrin Operative Bounty Hunter (Seeking a bounty)

Female Centaur Paladin Mercenary (Seeking an ancient evil, the Venom King)

Female Human Mechanic Roboticist (Seeking to access Martian tech found in the field, rather than the picked-over scraps she can get hold of back East) – has stealth drone mechanical dog, “Pinion”

Male Human Soldier/Mystic  Criminal (Seeking to tip the balance for past bad deeds)

1891 – Spring

  • The Fenrin bounty hunter is looking for the Chimera Kid, who he shot a federal judg. The Kid is a Ksatha missing one of his four arms. Fights with poison pistol, flame pistol, ram-headed hammer.
  • Currently tracking Gavra Vardalos, a previous associate of the Kid, who is headed West on the Old Number Seven train out of St. Louis. Vardalos wears a black bandito mask with a green scorpion tail. Vardalos seems to be waiting for something.

Evening of day two – around 36 hours into the trip – as the sun sets

  • Alarm bell goes off as the train comes to an emergency stop
  • Bridge is out ahead. Fresh damage.
  • This might be what Vardalos was waiting for
    • He gets up and says he’s gonna check on his pony
    • Fenrin bounty hunter gets on top of the train and follows
  • The porters arm themselves
  • Vardalos says his pony needs medicine and wants to get into the baggage car
    • A halfling porter takes him around the outside to the caboose
  • Gunshots ring out from within the back of the train

FIGHT!

  • Just after the porter knocks on the caboose door, Vardalos attempts to kill him. Vardalos has two sabers enhanced with jury-rigged Martian heat-ray crystals. The distinctive sound of them powering up can be heard throughout the train, and including by the mechanic roboticist. Fenrin bounty hunter jumps down to stop vardalos.
  • The halfling caboose porter rolls under the train and pulls down a shield with a gun port from the bottom of the caboose, then locks his gun into it
  • The centaur paladin, suspicious of Vardalos’s possible involvement because of the scorpion-tail mask, also comes to stop him.
  • A stamer trunk turns out to be a mimic, and attacks a Fonts & Bismark agent guarding a package in the boxcar.
  • Outside the train, thin lizardfolk step out of the air – serpentfolk (5) from a hidden reality. Everyone not already engaged helps fight them off.
    • They shoot old revolvers. Poisoned bullets.
  • The mechanic roboticist and Pinon run to the back of the train to investigate the Martian tech sounds, and run into the Fonts & Bismark agent fighting against the steam trunk mimic. Stop to help.
  • The caboose door rotates out, revealing an old, beat up robot breakman, with a 2ft spanner
    • Moves to attack the serpentfolk who is attacking the porter
  • When Vardalos dies, his body writhes and breathes out a green vapor
  • As serpentmen overpower the conductor guarding the engine, soldier criminal comes running up the center of the train, shooting it from 2 cars away and preventing it from powering up the train and running it over the broken bridge into a gorge below.

ON VARDALOS: 2 manticore stamped revolvers; 2 jury-rigged Martian metal sabres; 350 credit chips issued from the East Hudson Fur Trading Co.; under a glove a signet ring with a scorpion tail with a green teardrop signet stone; scrap of paper with Fonts & Bismark Service# written on it – these go on whatever F&B is shipping that the mimic went for. The scrap has a watermark from the EHFTco. The fenrin bounty hunter can confirm it’s not written in Vardalos’ handwriting.

At the end of this introductory fight, the fenrin bounty hunter wants to follow up on the clues around Vardalos to see if they lead to the Chimera Kid. The centaur paladin wants to follow up because the green vapor and scorpion-tail clues are her best lead to find the cult of the Venom King. The mechanic roboticist wants to follow up because somehow Vardalos got access to fresh Martian heat-ray technology. The soldier/mystic wants to follow up because this seems like a good opportunity to earn some karmic balance.

The session didn’t end there of course.

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Notes for the Really Wild West

RWW Logo

(Logo by Perram, pistol art by Jacob Blackmon)

I ran my first actual session of my first full Really Wild West campaign, called “Really Wild West: Doomstone”

Here are some notes from that sessions.

The “New Wild”: Due to the Ravages of the brief War of the Worlds in early 1890, the lawless West is much more expansive in 1891 than it was just a few years earlier. While major towns exist, and are mostly as controlled and regimented as one would expect, the entire central area of the United States — from the Mississippi River to the Cascade Mountains — is simply not yet back under government control beyond sight of a major settlement. Wherever an army unit or even US Martial circuit patrol happen to be, it’s fairly lawful. Some towns, sheriffs, mutual aid societies and land-owners can also enforce rules within their own demesne (which some do fair-mindedly and others… don’t).
But the fabric of society has not yet recovered from either the direct effect of being overrun by alien war machines that destroyed entire cities and killed millions, or the psychological effect of learning aliens exist, want us dead, have better technology than Earth, and that often women and children and immigrants were crucial to slowing their advance and evacuating those in their path despite being often discouraged from such roles by society.
From the Mississippi to the Cascades is the New Wild. Stay alert. Be cautious. Strap iron.

East Hudson Fur Trading Company: Multinational trade and mercantile… and banking, private security, espionage, manufacturing, and land exploitation. They actually call one of the services they offer “land exploitation.” Had war declared on them by the Lakota for “Crimes Against Man and Nature.” Merciless. Efficient. Profitable.

Fonts & Bismark: A powerful “service company,” that handles deliveries, finances, and vault storage. Grew out of an adventuring company in the 1840s. Mercenary, but have tight ethics controls on who they work for… but a contract, once signed, is fulfilled.
Sometimes do government work. Sometimes hired to protect against the government.

Lost Walkers: When the Martians realized they were dying off, many hid their machines (mostly tripods, but also some flying machines and digging machines) and mothballed them. The Central Power Core of these machines, once cold, can only be brought back to life with an active Central Core.
Only walkers that were captured during the war without being destroyed, or the first few grabbed when the earliest Martians succumbed to viruses, had their Central Core taken intact and active. Thus these are among the most valued of artifacts. Most are in the hands of national or state governments, with a much smaller number controlled by the rich and powerful (Edison is smugly vocal about having two. Tesla dodges the question when asked. A young Polish scientist studying in Paris, Marie Skłodowska, is warning anyone who will listen not to stand too close to the things.)
When a Lost Walker is found, there is a “Tripod Rush” as people tear it apart for rare elements, crystals, and circuits, and scour the surrounding territory for any other Martian relics. But if anyone ever managed to repair and restart a tripod with a Central Core, it would immediately become a notable regional power.

Newgauge: Even before the War of the Worlds caused technological advancement to explode, most industrially advanced nations were moving to Newgauge trains — massive mass-transit vehicles twenty feet wide, nearly thirty feet tall, with locomotives and cars each up to 150 feet long. Since the war, Newgauge trains have become rolling battleships, each normally equipped with heat-dispensing armor on critical cars, and with at least one Rail Monitor car with artillery and units of troops.
But you absolutely cannot run Newgauge trains without building entirely-new tracks. While in the densely-populated Northeast and West Coast, that has been done extensively enough to least linked the biggest cities, the Martians did enough damage to the central parts of the country that even old rails are no longer properly transcontinental, and no Newgauge rails to speak of have yet been laid down… or even surveyed to accommodate the additional massive easement needs. Thus smaller “Old Rail” trains must be used, and occasionally have to fend for themselves between cities.

Old No. 7: An ‘Old Rail’ train with variable-gauge axles, Old No. 7 is a more-than 50-year-old 4-4-0 locomotive and its associated cars that was pressed into service as a military transport during the War of the Worlds (and armored, and equipped with an automaton-operated Combat Caboose with Rail Repair devices), survived numerous hits from Heat Rays and, despite showing buckled plates and grime-caked engine, remains a mobile defensive platform. Its normal run its along an exiting Old Gauge Line from St. Louis to Colby, Kansas and then to Cheyenne, Wy, and then return.

Trustee: The Really Wild West is a world where heroes, monsters, oracles, madmen, and adventurers have existed for thousands of years. Nations, towns, organizations, and businesses have evolved to deal with the fact that sometimes if a wandering hero or expert doesn’t save you, no one else can.
Thus it is common for individuals and small bands to be on a path to be considered “trustees” of groups and governments. These are outsiders who have earned the trust of a government or organization of note. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are trustees of Scotland Yard. The Spectral Rider is a trustee of the town of Eagle Net, New Mexico. The Kestrel is a trustee of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and so on.
Bigger organizations have numerous steps of trust that occur before you are a trustee, but a trustee is generally considered to be competent, potent, trusted, and an ally of the group that names them trustee. A trustee does not necessarily agree with all actions of the bestowing group, and individual members of the group might mistrust the trustee (think of Batman as a trustee of Gotham PD), but the organization as a whole formally cuts the trustee considerable slack.

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Running a Really Wild West fight on a Train (in Starfinder)

For tonight’s Really Wild West game, I drew out the train “Old Number Seven” on a very simple 1-square-is-30-feet scale. That got the whole (short, 12-car) train onto one map, and character tracked where they were (inside a car, on top of a car, or outside the cars) on that map whenever they were not dealing with anyone in melee.

If greater resolution was needed, each car and its immediate surroundings were drawn on their own flip-tile. We actually only had to do that twice, and while I was initially worried about running one fight at two scales, my (brilliant, veteran) players had no trouble figuring it out or moving PCs seamlessly between them.

It also meant the fight took place over a distance hundreds of feet long, which I could never have gotten onto a single game table. Things like firearm range increments and who was more effective in melee had real tactical impact. (And we got some awesome cinematic moments like the centaur paladin in full plate charging down the length of the outside of the train, the fenrin bounty hunter flinging herself off the caboose’s roof to tackle a foe, and the human soldier running along a train car, civilians huddling for safety as his command at the sides of the car, while he fired at a foe in the aisle of the next car over… and hits!).

It also really helped drive home the genre of this campaign. Sure there were kastha… and snakemen… and centaurs and spells and pistol shots. But it was a fight on a steam train stopped by a blown-up bridge as brigands attacked it.

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New Critical Hit Effects for Starfinder

As I work on running my first Really Wild West campaign, and write up weaponry for it, I find myself using new critical hit effects.

I’ll present a weapon list later I presume, but here are some new crit hit effects for GMs doing their own homebrew weapons.

RWW Weapons

(Art by warpaintcobra)

New Critical Hit Effects

Alternate Crit
When you score a critical hit, you may apply either its normal critical hit effect, or its alternate critical hit effect (listed in parenthesis), at your preference.

AoO (Attack of Opportunity)
Scoring a critical hit with the weapon causes the target to provoke an attack of opportunity from you. Normally only melee weapons have this critical hit effect.

Trauma
A weapon with a trauma crit does double normal damage to living thing on a critical hit, to a minimum of its maximum normal damage.

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Knackhacks — Consumable access to tricks and exploits for Starfinder.

So, we’ve increased access to spells withspell guns and runethrowers, and then hex rounds and wandshells. Which might leave spellcasting classes saying :”Hey, those are our class features! It’s not like we can buy a potion of operative exploits!”

But in a galaxy with mnemonic enhancers, why CAN’T get you other some class features as 1-shot consumable items?

Introducing Knackhacks.

Knackhack(art by meenkulathiamma)

Knackhacks                               Item         Credit
Item                                            Level         Cost        Bulk
Knackhack, 2nd-level knack          3             325         L
Knackhack, 6th-level knack           7             750         L
Knackhack, 10th-level knack       11          3,250         L
Knackhack, 14th-level knack       15        17,500         L

Knackhacks
Knackhacks are 1-shot, consumable hybrid cyberdivinations that interface with armor to grant temporary access to techniques and abilities referred to as “prowesses.” A prowess may be a biohacker theorem, envoy improvisation, mechanic trick, operative exploit, or soldier gear boost. There are limitations to which of these prowesses you can use.

A knackhack slots into an otherwise-empty armor upgrade slot. It takes a full round to insert or remove a knackhack, but there’s no skill check or equipment required. A knackhack can only contain a prowess available to a character with a class level lower than the knackhack‘s item level. The prowess operates with a character level equal to the knackhack‘s item level. You can only benefit from one knackhack at a time.

The prowess granted by a knackhack cannot have a Resolve Point cost. It also cannot be on that requires or modifies a class feature or piece of equipment you do not have. For example, a character with no levels in biohacker could not use a knackhack to gain prowess with the theorems of field dressing (which requires a custom microlab) or hampering inhibitor (which requires the ability to use basic inhibitors). However, a non-biohacker character could gain prowess with painful injection, strange anatomy, toxic skin, treat condition, or treatment mastery. (By the same token a biohacker could use a knackhack to gain access to field dressing as a prowess.)

If the prowess has a limited number of uses (per day or other time period), or a limited number of uses that reset when you expend a Resolve Point to regain Stamina Points following a 10-minute rest, then you gain a single use of it with the knackhack (taking whatever action the prowess normally takes), and it is then expended. If it is an ability that grants passive bonuses or van be used at will, it takes a standard action to activate the knackhack, and then the prowess is available for 1 minute.

You cannot create a knackhack unless you have the prowess it grants.

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Hex Rounds and Wandshells for Starfinder

Yesterday we presented spell guns and runethrowers, magic devices that can produce spell effects from battery power. The next obvious question is — can you have magic bullets that produce spell effects?

Of course you can. Presenting: Magic Muntions!

Magic Bullet
(art by Yuri Hoyda)

Magic Munitions                     Item       Credit
Item                                            Level      Cost       Bulk
Hex round, 0-level spell          2             140           L
Wandshell, 0-level spell          3             325           L
Hex round, 1st-level spell       5             450           L
Wandshell, 1st-level spell       7             750           L
Hex round, 2nd-level spell     8          1,400           L
Wandshell, 2nd-level spell    11         3,250           L
Hex round, 3rd-level spell     11         3,700           L
Hex round, 4th-level spell      14       10,600          L
Wandshell, 3rd-level spell      15       17,500          L
Hex round, 5th-level spell      17       36,650          L
Wandshell, 4th-level spell      19       81,000          L
Hex round, 6th-level spell      20     112,800          L

Magic munitions allow you to load a one-shot, consumable version of a spell into a weapon. Any spell with a casting time of no more than 1 standard action, that does not require Resolve Points or materials with a cost, can be turned into a magic munition. Activating a magic munition is a standard action, and when you do so the weapon does not have its normal effect (and does not use any ammo or battery beyond the magic munition). The magic effect normally originates as if you had cast the spell. If the spell has a range of touch, you can instead target any legal target within the weapon’s reach of first range increment. The caster level for the spell effect is equal to the magic munition;s item level.

A hex round can only be fired from a spell gun or runethrower able to cast a spell of the same or higher level, or a weapon with the spellthrower fusion. A wandshell can be loaded into any weapon. As magic munitions these ammos can be loaded into any ranged or melee weapon, even ones not designed for physical ammunition or that are normally totally unpowered. Loading a single he round or wandshell into a weapon is a move action. A weapon can’t have more total item levels worth of magic muntions loaded into it at a time than its own item level. Thus a item level 9 laser pistol with the spellthrowing fusion could have one hex round with a 2nd-level spell, or three wandshells with 0-level spells.

Magic munitions not loaded into a weapon are easily identified as magical at a glance, of even by their unusually heavy heft. Most have the spell loaded into them carefully noted on their casing. You cannot craft a a magic munition of a specific spell unless you can cast that spell, or have someone able to cast the spell available to do so when you create the munition.

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Spellguns and Runethrowers for Starfinder

As soon as you say a setting has spellcasters and blasters, there’s a group of players who want to have spellguns. And that’s fair. After all there are numerous examples of spell-generating hybrid technology in science-fantasy fiction (my specific inspirations come from The Irregular at Magic High School and Outlaw Star, but there are many more examples).

But Starfinder doesn’t really have anything like that. There are spell ampules and spell gems… but those are 1-shot consumables, not the spellguns we want.  So I was going to post a few examples of spell guns last Friday… and realized I hadn’t written how how I figured the item level and cost of such things. So I delayed the article to today, and you get a enarly-double-length Monday article that both shows the design process I used, AND presents two sets of finished spellcasting weapons.

So how do we figure out the effective item level of a device that can cast detect magic using a battery, and how do we scale that against a baleful polymorph rifle?

Well, let’s start with something we CAN easily scale — damage. If we can find a relationship between damaging spells at each level and weapons that are roughly as effective, and spells of each level have roughly the same impact on the game as one another, that should allow us to set item levels for devices that create other spells effects of each level.

It’s best if we pick a few spells that come as close as possible to JUST doing damage at each level. We can then figure out a rough benchmark for the typical weaponlike damage each of these things does, looking back at our benchmarks for weapon damage. There’s some subjectivity there of course, but in general we can compare these to damage from weapons (treating a save and attack rolls to be about even in terms of damage-per-round options, and treating area or ongoing attacks as being 10-20% more damage for benchmark purposes) to tell us roughly what item level weapon does comparable damage.

We want two effective item levels (EIL) for each spell — one taken from the closest equivalent longarm or advanced melee weapon (representing an item used by people skilled in combat), and one taken from the closest 1-handed basic melee weapon or small arm (representing an item use by those unspecialized in combat). Those are listed with a slash as skilled/unspecialized. We’ll go into why we want those separate numbers in a moment.

Technomancer spells have the following exemplar damage spells at each spell level:

0-Level
Energy Ray (1d3, single target EAC ranged)  EIL – 0/1

1st-Level
Jolting Surge (4d6, single target EAC melee) EIL – 12/15
Overheat (2d8 energy in a cone, save for half) EIL – 11/15

2nd-Level
Caustic Conversion (4d6 energy, single target EAC ranged, ongoing damage) EIL – 13/18

3rd-Level
Arcing Surge (10d6 energy, line, save for half) EIL – 19/24
Explosive Blast (9d6 energy, radius, save for half) EIL –  19/24

Since we already hitting item level 19+ by 3rd level spells, it’s pretty clear 4th-level and higher spells would be beyond the scope of even 20th level equipment.

So, erring on the side of items that duplicate spells skewing up at lower item levels (as we not the benchmark damage for low-level weapons is a bit off, a weirdness the designers accepted so no one would actually have a weapon that did 1 point of damage), and standardizing the curve between skilled and unspecialized, we come up with the following typical item level for something that can reliable reproduce magic effects:

EIL by Spell Level
0-Level Spells: 3/8
1st-Level Spells: 11/16
2nd-Level Spells: 13/18
3rd-Level Spells: 19/24

We know from the price difference in spell gems vs spell ampules that giving a spellcaster access to more spells from their spell list is cheaper than allowing anyone to use that magic effect, so let’s use the same logic here. The lower “skilled” EIL is what we use for “Spell Guns,” which we define as only being able to be used by a character who can cast spells of the same spell level and class list as the one reproduced by the spell gun. So a microbot assault spell gun can only be used by a technomancer who can cast 2nd level spells.

The higher-level EIL we’ll use for Runethrowers. They function just like Spell Guns, except they can be used by anyone.

Also, we’ll use Small Arms proficiency for Spell Guns (so any spellcasting PC can use them), and Longarms for Runethrowers. Of course attack rolls won’t matter for all spell effects, but we’ll rule that any nonproficiency penalty you take with with a Runethrower impacts both any related save DCs, and reduces the Runethrower’s caster level.

We’re also going to ban any spells that require Resolve Points, have a casting time greater than 1 action, or require an experience material mentioned in the spell description. Otherwise each item casts a spell and works like a spell-like ability with a caster level equal to the item level, and all decisions made by whoever pulls the trigger.

So, borrowing some typical costs and battery usages from appropriate items:

Small Arms

SPELL GUNS                    Item     Credit      Spell
Name                              Level    Cost         Level   Battery  Usage
Spell Gun, Apprentice        3         1,500       0           20            2
Spell Gun, Mage               11       26,000       1           40            4
Spell Gun, Arcanist           13        52,000       2           80            8
Spell Gun, Archmage        19      600,000       3         100          10Spell Gun by info at nextmars dot com
(art by info@nextmars.com)

Longarms

RUNETHROWERS                 Item     Credit      Spell
Name                                    Level    Cost         Level   Battery  Usage
Runethrower, Neophyte       8          10,000       0           40            4
Runethrower, Warlock         16       180,000      1           80            8
Runethrower, Theurge         18       400,000      2         100            10Spell Rifle by info at nextmars dot com
(art by info@nextmars.com)

Runethrower (neophyte, Warlock, Theurge)
A runethrower is a hybrid weapon that contains a single spell of the listed level. It can convert energy from a battery into the energy needed for that spells, using a rune embedded within the weapon to provide all the eldritch control needed to create magic effects.
Only spells that can be cast in a single action or reaction can be placed in a runethrower (and always use a standard action to activate), and it must not have any Resolve Point cost or require any material with a cost (as noted in the spell description). A runethrower’s caster level is equal to its item level, and any decisions that need to be made when it creates a spell effect are decided by the user.
A runethrower can normally only have a single spell added into it. That spell can be changed to another spell of the same level by anyone with the ranks needed to craft the runethrower, at half the cost of creating a new runethrower. A runethrower can also have a additional spells of the same or lower level placed within it as Weapon Fusions (at the normal fusion cost, though it cannot be transferred from another weapon). Each weapon fusion of this type is treated as a weapon fusion with a level equal to 5 + the level of spell it contains. If a runethrower has multiple spells, the user decides which one to use each time it is activated.
Any penalty to attack rolls a character takes applies to a runethrower’s save DC, and if a character is nonproficient, that penalty also applies to the ruenthrower’s caster level when they use it.

Spell Guns (Apprentice, mage, Arcanist, Archmage)
A spell gun is a hybrid weapon that contains a single spell of the listed level. It can convert energy from a battery into the energy needed for that spells similar to a runethrower, but rather than have an internal rune that provides the directions to create a spell effect, requires an eldritch spark from the user to initiatie this conversion. Thus a character can only use a spell gun if they are of a class and level able to cast the spell contained within the spell gun (though it need not actually be a spell known).
Spell guns otherwise follow the rules for runethrowers.

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