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#CampaignPitch: MegaRuins

Just a quick idea for a ttRPG campaign hook. Something I could see using with Everyday Heroes (once it’s out), Modern AGE, or Starfinder, just to name a few. This is just the start of setting up such a campaign, you’d need themes, plots, a kickoff… but the setting can help clarify those kinds of things.

MegaRuins

It’s a few years into the future. Things are bad worldwide, but society hasn’t collapsed… except around the many megastructures built… or partially built… by governments trying to quell social disquiet and stimulate economies with massive, ill-conceived, projects that they mostly didn’t finish, and definitely didn’t properly maintain. The world is littered with mile-high towers, salt mine cities, floating artificial islands, eternally flying airship megamalls, and AI-controlled arcologies… but none of them are the glittering beacons of success and progress that were promised.

Many sit more than 90% empty, the cost of moving to them and living within them too great for populations to risk moving into unproven and experimental communities that often depend on advanced, untested systems to even provide basic necessities such as clear water and lighting. The empty spaces attract gangs, private military companies, scam artists, and billionaire 0.01%-ers who find whole metropolises worth of abandoned officers, warehouses, and apartments more convenient than secret bases in deserts and failed nations. Even those that are populated have significant problems, with autonomous AIs making decisions that seem increasingly divorced from reality, critical systems built using proprietary technologies failing as the companies that built them go bankrupt, and the politics of their creation shifting as they go from trophies of the administrations that began them to scapegoats for successors which find them an easy target to blame all current problems.

Each MegaRuin, and often every 30-50 floors within the same MegaRuin, has its own culture, power bases, secrets, faults, trade routes, and local traditions. It’s not that the whole world is an apocalypse, it’s that there are specific modern megastructure ruined areas that each have their own problems, hazards, and risks, and people who have a proven track record of operating successfully within them are always in demand.

Here are three example MegaRuins, just to start creative juices flowing.

(Art by Shift Space)

The Circuit: A massive, mirrored, 450-kilometer circumference, 500-meter wide, 900-meter tall donut-shaped building that was designed to be the perfect “smart city,” controlled by a network of predictive AIs and built around multiple high-speed transit capsule tubes to allow for a 100% car-free, street free community where everything you need is within a 10-minute walk.
Of course it was built in a desert, with 1/3 of it sticking into a salt-water ocean, the systems were never completed, and the capsule system is a single fail point that, more and more, is failing. And since it never reached full capacity, the 10-minute walking communities are each missing at least one crucial facility, leaving populations having to cross gang territories and AI-enforced blockades to do things like get medical care, get mail, or for that matter get out of the Circuit.

Cloud 8: The largest airship ever built, Cloud 8 is actually 12 airships locked together with a framework that houses dozens of boutique businesses, cruise cabins, cargo bays, ultimate bungee event centers, glass-bottomed restaurants, and antimissile defense systems. The floating entertainment complex was supposed to fly around the world on a 2-year course, dropping in on major tourist destinations and becoming a mobile festival and shopping event that both drew passengers paying a premium to live in the air, and massive crowds at each destination willing to shell out big bucks for overpriced Cloud 8-branded goods.

And it worked… briefly. Then local businesses at all the major destinations around the world decided it was sucking much more money out of their economies than it was bringing in, and got local authorities to ban it. No major tourist destination allows it within 200 miles of them, and many countries refuse it access to their airspace entirely. That made selling rides at the top prices in the world impossible, and forced Cloud 8 to charge less for everything, as it could only get permission to go to 3rd- and 4th-tier locations.

But it is still a giant travelling business center, and it does still go around the world… so it has rapidly become a major source of drug smuggling, bootleg electronic broadcasts and pirated entertainment, and ethically questionable activities it offers patrons while over international waters. Cloud 8 is now a seedy, mob-run, 24-7 mobile red light district, and a favorite way for career criminals and shady business execs to flee any jurisdiction it can get into.

Starscraper: A 4-kilometer-high tower (with a 6-kilometer wide base) that was envisions as “stage one” of a project to build a space-elevator and was designed to house 10 million people. Named as a play on being taller than a mere “skyscraper,” the Starscraper was supposed to be the anchor of an entirely new space industry. But the advanced in materials science that was expected to be able to built the space elevator tether by the time the Starscraper was done turned out to be too slow and too expensive to scale up to the 100,000-kilometer size needed to access space from Earth.

Without the influx of businesses and industry tied to the cheap space travel that never happened, the Starscraper was too expensive to maintain. It’s also, by far, the tallest building in the world, and thus too prestigious to ignore. The result it that the top 50 floors are among the most expensive real-estate in existence… and much of the remaining 700 floors are vertical slums, empty, dilapidated, or all of the above. The building also has 30 subterranean levels, many of which must be maintained to keep power, water, air, and sheer-balancing systems working, but no one ever wants to live or work in them. In many cases, the billionaires who own the top of the tower fly in workers from other countries to labor n the lower levels, and use armed security to keep them from fleeing.

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For Starfinder: Squimic the Mimic

So, I wrote Squimic for an adventure back in 2018. The idea was that in a grey experimental base, the PCs would find Squimic in a lab, the result of a project the grays did not yet considered a success. I wanted to introduce an NPC gun that would talk to characters and grow with whoever carried it. But, my idea was complex, untested, and would have required GMs running followup adventures to ad lib Squimic’s responses since the authors of those adventures were writing them at the same time I was, and had no idea Squimic existed and thus could not include any guidance on how it would react to the events they were writing about.

Ultimately the developers who did a great job polishing my raw text into a finished adventure simplified Squimic into a “Living Transmutation Matrix,” and I think they did the right thing. An idea can be fun and perfect for some groups without being the right fit for every adventure.

But, since that adventure came out years ago (and was released under the OGL), I feel comfortable presenting my original open content version of Squimic here, for anyone who thinks a little mimic gun buddy is a good match for their campaigns. I’ve included all the text that would have been in that adventure if they’d gone with my version, including background information on the project and how the PCs were to find and interact with Squimic, but not any of the plot points, proper nouns the publisher used, the adventure name, or any of the other material the publisher marked as Product Identity in their Open Game Content declaration.

Squimic was found in a lab where it had been consistently used by a robot to shoot troll polyps.

S.Q.U.I – Mimic

A search reveals a dirty and battered data-tag, marked SQUI-mic, with further information encoded in a small computer chip. A close examination shows it actually says “S. Q. U. I. – mimic,” though the periods and first “mi-“ were concealed by dirt. Anyone can use a comm unit in their armor, or any tier of computer, to read the full encoded information stored in the tag. This reveals it is for a Special Qualities Unified Initiative Mimic. It’s clear the project name is “Unified Initiative,” the branch of that project that created this project is the “Special Qualities” division, and the test subject is a mimic.

In fact, Squimic is the only even-partially successful prototype of a special project to create small, cybernetically-enhanced mimics that could switch between taking the form of tiny creatures (especially vermin, rodents, and pets), and useable technological devices. The grays hoped to be able to breed these creatures to serve as tools of their espionage agents, but were concerned about Squimic’s intellect and independent motivations. They hoped repeated exposure to threats that required assistance (in the form of the robot arm) would cause Squimic to “normalize” the concept of just doing what they are told.

(Some of Squimic’s many possible forms. Art by Hasibul)

Squimic

Though Squimic is a living, sapient creature, they lack the ability to move or take most actions. Mostly they just take the form of various small arms, and shoots at things someone wielding them aims at and pulls their trigger (though Squimic can refuse to carry out such attacks if it wishes to). As a result, squimic is much closer to an item with some special rules than a creature, and is treated as such in its description.

Squimic can become any item level 1-3 small arm or basic or advanced melee weapon of light bulk or less that it is familiar with, and which uses batteries (of any capacity), darts, flares, petrol, rounds (of any kind) or scattergun shells as ammunition. It is currently familiar only with those the grays programmed into it (including all such presented in Chapter 7 of the Starfinder Core Rulebook, along with the tactical switchblade, wire garrote, personal cryospike, red star solar brand, subzero hail pistol, frost subduer, bruiser decoupler, bombard shellgun, vapor cavatation gun, bravado handcannon, and explorer handcoil from Starfinder Armory). Regardless of what kind of weapon Squimic is, they can accept any size battery, and use the battery for all ammunition usage of the weapon they are emulating (using the energy to generate darts, round, shells, and similar physical ammo as needed). Squimic can learn another weapon if it can examine one in detail over 10 minutes, and it meets all their other requirements.

Squimic can have one “ready” form they can assume as a full action (currently a vapor cavatation gun), and it can take any other form over the course of ten minutes. Squimic’s ready form can be changed with an 8-hour period of “downtime” that functions like sleep.

Squimic is currently treated as an item level 5 weapon for purposes of hardness, HP, saves, and so on. They act as though they had a tier-2 computer with an artificial personality for purpose of what skills they have and at what bonus. They count as both a weapon and an aberration for purposes of what spells and effects can function on them, and if an effect can work on both the caster may choose how to treat Squimic.

Squimic can grow in power if someone provides enough UPBs for it to eat and makes a successful Diplomacy check (DC 15 + 1.5x Squimic’s current item level). Squimic can never be of higher level than the number of ranks in Diplomacy of the character attempting to convince them to grow, and the highest item level small arm or melee weapon of light bulk they can become is always their current item level -2. Squimic’s effective computer tier is always equal to half its current item level.

Squimic can only consume raw UPBs, or functioning and fully-repaired weapons, armor, and armor upgrades. Items must have an item level no greater than Squimic’s item level +2, and if they have an item level lower than Squimic’s -2. Squimic gains only 10% of the UPB value of the item. The total UPBs Squimic consumes determines their maximum item level.

Item Level Total UPBs Consumed

6 4,000

7 6,500

8 9,000

9 12,500

10 19,000

11 24,000

12 32,000

13 48,000

14 65,000

15 110,000

16 150,000

17 235,000

18 350,000

19 550,000

20 900,000

Characters may well have questions for Squimic, which they answer to the best of their ability. Some typical questions and answers are detailed below.

Q: Who are you? (or What are you? Where did you come from? What’s your name?)

A: “I don’t know! I woke up next to a broken tube, and everything was shaking. There was a tag on the tube marked “SQIU-mic,” so I guess my name is Squimic.”

Q: How can you become a functioning weapon?

A: “Oh, I can become all sorts of things! They just… appear. In my head. And if I think real hard, I turn into them! I… I don’t know how. Or why.”

Q: Who created you? What are your plans now? What can you tell us about this facility?

A: “I don’t know about anything outside this room. There was some sirens and explosions earlier, but I didn’t go look what made them. I have no idea where I come from, or why I was brought here, or what I am going to do next!”

Q: Why were you a plasma pistol?

A: “I kept being put in that broken case with those squirmy things, and they’d try to hit me! And there was this robot arm that would squeeze me, so I became different guns with the robot hand pulling my trigger, to see what would keep the squirmy things from hurting me, and this worked the best.”

Squimic has no hostile intent toward the PCs, though they defend themselves if attacked. They are afraid to explore beyond this room by themselves, and are unwilling to be sent anywhere on their own, but are willing to accompany the PCs, and even act as a weapon for a character as long as the PCs promise not to use them as an expendable scout or abandon them.

Squimic is happy to help, as long as the PCs treat them reasonably well (not sticking them in a bag, not using them to look around dangerous corners, and so on). Each time Squimic feels abused its attitude toward the PCs goes down one step (beginning with neutral), and it takes a Diplomacy check to improve. Squimic functions as a standard weapon for anyone they feel neutral or better towards, but refuses to function for anyone they feel unfriendly or hostile towards.

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Really Wild West: Doomstone Campaign Ends

I wanted to spread this info over 5 articles last week. I started several of them. but I also got kidney stones… and that derailed everything. So, here is 5 articles worth of content and pictures, all crammed into one post.

End of an Era… of Gaming

Since moving back to Oklahoma, I have been running a Starfinder play mode I called the Really Wild West, in a campaign titled Doomstone. We just wrapped it up in my last session.

I don’t get to actually complete campaigns all that often. Scheduling or relocation usually kills them off first, and honestly burnout of myself or players is more common than wrapping a whole campaign plotline. And, to be fair, some games I designed to be endless sandboxes, so there was no “end” for the storyline to reach.

I originally intended to turn Really Wild West into a commercial setting book, so there is a ton of art and game rules and background for it on this site. Given how far behind I am on other projects that’s certainly not happening anytime soon (thankfully I never took money or preorders for it), and it may never happen. But the material is all still available, so you can see where I was going with it. And I never let anything go to waste, so the core material will likely show up in *something*.

For those of you who were following along back when I was posting session-by-session updates, here’s a super-quick rundown of the campaign, minus subplots. (There’s tons of cool stuff I just don’t have time to go into for a summery –how the PCs got the pistol Killdemon, the redemption of Beardcutter Ben the Shaver’s friend, the duel where Crackers Jack threatened to murder a the mysterious gunslinger who killed his brother only to in the end shoot himself in the hand so honor is satisfied, the Tombspider Inn, BoHoss the Ogre, Tex Tanner the Helium Baron, Ceasear — professional snuggler, “that Goddamn Manticore”…)

Earth, 1891. Magic and fantasy creatures have always been part of the world. Last year, the Martains attacked in the first War of the World.

The PCs (a centaur paladin, mysterious gunslinger, fenrin bounty hunter, human mechanic technopolitin, and orc cartogramancer easterner) were each for their own reasons on a train headed west. It’s attacked by teleporting serpentfolk bandidos who, it turns out, are trying to steal a safe being transported by the Fonts & Bismark company. The safe contains a Martian Power Generator, salvaged from a Martian tripod.

The PCs do some investigating, and come to believe the attack was funded by the East Hudson Bay Fur Trading Company, who have also taken over a local ranch and are making life difficult for its neighbors. Investigating further they discover the EHBFTC is funding a dig into a mesa where a genius known as Professor Adremelich is using converted Martian Digging Machines to access Demiplanes, including one with serpentfolk, and one with svirfneblin the Professor is using as forced labor. Using svirfneblin crystal tech after liberating them, the PCs raid the Serpentfolk demiplane, and cut it off from the Material Plane.

Evidence gather suggests Professor Adremelich wishes to become a Darkling, a more-than-mortal creature empowered by one of the Fates Worse than Death. Specifically he appears to be possessed by the Venom King, a medieval worldwide threat put down by the centaur paladin before she died, and the return of which is why she has been brought back.

The PCs commandeer one of the Martian Digging Machines and the mechanic technopolitan converts to be their expedition vehicle, the “Armadillo.” The PCs begin to see themselves mentioned in the papers, and decide to take the name “Knight Rangers,” rather than be stuck with some yellow-journalism appellation.

The Armadillo

They also encounter a Deputy of Death, a psychopomp cavalryman who warns that someone has escaped the Lands of the Dead, and if the deputies can’t bring him in their boss, “The Marshal” will come handle it personally. The Marshal getting into a fight on the Mortal plane could be… catastrophic.

Like, end-of-the-Olmec Empire catastrophic.

Realizing that defeating a proto-Darkling will require mystic aid, the group head to Hellgate, Montana, home of the famous hellgate University which allows the licensed study of fel magic, and thus should have experts who can help. Along the way they face Sumerian Vrock Demons, Angry Minotaurs (who they placate and befiend), and a cyborg named “Barron the Immortal”” who is causing all sorts of trouble, and they deal with him scoffing at the “Immortal” part of his name.

Of course the expert they need is currently lost after taking an expedition into the dinosaur-infested Badlands. Also, Hellgate appears to have a mole, and another cult is found supporting a myserious cigar-smoking man who clearly also wishes to become a Darkling, the Bloodletter, and is not as far along as the Venom King but is apparently working with him.

The PCs go rescue the expert they need, put an end to a spreading ghoul plague among the dinosaur population, drop a boxcar on a ghast allisaurus while using a holy smite to empower it, discover the mole in Hellgate U is the Chancellor who is also the Bloodletter Darkling wannabe, get attacked by Barron the Immortal again (who, it turns out, cut up his brain and used it to empower multiple mechanical bodies), and get a line on where Professor Aremelich is.

Their expert will make them a nail to drive through a Darkling’s shadow, so shooting them with a bullet will kill the darkling position itself, never to return. But, she also recommends they use the Chancellor’s research to find King Arthur’s Spear, Rhongomiant, which was forged to destroy the Darkling of Betrayal but was never used against it. The PCs raid the Chancellor’s secret base, slay a vampire, and get his notes. those take them to a hidden valley where there is a gate to the fiendish demiplane where the lost Legio IX Hispana Roman legion has existed for centuries, having turned to diabolism to survive a massacre and the fall of the Roman empire.

Fight on a giant gearwork dimension device, lots of Roman themed devils, free the people living under fiendish tyranny, get the spear. Encounter a second Psychopomp Deputy of the Marshal of Death, who warns time is getting short.

Upon returning to Hellgate, they discover it’s been attacked by a Martian Walker, the first anyone has managed to get functional since the War of the Worlds. They immediately help the US cavalry track it down, discover it’s a distraction drawing eyes away from a third Barron the Immortal, who is trying to complete a Martian Factory they began building just weeks before they fell to disease. The PCs stomp him and it, and find notes suggesting there’s just one Barron left… the most powerful of them.

They also discover a working Martian interplanetary communicator, and from its signal learn the Martian elite back on Mars are diabolists, and they are planning a second invasion… eventually.

The Knight Rangers still need to deal with the Tripod, and hunt it down with the Armadillo, fighting it in a Ghost Town. They win.

(I never made the Armadillo paper model I meant to, to that green vehicle in the background stands in for it)
(I love my cardstock Old West buildings)

Tracking Professor Adremelich to Helena, Montana, they find the city is cut off by an evil vapor projected from a Paddle Steamer. They sneak up on and attack the Steamer, ultimately dealing with its owner an ancient Sumerian Elf Vulture Diabolist. Upon killing him, the Mysterious Gunslinger PC discovers he has become a Deputy of Death, for bringing in a long-outstanding fugitive, giving him natural ghost gun advantages

Helena saved, they advance on the Monarch hotel, where Professor Adremelich/the Venom King is preparing to perform the ritual to become a full Darkling. To get to him they must face the last Barron the Immortal… who is a giant mechanical spider n the third act.

From there they descend into the basements beneath the Monarch, then the sub-basements, then they discover the builders had ignored numerous warnings from pre-Columbian cultures that said not to dig here. This is because when a Darkling brought down the Olmec Empire, his disciples had fled to North America, and build an underground Ziggurat to try to bring him back. The heroes of the existing lost-to-history native cultures of the time (referred to as the Woodland Mounds culture by some RWW historians) defeated them and left warnings which later cultures in Algonquian- and Siouan-language speaking peoples had maintained and respected.

The builders of the Monarch had not.

It is revealed Professor Adremelich has been hired to build digging machines to go even deeper below the Monarch, had encounter the darkling Cult Ziggaraut, and because of the poisonous Black gas the Martians has used in the War of the Worlds was so power, the dead Venom King had been able to whisper to the professor, hooking him as a host. Now, in that cavern, the Knight Rangers must face the about-to-ascend Venom King one and for all, in an ancient cavern littered with his failed technological and magical experiments, magic teleporting portals, two canopic guardians, a venom specter, a stream from the River Styx, and the Venom King himself.

(I got to use pieces from… 6? … different brands of terrain/structure/map products in this fight)

The fight was long and hard, but in the end, the Canpoic Guardians were destroyed, the mechanic kept the mystic or technological experiments from coming to life, the bounty hunter took down the undead chimera, the technomancer dispelled the Venom King’s displacement and other defenses, the Paladin pinned his shadow to the ground with Rhongomiant, and the Gunslinger took the only and only bullet they had to destroy him forever, and made an attack roll in the open, for all to see.

And rolled an 18. And shot the bastard right between the eyes, destroying that threat forever.

There was some wrap-up after that. The Marshal of Death dropped by to say the issue was settled. The paladin discovered she didn’t have to die to keep the universe balanced. Everyone agreed to invest in the mechanic’s soon-to-be-established tech company.

So, for now, game over.

I mean THAT game. I’m still getting together with these folks, who I have been playing with for 35+ years, and bouncing dice. Just not, for the moment, the Really Wild West.

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Drafting Alternate Grenade Rules (With An Example For Starfinder)

Grenades, and explosives in general, are tricky to write rules for in most d20-based ttRPGs. If a grenade isn’t effective enough, it feels more like a firecracker than a deadly weapon of war. If it’s too effective, it can end encounters so quickly it’s no fun for the players, or accidentally wipe out PCs in undramatic ways.

When grenades show up in action/adventure fiction, they tend to act less as damaging devices than plot devices that force people to seek cover. The threat of them is generally represented not by them killing main characters, but by forcing characters to take them seriously and possible shake off effects of shock and awe.

(Grenade art from the public domain)

Example: Starfinder Revised Grenades

So, let’s try to model that behavior, specifically for Starfinder. Within that game, grenades are pretty expensive consumables anyway, so a power-up shouldn’t break the game even if it makes grenades more affective and appealing. That said, if these seem too powerful, you can limit these rules to actual purchased consumables, rather than spells and class features that allow characters to create or emulate grenades without a credit or OPB cost.

Grenades

Grenades are dangerous, deadly military explosives that everyone must take seriously as a threat, no matter how tough or resilient they are. While savvy and active combatants know to duck for cover and shake themselves free of the shock of battlefield explosions, doing so comes at a cost.

When you fail a saving throw against a grenade that has an item level no lower than your character level/CR -2 that deals damage (as opposed to, for example, smoke grenades), you must either expend a Resolve Point or be staggered on your next turn. This represents the need to duck, take cover, and shake yourself back to focus after narrowly avoiding more serious injury.

Helpless characters that fail a save against such a grenade treat the attack as a coup de grace against them. As a full round action a character can make an Engineering check (DC 15 + 1.5x grenade item level) to wedge a grenade into an adjacent stationary structure or unattended object, causing it to do max damage and have only half its normal explode radius. On a failed check, the grenade explodes in the character’s hands, and they take max damage.

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ShadowFinder Supporting Players

We’re coming up on a year I have been working on ShadowFinder, though not with the regularity I’d like. Because I have big way-behind projects after carving out a period of time to try to “finish” it (which, for various reasons didn’t do anything like get it finished), I’ve pretty much been restricted to jotting down notes when ideas come to me, and sneaking in some work on the project as blog posts (since I have blog subscribers who have already paid me for this content, so I’m obligated to keep doing this along with the other projects I am obligated to do, as opposed to ShadowFinder which is entirely optional).

But even slow and sporadic progress is progress. And today, I’m sharing some conceptual material I wrote early on in the process. I wanted to think about the types of characters I would want to be able to have as supporting players (and, perhaps, PCs). Things like this are among my guiding ideas when I work on a game setting or expansion — conceptually what do I want to be able to make with these rules and any advice that comes with them?

Earlton and Alyssal

Earlton Fust is an old, old zombie. He cannot see, smell, feel, or taste, and his hearing is weak. But for all that he is slow and clumsy, he possesses vast strength and resilience.

Alyssal Rein is a very recent ghost. Though she cannot be wounded, moments that would have harmed her living self still cause her to flee into the umbra. In fact, she can barely affect the physical world, her powers largely limited to her senses, speaking to the dead, and the ability to possess corpses.

Corpses like Earlton Fust.

She can literally become his eyes and ears, feeding him her senses, animating his flesh to be swift and nimble. In turn, his flesh can impact the mortal world in ways she cannot, his tongue speak words she wishes spoken. It is a strange arrangement, two dead souls operating in the world of the living, but they both appreciate its benefits.

Earlton was a private detective a century ago. Alyssal was murdered by an unknown foe a year ago.

They fight crime.

[I see Earlton as a specific build for a mechanic character with the exocortex option, except the “exocortex” is the ghost Alyssal. That leads to needing rules about mechanics that are magic-based rather than technology-based, which can then also be used for magical girls, ring wielders, and maybe lycanthropes. Which begins to sound like an alternate class, which is fine, I have technicians for most of what mechanics do with tech, and with a few tweaks the mechanic drone option can become a pet class that summons a spirit to fight for them, like an eidolon…]

The Sleepwalker

Michar Micharland, known in some circles as The Sleepwalker, knows the real world is one free of magic and monsters. So, despite his memories, he rejects the idea that he was hit by a bus, killed, and brought back to life with eldritch powers.

Well, he thinks the bus part probably happened.

Which means if he’s not dead (and this seems too  weird to be either heaven or hell) then he must be in a coma, and everything he is experiencing is just his brain firing off random neurons to keep itself amused until he wakes. If he wakes.

So, he has no fear. No concern. He believes to his core that everyone he meets is just part of his coma-induced dreams. None of it is real. Nothing can actually damage him, even if he feels pain. (Flashes of the pain from the bus impact leaking into his subconscious, maybe). He believes he’s walking through an imaginary world where none of his actions have consequences.

So, he helps as many people as he can. Because that’s his idea of a fulfilling dream. Doing anything else would make him feel like an ass.

[The Sleepwalker could be a mystic with a connection to dreams, or a warlock using my new warlock class. But he also needs something that lets him lean on his belief system, even if it’s wrong, to overcome things like pain and fear. That sounds a lot like a feat or archetype which could then be used for people with strong religious convictions, or the ability to fall back on scientific rigor, or who think they are the Chosen One.]

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Ranked Ability Score Checks, for Pathfinder 1e and Starfinder

It’s pretty common in Pathfinder 1st edition and Starfinder for GMs to occasionally ask for a raw ability score check (1d20+ability modifier), such as making a Strength check to muscle open a door, or making an Intelligence check to see if a character remembers some tidbit of information not related to a specific Knowledge skill. The games explicitly support this idea, but of course your ability score modifiers do not increase at anything like the speed of your skill bonuses, and since skills include ability score modifiers most GMs automatically scale the DCs of ability checks as a game increases in level to keep pace with skill DCs. This *isn’t* supported by the game rules, but it is perhaps inevitable.

Interestingly both 5e and Pathfinder 2e have a different DC/bonus progression that keeps raw ability checks competitive throughout a character’s career, on-par with attack and skill/proficiency checks. Some GMs and players have even called this out as one of the great advantages of those systems over older d20 game engines, and PF1 and Starfinder specifically.

However, if a GM and players want to have raw ability checks scale increase at roughly the same pace as skill bonuses, that’s easily arranged as a house rule. You just need to distinguish between a character’s ability score modifier (which adds to things like attack rolls, damage, skill checks, AC bonuses, and so on), and the characters ability CHECK, which is what you add to your d20 roll when making a “Strength Check” or “Intelligence Check.”

Note that this will allow characters to manage superhuman levels of ability score checks by mid-level, with heroes bursting stone doors off their hinges, holding their breath for minutes at a time, running marathons, and other events that are often ascribed to heroes in real-world ancient mythology.

Ranked Ability Score Checks

In addition to the actual modifier for your six ability scores, you need to track your ranks in each ability. Your ranks add to your modifier when making a raw ability check for that ability. Your ranks do not affect anything else you normally add your ability modifier (having +1 rank to Dexterity Modifier Checks does not increase your ranged attack, armor class, Reflex saves, or Dexterity-based skill checks, for example). You cannot have more ranks in an ability score check than your character level.

Select one ability score as your focus ability at 1st level. (In Starfinder, this must be your key ability score). You gain ranks equal to your level for that score’s ability checks, and an additional +2 focus bonus to ability checks for that ability. You gain three additional ranks at each level you may assign to any other ability scores.

If you gain a feat that grants you a bonus to all uses of one or more skill checks, it also grants you a +1 to one ability score used for one of the skills increased by the feat. For example, if you take Skill Focus: Swimming, you also gain a +1 to Strength checks. If you take Animal Affinity, you gain +1 to either Charisma ability checks (as Handle Animal is a Charisma-based skill), or Dexterity ability checks (as Ride si a Dexterity-based skill).

Feats that only grant a bonus to some uses of a skill check (such as endurance, which applies to some, but not all, Swim checks), you gain no special bonus.

Putting It All Together

So, let’s do an example.

Sashette the Seer is a 1st level human oracle. Her ability scores are Str 8, Dex 14, Con 13, Int 12 Wis 17, Cha 10. She decides to make Wisdom her focus ability, so she automatically gains one rank in it. For her remaining 3 ability check ranks, she puts one each in Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. So, her abilities, modifiers, check ranks and check bonuses look like this:

Sashette the Seer, 1st level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +1 check rank, +3 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +1 check rans, +2 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +0 check ranks, +1 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +1 check ranks, +2 focus, +6 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +1 check ranks, +1 total ability check)

At 2nd level, she automatically gains 1 rank in Wisdom (her ability focus), and continues to put 1 rank each in Dex, Con, and Cha.

Sashette the Seer, 2nd level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +2 check rank, +4 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +2 check rans, +3 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +0 check ranks, +1 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +2 check ranks, +2 focus, +7 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +2 check ranks, +2 total ability check)

At 3rd level, she decides she’s not as concerned about Constitution ability checks, but really wants to be better at Intelligence ability checks. Also, she takes the Skill Focus (Perception) feat, which gives her a +1 bonus to her Wisdom ability check total.

Sashette the Seer, 3rd level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +3 check rank, +5 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +2 check rans, +3 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +1 check ranks, +2 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +3 check ranks, +2 focus, +1 feat bonus, +9 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +3 check ranks, +3 total ability check)

For many groups, the additional bookkeeping won’t be worth the utility of a GM being able to use one set of scaling DCs for ability and skill checks. For others, a set of rules that mean a 10th level raging barbarian actually has a decent chance to smash in doors and lift portcullises will be a welcome addition. And some groups may even choose to replace the skill system entirely, allowing characters to be trained in any skill that is a class skill or they have a feat to grant a bonus to, and then using ranked ability checks in place of all skill checks.

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The Motiff Feat, for Starfinder

Starfinder themes aren’t quite backgrounds, and they aren’t quite professions, and I know why that is but this isn’t the place for that discussion.

Instead, this is the place where I discuss the fact that themes are, by core rules, locked in forever. Your ace pilot swear off starships forever and turn to sun prophets? Too bad, you’ll never change your theme benefits, or gain ones that might be more appropriate.

But, you know, we could make a rule that let you do so.

Motiff
The theme of your life has evolved since you started adventuring.
Prerequisites: 7 ranks in the skill that is made a class skill by the theme you select with this feat.
Benefit: You gain the 6th-level benefit of a specific theme you do not already have the 6th-level ability for. Once selected, what theme benefit you gain from this feat cannot be changed.
Special: You can select this feat mote than once. Each time, it must grand you a different theme benefit.

Greater Motiff
The theme of your life has developed
Prerequisites: Motiff, 13 ranks in the skill that is made a class skill by the theme you select with this feat.
Benefit: You gain the 12th-level benefit of a specific theme you selected with the Motiff feat, and that you do not already have the 12th-level ability for. Once selected, what theme benefit you gain from this feat cannot be changed.
Special: You can select this feat mote than once. Each time, it must grand you a different theme benefit.

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“Imaginary Friend,” a Quirky Feat for ShadowFinder (a Starfinder Play Mode)

This feat is specifically designed for ShadowFinder, a play mode for Starfinder, but should work in any Starfinder game where it is thematically appropriate. It’s in a category called “Quirky Feats,” that a GM may exclude from a ShadowFinder game… or might give every character one as a bonus when the campaign starts, or after a major event. In this case, the feat represents a character with an apparently at least semi-real “imaginary friend.”

Imaginary Friend (Quirky)
There’s a…. thing, that talks to you sometimes. It may look like an animated mouse in a trenchcoat with pistols. Or a stuffed animal from your childhood. Or a translucent ghost costume made out of a sheet. You’re not sure it’s real. But it seems to want to help, and it’s not like you haven’t seen weirder things…
Benefit: With very rare exceptions, only see your imaginary friend.

(Or maybe your imaginary friend is the logo off one of your favorite ttRPG books, come to life to save you. Art by ヴィダル.)

Most of the time, your imaginary friend comes and goes without doing a lot to help (often making snide remarks in the process). Your GM can use this as an opportunity to have an NPC around to crack jokes, though they should be sure they aren’t so annoying with this that you (the player) regret spending a precious feat slot to get an imaginary friend. It’s fine for your character to wish they didn’t have an imaginary friend, but overall you should be enjoying the experience.

You can choose to have your character’s imaginary friend take one of the following actions. This is not dependent on the character being free to act—the action occurs on the character’s initiative count, but can be taken even if the character is unconscious, paralyzed, nauseated, or unable to take any action. Once you have used this ability you cannot do so again until after you next recuperate*, and doing so requires you to expend a number of Resolve Points equal to the number of times you’ve already used the ability in the same day.

Demoralize: The imaginary friend briefly reveals itself to a creature, and makes a check to demoralize that creature, as the demoralize task of Intimidate. The check has a special bonus bonus equal to your level plus your Charisma modifier or key ability modifier, whichever is higher.

Gather Information: The imaginary friend zooms around and spies on conversations… but somewhat at random. Imaginary friend comes back with the information at the beginning of your next turn, and this functions as the gather information task of Diplomacy. The check has a special bonus bonus equal to your level plus your Charisma modifier or key ability modifier, whichever is higher.

Look Out!: Your imaginary friend warns you about an ethereal or incorporeal creature, which it can see even if you don’t. As a move action each round you can listen to it try to describe what and where the threat is. This allows you to make an appropriate recall knowledge check to identify the creature, prevents you from being flat-footed or off-target against it, and tells you what square it is in. This lasts for one round per character level, after which your imaginary friend falls unconscious in dizzy frustration.

Snap Out of It: The imaginary friend tries to snap you out of a mind-affecting effect. It may do this gentle… or it may blow an airhorn in your ear, set fire to your toes, or treat your nose as a punching bag, depending on its personality and attitude. You gain an immediate saving throw against one mind-affecting effect you are under, at the same DC as its original save. This is a boosted** roll. If the save succeeds, the effect ends.

*Recuperate is my proposed term for when a character takes 10 minutes and expends a Resolve Point to regain all their Stamina Points.
**Boosted is a term that refers to a d20 roll with a special benefit. If the d20 result is a 1-10 (the die shows a 1-10), you add +10 to the result (so, effectively, a boosted roll always results in a value from 11-20, though only an actual 20 on the die counts as a “natural” 20).

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Weapons in ShadowFinder, a Starfinder Play Mode

In the upcoming ShadowFinder modern fantasy play mode for Starfinder, weapons don’t do a set damage based on their item level, and mundane, typical weapons aren’t bought with credits. Instead anything reasonably available to a typical person (bolt cutters, road flares, blue jeans, baseball bats, cars, firearms, bandages, and so on) use a wealth mechanic to see if you can find and afford what you want when you want it. Credits are used for more esoteric items, such as magic and hybrid equipment, fringe science, psychically imbued crystals, alien relics, and so on.

Similarly, rather than a set damage, weapons have their damage based on a damage tier, which is calculated using a set of rules that are being polished as we speak. If you are proficient with a weapon, it’s base damage tier is your character level. If you are not proficient, it’s base damage tier is your base attack bonus -2 (and you suffer the normal nonproficiency penalty to your attack roll). Weapons then have a damage tier modifier, often based on things like their critical hit effects and special properties.

Here’s a sample of what some melee weapons will look like, and how the damage tier chart works.

Baseball Bat (1-h/2-h Basic Melee Weapon)
Wealth Check: 10
Damage Tier -1 (B)
Properties: Analog, archaic,
Critical Hit Effect: Knockdown

Stiletto (Operative Melee Weapon)
Wealth Check: 12
Damage Tier +0 (P)
Properties: Analog, conceal, feint
Critical Hit Effect: Bleed (1d6, +1d6/5 damage tiers)

Single Target Melee KAC Weapons

Damage   1-h          2-h                       1-h           2-h
Tier     Adv.        Adv.      Oprtv      Basic       Basic

-3            1d2         1d4          1 pt.        1 pt.        1d2

-2            1d3         1d4          1 pt.        1 pt.        1d3

-1            1d3         1d4          1 pt.        1d3         1d3

0              1d4         1d6         1d3         1d4         1d4

1              1d4         1d6         1d3         1d4         1d6

2              1d6         1d6         1d4         1d6         1d6

3              1d6         1d8         1d4         1d6         1d6

4              1d8         1d8         1d4         1d6         1d8

5              1d8         1d10      1d6         1d8          1d8

6              2d4         2d6         1d6         1d8         1d10

7              2d6         2d8         1d8         1d10      1d12

8              2d8         3d6         2d4         1d10      2d8

9              3d6         4d6         2d6         2d8         3d6

10           4d6         5d6         3d4         2d8         3d8

11           5d6         4d8         2d8         2d10      4d6

12           4d8         6d6         3d6         3d8         5d6

13           6d6         7d6         3d8         3d10      4d8

14           6d8         9d6         4d6         4d8         5d8

15           9d6         10d6      5d6         5d8         8d6

16           10d6      11d6      6d6         6d8         9d6

17           12d6      13d6      7d6         7d8         10d6

18           14d6      15d6      8d6         8d8         12d6

19           16d6      17d6      9d6         9d8         13d6

20           18d6      20d6      10d6      11d8      15d6

21           20d6      22d6      11d6      12d8      17d6

22           22d6      25d6      12d6      13d8      19d6

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Owen Explains It All: Tiny Terrors for Starfinder

Before we get to any OGL content, an editorial aside:

This post is tagged as an “Owen Explains It All” post because it links into a show from the BAMF podcast I’m on, titled “Owen Explains It All!“. We do episodes picking new or classic things from the zeitgeek to use as inspiration for game material, specifically the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. This article ties in to the “Owen Explains It All: Ice Pirates” episode.

In this ep. we talked about a lot of the shameless scene-stealing of Ice Pirates (and, to be honest, added content warnings we discovered we needed after watching the movie for the first time in decades — not all old content holds up), and focused on the scenes that resented a small, fast, infectious threat that serves as a B Plot in the movie.

The show has a logo and everything!

(Logo by the amazing Jacob Blackmon)

This kind of small, infectious, lurking threat is fairly common in scifi fiction, but not well-supported by most existing Starfinder monsters. It works particularly well when the PCs are stuck in a specific area, such as on a starship during a long voyage, in a city or prison complex, or taking shelter in an ancient alien ruin to escape a deadly ion storm ravaging the outside. It can also work well as a recurring threat — a tiny terror that attacks the players, works to infect one, then flees the scene only to come back again later.

So whether your PCs are dealing with an alien that burst out of someone’s chest at lunch, acid-spitting reptilian aliens working to establish dominance, or a disgusting git that’s infected your ship, you can create a new kind of threat for your players by introducing a tiny terror to your Starfinder game.

THE TINY TERROR

Sometimes you encounter a hostile creature that’s not a threat in a direct stand-up fight, but rather a lurking threat you have to hunt down, trap, or maybe even blow up the whole planet just to be sure. Making a tiny terror can be easy, with this template you can slap onto any thematically appropriate creature. Shrink the monster down to diminutive or tiny size (no need to change its ability scores — if PCs can tap into the cosmic forces of gravity, entropy, and magic, a 6-inch insectoid threat can carry a man away with a +8 Str bonus, if that’s what the stat block has), and add the following special rules.

Dodge And Weave (Ex): A tiny terror ignores the movement penalties for difficult terrain, and treats difficult terrain as cover against attacks made by any creature larger than it is.

Duck And Hide (Ex): A tiny terror has Stealth as a master skill. If it already had Stealth as a master skill, it gains a +1 bonus on Stealth checks. It can make Stealth checks anytime it is 30 feet or more for any observer (even if it lacks cover or concealment), and anytime it is in difficult terrain. A character that has successfully used the identify creature task on a tiny terror(using whatever is the appropriate skill for the tiny terror’s creature type), can make an Engineering check to modify any equipment that qualifies as a scanner to detect the tiny terror. Such modified scanners allow Perception check to ignore the tiny terror’s Stealth checks, though only to identify what square it is in.

Hit And Run (Ex): Once a tiny terror has successfully damaged a foe, it gains a +4 AC bonus whenever it takes the fight defensively or withdrawal actions. This ability lasts until the tiny terror makes an attack roll, or is out of combat for 10 minutes or more. As a result once a tiny terror hits (and potentially infects) a foe, it generally seeks to escape the encounter, often by fleeing to an air duct, dense foliage, or other region where pursuers cannot easily follow.

Infection (Ex): If a tiny terror’s attack doesn’t already have a disease attached to it, it gains one. if it had a curse, poison, or other affliction, this is removed in favor of a disease. A target is exposed to the disease, (which is always a physical disease — select any you like the sound of), and the save DC is typical for the ability DC of a creature of the same array and CR as the tiny terror. If the target is killed by the disease, a new tiny terror is born out of the corpse in 1d4 hours. (A tiny terror may grow into the full-sized version of the creature you apply this template to, but how long that takes is a narrative decision made by the GM based on the story’s needs.)

Terror’s Sting (Ex): A tiny terror’s attacks are highly accurate and focused enough to penetrate most defenses, but deal little actual damage. The tiny terror gains a +2 bonus to all attacks, and ignores an amount of its target’s hardness, energy resistance, and damage reduction equal to its CR. However, its attacks deal a maximum amount of damage equal to its CR (roll its damage normally, but if it exceeds the tiny terror’s CR, reduce the damage dealt to equal its CR). In most cases this means it can easily hit target’s AC and bypass defenses, but will still only do a little damage.

Anytime a tiny terror’s attack damages a target, that target is exposed to the infection (see above).

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