Inclusivity in Gaming

Recently we’ve had another round of discussions on inclusiveness in gaming. I admire all the participants for tackling such a thorny subject, even if I don't always agree with their approaches or their opinions. After having a few such conversations of my own in the recent past, I was going to shy away from the topic. It's not that I don't care about the topic or am afraid to speak out, it's just that, well, I'm really busy right now creating wonderful, awesome stuff. However, someone recently pointed me out as the exception to a complainer rule and I felt the need to say something.

Here’s my overly simplified version of how to get more of group x into the gaming community, perhaps as players or, hopefully, as content creators in the industry: “Don’t focus on getting more of group x.” Ok, that probably sounds really weird and a bit like sacrilege. But I warned for a reason that it was oversimplified.

I have two reasons for suggesting it. First, it’s unlikely that the average person not part of group x will come across a grand new strategy for recruiting people of that group into the game. Sure, people who have training or a deep interest in learning about marketing, sociology or psychology might be able to, but many industries use focus groups for a reason. Second, the goal isn’t to just get any random person of group x into the industry. The key is to get a diverse group of competent, resourceful, enthusiastic people. Give them power and a voice; listen to and honestly consider what they say.

Now here comes the hard part. How do you find these people? I mean, there are tons of people who want to write for RPG companies, especially the big ones. But finding a unique voice, a different point of view, is a lot harder. And for the most part, companies are limited in the amount of outreach they can do. Without outreach, finding new blood in general can be difficult, finding new blood from non-traditional groups can be downright impossible.

Why? Have you ever been outside of your comfort zone before? Maybe you arrived at a party dressed in jeans and everyone else was in a suit or you stopped somewhere to eat on the road, walked in the door and everyone stared at you. Even if it hasn’t happened to you, I bet you’ve seen a movie about it. If not, watch Animal House sometime and note your reaction when they stop at a roadhouse to see Otis Day & the Knights. The awkwardness and the feeling you do not belong can be overwhelming.

For someone who is not part of the traditional group, we’re often asking them to put themselves in this exact situation. Many people will look around for that one person who looks like them; that symbol that’s it’s ok to be here. Maybe it’s gender or skin color or just the way a person dresses or speaks. Having that perceived safety zone often gives people the confidence they need to make the next step or at least not bolt through the door. Let’s be honest, being a content creator requires a certain amount of, well, intestinal fortitude to put one’s self out there. To ask them to be the unicorn of the group as well is a lot to ask.

But until we have those unicorns step forward, the pace of change is going to be slow, so slow that people will wonder if it’s worth it. Instead of looking at the situation, they’ll say things like “women just aren’t interested in gaming.” Companies who pour resources into making the industry more inclusive might not see a return on their investment. The slow pace also means that outsiders are less likely to see the changes that have been made. The current state of the community will reinforce all the bad things they heard, making it even harder.

So what can we do?

  • When you see someone who creates great content, don’t assume that 1) they know that know that they create great content and 2) they know the opportunities out there for them. We’re not in an industry/hobby with a ton of awards and outsiders and newcomers might not know all of the magazines, blogs, forums, etc that cover the industry. On top of it, the anonymity and coldness of the Internet can cause people to second guess themselves. Until I went to cons, I had no idea of that people really liked what wrote and were interested in having me write more. When I got the ENnie honorable mention for best blog, I was totally confused. I honestly thought they had made a mistake or that the field must not have been strong. It didn't occur to me that I had something awesome to offer right now, not years from now.
  • Be a mentor or a cheerleader. It would have taken me much longer to get involved as a freelancer if I didn’t have so many great mentors and cheerleaders. Chris Tulach, Greg Bilsland, and Trevor Kidd all encouraged me to pitch to Dungeon and Dragon and to attend GenCon. Matt James saw the stuff I was doing and asked me to write for Loremaster. Jeff Greiner saw me complaining about skill challenges and invited me on as a guest on the Tome Show. Chris Sims, Robert Schwalb, Owen Stephens, Wolfgang Baur, and Stephen Radney-Macfarland listen to my fears and give me encouragement. Grim from Postmortem Studios published my adventure. I have many more examples like these. They gave me that prod, listened to my questions, and gave me a kick in the behind when I needed it. Just as importantly, they helped me hear about opportunities and gave my name to others.
  • Publishers, if you want to and it’s within your resources, search for some new talent. I know this can be difficult. You have more people who want to write for you than you know what to do with. Many of you are “mom and pop” organizations and this may be your second or third job. You may have been burned by newcomers before and find it hard to justify going outside of your core group. Believe me, I understand all of this and I know it’s a lot to ask. But if you can, start small. Keep an eye out for writers and artists you love. Instead of turning a large project over to a newcomer with little direction or instruction, find something smaller and do some hand holding. It could be a portion of a chapter, an article you wish someone would write, anything really. Go to the newcomer and say, “I love what you write and we’re looking for some new talent. Would you like to write something for us?” Yeah, it’s different, but many of these talented people may have looked at what is currently being produced and who is producing it and said to themselves that people like them aren’t wanted or they aren’t good enough to do it themselves. Tech conferences have been using these and similar tactics to get more female speakers, and things are improving there.
  • For people like me, well, keep doing what you do. Pour your heart and soul into your projects. Reach for the stars! Keep asking if there is anything you can do to help, even if it's playtesting, copy editing, booth setup or tear down, or running games at cons. Realize that you are building a community, changing minds, and that things take time. Every so often, look back to see what you’ve accomplished and see what you are giving back to the community. Find ways to provide the opportunities for others that were provided for you. When you see talented new creators, tell them you like what they create and tell others about them. Also, realize that being the trailblazer can take a lot out of you. Constantly being out of your element takes a lot of effort. You need to rest and recharge. Get a core group of friends to provide support and don’t have all of them be in the hobby/industry.
  • To the community, I’m not sure what to say. Many of you have been so incredibly awesome and supportive, I don’t have enough years left in my life to repay the kindness you’ve paid me. That said, if you want to do more, look at what you do and the traditions of our hobby with a critical eye. I’m not saying banish sexy images in artwork or make everything so squeaky clean that it’s dull. When you game in public, look at how you and the other people at the table react to newcomers who happen to show up. Consider whether the covers of your books might entice a new person to play or do they reinforce stereotypes about the games? Are you willing to accommodate people of a different background in your group, whether its gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, food preference, favorite sports team, etc? If you honestly want new and different people at your table, understand that it might mean being open to some changes. And most importantly, view and treat these people like individuals. Few things trigger my alarms as often as the feeling that I’m “the woman at the table.” Honestly, when I play, I want to be a fellow gamer. I want to be picked for a team because I’m just that good, not because of my gender.

These things helped me and hopefully they’ll help others too.

Guest Post: Using Weather in Your Game

Weather can be a tricky topic in games. Try to model it too closely, and the DM and players quickly get lost in details that don't really help the plot. Make it too random and players might call foul and say the DM uses only to his or her advantage. Fortunately, Scott, @ScottyMet on Twitter and a meteorologist, came to rescue. Below is his guest post on how to bring weather into your game. Besides Twitter, you can find him online on his blog, Always a Gamer.

Patterning Weather

Real-world weather is based on the complex interaction of many factors, all combining
at the same time, in a seemingly completely random fashion. So complicated are all the
processes that go into weather that real-world forecasts are still only reliable out to about
24 hours, after which the uncertainty grows progressively larger, and the accuracy of
predictions gets worse. However, rather than random, weather does happen in a straight-
forward cause-and-effect way. The behavior of a specific “parcel” of air can be tracked,
and how that parcel will react to changes in temperature, humidity, pressure, etc, can be
accurately predicted. However, the reason weather prediction is so difficult is simply
the fact that there are billions of these “parcels” surrounding the planet, all interacting
with their neighbors, influencing them and being influenced by them, while at the same
time moving around the planet, interacting with different terrain, and rising and falling
between different heights. Computers simply aren’t powerful enough to work with all this
information, all at the same time, and still produce predictions in a timely manner.

In gaming, especially running the game as a Dungeon Master, we have the benefit of
being in complete control over the environment that our players’ characters live in,
including the weather. We decide if it is raining or snowing or a bright sunny day, and we
decide when that weather will change and what it will change too. Furthermore, since it is
a world with magic, the weather can change to anything we want on a whim, going from
a bright, sunny, warm day to a raging snowstorm burying the countryside in a matter of
moments. Such drastic changes are typically to drive the story, but there are times when
you simply want weather to progress along more natural path.

In the past, there have been several attempts to design weather systems for games. They
all involve rolling dice to determine what happens, and then more dice to determine
what happens next. Those systems never felt right, and the results were, ultimately,
unsatisfying. Dealing with weather progression doesn’t need tables and dice, though. It
doesn’t require the DM to keep complex records. If you want this kind of detail in your
game, it is as simple as picking a starting point, and following some fairly simple rules
after that.

For your starting point, simply pick your weather conditions. Think about what time of
year it is, what climate your locale is in, and if there are any particular conditions you
need to start. Many adventures start with inclement weather, to drive adventurers indoors,
to where the action occurs. It isn’t necessary, of course, but it happens enough for it to be
a cliché. Don’t let that deter you, though. It’s a cliché because it works!


Once you have your starting conditions, you just need to progress things from there.

Rainy or snowy conditions are due to a region of low pressure. Winds generally blow
counterclockwise around this region, spiral inwards towards the center of the region, and
are stronger the closer to the center of the region you are. This region, if you could see
the boundaries between the air masses that make up the system, would look like a notch-
shaped valley cut into the side of a hill. The base of the western side of the valley would
be the cold front, the slope on that side would be tall, steep, and rounded. The base of
the eastern side of the valley would be the warm front, and the slope on that side would
be long and shallow. Precipitation occurs as warm, humid air blows from the south and
southwest, up these slopes, cooling as it rises, and produces clouds and rain or snow.
Because the slope of the warm front is shallow and gradual, precipitation in this area
tends to be steady and wide spread. With the steep slope of the cold front, air rises very
quickly ahead of it, and the weather you get along this front is more energetic, producing
showers or flurries, thunderstorms or snowstorms. Behind the cold front, winds swing
around to the northwest, the precipitation tapers off, and the skies clear.

Warm, sunny weather is typically due to a region of high pressure. Winds blow clockwise
around this region, spiral outwards from the middle, and are weaker the closer to the
center you are. This region would look like a wide dome. Temperatures are generally
cooler on the east side of this region, where the winds blow generally from the north, and
warmer on the west side of the region, where the winds blow generally from the south.
Heat waves and droughts can be associated with these regions, depending on the time of
year and how persistent they are in an area.

There is some variation in the cycle, of course, but generally an area will go through a
cycle from high pressure to low pressure to high pressure to low pressure and so on. How
long it takes to go from one to the next is really up to you and what you need for your
adventures.

So, if you wanted the weather to progress realistically in the area of your adventures, you
could have the PCs seeking refuge from miserable, rainy weather, taking refuge in some
caves, only to discover that it is the lair for a tribe of goblins. After defending themselves
from the attacks of their unwilling hosts, they discover that the goblins are allied with
tribes of hobgoblins and bugbears that are planning something big, and the goblins
were going to meet them soon after the rain stops. Setting out to find these other tribes,
the rains end, and some warmer weather sets in for the journey. As the PCs approach
their destination, they see storms gathering on the horizon, with flashes of lightning
illuminating a tower in the distance. These storms roll through as the PCs assault the
hobgoblin encampment, with driving rain, strong winds, and thunder and lightning
covering their movements and fighting. Moving on from the hobgoblin camp, they make
their way to the tower they saw. The storms have moved on now, still visible flashing
off to the east. As the PCs travel to the west, the winds grow lighter, turn to blow from
the south and the weather becomes sweltering hot, humid and stagnant by the time they
arrive at the tower and the encampment of the bugbears, possibly giving the PCs a chance
to sneak by weary, complaining guards, or perhaps catch them unawares.

The weather details in this scenario aren’t necessary, but they add some interesting
flavor to the adventure, and even open up some possible avenues for the PCs to approach
their encounters in a slightly different way or grant them some benefits if they use the
situations to their advantage.

Predicting Weather

PCs can predict the weather with a Nature skill check. The higher the roll, the farther out
the forecast can give details for.

DC Easy – next 3 hours
DC Moderate – next 6 hours
DC Hard – next 12 hours

The forecaster can get fairly general information about the longest period their roll
exceeds the DC for. For each successively shorter period, details increase.

What you can tell for the time period:

  • Where you likely are, in reference to high or low pressure, or warm or cold fronts.
  • Whether cloud cover will increase or decrease.
  • Whether wind direction will change and whether wind speeds will increase or decrease.
  • Whether temperature will increase or decrease, and generally by how much.
  • Whether humidity will increase or decrease, and generally by how much.
  • Potential for precipitation.

For the farthest period you have details for, you can know two of the above points (your
choice). For the next closest period, you can know four of the above points (your choice),
and for the next closest period, you can know all of them. Thus, exceeding the Hard
DC will give the forecaster two details about the forecast for 6-12 hours from now, four
details for 3-6 hours, and all of the details for the period for the first 3 hours.

Weather effects

There are some general effects that can be applied to encounters, based on the weather.

  • Strong winds can cause challenging terrain. Succeed at an Athletics check to move
    normally, otherwise experience difficult terrain when moving against the wind, or be
    pushed one square in the direction of the wind when traveling across the wind or with the
    wind.
  • Gusting winds act as Strong winds, above, but happen intermittently. At the beginning
    of each round, roll 1d6. On a 5 or 6, the winds gust until the end of the round. Increase
    the range on the die for more frequent gusting.
  • Fog, rain, or snow cause lightly obscured conditions, granting partial concealment when
    not adjacent to an attacker.
  • Thick Fog, heavy rain, or heavy snowfall cause heavily obscured conditions, granting
    partial concealment when adjacent to an attacker, and total concealment when not
    adjacent to an attacker.
  • Frigid cold or sweltering heat can be used as a zone, which attacks anyone in the area.
    Attack vs Fortitude, inflicting ongoing cold or fire damage, respectively (save ends).

Weather can even be the target of an encounter, or one of the targets. As an example,
here is the Stormrage Cyclone, a level 5 Solo. The design of this “creature” involves
three successive auras, each with their own attack, and an attack for when an opponent
ends their turn adjacent to the cyclone. Note that, although the Cyclone has hit points
and defenses, it is not a living creature, and does not have a will of its own. It makes its
way across the encounter map, possibly having some randomness in its movement, and
affecting every combatant on the battlefield. It can be attacked and destroyed, with force
and cold attacks having the greatest effect on it, but it is meant more as a hazard than a
direct opponent.
Stormrage CycloneStormrage Cyclone

Eowyn and the Nazgul

If you are at all interested in the art of D&D and all of the hard work behind it, you should read Jon Schindehette's blog, The ArtOrder. I had the honor of interviewing Jon for The Tome Show and he's a really nice guy who knows his stuff and loves to teaches others about art. Currently, his site is running a challenge in which artists are asked to depict the famous scene of Eowyn and the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings.

What's awesome about this challenge is how difficult it is. The scene involves a woman disguised as a man. Not only is the disguise so good that acquaintances don't recognize her but the Nazgul himself, one of Sauron's most powerful servants, doesn't seem to notice. Yet the viewer of the painting needs to know who she is. Such subtlety is often difficult to accomplish and I think it's one of the reasons so much of fantasy art exaggerates the feminine form. However, the difficulty, at least in my mind goes beyond that. The Nazgul is invisible. His body outline is defined by the clothing and armor that he wears. Also, do you hint at the locale? Do you include her uncle? Merry? Which part of the scene do you depict? How do you depict the strength of the Nazgul, his aura of despair? So many interesting questions.

Since the challenge started, a number of artists have shared and discussed their work on the ArtOrder ning site in the work in progress forum. In addition to seeing lots of awesome drawings and paintings, the comments and critiques are teaching me a lot about the artist's craft. I hope having a basic understanding of the constraints artists work under will help me write better art orders in the future, especially by giving me an understanding of what might be too much to handle in one scene.

As if the comments in the forums weren't enough, the Muddy Colors crew, who are also serving as judges, wrote critiques of some of the WIP submissions on their website. The first critique post explains a bit about the challenge an what the judges are looking for in an entry. While this challenge is for fun (and some prizes), it is still an art order, there is a specific story being told. They also remind the artists that fans of Lord of the Rings and the scene will look for certain touchstones in the piece. Also, this isn't necessarily about being cool or clever; it's about representing a well-known scene and, hopefully, some of the emotions that comprise it. While writers have words for these things, I envy the artist's ability to use color, lines, even the paint strokes themselves to convey emotion.

After this introduction, they dive into the critiques. Seeing their words next to the artist's work helps a ton. It gives me insight into how they judge the work and I can use the picture to understand what they are trying to say. It also helped me feel better about my own thoughts about the pieces. For instance, I was really annoyed by the submission that had Eowyn fighting in a dress. The artist wanted to make this a story about the feminine Eowyn fighting against the masculine Nazgul. While I respect any artist's desire to interpret as they wish, I don't think the story has the same impact then. The story, in my mind, is not about femininity and making it about her being a woman takes away from her story. Let's not forget, she kills a ring wraith, a creature whose mere presence caused men to lose hope and wish only for death.

The Nazgûl came again . . . like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men's flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death. — The Return of the King, p.97

The Muddy Colors crew also did a second round of critiques. I can't wait to see all the finished pieces and which one the judges pick as the winner. If you want to see more renditions of this scene, check out the original post on the Muddy Color's website.

Pathfinder Adventure Path: Serpent's Skull - Souls for Smuggler's Shiv

When I visited my parents for Easter weekend, I stopped by the friendly local gaming store (FLGS) in the area, Dragon's Den. My husband wanted to pick up a video game for my dad and I wanted to check out the RPG books section to see what they had. My main goal was to find a Pathfinder adventure I could read and see if anything else caught my eye.

So I have to be honest. When it comes to spending money, I'm very picky about which adventures I buy. I'm pretty sure the only 4e adventure I've bought is Logan Bonner's The Slaying Stone and that was after I heard a lot of good reviews from people I trust. The truth is my gaming group isn't a big fan of published adventures and I'm pretty good at creating adventures that we all enjoy.

That said, I had heard some really good stuff about Paizo's adventures in general and about the Pathfinder Adventure Paths in particular. So I decided to take a look at them while I was at the store. The only one I saw was Serpent's Skull - Souls for Smuggler's Shiv. I flipped through it at the store and saw enough to make me buy it.

It's just pure luck (in my opinion) that I ended up with the first chapter of a multiple chapter adventure path. It was displayed front-facing, so when I picked it, I never saw the information on the spine and as someone new to the series, I had no idea I should look there. That said, I'm glad it worked out so well because I really enjoyed reading the adventure. It matched up to everything I had heard about Paizo products.

The Adventure

A deadly storm shipwrecks the passengers and crew of the Jenivere upon infamous Smuggler's Shiv, an island off the coast of the jungle realm of Sargava. If they're to have any hope of escaping the notorious pirates' graveyard, the survivors will need to band together and outwit the isle's strange beasts and legendary menaces. - Back Cover

Ok, it might be a bit unfair but I immediately thought of it as a bad-ass Survivor: Smuggler's Shiv. Players can find a lot of things for their characters to do on the island, everything from building campsites to exploring shipwrecks to going up against wild and dangerous creatures. While not everything may be as it seems, some things are exactly what they look like, deadly!

The adventure itself is written as a sandbox. Players drive the story entirely through their actions. However, the GM has a number of NPCs and other ways of providing hints to the players. It also provides suggestions to the GM how to handle the situation when the players don't take the bait to explore the secrets of the island. I don't want to go into more specifics than that out of fear of spoiling the plot. That said, I would love to use the setting for the adventure in a my normal 4e games as well.

Special Rules and NPCs

In my mind, the product really shines when it comes to the special rules and the NPCs. Each NPC has just enough backstory for the GM to get a good idea of how to run him or her and to provide some tensions for the players to react to without being overwhelming. They have unique personality traits which hint at bits of their history or personality without hitting players over the head with it. I really like Gelik Aberwhinge and his little sayings about things one needs to do to be taken seriously.

The special rules are also well done. In addition to handling basics such as food and water, it covers environmental hazards such as disease and heat. It also provides information for setting up a base camp and handling roles within the camp: defender, entertainer, guard, hunter and medic. Each role provides a benefit to the enterprise and can be done by the PCs or NPCs. Finally, there are rules for dealing with Attitude and Morale. Attitude deals with how the NPCs feel about the PCs: hostile, unfriendly, etc, whereas I think of morale as representing intestinal fortitude. How likely is the NPC to help, especially in a dangerous situation.

Ecology

The adventure comes with an ecology article on the Serpentfolk, an ancient powerful race. I particularly enjoyed the sharp distinctions of caste within the race, which gives a number of role-playing hooks itself. I loved the tablet artwork. It sums up a lot of the feel of the race while still being a bit unclear (at least to me) which is perfect for a mysterious new race. The section also adds a new domain, Scalykind. It doesn't say but I believe it's for clerics of the Serpentfolk gods.

Fiction

The book includes a fiction section written by Robin Laws. I really enjoyed it. It sets the tone for the adventure path well without telling the story of the island itself.

Bestiary

I haven't run a Pathfinder game yet, so going through stats doesn't make a lot of sense. The artwork really helps bring the creatures to life, especially since I'm not familiar with a number of the inspirations for them. However, I love that they also included sidebars with information about those bits of inspiration. I love seeing where other designers get their inspiration from and how they tweak and change things to fit better in a fantasy setting.

Overall

I enjoyed the adventure and am interested in running it for my group in one form or another. The adventure, like many of Paizo's products, gives a lot of detail on creating a rich world. Random monster encounters make sense in part because the island is full of deadly foes. Time of day matters and is marked not only by the passage of the sun but the daily rains as well. The NPCs presented are wonderfully well written and I particularly love that each of them has their own quest.

However, I have a few caveats. The first is, it didn't sell me on running a Pathfinder game. I do a lot of these sorts of details in 4e already and I didn't see anything that made me say, "Oh, I must use Pathfinder for this." What that says to me is that Paizo is an awesome company that concentrates on creating a really good story and hires writers and editors who can pull that off. The other thing I'll suggest is that this might not be an adventure for new GMs. Remembering to handle attitude and morale of NPCs, tracking the number of monsters left on the island, reminding players to make environmental effects checks on top of learning how to run an adventure might be too much. I realize that new GMs aren't the intended audience for this book, but since a fair bit of my audience would be new to Pathfinder, I feel it's important to point out. Finally, I find it a bit expensive. I found enough value in it to justify the $20 I spent, but I'm not sure everyone will and I'm not sure I found enough to pay another $100 to get the rest of series.

That said, I'd recommend #37 to anyone, regardless of system, who would like to run an exploration-based adventure with a lot of rich detail. If you are interested in learning more, they have a handy free player's guide to give you more details.

Games I Love: Avernum

For the first game in the games I love series, I want to highlight the game that fed my RPG needs for years. Avernum was a series of computer RPG games created by Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software. At it's basic level, most of the Avernum games are a huge sandbox open for exploration, providing quests to wind you through the large world.

Basic Play

Unlike many RPG games, you lead a party of 4 characters. While many people might prefer just one character, I really liked this system. To be honest, it gives me a lot of what I love in 4e, the ability to go through a story line, navigate challenges (for instance, investing in its nature skill decreased random encounters during travel) and also solve the "puzzles" of combat. Earlier editions were a bit overwhelming, though, in the number of skills they offered and I often got frustrated trying to figure it all out. Later versions streamlined the skills system (surprise, surprise) and I was much happier as a result. At it's core though, you go around exploring, completing quests and deciding who to back in the detailed world of Avernum.

The Writing

I loved so many of the characters and scenarios present in the game. Sure, like most computer or video games, the response you could give were limited to multiple choices. But even with that limit, I often found the characters compelling and the choices presented interesting. Depending on the version, actions you took, races you picked, and things you said all affected what you could and could not do. Also, the characters tended to be fairly diverse. I still remember taking up a side quest to deliver a letter to a woman's female lover in another town and the anger displayed by an NPC when he found out I had killed his sister and it's been years since I played those storylines.

The Graphics

Ok, I'll admit upfront, Avernum isn't going to win any awards in the graphics category. They are very old school. It uses a 3/4 view, at least for most games, and a grid based system. There aren't any cutaway scenes and overall the graphics are pretty crude. I happen to love it, but a few of my friends were turned off by the system.

Scope and Demoware

The games are expansive, especially compared to other contemporary games. In many, the storyline changes as the game evolves, secrets are revealed and what was originally presented as "fact" is questioned by the NPCs. A nice side benefit is that the expansiveness of the game allows for a pretty large demo as well. For a number of them, I played most of a weekend before the demo beast raised its head and that's with ignoring a fair number of side quests as well.

The Job Board

I love, love, love the job board. Most towns in Avernum games have one. Locals post side quests, often for the same locations you need to travel to for the main quests. Sometimes they are good old-fashioned, kill 20 rats and bring back their tails. Other times, it's a letter to be delivered or a missing person who needs to be found. Almost all of them involve searching out someone and talking to them which encourages exploration and, at least to me, invests people in the larger story going on in Avernum. It's not always just about the kings and queens or the military. Sometimes it's about the farmer who can't go home because of a wandering ghost or slimes who are attacking the countryside.

The Encounters

Not all enemies are meant to be fought. For certain encounters, you can totally talk your way out of a combat encounter. Sure, you can't do it for all, but that makes sense too. There are some encounters that only happen if you guess something or talk to an NPC. For instance, in one game there is a hermit who makes potions. He wants someone to get rid of a crocodile who took up residence in a small pond near his hut. The crocodile only comes out if you have fish on you, which is available in a nearby barrel. A number of encounters and locations have interactive elements, gongs you can ring and gates that need to be lifted through levers and pulleys. A few big bad guys even have variable resistance and/or vulnerability. I steal all of the elements for my D&D games from time to time.

Magic

Like 4e D&D, magic is an important part of the game but it never gets overpowering. The fighter and rogue is just as important as the cleric and mage throughout the game. Personally, I love that. Later versions of Avernum also added something similar to 4e powers to the melee characters, providing them with cool options too.

The Company

I love the company behind the Avernum games, Spiderweb Software. It is an indie company. They are committed to providing quality games with large demos, money back guarantees and DRM free products. They've long provided a download option in addition to buying the CD and I remember getting loyalty discounts in the past on new versions.

So those are a few reasons I love Avernum. Just as important, it taught me a lot about what role-playing games are and how to play them.

Class Design and Game Balance

Discussing the differences between 4e and 3.5/Pathfinder is hard, at least for me. Seeing the differences is easy but why they are there and how they affect game play is much more nuanced. It cuts to the heart of the differences between the games. I'm going to start with a bit of an analogy and deviate from it as necessary. I spent a week thinking about these things and the best way I can describe it is like this:

  • 3.5 is a lot like a *nix (linux or unix) system. It has some powerful tools and is often very flexible and extensible. However, there are a lot of places where the system relies on user skill and the documentation is often full of "here there be dragons."
  • Pathfinder feels like a distribution or gui on top of 3.5. It patches up the rough spots, adds some new tools, and overall makes things pretty without rewriting or hiding significant portions of the underlying system.
  • 4e is like OS X. Sure, if you are skilled or adventurous, you will see and maybe play with the *nix roots underneath it, but many people have no idea they lie beneath the surface. But for the most part, users interact with it the way the company thought they should.

None of these are bad, and all of them have their pros and cons. For inexperienced or rushed players and DMs, 4e's system has a lot going for it. It tends to provide a satisfactory experience to many players without hours of planning. It diminishes the swing of earlier editions, something that many DMs I know were trying to fix in their own games anyway. It concentrates on the parts of the game that are easy to simplify and which often create conflicts at the table, combat. By removing the easy out from players' control and giving it to the DM, we should have fewer disagreements and fights over whether or not something would work. To me, it also makes the game much more cooperative than competitive.

For experienced and invested fans, Pathfinder offers a ton. Having multiple systems for similar elements means there is more to master, making the game less boring over time. The detail in 3.5 and Pathfinder is often wonderful; it tends to be a much more simulationist game and easier to "feel." Players who love resource management will find a home in the system because that's a core element of it.

But I'm not here just to make broad generalizations about the games. While these are just my initial thoughts of the system, I'm not sure I know Pathfinder well enough to prove these. So, let's explore the class mechanics for a bit.

Multi-classing and Game Balance

Pathfinder classes follow the multi-class rules and philosophy from 3.5 and earlier editions. That is, you have your character level and your class level and there should be penalties for multi-classing. So, in Pathfinder, when I create a character, I pick a favored class and I can not change that class once I choose it. Every time I level in that class, I get a bonus. However, I can choose to level in another class instead. I gain all of the class abilities of a character of that level.

Given how 3.5 and Pathfinder both handle "game balance" this is some powerful stuff. The more choices your character has, often the stronger they are (up to a point of course). Take the wizard for instance. In my experience, spells are incredibly powerful in earlier editions compared to similar level melee attack. The best way to balance the characters is by 1) limiting the number of spells per day they can cast and 2) making them pick the spells before they know what they will be up against (at the start of the day).

Compare this to 4e's system where character classes by and large are expected to do a similar amount of "damage" per encounter. Sure, their output might focus more on giving buffs and debuffs or other conditions during the battle. On the whole, however, they are expected to have a similar impact on the fight. Thus, we should be less interested in building a balanced character than we are on building a balanced party. As a result, multi-classing becomes less important for game mechanics. This is further emphasized by the amount of handwaving 4e DMs tend to do. Rarely do we care about the exact numbers of ammunition, difficulty of travel, etc. Places where this changes are games where resource management come back into play, such as for Dark Sun.

Class Design

This shift of emphasis has further repercussions on class design. Classes in Pathfinder feel like they should be narrowly defined and limited since it is adding just one component to a character. Providing too many classes that are themselves mixtures of other classes just feels wrong. It provides the versatility without the balance penalty.

Also, while this system of class building provides lots of options to players, that's not always a good thing. I found it way too easy to build a character that doesn't act the way I think it should. That's because the game encompasses such a broad range of options that an inexperienced DM or group might not provide enough feedback to each other about what their game is about. I know my friends have complained about this since the early days of 3.5. On the other hand, some players absolutely love the ability to go through and mix and match. To each their own.

In 4e, the classes themselves shouldn't be too strict. I should be able to build an interesting character while sticking to just one class build. If I want to go for a particular feel for a character, that should be found in the sub builds, such as the rogues Trickster (Artful Dodger) and Brawny (Brutal Scoundrel). A lot of the specialization in 4e happens on the power choice level. The downside is that many players look at the output of the power more than they look at how it defines their character, so there's often a mishmash of diverse powers.

Unfortunately, this is a subtle distinction and goes against the previous editions' way of doing things. 4e struggled with it a fair bit, as shown by the evolution of the fighter between PHB and the essentials books and the renaming of the PHB1 fighter to weaponmaster. I think it's interesting to see how both systems added sub-builds to their own games, with cleric domains and the like.

Leveling Rates

While not exactly about classes, I want to mention a quick bit about leveling rates. In both games, a PC levels after reaching a certain amount of XP. One nice thing Pathfinder offers is the ability to accelerate this leveling process, offering slow, medium and fast XP thresholds. The only thing I wonder about with this is the use of XP as a reward in a fast system. For instance, offering 50 XP for bringing food for a game makes a lot more sense in the slow system, which requires 3000 XP to get to level 2 but is worth a lot more in the fast version, which requires just 1300 XP.

Obviously, with an article of this length, it's hard to go into all of the details and nuances of the two systems. Hopefully over time I'll get a better feel for both.

Pathfinder Magic and GM Skill

As I read through initial chapters of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, I can't help but think about how I would GM this game. From my readings I see that many characters have abilities that aren't tied directly to dealing damage. In some ways, I really enjoy that, it makes it easier to keep a consistent narrative through the entire session. However, I have a bit of doubt in the back of my mind because many of these powers provide ways to short-circuit an encounter, especially when dealing with a rushed or inexperienced GM.

Now short-circuiting encounters isn't bad. A number of us, @DaveTheGame, @ChattyDM, @SlyFlourish, @gamefiend and others, give suggestions on how 4e DMs can add them to their encounters. Also, I love to reward clever thinking throughout my games. However, dealing with these spells is another thing altogether. While it can take skill to add outs to a 4e encounter game, at least then it's in the DM's hands, the person most often responsible for providing the conflicts and the overarching narrative for the players. If the DM doesn't have a lot of time for prep work or is inexperienced, it's possible that there won't be any planned outs.

However, with Pathfinder, I feel it's the players who get more control of the outs, especially through their choice of spells. The GM maybe just as rushed or as inexperienced as the 4e DM mentioned above, but he still needs to deal with short-circuits. If the players have enough spells available, they might quickly go through all of his encounters and get bored with the game. Also, some of the other players might not feel like they get enough of a spotlight on them. While I haven't played Pathfinder yet, I've seen this happen in the few OD&D and 3/3.5 games I've played.

Being an experienced GM with a lot of time doesn't necessarily fix this either. Player characters in Pathfinder can have a lot more variance in their ability level throughout the day. In 4e, there isn't much variance between the start of the day and the end. Most of their powers tend to be at-wills and encounters. The main things that vary are dailies (if they have them), magic item dailies and number of healing surges. For Pathfinder characters, a lot more of their stuff is limited to a certain number of times per day including almost all spells, spell-like, supernatural and extraordinary abilities.

In addition, the spells available to characters varies even more than in the 4e system. While a small number of 4e classes have some version of you know these powers but you can only use a power from this group x times per encounter/day (think the cleric's class divinity powers and the wizard's daily and utility spellbook powers), the Pathfinder casters tend to have a much wider pool at their disposal. Without getting into how the intelligence modifier changes things, the base wizard gets 3 spells for his spellbook at 1st level but can prepare and cast just 1 of them per day. This decision is often, but not always made, in the morning after a long sleep.

As a GM who is interested in rewarding players for their choices, this leaves me with a few concerns. First, I would have to remember a much wider array of spells the caster might have access to if I want to ensure a spell couldn't just short-circuit an important conflict. In addition, if I want the player to be able to short-circuit it, I probably should leave hints that it would be a good use of a spell slot to prepare that spell for the day. It would suck to prepare an encounter to show off a character's awesomeness, for instance as part of her character's narrative arc, only to find out she didn't prepare that spell for that day.

Also, since there are class abilities that aren't tied to combat, that means a GM should build in non-combat conflicts where the players get to use the elements they chose. For instance, the cleric's animal domain gives the ability Speak with Animals at 3 + cleric level. How often can I realistically build in rewards for taking this domain? A first level cleric might wish to speak to an animal up to 4 rounds per day! This isn't bad, but I do wonder how well a rushed or inexperienced GM will handle it.

Now I'll admit that some of the stronger spells probably have some built in ways to lessen their impact in this way. A lot of spells such as sleep affect only a certain number of creatures at a time. Other spells require components that are a bit more expensive to make it less likely that they will be used. I also haven't GMed any other edition before and I'm concentrating just on spells right now so I may be missing an important piece of the puzzle. For instance, maybe counterspells are a good way around this problem. Also, this isn't a bash on Pathfinder, just me trying to understand how I would GM in it. Feel free to tell me what I'm missing in the comments below.

Why Have an XP Budget?

Jerry, also known as @DreadGazebo, has a nice article on his site about Abandoning the XP Budget. While I don't agree with everything in his article, I do think people shouldn't start off thinking in terms of the XP budget. Why? Well, as he mentions it often puts us down the path of thinking about the mechanics rather than the story and plot. The latter is what the players are likely to remember, not "wow, you did a really good job there finding monsters whose XP fit into your budget." That said, I'd like to defend the XP budget a bit.

Puts You in the Ballpark

So why use it? For one, it serves as a good 20,000 foot view of how difficult an encounter might be. So many other factors go into whether or not an encounter is difficult for the players: player experience, party composition, character optimization, NPC group composition, monster synergies, random chance, etc. Let's not forget that the DMG also has encounter templates to use to address part of these issues as well.

Helps New DMs

Also, it's good for DMs, especially new ones, in a group that would rather play a "heroic" campaign than a competitive delve. Neither of these are better than the other, it just comes down to group preference. I know I loved the guidance when I started creating my first encounters as a new DM. I was so afraid of killing the PCs, especially since they said they really didn't want that to happen. Coloring within the lines for a bit gave me the confidence to start hacking around with the encounters. What happens if I throw them a n + 1 encounter? an n + 2? now how about a ton of minions? what about a bunch of soldiers? These experiments were instrumental to me learning the game well enough to write about it and produce content for it. Without guidelines like the XP budget and encounter templates, I wouldn't know where to begin and I might not have met my players' expectations for the game. It also keeps us honest. If we don't keep track of the encounter levels, when things start heading in one direction, we won't know why. If we never calculate it, we'd never know that what we thought were n + 4 encounters are really n + 8.

DM Skill

Finally, abandoning XP budgets, building multi-layered encounters, and many of the other things Jerry mentioned in his article require DM skill, not to mention time. And that's hard for someone writing a book to know in advance. I think that's why it's called the Dungeon Master's Guide. As DMs grow in skill, I hope they feel empowered to use and change the rules and guidelines to create the experience their table wants.

Thoughts for the Future

While I understand why Jerry wants to do away with the XP budget, I have a different proposal. Let's think about what the XP table would look like for groups playing different modes of the game, normal, medium, hard, and nightmare. What might the min and max levels be for an individual monster? What might the max level encounter be? The min? When should we break these expectations? Should traps and some terrain elements count in the XP budget? We get a taste of this in the encounter templates and in the Player's Strategy Guide, but it would be awesome to get more.

Pathfinder Magic Chapter, First Look

I recently decided to read the Pathfinder core rulebook. I have a few reasons for this; I plan to play a game at Gen Con and, most important to me, I love learning new things. As with 4e, I feel like I’ve started watching a really cool TV series 2 years in. Added on to this is that the organization of details in 3.5 and Pathfinder don’t make a lot of sense to me. The game rules are often presented as long blocks of text with highly detailed exceptions in the same paragraph with the basic “here is how stuff works.” So, I’m trying to reorganize stuff in my head and here on my site to see if I’m understanding things correctly. I’ve read the beginning chapters so I’m going to start with magic.

So let’s start at the basics. What is magic? Well, that’s a tricky question because they don’t really explain it. The chapter called magic deals more with spells than magic itself. That’s ok though because what magic is might vary from setting to setting. For instance the magic of Eberron seems much different to me than the magic of the Wheel of Time. If they concretely defined it, I might find it too limiting. While it might not be explicitly said anywhere (and it’s possible I just missed it if it is), there is one important bit to know about magic. Magic users at the lower levels are weaker than their martial based counterparts. However, as they grow in power, magic users outpower the martial classes.

That said, mechanically there seem to be three types of magic: spells, spell-like abilities and supernatural abilities.

Spells

The first is pretty easy to understand. These are like advanced recipe books for chefs. Anyone with the training or innate ability to understand the recipe can duplicate it. They also require components, the most common of which are verbal, somatic, material and focus or divine focus.

somatic - A somatic component usually requires the movement of the hands meaning limits on movement often increase the difficulty of correctly casting the spell.
verbal - For verbal components, the caster needs to make sounds to cast the spell. So if a character is gagged or rendered mute (for instance, through a silence spell), it becomes more difficult to cast the spell. Likewise, a deafened person has a harder time speaking clearly. Surprisingly, I didn’t see anything to deal with slurred speech due to alcohol.
material - Material components vary by spell. For instance, control water requires a pinch of dust to lower water and a drop of water to raise water where raise dead requires a clay pot filled with grave dirt and an onyx gem worth 50 GP.
focus - A focus can vary by spell while the deity worshipped often sets the divine focus required.

Spell-Like Abilities

Spell-like abilities are a bit harder to understand. At their core, they are magic spells you can do due to your class. Sometimes they reference a spell, such as the cleric’s Animal Domain, which grants speak with animals. Other times they create their own spell, such as the cleric’s Air domain which grants Lightning Arc. My understanding is that these spell-like abilities don’t count towards a daily spell limit since they often have their own limits which are part of the description. I do wonder if that becomes confusing though as characters multi-class, but that’s a topic for another day.

Supernatural Abilities

Finally we have supernatural abilities, “magical attacks, defenses and qualities.” In my mind, that’s a bit vague, more like, “here are the things that don’t fit anywhere else but we thought were so cool we had to add them.” This category includes things such as bardic performances, the druid’s wild shape, the monk’s ki pool, and paladin’s mercies.

Sources of Magic

Each class has their own reason why they get to derive some of their abilities from magic. For wizards, it’s due to years of study and constant refreshing from their spellbooks. Clerics and paladins gain their magic from their prayers while druids and rangers meditate. For sorcerers, the magic is in their bloodline.

My Thoughts

I understand that a complex system like this makes sense in an evolutionary point of view. Many of these, including spells and spell-like abilities were part of the early D&D game. But it seems like a lot to keep track of to me. Sure, some people love the detail of being able to cast something for x rounds. I love it too, except when it comes to the bookkeeping. Given that, I much prefer dailies and encounter powers with a sustain minor or powers with an “until the end of the encounter” clause.

In addition, I wish they organized the magic chapter a bit differently. For instance, the classes chapter explains a lot of the spell preparation parts of the mechanics. Rather than going over the same details while introducing lots of little details, I wish it had a quick bullet-point refresher and then the more detailed information that this chapter has. I also wish that the schools and sub-schools weren’t part of the how to read a spell section and were in their own section instead. When I read through the first time, I totally forgot we were in the how to read a spell section and was confused by the information that came after the last school. I also wouldn’t mind having that section in the spells chapter instead of the magic one. Having to go between that many pages is annoying, especially since the section covers multiple pages.

In my mind, certain classes remind me of the primary forms for the game, such as fighter, cleric, and wizard. Other classes seem to be reflections of two other forms. For instance, the paladin feels like a reflection of the fighter and cleric and the ranger of fighter and druid.

Those are my initial thoughts after reading the magic chapter in Pathfinder. I’ll dig into it some more over time.

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, was on my reading list for a while and with the HBO series about to start up, I decided to finally read it. Most of the book is about the continent of Westeros, based on medieval Europe although it doesn't place itself in a particular time or place.

Life in this world reminds me of Hobbes' Leviathan. "Bellum omnium contra omnes" meaning "the war of all against all." The story is dark; very, very dark. It includes elements of rape, incest, murder, death and the like. As the Stark family motto says, "Winter is coming."

Edit: Some people have asked me to clarify this. I haven't read the rest of the books in the series. These are my opinions of and reactions to the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones. It's possible that some of my feelings or opinions will change as I read later books in the series.

Likes:

The characters shine, even if some of them are a bit archetypal. In particular, he did an excellent job with the children, something many authors aren't very good at.

The plot is woven together nicely too. Characters have to react to the decisions other characters make in a way that feels natural. It reminds me of the military histories I read when I was younger. Often they are shocked by what close family and friends do, something I've noticed a lot of authors leave out.

His prose is excellent, although at times I feel he knew that too and wrote more than necessary. If you want a book with good descriptions, read this one.

Dislikes:

It's a bit of a nitpick but the emphasis and repetitiveness placed on key information annoyed me a bit. Sure it helps ensure that the plot never runs away from the reader too much and, given the number of concurrent story lines, it may be needed more than in other novels, but it took me out of the story at times. I started "meta-gaming" the novel.

While I think the characters were quite good, the female characters in particular often didn't feel real to me. Of the main characters, Tyrion seemed to be the most multi-faceted. The rest of them seemed a bit too archetypal. Others may disagree with me on this one, but it is how I felt reading it.

Using the Book in a Game or Here There Be Spoilers

There's a ton in A Game of Thrones to use in a game. I really enjoyed Green Ronin's A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. I want to steal the heraldry and house building parts of the game for instance.

Additional elements to use in your games:
* Remember to have your villains react to the plans your players make. Sometimes it's fun to have a giant chess match played out instead of a straightforward storming of the castle.
* Not all myths or fairy tales have to be true, but sometimes it's fun when some of them are.
* Named weapons are pretty awesome. In 4e we use the term magic weapon to apply to a broad range of weapons, including masterwork.

One thing the book made me think a lot about is the use of gender inequality in story telling and in role playing games. Since the book is not historical fiction, the author could have chosen to leave that part of our history out of his world. If we look at a number of the main characters, many of them are women with a fair amount of power and prestige, so it doesn't seem like he wanted to write a men-only story. Instead, he consciously decided to include it.

While I haven't read the rest of the books, my friends tell me it's important and I think I can see why. Most of the characters are a direct reaction to the world. Take Sansa and Arya for instance. They are two sides of the same coin. In a world where gender didn't matter, most of what makes them unique wouldn't be important. Catelyn's struggles with trying to remain passive in a world that increasingly requires her to take action doesn't mean as much if she has no limits on her action due to her gender. Even Tyrion and Bran's stories would be diminished in a less patriarchal society.

In this case, gender inequality is critical to understanding the characters' lives but I don't think the same is true of most of our games. Instead we often include it just as flavor. It serves the same purpose as the types of food served or clothing worn. Even worse in my mind, we include it without thinking and then wonder why women such as myself would feel the desire to play male instead of female characters. Including it in the world in such a meaningless way reinforces the idea that women are weak and means every female character must fight the entirety of a society just to be. She is instantly an outsider even if half the population is of the same gender as she. Unlike having the wrong holy symbol, it's much harder to hide one's femininity. Binding breasts is not a pleasant way to spend a morning and imagine the difficulty of performing certain bodily functions in a world with little privacy. Not only that, because it's not a main ingredient of the story, female characters don't have any hope of changing this, of fighting it.

So I would like to ask a couple of favors. First, when considering the question of gender inequality in games, try to determine if it might make any of your players uncomfortable. It might not only be women who are upset by the implications of a heavily patriarchal society. What those societies often say about men isn't kind either, at least not to the modern ear. Also, if the gender inequality is more on the flavor end of things rather than a central point of your story, consider not drawing attention to it and remember that even in these societies, some women often rose above the limits placed on them. Finally, don't be surprised if you dispense with other elements of medieval society, such as the limited social mobility and the realities of a feudal system, and people get upset about the inclusion of the oppression of women.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

Resources for FAQs

Prismatic Art Collection

Search

Syndicate

Syndicate content


2011 ENnie Nominee for Best Blog2011 ENnie Nominee for Best Blog