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.


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.


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.


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.

Announcement: New 5e D&D Setting

This article is part of an April Fool's day joke orchestrated by the Weem. To find out more information about our 5e, visit the website

When Weems of the Coast approached me a few months ago to work on their awesome new 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I was floored. At first I figured they just wanted to tease me about the info, knowing I couldn’t talk to you guys about it for months if not years. But then they started saying things that really didn’t make sense. “We want you to design the new campaign setting.” Wait, what? Me, design a campaign setting? Surely they were pulling my leg. At least that’s what it felt like until they told me their idea....Candy Land.

Now I’ve been interested in translating this unique and well-known world into a D&D setting, well, ever since I started playing D&D just over two years ago. What’s great about it is everyone has heard of it. We don’t have to explain what a gingerbread house is or who King Kandy is. People just know. The setting isn’t a barrier to getting new people involved in gaming.

Speaking of King Kandy, the established characters and locations are just wonderful. Who doesn’t want to go snowboarding with the Duke of Swirl or talk to the conductor on the train through the Gummy Hills. Sneaky Lord Licorice and his twisted minions are just delicious foes. And don’t let her name fool you, Princess Frostline is anything but cold to visitors.

If you’re like me, you’re sold already, but just in case you need more, here’s a few more details:


People complain about all the money they need to spend in order to play the game. For D&D Candy Land, we kept cost in mind. No need to buy set after set of dungeon tiles. If you own a copy of Candy Land, you have the game map. All you need is a copy of the campaign setting book and a few skill booster packs. We may release future variations of the core game, but then you’ll be getting two games in one.


We really listened to the community on this one. Many of you felt the skill list in 4e was just too short. For this edition, we will have 25 skills as part of the core rules and each setting will add their own. Candy Land adds 75 more skills, meaning that you have a hundred to pick from each time.

Example Skills:
42) Know It All (Int) - You have many answers, at least if you find the right questions.
69) Cunning Tongue (Dex) - Your tongue moves fast and with great dexterity. You never trip over your tongue and words sound like honey dripping from your lips.
88) Take a Licking (Con) - Even when you crash, you get up and keep on going.

While that helps the people who wanted more variation, others complained the increased list is too unwieldy and that players only pick the skills that they are good at. While we think the 100 skills helps with the former (you’re unlikely to be very good at many things), we took it a step further. Instead of training or taking ranks in skills, players buy skill booster packs. The number of duplicate cards determines how skillful they are in a particular area. When they have trouble deciding between skills, just have them draw from the deck. If they prefer to roll dice instead, no problem, just roll a percentile and count off the correct number of cards from the top of the deck.

Why go with this system? The randomness will keep the players on their toes. Besides, D&D is a game about imagination. It will always be interesting to see how players decide a skill applies in a certain situation.

Skill Challenges

We decided to go in a bit of a different direction for skill challenges. Rather than let the players decide how to deal with a problem on their own, we set up very specific challenges for the players to beat. But the DM doesn’t tell them how to solve it; that’s part of the challenge. Players just love a good puzzle and we presented a few doozeys.

Help the Gingerbread Kids Build Their House (Level 1 Skill Challenge)

Frame the Walls
The gingerbread walls look and smell so yummy, it’s hard to resist their lure.
Skills: Carpentry, Bossiness, Superhuman Strength, Gluten Intolerance
DC: 15
Special: You get a +5 bonus to your roll if you are blindfolded or you can’t smell anything. You get a +10 if both are true.
Failure: You eat the gingerbread instead and develop a tummy ache. You get a -2 to future rolls in this skill challenge.

Raise the Roof
Finishing the roof is hard and dangerous work. Don’t fall!
Skills: Carpentry, Cat Balance, Fly, Spider Walk
DC: 19
Special: You get a +2 bonus to your roll if you have a safety harness. However, if you fail by 5 or more, you have a 25% chance of getting tangled up in the rope on your way down and being strangled by it.
Failure: You fall off the roof. Roll the body damage die to find out which part of your body you break. You are weakened until you can take 2 extended rests. If you break your neck or hit your head, you are unconscious for 1d6 days.

Well that’s the sneak peek behind the new campaign setting for 5e Dungeons & Dragons. Initial playtests reveal that people love this and I’m sure you will too. Even Orcus approves.

Critical Thoughts

Today I commented on twitter that I didn't find the article how to punish kids who don't play D&D "right" particularly thoughtful and I wanted to provide more information on that lest anyone think I was just trying to be a jerk. However, I first wanted to provide some comments on the original article.

Comments on the D&D Kids: Punishment:

1. Spend a few words explaining that the content of this article was meant for the times when rewards failed to produce the desired outcome. This would have helped sidestep the issues of people complaining that rewards should be used instead.
2. Reorganize the first section. Start off with the rewards system and then follow with the punishments to use if that fails.
3. Give a bit more information about his experiences with children especially that sometimes the groups are created for him instead of him having control. People seem to assume that the kids playing want to be there or that he has control over the group composition.
4. While the tone was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, that can be hard to convey in written form, particularly online and the conversational tone isn’t the most efficient way to give this information and may lack a degree of clarity.
5. I’m not sure Punishment is the best theme for this article since very little deals with punishing players for “bad” behavior. It’s use in the title and the introduction frames the discussion in a way that does the rest of the content a disservice. Given that it’s an article on children, it’s likely to be incendiary.
6. Add a heading before the paragraph that begins with “Now, in my work...” to make it clear that this is different from mere reward or penalty. I would keep it neutral on the word punishment, perhaps saying “Common Trouble Spots”
7. Some people are very much against labeling children. Yet the subheadings/groupings make it easier for the audience reading the article. It might seem obvious to the author, but adding a disclaimer that one shouldn’t actually call children these names might help.
8. Use of the Wizards of the Coast style guide would help here. I understand that traditionally “he” is considered gender neutral, but there is enough resistance to that idea in the US that many companies, including Wizards of the Coast, has changed their style to reflect popular opinion.

Now that I've provided some comments on the original article, I'd like to discuss the response article.

Comments on the response article:

1. The tone of the response article sounds combative to my eyes/ears right from the start. For instance, she describes Uri as someone “who is apparently a professional ‘teacher of RPGs’ in Israel.“ First, nowhere in the 4 articles does he use the phrase “teacher of RPGS.” He says he plays D&D with kids in a variety of settings. He doesn’t state anywhere that his aim “to punish and humiliate children between the ages of 7 and 11 who don't fit his idea of what a roleplaying game should be.” In fact, he says that some of the issues are minor enough that a DM shouldn’t pay too much attention to them while a few deal with situations where the actions of one child make it hard to have a game at all. In other blog posts, he talks about D&D in pretty expansive terms defined by what the children want. In fact, in the first article of the series he talks about letting kids create their own races. “Another approach, one that entails much more work on the part of the DM, is asking kids to draw and describe the character they want to play and then to design—with or without them—appropriate statistics for their creations. You’ll be surprised at just how creative and original (and occasionally random) kids will be!”
2. She oversimplifies the author’s statements in an exaggerated manner. He does not say that the Antagonist type “should just be banished for being a threat to the DM's authority.” Instead, he explains that it’s very hard to get a child who takes this stance to play the game in a manner that the other kids will enjoy since the goal of the child isn’t to play the game but to defy authority.
3. She brings up the "Real Men / Roleplayers / Loonie / Munchkin" and loses me. He wasn’t categorizing all children who play but rather trying to detail some player groups that might make the game hard to play and provide some support for how to deal with the issues that may come up. He even states that “While the below archetypes are gross generalizations, they might help you to identify and solve the problem in some cases.” In the cases he mentions, these are not merely different play styles or goals, but potential trouble spots for keeping a game going. I’m sorry but I fail to see how a player intent only on proving that he or she is not subject to the DM’s authority is a valid and reasonable play style. In fact, none of these are play styles with the possible exception of the serial character changer.
4. She assumes a meaning of seriousness that doesn’t make sense to me given the context of the article and the ones that came before it.
5. She claims “the article focuses almost entirely on the idea that it's the role of the adult Dungeon Master to inflict punishment on the children.” Yet when I read it, there is actually very little punishment going on. In addition, yes the article focuses on dealing with problems at the game table, but it’s part two of a two part article, the first of which focuses on rewards.
6. Her post goes on from there with a bunch of “I’m offended” claims without any information to backup her claims other than a presumed “It’s obvious why this is an issue.”

At least those are my thoughts.

The Travel Scene

Part of Sickness in Springdale involves traveling deep into the woods to find the cure for the disease threatening the town. Adventures often handle travel in one of two ways, as an almost pure mechanical skill challenge where failure results in some sort of immediate loss, such as a healing surge, or it's just handwaved altogether since the travel isn't important to the narrative. In this post, I'm going to discuss how I handled travel, hopefully without giving away too many spoilers.

However, in this adventure, I didn't want to handwave travel because time is important, especially if any of the PCs are sick. I also wanted to make sure the travel checks happened in a fast manner at the table. The travel checks themselves shouldn't take up much time. For this reason, I limited it to 2 in the notes. (DMs should feel free to add more if they wish.) Originally I planned to handle this by averaging the rolls of the players. At first, that sounded like a great idea but then I thought through running it and realized I didn't want to average 4-6 numbers at the table. Instead, I decided to use the three highest scores to determine the level of success. It's simple and still makes sense in the story as presumably those characters would help those who didn't succeed as well.

Great, now that I handled the mechanics of travel, how do I make it fun? I determined that the travel section should be divided into 3 subsections, with 2 waypoints. Those waypoints are when they make the travel group check to see how long it took them to reach them. I added 2 additional scenes to be described as part of that section's journey, with the order determined by the DM.

These scenes are resolved mainly by role-playing, although skill checks may be useful. How the players decide to resolve the scenes determines whether or not they earn points towards the Lady's Favor and also may provide them with smaller boons such as a bonus to their travel check.

Another thing I like about the travel section is that it's a way for the DM to adjust the difficulty level of the adventure. If anyone in the party is sick, a longer travel time is not a good thing, it gives more opportunities to get worse. It also builds tension because the townspeople need these supplies soon.

So that's how I decided to address travel in the adventure. If you haven't already, I really hope you check it out. It is for level 1 characters and includes everything from tokens to maps to pregens. The PDF is available at a number of places, including RPGNow for $1.99. If you bought the adventure, thanks so much! It hit the top 5 hottest items on RPGNow yesterday which is a huge accomplishment for me. Thanks to your interest, Postmortem Studios is interested in having me write more. Also, feel free to let me know what you think, in the comments, on twitter @SarahDarkmagic, or by email tracy [at]

PAX East Recap and Other News

So, lots of stuff to share. First, I went to PAX East and had a blast. I ran over 12 hours of games for the kind RPGA folks including 2 learn to play sessions and 2 sessions of my DM Challenge entry. I had a ton of fun running them, especially the learn to play ones. Those sessions align well with my DMing style and we get to do some fairly awesome stuff like creating a focus lens out of ice and rewriting the entire adventure on the fly. I hope to write more about that later.

A few quick items:

  • Players really loved the public initiative on my DM screen. I'm pretty sure I learned that trick from @SlyFlourish.
  • Players also responded well when I asked them to describe the death scenes of the monsters they killed. That often led them to describing other things as well. That's a tip I learned from @gamefiend when I played in one of his games.
  • Minions are awesome for new players, at least some of them. They had a ton of fun trying to sneak up to them and getting the instant kill effect. It also highlighted how bad ass the dragon was. (Yes, I made them fight a dragon at first level.)
  • I've gotten to the point where I can make stuff up on the fly. For one group, I had planned to send them to the dungeon from the Red Box to deal with the kobold caravan robbers, but the group wanted to draw out the ambush instead by dressing up as merchants. Fortunately the back of the map had an outdoor scene and we were off to the races.
  • I'm floored by the number of people who took time out of their busy con to come say hi to me. You guys really help give me the energy to do what I do and I appreciate it. I can't thank you enough.

Now that PAX East is over, I'll have time to work on a few of my other projects. For those who don't know, I'm working on a project for Margaret Weis Productions. I'm really excited about it and can't wait to share it.

I also finished a short adventure for Postmortem Studios, Sickness in Springdale.

In Sickness in Springdale, the characters attempt to save their town from a deadly illness by finding a cure. To do so, they need to travel through the Lady's Woods where they will meet a series of challenges to gain her favor.

During the course of their travels, they find that their town is not the only one with the disease and there's competition for the cure..

This project is my first published adventure and I'm really proud of it. It's for 4e and for 1st level characters. Most important to me is that the characters have a number of decision points and how they decide to handle elements of the adventure, including in combat, determines their overall success in the larger story. Also, I made half of the characters female. Gender isn't important to the characters' stories but we wanted to include some character portraits for those who enjoy them.

In addition to these projects, I have a chapter in the upcoming GOLD Guide to Competitive Gaming. Mine is on finding your voice as a GM. I can't believe I have the chance to work on this project. I'll have more updates on it as things progress.

Well, that's my update.

When (Potential) Enemies Become Friends

Lately I've felt limited by the traditional tactical combat mindset in 4e. It's not that I now dislike combat or I tire of pushing bad guys off of cliffs, into fires, or anything like that. I'm just tired of pure force being the only thing that matters. I'm not suggesting that we should all start singing Kumbaya around the campfire, but sometimes I need more tools than damage and intimidation. Here are some alternatives I've offered.

Arcane-Powered Constructs

My games tend to feature high amounts of magic, and, in particular, magic constructs such as the buzz saws in my Lumbermill Delve or clockwork spiders in my DDXP game. In real life I'm a gadget nut and I love to tinker, so that's just my personality coming through in the game. Besides, it's hard to reason with or interrogate an unthinking robot. However, I love to reward players who try to take them over. I know some people worry that this will unbalance the encounter or something, but my games also tend to feature a play-style where that doesn't matter, or at least not as much.

In general, here's how I handle it. Taking over something like a clockwork spider is a standard action, hard DC arcana check set to the level of the creature. I'm contemplating giving the creature a saving throw, perhaps if it is the same level or higher than the PC. Once the PC has control, she needs to make a hard arcana check as a minor to keep it.

The rewards for gaining control tends to change with each game, keeping the same rules in a particular campaign unless the group agrees to change them. Currently, I'm considering treating it like the dominated condition but here are some of the things I've tried:

  • Practically remove it from combat although keeping it on the board in case the player loses his connection with it.
  • Allow the player to apply the actions available to his PC to the creature.
  • Allow the player to control the monster during the monster's turn.

I haven't done it yet, but I might suggest adding that if the creature is attacked by the ally of the controller, that hostile action breaks the connection. Also keep in mind that your players may want to keep their new toy with them. Whether or not to allow it is completely up to you, but if you're likely to disallow it, you might want to come up with an in-story reason why.

Natural Creatures

Even though I'm not perfect about it, I'm a big fan of giving all of the NPCs goals and reasons why they are in combat. When applicable, this provides scenarios where PCs can "defeat" an opponent without knocking their hit points to 0. It's similar to taking over arcane constructs, but I often tie another condition to this. For instance, in the game I ran on Saturday, a bunch of goblins had wolves fighting for them. These particular wolves didn't fight because they wanted to, but rather they had been abused and were afraid of the goblins. Until their "masters" were dealt with, the wolves saw them as the alphas in the situation. When that was no longer the case, a PC could make a nature check, moderate DC, to remove a wolf from combat.

In addition to convincing natural creatures to their side, I've had such creatures be neutral parties in the combat. For instance, in my Gamma World game at DDXP, the PCs need to cross the Charles River to get to Fenway Park. While crossing, they are accosted by pirates. Two rounds in, a shark starts attacking anything in the water, pirates and PCs alike. While these creatures aren't friends per se, I could see characters on both sides, trying to increase the odds they don't become the creature's next meal.

Our Interests Align

I'm on a big "let PCs make decisions that have ramifications" kick. The adventure I ran on Saturday was full of them. One of the other things I did in that adventure was have the difficult of an encounter depend on whether or not the characters decided to parley. Basically, the PCs are out to find a limited resource. They hear word along the way that others are interested in the resource as well and, in one encounter, they come upon one such group, a small elf scouting party. If the PCs decide to attack first, ask questions later, the encounter goes from being about their level to 1-2 levels above it. If they negotiate first, they at least worst remove the elves from combat and at best gain some benefits from their alliance.

At the game, I struggled to figure out the best way to handle this. I didn't want to hand them over as companion characters in this case because that would make the encounter very easy and increase the complexity of the game play. So I went with the option of just removing them from game play. After some reflection, I'd suggest providing each player with a one-time boon to be used in that encounter to represent the elves' aid, a one-time +4 bonus to an attack or damage roll.

So those are some of the alternatives I've offered in my games. What things have you tried?

Podcast: The Tolkien Professor and Faerie and Fantasy

If you're looking for a new podcast to listen to, I suggest the Tolkien Professor. As the name suggests, this podcast is recorded by a college professor. It consists of his lectures, including the questions asked by the students. Last year he recorded his class on Tolkien and this year he is focusing on his Faerie and Fantasy course.

While I enjoyed the Tolkien course, I'm really looking forward to the current one because it's a topic I know and love. So if you have some time, check it out. As an added bonus, he has the syllabus posted online and many of the stories are freely available online. Also, he recorded himself reading some of the Middle English texts. If you've never heard these spoken aloud, let me tell you, it's a delight.

If you're not interested in the podcast but enjoy fairy tales, Andrew Lang's collection of stories can be found online at I love using old stories as building blocks to new ones so you can bet I'll be using this collection a lot in the coming weeks.

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

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