RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Influence of Video Games

BardThe Video Game Influence

Plenty of words have been written about the influence of pen-and-paper RPGs on video games. But what about the other way around? Even if you’re still playing 2nd Edition or some such, your GM’s style has had influence from video games in some small way, and if you’re playing a more recently released game then the influence is more pronounced. Even if you deplore video games for some reason, don’t be afraid to take good ideas and use them. A good GM never lets a good idea go to waste.

The central similarity of video games and traditional RPGs is clear: they are both interactive storytelling. There are advantages and disadvantages to both media, but we’re more interested in the cross-pollination. So, you should ask yourself, what can we learn? What pitfalls can we avoid?

Positive Factor: Encounter Design. There may be as many encounter styles as there are people who play games. Everyone likes things a little bit different. That said, there are some broad trends we can identify and use. The encounters you might term “video-gamey” can be extremely fun. This kind of encounter design entails highly pre-planned encounters, with special rules or specific events that the players have to figure out how to trigger. A couple examples might include deadly mushrooms in an underground lair that can be attacked from range to explode, or magical standing runestones with various helpful auras placed around the battlefield.

The point is to have clearly defined, exciting events in the encounter that the players can enjoy figuring out without being too creative themselves, and thus focus more on the tactical fun. This can be a really fun, memorable encounter, although it’s perhaps not the best idea for a truly climactic, story-ending battle; the story part of the encounter tends to feel a bit thin, because the strategy comes from the GM, not organically from the players. That’s more than fine for less story-critical encounters, however, and can be a really fun thing to design!

Pathfinder AlchemistNegative Factor: Calcification. One of the most amazing things about playing Pathfinder or D&D occurs when you realize that anything can happen, and any player can interact with any object or person in any way. Yes, it’s probably not going to be very good for the game if your character paints themselves pink and jumps off the nearest cliff or attempts to murder all the other party members at the start of every game session, but the possibility that your character could do that brings an incredibly powerful aura of realism and engagement in a character or story that no video game can ever quite replicate–although video games have their own amazing qualities and advantages. By their very nature, video games cannot do everything that pen-and-paper RPGs do. A preset game needs to have a limited number of outcomes to any story or battle or any interaction, whereas a human GM can allow anything to happen. Video games are therefore designed with an “intentional” way for the players to interact with everything in the world–even if the players discover other options, there’s definitely a way that things are “supposed” to work, because there has to be. 

The negative influence of video games on pen-and-paper games is that they make players calcify their thinking. Because people are becoming used to the idea that interactive stories have a way they’re “supposed” to play out, GMs tend to think in those terms, and players tend to either “game” an encounter by manipulating a rule to their advantage or brute force their way through. It’s not that simplicity is a bad thing–many adventures are the better for being simple–but it’s not good to be simplistic. Not every story point or adventure decision should come wrapped up in a nice, neat little package (or be aimlessly nasty). Leave room for players or GMs to breathe by looking for creative possibilities in every aspect of the game. Keep in mind the mantra that anything can happen. And sometimes, events venture into unexpected territory.

-Max Porter

RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Flexibility and Failure

Battle FlexibilityTheme Thursday: Flexibility and Failure

Part of the genius of the Pathfinder RPG and D&D lies in the class system, providing instant fun and a role for players. However, that same genius can also be the game’s downfall.

Players tend to think of their role in the party first, and that’s perfectly reasonable; it’s better and easier, as well as more fun, to play a particular role. Specialization and focus make a party more powerful. However, the moment a player decides not to try something out of their comfort zone, whether because they’re dealing with monsters that resist their attacks or a social situation with high skill checks, that player has failed to be flexible.

Because anything can happen in a pen-and-paper game, a player needs to be up for anything. There will be all kinds of different encounters, and you have to keep in mind that just because your character doesn’t specialize in something, you shouldn’t ignore or avoid it.

Don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is good.

Even if things don’t go your way, any story will be much more interesting (and amusing) if the characters fail occasionally. That’s the nature of storytelling; that’s how we know that the challenges are real. And everyone having more fun should always be your goal as a player, not just getting more powerful. If you design your character to do just one thing really really well, that’s fine unless you stand around doing nothing in every other situation. There are a vast number of ingredients in the stew that makes a good roleplaying game; being flexible and willing to fail really spices things up.

-Max Porter

RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Designing Apocalypse

Theme Thursday: Designing Apocalypse

A classic setting of fantasy and adventure, the magical apocalypse can be extremely difficult to get right. The difficulty lies in the way that an apocalypse challenges the assumptions that everyone normally has. In any game, players have certain needs; in Pathfinder, they need to shop for magic items, sell their loot, and rest to regain spells.

However, the point of designing an apocalyptic setting is to challenge the assumptions of a normal world. A player needs to feel that things are drastically different, and the best way to achieve that sense of loss is to do away with the perks of civilization. However, at the same time, a setting can’t be so frustrating and difficult that no one wants to play.

Unfortunately, most apocalyptic settings tend to fall to the other extreme and make most amenities available in some form, only using the apocalyptic setting to justify new powers and abilities. This often makes the characters into unstoppable badasses roaming the landscape as they please, since the rest of the world has been hit harder by the end of days. This kind of thing can be fun in its own right, but doesn’t really accomplish the goal of a world-ending setting.

To achieve the right feel, you have to make frustration work for you instead of against you. Make limitations, but make things available. Instead of a magic shop, there’s a mad old peddler with cracked teeth; he sure as beans won’t have the selection of one of the old magic emporiums, but every now and then he’ll have some unusual, crazy-strong item that someone really wants. Let the players feel like they got a little something in return for everything the apocalypse took away. Let the players feel like badasses only in comparison to their bleak surroundings.

The manner of the apocalypse might well affect the characters’ options. If it was an arcane explosion, perhaps some magically protected locations survived. If a flood, or divine fire, or icy doom befell the world, then certain creatures may have survived; the point is to remember that anything that survives the apocalypse becomes much more important as a result.

Perhaps that’s how the characters become heroes.

-Max Porter

RPG Design – Weapon Wednesday: Sawback Scimitar

Sawback Scimitar by Anthony Rosbottom 2003Sawback Scimitar

Exotic one-handed weapon. 55 gp. 4 lbs. 1d6 slashing damage, critical 18-20 x2.  Special: performance, see text

The vicious sawback scimitar is forged with a serrated edge. When you make a full attack with this weapon and score a critical on the first attack, you can sacrifice your remaining attacks in the round to draw the blade back in a sawing motion, horrifically wounding the victim. Every attack you sacrificed increases the critical multiplier by one.

The fighting pits are where the hardest-hearted warriors are born. The deadliest gladiators of the arena invented the sawback scimitar to combine a weapon that demands notice with the bloodiest kills possible. 


This weapon involves a tradeoff that can really help against enemies with damage reduction. Great for a bloody-minded character who wants to make his critical hits really spectacular. Enjoy!

-Max Porter

RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Magic as World-Builder

Theme: Magic as World-Builder

The use of magic is incredibly important to the background of your fantasy world. Not only do magical locations settle your game firmly within a genre, they are precise calibrators of theme and a player’s position in a world. Nothing evokes a sense of wonder so much as having an adventure that takes you to a manor on a turtle’s back, a wizard from a forgotten world, or the strange rituals that take place within the world tree.

Magic and its uses are vital to your setting and your game. The trick lies in mixing the two kinds of magic properly to create both wonder and engagement.

Engaging Magic

This type of magic shows up in your world in forms that are clearly understandable to the players. If they get high enough level or put enough work into it, they themselves could create that dramatic stone bridge with a wall of stone spell, or held back the hordes of undead with a consecrate. Players of an RPG must feel that most things in the world are understandable or could have been done by the players themselves (speaking strictly from a 3rd edition viewpoint). This allows the players to matter, to present themselves on the stage of history and be prepared to make their marks.

Wondrous Magic

You just can’t ignore the big ideas. Any fantasy world requires an occasional sense of wonder at some sheer impossibility. Once in a while, your players should see or experience magic that lies beyond the realm of the Core Rulebook, beyond the realm of the known or the safe magic. There must be places within a fantasy world that defy explanation of any kind; the places where time runs backward, or cities float via forgotten spells, or spells come alive and dance. The sense of wonder keeps people interested, sustains them as they seek the mystery or the life beyond understanding. The moment your daily memorization of spells starts to become a chore, the world needs to remind you that it is a place of fantasy.

Generally speaking, your world needs a somewhat imbalanced mix: most magic should be understandable, something grasped and hungered after by the players. Yet here and there the truly wondrous magic must reside.

-Max Porter

RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: Player-Controlled Dice

lucky-dice by Iron MittenTuesday Tweak: Player-Controlled Dice

The conventional wisdom is to have the GM roll dice in secret for the monsters and NPCs, and even keep some player rolls behind the screen. Rolling dice is fun, but for the GM it quickly becomes a chore, simply generating random numbers to plug into a system. The GM is already running a story, characters, and monster actions, all of which has to change suddenly and unexpectedly in response to the players’ actions. All of this takes time, slowing down gameplay and hindering fun.

The solution: Have players roll all the dice! They can roll against each other for monsters and NPCs, and keep track of these random numbers while the GM tracks other things.

Now, with this tweak, you’re going to lose a lot of potential excitement that comes with the secrecy and mystery of dice behind the screen. But be honest with yourself: when was the last time that was actually exciting, and not just annoyingly random?

I suggest having a separate set of dice called “fate dice” to differentiate and keep things cool, but whenever you have rolls in the open it really helps the players feel that the GM is honestly doing their best.

Let me know how this tweak works out for you!

-Max Porter

RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Quest Rewards

Quest rewardsTheme Thursday: Quest Rewards

If you’re the sort of GM (and hopefully you are) who wants players to remember their adventures, to think of them often with a fond laugh, a wry smile, or even a bitter grimace, then you may want to consider adding some better quest rewards. Nobody really remembers which part of the frost giant adventure they got their +2 frost axe from, or which level of the Abyss they found that Helm of Teleportation–indeed, in my games these are considered onerous bookkeeping activities.

The solution is to give your players rewards that are inherently tied to each adventure. Unfortunately, no one wants to bother with named magic items, because “I attack it with the sword of Dead King Jorgrim the Unyielding Warrior that we got from the Necropolis of Demondread with a +14 modifier including the magic bonus” is far too much of a mouthful. Instead, it has to be a reward that stands outside the basic rules, so that there’s no need to boil the reward down to a number. On the other hand,  adding capabilities and power to the players runs the severe risk of unbalancing the game. The solution is to make the quest rewards a one-time-use proposition; after being expended, the reward is gone forever.

Quest Rewards faceFor a long time, I’ve given out one or two action points and (with the advent of the Advanced Players’ Guide) hero points at the end of adventures or for doing heroic deeds. These work, in that players feel personally rewarded for going beyond the call of duty or for playing with panache. However, given a little time the memory of how someone got those 5 action points fades, leaving us with the mere numerical bonuses. It became a little boring.

Thus, we have quest reward power cards. These are one-use cards with unique powers and abilities on them, each themed on some part of the completed adventure. But don’t let the players throw them away once used! There may be mysterious methods of re-activating the cards for a second round–such as the expenditure of action/hero points.

I simply take a couple of index cards, cut them in half, and write the power on the lined side. On the back of the card, write the name of the completed adventure–I add a little illustration of what the power does, because I like to place the cards face down on the table at the end of the adventure and let the players each choose one based on the illustration. If you design highly tailored cards, such as spellcasting-related cards that could be drawn by a fighter type, either allow the players to trade cards or dispense with the face down idea.

It’s best to design cards without too much power, even if they are one-use. Best of all are cards that refresh power or abilities in some way, because these unbalance the game the least while giving players an enormous satisfaction.

These cards have revolutionized the game I’ve tested them in– the players are more involved, more interested, and remember the story much better than before.

Let me know what you think!


-Max Porter




RPG Design – Magic Item Monday: Gimlet of Irresistible Mental Penetration

Magic item by Carlos celurian JorreblancaGimlet of Irresistible Mental Penetration

Aura Strong Abjuration; CL 17

Slot – ; Price 40,000 gp Weight 1 lb

 This gimlet is made of iron and gold, fashioned with a snakelike visage. Mind-affecting spells or abilities cast by the wielder of the gimlet negate half the targets’ resistance bonuses to Will saves.  

Construction Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, mind blank, antimagic fieldCost 20,000 gp

An ancient cult sought to gain control over the mind of the king and his nobles with their dark rites, but were foiled time and again by the mind shielding magic of the royal wizard. After much praying and sacrificing, the forces of darkness taught the head priest how to create an item that could pierce the veils of magic. However, it had taken so long that the king’s paladins finally found the den of iniquity and destroyed the cult, taking their magic items for the royal college. 


This item is very difficult to balance, because you don’t know how much resistance the target is going to have. It might be easier to just give the caster a bonus, but that just didn’t seem as fun. 


–Max Porter

RPG Design – Sunday Spell: Binding of Arach

Binding of ArachBinding of Arach

School conjuration; Level magus 4, sorcerer/wizard 4
Casting Time 1 standard action
Range close (25 ft. + 5 ft. per 2 levels)
Components V, S, M (spider web)
Target creature
Duration 1 minute/level
Saving throw: reflex negates, see text; Spell Resistance: no

This spell creates masses of sticky strands that bind a creature’s arms and legs to a solid surface, holding them in place. The target creature must make two Reflex saves, one for its legs and another for its arms, or the nearest equivalent. If either save fails and there is a solid surface adjacent to that part of their body, the creature becomes entangled. If the Reflex save for its arms fails, the creature  cannot cast spells with a somatic component and cannot use its arms for any task. If the save for its legs fails, the creature is held in that space and cannot move. The creature can take a full-round action to make a Strength or Escape Artist check against the DC of this spell to break free of the strands holding either its legs or arms. Otherwise, the strands function like webs from the web spell. Creatures without anything resembling legs or arms are immune to this spell.

Deep within a dark forest there dwells the wizard Arach, a mad loner. They say he is a sworn hermit, spending his days and nights in the study of strange texts and stranger magic. Spiders lurk about his decrepit castle, and the trees for miles around are shrouded in the grey webbing of their kind, as they wait and plot and decide when they will turn on Arach and devour him. Once, so they say, a brave sorceress ventured into the forest to seek knowledge. She emerged days later covered in webs, but bearing a scroll with the Binding of Arach inscribed on it. She gibbered for weeks of poisons and creeping, crawling, darting things in the shrouded woods, but when she came to her senses she was able to teach the powerful spell to her students. 


I like spells that come in a series, and web is one of the coolest and most evocative spells in the caster’s arsenal. Let me know here if you use the binding of Arach spell in your game!

– Max Porter

RPG Design – Feat Friday: Punching Dagger Feats

Annah_-_Character_PortraitSo I was thinking about how there’s all these weapons that are rarely used but are really cool, and wondering how to design a reason to use them. I was pretty happy with the Spear Feats post a while back, and I wanted to expand on that idea with the punching dagger. This weapon is neat, and has a really satisfying feel to it, but won’t really stand out much as it lacks a lot of the versatility of the dagger and only stands out with a x3 critical.

I hope you enjoy these feats for punching dagger mastery!

Stabbing Uppercut (combat)
You know a trick to shove your dagger under an opponent’s defenses.
Prerequisites: Power Attack, proficiency with punching daggers, BaB +3
Benefit: A number of times per day equal to 3 + your Dexterity modifier, you can make an opponent flat-footed against your attack with a punching dagger.

Throw Your Weight Into It (combat)
You are skilled at putting your whole body behind your blade.
Prerequisites: Stabbing Uppercut, BaB +6
Benefit: A number of times per day equal to 3 + your Dexterity modifier, you can throw your weight into an attack with a punching dagger. You are considered to be wielding it with both hands for the purposes of damage bonuses from Strength and Power Attack. You can’t use this feat with an off-hand weapon.

In the deep jungle, the undergrowth is too thick for standard weapons, and the lizardfolk developed punching daggers to compensate.


-Max Porter