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 Zasada

RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: The Incorporeal Problem

ghost-handIncorporeal Rules

Well, this problem has always been a bit difficult to pin down.

On the one hand, the rules for ghosts and such in D&D and Pathfinder have always been mostly clear, if overcomplicated with all kinds of specific cases and applications. On the other hand, these rules are mostly a failure, in my estimation. While they do work, the rules for incorporeal creatures add zero flavor, richness, or realism to the game. It’s worth noting that Paizo came out with the Haunt rules so that ghostly events could happen without evoking the spirit rules.

Instead, we have ghosts and wraiths taking partial damage from spells and magic weapons and floating around on another plane of existence. There are even rules covering the inevitable “hide within the stone wall and attack people” rules exploit. These mechanics are fine if you just want to play extended encounters and tactical games, or find all kinds of ways to exploit corner cases and creative interpretations. However, if you want your spirits to strike fear into the players’ hearts or evoke an eerie mood, they need to interact with these monsters with a phrase other than “Hey, are you carrying that ghost touch dagger or did we sell it? This fight could be annoying.”

I haven’t yet worked out a system of mechanics for incorporeal creatures that evokes all the right feelings. I’m still experimenting. However, the first step to making a better rule is to identify what bothers us about the old rule and figure out the goals for a new one.

Any thoughts?

-Max Porter Zasada

RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: Handling Diplomacy

diplomacyIn Pathfinder and D&D, the Diplomacy skill is almost a joke. The immutable DCs presented with the skill are clearly bunk; they are high enough so that in the first few levels it’s practically impossible for players to affect an NPC, yet scale slowly enough that with a little bit of investment in later levels players can easily convince the biggest, baddest villains in the game to be their best friends. Worse yet, there’s very little guidance on what the levels of hostility or friendship actually mean, making the skill seem like magical mind control as a default. The whole system is a complex thing that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the game. Here are the best ideas I’ve been able to find out there on the wild frontier of the internet about changing the Diplomacy rule:

Justin Alexander gives an incredibly thorough analysis of the problems with Diplomacy here

Rich Burlew, creator of Order of the Stick, has this somewhat over-complex but solid idea, which has become quite well-known

An excellent rule idea called Social Combat, which makes some major changes to the way roleplaying skills work, can be found here.

Alternatively, one of the simplest things you can do is to make Diplomacy opposed to some other skill, such as another character’s Diplomacy or Sense Motive roll. Have players make checks every time they want to convince someone to do something (just like how it works with Bluff), and you’ll solve many of the inherent issues with the skill.


–Max Porter-Zasada

RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: Savvy Sorcerer

Savvy Sorcerer Tweak: Sorcerers get a bonus equal to their level on Use Magic Device checks involving scrolls and wands.


This rules tweak provides a method for sorcerers to be a little more versatile, a little more useful, and most of all more unique. Few sorcerers that I know of put a large investment into Use Magic Device unless they feel they have to, yet every sorcerer gets it as a class skill. Everyone should be rewarded for exploring their characters fully.

My friend David Finzi holds that sorcerers ought to get Scribe Scroll as a bonus feat, but I don’t really like that idea much. Actually scribing scrolls just feels much more like a wizard activity, while possessing an innate understanding of magic such that you can pull it out of magic items–it just feels like a sorcerer.

Please feel free to disagree in the comments!

– Max Porter-Zasada

RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: Character R&R

Tweak: characters who pick up a habit for rest and relaxation between adventures are rewarded with special rewards in the first encounter of a new adventure. If a character spends at least six hours engaged in a hobby (such as smoking, running a bakery, or playing magical chess), then they are granted one action point which must be used in the next encounter they face, after which it is lost.


Players share as much in the creation of a world as a GM, and can create wonderful little details that bring everything to life. Encourage players to expand their characters and the world in small, awesome ways.

-Max Porter-Zasada

RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: Greater Spell Penetration

Tweak: Allow Greater Spell Penetration’s caster level bonus to apply to all caster level checks (not just to penetrate SR), including ones made for dispel magic or similar. This doesn’t apply to Spell Penetration, so you just get a +2 on such checks.


This tweak can really make choosing feats for your spellcaster more interesting. One problem with Spell Penetration is that it can feel very much like a “feat tax”–above a certain level, monsters with SR are so common that everyone has to take it, but it’s not particularly gripping, especially since the Greater version is the same old story.

This tweak adds some a little bit of extra utility to the feat tree, especially in those encounters where there aren’t any monsters with SR.

Many thanks to my friend David Finzi, who sparked this idea.


–Max Porter-Zasada

Tuesday Tweak: Creepy Scene Saves | Pathfinder RPG Design

In this Pathfinder RPG design tweak, we’ll explore something for the horror genre and attempt to make your players afraid.

Tweak: Creepy Scene Saves; whenever a player comes upon a scene which the GM rules is frightening, they must make a Will save or become shaken. The DC of this save is 15 plus modifiers as outlined below. This save only needs to be made when first seeing something with the potential to be terrifying, and no additional saves are required when seeing the same event once again. Examples: an execution, a cult ritual, evil extraplanar creatures appearing, inanimate objects coming to life, a terrible disease taking hold, and children under evil influence.

DC modifiers

Multiple frightening enemies: +1 DC per enemy after the first

Darkness, fog, or other obstruction to sight: +2 DC

Sound, smell, or touch creating part of the creepy scene: +4 DC

Mysterious magic plainly at work: +1 DC

Warped humanoids present: +1 DC

Relative danger of  enemies completely unknown to players: +1 DC

Surprised by the scene: +1 DC

Broad daylight: -2 DC

Familiar scene: -1 DC for each previous time the player has seen something similar. Something which is experienced on a daily basis incurs no creepy save at all.

If you’re using some sort of Taint points in your game, failing this save could also inflict a taint point on the player.


This tweak is great for horror campaigns and especially scary scenes! Make sure that you only apply this tweak to especially dramatic moments, when you really want to impress your players with the idea that this is supposed to be scary.


-Max Porter-Zasada