RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Motivation

dragon_battle_by_mobius_9Not-so-common Pitfall: Motivation

There’s plenty of great GM advice out there, and by now everyone has heard about railroading, saying yes instead of no, and DMPCs. However, there are all kinds of pitfalls, and what are GMs to do when they run into issues that aren’t so commonly talked about? Well, they come to Gamingmage. Let’s take a look at Motivation from both sides of the DM screen. This is a big one that the Pathfinder and D&D community doesn’t really talk about enough, because it’s very difficult to communicate about motivation well. In the case of railroading, the players know exactly how they feel. Lack of motivation is a vague beast, amorphous and transient. The players won’t be able to explain the problem. 

 Motivating the players is easy; all it takes is the promise of gold or an annoying villain who gets away. Motivating the players’ characters is not easy.  It is an incredibly difficult yet vital tool to immerse the players in the world and the story, to make them actually care a little bit about the events unfolding in your world and their role in them. 

Remember always that the specific beats the general when it comes to adventures. It will be an interesting adventure to save Brian, the one-eyed innkeeper with the sharp tongue who was stolen away by a demon disguised as his daughter. This adventure is fun because it is about something very specific, very personal. The End of The World, however, may not be enough motivation. If the players feel that someone else can or ought to save the world, it’s far too vague of a problem for them to get a grip on. It’s boring.

Motivation is a very tricky thing. It seems like a good idea to link the adventure you have written to the personal backstories of the PCs, and while that might work for one or two of them, the PCs without that backstory link will feel less motivated than ever: nothing could have less to do with them than another character’s mentor getting into legal trouble. The thing to keep in mind is the purpose of motivation: to keep the characters moving through the story or the world, keep them doing things other than pursuing the whim of the moment. 

Planning a PartyOne way to patch up the inherent weakness of the backstory-motivation is to insure that all of the characters have the same element in their past that they need to use moving forward. Avoid the antithesis of this principle, where you put in elements from every players’ unique backstory, as this will result in a scattered adventure with no real aim or purpose, further weakening motivation. Instead, backstory-based motivation has to come from the very beginning of the game. One design that works wonders is to require the players to take levels in a certain class or certain pool of classes at the very beginning of the game, and explain that the player must be from a particular region or belong to a certain organization to begin the game. This ensures that they have elements of backstory that they all share, and thus may all share a similar motivation. 

Avoid the ‘meet in a tavern’ beginning at all costs. It is the bane of good motivation.

Thoughts? Comments?

-Max Porter-Zasada

RPG Design – Weapon Wednesday: Cleaving Greatsword

cleaving greatsword by Anthony Rosbottom 2003Cleaving Greatsword

Exotic two-handed weapon. 50 gp. 12 lbs. 2d6 slashing damage, critical 19-20 x2.  Special: see text

This mighty blade is forged with a curve that increases its effectiveness as it cleaves through foes. When used with the cleave feat, this weapon grants the wielder an additional +2 attack and damage on the bonus attacks granted by the feat.

The mightiest warriors of the mountains are said to cut down their opponents with a single blow. With their carefully balanced weapons they can cut a swathe through entire armies, one head at a time. 


This weapon is meant exclusively for Pathfinder, where the opportunity cost of the Cleave feat is quite high. Consider this a further development of the hack sword, which I created some time ago. Enjoy!

-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 – Magic Item Monday: Bracers of the Silent Stalker

magic_item_by_ianllanasBracers of the Silent Stalker

Aura Faint Transmutation; CL 3rd

Slot wrists; Price 2,000 gp Weight 1 lb

 These leather bracers are embossed with copper and animal designs. The wearer gains a +2 competence bonus to Stealth checks and a +2 competence bonus to initiative if she is allowed to act in a surprise round. 

Construction Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, anticipate perilCost 1,000 gp

They say that deep in the darkest wood there lives a ranger gone mad. He stalks the silent trees, looking for civilized folk. When he finds someone, he demands they answer three riddles, all of which only a true woodsman  could answer. Those who answer incorrectly he hunts down mercilessly, firing arrows from the dark. To those who know the correct answer he gives a precious gift, a pair of bracers that grant a hunter’s skill.


I had to take a sick day Sunday, but we’re back with a magic item. I think these bracers would work as well on a  Pathfinder Diviner as on a ranger. Enjoy!

–Max Porter-Zasada

RPG Design – Feat Friday: Hold Charges

Hold SpellHold Charges
You have increased control over the forces of magic at your command.
Prerequisite: ability to cast spells, wis 13
Benefit: When you cast a touch spell you can hold the charge for up to one hour and can even cast other spells while holding the charge, although you cannot use that hand for anything else.


Feats like this one are fun partly because they let you do something that you really want to do, but can’t because of certain somewhat obscure rules. I think this feat is pretty powerful, and maybe it should have another prerequisite, but I couldn’t think of a good one. Any suggestions?


-Max Porter-Zasada

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 Zasada

RPG Design – Weapon Wednesday: Blade Bow

Rough_Bow_designs_by_carlos1170Blade Bow

Two-handed exotic ranged weapon. 1d8 piercing damage. x3 critical. 5 lbs. 205 gp. Special: see text

This longbow is fitted with extra braces and blades so that it can be wielded in hand-to-hand combat. It can be wielded as a two-bladed sword that does 1d4/1d4 damage. However, at the beginning of your turn you must declare whether you are using the correct hand position to wield the weapon as a melee or a ranged weapon and that choice holds until the beginning of your next turn. Even if you are using the blade bow as a ranged weapon, you can use the blades to make a melee attack, but it is considered to be an improvised weapon and you do not threaten squares with it.

Developed by the warriors of the plains to battle their centaur enemies, these bows give several options to a master archer or dervish, who can change his manner of fighting in the space of a moment. 


Exotic weapons should be truly unusual or strange, and give special power to the Exotic Weapon Proficiency feat.

Max Porter-Zasada