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 Zasada


Theme Thursday: Making Encounters

The alternate title: Don’t Show ’em You’re Sweating.

Today’s theme is all about making your game a seamless series of adventures and encounters, and being that magically perfect GM who seems to have it all together.

First of all, accept that you cannot prepare for everything. Players are like a herd of cats. If they’re not going off track from the storyline, they’re jumping to a whole other track entirely. Actually, maybe they’re more like runaway trains…

Anyway, metaphors aside, no matter how many hours you slave away at your story, characters, and adventures, every now and then you have to make something up. Definitely check out tips in the Gamemastery Guide or the good old 3.0 Dungeonmaster’s Guide for a few little tips that can help you make things up in a hurry.

The following questions are those that generally come up the most often: What’s around that corner? Is there a trap over there? Do they get attacked while journeying or sleeping? What are the consequences of this choice, politically or socially or what-have-you?

Well, the answer is often a monster attack, or the foreshadowing of such. Not only are surprise encounters fun, they focus the players and the storyline beautifully. Whether they want to kill the enemy, subdue them, or convince them to change, what you’ve got is a situation full of tension that has to be resolved. Everyone leans forward, watches the roll of dice, and gets engaged. They think about the story.

To make random encounters work, don’t let them know it’s random. Or if you do, make the random encounters fit solidly into the world–this is a dangerous area, and many different creatures might happen upon you with an appetite.

I’m not a fan of random chance for an encounter to happen in the first place: this system makes everyone unhappy. Either people are disappointed because they wanted the xp, or they’re bored because this arbitrary obstacle appeared to slow them to the next story point. Don’t use this system.

Instead, make it clear that it’s your clear, perfect, definite decision as a GM to have an encounter. If you can, lead into the encounter with a bit of foreshadow. Maybe you set up some terrain before the creatures actually appear, or describe an eerie feeling steal over the PC’s. In any case, make the monsters or humanoid enemies appear to fit in naturally with the surrounding and the storyline in general.

The pitfall to avoid is the sense that you picked a monster at random that just happens to be somehow appropriate. Don’t just make them realize they’re fighting crabs because they happen to be on a beach. Make it fit into the story: perhaps strange alchemical substances leaked onto the beach and caused the crabs to grow, or at the very least make funny lumps appear in the sand, just waiting for creatures to get too close.

In the end, never underestimate the power of fake-checking your notes and throwing yourself into the next encounter with total confidence. They’ll never know you just made this up, and the game will be all the better for it.

-Max Porter-Zasada

Theme Thursday: Game Balance and Encounters

This theme has to do with one of the most complex and problematic elements in the game.

It comes up for every GM or DM in the world. One player finds a clever build and begins to outshine the other players to an annoying degree, or another has a different playstyle and falls behind. Perhaps the monsters you’ve chosen are too strong or too weak or too complicated to play properly. Every once in a while, in every game (even in games outside of Pathfinder or D&D), something happens that upsets the delicate balance of the game.

What a GM does when they notice the game balance is out of what can make the difference between a good game and a bad one. You need to talk to the players, of course, but that’s not what we’re concerned with. You need to know what you’re negotiating for–what guide do you have to help you get the game going smoothly again?

So does it make a huge difference when a player gets access to an ability that seems overly powerful? Well, if it’s a limited-use ability, not so much. You can get the balance back into line by adjusting encounters, often even on the fly. Note that a well-placed dispel magic often works wonders. You should not feel bad about this: you’re doing your job as a GM to make encounters an interesting challenge. Don’t negate that ability entirely; every now and then, it should work beautifully.

When the problem is an ability that never runs out (like witch hexes…), that’s much more of a problem. It becomes much more obvious when every single encounter either negates or allows that one ability.

The balance of the game depends on the way in which a great number of different abilities and powers must be used to  overcome the varied encounters, and allows every type of character to shine. Check your Gamemastery Guide and Ultimate Magic for some advice on the ranked strength of different abilities (mind control is at the top, then comes death effects, and so on). Also, keep in mind that characters balance a designed role against the specific needs of the moment. Sometimes you want to shake up your characters in their roles, and make them think about what’s expedient rather than what they’re designed for; sometimes the wizard needs to battle the enemies with a broken sword while the barbarian runs for his life and the rogue struggles to activate a powerful scroll. Most of the time however, you should find a way to make every player feel they’re fulfilling their role in an interesting way. A mixture of these are what make memorable adventures.

Finally, remember what all characters want to do in a fight: kill the enemy. Dealing damage, controlling, and the toughness to take punishment all work together to make a party effective. If one of these elements of balance goes out of whack, you can either bring it back into line, bring the other elements to the same level, or tune encounters to make the other elements a greater focus.

I hope you find these tools useful!

-Max Porter Zasada