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: Partying Parties

People play RPG’s to have a good time. However, what do you do when they want to have a good time by having a good time in-game? As a player or a GM, you should understand this unfortunate theme.

Welcome to the living hell of playing through drinking contests, bard rock concerts, gambling games, and questionable actions with barmaids.

Why is this a problem? Well, sometimes they are fun, or funny, or cool. But it gets tiresome fast; Pathfinder and D&D aren’t designed to do these things at length. Even if you like making up rules for dice games, they bog the game down as the story fails to progress during the gameplay. What’s worse, there are always those who don’t much like this sort of thing. The paladin doesn’t just take a back seat during the illegal gambling game, but can’t participate in the slightest, while the rest of the party rolls dice.

You need to recognize this issue when it comes up, and make sure that the game moves forward.

As a player, you can notice that certain players aren’t interested in the goings-on, or have enough sense to notice when people are tiring of the antics. Stop immediately.

However, if you’re feeling particularly clever, find a way to turn your antics into story development! Perhaps your dice game was a cover for pickpocketing the enemy plans. Perhaps your song routine subtly  protests the local ruler, or you get chatty with the barmaid  about nearby dungeons once she’s plied with drinks.

As a GM, you can either encourage your players to do the above or you can take the direct way out.

The direct way out is to have an encounter start! A mysterious stranger slips out the back door with stolen goods, the king’s men bust down the door in search of an illegal dice game, or perhaps a monster was hiding inside one of the patrons!

Enjoy your partying parties, but make sure everyone’s having fun.

-Max Porter-Zasada

Theme Thursday: Terrain Advantage

Today’s theme is all about how to move around the battlefield and how to control it.

The setup of a battle must not be overlooked. If you have a lazy GM or module, you end up with a bare room to fight in, a lot. Then this theme isn’t for you. A good encounter has difficult terrain, places to hide, concealment, and maybe a lava pit or three.

Controlling the Field With Spells

The most obvious way to gain terrain advantage is to make it yourself. Use a grease spell to trip up enemies coming through a door or force them to walk around something and open themselves to flanking. Think about what can give you and your teammates the biggest advantage, and be aware of your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses–perhaps your monk can waltz freely through your web spell while the enemies are trapped helplessly.

Around a Corner

This is the best position to be in with a ranged weapon like a bow. Because the around-a-corner rules work differently for melee and ranged weapons, you can gain +4 cover (negating your attack of opportunity provocation!), but not give your enemy such a penalty. This is amazing! Take advantage.

Push into Dangers

You can Bull Rush opponents off of cliffs and into spiky pits, sure, but not every encounter has those do they? Well, there are other hazards and other ways of manipulating opponents. Position yourself such that you flank, and moving out of that spot puts the enemy within reach of an ally. Place yourself so you limit an enemy’s movement options, or put them in a  position where they will be in trouble in a moment (coordinate those fireballs to win!).

Alternate Movement

When you are yourself limited in movement options, think about alternate ways of getting through an obstacle. If you can’t tumble through an enemy’s square, perhaps you can run away and draw them into a more open zone. Perhaps you can run over the top of the bookcases in the library rather than between them.

Plan the Opportunity Attacks

Most of the time, you will face opponents who lack the Combat Reflexes feat. Rather than everyone taking up an inferior position because they need to avoid an attack of opportunity, plan to provoke one on purpose with the heavily-armored fighter so an enemy can’t hinder your movement nearly as much.

I hope some of these tips help you out! These are the tricks good players use. Go forth and control the battlefield.

-Max Porter-Zasada

Theme Thursday: Interesting Characters

Today’s theme is about bringing a game alive as a player or GM with the use of characters.

Any dramatic story has roots in the characters that drive it onward. Whatever plot twists and turns you have, and no matter how exciting they seem, a narrative that lacks interesting characters just sits there, failing to pull you along. This is especially true in a Pathfinder or D&D game, because the story is literally character-driven–the players make decisions and play through, and their interactions will determine the course of the game.

As players, you have just one all-encompassing rule for the character you create: he or she must be able to work with others. They must assert themselves with an interesting and unique identity while being able, when it counts, to bend with the will of the group. You can create tough warriors, religious zealots, or magic-crazed wizards, so long as you don’t disrupt the game; make yourself fun, dramatic, or funny, while considering that others need room to do the same. Finally, you should consider the needs of your GM; help them craft the story to include your character, and provide yourself with plot hooks for them to use. Care about the characters in your world, and you will reap great rewards in richness of storytelling.

As a gamemaster, you create a multitude of other characters. You want to make them all interesting and unique, while paying special attention to just a few. Here are the general guidelines: Villains need a sympathetic (or at least understandable) streak, something that makes them worthwhile and not just another monster to kill. Allies of the PCs need to be approachable, or if they have difficulties with helping, these must be surmountable obstacles. Indeed, most NPCs should be able to help the party in some small way, should the players choose to overcome whatever obstacles (unfriendly, PC’s killed their pet, needs help with a monster), you put in the path of that potential aid.

Lastly, the largest yet often neglected category of characters: background NPC’s. Without receiving too much distracting attention, these are the characters that really make a world come alive, as they define what is ‘normal’ and give the players a real sense of fantasy. The grubby baker’s boy with dreams of adventure, the gentleman knight down on his luck, and the lonely dragon tamer help to define a game to a vastly greater degree than the mad necromancer the PC’s must kill.

The psychological power of fantasy in the everyday is hugely important to a role-playing game, and these characters are enormously worth putting thought into. Indeed, the tavern keeper of the place when”all your characters meet at a tavern” may define the player’s impression of the entire game, always unable to shake it away. A tavern keeper with a glass eye and a toothy grin makes for a game vastly different from a tavern keeper with a tattered, patchwork cloak and a religious amulet. Pay some attention to these characters, and the game will reward you by growing richer without you quite planning it. Most of all, give NPC’s a quirk when first introducing them (both the old DM guide and the Pathfinder Gamemastery guide have excellent NPC quirk tables to inspire you). If the players respond and seem to be in the mood to interact, play it up to the hilt! If you have to make little adjustments to the adventure to include this suddenly-important character, be prepared for that. Always go with what’s working in a game, rather than what you planned.

Go forth and make characters!

-Max Porter Zasada