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I get the 'free' argument. Honestly, I think MCGames relies on that argument a bit too much for muddled bits of design, but I get it. And if forced to choose between overwrought and byzantine on the one hand and free and creative on the other, I choose free.
I'm also fine modding things to match my taste and sensibilities and those of my gaming group. That's what I'll certainly do with TS. But that's made unnecessarily difficult by the fact that the different foci aren't balanced. That lack of integration is compounded by the lack of guidance for cross-recursion multi-classing.
But I concede that some of my criticism is completely subjective. The idea that players arrive in new recursions knowing a lot about them and possessing powers appropriate to them which they get to choose strikes me as funky storytelling.
I'm a big fan of Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell. With a few reservations, I loved Numenera and have had a lot of fun GMing it. So I looked forward with a lot of excitement to reading and prepping a campaign in The Strange, their cypher-system-based campaign setting that involves a lot of plane-jumping and genre building.
Unfortunately, my response to The Strange has actually been pretty mixed. I think it's one of the more risk-taking RPG settings to appear over the last decade. But I'm skeptical about one of the central design choices - and one of the most important game mechanics - embedded within the game.
PCs who change over and over again
Cordell and Cook have designed a system where in nearly every adventure, the Player Characters will change in fundamental ways, possibly two or more times in a game session.
When PCs shift from one dimension (or "recursion") to another (and making these jumps is one of the coolest things about the setting), there is a strong likelihood that they will effectively become different people, with a new race, new gender, new equipment, and new game mechanic rules governing their abilities.
I think this idea is revolutionary and exciting in theory. It forces GMs and players to actually think about role-playing and about their characters as "characters" in a story. What does it mean that one moment your PC is a tough-talking gumshoe, a guy who carries a pistol, but the next moment she's a tough-talking knight if Ardeyn who summons magical fire?
But does it work at the game table?
I say that this is cool in theory, but I don't think it actually works very well in an RPG, for several reasons. The first is that it's just a pain in the butt. Imagine if every time your Pathfinder adventure shifted from one setting to another you had to swap out all the feat chains and equipment that make up your party's PCs.
More problematic is the fact that it's never explained in story terms how any of this makes any sense. Why should a private eye from earth translating into the magical realm of Ardeyn suddenly get to choose to be a dragon slayer or a Qephilim who can throw lances of light around? Why should a cyborg from Ruk get to choose to be a mountain man on earth who knows how to live in the wilderness?
What about the mystery?
The bigger problem, in my view, is that Cordell and Cook have eliminated a lot of the mystery that should come with arriving in each new plane. By this mechanic, PCs get to choose their new abilities in the new dimension ("We're translating into a fantasy world? Cool, I'll be a cleric now!") but they also arrive with a lot of basic background knowledge about each place they visit.
Say your plot takes the PCs from a world that looks like the Matrix into a world that looks like Earthsea. A PC built like Neo would get to refashion himself to look a lot like Ged and he'd also start off knowing the basics of life in the new world. The rules are careful to smooth this transition in a way that erases much of the excitement and risk of jumping dimensions and genres.
What about the genre bending?
Which leads me to my final point. This mechanic (and it really is fundamental to the game) also downplays one of the coolest possibilities that should have been a big part of The Strange, which is genre bending.
The truth is I don't want my Special Forces commando to become a knight when he enters a fantasy world. If I wanted to play a game where a knight fights a dragon, I'd play a different game. I want to play a Special Forces commando fighting a dragon. I don't want my Rukian cyborg to become a college professor when he arrives on earth. I want the story to be about a cyborg wandering around on earth. I think a lot of players will feel the same.
No quick fixes
Sadly, fixing this and allowing players to just stick with their PCs as they adventure across the dimensions won't be easy. Cordell and Cook do offer other ways to plane-travel that don't change the characters and their equipment. Tweaking those rules is easy enough. The bigger problem is that they didn't balance the various powers and abilities that appear on different worlds.
A PC who starts the adventure as a knight from Ardeyn who can channel sin-fire or a half-man-half-machine from Ruk with weapons built into his flesh will almost certainly be far more powerful than a private eye from Seattle who knows how to operate undercover or solve mysteries.
What's more, because of this reliance on morphing PCs, The Strange doesn't include any rules for multi-classing across genres. There's no way for that special ops soldier to pick up an intriguing new focus or equipment while on Ardeyn. According to these rules, he might shift into something cool and different temporarily. But when he comes back home, he's (mostly) just a mundane soldier again. That's a bummer.
How much cooler would it have been if by mid-campaign your special ops soldier who is "licensed to carry" is also able to "regenerate tissue"? Or your college professor who "conducts weird science" is also able to "shepherd the dead."
The bottom line? It's a beautiful mess.
After all that, it's going to sound like a back-handed compliment when I say that I love the risk-taking here. But my praise is sincere. This game plays with one of the fundamental conceits of the RPG, forcing players to deal with PCs who work and feel very, very different over time.
My suggestions, meanwhile, are much more conventional, much more old-school and predictable.
My sense of The Strange is that it's sort of like one of Quentin Tarantino movies that don't quite work. Even a messy Tarantino flick is fascinating and important and worth thinking about. I think this game really is pretty broken at its core, but it's not broken because Cordell and Cook were being lazy.
If I'm right, it's broken because they were trying to do something new and big. I hope other RPG designers are paying attention.
I don't think this situation actually has a huge amount to do with alignment (at our table we use alignment as a fairly soft parameter) but it does have a lot to say about reading your table and your players and making sure that the situations involved remain fun.
I long ago stopped including certain situations in my Pathfinder games because they are just not fun for me or my group of players.
In my games violence is described cinematically but only in an Indiana Jones-Star Wars way, not a Quentin Tarantino or Raging Bull sort of way. We don't kill children, even the children of monsters. (My world has a mysterious lack of younglings...) I regularly GM-fiat situations where fun action might turn into creepy weirdness or animal cruelty or whatever. ("After his master dies, the ape seems to fade away into the shadows...")
I also don't allow creepy sexual or sexist behavior at my table - an occasional double entendre or flirty joke, fine, but my Pathfinder game is not the place to act out fantasies of sexual prowess or control. Why? Because for most of my players it's not fun.
Finally, I don't allow PC-on-PC violence or aggression ("No, rogue, you can't steal the fighter's stuff...) except in very rare situations where a PC is controlled by an NPC somehow. Again, why? Because in my experience at the game table it winds up never, ever being fun.
I mention all these examples not because I think they're worth adopting, but because I think every GM should learn pretty quickly to read his or her own comfort level and the mood of the table.
If some of your players think killing mountain gorillas or apes is disgusting, find a way to leave that out of your game.
BTW, enforcing this kind of "standards and practices" at the table is the one area where I very comfortably "railroad" players. Just because you have a particular alignment or class doesn't mean you can creep everybody out, disrupt the story, or kill the fun.
But the same also goes for the GM. Even if I think a situation might be cool or edgy, if I think it's wrong for a particular group of players, I rewrite it or soften the edges a bit.
I want to point out something general to all campaigns - a mistake that after decades of GMing I realized I was making.
Here it is: Focus on making each individual moment cool. You have to keep the bigger story arc in mind, but the moment is the thing.
Especially on Adventure Paths, but also in the homebrew campaign I'm running, I found that I sort of was always leaning toward the future, the next thing, kind of always urging things forward.
Again, a bit of that is fine. You don't want to stall out. But definitely the bigger priority needs to be making each gaming session, each scene as cinematic and cool as possible.
Responding to Kirth's comment. This is such a weird thing in gaming. Why would anyone do that to a DM? I mean, I get not wanting to be railroaded. And I get that it's a DM's job to help players come up with some degree of motivation for their PCs. But really. 99% of Pathfinder adventures are ones that most sane people - even highly lethal people - would simply walk away from.
When I hear about players who derail adventures or campaigns in this way, I'm just sort of flummoxed. I will also say that it's never actually happened to me as a DM. I've had players who wanted a little side adventure for their PC, which is totally cool - I actually love that.
But to come to the table and just say, "Dude, no. We're heading south." Wow. That's cold.
After a long run of GMing other folks' adventures - a couple of different Adventure Paths, a big chunk of Slumbering Tsar - I've finally found the time to put together a homebrew campaign.
I stumbled across a couple of ideas about story and a setting that I wanted to write up and my players were cool enough to go along. After three play sessions, it's gone really well. Here are some basic thoughts:
1. Yes, Pathfinder is rules heavy but the resources are all there in the books to make creating your own detailed world and adventures without a lot of stat-blocking and numbers crunching. You can do that stuff if you want, but I've spent essentially zero time on that kind of thing.
2. It's been really fun to try to mine the Bestiaries for under-appreciated low-level monsters, or to try to reinvent old stand-by monsters to make them fresh again. Some of the coolest critters are CR3 or lower.
3. I've pretty much shed all my old prejudices about running published adventures, so many of them are just so good. But there is something pretty great about having one of your own encounters, or NPCs, or plot twists really go over big.
4. It really is pretty awesome being able to allow the story to evolve more organically than in a published adventure. When someone at the table comes up with a cool idea or does something unexpected, I'm able to just roll with it, knowing I can adjust later encounters and NPCs with a lot more flexibility.
Finally - and this isn't homebrew specific but it's been part of the fun -- starting at low level again (after a lot of high level play in Slumbering Tsar) has given me a new appreciation of a lot of the 'new' classes and how they interact.
I'd been grumbling about there just being too much out there, but at least in the early going it all integrates pretty well. We have a kineticist, a fighter-magus, a rogue, a monk, an evoker, and a skald (all 2nd level) and it's one of the funnest parties I've ever run.
I live in a very rural area and for years assumed that it would be impossible to get a local game going. I was wrong.
These days , there are a lot of people out there who've played over time and who have 'lapsed.' Others have heard enough about fantasy and gaming (through movies and computer games mostly) that it's less of a hurdle.
The secret is to steadily, constantly, persistently get the word out.
First, put up notices anywhere that you think might be a good fit: hobby stores, club billboards, the library, etc.
Second, start a local Facebook page for your (still theoretical) gaming group. In your notices, direct people to this facebook page. Fill it with cool images of fantasy adventures, and ideas about what kind of stories your gaming group might take on. Make it seem a bit more tangible than just "Hey, would you like to try Pathfinder?"
Third, be more persistent. Don't occasionally go to the after school gaming group. Go regularly, develop friendships, play other people's games. Then they'll be a lot more ready to try your game.
Fourth, keep it light. Make it clear that people are always welcome but don't have to commit week-to-week. My group grew dramatically when it started to feel more like poker night and less like a mandatory obligation. (This requires some work on the GM's part, but it's totally doable.)
Fifth (sorry that this is personal), make sure that you're not being a turn-off. You are the cheerleader for a kind of unique game - so you have to be a good cheerleader. Fun and relaxed is inviting, desperate and awkward isn't.
Fifth, keep an eye out for computer gamers who you might be able to win over. If they're playing Halo or World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, they're halfway there.
Finally (repeating for emphasis) be persistent.
Our group now has literally too many gamers, which is a great problem to have. People come and go, but almost every week we have between 5 and 10 people who want to play.
And that's in our tiny town.
We did that by keeping it fun, by continuing to spread the word, and by making sure everyone always feels welcome.
So....strong opinions follow. This isn't a personal attack, just strong opinions about your choices as a player and your DM's choices as lead storyteller.
I have to say that this is one of the worst ideas I've ever seen shared on the boards. Really. I'm not sure what you are trying to accomplish as a player or as a member of your gaming community, but I think you should think hard about your choices.
First, I do actually believe that except in rare circumstances, role-playing a 'serial killer' over time and spending part of your gaming imagination thinking about identifying good NPCs you can 'hunt' as 'easy targets' is questionable.
I know that conversations of this kind -- about morality and values in gaming -- are often really ugly on the Paizo boards, but I want to raise it...gently...as something you should ponder.
Bluntly, the answer to your question is pretty simple:
Runelords is full of good, innocent and largely defenseless NPCs that you can murder if you think that's a fun thing to do. 'Easy targets' are everywhere. The only drama to that activity is the drama of your very high risk of getting caught and blowing up your party.
Which brings me to my second point. I think you should think about the fact that you (and the DM who allowed you to make run this PC) are endangering an entire campaign and the shared story-telling experience of a group of players.
At our table, we long ago banned 'rogue' players - by which I don't mean the rogue class, but players who want to run PCs who are fundamentally at odds with the nature of the story and the motivations of the party as a whole.
Having a maverick PC with some color or textures that are outliers - that's fine. But the Runelords story involves a long, desperate quest to stop precisely the kind of psychopathic villains that you are attempting portray.
I've seen so many fun campaigns implode over entirely unnecessary choices like this. After weeks (or months) of gaming, suddenly the party feels called upon to kill one of the PCs, or banish a PC, or take some similar action. The spirit of that player-on-player conflict inevitably spills over to the players themselves.
And boom, you're done.
And really...why? Why not trust your DM and your other players and the writing of the adventure to give you a good, compelling experience? Why put a bomb under the whole affair and light the fuse?
Why not put your obviously cool imagination to the task of creating a complex, weirdly motivated PC who actually serves (rather than threatens) the campaign and its narrative arc?
So...there's my suggestion.
Rather than putting your imagination to work trying to sort out who you can kill on the margins of the story, I would try to find ways that you can commit to building and enhancing the story itself.
That means ret-conning your PC and getting with the spirit of the story that your fellow gamers are acting out. And then, when the moment is right, see if they're interested in running an evil-PC campaign.
Let me say, finally, that I get that Cheliax is a cool setting and it offers some fun, morally ambiguous flavor for GMs and PCs to work with. I don't think all PCs need to be paladins or motivated by 'good.'
There are even some campaigns (Crimson Throne, for example) where taking the Cheliax flavor to the extremes you're talking about might make some sense.
In Runelords, though, your PC is a ticking time-bomb that has huge potential to blow up a campaign and (again, I've seen this happen...) an entire gaming group.
Yeah. One of the (many) reasons I want to do this is because I want to linger a bit longer on the really fun and cool and kind of wicked monsters that land in the CR 1/3-CR 3 range.
A big part of the overall adventure, for example, involves dismantling a dark folk conspiracy - with one of the key NPCs for the entire campaign CR 7.
I think part of the experiment will be communication players. If they think, "Oh, orc - this is a chip-shot then we move on to the real adventure," it'll be a bummer.
But if I make the orcs interesting and malign, and develop a real sense of threat, I think I can get their attention.
I'm also not particularly worried about magic users. Their ability to truly check-mate low-power adventures doesn't really kick in until they get third level spells. For a Wizard, that's halfway through the campaign's level progression...
Also, by actually requiring some attention to spell components, their ability to just be 'magical canons' will diminish a bit. I really want there to be a moment where one of my players says, "I'm almost out of bat guano and sulfur."
So...this took a wrong turn because of the way I worded my question. My bad.
Briefly, I'm a big, big advocate of table communication and player-DM rapport. That's not my issue, and that's not what I need advice about.
I have a big group of players. Some of them are really, really pumped about this. We're just wrapping up a super high level, super powerful campaign (Slumbering Tsar) and those guys are eager for something stripped down and gritty.
Others aren't into this idea. So those guys are going to sit this one out -- and play cheerfully with another DM for awhile. But...some of the guys who are going to opt-out are good gamers and they raised some good points about how this could be frustrating and dull.
So, with the players who really want to try this with me, I'm looking for ideas for how to make it go well, maybe dodge some of the pitfalls people are mentioning here.
I heard some good ideas here: I like the idea of boosting skills a bit. That fits the story, too. I think the idea of making sure special limits (like fatigue) only happen in short bursts at dramatic moments is really good.
I also think it's important to constantly be giving players a pathway (maybe a challenging one) to solving their shortages.
Saying, "You just kind find a new familiar so your powers are dead" isn't my idea -- frankly that seems like pretty lame DMing. Saying, "Okay, so you need a new familiar. You know that there's an old woman called Widow Gray in the forest who keeps a mob of black cats" or "Two days after the battle where your familiar died you spot a red fox flitting along at the edge of the forest" seems like it could be fun.
This campaign will be fairly low level, beginning at first, continuing through 9th. I expect that some of the economy issues will fade away by third or fourth level, but we'll see. And I will be pushing CR levels down. I've told the guys who are interested in playing, "In this game, a band of orcs is a serious threat." They're down with it.
We'll see how it goes...and more ideas welcome...
I don't mean 'economy' like trading caravans and gold arbitrage...I mean 'economy' in the sense that players struggle to find enough ammunition, spell components and other necessaries to survive. Let me explain.
I've been working on a mid-to-low power Pathfinder campaign for some time which is basically designed to put the PCs in sort of a desperate/survival situation. Basics like food, water, rest, spell components, decent weapons, ammunition, etc. are in short supply.
The goal is to have a lot of the plot be driven by these challenges: You have to get from Point A to Point B to defeat the enemy, but you also have to (along the way) figure out how to find spell components (rabbits feet and butter, say) and enough food and water to keep you going.
I have a great story reason to do this - it serves the theme of the adventure I'm creating - and I also hope that it will bring forward some of the PF rules that I really like, including more of the skills and non-combat feats, also 'condition' rules like fatigue and exhaustion.
Some of my players have raised a (legitimate) concern that some of this might prove boring or frustrating. My hope is to avoid this by making sure that a lot of the challenges will be accompanied by a real sense of adventure (harvesting a spell component out from under the shadow of a dangerous lair, for example...) and a sense that useful skills can solve many of these problems.
("I use my survival spell to search the rocks for bat guano...")
But I'm wondering if others have tried this kind of mechanic and whether you have any advice about how to make it fun, and un-fun pitfalls to avoid.
I think Unchained is an interesting experiment in trying to find a different path - one that isn't the "new edition" or "old edition" duality, but something in between or a third way.
I don't think UC is the final answer...but maybe Paizo is clever enough that they can develop a truly compatible option for those of us who find the current rules a bit dated and a bit too "anything goes."
One other point: Before going the nuclear option route of Pathfinder 2.0, there is often an intermediary stage for companies wanting to freshen up a mature game, and that's creating a new setting.
Golarion works really well for a lot of people. Though I like parts of it just fine, it's never been my world of choice. But set that aside. Even if you love Golarion, wouldn't it be cool for Paizo to launch one Eberron or Dying Sun or whatever setting?
Using the new setting, you could set some boundaries about which rules are canon in that play space and which rules are either optional or verboten in that place. Not a permanent fix, but it might clean up some of the weirdness and extend PF's life by another five years...
I know Paizo has been resistant to the idea of creating a new setting, wanting instead to pack everything into Golarion and its cosmos...but maybe it's time to rethink that...
I have a pretty awesome halberd wielder in the game I DM and he just got Englarge. It's a game changer, no pun intended. His weapon jumps from a 1d10 to a 2d8, he's much more likely to be flanking which gives him another +2 bonus to hit, but the key thing is that he has such awesome reach that he can generally target enemies across the battlefield without more than a 5 foot step, which means he gets full round attacks even on an enemy as far as 20 feet away. That's kind of cool, right?
Hi Greg -
I have one actual question (not sure if you're still keeping an eye on this thread but here goes) as I move forward with ST.
It has to do with the "horde" threats that are placed throughout the adventure, and that await in the next chapter with the siege undead.
I get that this is partly a flaw of the PF rule system. It's unrealistic that armies of undead swarming over a small party of PCs simply wouldn't be able to touch them because of high ACs, but that's how the rules work.
Also, I find myself struggling with huge gobs of dice rolls. If I have fifty zombies sweeping into a battle, that's fifty times that I need to roll -- most of them needing nat-20s to hit.
My sense is that you have a really clear idea in your mind about how this is supposed to work at the game table -- in addition to being just a really cool trope of monster movies and fantasy.
How did you GM this? When the sandmen swarm up out of hiding inside the Black Gate, we're any of them able to touch your 10th-level PCs? Did you mostly play it for color without bothering much with dice rolls?
First, I'd be firm. I'd say "Once you've made your case and I've ruled, it's over. Period." I'd also insist that he either engage the adventure in a reasonable way or role up a more appropriate PC.
Secondly, here's kind of a weird observation. When I used to game a lot with people who were deep friends, it was actually harder to make stuff like this work.
These days, I have really good pals who I play D&D/Pathfinder with, but we really only get together for the hobby. That's our connection.
It just makes it a lot easier. If this situation (OP)arose in my group I can just say to a player, "Look, what you're doing is making it unfun for me, so change up."
And they'll know that it has nothing to do with anything other than the game. Obviously, it's manageable when people have other connections, but it's more complicated.
But I would do your best to make sure that you know what's actually going on. Is it a gaming thing? Is it a something else thing? Is it maybe possible that the truth is that he doesn't really want to game anymore?
One other thing the OP highlights is the need to constantly constantly be recruiting and building your player pool. I live in a really small rural town in the middle of nowhere and we have between 5 and 8 players at our weekly games.
If someone started mucking up our games and was being a jerk and I couldn't fix it, I'd be able to disinvite them in a heartbeat and the game would go on.
And a final thought, slightly (but not completely) off topic.
In my games (the ones I GM) I've completely banned "bad" PC behavior toward the rest of the party. I don't care what your alignment is. I don't care how you describe your backstory.
I've just seen too many otherwise good games unravel when a player gets it into his head that in order to be true to his PC's nature he has to muck up the adventure or attack other PCs or whatever.
That stuff's no fun. And it doesn't just wreck adventures, it can wreck whole gaming groups.
I stand and use a DM screen. I like the privacy, the sense that it sort of establishes me in a slightly different place.
I also use it to hang initiative cards.
That said, I have two observations about Paizo's Pathfinder DM screen.
First, I'm ready for some new art. I was never really all that thrilled with the static "guys standing around" approach.
I kind of like screens that project the flavor and action of a good "D&D" adventure. (I really liked the Eberron screen...)
Second, I don't find myself using the info on the screen - like ever. I'm not sure what I'd want or need on there...
I like your idea. And I have to say that I've run ST as close to "as-written" as anything off the shelf that I've ever GM'd. It's just that good.
But I think some stuff works better with some tweaking.
As written, for example, every entrance to Tsar itself is deadly and fascinating - except one. There's one path in where (if you don't muck around and wake a sleeping battle hulk) it's kind of wide open.
It's not even that close to Malerix's lair. A smart party scouting the walls would cruise right in, bypassing far too much goodness.
I just made it so that the battlehulk was awake and sort of prowling about conspicuously with a bunch of siege undead riding on top.
My guys can still choose which path to take, but there's not such an obvious pick...like that.
Also, I'll be honest, some of my futzing around is just that I kind of like to fiddle under the hood even with a super nice adventure.
But yeah, this one's a classic. I fully support the idea of not messing with it too much.
By the way, anyone reading this - Frog God Games currently has Slumbering Tsar on sale at a deep discount. It's worth $150 but if you can get it cheaper, do.
I think what you're saying makes sense. But I think one useful addition to the final published version would have been an essay that kind of lays out the thread for GMs, maybe with some notes about where key NPCs, plot hinges, and encounters sit in the vast landscape (and the vast tome).
I don't think every GM would want to read it. A lot of folks want to do exactly what you're saying, reading the 900+pages closely, taking detailed notes about the various threads and convergences, picking out opportunities for foreshadowing and tension-building.
(My legal pads are full of flow charts about how I see the connections working -- no kidding)
There are also a lot of guys (and gals) who will want to rewire the fundamental arc of the story, home-brewing it to a certain extent.
But still I think one awesome additional appendix (maybe in the on-line/pdf version?) would be an essay where you give GMs the big picture, with pointers to the elements that I described above, and maybe your own designer vision of how this thing should play.
I'll be honest. I've pored through this thing a lot, but I'm guessing I'm still missing things/connections/opportunities for building the narrative that you cookied in here.
Thanks for the awesome adventure. Really. This one's a joy.
I've posted a few times on the message boards about my experience running Greg Vaughan's Slumbering Tsar.
My gaming group reached kind of a milestone two weeks ago when we "finished" the portion of the adventure that deals with the wasteland -- the infamous Desolation -- that surrounds the ruined, haunted city of Tsar.
A couple of people I've messaged with have asked for thoughts about the adventure (and for campaign journals, which I don't have time to do...) so here goes.
First, a reminder of what Slumbering Tsar is. It's a massive campaign published by Frog God Games that takes PCs from 7th level to around 20th. My group is currently 9th and 10th level.
Including maps, handouts, appendices, etc. the whole thing runs about 950 pages. In the quality of writing and conceptualization, it's on par with Rise of the Rune Lords. In scale it's much longer, much more detailed.
WHAT I LOVED
Really, ST is everything you've heard about. It's just that good. It's the perfect marriage of an old-fashioned D&D grinder, with lots of combat and deadly challenges, but also tons of role-playing opportunities, fun and nuanced NPCs, and great color.
I've come to believe that Pathfinder is mostly about big moments. Yes, people want plot and danger and all the other stuff that makes up a story. But what sticks out at the gaming table are those epic moments, the near-death experiences, the moments of breakthrough, that perfectly timed crit-roll.
Vaughan spices those opportunities in regularly. The weird, lush haunted garden in the middle of the Desolation. The insane Apocalypse-now dwarves who are trying to survive in the midst of all the chaos and death. The strange ruined characters who haunt the Camp at the edge of the desolation.
It's a meat-grinder, but it's not just a meat-grinder.
WHAT I CHANGED
That said, I did change quite a lot of small things in the adventure. ST is a 'sandbox' which means that it's possible for PCs to make a lot of their own decisions. That's good.
But it can also mean game sessions where everything the players encounter is far too deadly, or far too easy.
In particular, the rules of Pathfinder make it sort of complicated for a GM to deal with hordes of low-level enemies who, when played as Vaughan has written them, simply can't hurt your PCs.
Vaughan seems to love "Walking Dead" style undead surges. And those should be really cinematic and creepy. But in Pathfinder, for PCs at the level envisioned by ST, it's actually more of a nuisance after a while.
(Not always. It's a gas for players to occasionally get to buzz-saw through ranks of enemies, especially after one too many life-or-death battles...but that gets old pretty quick.)
So I rewrote more of those mob-scene encounters to include fewer minions and more slightly tougher and more menacing bosses.
THE FOUR QUADRANTS
The Desolation is basically four different Desolations. In his amazing imaginative deep-dive, Vaughan wasn't happy with one Ashen Waste or one Chaos Rift. He wanted to throw everything into one adventure, from bubbling tar pits to charnel valleys full of undead.
It's awesome and epic. My one suggestion is to read through everything carefully and start teasing out foreshadowing and plot elements that will keep players wanting to explore the whole thing.
The challenge here is to keep it fresh, to keep the motivation strong. I managed a good solid B on this front, I think, by developing a much stronger set of explanations for why the PCs are in the Desolation than the ones that Vaughan suggests.
I think GMs should really talk about this in advance with the players. Make sure they understand the scope of this adventure and the need to keep helping you find reasons that their characters would care enough to keep diving into this insane, deadly madness.
It's also important to move some things around in Slumbering Tsar. The really awesome troll brothers who should offer the introduction to the Chaos Rift are located on the map in a place where the PCs might never encounter them -- or might encounter them at the end of the adventure.
Also, the Boiling Lands offer, in many ways, the least deadly set of encounters -- and encounters which in many instances don't move the plot forward much. There are some great set pieces there, not to be missed. But find a way as a GM to get your players there early. And find some ways to tie it in more deeply to the adventure.
There are other little things that I felt were just weirdly placed or sort of tucked away in odd corners. Again, read carefully and see what elements you want to pull forward.
My next big point is power creep. ST as written was meant to be really, really deadly. That's part of the fun. There is a long section in the back of the book for PC obituaries. Sounds corny, but my players have had fun writing in the names of their characters when they died.
But the truth is that PF has seen so much power creep that a lot of ST isn't that menacing. Some of it still is. But as a game master, you should really think about pacing and maybe tweaking the CR of your threats.
The biggest problem I've found is that ST was written as an "attrition-economy" threat. That is, it's supposed to wear PCs down and make them really think about their choices.
But PF now has so many characters with so many renewable or permanent abilities that this just doesn't come into play so much. I find that with PCs of this level, basically all damage (including ability damage, diseases, etc.) will be cured or healed after every combat encounter.
So that part of the menace, the sense of being worn down, is a bit harder to create. I found that this was easy to remedy by turning a few of the 'wandering monster' encounters into more deliberate, structured clashes which I wrote.
I also used those opportunities to help move the plot along and develop more foreshadowing and a sense that the overall story was going someplace.
THE STORY ITSELF
Which brings me to my final observation. In the end, ST actually has a pretty good story with a ton of amazing characters. But the truth is that a lot of it is pretty hidden.
This isn't unique to Vaughan's adventure. A lot of times in Adventure Paths or other big published campaigns, I find myself running NPCs who have huge back stories and really cool identities, which really the players have almost no way of knowing or interacting with.
The big bad guy (or woman) is dead before the PCs really grasped how big and bad he (or she) really was.
So my two-fold suggestion here is, first, read the whole adventure carefully. Mark out the big plot themes and the big, ominous NPCs and their schemes. Figure out how the threads knot together.
Start peppering those ideas into the players' experience early. Vaughan hints at some of this but more is needed. I'm not saying railroad PCs. But as written, it's possible for players to go a really long time without really grasping what's going on or what the danger is beyond the next encounter.
Some of this can happen in color. PCs can have haunted dreams or be visited by visions. You can use existing NPCs like the Peddler and the Usurer to drop hints about what's to come.
Secondly, I would suggest that GMs playing this huge tome be careful to...slow down. I found that at times I was sort of rushing players through different chapters, knowing that there was (and is) so much goodness to come.
And the truth is that my players have gotten kind of impatient. This story is, after all, about Slumbering Tsar, the haunted city. They've looked from afar on the Black Gates for months (in real time and in game time). They want to get in there.
Fair enough. But remember to treat each section of Tsar and each gaming session as a prime moment to explore really beautifully crafted chapters of a larger adventure. If you run this thing, remember that it's main strength is that it offers you a chance to create those incredible, memorable gaming moments.
I'll end with a little story from our last session.
My players ended their main sojourn in the Desolation by taking on the tar dragon Malerix. They lured him inside a ruined structure, hoping to trap him and limit his mobility -- which worked. It was great ploy and Malerix in his arrogance fell for it.
But they also set his tarry hide on fire, and it turned out he wasn't bothered at all by fire...which meant that 9 PCs (we had a big group that weekend) were trapped in a burning building with a writhing, vicious, deadly dragon.
Because they'd had glimpses of Malerix for months, and they knew that he was the last monster between themselves and the city, they stuck to the fight. It was one of those sessions that balanced perfectly on the edge of a TPK -- at various times three different PCs were below zero hit points -- but in the end everyone survived.
Next Saturday, they begin their assault on the city of Orcus itself, a well-earned next step. If the last year of gaming in Vaughan's campaign is any evidence, it should be epic.
Guilty as charged. I asked my question in all good faith, then got caught up in my argument. I really was curious about your perspective, so thanks for answering fully, despite my tone.
I will say that compared with a lot of folks in the RPG world, I'm not putting a ton of time into the game. I'm maybe just shifting more of my time away from stuff I used to do (creating worlds, cooking up adventures, grinding through stat blocks) and focusing it instead on this part.
Part of that is that I've become more and more comfortable running published adventures. I love home-grown campaigns and adventures, but this is one cool aspect of buying stuff - you can focus a bit more on getting ready for the performance at the table rather than all the writing.
(I do rewrite my purchased campaigns a lot -- even Slumbering Tsar, which is a masterpiece as written, was fun to homebrew a bit.)
One final-final thought: I've really come to love DMing. A couple of people have noted in this conversation that it's kind of a burden and 'taking a bullet for the team' to play from behind the screen. I hadn't thought of that.
That's maybe the most important thing that we should be talking about. As we try to make DMing better for PF players, how can we also make it funner and more rewarding for the DMs?
Could you explain a little bit why you see DMing this way? I realize that I'm not quite getting it. (And your view isn't unique - others have expressed a similar view.) So help me get past these hurdles.
First look at our track record as a hobby. There are SO MANY mediocre DMs out there. I've gamed all over the world with dozens of DMs. Lovely people, earnest, trying really hard, eager to have fun and have a great experience, but generally just not at all versed in how to run a table. So...if it were "easy" why do things go bad so often?
Second, why would DMing be different than any other entertainment skill or art, where people learn their craft from others, often in a structured way, and then they go and express their own style? Why would learning your craft as a DM preclude inidivudal styles or expression?
Let me say that I think part of the problem here is that DMing has all too often been conflated with adventure design. Guys spend weeks creating an awesome adventure, full of really well designed encounters, detailed stat blocks, cool monsters. Then they spend very, very little time thinking about how to present this in colorful, dynamic, engaging, interactive ways.
They think, as you suggest, that that part of the gaming experience should be 'easy' or 'intuitive.' And when things go wrong, they blame the group dynamic or their players, or they just shrug and say, "That's what RPGs are sometimes like." And sure, sometimes that's true.
But since I've been actively trying to learn the craft in a more deliberate way (all the advice and suggestions above are awesome, btw), I've found that in many instances I'm far more able to salvage and improve my games. And I'm far more conscious of why games are going wrong when they do go wrong.
I'm not looking for ideal games. But if half of Pathfinder DMs could be better equipped with behind-the-screen skills, that would change and improve the gaming experience for a lot of the community.
Good discussion. A couple of thoughts and points.
First, I want to reiterate that I don't think teaching great DMing strategies in a more organized and systematic way is a path toward 'sameness' or 'uniformity' behind the DM screen.
People learn how to play guitar or how to play basketball or how to be an actor -- then they go and use that education to do their own thing. I'm sure the same thing would happen with DMs.
I think what I'm mostly grappling with is that a lot of people think DMing should be sort of intuitive.
Koloktroni gets at this a bit when he says, "The only thing you can do is be prepared, pay attention, learn how the game works and establish open communication with your players on what produces a fun time and what doesnt."
But that's not true, IMO. Great DMs do all of that, but they also use a lot of really cool strategies as entertainers, as story-tellers, as pace-builders.
Some use music, some use voices, some use visual aids (minis, art, etc.), some move around and act out events. Why do they make those choices? How do they decide when to linger over a role-playing encounter and when to rush things forward into a battle?
And it's also just not true IMO that DMs generally learn through osmosis. I've been gaming for 35 years with dozens of different DMs. Most of them didn't really think very much about what they were doing at the table.
(That's not a jab or a put-down. It's just a fact. They thought that once they'd learned the rules and made up the adventure, everybody would just sort of get through it together.)
My personal shift in attitude came about a year ago when two things happened. First, I saw a video of Chris Perkins DMing and I thought, 'He's doing something much more interesting than what I'm doing and I need to learn from him.' I also saw some of the better clips of the Dice Stormers and the techniques they were using.
I mean, taken to maybe a slightly silly extreme: Why aren't there three or four day DMing workshops around the country where gamers can go to really learn cool strategies for doing what the really great DMs are doing?
I can find a volleyball workshop or an acting workshop or a writing workshop. Why not a session for people who want to be great DMs?
Thanks for the conversation,
Maybe so. I'm open to the idea of a community effort.
On the other hand, if the folks at Paizo thought this through they might say, "Huh. We're trying to market a game that requires on a good table experience and word of mouth to build fan base and the primary portal for that is great DMing. We better help make sure we have awesome DMs out there."
They might then say, "Look, the truth is, we don't have the right people on staff right now to lead this effort. We need one person in our organized play department who is a) interested in elevating the art of DMing to a consistent good level, b) is a good teacher with a strong ability to use the message boards and other tools, and c) is a well-known talented DM with a reputation for wowing people at the table."
Seems like that would be a good hire to make.
Anyone thinking seriously about this would never suggest a 'one size fits all' approach to training, even for individual DMs. A good DM should have the capacity to adopt different styles depending on the adventure, the genre, the players at the table, etc.
And I'm going to stick to my guns on this: I don't believe the 'learning by osmosis" approach works very well. Too many of us "learn" to DM from fairly mediocre DMs, or by trying to figure it all out for ourselves.
A lot of guys I've played "under" don't even really realize that DMing is a kind of folk art form. They just think "I'll make up an adventure, we'll all gather around and I'll sort of run it." The results are are you would expect.
I also think it's worth examining in a fresh way why this very cool form of entertainment based on a vast network of entertainers (read: local DMs) doesn't have a better system for training and supporting them.
Translation: Why does Paizo spend a huge amount of time supporting and nurturing adventure designers, when what the game really needs isn't more great adventure writers (okay, that's cool, too) but more great DMs?
If we want to grow the game (and I do) we need more new players to sit down and have an awesome (or at least a really good) experience. That can't happen unless our DMs are a lot better than they are today.
And I'm criticizing myself here as much as anyone - so please don't take this as arrogance or lecturing.
Thanks, Thanael - will do. These resources are great. Keep them coming. Now we just need a way to disseminate them to average DMs who (in many cases) don't know that they exist or that they're needed.
No. I hadn't stumbled across those. I'll add them to my collection and look at them eagerly. And I'm sure that playing under/with really good DMs (whether at cons or in local games) is the absolute best way to learn.
But a lot of us don't get to conventions. Instead, frankly, we learn our chops on our own or under DMs who are frankly mediocre (not for lack of trying.)
Building on your comment, maybe a great way to think about this is:
How can we get DMs like me (I'm in rural northern New York but I've helped build a big gaming group of more than a dozen regular players) the kind of skills building that might be comparable to what they'd get at a convention?
I DM'd the latest installment of my Slumbering Tsar campaign last Saturday and I found myself feeling sort of bummed that it didn't go super well. I mean, it was fine. But this was the big, climactic battle against Malerix outside the Black Gate. It should have been awesome. And it wasn't.
I mention this because the last two years, I've really been trying to get better. Not just better table prep and more conscious, fun-focused DMing. I've actually been scouring the web, looking for advice columns, Youtube videos and other resources.
I've actually gone back and read the "How to DM" sections in all my old rule books. What gems did I miss while rushing through to the "must know" stuff, while assuming that I had the "soft skills" of DMing down pat and just needed to know the rules before building my next adventure?
And all of that stuff helped. But I have to say, I still feel like the state of the art of DMing and the system for training and educating new (and improving DMs) around the world is still remarkably primitive, or at least underdeveloped.
The bottom line is that you can have the best rule system, the most awesome setting, a brilliantly designed adventure (thanks, Greg Vaughan) and a group of willing, engaged players -- but if your DM is muddled or lackluster or just plain unskilled, it's all going to fall flat.
A lot has been written recently about the need to recruit and retain more players. New boxed sets are produced. Comic books are issued. On-line versions of games are experimented with. But it seems to me that, unless I'm missing something, the most obvious next step is being ignored.
If Paizo wants Pathfinder to be THE premier fantasy RPG on the market, it needs to have the best stable of DMs. These gals and guys would be the evangelizers for the game all over the world. As much as people are drawn to the system and the adventures produced by Paizo, they would be drawn to the local, grassroots entertainers (dungeon masters) cultivated with help from the company.
In this comment I don't want to try to specify how a campaign like this should work or what specific skills and concepts it should try to impart. But I will say that the precedents exist already for this kind of global campaign to improve the game.
By using some of the ideas buried in organized play systems and in the Superstar design competition, you could develop a truly awesome, fun and constructively competitive approach to having DMs at various levels sharing their best ideas for how to run a table.
Just by searching around the web, I've found clues and tips and strategies that have made my games 20% better. I bet with a more structured approach, Paizo could boost the overall standards of DMing in the PF community by a bigger margin.
Especially if you structured the program for different levels of experience -- one section for starting DMs, another for veterans trying to freshen their approach -- I think there'd be a lot of buy-in.
The bottom line is that DMing is a blast and a really vital part of gaming, but it's also far less easy and intuitive than a lot of people think. A lot of tables are winding up with a sub-par experience because this one pivotal player in our shared experience just hasn't been exposed to the best ideas and resources.
I think Paizo should spend some of its growing gaming heft to change that.
You call it nostalgia, I call it different taste. I'm not a power gamer, and I get most of my at-table satisfaction from strategic play and role-playing rather than maximized PCs. I've always had a ton of fun and managed to be very effective playing exactly the PC classes that people tend to condemn on the message boards.
What's more, as a DM, I never, ever have problems with fighters or rogues or monks finding ways to contribute meaningfully to the story, the adventure or to the combats. It has literally never happened in one of my games that the casters took over the story and eclipsed everybody else.
What HAS happened at my table is that OP'd builds have messed up party balance dramatically...and bizarro options that I hadn't anticipated have messed up the flavor of the adventures.
That's fixable - it's not the end of the world.
But I'm not exaggerating or fudging when I say that the abstract, numeric DPR-type powergaming analysis of PC builds that you describe has never been an issue at my table, while the brokenness issue of complex power builds has been repeatedly.
Sorry to spam, but one last thought: One of the things I love about core Pathfinder is that every build had significant strengths and weaknesses, at least at early and mid levels.
These days, power gamers can optimize PCs in ways that they're often pretty flawless. The contrast between these designs and the more average, common, "I made up a character" has grown dramatically.
Bluntly, it's much more common now to have one player show up with a 1st level VW bug and another player show up with a 1st level porsche. Neither player has cheated and neither player has done anything blatantly stupid.
It's just that players who really scrutinize the growing number of books can mix and match in ways that are dramatically superior. In my gaming group, this divergence in character-creation experience has become a significant issue.
I think it's fair to say that DMs need to exercise far more control over Pathfinder now than they did five years ago. It's kind of a dramatic change.
You can't take a light touch unless you want an anything goes, post-genre, super-hero-fantasy-sci-fi-lovecraftian-power-skewed pot of weirdness. Which can be fun, but let's be honest, it's kind of a mess.
And I think by basically saying that all of that stuff fits into Golarion, Paizo has encouraged the sense that PF is verging more toward a kind of GURPS-like game where DMs (hopefully in collaboration with their players) need put bright lines around what's in and what's out.
I think Paizo is kind of acknowledging this by introducing some stripped down versions of the game that harken back to a more straight fantasy, early edition feel. I don't think any of this is necessarily bad, but it does require some reasonably sophisticated editorial decision-making on the part of gaming groups which (in many instances) just don't know the game well enough or don't know genre fiction well enough to think all that through.
Throw on top of that complexity the weird power spikes of some PC classes and abilities and I think PF has become a significantly more meta-complicated system.
To be clear, this is my primary game system and I love it (I also DM a bit of Numenera and a bit of Traveller). But despite my long experience as a DM, the increasing everything-ness of PF has caught me off guard in big ways a few times and forced me to really negotiate delicately with some players. Sometimes this has been a power-gaming issue, sometimes a narrative/texture/doesn't really fit the story issue.
All of this is made even more complex by the healthy but muddled ecology of 3rd party publishers. Some of that stuff is really, really good, but it can also blow the bottom out from under your game.
Finally, I do think it is fun to occasionally force players to get creative and interesting within tighter boundaries. Show me an interesting PC that you've made out of the core book, with cool color and personality traits -- not always relying on the crutch of some arcane feat or weird power-boost combo.
The last couple of years I've seen more and more PCs at my table that look and feel more like video game builds and less like, you know, characters.
I don't think any of this argues for not churning out more books and options. But I do think Paizo is wise to keep creating islands of (relative) simplicity and genre-sanity. I have a feeling that this new 'against the giants' adventure path will serve as a tentpole for that kind of 'give us some old-school D&D' crowd.
I don't play PFS. But I think I am going to use this Core Campaign idea to roll back my game to a simpler place.
Then, going forward, I'm going to require that players essentially ask permission for all non-core elements they want to introduce, from spells to classes to feats.
Keeps the idea of lots of options being available, but on a more "this is a special thing to add in" basis, rather than an "everything goes" basis.
We'll see how it goes...
One thing I'm a little unclear about is why folks think that PF without a map is so completely free-form. I still keep notes (and a mental map) of where people are in space and I communicate that regularly to players.
If a rogue said, "I flank," I'd either say, "You can see that a five foot step isn't enough to position you for a flank" or "Great, you slide sideways into position and strike."
If a guy says, "I charge and attack" I say, "You'll pass close enough to two other orcs that they might be able to strike you. Also, the ground is broken cobblestone and rubble, so you can get there but it's not a charge."
I find that if I have a mental moment and forget some important detail, my players are cheerful about reminding me. ("Wait, didn't you say that those orcs had moved off to the side to take cover behind the statue?")
I ran several long and more or less successful campaigns using maps and minis. But I struggled at times with various logistical issues and I often felt that the games were reduced to something far closer to a board game.
Recently, I've been running a Slumbering Tsar campaign (using the Pathfinder rules) and I've done it mostly without minis or detailed maps. It felt far more creative, flexible, narrative, and (frankly) big and dramatic.
Interestingly, I had one big set-piece battle in mind (a zombie horde battle) where I thought minis would enhance the experience and give a sense of claustrophobia and overwhelming numbers. I was wrong. It felt mechanical and sort of toy-y.
One of the biggest problems, I find, is that minis make it far harder for a DM to (for this DM, at least) to do cinematic acceleration. When doing a narrative PF adventure, I can dilate the time and events, even in a battle, in ways that enhance the adventure.
I can, for example, simply narrate with a few sentences all the things that a bunch of NPCs are doing off to the side. "Off to the east, you see Argos beset by at least a dozen zombies, one of them clinging to his armored back, while an undead troll lumbers forward."
But with minis, it feels far more necessary to follow the mechanics. (I still accelerated some, but I found my players sort of watching as I shifted minis around and asking, "Wait, what just happened there?")
None of this is a firm "No" to minis. I still plan to use them in some instances and as my mood shifts and as the tastes of my player group evolves...but I do think it's a good idea for DMs to regularly experiment with both options and see what's working and what's not.
And I guess I have to admit, looking back on some of those past campaigns, I find that I have a mental picture of lots of tiny plastic figures, rather than a mental picture of an army of stone giants advancing on a town wall...
Here's how I handled the motivation thing - I recount this just for fun, not because it's particularly great.
My ST campaign began in Bard's Gate with the party being exiled for one full year to the Camp for various petty crimes, social offenses, etc.
According to tradition, those exiled to the Camp are part of the New Army of Light. Anyone who behaves in particularly good ways, helping advance the interests of Bard's Gate, gets time off for good behavior.
That was the initial motivation. Kill some bad guys, get home sooner.
But in truth, this ritual of exile has been going on for decades and no one takes it very seriously. Few of the exiles ever return. And the folks of Bard's Gate mostly don't take the Desolation as a grave menace.
It's a threat, but a minor concern, and also a useful foil for the elites of the city when they want to raise taxes or blame an outside enemy for Bard's Gates' troubles.
The wrinkle, of course, is that this particular New Army of Light discovers that something has begun to stir in the Desolation. It's not just a sullen badland. Something new and menacing is brewing.
So my PCs have slowly transitioned from being exiles to being partially assimilated into Bard's Gate's growing military and espionage build-up against the Desolation. They, of course, grasp more viscerally than the city's nobles just how big and ugly the threat is.
With that much meta-plot, my players have totally embraced the motivation. They still have tons of sand-boxy flexibility.
Now when they're, say, rescuing members of the lost Bard's Gate caravan, it's not just for gold -- it's because the members of that caravan almost certainly know something more about the Orcus cult's growing conspiracy.
One thing that I plan to add is a section of urban adventure/intrigue back in Bard's Gate as the PCs struggle against the machinations of the nobility who are bungling their response to Orcus's menace so badly.
I think this will be a good counterpoint to the Desolation story, and it will help my PCs catch up a bit in level. (Their progression has been pretty slow so far...after ten sessions, they're mostly 8th level, with some verging on 9th level...)
Reacting to various ideas here:
Distance: I'm with Majuba about making the squares a mile rather than 2,000 feet in Slumbering Tsar. Frankly, the Desolation just seemed too small to me. I wanted the party to have a sense of crossing a pretty big expanse.
The Usurer: My party is increasingly comfortable with the idea that the Usurer is a tenuous ally, especially now that they killed King Kroma for him. In my campaign, the adventurers' campaign is set against a slow military build-up in the Camp, as Bard's Gate prepares for a more traditional (and almost certainly ill-fated) incursion into the Desolation. Set against that naive political ambition, the Usurer seems to them like a realist and a survivor.
One note about the Chaos Rift: This is probably standard for a lot of DMs, but I moved the rock troll brothers and their elevator to a much more logical and accessible location near the main road. It's such a great encounter, a logical gateway to that section of the adventure -- and as positioned it's just too easy for PCs to miss, or to come to far too late to make much sense.
I'm enjoying everybody's stories and getting good ideas for our campaign...
Couple of additional notes following my group's latest session this past week:
First, the group I'm playing with is being really cool about essentially negotiating meta-problems. The new magic item restrictions - people got that.
I also have one way over-powered PC. When I raised it with the player as an issue, he was incredibly cool about it. He's working to downscale some of the build that included crazy 3rd part publishing stuff.
I mention this because I do think Slumbering Tsar is the kind of adventure where you want players who know how to collaborate at the table. I feel lucky to have a group like that.
Second, I want to mention that while Slumbering Tsar can be grindy and needs the kind of GM involvement that Greg talks about, the writing and NPC character development is so strong that it really does ease a ton of that.
My group just entered the Chaos Rift and their encounter with Otis and Lortis was really a highlight of the game. I role-played those guys to the hilt and my players kept asking me, "Is all that in there?" -- meaning in the book-as-written.
And I was like, yeah, it really is. The scene of them being lowered down into darkness on the log lift, and then the lift creaking away upward and leaving them down there.
There are so many great scenes like that -- not all combat-oriented -- that it really does sustain...
I'm getting the feedback about using minis later. Thanks for that advice. I'll definitely try another battle-map structured session once we get into the dungeons.
This is going to be a bit of a weird response, given some of the framing of this, but I want to suggest that people read the R. Scott Bakker cycle "Prince of Nothing" cycle.
Bakker's work has gotten pretty unfair treatment in places for being misogynistic - a claim that I find preposterous. Bakker's novels are complex, adult, and occasionally very, very dark.
These are not YA books. And they describe a society which is roughly on par, I would say, with the Near East in the 9th or 10th century. Women are not equal, their lives are often brutal and terrifying.
But the women in his novels are also the most complete, complex, dynamic female characters I've ever encountered in fantasy fiction, with the possible exception of Ursula LeGuin's stories. They are powerful, intensely driven, ambitious, flawed.
If, on the other hand, what you want is a fictional fantasy narrative where women are equal in what we might think of as a modern sense - don't go near this series. Really. Some of what happens to Bakker's female characters is stark and even disturbing (though never gratuitous).
But the same is also true of many of the men in Bakker's cycle. There is, for example, a fascinating juxtaposition of two of the main characters, a female courtesan and a male wizard. Both, by the lights of their society, are 'damned' and live largely as tolerated outcasts - useful and necessary but loathed.
Finally, I would say that Bakker's fantasy cycle is one of the only works in the genre that treats honestly the racism, discomfort with women, and aversion to sexuality that runs through much of our genre. Bakker sort of drags that stuff out into the open and wrestles with it in really interesting ways.
So again -- not a read for that afternoon when you're wanting your woman wizard to be the butt-kicker in the story...but really worth picking up.
Now, about magic items. The truth is that I'm not much of a rules lawyer. I'm a good solid Pathfinder-familiar DM.
But I don't know the fine print and I don't keep current with what's broken or grievously overpowered the way some DMs have time to do.
So I did the same thing you did initially - allowing PCs to create magic items as per the core rulebooks as written.
About three sessions ago, I called a halt to that. I basically made it clear that any magic item creation needed in-game roleplaying.
I think this is more a commentary on a broken set of rules in PF than on the specific issues of Slumbtering Tsar, but I agree it's something to watch out for.
Now that that's fixed, the ecology of loot inside the adventure is working okay because the players are spending so much money on resurrection spells...
We'll see if that stays on track...and I hope we can keep our group together long enough to finish this. 2 1/2 years - that's awesome.
Thanks for these reviews. Very interesting and obviously worth considering as these DMs are further along the narrative than my group.
I think I agree with everything here - I'm already boosting the plot elements and imagine I'll do more of that as things go along. I think the raw material is in place to make that feel doable.
I also quite agree about throwing Orcus into the mix at the end. I understand why Vaughan didn't. That's Rappan Athuk's climax, if I'm not mistaken.
But I'm just not going to run this AND R-A, so I think I'll probably import him.
I use the random encounters thing just enough to give it the first edition feel and to give a sense that the party is always in peril AND to give a sense that ruckuses in the Desolation tend to attract attention.
More on magic items in my next comment...
The gaming group I'm part of is about ten four-hour sessions into the Slumbering Tsar mega-campaign from Frog God games. This is, I think, the largest single adventure/campaign ever written, and when it arrives in the mail it looks like a brilliant behemoth of highly detailed encounters, amazing NPCs, weird cool ideas, etc.
So how does it actually play? Well, broadly speaking, amazingly well. It's famously sand-boxy, meaning PCs explore, encounter, stumble into encounters, and have to be really flexible to stay alive. That means running away sometimes. That means character death is a reality. If your players aren't into dying sometimes and rolling up new PCs, this isn't for you.
But my players have really committed to the sense that this is an apocalyptic place where things can go really wrong fast. (Three of five PCs died in our last game and while there was a bit of TPK shellshock at the table, guys were really cool about it.) They love the deviant plot ideas that Greg Vaughan cooked up. Basically, I've never had characters get so deeply invested in a campaign.
This is also an awesome opportunity for players to do a bit of power-gaming. DMs should exercise some caution about this (more on this note later) but with some caveats, and some cautions about way over-powered third-party publishers material, Slumbering Tsar is a great place to battle-test awesome PC builds.
It's also truly epic in length. After roughly forty hours of play, the party has explored perhaps 1/20th of the death zone that Vaughan created, and hasn't even dared to go near the actual city of Tsar that lies at the heart of darkness.
That said, here are some thoughts about things I had to sort out at my game table.
First, the 'sand box' ideal only takes a story so far. After allowing my players to drift and explore a bit, I found that it was necessary to introduce a kind of meta-plot that would pull them forward. They still get to make all the decisions, and can chase squirrels whenever they want. But in my DMing experience, players will eventually need some motivation to keep going.
This turned out to be fairly easy to fix. I pulled forward some of the NPCs and gave them a stronger tie to Orcus's larger conspiracy -- and, frankly, I made it clear much earlier in the adventure that there is indeed a scheme by Orcus underway. Not that all the denizens of the adventure are involved...so there's still just a lot of random weirdness.
The second thing I needed to do was keep refreshing the Camp. This jumping-off point for the adventure and home base is a really iconic setting with colorful, ominous NPCs and a kind of cool ecology of stuff going on. But that gets disrupted pretty quickly as the PCs move in. So I found that I needed to cook up new weird NPCs and new weird denizens that could keep it fresh. This was fun, pretty easy...I mention it only because it's one of the few "must-do" fixes I've found.
Thirdly, the power creep in Pathfinder has somewhat surpassed Slumbering Tsar's infamous lethality. So I've had to carefully, subtly boost the adventure's risk factors. I've also tweaked encounters where Vaughan has created enemies that almost literally can't touch the PCs because of an unbalanced attack-vs.-armor class situation.
I think this largely reflects a new reality in Pathfinder. One BBEG and a lot of super-weak minions just isn't much challenge. Instead, you need a BBEG with a handful of reasonably powerful minions to make an interesting encounter.
I've also somewhat slowed level-advancement progression, using various means, to keep the PCs from outpacing the story's dangers. All in all, the power balance stuff is easily handled.
Finally, a very personal opinion. This is the first adventure I've run in the post 3.0 D&D/Pathfinder era where I felt like miniatures actually got in the way.
Vaughan's encounters and settings are so cinematic, so varied and cool and (sometimes) complex that I just feel like the mechanical fixity of little tabletop figures get in the way and sort of reduces the epic-ness.
Obviously, this is extremely subjective. Some DMs will have a ton of fun creating some of these magnificent set-piece encounters (dwarven patriots battling desperately against waves of undead, mutated spiders swarming up out of a crevasse in the earth).
But I'd at least urge you to experiment with it both ways, trying out your minis, but also trying some sessions without them.
Above all else, I'd encourage you to get this book. It's pricey. But if nothing else, it's an encyclopedic collection of encounters, new monsters, awesomely detailed NPCs and captivating one-off adventures that could drop into any world, any adventure. Played as structured, there is a vast saga here for players to act out and attempt to survive.
I'm running a part of the Slumbering Tsar campaign tomorrow and in theory it looks epic. This is a chapter where the PCs make a desperate stand on a hill top with a gang of dwarven adventurers, facing wave after wave of undead.
Eventually, things get really sticky - more powerful undead, and a fairly lethal big bad evil guy to top it all off. But the part I'm a little uncertain about is how to run the horde portion and have it feel claustrophobic and desperate and panicked.
My specific problems are these:
1. How do I handle what will eventually be roughly 100 NPCs at the same time (including the dwarven 'good guys') without the whole mess bogging down? I'm looking for really cool, cinematic ideas that will make this really elevate. (We are using minis for this episode, btw...)
2. What do I do about the fact that my PCs have really high ACs? I mean, the truth is that the vast majority of these undead hordes are basically almost certain not to hit except on nat-20s. I've thought about having them essentially do grapple checks, trying to overwhelm the party. But most of the PCs also have high CMD...
I want this to feel more like Walking Dead, not like swatting mosquitoes...any ideas appreciated.
I don't have time to read the entire thread, so apologies if some of this is redundant.
One of the things that's interesting about this conversation is that for about 300 years, most "scientists" didn't see science and magic as incompatible.
The vast majority of the very best mathematicians, geologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, etc., were deeply convinced that magic was real and would eventually be proved compatible with the techniques of the scientific method.
As late as the 1800s, some of the most influential researchers - men working on things like evolution and early plate tectonics -- still espoused essentially magical ideas about cosmology.
Earlier figures including Copernicus, John Dee and Isaac Newton were all deeply embroiled in the latest scientific advances of their day, and doing some fine work, while also spending vast amounts of time on what amounted to sorcery or astrological magic.
(Dee and Newton are extreme cases, but they're far from unique...)
A lot of this doesn't fit very neatly into the various fantasy worlds of the D&D canon, though "new" classes like the alchemist and the gunslinger actually work pretty well in a Tudor-Elizabethan themed adventure.
Finally, I've always been pretty impatient with the whole idea that 'science that's advanced enough will look like magic.' I think this is patently silly.
Once a civilization has grasped the mid-to-late-modern concept that phenomena have natural and explainable causes, the best minds generally stop saying, "That looks like magic."
Instead, they say, "That is a thing I can't explain yet, but we're working on it and we'll figure it out."
I love the Alien narrative and I wanted (wanted, wanted) to love this movie. I've seen it three times. I've seen the video that tries to rationalize its gapingly painful plot holes. Sorry, but it was a bust. One of the bigger let-downs in sci fi movie history. I'm eager for P2, but actually am sort of hoping for a complete re-boot. Make a coherent, single movie with a beginning, a middle, an end and believable, reasonably motivated characters. Do NOT have fraidy-cat idiotic laurel-hardy scientists wandering around lost who SUDDENLY get all dewy eyed about alien serpents that look like vicious cobras...ugh.
You guys are my favorite hobby company in the world, which is saying a lot for a lifelong nerd like myself. Love your games, love your community, love your writers and artists.
But unless you give me a better explanation for why your customer service is so terrible, I will never, ever order directly from your store again.
I ordered a $150 book 3 weeks ago. Shipping was supposed to happen within two weeks, which is already a ridiculously sloppy amount of time for any company in the age of Amazon.
Then, today, I get an email which says that my order has finally been "processed and finalized for shipment." Great. Really slow, but great.
But then I read that the package is "expected to ship from the Paizo warehouse by Friday, November 21 via Standard Postal Delivery, estimated 4 to 8 business days in transit."
November 21st? WTF? If the thing is process and finalized, put it in the $%*$# mail! At this rate, I will have been waiting for my purchase for as much as six weeks.
And that "expected to ship" part REALLY ticks me off. Expected? What...is your warehouse in Sandpoint or something?
The kicker to the email is that there is no explanation for the delay, no apology -- only a note that my order can "no longer be altered."
On this message board I see a lot of other complaints about slow and sloppy shipping practices.
Maybe it's time for a quick public note about what's going on? The holidays are coming up. If you want people shopping from Paizo, you need to fix this and do some communication.
Hi Sara Marie -
We're now nearing the three week mark and this order 3329153 apparently hasn't shipped. Can you give me a bit more specifics than it's 'awaiting its turn to get into the shipping queue"?
I have to say that in the world of Amazon, allowing two weeks for an order to ship without explanation seems kind of...outdated. (Is this something unique to the gaming hobby?)
Three weeks is really pushing the envelope.
I think Pathfinder has actually achieved a critical mass of rules where some serious level of selective editing is needed adventure to adventure.
I'm attempting a game right now where almost everything is allowed and while we're having a lot of fun, it's a bit of a mess rules- and mood-wise.
As written, Pathfinder is now an all-things-to-all-people rule-set, with everything from laser guns to ancient priests to gunslingers to World War I soldiers.
So...if you're going for a specific genre or feel, you'll probably have to draw some clear lines around what's in and what's out. Is it still, at the end of the day, Pathfinder? Sure.
Even Paizo has said, while introducing science fiction and World War I era elements into some of their APs, "We won't use or allow this stuff very often in our stories going forward, but it's fun occasionally..." (I'm paraphrasing...)
So, I'd say at this point rules-modding isn't controversial -- it's essential to the system.