Archive for the ‘homebrew’ Tag

The Fate Roll: Handling Initiative In A Split Party   1 comment

I had a curious situation this last Tuesday: I had a 3.5 gaming group where nearly every player had a character who would be in an entirely different place, doing different (though related) things at the same time.  I wasn’t sure how best to handle this… my instinct said that they should just roll initiative, but initiative wasn’t really a good story-excuse for ordering; initiative is about who can get the upper hand, about who’s faster, and about who’s wily enough to get the drop on other people.  And I didn’t want to just make it a “roll off” where everyone rolled a d20 and the number on the die was your order; one of the subtle brilliances of initiative is that it has an automatic tie-breaker, wherein those who get the same “score” can still check sheets and determine that even in a tie, one player would logically be faster than the other (though this can still lead to more ties, causing a roll-off, but that only has about a 1 in 400 chance of occurring, and then only between characters with identical Dexterity scores.)  So I wanted a Dexterity tie breaker, even though Dexterity was pointless.  Clearly I needed another stat… but all the stats were seemingly useless.

Enter the Fate Roll.  Borrowing some ideas from a few different games, I had the players add their Wisdom and Charisma scores together and divide by 2.  Wisdom tends to model your awareness of the world around you, and Charisma tends to model your self-assertion within that world, so it seemed logical that those two things might be related to a character’s ability to manipulate their own fate or destiny or what have you.  (This was probably way too much math to demand of my players; going with a Wisdom or Charisma score was probably enough, but dangit once I was committed to the idea I was gonna do it, no matter how many players had to double check what I was asking.)  This number would then be rounded down to derive a “Fate Score”, a sort of seventh ability score that could represent Luck or Fate or whatever.  Then a simple roll off to determine order of group.

As it turned out, the order was a decent one.  Everyone only had two “turns” for the entire session, but each turn represented an hour of in-game work.  In the current game, I’ve set things in Eberron and I’m using the Alabaster Cup tournament as presented in the book Complete Warrior.  It’s set in Karrnath, and many of the players joined the tournament while a few others chose not to.  The previous events have included Archery, an Obstacle Course, Wrestling, and Jousting, and the players have been trying to keep the campaign’s villain from winning the tournament since (in my version of the tournament) the winner has historically been able to ask for a “reasonable favor” from the monarch of whatever nation the tournament is held within.

All of those previous events, as you can probably imagine, didn’t really require much of a change to the order; people either did things at the same time (like in the archery tournament), in a turn-based fashion (such as the obstacle course), or they were randomly assigned placement in a bracket (like in wrestling or jousting.)  Hunting is the next stage, though.

One of the real benefits of doing it this way is that I was able to involve the players who weren’t in the tournament, who have been good sports the last few session while the action hasn’t really focused on their characters.  I grouped them together as a sort of security detail to watch the forest, and I’ve had them work as a group to discover an ominous figure who they know to be working with the campaign’s villain, apparently working with rival packs of Winter Wolves and Worgs.  They don’t know the reasons why,  yet, and they opted not to attack the figure in the forest or his wolves, but they were able to advance the story itself rather than wait for the other players to “be done” with their hunting.

Anyway… this in’t a hug revelation, and it could have been handled in a fashion as easy as me saying “Okay guys, we’re gonna go around the table from me, clockwise, to figure out what order you go in” but I liked having an actual reason. for it.  Take care, all!

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Magical Mondays: The Anti-Aleax Assassin Article   Leave a comment

Binwin Bronzebottom tries his hand at being a rogue.

I want to be clear about one thing in this week’s Magical Mondays, one important thing before we get to the fun stuff: this is not an article about punishing power gamers, theoretical optimizers, rules lawyers, or even Munchkins. Individuals within these groups may feel punished if you use what’s in here, but the goal is NOT to punish them; in fact, if the game stops being Fun for them, I recommend that you cease and desist your use of what I’m about to tell you (but do make sure that they’re familiar with the Dwarf Fortress definition of ‘Fun’ before it gets too far.) And, as a final notice, this article will contain many specific references to D&D 3.5, things that may not apply to other games (possibly not even Pathfinder or other d20 OGL games), but I do encourage GMs of all games to read on.

This week’s Magical Mondays is about keeping your players hungry. Games like Dungeons & Dragons have a core aesthetic, and part of that aesthetic (I won’t say it’s the biggest part, but I’m tempted to) is Struggle. Some players may fondly remember waltzing into a dragon’s cave, laughing at the dragon’s pitiful attempts to damage them by breathing fire, and then one-shotting it, but if that’s the normal flow of events then I’d argue that you’re not actually playing Dungeons and Dragons. The game Legend of the Green Dragon understands that even if the fight against the Green One is ultimately an easy one, the struggle to even get to that fight makes it worth it. And let’s be honest: there’s something *fun* about getting to a major boss fight and rolling so well that you make it look easy, wiping the floor with your enemy in a single blow, especially when you didn’t think it was going to be easy to begin with.

I have two GMs who are great at this. One gives me permission to do things in game and then interrupts my character after I’ve had enough time to work on it a little, but not enough time to finish (effectively giving me a little benefit, but not the huge benefit I’d been planning) and another GM who usually says no to most things I ask for but then gives me some alternative that’s more firmly rooted in the magic of his game world. Both of these GMs know what they’re doing and know how to deal with magic on the fly.

Unfortunately, part of character building (not character creation, but building character, like Calvin’s dad always talked about) is the tension. Most people design their characters without building character, often making the characters work in some kind of frictionless void. There are honestly people out there (and you may be one of them) who believe that achieving everything they want in a campaign is “only” as hard as generating an alternate plane of existence with variable time flow so that they can do seven years’ worth of crafting in an hour. (This is based on an interpretation of a certain spell that I’m personally fine with, but their belief that the crafting will go uninterrupted is foolish. Plane hopping invaders are always a story worth exploring, especially after a caster has used a daily allotment of spells for crafting but before the item is finished.)

As a GM, it’s your duty to make this hard on your players. It’s NOT your duty to shatter their belief (however unfounded they may be) about how all of their cheesy shenanigans work… it’s apparently important to their game to create alternate dimensions in their own image while helping the local baron to save his village from ogres (though I might suggest that at this point they’re taking quests that are below their pay-grade.) Having said that, if you ever, EVER get a player who believes that their wizard or sorcerer or psion or artificer is untouchable, then it’s time for them to learn how magic REALLY works in your game. And how does it work?

However you want it to. It’s your game.

(Quick side note: some players play games like D&D or Pathfinder or even Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine with a desire to *be* the best at lots of things and a wish to exercise their mastery over the rule set.  This isn’t a wrong way to play the game, it’s just a way of playing that many GMs can find problematic.  If playing in that way is important to your player, I want to repeat the note from the beginning paragraph of this article.  As those familiar with the Stormwind Fallacy will tell you, a person is capable of both optimizing and role playing.  So, again, don’t mess with players just to mess with them.  This is more about giving yourself the tools to not let power gamers run wild amid your carefully prepared games.  Moving on…)

Let’s take the classic example of a power-gamer’s magical trickery, the one this article is named for: the wizard who creates an Aleax of an Ice Assassin of themselves. For the unfamiliar, this is a trick that many players have copied from people who have an intuitive understanding of the game, much like how there are people out there who think that they’re ‘hackers’ because they’ve downloaded a hacking program that a real hacker wrote. It’s a clever trick, but it relies upon breaking certain rules (repeatedly). The end result of this trick is allegedly a being that looks exactly like you, is invulnerable to being harmed by anything but you, and follows your implicit instructions. Effectively, it’s great for players who want to have Doombots. Let’s look at the different components of this trick before we break down how you mess with it.

Sub Zero

An Ice Assassin is a creature created from ice or snow, generated through a spell of the same name from the Shadow sub-school of Illusion. (Incidentally, I love the mixing of magic here. Most Shadow spells are made from shadow-stuff from the plane of Shadow in D&D, but this is a clear example of alternate forms of magic. Sure, maybe the ice is powered by shadowstuff, but the spell never says it is, so from this we can extrapolate that Shadow magic is ACTUALLY an umbrella term for any form of magic that simulates real things by using shapable, mutable things. Arguably an Elemental could be generated with an Illusion (Shadow) spell.  But enough about that…) Ice Assassins have a furious, all-consuming desire to kill whoever they look like (Note: in this case they look like an Aleax of the caster, looking (through the transitive property) like the caster, but with glowing eyes.) The caster has complete control over them as long as they are within one mile of the Ice Assassin. Any spell cast upon the caster can, at the caster’s option, affect the Ice Assassin. It’s a ninth level spell found in the book Frostburn (one of my favorite books), and is basically a supercharged and ridiculously effective version of the more common Simulacrum spell.

Aleax

An Aleax is a bit more obscure. It’s a construct introduced in the Book of Exalted Deeds (in 3.5, at least, it’s actual introduction came earlier) and it doesn’t exist until a deity says it does. Basically, if a person does something that a deity really doesn’t like (usually by betraying the deity in some way, or doing something particularly heinous in the god’s eyes) then the god creates a sort of angel of vengeance that has all the abilities of the original and looks exactly like the original except for the fact that its eyes glow gold or silver. It also knows where its intended target is and tracks it relentlessly. The target’s friends and allies won’t be of much help here, because the creature is COMPLETELY INVULNERABLE TO HARM except from its target.Put the two concepts together and a caster has a creature that copies the abilities of a creature that is immune to damage except from the caster and follows the caster’s instructions while having the abilities of the caster. Some players like to make armies of these things, and apparently have DMs who allow the players to have 20k gp worth of diamond dust every time they want it (I’m guessing the alternate plane of weird time is nothing but a diamond mine? Sure, there are other ways to do it, but man that alternate plane is a handy resource. Your first ice assassin is probably going to be dedicated to mining, or at least picking up the loose diamonds off the ground if that’s how you made the place.) Now, a player wanting to do this is within their right to play in this direction, but if you’re not going to create story hooks having to do with arcane traditions surrounding this then you’re missing some great options. Here are some methods.

The Wet Blanket: Point out that the Ice Assassin spell only works on a creature that exists, and the magician in question hasn’t yet done anything that’s made a god mad enough to cause an Ice Assassin to come into being, and even if there was an Aleax chasing them they wouldn’t have the portion of its body needed to cast the spell. They can’t make an Ice Assassin of another Aleax, because casting the spell requires a piece of the body of the subject of the spell, and the other Aleax can’t be harmed by them (Note: some would argue that snipping off a piece of hair from another Aleax isn’t “harming” it. I’d argue that point, but feel free to ignore that issue if that’s not how the magic works in your campaign setting. Others might argue that the Eschew Materials feat gets around this problem, but let’s be honest: for the value that you’re getting, Aleax Hair is DEFINITELY worth more than 1 gp.) They can make an Ice Assassin of themselves, but then they’ll have something that’s 1) vulnerable to harm by anyone, and 2) eager to kill them as soon as they leave the one-mile boundary (and will have the spell-power to do it.) Be nice about it, and let them salvage their twenty-thousand gp worth of diamond dust after the ice statue they’ve carved melts when you tell them that casting the spell fails.

The Damp Blanket: Have the casting of the spell fail… but then a later divination reveals that they may have more success a second time. Sure enough it works! But… how? What’s different? Well, naturally, trying to cast the spell created a surge of arcane power that poked a deity somewhere (it almost doesn’t matter which one) and annoyed them. The deity said “Oh, so you want an Aleax, do you? Fine… I’ll give you an Aleax!” A reasonably intelligent caster will probably work out that the success of their spell means that there’s an actual Aleax out hunting them. (How did they cast this spell without the fragment of the Aleax though? If you’re a stickler for the rules the first time but not the second, this doesn’t make sense. The answer is obvious: the deity itself provided the material component as a warning, hiding it somewhere within the ice sculpture. Or, if you were allowing the Eschew Materials feat to work before (Why?! What are you doing?!) then it can also work now.)

The Frozen Blanket: Have the spell work! Have it work flawlessly! Just ignore the fact that they’re creating a copy of something that doesn’t exist despite what the spell says! Ignore the fact that they don’t have a physical piece of the body of the creature that remains! It obviously worked because A Wizard Did It! Or a sorcerer or, like, whatever. Let ’em have a dozen of the things. Then on one day, have the Ice Assassins all creepily gather around the caster, no longer responding to the mental commands. Have one of the Ice Assassins say “The gods originally had no issues with you, mortal. But Zarthros, god of vengeance, saw your dedication to aleaxes and assassinations. Zarthros will now reward you with exactly what you requested.” Then begin the epic fight scene between the caster and twelve identical copies of the caster. If the caster dies, then the same thing happens that would happen if they were killed by an actual Aleax: they get sent to the deity (Zarthros is the name I chose, but you can use whatever deities exist in your campaign) and the deity gives them the choice of either shaping up or facing their punishment, as per the Sudden Death ability of the Aleax. If the character manages to defeat the entire troupe of Ice Assassins? I’d suggest two rewards. First, the typical Aleax reward is a small set of boosts to wisdom, initiative, AC and gaining Spell Resistence. I’d increase the first three of these bonuses by one for defeating the whole group (it’s the same basic driving force of a real Aleax; it’s not more powerful, there’s just more of it) and a bit more Spell Resistence (depends on character level, decide this for yourself.) The second reward? Well, if the player was smart enough to defeat the last Ice Assassin with fire, there’ll be a pool of water remaining. They now have the one thing they’ve needed this entire time: a portion of a body of an Aleax of themselves that, due to the divine energy infusing the Ice Assassin they used to overwrite the magician’s spell, it can get around the rule that the creature must currently exist. The reward for enduring this story arc is exactly what the players need to make three or four Ice Assassins exactly as they wanted before, no ridiculous alternate dimensions required.

I’d employ a merging of all three blankets, personally: it creates a fun story, allows the final creation of Ice Assassins to be within RAW (or at least, closer to RAW than the typical ways of pulling it off), and most importantly it concludes by giving the players a bit of what they wanted. Sure, they don’t have an endless army of ice, but they’ve got more than enough to last for your campaign. Or, at least, enough to last until Zarthros decides to work his whimsical vengeance again. What’s that you say? Once you defeat an Alleax the god is appeased and won’t seek revenge again? Well, maybe… but the player didn’t defeat an Alleax. The player defeated an Ice Assassin.

Now, there are a lot of tricks that power gamers like to pull that gloss over the deliciously complex world of magic in your Campaign Setting, and the Ice-Assassin-Aleax-Of-Myself is just one way to do it. But whenever your players get up to business like that, know that the best solution isn’t to take away their toys; it’s to change their toys when they start using them, and to make a great story along the way.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays. Tune in next time, and happy gaming!

Magical Mondays: Battling Legends   Leave a comment

This is a short entry in Magical Mondays (at least, I think it is, I only just started writing), but that’s because I think there’s not much to say on this topic: I think you need to let your players fight Legends. Now, I don’t mean “powerful” enemies, I mean “legends.” Things that people, in your universe, talk about. Basically, you need to create adversaries that have brand awareness.

Frobozz Electric

Now, when I say “Brand Awareness” and “Legends”, I mean a number of things.  The first thing I mean is that your players need to have a sense of engaging their enemies in a way that gives a sense of the story that you’re in.  Think about a lot of the games you’ve loved and the stories you’ve enjoyed.  In The Lord Of The Rings, do you have a clearer image in your head about the Fellowship fighting orcs, or the Fellowship fighting The Balrog of Morgoth?  If you’ve seen Star Trek, is it easier to remember Kirk fighting Klingons or The Gorn?  These are stories where there’s some context for what the characters are doing.

Now, this doesn’t mean that every encounter needs to have some epic, monstrously difficult enemy.  What it DOES mean is that your characters should know something about what they’re fighting.  One of the benefits to tabletop roleplaying games is that you can go beyond Final Fantasy; enemies can be differentiated by more than the colors of their pixels.

Pixel Monsters

If your players are saying “Ah, this is a Red Kobold, I’m guessing fire won’t be as effective here,” then you’re only doing part of your job.  Congrats on doing that part, though!  It’s an important part.  You’ve made the kobold visually distinctive, and the players are figuring out what it means in terms of the story’s world.  Red Kobolds might be resistant to fire, after all, that’s something that can be said about some red things.

But what do the Red Kobolds call themselves?  What do villagers who’ve only ever seen Red Kobolds call them?  What do the other Kobolds call them?  What if the Kobolds were called “Morgil’s Hounds of Brimstone”?  What if the rogue rolled a Knowledge (Local) check, or a Brains test, or a Street Smarts challenge (or whatever) and said “Oh!  The Hounds of Brimstone? Guys, this is trouble; Morgil’s this kobold alchemist, he gives everyone who joins his gang some sort of potion he made.  It makes kobolds and other lizard-people not just fire resistant, but caustic.  Their blood’ll burn us if we get any on us.”

Armed with this knowledge, the players know a little bit more about the Red Kobolds.  You might’ve wanted to surprise them with the caustic blood of the kobolds, but by sacrificing that surprise you’ve made the Kobolds much more interesting than a palette swap.  (And besides, the rogue didn’t roll high enough to know about the poisonous bite that they have.)  All of a sudden, you’ve gone from fighting A Monster to fighting The Gorn.

Star Trek Gorn

I did this recently, and am planning on doing it again.  (So, if you’re in the game I usually play on Wednesday Nights, don’t read this until we’ve had at least one more session.)  A while back, the players were on a boat, and I wanted to make them fight a crocodile.  But then the players did the unexpected, took a different route, and had gained a level by the time they got back to the boat.  The crocodile, as presented in the monster manual, wasn’t gonna cut it.

But the book gave rules for advancing the crocodiles.  I advanced it, I did, I boosted it all the way that the stats allowed.  Also, before I knew I’d need to advance the crocodile, I implemented the Palette Swap: it’s not just any crocodile, it’s a crocodile with a black hide and covered with scars.  That doesn’t change the stats, of course, but still.

I decided that the guy piloting the boat would know about this crocodile.  This is Boot Black, the scourge of this trade route.  The players fought him, and chased him off, but didn’t defeat him before the crocodile decided the meal wasn’t worth fighting (he had a single hit point left, it was time for the animal to run.)  Now, ultimately, this was just “a crocodile.”  But my players talked about Boot Black for a while after the fact, much longer than most other “dangerous” fights.  Boot Black had personality, and it wasn’t just wearing black leather and having cool scars that did it.  The boat captain gave them all the story they needed for them to realize that they’d had an impact on the world.

A lesser thing I’m planning on doing in the future in that same game involves a trip the tower of a magician named Torul the Chain Lord (I’ve mentioned him before in this blog, I think.)  Torul’s first challenge will be, of course, a chain.  It’s simple enough to take the Animated Object monster from the Monster Manual and make it a chain.  But I’m going further.  The moment that chain attacks, I’ll have a knowledge roll called for.  I’ll say that this is “a Chain of Damalusk, sometimes just called a Living Chain.  Made by dwarfish magicians hired by the humans of the ancient empire of Damalusk, the blending of dwarfen metalwork and human alchemy created chains that lived, and often served as innocuous guards.  Even when commanded to not attack intruders, they act as amazing chains.  They usually attack by trying to wrap around a target and constricting them.”  This isn’t just a living object, this is a collector’s item.

I recommend doing this kind of thing in your games.  It happened to me just last night, actually; my GM attacked us with a Belker, a monster I’d always wanted to face.  But before that, he told us that the shacks we were camping in were in a region that had a history of believing in “bad air”, the vindictive and bitter nature within everyone that makes the world a worse place when they die (which, after the game, he said was based on an actual village of people in, if memory serves, Mexico.  I’d research right now, but I’ve gotta run in twenty minutes.)  I was psyched to fight a Belker… but knowing that this “evil air elemental” had cultural ties in the village we were using as shelter from the desert was awesome.  I loved it.

And so will your players.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays!  Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you next time!

Magical Mondays: Stop Using Wondrous Items!   Leave a comment

Friends, I’m going to say something unpopular in this week’s (month’s?  I took a little vacation) installment of Magical Mondays, something so shocking I had to say it in the title of the article just to warm myself up for this paragraph.  Here it is: we should stop using the Craft Wondrous Item feat in d20 games like D&D and Pathfinder.

Now, hold on there, put down the torches and pitchforks.  Hear me out, and I think you’ll find that I’ve not gone mad.  There’s a time and a place for this feat, but I believe that if you’re of the sort who reads articles like these then you are beyond the need for this feat or, at least, the need for the feat in the way it’s so often used.  Let’s begin by looking at the benefits of the feat.

Incredible Invention of Alexander Woodmouse

Wondrous Items: The Purpose and The Problems

(By the by, if you ever have a chance to read the book I’m using as the image header for this part, you should.  It’s awesome.  Anyway…)

Craft Wondrous Item is, in some ways, the biggest asset to anyone wanting to get into the Magic Item Creation game.  If your idea for an item isn’t covered by a pre-existing item feat, then Craft Wondrous Item lets you make something else.  Seriously, your only limits are the mechanics of the game world and your imagination.  And this is great… for new players.

See, once you’ve been a player or a GM for a while, you start to poke at the edges of craft wondrous item.  Why can’t you just recreate the power of a Ring with a Wondrous Item? Or recreate the power of a Rod?  If I want to make a skull that shoots spells, can I make it with Craft Wondrous Item instead of Craft Wand, and make it only have twenty charges?  You can make things for a lot less money this way, after all.

This feat also provides a benefit… and problem… of theme.  If a player wants to make a magic hat? Craft Wondrous Item is the way to go.  If they also want to make magic cookies in addition to their hat? Sure, Craft Wondrous Item.  What about a player who wants to make stunning magical hats, magical food, magic books, magic inkwells, magic boats, magic tobacco, magic shoes and magic money? …well… okay?  The thing is, though, you’ve now created a character who can create just about any kind of mundane item that they want as long as they make sure it’s a “magic” item.  Usually this isn’t an issue, especially for newer players.  But over time… well… power creep starts to edge in on the corners of your game world’s mind.

The plug-and-play nature of magic item creation is a double-edged sword.  You’re taking the actual magic away from magic items if you do it this way.  What starts as a bright-eyed player asking if they can make a set of shoes that will let them walk up walls turns into a jaded player deciding that it’s no trouble to spend X money on an item that provides a permanent spell effect, just as long as they restrict it to elvish wizards for the cost reduction (and, hey, I happen to be an elvish wizard, look at that…)

Making magic easy is tempting, and sometimes it’s the right choice.  I also don’t think you can create a magic system in a d20 game where someone doesn’t eventually figure out that they “just” need X, Y, and Z to achieve some mechanical benefit.  However, I think that Craft Wondrous Item is at the root of a lot of this, and with just a few tweaks to it and the way you let magic work in your game you should be able to have your cake and eat it to.  Consider these three changes: Boost the other feats, fill the niches, and add long-term prep to wondrous items.  Let’s go over these in more detail.

Black Playing Cards

Boosting the Feats

Your answer to the next question can’t be Craft Wondrous Items.  It’s not allowed.  Ready?  Here we go.

What item creation feat do you use to make a magical deck of cards?

The default answer would be Craft Wondrous, yes, but we’re not allowing that answer.  Cards are obviously not potions, and unless you’re in a really weird game they wouldn’t be armor or weaponry, and there’s really no way to imagine a standard deck of cards as a rod or scepter.

Thematically, Scribe Scroll might work because it’s basically tiny pieces of paper with writing on them, but then we get to a problem with mechanics: Scribe Scroll, according to the feat, lets you create a magic item that is activated through the act of casting a spell, and the spell effect comes as if it’s being cast.  Mechanically, then, Scribe Scroll  is only the way to go if these playing cards are mechanically no different than standard scrolls, but the feat’s all wrong if the cards have any other effect.

My answer (no surprise) is to use Scribe Scroll, but an expanded version of it.  Mechanically, Scribe Scroll isn’t the way to go, no… but thematically?  Thematically it’s perfect.  My recommendation is to do this for all the specific items: give the mechanically focused ones thematic application, and give the thematically focused ones mechanical application.

The first of these two is easy.  Take a feat like Scribe Scroll or Brew Potion, and make THEM the feats you need for magical writing and magical liquid making IN ADDITION to being the feats for making one-use spell completion items and one-use use activated items.  Scribe Scroll can create crumbling parchments that contain mostly-cast Fireball spells, AND it can create Blessed Books, Manuals of Gainful Exercise, and enchanted playing cards.  Brew Potion can create pre-cast spells in liquid form AND it can create Elixirs of Love, Keoghotam’s Ointments, and magical tiles that release spells when you break them (shout out to you, readers of Unearthed Arcana.)

The second of these two is harder.  How do you take thematically focused feats and give them mechanical application?  This one’s more of an art than a science, but you can do it.  Take feats like Forge Ring or Craft Rod.  A Rod and a Ring are both very powerful items, but they don’t actually have any mechanics listed in their feat descriptions, apart from a vague suggestion that they can be used to make items “like” the ones in the DMG and CRB.  Generally, though, I see rings as providing permanent effects while worn and rods (or scepters as I call them) either as items that create permanent effects while held aloft or repeatable effects that could play a part in some magical ritual or bit of arcane craftsmanship.  This isn’t quite a mechanical rule, but it’s given us something to use as a guideline.  So, if a player asks me if they want an amulet that can give them a permanent Vigor effect, I require it to be a ring instead.  If a player asks me for a wondrous item that they can hold up to give everyone in a certain radius a Hide From Undead effect, I require it to be a rod instead.

Incidentally, a player did ask for the Vigor effect, as an in-game justification for the character’s story-based immortality (I didn’t know about the Wedded To History feat at the time, but I did offer a homebrew feat for it, something he didn’t care for.)  The player wasn’t sure why I was trying to make the magical amulet be a ring, and it took some persuading on my part.  Know that when you make this kind of change to mechanics to boost the other feats, you can also weaken Craft Wondrous Item.  I’m personally fine doing that, but know that your players should have some warning before they make that kind of character creation investment.

Winnie The Pooh In The Door

Fill The Niches

This one is easy, but can have long-reaching consequences.  Basically, you take a cue from Forge Ring and Craft Rod to find some other feat.  I recommend making these custom things based on the needs of the player, though.  For instance, a player who wants their character to be a magical chef could have a feat called Prepare Magical Food, and a bardic player who wants to get some extra mileage out of the effects that their music produces could have a feat called Enchanted Luthier (or “Craft Magical Instrument” if you want to be boring (and, technically, a luthier only makes or repairs stringed instruments…))

A danger with this approach, though, is that you can wind up making too many options.  Try to tie it to a particular flavor or family of magic before making a feat like this so that you’re not overdoing it.  Weave Wondrous Apparel would be a good name for a feat related to making magical clothing, but I’d want to tie it to some culture known for making amazing clothing.

Also, try to make categories that will have broad approaches.  Don’t limit a feat by saying it only makes magical shoes or magical hats when magical clothing will do.  Similarly, making boats and making wagons are very different practices, but a single “Craft Magical Vehicles” feat is probably sufficient.  Don’t make your players jump through too many hoops.  If your craft-loving player is taking more than two crafting feats of your own invention and they’re *not* an artificer or alchemist, you should probably revisit how their feats work and give them a shot to remake their character with altered feats.

Gnome Engineer

Adding Long-Term Prep

This is the option that will let you do the most toward keeping the rules that you already have, but I recommend using it as a supplement to the first two options instead of as opposed to the first two.  Otherwise, there’s almost no point (and it comes very close to what Pathfinder’s item creation rules already suggest.)  Basically, this option says that you still use Craft Wondrous Item… but you need to perform mundane skills to make it work.

Think of the typical fantasy-world engineer or clockmaker.  Imagine those steampunk goggles, the gaslight-era vest that’s designed to hold dozens of tools, the custom-designed obligatory wrench… those things all have purpose.  If they don’t, it means that your character is just cosplaying as him, her, or itself.  If your character isn’t using tools or specialized knowledge in conjunction with Craft Wondrous Item, then the feat really isn’t any more than the plug-and-play magic that we’re trying to pare away.

If your player wants to use Craft Wondrous Item to make a magical pocket watch, make sure they have ranks in Knowledge (Architecture & Engineering).  If your player wants to create a magical wine?  Ranks in Profession (Vintner) are called for.  Demand more than just ranks in the skill, though: make them roll the checks.

Don’t be a jerk about it, of course.  It may be an act of mundane crafting, but if it’s reasonable to make something in a day (A pocket watch for a highly skilled character, a bucket for a relatively unskilled character) then allow it to happen in a day.  Set it up like a standard week of mundane crafting, but with a mundane cost reachable in  day by a decent check (100 sp isn’t too bad for simple things, but up the cost if it’s something like gem cutting.)  Even if the skill required is a Profession or Knowledge check, treat it as if it’s a Crafting skill for the purposes of this exercise.  If it’s something that realistically needs to take some time (Magical Wine, for instance) give it the time.  If your player wants to know why you’re requiring a full month of time before the magical wine is ready, remind them that mundane wines can take literal *years* to get just right (again, though, most of that time is hands-off.  They won’t have to be busy for eight hours a day every day that month.  Maybe two or three full day’s labor in the month, periodically taking a few five-minute checks on it.)

And please, whatever you do, unless the item in question is an item of pure magical energy, don’t just use “Spellcraft” for the skill.  That’s a cop-out and you know it.  I’m lookin’ at you, Pathfinder.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  It might not be easy to alter your rules for this kind of thing quickly.  Take your time, and as always do what’s best for your personal campaign world.  See you next time!

Magical Mondays: Spell Utility, Plot, and You! Part 2…   Leave a comment

For part one of this sub-series within Magical Mondays, click here.  I’d recommend reading it first, but… honestly, you can probably read either one first, I think.  Just know that this article, and the previous one, are both heavily d20/D&D 3.5/Pathfinder focused.  Now, on to the article!

Pushing Daisies Ned

On last week’s Magical Mondays, I waded through some story-focused ideas, flights of fancy that, while they might sound interesting at a glance, are actually comprised of the things that most GMs won’t touch.  How do you balance plot-based magic?  If you make a scene where love conquers all or the power of imagination is sufficient or all you need is teamwork, is that cheatingly overpowered or is it just a lame way to write yourself out of a corner?  Maybe, maybe.  That’s why, friends, I intend to bring the oft-ignored power of Rules to the table.  Not because I think you need them, but I DO think that you, like me, might need some encouragement to break out of the rules.  Consider these rules to be training wheels.  And you’re right to be worried: story-fueled magic is a powerful thing.  Consider the following:

I use the image of Ned from Pushing Daisies above because he’s a great example of the sorts of things you can do when you give a random spell to a person.  Ned, in game terms, would be a Commoner (possibly Expert) who has the unusual supernatural ability to bring dead things back to life.  If he touches them again, they die forever, and are beyond his ability to revive.  If he doesn’t touch them within one minute, then something of roughly comparable “life value” dies (the series is intentionally vague on just what is worth what else.)  Ned uses this ability to make some of the freshest pies you’ve ever tasted, but then he’s discovered by a private detective who wants Ned, the humble pie maker, to use this ability to bring the dead back to life so that they can ask the deceased who their murderer was and collect reward money for solving the crimes.  Why is this not already back on TV?  Why?  Guys, we brought back Futurama, we brought back Community, can’t we… can’t we just… guys, if we could…

Okay.  In time.  In time.  Different topic for a different article.  Where was I?  Right, gaming.

Does Ned’s ability significantly increase his challenge rating?  Perhaps.  I think it’s more accurate to say that a challenge’s challenge rating increases if Ned assists it, but even that’s a stretch most of the time.  Are three kobold warriors that much harder to beat if Ned is around to revive them? Maybe.  But what if Ned was tricked into touching the body of an Ancient Wyrm living beneath a city? And then prevented from touching the dragon again?  Suddenly the party not only has an ancient wyrm to contend with, but also a Pie Maker to save, and a ten round time limit before something within a wide area is chosen as equal payment for the returned life of the dragon.  Let’s not go into specifics, but some of the city’s population WILL be affected by that.  Suddenly the Challenge is much harder than just a dragon, because now there’s a time limit and the fate of any number of people in the balance.  Does that change the CR of the dragon? No.  You can’t tell me that it’s not harder, though.  (Though if you’re pointing out the fact that most D&D fights last well below ten rounds, you’re correct.  Still, a ticking time bomb for the players to deal with is an ominous threat, especially if the dragon’s above their normal pay grade.)

Suddenly, Ned’s potentially game-breaking ability has broken the game… for YOU.  Even better, it’s done it in a way that you’ve predicted, planned out, and done without penalizing the players (apart from the fact that you’ve just put a big dragon in front of them.)

This is the DM side of things, though.  Last week I said I’d handle some calculations that you can make for basic challenges for magically-inclined characters to encounter.  Let’s see how this works.  And if you don’t mind, I’m gonna reuse the Let’s Make Some Magic image from last week since it just fits.

magic

There we go.

Now, the hard part is in the preparation, but since it’s behind the scenes it’s okay to fudge the numbers a bit.  You’re going to need to create a quick and dirty homebrew spell for your players to encounter.  Let’s say that your players are looking for a camp sight and they find a weird stone with arcane runes and holes carved into them.  Something that looks like it was ripped off from a game of Fable.  Something like this.

Fable Witchwood Stones

It’s a perfect campsite, but the stones are creepy.  Like… seriously creepy.  A detect magic spell reveals no magic, however.  A cleric, wizard, bard or other such character may make a knowledge check or spellcraft check, and recognize them as a certain item called a… Sounding Stone.  (I’m just the best with names, aren’t I?  Fortunately, this is the rough draft, and I can decide to call them Stones of Audiman or Pillars of Formimir later.)  The knowledge check reveals that these are largely ceremonial objects put up as pieces of decoration in ancient times, but that they were also occasionally used as the focus of spells of protection to frighten away adversaries.  The players are interested in taking advantage of this feature, and all the magical players roll Spellcraft checks to see what they can figure out.  The Cleric and Bard roll a 17 and a 22, both high enough for our purposes, and they determine that they can use the stones to create a sort of fusion effect: if a creature not of the party tries to enter their campsite, the stones will vibrate and make a dull, ghostly whistling noise by propelling wind through the holes.  It’s both creating an alarm that can awaken the other party members, and it’s creating a terrifying noise that can leave enemies shaken.

The Cleric believes this would be a good thing, but the Cleric is emo and prepares his spells at midnight every night (seriously, what’s up with that guy?  I’m fine with him always taking the late night shift, but seriously.)  All of his spell slots are currently filled, and he believes that he would need to prepare this magical effect as a second level spell.

The bard, however, doesn’t want this amazing protection to wait until the middle of the night.  Fortunately, the bard is a spontaneous caster, and doesn’t need to prepare spells.  Also, the bard’s knowledge of music, air currents and campfire ghost stories are synergistic; the bard believes that the spell can be prepared as a first level spell.

The bard then simply performs his magic, leaving the artistic impression of a ghostly alarm lingering in the air over their campfire, and loses the arcane ability to cast one more first level spell that day.  Having demonstrably earned his keep, the bard rakishly hops down by a rock and begins strumming his lute to relax, leaving the food preparation and other nightly chores to everyone else for the evening.

Minstrel of Gondor

Now, I cheated a bit with the above example: I used some pre-existing spells as the basis for what I was doing.  The stones, used in this fashion, were basically creating an Alarm effect, but one that not only woke up the party members in the event of danger but also created a Fear effect (similar to the Cause Fear spell, but able to affect creatures of any hit dice close enough to hear the tone made by the resonant stones.)  Due to the set piece involved, I’m treating these combined effects as if they were merely second level spells (in fact, my reason for using pre-existing spells instead of all new magical effects was to make the level comparisons clear.)  Arguably, the Fear effect should be much stronger… but it’s limited and, unlike Cause Fear, it merely makes its targets shakened instead of scared (when you’re just shaken, you aren’t compelled to run due to how scared you are.)  Due to the weakened effect, I’m prepared to treat it as first level, maybe second tops (especially since it might not last longer than one round on a 1d4.)

I put the spells together and decided that the combined effects were definitely in the neighborhood of either a powerful second level spell or a weaker third level spell.  I went with second level.  The DC of the Spellcraft check for figuring out how to use the stone in this way is a DC 15 + Effective Spell Level, so in this case it would have taken a roll of 17 or higher to get it.

Note that the bard was able to cast this as a first level spell.  That’s more due to the bardic affinity for that kind of music-based magic and was decided on a whim (though sometimes Bards do get spells earlier than expected in odd ways like that.)  I recommend finding synergies between a player character and things like this.  If you’re trying to find the cheapest wine and the caster is a vintner, give them a +2 to the check.  If the effect is a school of magic that corresponds to a specialty wizard ability? Another +2, or even higher if they have the Spell Focus feat.  (Maybe as high as +5 for specialist wizards with Greater Spell Focus.)

The basic formula of 15 + Spell Level isn’t perfect, but it’s good for most situations.  Definitely tinker with this kind of thing before unleashing your magic ideas into the world.  One more quick example scenario before we wrap up.

Merlin's Sugar Bowl

Your players discover a magical library, filled with labyrinthine tunnels and ancient books.  They came seeking a particular tome, but the library doesn’t seem to have much in the way of organization, and looking through every title for a book could take most of the day, time they don’t have to waste.

The party begins to notice tiny pewter statues, about half the size of gnomes and with metallic wings, most frozen in motion as they are lifting books into place on various shelves or carrying some books down the hall, as if they simply stopped moving one day.  Information on a sign found in a “history of the library” shelf (located after 1d4+1 hours of looking for the tome), a Knowledge (Arcana) check of 24, or a Bardic Knowledge check of 15 (using the D&D rules for Bardic Knowledge instead of the Pathfinder rules) reveals that these little statues are known as Lorelings, tiny creatures that acted as servants of the librarians and assisted in organizing and restocking.

Now, the Detect Magic spell would have revealed nothing magical about these statues, but whether or not players found the knowledge about them  they can, with a successful Spellcraft check, discover the fact that these creatures were not only magically made, but magically powered.  It might be possible to reactivate one with a spell of the appropriate level.

Now, what level of spell do we put here?  Typically, animating statues is the purview of people with the Craft Construct feat.  That doesn’t help us here, but it *does* point us in the direction of one of the more iconic forms of constructed servant creatures: the homunculus.  The classical creature of this sort is a kind of… grown or built, miniature person meant for performing tasks (though the standard D&D version is a bit more of an all-purpose monster servant made with more specific tasks in mind, unless you start including the alternate versions found here and there, such as in the Eberron campaign setting.)  The stats for creating a creature of this sort list a few non-feat requirements for making one: the ability to cast Mending, of casting Mirror Image, and of casting Arcane Eye, and the caster must be at least fourth level (curiously, Arcane Eye isn’t available to casters until level five, but let’s assume the “creator” might be getting help of some sort.)  So, we have a fourth level spell, a second level spell, and a zeroth level spell, an a minimum caster level of four to work with.

Let’s consider a few factors here: creating a servant creature is one of those “standard” fantasy wizard tropes, and I usually place those at around third level magic, even if it’s a more advanced one that might hedge it in the direction of fourth level magic.  I’d also consider the fact that this is not a true creation of a homunculus: this is just recharging the battery of a creature that shares some similarities with it, probably one that won’t be helping the party outside of this one mission.  I can afford to low-ball this, so I’ll call it a second level magical effect.

At this point, a sorcerer, wizard, or cleric could figure out how to make a utility spell with a spellcraft DC of 17 (15 + 2nd level).  A cleric would then be able to prepare one of his or her spells as this particular spell, usable in this particular location on this particular day when it next came time for the cleric to prepare spells.  A wizard would have to either rest eight hours, or use an empty spell slot if the wizard had the foresight to leave an empty slot.  The sorcerer, though, being a spontaneous arcane caster, could cast this as soon as he or she knew how, infusing the Loreling with internal arcane energy.

(Sidenote: I limited this to sorcerers, wizards and clerics for odd reasons.  Sorcerers and Wizards are arcane casters (and arguably have an understanding of the different varieties of magic at work in the world) and have a more academic understanding of the flow of magic than, say, a bard or warlock does, and a warlock’s powers may not come from a proper place for this sort of thing.  Clerics, meanwhile, have divine figures to help them out, and the classical story of the golem involved a holy leader performing a ritual that imitated the creation of humans, so it fits thematically.  Use your own best judgement for which other classes might work: this is so close to what an Artificer does automatically, for instance, that I’d not only allow it but I’d give the artificer a +2 boost on the spellcraft check, changing it to +5 when the artificer has the Craft Homunculus class feature.)

Anyway, once the spellcaster has not only identified their ability to perform this task, but also does it, the Loreling will activate, and will be more than happy to help the players locate whatever book they wish.  Were I to run it, I’d have the Loreling stop at some statue passed in the halls… any statue, really, it doesn’t matter what it’s a statue of… and then have the Loreling fall onto its knees to weep openly for a few moments before continuing on with helping the players.  I’m a little strange, though, so that approach may not work for you.

Anyway, I hope this examination of Spell Utility and Plot has been helpful for you.  I’ll see you next time on Magical Mondays!

Magical Mondays: Spell Utility, Plot, And You! Part 1…   3 comments

Yen Sid

In a previous Magical Mondays article I wrote about something called Story Specific Spells.  Basically, I was talking about the ability to use the ability to use spells, rather than the ability to use spells, and how you could use the ability to use the ability to use spells to do things other than spells.  This might make more sense if you read the previous article, but I can’t make that kind of promise.  In D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder terms, it basically comes down to using spell slots to create magical effects that you don’t have a spell for.  (Fair warning: this article’s going to mostly involve Vancian magic of the sort that can be found in Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and other OGL style games.)  Anyway, a friend of mine suggested that I do a bit more to describe the sorts of things I have in mind for Story Specific Spells, and possibly add some rules.  A bit of crunch to go with the fluff, to make a delicious S’more of gaming.  I’m hungry while I write this, by the way.

Here’s the issue with Vancian spells: the best thing about any given Vancian spell is also the worst thing about any Vancian spell, because it’s the ONLY thing about that particular spell.  The spell is playable as written, and only subject to change through GM fiat or unabashed player cheating (or, if we’re being honest, simple accidents on the part of players.)  I’m hard on Vancian magic on this blog, but I want to start off by saying that Vancian magic isn’t *bad*.  It just is what it is.  And for the most part, it’s good.  It sets up a framework that we can all use, and the first time a player opens up their Player’s Handbook to see just what they can learn at level 1, the options seem too numerous to count.  Vancian magic, through it’s sheer volume of spell entries, creates the illusion of a world filled with magic that’s more important than actually having entire books filled with nothing but arcane lore, eldritch secrets, alchemical mysteries, and (of course) spells.  If you’re still a new player, or a new GM, don’t be too hasty when abandoning Vancian magic (and I’d advise you to not abandon it entirely, unless you’ve got a good idea about what you’ll be doing.  GMs who get rid of too much Vancian stuff in favor of their own mysterious magic can sometimes get too railroady in their approaches.)  Anyway, to start off with what constitutes a decent story specific spell, I’d like to pull from one of those rare times where an MMO did a better job at pulling off this concept than your standard tabletop games.  Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Professor Flummox (and friends)!

Professor Flummox was a character of mine in the game City of Heroes.  He was a gaslight fantasy-themed character (which is like Steampunk, but with more of a focus on the magic and intrigue of a world than the technology of it), and a renegade from the world known in-game as Praetorian Earth (what started out as your basic “Flipped Morality” world, though with some unusual twists and turns in it.)  He was a Mastermind, meaning that a lot of his powers focused on calling/improving minions to do his work for him, and he had a weather machine.  Oh, and the origin of all his powers was Magic.  City of Heroes had a lot of powers that might suggest one origin more than another (The “beam weapon” powerset seemed more or less rooted in Technology), but they allowed… encouraged, even… players to justify their characters and origins through in-game story.  I roleplayed it as a sort of madness… his elementally infused golems were, as he believed, true miracles of technology, and his weather magic was the result of his hard work with the “weather machine” allegedly.

Usually a character’s origin wouldn’t come up in the game, but it had some unexpected repercussions.  The Origin Of Power missions (largely an information-gathering quest to educate you as a player) would have different dialogue from a contact with an understanding of your origin, for instance.  However, a truly odd one came up early in Flummox’s career while he was still running about Praetoria.  In a mission called “Stop the Bomb Plot” you get the chance to stop a bomb from detonating.  Characters with the Natural, Mutant or Science origins would have to fumble their way through some decision trees, but the game offered some alternate choices for Technology and Magic characters.  Magic characters were able to cast a spell that allowed them to speak to lightning elementals, giving you the chance to talk to the tiny spark of electricity living inside the bomb.  You ask the spark to leave, it does, and the bomb is no longer in danger of stopping.

I’ll be honest: if I’m playing a magic character in Pathfinder or D&D I’m probably not going to take a spell called “Speak with Lightning Elementals” unless it’s a character with a certain theme.  That wasn’t an issue here, though; the game assumed I had some sort of familiarity with magic that would allow me to communicate to this particular bomb.  Did it make sense?

Honestly? I was playing a mad magician who thought he was a scientist, and one of his “inventions” was a weather machine.  It seemed odd to me at first, but it was one of the most easily justifiable bits of story that ever came my character’s way.  I might’ve lucked out, though.  But even if I hadn’t, that was still a memorable moment, one that I remember more clearly than much of the rest of that story line.  Now, the end result of the mission was the same, but that’s exactly why this kind of thing matters: it’s worth assuming that your players will, if presented with a dungeon or challenge of some sort, eventually solve it anyway.  So why not spice it up a bit?  Let’s cover some basics.

magic

  1. Make Spell Levels On The Level: That’s a horrible name for a title, but it’s already really late.  I’ll talk more about this rule next week, but for now know that what I mean is that your task should be generally as powerful as a spell in some way.  I recommend keeping the power of these abilities, even with their limitations, at or below third level, at least at first.  How do you know if a spell is third level?  Generally, level 3 spells in games like D&D or Pathfinder are the spells that you think about as the “standards” in fantasy literature.  The wizard’s fireball, the ability to fly, throwing lightning bolts around, putting a large group of mundane creatures to sleep, cancelling other magical effects, summoning little huts for people to spend time in, that kind of thing.  Much more powerful than that sort of thing and it’s no longer third level.  It’s still possible to have situational spells at levels higher than third, of course, but it starts to bend realism.  The other reason is that you want your characters to feel like they’re investing something for the spell, but not necessarily that they’re surrendering everything.  A 0th, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level spell might be very significant (depending on the level).  Remember, a caster has to be able to cast the spell after they’ve made the Spellcraft check, so while a Sorcerer could just give up a 3rd level spell slot and cast it immediately, after a Wizard figures out how the spell works they’ll probably have to wait eight hours to prepare a spell again later (unless they had the foresight to leave a blank spot in their spell lists.)
  2. Start With Situational Spells: This alliterative suggestion is good for warming up to this kind of practice, and also for those GMs who fear game imbalances.  Situational Spells are what I talked about in the previous article on this topic, and they remain the gist of what this concept is used for, but the potential exists for these things to become generic.  It’s worth noting that if what you’re developing is useful enough for a caster to expend time or resources to commit to their spell list then its probably not a situational spell and is, in fact, just an actual spell.  Treat it as such.  The difference can be bluntly summed up as a spell that “Finds all the electrum in this room today” and a spell that “Detects electrum.”  The first is basically usable once, and the second is usable whenever a player wants to find some electrum.  Now, it’s admittedly a rare enough situation that it won’t be a very strong spell… probably no more than a cantrip, really… but it’s still a definite Spell.  Now, what if we go with the middle ground?  A spell that “Finds all the electrum in this room?”  Useful on another day, but limited to a location?  That really depends on the campaign world you’ve set up and how important electrum is.  I’d call it a spell in my game settings, but feel free to make it work however you want.
  3. Avoid Numeric Bonuses: The last thing you want is a numeric bonus that can stack with something else.  If the spell is truly situational (see above) then it’s probably not going to be a problem in the long run even if it is, but the problem here is more than mechanical.  Basically, you’ve crafted a really interesting story hook here… and said “Awesome!  Make the check as normal, but now that you’ve cast the spell you can perform it with a +11 bonus!”  Another problem would be tying the result to a die roll.  “Great, perform your roll but with a 1d12+6 bonus.”  It’s tempting, it really is, numeric bonuses are so handy so often, but don’t give in.  You’re better than that.  Believe in yourself.  Instead, come up with the effect.  It can be as simple as “The door opens”, or as complicated as “Your soul is now marked as a Liar.  Divinations will doubt you, few will trust you, and your standing in the eyes of many will be reduced.  Fortunately, this wipes your slate clean, and the horrible familial curse that you were fated to no longer applies.”
  4. Don’t Break The Economy: This is a hard one.  Somewhere between what magic can do in spell form and what you’re letting your players do with “general magicness” is a tricky place where magic becomes so commonplace that it no longer makes sense for your world to look the way it does.  Don’t make situational magic so easy to get that a player can just start spellcrafting their way through any mundane task.  In general, if the task at hand is somehow mundane, try to make the task of working out the specific magic significantly lengthier than the task could be performed by two or three people with the proper relevant mundane skills and the right equipment.  Magic is a force multiplier by virtue of its rarity, and there’s all sorts of reasons for it to simply not work sometimes.  A magician may need the stars to be in alignment, or to be at the right leylines, or have access to the right sorts of gear.

I think that if you’re brave and a little crazy, you’ve probably got enough to start already.  But!  I know that’s not the way our minds work as gamers, especially not in the numbers-heavy d20 systems like Pathfinder and D&D.  Next week I’m going to present some quick and dirty rules you can follow to make your own Situational Spells for your game sessions, complete with DCs, rules for the players to follow, and a few examples.

So, with the rare occurrence of you knowing what the next week will bring, I’ll see you next week for another Magical Monday!

Magical Mondays: FIRE!   Leave a comment

Chandra Nalaar

(Warning: contains a mild Wheel Of Time spoiler.  Really mild.  But still… spoiler warning.)

So.  Fire.

That old standby of fantasy stories, and possibly the winner of the medal for humanity’s most troublesome ancient tool (we don’t have problems from Inclined Planes anymore, after all), it pops up a lot where tales of magic are involved.  Possibly aided by the fact that it flows about, tends to emit bright light, can be multiple colors, and basically eats whatever it’s touching as a way of making more of itself, it’s hard to not see the appeal (and often not wise to ignore).  Why then does fire bore me when it comes to fantasy gaming?

It really shouldn’t.  I mean, it’s Fire.  Fire!  It’s a standard, right? And yet somehow it never quite seems to catch on.  Friends, if you want to bring the heat for fire in your gaming worlds, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone.  I’m going to say a few things that I hope will kindle some inspiration for you, and I’m going to get into it quickly before I try to force any more lame fire puns.  Mr. Worf?  Fire.

Mister Worf Fire

The first thing you need to understand about fire in a fantasy setting is that it’s not just fire.  I don’t care whether your fantasy is a standard D&D style fantasy romp, a space opera where ancient tech galleons duel over limited resources, or a casual modern-day game.  When you bring fire to a role playing game, you’re effectively introducing something that either needs to act as a “mindless character” or as a force of nature.  You wouldn’t be mentioning fire as a detail if it wasn’t important to the game, and so it’s important to remember that it’s not just fire.

This means that you should know in advance what it is you’re trying to pull off.  Is the fire a hazard to be avoided? A resource to be used?  A tool?  A storm of energy that’s going to destroy everything and there’s no way to stop it?  (What kind of game are you playing?)  Whatever your fire, plan ahead.  Then begin extrapolating to figure out where its other story niches are.

One of the benefits in my fantasy gaming setting, Cantadel, is that I come into this with the idea that different sorts of magic can lead to the same basic spell.  Six wizards casting Burning Hands might all do very different things to get their result.  As such, it’s easier for me to work with the assumption that there are different sorts of magical fire at work.  I recommend thinking along these lines while you generate your own firestorm, as the magical nature of fire is what’ll set it apart from the more mundane fires that the players are likely to avoid, ignore, or worse, pass by without noticing.

TF2 Pyro

When discussing magical fires, there are two basic distinctions that you can make: origin and effect.  Origin is the easy one, but I’ll start with effect.  We all know that fire burns.  That’s a given.  The obvious fantasy counterpoint is fire that freezes, something that’s more rare than it should be in my opinion.  Other fires are described as being so damaging that their burn exceeds the usually understood definitions of burning.  Wheel Of Time readers will be familiar with Balefire, a fire so horrendous and dangerous that it can actually WIPE ITS TARGET FROM EXISTENCE GOING BACK IN TIME.  Let that sink in for a moment; the fire is essentially burning backward through time, wiping out the effects that the individual has had.  If your fire target killed someone recently, and the burn goes back far enough, then suddenly that person’s not killed anymore because the Balefire target wasn’t around to do the killing.  THE FIRE BURNS SO HOT THAT IT NOT ONLY DESTROYS YOUR ENEMIES BUT CAN RESURRECT THE ENEMIES OF YOUR ENEMIES THROUGH SHEER CHRONOLOGICAL SPITE.  This is the kind of effect that’s amazing to think about, and that can cause serious damage in most fantasy settings if left unchecked (though for the curious, there IS a Wheel of Time d20 game that contains rules for Balefire.)

A more tame version of this sort of thing can be seen in games that halve fire damage for one reason or another.  D&D will sometimes declare that half of a spell’s damage isn’t actually “fire” damage at all, but holy damage (or something else) so that creatures normally immune or resistant to fire will still take some damage from a secondary effect.  This secondary effect might not be in the damage, though, it might also be from a literal secondary thing that happens.  What would the result be if fire poisoned you?  Would a goblinoid chemical cause a fire that not only burns, but potentially sickens the person being burned?  (In fact, I just had a spell idea…)  Going a bit creepier than goblins, what would a fire-themed fairy be able to develop?  Can fire burn away elements of your personality or memories?  (“The fire hits you.  Take… 12 fire damage, 3 Charisma damage and 1 Wisdom drain.”)  If you want fire to freak out your players, then please (Carefully) consider incorporating magical fires with secondary effects.

Doctor Phosphorus

Now that you’ve got different effects in mind… where does the fire come from?  This might be less important mechanically, but it’s the kind of flavor that matters.  Dragon fire is not the same as phoenix fire, and that’s certainly not what the Ancient Greeks used in naval combat.  Different fires can have different effects tied to their origin.  For instance: An elder dragon’s fire might be strong enough to melt a metal object that others had thought to be indestructible.  A phoenix’s flame might have restorative properties, easily soothing minor wounds and damage.  A wizard might have developed a certain fire to always lash out and attack anyone who attacks him, using a rare sort of Flame Viper that he discovered.  Primordial fire of the elementals might be more destructive than any of those.  Empyrean fire from the creation of the universe might be malleable and static enough to be turned into buildings.  Think of where the fire comes from, and that can give you a hint as to its other abilities.

Now, the nasty part comes when you start messing with the rules, so don’t do this without your players who use fire magic being aware of the changes.  Case in point: I have a pyromancer prestige class in my campaign setting, and one of the prerequisites is that the caster must have at least two different versions of the same fire spell (so, Burning Hands using both dwarven forge fire and the flame drawn from a distant star’s light, why not?)  The class lets a pyromancer be aware of the different sorts of fire at work in the world.  They also know weird tricks:  if you cast a spell to make yourself immune to fire damage, can that fire immunity be overcome by finding the sort of fire the least similar to that used in casting the spell? The class feature says that it can, but it’d also infuriate some players if their fire damage immunity was seemingly ignored due to behind-the-scenes rule shifting.

Ultimately, fire magic is tricky.  You’re literally playing with it when you go beyond what your game of choice will offer you in the rule books.  Play safe, and try not to get burned.  See you next time!