Monday, March 6, 2017

Ki, Qi, and the Force     

I should start this post by stating that I am not of Asian descent.  And my formal studies about Asia are limited to the realm of philosophy.  So while I could talk about Buddhism and Confucianism without mixing the two up, that's about the extent of my expertise.  What should I do if I want to create a campaign setting that is a fantasy version of Asia?  Well, if I am a game designer, and I'm writing material for publication, I need expertise that I don't have.  Ideally, I should hire someone to help me out!  At the very least, I should pay someone as a consultant to look over my material before I publish it.

But suppose I'm thinking about this from a gamemaster perspective, not a game designer perspective.  As a gamemaster, I don't have a budget for creating my game.  And I may not know anyone with expertise in Asian history.  Here are four ways I could approach creating a Setting Component that might incorporate Ki Energy abilities.

Inspiration Without Context

In my setting, I want to have fighters who have mystical abilities based on some sort of life energy force.  My warriors will be ascetic in nature: they will meditate, they will dispense mysterious wisdom, and they will generally be above "worldly" desires.  They will have strange powers that derive from their connection and understanding of this energy.  And they will also be super-cool martial arts style fighters.  What I will end up with is something like Star Wars.

Star Wars was clearly influenced by the same concepts that the D&D monk was.  The difference is that Star Wars has removed almost all trace of Asian culture from those concepts.  I'd be using the same tropes, the wizened master, the ronin, etc., but I'd be using them through a Western lens.  To me, this is the least compelling of the approaches to creating Setting Components.  At its best, it is bland.  At its worst, it is white-washing.  In Star Wars, for example, having a character with the name Qui-Gon Jinn who is portrayed as a white dude is not just lazy, it's appropriative.  Creating a setting by picking the bits of Asian culture we like, while ignoring the context is much the same thing.  (This is not, btw, to say that I don't like Star Wars.  I actually like it a lot!  But I am aware of the problematic bits.)

Game Design by TV Tropes

TV Tropes has a handy page on ki manipulation that covers all the bases as far as how that trope is used in popular Western culture.  If you make a Setting Component based off of the information here, pretty much everyone will recognize instantly what you are going for.  This is largely the approach that Pathfinder has taken with respect to its game world design.  In its attempt to make a game world that is approachable by a mainstream, Western audience, it makes liberal use of tropes and stereotypes.  It is very clearly, and painfully, written for white people.  And if you use TV Tropes to write your game world, that is the result you will get.

In some ways, this approach is actually worse than the one above.  Because while the above method attempts to erase the culture that it is borrowing from, using tropes will have the result of leaning in to negative stereotypes.  It's also all been done before.  Your generic fantasy Asia will essentially be every other generic fantasy Asia.  So while this approach is probably the easiest one to implement, I would have to recommend against it.  Again, I play a lot of settings that use this approach (Golarion, the Forgotten Realms, etc.).  I can enjoy those settings, but at the same time realize that they are problematic, and try to improve on them in my own games.

Borrowing Wholesale

Suppose I have come to the conclusion that I need some expertise.  I decide that I will find someone else's fantasy Asia, and use that to build my campaign world.  To be sure that I have good source material, and not something that just duplicates the approaches above, I'll look for an Asian writer or creator.  This approach can have mixed success.

To give an example, let's use the most well-known source of Ki energy in popular culture:  Dragon Ball.  TV Tropes refers to it as a "trope codifier."  It contains all you need to create a template of Ki energy in all its forms.  It is popular enough to be recognized by your audience, but specific enough to have more flavor than a "vanilla" setting.  It's created by folks in Japan, based on manga by Akira Toriyama, one of the most well respected manga artists around.  So your fantasy Asia should be pretty authentic and respectful, yeah?  Well, sadly no.

Asia is not a single culture and there is a huge difference between Japan and China.  Stereotypes of China in Japan are just as prevalent, if not more so, as they are in the U.S.  The Dragon Ball series was, in its first incarnation, loosely based on Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel.  So it is not any more likely to be a great example of a fantasy Asia as anything created by Western writers.  [standard disclaimer, yes, Dragon Ball is cool, despite being problematic, see above :)]

Doing the Research as an Amateur

This is the most difficult, the most time consuming, the most likely to fail spectacularly, and ultimately, the most rewarding of the four approaches.  No, I'm not an expert.  But part of why I play roleplaying games is to learn something.  D&D has taught me a lot of things, and learning about new cultures is fun!  So maybe the best approach is to sit down and try to learn about another culture myself, taking inspiration directly from the source, and then using that to create my fantasy world.  I'm not about to try to learn Chinese, so I'll have to rely on translations.  And I don't know a lot of Chinese history, so maybe I'll miss a lot of the context.  But I could certainly do a lot worse than to sit down with my own annotated translation of something like Journey to the West, and see how it inspires me!

Inevitably, I will make mistakes.  My own exposure to tropes and negative stereotypes is bound to trip me up.  And if someone points out mistakes to me, I'll be happy to correct them!  But my games will end up being a lot richer and more complex the more time I put into them.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Martial Artists and Monks     

You wouldn't expect, looking at how the monk character class is portrayed in recent editions, that it was one of the original classes, but it was!  A lot of original D&D players may not necessarily remember the monk, until you mention the Master of Flowers, and then you might hear: "oh yeah!  That class that nobody actually played!"  Master of Flowers was the designation for the highest level of monk.  But monks were woefully poor choices as an early D&D class.  Some might argue that monks have never really been a popular class, in all of their incarnations.  Some monks were clerical spell casters, some were martial artists, some were sort of fantasy superheroes, but monks have had a hard time finding a place in D&D.

Part of this, of course, is due to D&D's default "European" setting.  Player characters are assumed to be from a feudal kingdom, generally one with at least one huge trade metropolis, medieval style guilds, and soldiers armed with metal armor and weapons as far as the eye can see.  The economics of such societies is often woefully inadequate, especially with adventurers coming out of the dungeon with thousands of gold pieces upon which they never seem to pay any taxes.  But the flavor is European.

Non-European settings are often treated by D&D as places where adventures may happen, but the adventurers themselves are not local.  This theme has extended throughout the history of D&D, so that since classic adventures such as the Desert of Desolation up to more modern adventures such as the Mummy's Mask, the heroes are always assumed to be European-style folks traveling to a distant land of mystery.  Moreover, the stereotypes and tropes used to represent non-European settings are often problematically racist.

Oriental Adventures

Yes, the name is terrible, and I make no apologies for it.  Oriental Adventures was fantasy Asia from an entirely Western perspective.  As far as I know, no Asian writers of any sort had credits in the book.  This book was Asian culture as viewed through the lens of martial arts movies.  And the monk class has the same general origin.

Oriental Adventures was dropped after Third Edition, and this was probably a good idea.  It probably should have been dropped earlier, in favor of a more authentic setting.  But I suspect that it had nothing to do with a desire for authenticity, and had more to do with a shift in what Western popular culture thought about Asia.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Asian fantasy adventures (as seen by the West) were based on Hong Kong movies, Japanese video games, and samurai/ninja in comic books.  The basic tropes were established:  a secret order of monks in the mountains who teach mystical martial arts, a loyal samurai who has lost honor and must wander as a ronin, massive numbers of ninja who melt out of the shadows and attack without mercy.  But in the 1990s, these were entirely supplanted by a new genre: anime.  Well, the Japanese video games weren't supplanted, they just quickly followed along with the anime trend.

Monks were drawn from Chinese historical martial arts movies, and Western books that were inspired by the same.  And the stories told in many of those movies fit in nicely with the medieval era swords and sorcery of early D&D.  But anime was another thing entirely.  Yes, there were sometimes martial arts, but the context was generally very far from standard Western fantasy.  It was a further bridge, and it was one that the creators of D&D did not want to cross.  So the monk remained the same, and continues to be a strange niche class: only remaining in the D&D setting due to having always been there.

Does D&D Have to Be Western?

What Oriental Adventures attempted to prove was that the archetypes of fighters and wizards, clerics and rogues, could transcend a Western setting.  Other settings did the same for the Middle East (Al-Qadim) and Africa (Nyambe) among others, all written (however well-meaningly) by Westerners.  But what I think these settings ended up proving was that D&D was not flexible enough to translate to a non-Western setting, at least not the way it was being written.  Because in order to accommodate these new settings, they required new, specific rules at every level.

Let's suppose that our story goal is to be able to tell stories in a non-Western culture.  Of the classes as they are written now, some will be perfectly adequate to the task (the fighter) and some will not (the druid).  The component rules can help a lot with that.  Instead of making up a new character class, we can tweak an existing one to fit better within our new campaign world.  If Armored Fighters simply aren't a feature, we can remove that component and replace it with something more fitting.  The system can be setting agnostic.  But the components, perhaps, should not be.  In the same way that Heritage can be designed around a culture specific to the campaign world, and Domain Components can be designed around a specific religion, a component can also bring a particular setting to life.

In the case of the monk, it seems clear that this Setting Component has to do with the use of ki as the source of some of the monk's abilities.  We already know that the monk has the Agile component.  We can see the likelihood of a Martial Artist component to encompass Flurry of Blows and increased damage with Unarmed Combat.  The religious avocation that the monk is named for is a tertiary component at best.  So that leaves the ki powers as a likely secondary component that is specific to a campaign world.  It can be taken by the monk or other classes for a campaign set in the world where ki powers are a thing.  It can also be swapped out for something else to make the monk class fit better in a setting where ki powers are not a thing.

Next post:  More on ki powers and setting components!

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Simplifying Swords    

Swords are an enduring part of the fantasy genre.  No other weapon is as enshrined in myth and legend.  Found a magical weapon in the dungeon?  Odds are it is a sword.  There are (I believe) over thirty swords in the Pathfinder SRD alone!  These range from light to two-handed, include piercing and slashing weapons, and have a variety of special qualities.  I want to take that variety and versatility and transfer it from the weapons chart to the fighter class.  Instead of having thirty swords, I want there to be thirty different ways to use a sword.  And while most character classes will be able to use a few, Versatile Fighter will have access to all of them.

As an aside, the monk is coming up soon, and one of the conceits of the monk class is that there are "monk weapons."  We can talk a bit about why that is, and the flavor reasons that one might have to keep a particular culture's weapons tied together as a group.  But in practical terms, monk weapons are a list of weapons that can be used with flurry of blows, the primary special attack granted to monks.  Flurry of blows is a way to use a weapon:  a series of multiple, fast strikes.  The benefits of flurry of blows are huge, especially at higher levels.  To preserve game balance, this is offset by a few limitations.  Flurry of blows can only work with the sort of weapons that a monk uses, which are defined as being substantially less powerful than average weapons.  Monk weapons cap out at 1d6 damage.  The most powerful monk weapon is probably the quarterstaff (just as Donatello is the best Ninja Turtle).  They certainly don't include any of the thirty swords mentioned above.  But they are an example of how a character's class abilities can relate to a weapon and can "unlock" special uses of that weapon.

The Slashing Swords

First let's address the classic fantasy sword.  It's long and pointy, but you don't generally stab with it.  Instead, you slash, with the sword either in a single hand or in both your hands (if you are really serious).  If you use one hand, you might have the other hand free (like a pirate) or you might have a shield in it (the classic sword-and-board knight).  You might even have a second weapon, often a light piercing weapon, but sometimes a second slashing sword!  In original D&D, the classic slashing sword was the longsword.  Better than a short sword because it did more damage, and better than a two-handed sword because there was no Strength x1.5 bonus and shields were more useful.  In Second Edition, the best sword was the bastard sword, because it could be used either as a single-hand or double-handed weapon (versatility!)  In Third Edition, there was a concentrated effort to make all swords (and other weapons) equally cool.  This was an awesome thing and much appreciated.  However, since that time, things got a bit out of hand...

Here are some of the different sorts of slashing swords that Pathfinder offers:
  • Dogslicer:  This is an NPC weapon.  Its special quality is that it is fragile.  There's not a lot of reason to use this sword, it's essentially a slightly lighter machete that breaks when you roll a one.
  • Gladius:  Like a short sword, but you can use it for piercing or slashing.  This is also a "gladiator weapon."  Like the monk weapons, gladiator weapons can be used to access special abilities, in this case combat performance abilities.  Superior to the short sword in almost every way (1 pound heavier, 5 gp more expensive).
  • Machete:  Identical to the short sword, but slashing, not piercing.  Oddly, there is no mention of the usefulness of the machete at hacking through jungle undergrowth.  The gladius is superior to this weapon as well.
  • Cutlass:  A pirate weapon!  Like a machete, but has a better crit range (18-20).
  • Longsword:  The classic single-handed slashing sword.  The benefit here is that it does 1d8 damage, as compared to most of the other single-handed swords that do only 1d6.  Also, you are much more likely to find a magical longsword in the dungeon than you are to find a magical cutlass.
  • Scimitar:  Identical in every way to the cutlass.  Except used in more Middle Eastern style settings as opposed to pirate settings, I guess?
  • Falchion:  An under-appreciated weapon, probably because it uses 2d4 for damage, and folks tend to like rolling larger dice.  This is the first of the two-handed weapons and has an excellent crit range.
  • Greatsword:  What used to be called the two-handed sword, the greatsword is the go-to for maximum damage (2d6 + Strength bonus x 1.5)!
  • Falcata:  This is an ancient Carthaginian weapon that has been made an exotic weapon in Pathfinder.  It is identical to a longsword, except that it has a crit range of 19-20/x3.
  • Khopesh:  Another exotic version of the longsword, this one allows you to make trip attacks with it.  Trip weapons are another category of weapon that unlock certain special abilities.
  • Rhoka:  I'm going to let the SRD speak for itself on this one:  "This sword is used almost exclusively by the urdefhan, life-hating quasi-daemonic underground dwelling creatures. The sword is the size of a longsword but consists of two serrated blades placed side by side, each ending in a cruel hook."  It's certainly... evocative!  But seriously, this is a crazy-ass fantasy sword, and that is perfectly fine.  It's a longsword with a slightly broader crit range.
  • Sawtoothed Sabre:  So it's a longsword, and you can use it as a martial weapon.  But if you take Exotic Weapon proficiency with it, you can treat it as a light weapon for purposes of two-weapon fighting.
  • Dueling Sword:  Same as above, but this time taking Exotic Weapon lets you use Weapon Finesse with it.
  • Bastard Sword:  The darling of Second Edition, taking Exotic Weapon lets you use it as a single-handed weapon (making it the highest damage weapon of that type in the game at 1d10 damage).
  • Elven Curved Blade:  Leave it to elves to get the best swords!  This two-handed sword has good damage and an excellent crit threat.  Because elves in Pathfinder get this as a martial weapon, it's a no-brainer for an elven fighter type.
  • Flambard:  Sort of a wavy-looking bastard sword.  Gives you +4 sunder vs. wood.
  • Two-Bladed Sword:  The Darth Maul lightsaber of D&D.  Essentially this gives you the option to switch from two-handed fighting (for easier to hit, but higher hp bosses) to two-weapon fighting (for harder to hit, or multiple mooks).


From Seventeen Slashing Swords Down to Three

Having a unique weapon is cool!  And for flavor purposes, I think that you should be as descriptive in your unique weapon as possible.  Where does it come from?  What was it originally used for?  What material is it made of?  What sort of smithing process was used?  How is it sharpened?  What inscriptions, tassals, notches, and other details have been added to what is, essentially, a long hunk of sharp steel?

However, for game purposes, there is simply no need for seventeen slashing swords, each with their own particular set of statistics on the chart.  So let's eliminate some of them.  Right off the bat, we can get rid of the dogslicer (it's a machete with the fragile quality, and no PC is going to use it.)  We can combine the gladius and the machete into a single light melee weapon.  The scimitar and cutlass are going to end up here as well.  Let's call this one a saber for now.  The longsword and all its exotic variants can be rolled up together into just a longsword.  And as much as I like the falchion, we can combine it with the greatsword for our two-handed option.  I'll talk more about weapons with other weapons stuck onto them when I discuss polearms in a much later post.  But I'd like to put aside the two-bladed sword until then.

I can completely understand if having only a saber, a longsword, and a greatsword is, well, kind of vanilla.  However, that basic nature is only so long as the weapon is being held by a non-expert.  Once the fighter takes up a sword, all of a sudden, its full potential and versatility comes to light!

Here's what a longsword would look like for a non-fighter character: 
  • martial weapon, slashing, one-handed, 1d8 damage, 19-20/x2 crit
Here's what a longsword might look like for a fighter character:
  • [natural style]  martial weapon, slashing, one-handed, 1d8 damage, 19-20/x2 crit
  • Other styles available:  barbarian fighting (treat weapon as one category heavier), Carthaginian (increases critical multiplier), fencing (treat weapon as a piercing), finesse fighting (use Dex bonus to hit), pirate fighting (treat weapon as one category lighter), sunder attack (allows sunder without AOO), trip attack (allows trip without AOO), vicious attack (broader crit range).
The fighter could choose which style to fight with on a round-by-round basis.  Essentially, the longsword gives the fighter up to nine swords in one!

Combat Styles

In the Versatile Fighter component, you would have the opportunity to choose which styles of combat you were proficient in.  You would then be able to use the abilities granted by these styles with any weapon you pick up, so long as they were listed in the description.  Styles would probably be written up without reference to a particular campaign world, but the GM could then define them by saying, for example:  in my campaign the "desperate attack style" is called "Carthaginian," named after the warriors of Carthage who fought against the Roman conquerors and lost their empire.  The style write up might look like this:

  • The Carthaginian fighting style is marked by attacks of desperation.  The fighter relies on luck and the blessings of the gods to strike a blow at an opponent's weakest spot.  If they succeed, the damage they inflict is greatly increased.  Raises a critical hit damage bonus by one category (from x2 to x3, or from x3 to x4).  The Carthaginian style can be used with any non-reach melee weapon.
At higher levels, Versatile Fighters might be able to combine two different fighting styles into their own, unique form of fighting: combining Carthaginian with vicious attack into a "vengeance" style would be a particularly lethal combination!

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Figuring Out Fighters     

Sometimes I feel like a kid in a candy store when it comes to D&D character classes: "That's my favorite, no wait, that's my favorite!  No, wait..."  But truly, I did not come to love fighters until the Second Edition kits came out, and even then they did not hold my interest long.  Fighters, well, fight.  They are fighting men (as the class was originally called), later expanded to fighting folk of all kinds.  They are as diverse as the weapons that they wield.  However, it is clear that, until Third Edition, a lot more effort went into designing the different weapons than did into designing the fighters themselves!

Third Edition fighters look a lot like the components that I have shown thus far.  They are endlessly customizable, with an extensive list of abilities (combat feats) to choose from.  Pathfinder increased the abilities of fighters even further, giving them even more bonuses to combat actions when using certain groups of weapons.  But really, the focus is still on: what sort of weapon do you use?  That's what distinguishes one fighter from the other.

The fighter is a class that I feel has so much potential, but designers seem to have never quite figured out how to express it.  Is the fighter designed to be specialized in one weapon or fighting style?  Or is it designed to be versatile and use many different weapons and fighting styles, switching between each depending on the situation?  The latter is much more appealing to me, but the rules simply do not support it.  Let's look at the different class abilities of the fighter with respect to which support specialization and which support versatility:
  • Proficiency with all simple and martial weapons (supports versatility)
  • Bonus feats (supports versatility in building the fighter, but not in play)
  • Armor training (supports specialization in a fighting style, i.e., heavy armor)
  • Weapon training (supports specialization in a fighting style)
  • Armor mastery (fairly neutral)
  • Weapon mastery (supports specialization)
And, of course, when it comes to feats, the big feat that only a fighter can take is Weapon Specialization.

This is not to say that Pathfinder did not add other options for fighting styles!  The use of the Combat Maneuver system to replace the incredibly archaic grappling chart of Second Edition, and the confusingly complex grapple algorithm of Third Edition, was very welcome.  But all characters have those options available to them.  Which leaves the fighter with the versatility of being able to pick from a long list of things, but still having to choose which individual thing they want to be good at.  Ultimately, the choice to create a fighter that splits their attention between two or three different fighting styles, is the choice to create a sub-par fighter.  And the system does not really reward such versatility.

Rewarding Versatility

Let's say that, as a design goal, I want fighters to be making more decisions during combat, instead of having one particular tactic that will almost always be the most effective for them.  Several things have to be considered to make this happen.

1.  More choices need to be made during combat, rather than during character creation.  As it stands, many of the various tactics (tripping, charging, grappling, tumbling) often require feats in order to be effective, and those feats are often part of a tree with several pre-requisites, not to mention the ability score pre-requisites for those feats!  Trip is a great example of this.  It is a maneuver that, without the feats, a character is unlikely to try.  Essentially, you are giving up your attack for an opportunity to knock your opponent prone.  Without feats, you will incur an attack of opportunity.  But in order to get the Improved Trip feat, you need to have Expertise, which also requires an Intelligence of 13.  Assuming that you take these things, you will also want to choose a weapon that can perform trip attacks (only some can) and you will probably want to focus in that weapon.  You will also probably want to take additional feats or abilities so that you can actually take advantage of an opponent who is prone.  Tripping opponents becomes the big tactic that your character can use, and unless you are planning to build your character this way, you are unlikely to ever try to trip someone.

2.  Weapons need to be more versatile tools.  Three of my favorite weapons are the dagger, the quarterstaff, and the halberd, because they are some of the most versatile.  A dagger can be used as a piercing melee weapon, a slashing melee weapon, or a piercing thrown weapon.  A quarterstaff can be used as a blunt melee weapon in two hands, a blunt double weapon, or it can be used as a monk weapon.  A halberd can be used as a piercing melee weapon, a slashing melee weapon, it can be used to brace for a charge, or it can be used to make a trip attack.  All weapons should follow the example of these three.  Instead of having a huge list of different weapons, we should have a smaller number of more versatile weapons.

3.  Combat maneuvers need to have a serious effect on combat.  As it stands, monsters who have weaknesses tend to be weak against a particular energy type.  This means that spellcasters have the best opportunity to plan their attacks to target a monster's weakness.  Only a few monsters are weak to particular non-magical weapon damage or combat maneuvers.  By changing who we think about when we build monsters (fighters, as well as spellcasters), fighters will get more of a chance to demonstrate tactics on the battlefield.  In addition, the battlefield itself is a great source of tactical advantage and disadvantage.  For example, a fire pit in the middle of the cave provides an opportunity to use bull rush.  Encounters that introduce battlefield features are going to often give fighters more to do.

Thus, changes to improve the fighter may depend on other system changes: to feats, to weapons, and to monsters.  But we should also consider, once these things are modified, how fighters will be able to take unique advantage of them in order to stand out as a character class.

Components of the Fighter

Fighters are fairly generic characters.  They are often multiclassed or given archetypes or unusual races in order to give them more flavor.  But looking at the fighter as it stands, here's how I believe the components should break down:
  • Primary Versatile Fighter:  This ability will give the fighter the opportunity to use weapons in a wider variety of ways than other character classes.  It will also give them proficiency with all martial weapons, as well as increasing their base attack.
  • Secondary Armored Fighter:  This ability will enable the fighter to wear heavy armor.  In addition, the Armor Training and Advanced Armor Training abilities will be a part of this component.
  • Secondary Weapon Specialist:  Ideally, this will not be a component called "weapon specialist", but will rather be a choice of components, each for a different combat style.  So, for example, Archer would be a component that could be chosen here.  This will reflect some of the feats that fighters gain, as well as weapon training and advanced weapon training.
  • Tertiary Soldier:  This will grant most of the fighter's skills, as well as their bonus to Fortitude.
Next post, I will look at some weapons and how the Versatile Fighter can get the most use out of them!

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Creating a Character with an Animal Companion    

Having thought about animal companions and the problems that the pose in the game, let's first set up some design goals for how an Animal Companion component might work:

1.  Animal Companions should be as useful, and diversified, as other components.  If someone is going to use one of their components for their animal, it should be as valuable as another component of similar rank.  Secondary and Tertiary Animal Companions should improve at a regular rate throughout all 20 levels.

2.  The component should not require recreating the stats of an NPC animal.  By choosing to make this a component, we are deliberately following a strategy of making animals into class features, and not NPCs.

3.  Animal Companion actions should happen on the same initiative order as their owner.  This will prevent one character from getting multiple turns and will simplify combat.

4.  Animal Companions should only be killed if their owner dies.

5.  Animal Companions and their owner must stay relatively close together, to prevent a character from effectively being in two places at once.

Animal Companion

Requirements:  none

Hit Dice:  no change

Skills:  Characters with Animal Companions gain the following class skills:  Handle Animal, Knowledge (nature), and Ride.

Base Attack Bonus:  no change

Saving Throws:  no change

Additional Spells:  Characters with an Animal Companion learn the following spells, in addition to any spells they learn from the Spellcaster component.  They must still meet level requirements to cast these spells.
  • 1st - calm animals, magic fang, speak with animals
  • 2nd - bear's endurance, bull's strength, cat's grace
  • 3rd - magic fang (greater), reduce animal
  • 4th - animal growth
Special Abilities:  Characters with the Tertiary level of this component may choose any Tiny sized animal to be their companion.  That animal gains two abilities from the list below at first level, and one additional ability every four levels, starting at level four.  Characters with the Secondary level of this component may choose any Medium sized or smaller animal to be their companion.  That animal gains three abilities at first level, and one additional ability every three levels, starting at level three.  Characters with the Primary level of this component may choose any Large sized or smaller animal to be their companion.  That animal gains four abilities at first level, and one additional ability every two levels, starting at level two.

In addition, all characters with animal companions gain the following abilities:

Combat Action:  Instead of taking your own action, your animal companion takes an action.  If this action is an attack, your companion makes a single attack using your unarmed melee.  This does not provoke an attack of opportunity.  Tiny animals deal 1 point of damage, Small animals deal 1d4, Medium animals deal 1d6+1, Large animals deal 1d8+2, etc.

Empathic Link:  As the familiar ability.

Find The Way Home:  Animal companions have a supernatural ability to find their masters.  If the two are separated, the animal companion will attempt to rejoin the character, and will eventually succeed.  The GM should use reasonable discretion in adjudicating this ability.

Combat Move:  Instead of taking your own move, your animal companion takes a move action.  However, if both you and your animal companion remain in the same square, you may move together, using whichever's speed is higher.

Safeguard:  As an immediate action, a character may choose to safeguard their animal companion.  For a tiny animal, this means they hide in the character's clothing.  For a small or larger animal, they remain prone in the same square as the character.  If the character wishes to move, they must carry or drag the animal with them.  Any animal smaller or equal to the size of the character cannot be targeted by an attack or spell while safeguarded and cannot take any hit points of damage.  However, any condition that affects the character may also affect the animal companion.  For example, if the character fails a saving throw versus a sleep spell, the companion also falls asleep.  And if the character is killed, the companion may also be killed.  The safeguard will remain in effect until the end of combat, or until the character ends it, however the animal companion can take no further actions until the end of combat, regardless of whether the safeguard is ended.

Share Defenses:  Your animal companion has 1/2 the number of hit points as you, rounded down.  They have the same armor class, CMD, and saving throws as you.

Share Spells:  As the familiar ability.

Additional abilities:
  • Breathe Water:  Your animal companion can breathe water (requires Swimmer).
  • Boost Save:  Character gains a +2 on a single save type.
  • Boost Skill:  Character gains a +3 on a single skill.
  • Climber:  Your animal companion is an expert climber, and uses your Climb skill +20
  • Deliver Touch Spells:  As the familiar ability.
  • Fast Movement:  Your animal companion has a base speed of +10 feet.  This ability may be taken again to gain a total of +20 feet.
  • Flight:  Your animal companion can fly, and uses your Fly skill +20.
  • Independent Attack:  You do not need to give up your action to grant your animal companion an attack.
  • Independent Move:  You do not need to give up your move to grant your animal companion a move, even if it moves into a different square than you.
  • Low-Light Vision:  Your animal companion has low-light vision.
  • Scent:  Your animal companion has the scent ability.
  • Scry on Familiar:  As the familiar ability.
  • Speak with Animals of Its Kind:  As the familiar ability.
  • Speak with Master:  As the familiar ability.
  • Swimmer:  Your animal companion is an expert swimmer, and uses your Swim skill +20. 
(As in other components, this is only a partial list of additional abilities that could be chosen, focusing on abilities within the Pathfinder Core Rules.)

Multiple Animals

Having more than one animal companion could be handled in a few different ways.  If the animals are small, you could simply treat two animals as if they were one unit.  If you remember the 1980s movie The Beastmaster, this is how the two ferrets were treated.  Another way might be to have secondary Animal Companion provide two animals at tertiary levels of ability (or primary provide two animals at secondary level of ability.  Lastly, there's no reason that a person with an animal companion cannot also have a normal mount or pet.  This would be treated as an NPC and not gain the special advantages listed above.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Discussing Druids     

The druids were fairly mysterious leaders in ancient Celtic culture.  What most people know about druids is that they built Stonehenge, a "fact" that is untrue.  They might also know about Getafix, the druid from the Asterix comics, who brews a magical strength potion for his village in Gaul, the northern part of France inhabited by Celtic tribes.  Oak trees and mistletoe probably also come to mind.  Druids as mystics and prophets appear in legends.  Take all of these things, facts and myth, and mix them together, and you get D&D druids:  secretive clerics that are followers and protectors of nature and have mystical abilities.

Druids in early D&D were most known for the limitations placed on the character class.  They could wear no metal armor and could use no metal weapons.  Additionally, they had to be True Neutral in alignment, seeking balance above all things.  A fascinating part of the druid class that hasn't really stuck with D&D is that, originally, only a certain number of high level druids existed.  Meaning that your character might have to challenge high ranking druids in order to level up!

By Third Edition, druids still could not wear metal armor, but only had to be partially Neutral (due, in part, to the Forgotten Realms use of warring groups of good and evil druids).  They also gained the ability to shapeshift, previously only available as a spell.  The wild shape ability was interesting, but resulted in a major problem for druids:  their ability to cast spells while in animal form was severely limited.  A feat to address this, Natural Spell, was added in a supplement to Third Edition that became almost mandatory for any druid who wanted to use wild shape.

Also in Third Edition, druidic magic became focused on summoning animals and elementals to fight with them in combat.  The summoning rules were problematic, to say the least.  Not only did it require players and the gamemaster to juggle a lot of stat blocks, but the animals would only show up for a few rounds and then disappear.  My extended rant on summoning will have to wait until a later post, but the short version is this:  In a system that uses hit points as a major player resource, you have to rely on the self-preservation instincts of the players.  They do not want their characters to get too low on hit points, because it risks death.  Thus, the tone of the story, the tactics used by players, and the roleplaying of their characters all change based on how many hit points they have left.  When you introduce into this mix a source of hit points (a summoned creature) where there is no risk in expending those hit points, you essentially break this carefully balanced system.  In addition to creating a lot of bookkeeping, the summoning rules change the way that the game plays, substantially.  That said, the opposite issue comes into play with another feature of the druids, the animal companion...

Pets, Mounts, Familiars, and Animal Companions

I have a reputation as a tough, but fair gamemaster.  Players know that their characters might die in my games.  And it is my hope that risk makes the game more exciting and interesting and challenging.  I have even, on occasion, had total party kills.  But do you know what I have never done deliberately?  Kill their pet.  I'm a pretty firm believer that in the fantasy genre (as opposed to the horror genre, where all bets are off), pet killing is a non-starter.  Maybe you run your fantasy games dialed to a darker, Game of Thrones sort of tone, and that is totally fine!  But the majority of fantasy stories that modern D&D seeks to emulate tend to avoid pet killing.  This presents a problem for the game master.  On the one hand you have lots of indiscriminate killing of monsters and even "bad guy" animals (rats, wolves, owlbears, etc.)  But on the other hand, you kill the wizard's familiar and they will throw a fit.  You kill the druid's animal companion (which always seems to be a tiger, for some reason?) and the players will not enjoy the game.

So here's the situation that arises:  A low to mid-level druid has summoned a nature's ally, an animal.  The druid also has an animal companion.  The druid can shape change into an animal with wild shape.  These three animals all have radically different statistics, attacks, and abilities, and will act in different ways.  One of them, the summoned animal, is entirely expendable.  One, the animal companion, is not.  And the player character is themselves the third.  From the perspective of the game master, the story begins to break down, because the stakes are simply not the same, depending on which animal is being threatened.  From the perspective of the other players, the druid is "broken" because they have three times the number of actions as everyone else, and often three times the power level.

What is the solution to dealing with pets?  Pathfinder has taken the approach of making pets as much like summoned creatures as possible, as well as giving players the option to eliminate them.  Druids, rangers, paladins, and wizards now have the option to get alternate abilities, rather than getting an animal companion, warhorse, or familiar, respectively.  Warhorses can be summoned and dismissed at will.  Familiars can be replaced within a week, and no longer cost the wizard permanent hit point loss if they are killed.  But these solutions that do little to address the underlying story problem:  many players want pets as permanent companions for their character, and they do not want these pets to be in danger, despite being less powerful than the typical party member.

Three Approaches to Animals in the Game

Some of you may be reading this with personal experience concerning these types of problems.  Some of you, on the other hand, may never have thought about it much, and see the potential loss of an animal companion as just another part of the game.  Some might not mind such a loss, as long as it contributes to interesting storytelling (see John Wick).  When running a game, it is always a good idea to set expectations for the players, as well as hearing from them what they expect from you.  Here are three ways to handle animals that both address some of the game balance issues with the druid, as well as determining whether animal death is something that you want in your game.

Animals as Abilities:  Under this approach, an animal companion of any sort is a class ability first and foremost, and should get its own component.  Depending on how important the animal is to your character's concept, it could be a primary component, like a cavalier's warhorse, or a tertiary component, like a wizard's familiar.  The rules should support the story result that no animal companion will die unless the player dies (although they could be seriously injured or incapacitated). Game balance is addressed by the fact that you have to use one of your components to acquire the companion.

Animals as Cohorts:  The Leadership feat allows your character to have an NPC follower who has pledged their loyalty as a squire or apprentice or such.  The Monstrous Companion feat allows you to take an animal companion that is a magical beast, instead of a human NPC.  Either way, this places "ownership" of the animal more in the hands of the gamemaster than the player.  The rules should support the story result that such companions are as "protected" as normal NPCs are, which is to say, not at all.  In addition, animals may leave because of poor treatment by the player.  This approach will work best in games that have less combat, as party size could easily double in number if everyone has taken Leadership.

Animals as Flavor:  When I discussed charm spells in my prior post, I noted that the same spell or ability could be used with different flavors, to keep consistency with the character's concept.  In the same way, an animal companion could be used as flavor for a variety of abilities that the character already has.  A wizard's mage hand could actually be a small monkey familiar.  A high Perception skill could be the hawk that always sits on the shoulder of the druid.  A venomous snake under this approach becomes the functional equivalent of a poisoned blade.  The rules should support the story result that any action taken by the animal merely duplicates and takes the place of an ability that the character already has.  Thus, these animals can never be directly attacked.  This is a less realistic approach, but one that emulates the fantasy genre quite well.  In addition, it is the easiest to implement for the game master.

If you are interested in the first method, animals as abilities, next post will contain a draft component to duplicate the animal companion class abilities of the druid, ranger, wizard, and paladin!

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Charm Person and Other Enchantments    

Charming and enchantment spells are a key part of the bard class.  I'd like to talk about some of the problems with these abilities, and how they can be used well in a game.  In my past posts, I've talked a bit about enchantment, in combination with the trope of "beautiful woman enchants male protagonist."  There are several places that this ability comes up in the D&D rules, and I'll use Pathfinder to draw attention to some examples.

The Charm cleric domain is the most obviously tropey use of this ability.  It's description in the SRD reads:  "You can baffle and befuddle foes with a touch or a smile, and your beauty and grace are divine."  This is a very gendered description, evocative of many examples in genre literature of a woman's beauty entrancing a man.  Two subdomains of Charm are similarly gendered:  Love and Lust.  One might expect that Lust would be masculine, but the spells that it grants:  touch of idiocy and confusion, speak directly to the stereotype of men who are rendered confused and stupid by predatory, sexual women.

If charm is the feminine use of enchantment, the masculine use is hypnotism.  In the Captivation subdomain, hypnotism replaces charm person, and Entrancing Aura replaces the more feminine power of Charming Smile.  Hypnotists, in genre literature, are almost always men and they do not rely on sexual wiles to entrance people, but rather something akin to science, along with a strength of will that overpowers simple minds.

Throughout the many supplements and manuals of D&D, this gender divide in enchantment is pervasive, tracing back to the rules for Comeliness in First Edition (AD&D) that allowed particularly beautiful women to charm men.

The feminine forms of charm generally have the following qualities:
  • They are often tied in some way to the beauty of the charmer, either their physical appearance or the beauty of their voice.
  • They are generally persuasive, rather than controlling.  The target of these enchantments is aware of what they are doing, and believes that they are doing it of their own free will.
These include:
  • The Charm, Love, and Lust domains.
  • The charm subschool of Enchantment.
  • Spells such as charm person and suggestion.
The masculine forms of charm generally have the following qualities:
  • They are often tied to the strength of will of the charmer, either through holding and maintaining eye contact or through a hypnotic visual or sonic pattern.
  • They are generally controlling, rather than persuasive.  The target of these enchantments is unaware of the actions that they are taking, and may not remember taking them.
These include:
  • The Captivation domain.
  • The compulsion subschool of Enchantment.
  • Spells such as hypnosis and hold person.
Monsters that use enchantment are also overwhelmingly female.  More on that in a later post.

I feel that these sorts of rules lead to play and stories that recreate some of the harmful and gendered tropes found in fantasy literature.  Although I haven't gotten up to addressing the spell system, it seemed like a good idea to talk about this here, because bards use these sort of abilities all the time.  One way to break up this gender divide is to focus on tropes for charm that are gender neutral, or to deliberately gender-swap existing tropes.


How Do These Abilities Fit in the Story?

The first question that I feel needs to be asked is: how do we anticipate a protagonist, rather than an antagonist, using these abilities?  Here are some examples of ways that charm/compulsion abilities are famously used:

The Jedi Mind Trick:  "These aren't the droids you're looking for."  This is compulsion through mental strength, generally used by the heroes to evade capture.  It only works on the "weak willed."  As a trope, this type of charm is masculine in nature, but we can find examples of it being used by non-male characters (Rey in The Force Awakens, for example).

The Natural Charmer:  This is a subtle power, that may or may not be supernatural. Think Moist von Lipwig from Going Postal.  Generally an unconscious effect, it causes others to like the person more than they usually would.  This is a very widely used trope and is generally gender neutral.

The Seducer/Seductress:  Use of this ability may not be directly sexual in nature, but it is almost always sexually-charged.  Female examples abound, but Black Widow from The Avengers is one who comes to mind.  Although I haven't seen it, Eliot Spencer, from the show Leverage, is a apparently good male example of this (yes, I will see it, I just haven't had time yet!). 

The "Who, Me?" Trick:  Immortalized by Tasslehoff Burrfoot in the Dragonlance series, this protagonist is so clearly good and innocent that they can regularly get away with murder without being questioned.  This trope is usually associated with female characters, particularly young girls.  Gender is so strongly associated with that trope that when I read the books when I was young, I thought that Tasslehoff must be a girl in disguise!  (And, interestingly, it turned out that it was the player of the original character that was female.)

Note that all of these are abilities that mislead a (usually minor) character into doing something that is not harmful for them, but will help the protagonists.  The most problematic is the seducer/seductress, but it is still a good fit for some games, if handled well.  Most of these abilities require the person who is being charmed to understand the language of the charmer, and the charmed person is understood to be a human who normally has free agency.  In comparison, abilities that are more dominating than these are usually only used by antagonists, or, if they are used by the heroes, it is against creatures that are understood to not have free agency.

How Can the Rules Support This Use?

The structure of the rules should meet the following goals:
  • Charm spells and abilities should be tools in the same way that a sword is a tool, and should be able to be used in diverse styles.
  • Characters should not be forced to comply with tropes in order to make use of charm spells and abilities.
  • Abilities should be written from the perspective of the protagonists' use first, and the NPCs' use second.  Evil uses of charm abilities should be expressed as evil.
The four examples of charm types in the section above are generally used by very different characters.  You wouldn't necessarily expect the same sort of person to use more than one of these.  And yet the same character who makes use of charm-type abilities (a bard or an enchanter, for example), is likely to have access to all four, even when three of them aren't a great fit.  So another way that the rules can help is to be agnostic as to which flavor of charm ability is being used.  A spell such as charm person will have a different flavor depending on how the player wants to roleplay their use of the spell.

Finally, the rules can help is to set forth specific categories of actions that a charmer can persuade their target to do.  The trick here is to set limits that aid in story, while still allowing the players to be creative.  In addition, setting forth such categories can keep these abilities from being abused, in the sense that they can easily be used for rape or torture if no such limits are set.  The Pathfinder rules already take steps in both of these directions.  The command spell now includes a list of things that can be ordered.  And the charm person spell will not allow the target to do something obviously self-harmful, and requires an additional die roll if it is the sort of thing they would not normally do.  I believe the former goes a bit too far, while the latter does not quite go far enough, but together they encompass a range of restriction that does the job.  More details when we get to spells and magic!

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