How to use nasty (but within the rules) GM Strategies in Pathfinder

Sometimes GMs need to use some pretty nasty strategies to make the PCs be less overpowered.  This is a guide to how to do that fairly.  It was inspired by two stories from some friends of mine:

  1. There’s a campaign being run a by an inexperienced GM, with predominantly inexperienced players.  Unfortunately for the GM, guides to make powerful characters are easy to find online.  They are currently around level 9, and the party’s monk has such high defenses that they are effectively invulnerable.  The GM feels the campaign is growing stale, so he just gives all the enemies a big buff to their attack bonus.  In the next encounter, the whole party is promptly killed.
  2. There’s a campaign with an experienced GM, experienced players, and it’s starting at level 14.  The adventure starts at a place called the tower of death.  The players are told they are going after a lich who lives in the tower of death.  The front gate has a big skull on it.  They don’t check it for traps.  When they open the door, a magical trap is triggered.  It is a death effect.  Most of the party dies within minutes of starting the campaign.

This is not an article about balance.  it is about how, if handled slightly differently, both of these scenarios would have been completely fair, the players would have been able to survive, and it would have been a very tactically rich game experience.  The trick is repetition within a theme.

Step 1:  Identify the “jerk GM” thing you want to do.

If you’re going to make a PC (or all the PCs) die or become useless, you first need to know how to do it!  Casting a death spell on a wizard will probably kill the wizard: they have poor fortitude saves.  It will probably do nothing to a fighter.  If all your monsters suddenly never miss, you’ll kill characters who relied on AC (as opposed to brute HP) but do nothing to characters who relied on damage reduction.  If the party’s main damage dealer is a bow wielding fighter or a ranger, windwall can stop them from ever landing a hit, but it won’t do anything to a barbarian.

Step 2:  Introduce the “jerk GM” technique in a fairly safe encounter, or introduce it gradually.

The first time the players run into the new technique, it will be quite the shock.  If you do it in a relatively safe encounter, it will still seem hard to the players.  First, they will try to play the encounter the way they normally do, so you can basically consider the first round of combat to be a waste of the player’s time.  Next, they’ll start to learn how to handle the new situation.

Death effects deserve a special mention here.  You cannot introduce death effects gradually, but you can introduce less severe negative energy effects gradually.  They need enough encounters against negative energy wielding opponents that they learn what items, spells, positioning, and strategies work to defend against negative energy.  They also need to learn what in-universe cues indicate these kind of effects, and have learned to use the spells that protect against them.

The same thing can be said of traps.  If the first trap in a game is lethal, the GM is just trying to kill PCs.  Instead, the first trap needs to be serious but not deadly, and they gradually escalate as they are repeated.

Step 3:  Consider how the players could counter the “Jerk GM” technique

There is almost always a way to counter a Jerk GM trick without deviating from a player’s intended “build.”  If no one in the party took Perception, you can overcome stealth based opponents with a Wand of Glitterdust.  If as a GM you know you’ll want to include stealth-based opponents in the future, however, you should probably include some weaker ones at low levels.  This way the players have options: save up money for the Wand of Glitterdust, or take the Perception Skill, or learn how the stealth rules actually work so you can use positioning to deny opponents the opportunity to make stealth roles in combat.

Remember that you, as the GM, want the players to counter the Jerk GM technique!  They are supposed to learn how to get around it.  Pathfinder is a very well designed game and there is almost always a way around it.

Step 4:  Refinements

Sometimes you can accomplish the same thing much more subtly.  Consider using an L-Shaped corridor to make an overpowered bow wielder much weaker, instead of wind wall.  The net effect is the same: the character will need to move to a different place to use their weapon of choice.  If you are tired of the PCs using optimized summoning spells to ruin your day, include rough terrain and cover so that it becomes much harder to gang up on particular targets, and use monsters that can overcome this rough terrain somehow (climb, swim, or flight are likely options).

Some Examples:

Problem: The bow wielding PC is too powerful.

Step 1:  I want to nerf ranged attacks.  The spell Wind Wall is sometimes considered a “hard counter” to ranged attacks, so I will start using that.

Step 2:  I’ll design an encounter at the same level as the PCs, but one of the opponents is an enemy wizard who uses windwall.  Unfortunately, they’ll need to be at least lvl 6 to be able to have a wizard that can cast windwall, and some enemy minions to go along with it.

Step 3:  The most obvious option for the player is to walk through the wind wall, then start using ranged weapons again.  This means that the ranged hero will be unable to take a full attack action on the first turn, and will sacrifice some range advantage by moving closer to the enemy.  The player can eliminate the first problem by riding a mount.  They can use mobility related skills (like climb) to move to the other side, then move somewhere safe (to maintain their range advantage).  The other players could also help, such as by casting dispel magic.

Step 4: L shaped corridors will force the same kind of response from a PC.  The GM gets to decide the weather, so I can also include encounters in a windy environment once in a while.  If part of the encounter map is shielded from the wind, it still gives the PC a way around the penalties.

Problem:  The PCs defenses are too strong, including saving throws.  There is no practical way to have high flat-footed ac and high touch-ac at the same time.  This one will focus on a PC with poor flat-footed ac.

Step 1:  I want to more consistently do damage to the PCs, without significantly increasing the peak damage they take/turn.  To deny their dex bonus to AC, I will use invisible opponents.

Step 2:  The first few times they encounter an opponent who can turn invisible, the invisible opponent should be in a small enough area that they can still guess what square their target would be in.  So long as I just follow the normal rules for weapon damage, the PC didn’t make constitution their dump-stat, and the encounter is of an appropriate level, the invisible opponent’s attacks won’t be so strong that they kill the PC in the first turn.  Even if it’s an invisible rogue.

Step 3:  faerie fire, glitter dust, invisible purge, an uncannily high perception score…  there are many ways around invisibility.  Also, the PCs will want to keep their HP at or near maximum with healing spells.  They’ll want to be defensive until they locate their target, and then everyone pounces at once.

Step 4: Stealth is a much more subtle ability than invisibility.  The villains will use surprise rounds and superior initiative to get attacks while the PC is flatfooted.  It is fairly reasonable for these rogue-ish types to also use the feint maneuver.  I would, however, avoid taking the Improved Feint feat.  Feint gives the PC a chance to run away; improved feint does not.  If the PCs are playing against opponents who use stealth during combat (not just before combat to win a surprise round), they will learn to guess where the hidden opponents are, and move into position so that they have direct line of sight to their opponents.  This removes the cover/concealment, and ends the stealth.  This teaches them how to use their positioning for “zoning”, which will prepare them for thinking about how to position themselves to find invisible opponents without specific spells to counter the invisibility.  It will also give them a fair warning to start preparing faerie fire or glitter dust, as these are good against stealthy and invisible heroes.  It will also give them a hint that perception will be useful this campaign.

Note: the rules are fairly clear that being in stealth is not sufficient to gain sneak attack damage or to impose the flat-footed status.  However, it is a very common house rule to change this.  I have no strong opinion on this.  If you choose to use such a house rule in your campaign, be sure to start using stealth opponents early in your game.  It doesn’t matter if stealth is slightly stronger than it normally would be, so long as the players have an opportunity to respond to this.  If the players know stealth is super-effective, then they know to be prepared to counter it.  Which, in turn, makes it less effective.

Kick’em while they’re down: making fun of poorly written rules in pathfinder

The mounted combat rules are notoriously poorly written.  Here is a humorous example:

Your mount acts on your initiative count as you direct it. You move at its speed, but the mount uses its action to move.

I will continue to use the second person, to keep it consistent with the rule.

On a strict reading of the second sentence, you can use the mount’s action to move.  And you can move at the mount’s speed.  It says nothing of the mount moving with you, although it does mention that it uses the mounts move action.

A horse in pathfinder moves at 50 feet.

So, the benefits of being mounted in pathfinder is that you gain a move speed of 50 feet.  You use the horses action to move.  So, the horse stays where it is, and you get to move using it’s movement speed.  It’s like the horse catapulted you 50 feet away!

Note that running modifiers are multiplications of base movement speed, and the running feat increases this multipler from 4 to 5.  All horses have the running feat.  So if you direct the horse to run, you can catapult yourself 250 feet.

Thanks to various errata and addendums, they have added a rule that you don’t get to use a full attack action after a mount moves.  “If your mount moves more than 5 feet, you can only make a single melee attack.”  But our mount didn’t move.  It took a move action, and sprinted, but stayed still.  So you can take a full attack action!

To make it even better, you never took a move action.  If you move through a threatened square, it is the horse that provokes an attack of opportunity.  Even though it is up to 250′ away.  I am unaware of any abilities that grant 250′ reach.

So, by being mounted and using what I think of as the horse-catapult feature (It’s a feature, not a bug), you can move 250 feet, without provoking attacks of opportunity, and take a full attack action at the end of the movement.  Awesome!

Still, you might think this is kind of stupid.  I, however, happen to like Knights.  And I want my players to sometimes play as knights, which means they ought to receive a mechanical benefit from being mounted.  With that in mind, consider the following argument:

  • The rule doesn’t specify that the mount moves when it uses it’s move action.  In fact, they specify that the player moves when the mount uses a move action.
  • If you only retain your movement speed while mounted, then you need to remain mounted for the whole duration of your movement.
  • A 250′ long horse is absurd.
  • But mounted combat is clearly intended to be useful for something.
  • So clearly the rules are intended to be read as allowing for the horse catapult feature.

QED

Now, you might be inclined to say “but if you aren’t on the horse then you are no longer mounted.” to which I have two responses:

1.  They don’t specify you only get the bonuses when riding the mount.  Hypothetically, all you need to do is own a horse.  A horse is a mount whether it’s being ridden or not.

2.  There is no strict definition in the rules for what “mounted” means.  As such, it is not clear when the “mounted status” should end.

What if the horse uses it’s move action to move normally?  There is no rule saying you go along with it.  So, to have a game with knights, I need to either allow:

1.  the horse catapult, wherein a mounted knight flies away from the horse.

2.  A 250′ long horse.

or

3.  A knight whose horse always runs away from him, leaving him standing alone on the field of battle as his brave stallion charges the orc hordes alone.

The Horse Catapult at Higher Levels

Now, just because it’s funny, keep in mind that if you have enough money you can buy a griffon.  It is no longer just like you were catapulted by your mount.  You are now soring through the air with a fly speed 80.  Let the griffon sprint for 320 feet!  And you can fly just 5′ above the ground, so you can go over all the rough terrain, and then just take a short drop that causes no damage.

My starting write up for my High-Biotech Space Exploration Game

Some of my players seem to be allergic to reading, so they’d only need to read “The First Mission” to understand what’s going on.  Players who read the political background will learn about the campaign’s history.  Afterwards, I’ll argue why this makes for a good opener to a campaign.

The First Mission:

Your spaceship is a Tick. It’s one of the most versatile and durable types of ships ever designed. This versatility makes it ideal for freelancers. Emergency maintenance, isolated construction jobs, and cargo delivery are the usual jobs, but recently taking jobs like that is dangerous. Those jobs make enemies.

Former friends have taken sides in order to get work. Many others have become pirates or smugglers. Most of them are dead. You would have played it safe indefinitely, but a ship can only go so long without supplies.  Fortunately for you, an inoffensive humanitarian mission has fallen in your lap.  There’s a distress beacon from a Solar Allegiance Treaty Organization (SATO) ship. The reward for the rescue will make up for the months of inactivity.  If everyone’s dead, the salvage will be worth even more.

The Political Background

Planet Firelight glows as bright as a star. The city stretches over oceans and mountains and polar reaches. It is big. Too big. The people starve.

The Spacer Union is on strike. This put an end to asteroid mining, orbital manufacturing, and shipping. Without the Spacer’s, there’s not enough fuel, not enough water, and not enough medical supplies.

In response to the humanitarian crisis on the planet, the United Governments passed a bill forcing the union back to work. In response, the union turned mass drivers and power-beaming satelites on the military docks, and proved to everybody that the governments could not enforce such a ruling.

Desperate for assistance, Firelight agreed to sign the Solar Allegiance Treaty. A SATO ship is en-route, with a diplomat on board.  Unfortunately, their ship has been crippled in the distant asteroid field. Sabotage is expected. The perpetrators are unknown.  The Spacers’ Union have already denied any involvement.

Reasons why this is a Good First Mission

Choices have social consequences. It is clearly pointed out that who the players associate with and do business with will matter.  This opens up many opportunities for players to make choices, and for the GM to react to those choices.  This increases the amount of collaboration involved in storytelling.

The setting has an ongoing conflict that is not in a stalemate.  The Union is currently winning, but Firelight has a chance by bringing in SATO.  A common mistake in RPGs is that there is an ongoing conflict that is stuck in a stalemate.  The players have the power to break the stalemate.  This is boring.  To use a spatial metaphor, asymmetry creates movement and change.  A stalemate, however, is symmetric.  It is far easier for both the player and the GM to be creative in a setting that is already in motion (ie. asymmetric).  This makes it easier for the players to be clever, and easier for the GM to improvise.  This improves immersion in the setting.

Care in Games, with an Emphasis on High Biotech and Conjuration

Quick overview: some styles of games ought to incorporate play that simulates care-giving. This can be done by allowing PCs to interact with NPCs in a manner that alters the NPCs dominant personality traits. If this is systemized in some fashion, it can add meaning, subtext, and consequences to player actions during non-social scenes (like combat or a skill challenge).

Establishing the Need for Care in Certain Setting Types

Lets say you want to play a high-biotech science fiction game. Your spaceship is a living being, your weapons are geneginered spore launching symbiots, and the melee characters are all modified to have chitinous plating and giant claws. These are all good, but not good enough. At this point, being a bio-tech game is just a “palette swap.” Things look different, but it is unlikely to significantly affect play.

Consider you have a campaign where magic is based on summoning spirits. A character casts a fireball by being possessed by a fire-dragon ghost, casts mage armor by summoning Hephaestus, and casts summon monster 1 by asking Quetzalcoatl to send a minion to help you. This sounds kind of cool to me, but I also find it unsatisfying. Once again, things end up being described differently but play will change very little.

A high-biotech sci fi and a high-conjuration fantasy are both setting types that emphasize the presence of living (or life-like) beings as the source of novel abilities. It seems natural, then, to look at interactions with living things for a source of novel play.

Living things in RPGs can act independently of the players, and make their own choices. They can react to PCs in a way that a mechanistic environment can not. That may have something to do with why combats are often more fun than environmental challenges, even though mechanically they can be equally challenging and incorporate nearly identical rules. Persistent NPCs ought to change and develop over time, if for no reason other than to remain interesting. In spite of this, the players’ choices and character development is far more important than the NPCs, so the development and choices of the NPCs must be obviously caused by the actions of the players.

The growth of the NPCs must be led by the players. Unless the players wish to be astoundingly manipulative, this implies a friendly relationship where the NPC cares what the player thinks. I propose that this is best done by allowing the players to nurture competing character traits in the NPCs, so that one may become dominant. This is analogous to a care-giving role in real life.

Step 1: Competing Character Traits

To keep things simple, each NPC has 2 competing character traits. Divide these traits along a simple dichotomy: public vs. private. Private will be traits exhibited amongst friends or when less than 2 other people are around. Public will be a trait exhibited when a single stranger or 2 or more other characters are present. We will consider all PCs friends for these purposes. There is overlap of these domains: large groups of friends, and one-on-one interaction with a stranger. It is during these interactions that the traits compete. When one eventually wins out, it becomes a permanent addition to that NPC’s set of traits, and the competition begins anew between two new traits.

Step 2: Nurturing the Character Traits

Characters gain the opportunity to encourage and discourage the various traits. They do so by taking actions with the NPC. Because these NPCs are directly the source of novel abilities in a high-biotech or high-conjuration setting, interaction with them is the same thing as using these abilities.

For example, an NPC is a living weapon. The public trait is “honest,” the private trait is “courageous.” Together they make the living weapon seem very honourable and knightly. Characters it would have a reason to interact with are (minimally) the person who wields the weapon, and the person who maintains the weapon. Maybe a sorcerer or genetic engineer will also be involved as more of designer, depending on whether its a spore-launching space cannon or a ghost bound into a sword.

When these characters interact with the living weapon in the way they would mechanically (swinging a sword, designing an upgrade to spore ammunition) they also can present opportunities for the NPC to exhibit its character traits. The PCs are put into a coaching and guiding role here, aiming to set up opportunities for the NPC to exhibit particular traits. When this happens, the GM is to take note.

For GURPS players ought there, note that the set of players who have reason to interact with the living weapon follows the “Design, Maintain, Use” trinity.

Resolution

Once both traits have been exhibited at least once, the private vs public domain is to be resolved by one trait being forgotten and the other being added as a permanent trait to the character. During the next scene where both the public and private domains apply, the GM judges which trait is better “set up” by the players for the given circumstances. Of course, if you stop to think about it, you will note that “setting up” an NPC to behave a certain way will largely be about controlling the circumstances under which that NPC is used. Specifying “for the given circumstance” might therefore seem a little bit redundant, but it is important to remember as it turns “set up” into something more objective-oriented instead of an abstraction.

In the case of the honest, courageous living weapon, it might be very difficult to behave courageously when no danger is around. If a PC really wants the weapon to be honest all the time, that PC should try and set up a scene where acting courageously just doesn’t make sense. A negotiation would work. Conversely, if the PC really wants their weapon to be able to make dishonest, treacherous attacks on enemies when their back is turned, they will want to make sure that the weapon has an opportunity to exhibit courage next time the weapon is used. Setting up such a scene might be a combat with unfavourable odds.

In the event that it makes sense for both traits to apply at the same time, the conflict is simply not resolved yet.

This is Not Drama

This is not supposed to simulate interesting internal conflict in the NPCs. Remember that the conflict is not between the traits, but between the domains in which they occur: public and private. If the conflict was between the traits then it would be up to the GM to decide which one became dominant, because the GM would get to make decisions for the NPC. Instead, it is up to the PCs (individually and as a party) to create the scenario where a particular trait will be exhibited because the scenario makes more sense for one of the traits to occur than the other, and the domains overlap so both could occur.

How to Handle More Direct Care-Giving

What if one player is just a natural nurturer, and wants to talk to the living gun about hopes and dreams? This should not be discouraged, as it shows that the players are really getting into the spirit of treating these NPCs as characters, not just sources of cool abilities. It is also very direct, and can result in heavy handed storytelling. I suggest that the GM take note of these moments, and use them as a “tie-breaker.” If its time to resolve the conflicting traits, but neither one can really become dominant, then consider how the tie-breaking PC treated the NPC, what they said to each other, and how that could impact anything the NPC would do. It might have no result at all, but maybe it will have an effect.

The Results of Development

I would say that, much like how character development is represented mechanically by the addition of new abilities, the same ought to be true for an NPC. Since these NPCs are the source of new abilities for the players, this means the players also get more abilities. How this would work is system specific. If its a spirit that bestows magical abilities, it might teach new spells to a wizard, or enchant a new magic item. If it’s a living-computer (ie. a supersmart, stationary living thing) it might learn some new targeting algorithms or the ability to hack normal computers and robots.

If these abilities are somehow known in advance in-universe, and different PCs want to unlock different abilities, we may have some very fun, very light, very dramatic, PvP occur as the players try to help the piece of living equipment develop in the way they prefer.

Example Campaign: The Living Ship

This is a game I’m currently working on for GURPS. It’s a high biotech sci fi game, mostly set on a spaceship. There’s a lot of major decisions I’m still making about it, the most significant of which is how to balance the time on the spaceship with time on planets. I know I want to favour the spaceship heavily, but keeping the players couped up together in the vacuum of space significantly limits their capacity to behave in surprising ways.

Don the Living Computer

The NPC: There is a living computer on board the ship. It will be named Don. It is capable of directing all of the ships systems, but the players can probably do it better. Since Don sits in a tray and can’t move, it requires the assistance of human beings for routine tasks (like maintenance) and under sub-optimal conditions (like space-combat). It will look like a happy octopus in a tray.

Public Trait: All of the players will submit traits they think it would be fun for the GM to play. The GM will choose one of these traits.

Private Trait: The GM will determing this personally. The players do not start out knowing what this trait is, but the GM should roleplay it clearly enough that it is easy for the players to figure it out quickly during play.

Nurturing the Traits: Many opportunities to interact with Don will present themselves, as Don can assist with almost any task. Think of how often the crew of the enterprise asked the computer a question.

Benefits of Resolution: Each time a new trait is permanently added to Don, it grows stronger neural pathways. This allows it to take control of a new piece of technology, allowing the PCs to add a new high-biotech gadget to their spaceship. This will be something like a better engine, new armor, cloaking device, a new gun, etc.

A new device comes with new traits: when a new device is added, everybody (including the GM) gets to submit a suggestion for public and private traits. The player who bought the device gets to pick the public trait from the suggestions. Everybody starts of knowing this trait. The GM picks the private trait in secret. The game begins again.

Living Personal Gear

In high-biotech games, characters are more likely to own their own Tauntauns than Speeders. These can acquire personality traits also, but it is far more minimal than the care-giving mini-game used with Don. Parts of the spaceship don’t count; they are all parts of Don.

Acquiring Traits: When a PC critically fails, the living equipment refuses to cooperate and gains a personality trait that explains the refusal. Living equipment won’t act against its own traits. This might make the equipment become useless for one PC, and not a problem for another.

Traits work in a similar way to the Daredevil Advantage: When using equipment in a way that is in line with a permanent trait, the PC cannot critically fail. However, the device will refuse to cooperate if it goes against a trait.

Abilities that Surprise the GM in GURPS

I really enjoy Mage: the Ascension, and a big part of the reason why is that the players are very surprising. The way magic works is so open ended that I find myself handling plans and situations I never would have expected. It occurs in the very short term (singular deeds during action scenes) and the very long term (plans that last a whole session).

GURPS is a very different kind of game. It is one of the best at giving options at character creation, and it is among the best for simulating detailed worlds or highly specific genres. At first glance it does not have any powers like magic in M:tA.  It appears too structured, and there are very few strongly open-ended advantages.  There are at least a few. I’m going to identify what some of them are, and fit them into some categories.

Social

Non-Social

Maybe

Contact Group

(individuals are more predictable)

Modular Ability

Blessed

Favour

Morph

Intuition

Gadgeteer

Serendipity

Lightning Calculator

Gizmos

Snatcher

Legal Immunity

Patron

Super Luck

Oracle

Special Sources*

Telekinesis

Racial Memory

 

Warp

Visualization

 

 

Wild Talent

*Special Sources:

Spirit Package: Medium and Spirit Empathy (so long as spirits are useful in the world)

Alien Package: Telecommunication (maybe), ultrasonic speech (maybe), Cultural Adaptability (xeno-adaptability). Gizmos or normal equipment could easily provide telecommunication, and (depending on the PCs job) the ability to do ultrasonic speech as well.

Animal Package: Animal Empathy, Tracking (a skill), and Naturalist (also a skill)

Explanation

I divided the advantages into three categories: social, non-social, and maybe. Social advantages are only as adaptable as the society or setting can be, and are therefore more adaptable as either TL or Mana goes up. However, in a low TL, low Mana campaign, the Animal Package under special sources might be useful. The fact that TL matters is why Gadgeteer and Gizmos went into this category.

The non-social advantages enable all sorts of wacky solutions to problems, and do not depend on being in a social environment that supports them. However, they also tend to be quite expensive. Arguably, the highly cinemeatic version of Gadgeteer could be put in this category.

The Maybes each are very open-ended, but largely rely on a permissive GM. Many of them are about acquiring information, so the character must be able to capitalize on this information through other means in order to surprise the GM in novel ways. Lightning Calculator could be used by characters with very high IQ and IQ skills to justify using IQ skills in very strange ways: using Physics to know how to most rapidly break down a wall, for example. Legal Immunity allows players to surprise the GM by performing deeds that would normally be completely out of the question. It only works if rampant criminal behaviour would be acceptable within the genre. Visualization can be surprising to the GM because the player’s description of how they visualize events can be thought of as an offer to the GM about what will happen. This provides a sort of social mini-game where the player wants to adjust the description so that the GM will want to make things occur exactly as the player described. This is not officially part of the ability, but it emerges quite naturally from the mechanics provided. The resulting ability to make suggestions to the GM using an in-game mechanic is very unique. It is among my favourite.

Invention

The invention rules enables players to surprise the GM all over the place, even without taking particular advantages. It does require a variety of specific skills, however. The higher the TL, the more that can be accomplished with Invention. There are no satellites designed to be deployed from orbit to beam power down to the away team? Invent it. Those satellites have now been invented, and the party is unable to think of a way to destroy an enemy base. Invent a weaponized version of those satellites. It’s really too bad the GM wanted the players to infiltrate the base and plant bombs, but those players sure are clever.

House Rule on Temporary Disadvantage Modifier

Many of these abilities are particularly expansive. To mitigate their cost, I would consider allowing “Cursed” to be attached to them as a Temporary Disadvantage. However, because the advantages can’t be turned on and off, it is instead tokenized. Each use of the advantage enables the GM to maliciously ruin the players plans, but this is a 1:1 trade.

What I like about this is that it gives the GM license to be as creative as they want when messing up a player. In such a way, the GM is allowed to be as creative at foiling the players plans as the players are encouraged to be when foiling the GM’s plans. I think it would be fun for the players to see how the GM maliciously harms their plans, just as it is fun for the GM to be surprised by the players. Tying this to the more expensive abilities makes them easily affordable in lower point games, also. Since a player could choose to take Warp or just build the world’s strongest soldier, reducing the point cost of warp to just 25% of the normal cost will make it far more inviting.

Here’s an example: A player uses Patron (temporary disadvantage: Cursed) to call in an orbital bombardment. Instead of infiltrating an enenmy base, they just blow it up. The GM is now allowed to completely hose that player’s plans once. This should be used to maliciously introduce complications into the players plans. The GM writes this down, smiles evily, and bides their time. Later on, that character is on a mission to defend a hidden base from an attack of crack comandos. The player makes all the best plans and decisions, but the GM decides to maliciously have the commandos run into a band of helpful locals. Do you remember the ewok battle in Return of the Jedi? The players are now basically the stormtroopers in that battle.

Settings and Adventures that Focus on These Powers

To best maximize the potential of these advantages, playing in a high TL is a must. A sci fi setting can still enable all of these advantages, with the exception of Blessed and Oracle (both of which can be replaced easily with intuition). A sci-fi setting will often be limited by the skills of the PCs to use either devices or social resources. Electronics Operation and the various Interaction Skills come to mind.

Different abilities work on different time frames. Patron and Gizmos could both be used to get equipment, but only Gizmos could be used in the middle of a chase scene. Patron is far more powerful, however, when there is sufficient time to use it. Keep this in mind when designing adventures.

Long Time Frame (Zoomed Out)

Short Time Frame (Zoomed In)

Both

Contact Group

Gizmos

Morph

Favour

Modular Ability

Serendipity

Gadgeteer

Telekinesis

Snatcher

Patron

Warp

Super Luck

Blessed / Intuition / Oracle / Racial Memory

Wild Talent

Visualization (but not combat, because it takes 60 seconds)

Legal Immunity

Lightning Calculator

 

This means that an adventure ought to have problems that occur on multiple time frames. Various technical problems work well for adventure stories, and can occur both in a very short and very long time frame. Exploration problems (like getting around a canyon, or opening a locked door) can also take a wide variety of time frames. Navigating social conventions can also be time consuming or very quick, and work well for dramas or intrigues. Reasoning and investigation also work for mysteries, and can be very quick or very long.

Of course, if a GM is willing to be surprised, there plans will need to be very broad. Otherwise they will be forced to improvise wildly.

Probing the Enemy, Anime Style

If you enjoy anime, you may have noticed that sometimes people are in a duel with one another and they spend most of their time talking. A significant portion of time will sometimes be spent with a close up on one character, while their inner monologue provides an in depth analysis of their opponent. When done effectively, this is enjoyable because it shifts the genre slightly away from action and into either drama or mystery. In an action story it is largely arbitrary who wins. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is mostly psychological the action scene ends up being shifted towards a drama, and character development becomes the means by which the combat is decided. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is part of their tools or combat style, it becomes a mystery. Many stories use both, simultaneously.

The director and writer have a difficult task in keeping the audience interested. Often the dialogue during the fight is actually about the protagonist finding sufficient motivation and obtaining sufficient status (the theater concept of status, not the sociological one) to fight without restriction. This is the kind of battle where the main participants often have philosophical discussions during the fight. Lets call this a drama-fight.

This can largely be contrasted with the “mystery fights.” Here the director and writer have the difficult task of pacing the delivery of information about an opponents fighting style, powers, and tools. The information must be relayed quickly enough that the audience can make educated guesses about how the protagonist will defeat the enemy, and the information must be relayed subtly enough that it doesn’t become overly obvious what the writer’s intent is. This is the same challenges that confront mystery movies. The role of detective in these stories tends to be replaced by a martial artist. The climax where the detective reveals what happened is replaced with the martial artist explaining how they’re defeating the opponent. This mystery-fight is resolved much more quickly than a normal mystery, as the story relies more on the spectacle of the resolution after the climax than the gradual increase in tension prior to the climax. This makes sense: martial arts stories have a lengthy and amusing martial art battle that ends the story, and mystery stories have a long and stressful investigation with a short resolution.

For extreme ways to incorporate these into games, look at these: https://creativegamemaster.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/alternative-types-of-action/

Less Extreme Example: My Mage Game

While initially my mage game used a lot of “trump battles,” once I decided to start incorporating damage and health values it ended up being exactly the same as standard M:tA combat. This happened largely because white wolf is a minimalist system. My mage game now uses no house rules that pertain to combat, but I turn every battle into a “mystery-fight.” This change happened largely by accident, and it is quite enjoyable.

This is accomplished by making the enemy much stronger than the players, but making it so that all their powers fit into a narrow theme. As soon as the players figure out what that theme is, they can start to turn the tide of battle. To figure out what the theme is, the players make a variety of attacks and seeing how the enemy defends themself, and analyze how the enemy attacks them.

This works because, in M:tA, magic operates under (minimal restrictions) that vary from mage to mage: paradigm and focus. These are largely narrative restrictions, and largely designate what a mage needs to be able to do magic. There are also the thematic focus I put on the magic as the GM, and the game mechanics of spheres. It might sound abstract, but that’s Mage for you. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.

The most recent example is a fight against a Void Engineer (a statement that means nothing unless you are one of the few M:tA players still out there). The more important part is that this character had the power to understand the location of people and things with a degree of precision that is positively superheroic, and manipulate them with an equal degree of precision. The theme was precision in space. Their magic was all “correspondence 3,” which means they could sense and manipulate the location of themselves and other things. Their paradigm only allowed them to use magic if it could be explained away by luck or skill, and their main foci are observation or large movement. The fight was in a cramped office.

The void engineer’s opening move was to dive over a counter and kick a display table of fliers, in such a way that the fliers spray up into a perfect wall that obscures vision perfectly for just one second. He then launches a surprise attack from behind this cover. During this moment of brief invisibility, one player used luck magic to shoot him anyway, and the other PC uses life magic to transform into some kind of hulking, bulletproof muscleman, and attempt to grab the void engineer. The void engineers second move was to dodge to the side in such a way that a PC ended up “falling” into another PCs line of fire. The PCs, having figured out that this guy was just too darn mobile, decided they needed to stop him from moving so much. One of the PCs is a time mage, so he decided to slow down time the next time the void engineer attempts one of their fancy magical maneuvers. A different PC decided it was time to try and wrestle and pin the void engineer to the ground. The void engineer was going to try and escape outside where, with a gun in hand and lots of space, he would have a significant advantage. Unfortunately, time slowed just as he attempted to make a break for it, and then he was pinned to the ground.

Note how all the actions were pretty normal combat actions for a game of Mage, but by providing a powerful but narrow theme to the enemy’s magic it was possible to treat it like a mystery to solve. Once the players figure it out, the problem is really easy to solve. This makes it quite different to play than a “trump battle,” where it plays more like a puzzle.

Campaign Idea: Building a Dyson Swarm

So I’ve been working on a sci fi setting for a GURPS game for a little while now.  My starting points were as follows:

  1. I want the game to be based around a single star.  It could be the solar system, or the players could have gone to another solar system on some kind of sleeper ship.  It doesn’t matter.
  2. A Dyson Swarm is slowly being built.
  3. This is all done with technology that is plausible given current scientific knowledge.

A key feature here is how much would go into a megaproject.  If you’ve ever read Red Mars, you have an idea of what I’m thinking.  Most, if not all, of the characters will be highly technically proficient individuals in specialized fields.  Some of these fields will be on the cutting edge of science and technology, so academia and the accompanying politics might come into play.  Being a hghly lucrative megaproject, it makes sense that economic interests would come into play.  National interests might come into play as the capacity to harness huge amounts of energy could be weaponized in some form.  More cultural and personal interests might also matter, as part of the swarm will be habitats intended for human habitation.  This can be for the spread of a culture or a religion, or to just getting a place for a person’s family to live in relative safety and happiness.  Finally, environmental redundancy might be a goal: creating a backup biospheres in space, just in case of a massive catastrophe on earth.

All the motivations will usually not be at odds with one another, because each motivation is served by the construction of the Dyson Swarm.  However, there will be small ways that they are in conflict with one another.  The GM can easily make these small conflicts of interest the main force of the game.

The result is a PVP intrigue game.  Lets look at the details of making the PvP work.

Keeping the PvP in Check

The force keeping the players united, in spite of acting at cross purposes, is that they all want to see the Dyson Swarm built.  Since routine job performance isn’t exactly exciting, the action in-game that represents this is technical, disaster-movie style problems that affect the players’ entire ship or the satelite they are currently working on.  While working on a satelite that will beam power somewhere, a bunch of stuff lights on fire.  We now have Towering Inferno…  IN SPACE!  The ship is decompressing due to massive damage to the hull.  This can be used as an analogue to a sinking ship, and create The Poseidon Adventure in Space.

The force that causes players to act against one another will be influence.  Each PC has influence within at least one organization.  This doesn’t mean that they’re people of rank and privilege (although they could be).  If there’s only one person on the ship who is a member of the Spacer’s Occupational Health and Safety Audit Commision, they would have influence within whatever bureaucracy oversees public and occupational safety within the setting.  It doesn’t matter if they are a low ranked book keeper who helps out with the occasional audit or if they are a high ranked executive director; they are the only person able to represent the organization’s interest on the ship, and the only person able to provide insider information to the organization about the ship and the dyson sphere.

The players will aim to involve crisis management techniques that support their organization over other players’ organizations.  They will aim to do their routine job-related tasks in ways that encourage certain types of satelites to be built over others.  In order for the ship to have some choice in what kind of satelite is built, the nature of their obligation to build things will need to be very broad.  Instead of being assigned “build a power satelite at these coordinates” it would need to be “build 10 satelites, at least 3 of which must be power satelites, but the rest may be your decision based on availability of materials and labour.”  In order for this kind of order to be reasonable, there needs to be some reason for high degrees of variance in the availability of material and labour.  If the process is so unpredictable as to constantly lead to disaster movie-like problems, then that will certainly cause a wide variety of unexpected uses of resources.

I figure there will be several ways for a player to “win” during a crisis:

  1. Be the person to overcome an immediate problem or the crisis as a whole.
  2. Supply a plan that is used to overcome the problem, while proving the value of the organization the character represents.

Suppose that one character is a Union Rep for the Spacers’ Union and is a “plasma containment technician” (ie. a blue collar trade of some kind dealing with fusion reactors and other exceedingly hot, very high energy, mechanical devices), and another character is a physicist who is strongly associated with Simultaneity Theory (a fictional theory about the nature of space-time that might lead to the development of faster than light travel).   The crisis is that a power distribution satelite is on fire, and shooting lasers all over the place.  Lets look at the possible combinations of how these characters could both “win.”

Technician

Physicist

Actions

1

1

The technician repairs things. The physicist interprets sensor readings to give warnings and clues about the spread of fire.

1

2

The technician repairs things on the satellite. The physicist models the ship to accurately predicts where the fire will spread next, demonstrating the general applicability of the Simultaneity Theory’s methods of analyzing situations.

2

1

The technician organizes the small crew on the burning satellite via union authority, and the physicist interprets sensor readings.

2

2

The small satellite crew repairs the ship and are organized through the union. They receive advanced warning from the physicist’s mathematically advanced models.

Stealing Credit and Increasing Intrigue

Lets suppose 2 players win with a “type 2” win.  Since part of the game is pvp intrigue, I want the players competing with each other for these “type 2” wins.  Only one organization will get most of the credit.  After all, a newspaper headline might read “Heroic Scientists Saves the Day with Cutting Edge Theory” or “Union Workers Band Together and Save Countless Lives.”  It probably won’t read “Heroic Scientists Saves the Day with Cutting Edge Theory and Union Workers Band Together and Save Countless Lives.”

To pull this off, players can manipulate the politics in three areas: on board the ship, within media pertaining to their professions (ie. journals), and the broader public media (ie. the news).  I will call these “Influence Domains.”  The goal will be to “spin” perception of the type 2 contributions so that only one player’s contributions are recognized within 3 Influence Domains.

We can also have a big reward for being the “hero of the day.”  This is the character who takes the most credit for “type 1” contributions.  It only includes the internal politics of the ship.

Building the Intrigue into an Action Economy Game

I’m going to say the default options for PCs during time between crises are as follows: Rest and Relaxation (R&R), Overtime, and Intrigue.  R&R is required for healing and to spend Bonus Points (ie. experience, for those of you who aren’t GURPS players), and can also manipulate internal politics.  Overtime allows the players to earn extra money, and can also manipulate professional politics/journals within only their field (because a construction worker cannot manipulate a journal about medicine by pulling extra hours, but might be able to manipulate perception about their own work).  Intrigue means the player is deliberately playing politics, and can manipulate any one of the 3 domains: internal politics, journals, or public media.

In between crises, players will have the opportunity to take 2 downtime actions.  Someone must be the only person with support in all 3 domains at the end of these 2 downtime actions to win.  Also, it is publicly available who has the support of whom.  Once a player has no support at all, another character can manipulate the politics within the ship to stop them from gaining support from this solution.  The combination of these rules is intended to prevent players from rapidly using intrigue to win immediately.  A particularly strong reaction against someone about to take all the credit might end up in them being “kicked out.”  The system of being able to kick people out is intended to slowly weed people out, in the event that everyone is playing very “defensively.”  In the event of a stalemate, players may end up forming secret alliances!  That sounds fun.

To determine if a character starts with the support of any of these organizations or public media, use Reaction Rolls.  It is highly plausible that a character will start with the support of their professional organization if the player impressed them,.  Depending on their rank and popularity within the ship, they might start with the support of the crew also.  Support of the broader media is hardest to gain.  This is all built into the relative costs of gaining reputation, and whether or not the bonus from Rank will apply: the smaller the affected group, the less it costs.  In the case of the ship (and only the ship), Rank will also have an effect.  In all cases, therefore, a simple reaction roll is all that’s necessary: a result of 11 or more means the players have support.

As the campaign goes on, players will often end up attempting to claim credit for multiple crises simultaneously.  Unfortunately, their action pool remains the same regardless.  If a character has made a type 2 solution to prevent a fire from destroying a satellite, and then also used a type 2 solution to prevent a poisonous gas leak from killing the residents of a habitation station, then there are currently 2 ongoing crisis resolutions the character can attempt to steal credit for.  The more type 2 solutions a character is currently attempting to claim, the more their actions will need to be divided up.  It may be more useful for a character to focus on just one at a time, which will make it easy for other characters to steal the credit on other missions.  Players may find it useful to negotiate “ceasfires” in order to gang up on someone who is about to win the credit for a pre-existing resolution.

Length of downtime will affect how much money a player gets from Overtime and the maximum complexity of skill they can learn in the R&R.  As such, it is important for the GM to vary the amount of time between crises to entice players to take Overtime or use R&R.  If a player is consistently stealing all the credit and has a large surplus of Bonus Points, a lengthy downtime will encourage them to spend an action on R&R and give the other players a chance to steal credit in other areas.  The GM should aim to use the length of downtime to keep the PVP competitive.  This will be most useful for ensuring that one player doesn’t get really far ahead; it won’t be useful for helping a player who falls behind get back in.

Campaign Progression:  History in the Making

I figure what might be fun is if this campaign is tied broadly to humanity and its relationship to space.  The campaign would start with a minimal space industry: some asteroid mining, some manufacturing in space, a scientific installation or two, and maybe a small amount of space tourism.  As the campaign goes on, important events can occur like planetary colonizations, terreforming, launching interstellar probes, and eventually end with a colony ship leaving for another star system.  Building towards each milestone will represent a discrete portion of the game.

Exactly what human beings choose to do might vary based on the beliefs of characters and the organizations they represent.  For example, an environmentalist organization that wants to create backup biospheres in space, they may want to create artificial, earth-like environments in space, but be ethically opposed to genetically engineering all the plants needed to terreform a planet.  Conversely, a nation that seeks glory or a character seeking to alleviate population pressure may want to terreform a planet in order to settle it as quickly as possible.

To keep the story neat and tidy, the various requirements for these projects should require the Dyson Swarm in obvious ways.  For example, beam-powered propulsion might be the norm.  As such, expanding the power infrastructure of the Dyson Swarm might contribute directly to being able to ship people around the solar system with ease.  I think beam powered propulsion is the best explanation for most of these space exploration/exploitation milestones.  The only notable exception I can think of is for the advancement of pure science, which may instead benefit from a variety of observation outposts, research centers, and communication relays.

A key point of the campaign, and probably the first milestone, will be when the PCs expand the dyson swarm to a point where multiple ships can be supported.  The PCs will now have a ship to compete with, which can be fun.  Depending on how the PCs interact with their competition, it can lead to the PCs having allied and enemy ships.  Maybe there will even be space pirates, if that fits the tone of the game.  This also implies, without actually saying, that the process of developing space industry is one of exponential growth.  This implication is largely necessary if the players are ever to complete the Dyson Swarm.

A good question for each PC to answer would be “Why is space important?”  An example would be “Human beings need more energy and raw materials to run machines, as the alternative is to expect people to spend more time doing backbreaking labour.”  Another example would be “Energy-beaming satelites has obvious potential for weaponization, so I must ensure that my country has at least a few of them under its control.”  This can help the GM prepare the milestones they wish to use.  The first example might inspire some terrestrial mega-structure as a milestone, like an Orbital Ring or Launch Loop.  The second example might use the first war in space as a milestone.  It is certainly a less optimistic milestone, for sure.

My Inspiration

As I mentioned before, I’ve been mulling over this campaign idea for quite some time.  My original idea was much more “modest.”  Instead of building a Dyson Swarm, the players are at an L5 Bernal Sphere.  They do a similar job, but it’s a bit more “zoomed in.”  They would build and maintain every step along successful asteroid mining, for example.  The milestone that ends the whole campaign might be similarly more modest, such as a mars colonization mission.  Such a campaign would play similarly, and by virtue of being more modest can also be far more plausible.  The greater attention to detail might available in such a campaign might also be good for “Hard Sci Fi” nerds.

Anyway, what inspired me to share this idea was learning about “lightcraft” and wireless power transmission.  I figured trying to build a Dyson Swarm might facilitate a story that includes these technologies more prominently, just because harnessing energy is the main reason to build a Dyson Swarm in the first place.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightcraft

 

Excellent examples of Improv Techniques

Example of Offering and Endowing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTlYKkm86Vo

This is a very good example of using offering and endowing.

For the first 3 minutes there are lots of offers about who they are and what they’re doing. Note how they offer who they are, what they are doing, where they are, and what the conflict is.

At about 3 minutes there starts being lots of endowments. Mostly about horses.

Then from about 5 minutes on they begin offering and endowing about the new character in the scene, and accompanying details about the first few characters.

At about 13 minutes it starts going off the deep end, but they succeed at bringing it back to the first few details they added. This gets them another 4 minutes of humorous dialogue.

At 18 minutes they introduce the kinetiscope and run more with that.

At 21 minutes they add more detail to the character traits introduced in the 5-13 minute range. This is what allows them to resolve the central conflict that drives the scene.

Note that because they never use a lot of status related acting, achieving a resolution at the end of the story requires the introduction of new details. The conflict that is, at it’s heart, interpersonal in nature, cannot be resolved in a satisfactory way by one character becoming less important.

Example of Status

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5se8qQ4K8G0

Note how this group aims to tell a long term story with slightly more serious characters than the previous example. They still make many, many jokes. They end up using status quite frequently, because they don’t want to resolve conflicts using silly methods. They want the story to make sense. The third scene (15 minutes and 50 seconds into the video) is an excellent example: they never say the guy on the left is the girls boss until well into the scene, but it is obvious. Watch how they end the scene with a status change: the woman assumes high status, the boss assumes low status. It feels very satisfying, and like she is going to get what she wants. This is actually just a set up for a joke of the “bait and switch” variety, but note how they use the status change to set up the “bait.” The fifth scene is quite good for status also (28 minutes). They actually use status so regularly that it’s kind of silly to emphasize each scene that uses it.

Space Navy Action Scenes

I was reading a different blog a while back, and it mentioned a problem with sci fi spaceships in RPGs. Generally speaking, they follow the model laid down in Startrek. Each member of the crew has a specialty: one operates weapons, one operates sensors, one is the pilot, etc. The problem for a game that operates on this model is that the vast majority of choices are made by the commanding officer, and everyone else just gets to role. Most players don’t get to make decisions, and this is unsatisfying.

The Problem

How can decisions plausibly be divided up amongst the players without interfering with the specialized roles on board a ship?

The Solution is Social

Each character’s specialization comes with social roles. A sensors operator is supposed to inform the rest of the crew about what is going on. A weapon operator is supposed to shoot at things, and maybe operate defensive equipment also. The commander is supposed to tell everyone what to do. With that in mind, lets look at social behaviour to find a way around this problem.

With this in mind, each action will involve multiple players. This overcomes the problem of overspecialization removing choice from players not in the command role. The next trick is to allow characters who would normally be suboordinate to declare their actions independently. This is primarily a social problem, and is overcome with roleplaying and the use of improvisational theater concepts. It is also a problem for action economies and time management systems (ie. Initative), but this is much easier to overcome.

Offering, Endowing, and Yielding

I am fond of improvisational theater, and to work our way out of this problem we need some improvsational theater concepts. I have written on them before, and I will cover them briefly here again.

Offering: doing or saying something that invites a reaction from someone else. Often, an offer introduces something new to a scene, but it does not need to.

Endowing: adding characteristics or definition to something already in the scene.

Yielding: responding to an offer.

Often a single act will fit into more than one category. Often the act of endowing actually doubles as an offer, in so far as it invites a response from someone else. Sometimes a yield also invites a response from someone else, thus making it simultaneously a yield and an offer.

Note how the actions taken by each role can be fit into each of these categories. Sensor operators offer by detecting new things in space, and endow by discovering the properties of the things in space. For example, a sensor operator might say something like “Captain, the enemy ship is leaking radiation.” and, in so doing, they are endowing the enemy ship and offering something for the other players to react to. A weapons operator might respond with “Programming missiles to track the radiation. Firing in 3. 2. 1.” In so doing, they are yielding to the sensor operator.

Note how this sounds remarkably like something that happens on the bridge of the enterprise during a battle. These exchanges occur quickly and independently of the captain on the enterprise, who will usually occasionally interrupt the process to assert that they should follow the plan proposed by someone else, or to shout “belay that order!” The commander role is almost unnecessary for these action scenes to play out, however. Most of the time the captain is just a yes man, and the rest of the time the captain’s role is to stop someone from doing something.

Broad Turn and Action Format

Initiative systems remain largely unchanged. The key part is that each player gets one turn per round. However, when it’s a players turn they must always offer or endow. Their offer or endow must line up with their specialized role. Any other player may respond to this, and it doesn’t even need to line up with their specialized role. However, they will tend to be more effective if it does line up with their role just because odds are good those skills are raised.

To keep the flow of the game at a faster pace, I would suggest making it so that the offering or endowing person doesn’t roll at all. However, it might still be desirable to have an effect that increases as the character becomes stronger at their specific role. The specifics of this would depend on the system. Alternity is pretty clear on how this works: at rank 1 it is a step 1 bonus, rank 4 it is a step 2 bonus, 7 it is a step 3 bonus, etc. In GURPS, I would suggest that the bonuses are +1 at level 11, +2 at level 13, +3 at level 16, and +4 at level 21. I came up with these numbers by using the usual values for degrees of success (0, -2, -5, and -10), and assuming a roll of 11 all the time.

The yielding character is the one who gets to roll. They get to decide what they are doing, of course, but it must be a reaction to the offer. Their results are determined normally. If someone totally ignores the offer they automatically fail their attempt. Note that there are ways to act against the spirit of the offer that do not ignore it.

Note that is far easier for some roles to offer than it is to yield, and vice versa. Players should take this into consideration when choosing what they would like to play as.

Enemy Initative

Since the players will quite plausibly end up taking 3-5 actions, which involve the actions of 6-10 characters, it can be quite cumbersome if the GM acts with a similar attention to detail. It is also potentially problematic in that this system could result in weapons being fired 3-5 time, before the enemy ship even gets to respond.

A nice simple way to handle this eventuality is to count the number of times a player yielded since the enemy ship acted, and give the enemy ship that many actions. If there are 4 players, and the enemy ship goes 2nd, then on the enemy’s first turn it only takes 1 action. On the enemy’s next turn, it takes 4 actions.

Example

We have 3 player characters: Captain Charidee, Noah the Weapons Operator (and Saurian alien), and Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie. They are all aboard the spaceship Marengo, a mighty warship. They are battling an enemy flying saucer.

GM tallies everyone’s initiative. It is as follows:

  1. Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie

  2. Captain Charidee

  3. Flying Saucer

  4. Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator

Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie says “Redirecting power to lasers.” Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator responds with “We need time for the lasers to charge. Beginning evasive maneuvers.” Noah makes an appropriate piloting roll, adds the bonus from Fancy-Bowtie’s engineering skill. The result is good, and the ships defenses go up. Note how Noah acknowledged what Fancy-Bowtie said, but chose to do something totally different than what Fancy-Bowtie obviously intended.

Captain Charidee analyzes the enemy. “They’re holding back. They’re prepping something big.” Fancy-Bowtie says “I’ve got a trick up my sleeves: flaring the engines. The radiation will mess up their tracking.” Fancy-Bowtie makes a check related to ECM, with a bonus from captain charidee’s tactics skill.

The flying saucer gets to take two actions, because two players have gone. It attempts to scan the ship to find a weakness in their defenses, and then shoot them with a plasma blaster. Fancy-Bowtie’s ECM causes some severe penalties on the sensor check, and the Flying Saucer fails. The attack roll must be made without the aid of a sensors operator and the players have the benefit of evasive maneuvers. The flying saucer fails its check, and thus does not hit.

Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator says “Lasers fully charged.” Captain Charidee says “Fire!” Oddly, in this situation it will end up being the captain that determines whether the attack hits, and the Weapons Officer skill is only for buffing the attack. They never got a target lock, so they’re lacking the significant aiming bonus. The players are lucky, though, and Captain Charidee rolls a hit with the weapons operation skill.

Hogging the Yields

It is certainly possible that someone will jump in and always take the yields. By virtue of being faster and more assertive than everyone else (and by the vice of not caring enough to share), no one else will ever get to roll. This problem can probably be solved by the GM reminding them to share, but if you prefer a system that uses special game mechanics, I have a suggestion: at end of every round, if no one has yielded twice or more, the captain gets a use of a special ability of some kind. I would suggest borrowing a page from GURPS: Action, and have the captain earn a use of Good Luck. Note how I said it is earned if no one yielded twice or more, and that this is different than if everyone yielded once.

Mage Tank #1: The Basic Model

This is the simplest and easiest way to make a mage tank that can tank right from level 1 and continue through to level 10. This is achieved by distributing ability scores in such a way that the mage is durable and tough without use of spells or special abilities, making the mage easy to play effectively.

Overview

There are two key elements to making a good tank: survivability and threat. Threat is what the character does that makes people want to attack you. Survivability is the ability to not die due to being attacked. For a mage-tank, the difficult thing to achieve is survivability. The opportunity cost of being able to survive frequent attacks will mean the mage will have a lower primary spellcasting ability. This means the player will want to avoid spells that offer saving throws, and instead focus on environmental effects, touch attacks, summoning, and buffs. However, as the character gains levels the more powerful and aggressive spells that offer saving throws should still be added in. I know some players feel the need to max the saving throw DC in order to use spells that offer saving throws, but just take my word for it that this is not actually necessary.

Levels 1 and 2

Regardless of whether the character is a wizard or a sorcerer, for this build they must have 14 dex, 14 con, and 14 in their primary spellcasting ability score. This is before applying racial modifiers to ability scores. They must also take the toughness feat. The character may be of any race, but a human, gnome, or halfling works the best. If the mage-tank is of any other race, they will need to wear leather armour. If human, they may either take dodge as their bonus feat or wear leather armour. I suggest the leather armour because I consider a 5% spell-failure chance negligable. At higher levels, this will be replaced with either Bracers of Armour or the Mage Armour spell. However, this is preference.

It is not necessary for a human to increase their primary spellcasting ability to 16; dexterity or constitution may be a reasonable choice depending on school specialization or bloodline.

For starting spells I suggest Chill Touch, Snapdragon Fireworks, or Shocking Grasp. They are similar in usefulness at level 1, but as the mage goes up levels they significantly alter the kind of threat imposed by the mage. Of these, I believe Snapdragon Fireworks is the most effective choice for a mage tank, but it is also the spell that does the least amount of damage.

It is at level 2 where the main difference between these spells becomes obvious. Snapdragon fireworks requires a move action to shoot a firework at an enemy, allowing the mage to continue to use standard actions however they want each round. This provides the enemy with significant incentive to harm the mage as quickly as possible, to prevent the mage from shooting a firework again the next round. Chill Touch requires a standard action, but does not consume additional spells and will not cause attacks of opportunity in the 2nd round of use. This makes it very effective if the enemy chooses to continuously attack the mage. Both Chill Touch and Snapdragon Fireworks fill a similar role: both turn the mage into a lasting threat. Shocking Grasp is a one-off spell that does large amounts of damage. If the enemy does not keep the mage within their threatened area, shocking grasp can be used to severely punish them for it.

Levels 3 and 4

It is at this point where spells that have duration of “1 round per level” are likely to last the entire combat, and spells that last “1 hour per level” are easy to schedule into an adventure. This is the point where chill touch and snapdragon fireworks are likely to be at their most useful. It is also the point where Mage Armour or Blur should be used to replace leather armour.

Based on experience during play, you will want to decide whether your mage-tank needs more survivability, one-shot damage, or persistant threat. If you need survivability, for a 2nd level spell take Blur or Mirror Image. If you feel your mage does not adequately punish opponents who do not engage the mage, take Burning Ray or Acid Arrow. If you want to impose a persistant threat, take Flaming Sphere; it uses a move action to deal 3d6 points of damage. Burning Gaze is a suitable alternative. Therefore it functions in a similar fashion to Snapdragon Fireworks.

Your character’s level 4 stat increase should be their primary spellcasting ability, unless they plan on taking Craft Wondrous Item. If so, they can be completely garanteed to increase their primary spellcasting ability above 14 with items by the time they need it (level 9 for wizards, level 10 for sorcerers).

Levels 5 and 6

Level 3 spells are the mage’s playground. Unfortunately, fireball is not a good choice for the Mage-Tank. The large area of effect makes it a poor choice for punishing opponents who do not engage the mage-tank in melee. An opponent who does not engage the mage-tank is likely attacking someone else, so the mage-tank will run the risk of blowing up their own allies with a fireball. Lightning Bolt will work better, but the mage may need to move to a new position to ensure they don’t hit an ally. This makes it largely incompatible with Snapdragon Fireworks or Burning Sphere.

For Survival Spells, go with Blink or Vampiric Touch. For punishment spells, go with Deep Slumber, Hold Person, Suggestion, Ray of Exhaustion, or Slow. For persistant threat, go with Summon Monster 3. Summon Monster 3 is special because it can summon 1d3 monsters from the Summon Monster 2 list, allowing you to gain multiple Elementals or Lemures. Because they are smart enough to understand and speaking is a free action, the mage can direct them to use aid another on any/all of their allies, which can be done while flanking enemies. This will give their allies either +4 to attack, or +2 to attack and +2 to defense. Keep in mind that multiple aid another bonuses stack, allowing the bonus to attack to max out at +8 and defense maxes out at +6 (+2 from 3 monsters, and +2 from flanking). This is a persistant threat because it requires that your character remain active in giving directions throughout the combat; an undirected summoned creature just attacks the mage’s enemies.

The strength of using summoned monsters in such a fashion is its flexibility. Haste provides a stronger aggressive buff, but it is spread out across the party and has minimal defensive applications. Being able to give a beleagured ally a wopping +6 to AC can make that ally seem like a very unappealing target. Giving a single ally +8 to their attacks will result in large amounts of damage if that ally has the sneak attack ability, the power attack feat, the expertise feat, or multiple attacks from any source. If the entire party is spread out, and everyone is fighting their own target 1 on 1, the summoned monsters can join in the fight and either use aid another on each party member or attack and provide a flanking bonus. There is also significant downside to the haste spell for a mage-tank: haste will usually make other allies into a bigger threat than the mage. Summon Monster 3 avoids this by requiring the mage to give commands (a free action) every turn.

Levels 7-10

At this point of the game onward, spells start to become highly situational. Stoneskin is a great spell to help the mage the survive, but it is unlikely that a defensive buff that strong will be useful very often. Beast Shape 2 is an especially good way to impose a lasting threat because it can grant the mage Grab and Trip. It is therefore a very effective way of forcing enemies to engage the mage, because they are unable to leave. Unfortunately, casting spells while polymorphed is seldom effective, so there isn’t a way to punish anyone who manages to escape the mage. Phantasmal Killer and Enervation are excellent punishment spells, but are completely useless against certain types of opponents.

It is within levels 7-10 that a mage will gain access to their really cool class abilities or prestige classes. My favourite of these abilities is probably the Transmuters (beast shape 2 for a number of rounds/day equal to class level), but that is just preference. The abilities unlocked here are the main consideration for bloodlines and school specializations.

Dazing Spell is a very useful metamagic feat at this point in the game. It can be applied to either Chill Touch or Snapdragon Fireworks. Do not get Dazing Spell confused with Dazzling Spell. Dazzling Spell is not very useful.

Combat Plan

In the first round of combat it is almost always a good idea to use a “lasting threat” spell (snapdragon fireworks, flaming sphere, summon monster 3, etc) as these are more powerful the longer the combat lasts. Thereafter, the mage must adjust their choices based on whether they are being attacked or not. If they are not being attacked, they must punish their opponents for allowing them to cast spells freely. If they are being attacked, they must take measures to ensure they survive (and maybe do some damage at the same time).

If the mage focuses on spells that impose a lasting threat and the opponent does not attack them, they become more dangerous in later rounds of combat. Consider that flaming sphere and chill touch will combine to be a possible of 4d6 damage every turn at level 3 (4 for sorcerers), which can be a very efficient use of spell slots. Contrast this with straightforward damage spells, and you will see that it takes 4 spells (at level 3) or 3 spells (at level 4) to surpass that amount of damage.

Round

Spell

Total Damage Dice

1

Flaming Sphere

3d6

2

Chill Touch

7d6

3

11d6

4

(flaming sphere ends)

12d6

The ideal circumstance is, therefore, that the mage is left alone and able to cast these spells. However, in the interest of defending team mates, a more severe and immediate punishment can be called for. This depends on the specifics of the combat; if a shocking grasp will kill an opponent in 1 round and a chill touch will kill it in 2, it is better to kill it in 1 round, even if over the course of 3 rounds the chill touch will do more damage over all. This is where preference, team interaction, and the opponent’s strategies all can effect play. Have fun!

Spell Schools and Bloodlines

When picking a specialization or a bloodline, there are only two concerns for the Mage Tank: level 1 abilities and the abilities unlocked during levels 7-9. As very few of the level 1 abilities do large amounts of damage, it is better to look at abilities that can cause severe debuffs. The best spell schools are therefore Enchantment, Illusion, and Necromancy. Conjuration is the only spell school that can do a competitive amount of damage with their level 1 spell like ability: acid dart. If the mage is any other spell school, they must take shocking grasp. They will otherwise lack a significant threat at level 2 if the enemy ignores them. If the Mage is an enchanter, illusionist, necromancer, or conjurer, however, they ought to begin the game knowing chill touch and snapdragon fireworks, and then take mage armor at level 2. Arcane Bond will need to be an object, because otherwise the character is far too limited by their small number of spells per day at low levels.

As far as sorcerer bloodlines go, Aberrant and Elemental have reasonable damage dealing abilities at level 1. Fey, Infernal, and Undead can impose some potent debuffs. The Karmic Sorcerer (a wildblooded variant of the Destined Sorcerer) is particularly interesting for a mage tank, as they get a power that can be used as an immediate action on enemies who attack them. I am of the opinion that the Aberrant bloodline is the strongest, but any sorcerer bloodline can be an effective tank if spells are used well.

If the character is a human and takes Weapon Finesse as their bonus feat, the various bloodlines that bestow natural attacks become effective: Draconic, Abyssal, and Serpentine. Serpentine is especially fun because of the Serpentfriend power, which allows the character to speak with animals for reptilian animals. This allows the mage to use Summon Monster 2 to summon 1d3 vipers, and tell them to use assist other, 2 whole levels before this is available to other. The mage could even use Summom Minor Monster and do this at level 3 with tiny lizards, but this seems a little bit silly. I do enjoy the idea of a character who screams “hold him back, boys” to an army of blue tongued skinks, and then run up and bite the enemies with remarkable finesse.

A Basic Mage-Tank: Gnome Sorcerer Tank.

The first build is for people who want to only use content from the pathfinder player’s handbook. I call it The Manipulative Trickster. It fits into the archetype of a magical gnome who evades and confuses their enemies. The character begins the game as a gnome sorcerer with 14 dex, 16 con, and 16 charisma. They begin the game with the toughness feat, and choose hit points for their favoured class bonus. The character is Fey Blooded, and begins the game with Snapdragon Fireworks and Sleep.

At level 3, learn Mage Armour and Entangle (as a bloodline spell). Woodland stride is unlikely to be a very useful ability. For the 3rd level feat, take combat casting.

At level 4, increase constitution, learn Flaming Sphere, and replace Snapdragon Fireworks with Shocking Grasp. Since this character won’t be learning Dazing Spell, Snapdragon Fireworks will become less useful as the game continues.

Upon reaching level 5, evaluate your AC based on the gear the GM has allowed you to find or purchase. If your character’s HP is lower than 41 (unlikely), or their AC is lower than 20 (fairly likely), learn the Blur spell. Otherwise, pick Acid Arrow. The bloodline spell Hideous Laughter is a powerful spell for punishing opponents who do not engage you. Pick your new 1st level spell for utility or story telling purposes. Charm Person or an illusion spell fits with the theme.

At level 6 take Spell Focus: Enchantment and learn Hold Person. Hold Person and Hideous Laughter are both enchantment (compulsion) spells, so between the feat and the Fey bloodline arcana the save DC will be 3 higher. This is quite the benefit. However, if the campaign consists mostly of fighting non-humanoid, undead, or construct opponents take point blank shot and learn blink instead. In such a case, retrain Blur (if taken) into Acid Arrow or Burning Ray.

At level 7, take dodge for the bloodline feat. Deep slumber is another powerful compulsion spell that is gained as a bloodline spell, and it may make sense to add Suggestion as a general utility spell also.

At level 8 learn Beast Shape 2, retrain hold person into vampiric touch (it is redundant to have hold person and deep slumber), and increase constitution. At level 12 and up, charisma will begin to be increased. In this fashion, no charisma boosting items will be required to obtain access to higher level spells until level 16. If your character hasn’t found even a Headband of Allurin Charisma +2 by level 16, you have the world’s stingiest GM

At level 9 take Greater Spell Focus (enchantment). Compulsion spells will remain very useful the whole game long, even with only 16 charisma at this stage of the game, thanks to a total of +4 to save DC. The Fleeting Glance ability is excellent for getting into optimal position for tanking in the first round of combat, or escaping late in combat when a long fight of successful tanking leaves you almost dead. Poison (the new bloodline spell) will be useful against opponents that you know have low fortitude saving throws, but the low charisma score makes it very unreliable against anyone else.

At level 10, Telekinesis is the spell of choice. It is versatile, and can be used either for sustained threat (through combat maneuvers or dropping heavy objects on opponents) or for a punishing burst of damage using the “violent thrust” option. Depending on how often you are in fights before having the opportunity to rest, you may wish to retrain Flaming Sphere for a utility spell of some kind.

The Necromancer Tank

This Mage-Tank requires Ultimate Magic, and makes extensive use of the new feats based off of Spell Focus (necromancy).

Make the character human, with 14 dex, 14 con, and 16 intelligence. Take Toughness and Spell Focus (Necromancy). Take a ring for the bonded object. Opposition schools are Evocation and Abjuration. Take hit points for your favoured class bonus Wear leather armour at level 1. Begin the game knowing Chill Touch, Ray of Fatigue, and mage armor. When preparing spells, make sure you prepare Touch of Fatigue and Disrupt Undead (both 0 level spells), and chill touch twice. Touch of Fatigue followed by Ray of Fatigue is a very potent combination when fighting a single, very powerful opponent. Use Arcane Bond to cast the Ray of Fatigue if you find yourself in this situation. Note that using the spells in the reverse order doesn’t work. Take a rank in linguistics. Learn Aquan.

At level 2, start preparing mage armor also. Put another point in linguistics. Learn Auran. Add cause fear to your spell book; it is one of the few necromancy spells that is resisted by will instead of fortitude.

At level 3, take Skeleton Summoner (a feat from UM) and learn Summon Monster 2. Use it to summon 1d3 Skeletons, and use them for the aid-another trick, because skeletons will follow basic commands from their controler (unlike summoned monsters with low intelligence, which only attack enemies). Put another point in linguistics. Learn Ignan. Also learn Ghoul Touch.

At level 4, increase intelligence. Necromancy spells are mostly “save negates,” so high intelligence is very useful later in the game. You won’t need to increase Con or Dex to make the character more durable, because the skeletons can buff your defenses quite nicely if necessary. Put another point in linguistics. Learn Terran. Learn the spell “Defending Bone.”

At level 5, learn and prepare summon monster 3 and Vampiric Touch. Use summon monster 3 to summon 1d4+1 human skeletons. For a feat, take Greater Spell Focus (necromancy). Stop putting points into linguistics, and start learning Knowledge Religion. By this point, the GM might be getting annoyed about all the skeletons. The GM may start using enemies with area of effects to start clearing out all your minions, outnumber your minions so it’s easy to kill them all off quickly, or start sending you against enemies who can turn undead. Don’t worry; you speak all the elemental languages and with summon monster 3 you can summon 1d3 elementals and communicate with them. If the opponent uses area of effects, it is most likely going to be fire damage, so summon fire elementals. If the opponents outnumber your minions, use earth elementals instead; their natural damage reduction will make them nearly unkillable by huge numbers of weak opponents. In the unlikely event that it’s lightning damage, air elementals are so mobile that it’s very easy to not keep everyone in a straight line. Knowing Aquan is mostly for the sake of completeness.

At level 6, take Spell Specialization: Vampiric Touch. This works out to be an extra 1d6 damage. Continue to upgrade knowledge: religion, and add the spells Howling Agony and Accursed Glare. Accursed Glar is particularly valuable because it is resisted by will; a relative rarety among necromancy spells.

Level 7 is a necromancer’s playground. The three great combat spells are Boneshatter, Enervation, and Fear. Pick 2 of them to add to the spell book immediately. Boneshatter is the only of the spells that is useful against undead, but it is compeltely useless against opponents that don’t have bones (like Oozes). Continue to increase knowledge: religion.

Level 8 is a point of great interest to me because of the surprising defensive and “debuffing” power of Lifesight (a necromancer power unlocked at level 6). It can be combined with Obscuring Mist, Fog Cloud, Deeper Darkness, or Solid Fog, granting the necromancer the opportunity to fight with the defensive benefits of concealment while using Lifesight to not suffer the penalties on attack rolls.

At level 9, the necromancer gains the opportunity amusing opportunity to use Ghoul Army. Feat options open up significantly here, but I suggest taking Greater Spell Specialization: Vampiric Touch. Vampiric Touch is such a generally useful spell for a tanking mage that being able to cast it spontaneously will be very useful, and the effectiveness of the spell will continue to save up to level 18. Level up knowledge religion once, also.

At level 10, you can reach 6 ranks of knowledge: religion and take Thanatopic Spell metamagic feat. Now vampiric touch can be cast on undead too!