DMming PFS

13 June, 2013

Well! My first week running a PFS game. Went well, I think.

One character death, due to the party splitting up and scattering in an area they knew to be dangerous. As a result, they came at the BBEG one at a time like the bad guys in a martial arts movie, with the usual result. The final combat was great, though, and their dropping of the boss was cinematic. I’m especially pleased how the samuari’s “you get one final round after being dropped below 0” came into play. He got the killing hit, after it had been softened up by the sorcerer. The player has good reason to be pleased with how his character performed.

Got it right: I used my iPad to access the paizo site to make the record of the session. This means that the players don’t get that delay waiting for the DM to put up the record – entered the PP and XP straight away at the end of session.

Got it wrong: I was missing two items that I should have brought with me – pregen sheets and my map eraser.

Permit me to record here what you need to run a game, both for you and for my own benefit next fortnight.

General source materials
Core Rulebook & Monster Manual
Rookie error to forget these. The modules don’t have statbloocks for standard monsters. You must have these books.
I think I’ll print these out and laminate. This means I can reuse the sheets.
PFS rules
Didn’t need these on the night, but I out to have brought hardcopy of the character creation rules, at least.
World maps
When playing, I like to know where I am, and I assume the players want the same. I had a map of the continents of Golarion, the inner sea map, and a map of Xian Tia. Laminated for reuse. Ultimately I’ll wind up with a collection.
From the scenario:
the scenario itself
nasty moment there, when I though I had missed this
chronicle record sheets (8)
eight of these. I wound up with six players at the table, which is more than I expected, and you may need a spare.
GM record sheet
Didn’t need this, because I use the iPad and went straight to the site. Want to get myself a small bluetooth mouse/keyboard.
Faction missions (handout)
One of each is enough.
Major colour text (handout)
Didn’t actually use these, but I’d prefer to be able to hand out the mission briefing than to have to read it multiple times, if payers have questions.
Knowledge checks
I like having these as a handout. Just print each set in a column (c/p into a word document with narrow columns), cut out pre-game and at the table fold under the sections that the players didn’t get a good enough knowledge score to know. This means that the players can RP sharing what they know (or not, if their characters are of a secretive bent).
Scenario artwork
A pic of the venture captain, and the BBEG. Over time, hopefully, players will come to recognise the venture captains they have worked with, and this will provide a sense of continuity.
I find that on the mac, a copy/paste from preview grabs everything on the page, but the adobe reader will permit you to select the underlying images. This means you don’t have to edit the image to remove text.
Items for running encounters

Map, pens, eraser
I use a few a1 sheets which I prepared fairly cheaply. Generated a grid, printed them off at Officeworks at the cheaper “plan printing” rate, stained the paper with coffee, then took it back and had them laminated. About $20 each, all up. Brad at Good Games is kind enough to allow me to keep them at the store.
I mark maps with whiteboard eraser, which comes off the map with one of these weird chux sponge things. They are slightly abrasive, but don’t score the map excessively. Clean the map after the session! The whiteboard marker becomes difficult to remove if you let it sit for a week.

For the monastery itself, I had a Paizo map, borrowed from Ben.

For the monsters, and a few assorted ones for PCs and NPCs. I actually had a couple of my minis repainted for the purpose (I have a stack of wizards minis).
Dice, pencils.
Spare dice in case your players need them. (EDIT) but a better solution, when playing in a games store, is to point the players at the shop counter.
Spare paper
Always a good idea.
For the chronicle sheets. Buy a pack.
I dislike those fiddly magnetic initiative boards, I prefer to mark out the numbers 25 to 0 on the edge of the map and write in initials – blue for PCs, red for monsters. Everyone knows where they stand. If people’s initiative changes, it’s a simple matter to scribble out the initials and write them elsewhere in the order.

(I tend to get a little brusque with “Oh? Is it my turn? Hmm … I wonder what to do.” My response to this is “Delay. Next!” Inexperienced players get cut some considerable slack, of course, but it’s not fair for one player who should know better to waste six other people’s time. Especially when time is tight, which it tends to be in organised play.)

Things you need to do
Register the session on the paizo website
Makes everything run more smoothly
Read the module
Do I even need to mention this?
Pick out minis for the encounters
Bookmark monsters in the MM
I like post-it flag notes
Review rules
This means monster special attacks that you are unsure of, spells that you are unsure of, rules (such as altitude sickness) that you are unfamiliar with, condition effects that you are going to need to know.

I’m sure I will refine this list, but this is how it stands at the moment.

Overland game

22 January, 2013

You know, for a while I’ve been wondering how to do overland game, game that’s mesoscale.

In a computer game, you just have a big map. But you spend a fair amount of time just trudging from place to place. And in tabletop it just doesn’t work – asking players to move from one hex to the next. Actually, Kingmaker does make it work, but only because there’s an in-game excuse to visit every single hex.

Last night, I found myself saying to my players “Well, the main road through town clearly leads further up the hill and down into the surf”. Even in my dungeon, rather than draw out the rooms (because it was all pretty large scale) I was just saying “the hall has two exits, one sloping down, one on the level”. It was sounding a lot like a text adventure.

Bam! you know, that works. Divide your ruins, or forest, or island into regions. Encounter zones. Graph the connections (you know – the dual of the zones themselves). A road. A forest trail. A difficult pass between rocky hills. A gentle slope down to a river.

Yeah, I suppose it’s obvious, but my head was at “map the whole region”. With software, it’s possible to do that, to generate a detailed map. But it’s pointless, unless you want to play one of those games where you spend all your time holding down the “move forward” key to do overland travel.

Some campaigns actually divide the overland map up into difficult terrain with roads. The serpent’s skull game did that for Smuggler’s Shiv and for whatsisname town at the end of module 2. It works, it’s a shade obvious.

The mud-map with encounter areas will suffice for CENSORED, which the GG party will have to explore. The place needs to be big enough that we can have two parties exploring it without making synchronization a hassle (oh, it’s still before lunchtime at our table).

In fact – I’d say build the encounters first. First design what the players need to do, then fill in more detail about where it has to be done.

GG5 – Week 2

18 December, 2012

A good second week, I think. The encounters were beefed up considerably – someone at my table one-shotted a 3HD Orc (Fighter/Rogue/Fighter). I had 3 characters down, Alix had 4 down, everything going great. I thought I might have to nerf things a bit, but no – they came back. Then it was 11PM and I didn’t get to run the third encounter for the night. Pity, ’cause it involved something cool. As it was, my table just did orc sailors and a couple of elf samurai.

Oh – and someone’s animal companion decided to jump onto a ship of enemy sailors all by himself (tiger). Got creamed. Druid goes “give fluffy back” as the ship is pulling away, and dude goes “? Ok! Men – throw that tiger overboard.” We all found out about the pathfinder drowning rules. Turns out being submerged while you are unconscious is bad news. Second encounter, someone else decided to jump onto a ship full of enemy sailors, all by himself. Got creamed.

The cleric also discovered why you take “selective channel”. A few of the sailors were unconscious, not dead.

As for me – “how high is the ship’s railing above dock level?” – (thinks “Fuck, I dunno”). It’s what happens. I was giving people DC 10 (or 15) acrobatics checks. In retrospect, the entire point of a pier is that it is at about deck height. I always find that I don’t think things through far enough before the game.

The big meeting – all the long-time players were jerking me around, man. It was the newb who said “so one group gets the dude, another group brings the ship around.” I mean – everyone had already worked out that that was the plan, they were all just being deliberately obtuse about it to screw with me. Pricks.

The broader point is that this campaign looks like being a bit railroady, and it is railroady at the moment. I’ll have to work out what to do, there.

Still haven’t figured out how CR relates to EL. So we just went “ok, everyone is second level”. Six encounters – probably about right.

GG5 – Week 1

15 December, 2012

Yay! Week 1 not a disaster! W00T!

Now, it should be noted that this is not really “story” I am writing, but DM notes. There won’t be plot spoilers, but you might be able to see the gears turning, which may take some of the magic away. For a more story-centric view you’ll need to see the player’s blogs – which I am sure they are all busily writing.

We split the players into two groups who have not met each other in-game, yet.

Paul’s Table

Aboard the good ship Pilchard, with Captian Haddock. “Good ship” being a mere politeness – the ship is a flat-bottomed bucket, a coastal trader. At this stage, the players are simply some of Haddock’s crew.

Encounter 1

The captain sent a few of the crew (ie: the players) onto a small sand island to pick a few coconuts. They were attacked by crabs.

Four giant crabs. About the right level of difficulty – a couple of tense moments, but it was never really in doubt. I wanted a simple fight to start with, and it worked out ok. No loot, just crab meat and coconut. Yum!

Encounter 2

The Pilchard is attacked by the Shirley-Jane.

The players were meant to lose this fight. I used the mass combat rules, pulling crew into the fight as they were killed.

It didn’t really go well. I massively underestimated how good the characters are, and had to pump the numbers – the Shirley-Jane crew were just not good enough to be obviously, convincingly better. To the players, the combat looked like new crew were just popping in out of thin air.

When running group combat (If I try it again), I’ll make the crew numbers public rather than hiding them. When running something they are meant to lose, I’ll pull more enemies out of melee than just one per player character, and make bloody sure that they are seriously better.

Eventually they worked out that they were supposed to lose, but it was an out-of-game thing. Which is what you don’t want.

Meh. Live and learn.

Encounter 3

At the destination, the elven harbourmaster took most of the rest of Haddock’s cargo as tax, citing the ship’s manifest rather than how much wood he actually had. I wanted to play up the racism of my campaign world – I believe “gaijin dog!” was used.

Some of the non-elf dockworkers indicated to Haddock that for a consideration, they could be elsewhere that night (not sure if I made this clear to the players), and so Haddock decides to (ahem) remove his lumber from the customs house and shift it to a warehouse next door.

The place was guarded by four samurai and the harbourmaster in his office. A couple of the stealthier characters snuck in, sniping from the rafters once combat started. The players pretty much rolled the joint – the harbourmaster downed with nolethal damage from Andrew’s character.

Loot was a couple of potions (cure light, barkskin) from the first-aid kit, and a chest of money (which Haddock took). [edit] and yes, a ring of protection +1 and a +1 elvish longsword. With Hare Clan markings all over it. Try explaining that to the authorities.

Alix’s Table

The other half of the players were retained in town to go investigate a ruins by a scholar. They headed off overland, dodging leeches, skellingtons, and a Kelpie (which took the form of a crocodile). Apparently it managed to death-roll one of the characters to unconciousness, which is just great.

Loot was some gear from an ill-fated prior expedition, and a curious wand. Mechanically, the wand is a wand of Cure Light Wounds. But it’s shaped like a small hammer. (Dun dun dun!)

On their return, the scholar who was going to be paying them is nowhere to be found.

So …

On the whole, we are setting the bar a little low, which I suppose is better in the first instance than killing characters first session. I don’t know how much plot and atmosphere the players are getting, yet. I suppose we need to get further into the story first.

I like standard magic items – wands, scrolls, potions – that are flavoured. In my wednesday game, Salty Bob scribes scrolls by way of scrimshaw. Elves (in this world) are druidic, so the potions I gave the players were enchanted fruit – cherries for the Cure Light, and a brown pear for Barkskin. They are the sort of things that a medicine kit might contain – I might retcon that the kit counts as a healer’s kit with a few uses.

Story is still on-track, after one session. Which is good – the players haven’t managed to derail things yet 🙂 . Players are participating by dropping story hooks, although we can’t incorporate them all. I have found that it is a Kajillion times easier to plan sessions with another person – the co-DM aspect is working out superbly well. At present, she does right-brain and I do left-brain.

Haven’t nailed down XP, which is very important. Players play for loot and XP – you want to power up your character. I’d like to go with actual tracked XP, so as to encourage people to actually show up on game night.

Next session has cool (well, I think it’s cool) plot and world-building stuff, but obviously I can’t talk about it here. I shall have to do it either though the medium of interpretative dance, or though the game itself. Which is the whole idea.

Season 5 prep

20 November, 2012

My glamorous co-DM and I playtested the Seas of Blood rules for tactical ship movement and mass crew combat.

The consensus was: tactical ship movement suffered the flaws of turning the game into a chess/wargame, and that of being between one player (the captain) and the DM – much like the “Crime Pays” game add-on that I have discussed before. D&D is about encounters. They can be social/skilly sort of encounters or they can be combat, but maneuvering ships around a grid is not D&D.

The group combat rules were fine, though. The entire “crew” is turned into a single stat block, and the two crews fight one another while the players have their fight with the bosses. The crew’s hit dice serve in place of hp, and if one crew is much bigger than the other, it gets bonuses to hit and damage. The upshot is that the crew combat happens at pretty much the rate that the player’s fight happens.

The great advantage of this system is that as players whittle down the mooks in their boss fight, you can pull them out of the general crew-on-crew melee. Your crew has 20 HD left, the opposing crew has 24. Pulling out 3 second-level fighters into the player’s melee means shaving 6 HD off the opposing crew. No probs. You could have two of those guys already beaten up on half hp, say, and only take 4 HD off the opposing crew. You can do cinematic things – the boss fight is already in progress, say, with good and bad guys. As the players enter the fray, those guys peel off and join the general melee.

The mass combat integrates nicely with the actual game and avoids, on the one hand, having to manage stats for each of a dozen or more crew; and on the other, having the player’s fight occur in some eerie parallel dimension or bubble that’s unconnected with the more general fight.

The “Book of the Sea” system for mass combat looks like too much work. Way too war-gamey. A “unit” has a number of “faces” – one attack per face. Opening a face is a move action. To move you need to “close” all but one “face”. You can be in skirmish formation, close ranks formation, and so on. Meh. Cool and playable, maybe, but not D&D.

This week I think we two need to look at overland movement. It’s also not as exciting as combat, but I think it helps give a feel for the world having size and scope. Paizo published a set of rules for moving around the island of Smuggler’s Shiv in the “Serpents’ Skull” campaign, and we might be able to re-purpose those. Maybe there was more detail than we want – stuff about making camp and foraging. The islands in this part of the world are mostly civilised – wandering through and making camp in most places will earn you a visit from the local samurai. But it would be cool if it takes two days to bush-bash across an unpopulated island on foot, and a ship can get from one side to the other in four hours. As in “this is why people invented ships in the first place”.

Most of the Paizo modules have minigames with auxiliary rules. It might be nice if Paizo could do some sort of omnibus volume integrating those rules from all of its adventure paths – factions and fame, money and trade. Kingmaker’s rules for city building, and war. It’s the book that the Game Mastery guide should have been, and isn’t.

Magic Item Compendium treasure generator

1 July, 2012

The most tedious part of Die With Honour is using the Magic Item Compendium treasure generator tables. So I have implemented them in JavaScript as a self-contained webpage.

Code is at GITHUB. Unhappily, WordPress won’t allow me to upload the HTML directly so you’ll need to save that link as an HTML file and open it in a web browser.

If my server is running (always a question of luck), you can view the page directly at
my site.

DM Notes – my battlemat

9 July, 2011

I recently arranged a decent battlemat for myself. I was using a vinyl grid with additional sheets of clear vinyl on top. The clear vinyl can be moved around, allowing you to draw maps bigger than the table.

The main issue with this system is that whiteboard marker does not erase properly on that surface. You have to use water-soluble OHP markers or chinagraph markers (aka: grease pencil). Chinagraph markers are expensive, difficult to find, and only come in black and white. OHP markers are messy, messy, messy – gets all over your hands when you erase it. Gets everywhere.

What I needed was a laminated mat on which you could use whiteboard marker. The main problem is making a 1-inch grid to laminate. Making a grid and then scaling it to the right size is an absolute nuisance. But I did finad a solution that gave me exactly what I wanted:

  1. I generated an SVG file of a 1-inch grid with a java program. Use of SVG allows the scaling to be exact.
  2. Embedded it into a PDF file with one of the “batik” utilities. The scaling was preserved – “1 inch” means 1 inch.
  3. Took it to Office Works at Braddon and had them print up 4 a1 sheets with the grid.
  4. Took it home and stained it with tea, coffee, and a little inkjet ink to get rid of the boring white colour. Also burned the edges (not all of them – left plain edges so that the sheets can be overlapped).
  5. After being thoroughly dried, took the sheets back for lammination.

$10 for lamination, a couple of bucks for printing. Call it $15 bucks for an a1 sized battlemat that works with whiteboard marker, weighs nothing, and unrolls flat. Cheap enough that you can do multiple ones – I want a grayish one or two for dungeon crawls.

Be my guest:

Java Source.

A1 a1Grid.svg a1Grid.pdf
A1 Tiles a1Tiles.svg
A2 a2Grid.svg a2Grid.pdf
A3 a3Grid.svg a3Grid.pdf
A4 a4Grid.svg a4Grid.pdf