Chad Perrin: SOB

11 September 2008

Special Item Advancement

Filed under: RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 12:57

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

In magic items without expiration dates, I bemoaned what I called the “treasure churn” approach to magic item acquisition in the typical D&D game. In short, my point was that it devalued magic items themselves — meant to be special items of Great Power, but relegated to the status of “easy come, easy go” as a character advances in level and outgrows earlier magic items, thus requiring items of greater power to replace them. I proposed fixing the matter by either instilling the major benefits normally acquired through magic items in the person instead or by coming up with a good system for handling special items that can grow in power with the character in a manner that is both reasonably well balanced and well-suited to maintaining suspension of disbelief within the context of the game world.

Most of that SOB entry focused on the idea of items that grow with the character, but only in the most general of terms, discussing some vague concepts for how to handle such items and initial impressions of how they may be incorporated into a game, but not really nailing down a solid system to implement. This entry represents my first attempted at a system complete and fleshed out enough to actually put into use and playtest with my current D&D gaming group before I make it a permanent system for future Pathfinder RPG games I run (since all future campaigns I start that might have otherwise been D&D are likely to end up being PRPG instead).

I tailored the system to use the GP values for special items as presented in the PHB (which discusses masterwork items), the DMG, and the Magic Item Compendium, in particular. I made that decision because the ideal way to do it — with a simpler point system using much smaller numbers — would essentially require recreating a whole system of relative item power value, which is not very easily portable. I may come up with such a system in the future, but for now I’m just going to go with the GP value numbers I can get out of existing books.

Note that this system may change slightly if I find discrepancies between the special items of D&D 3.5 and those of PRPG that require further massaging of my system, but I think it will work admirably well as-is with the materials in the D&D 3.5 books at least. My major concern is with how smoothly and easily this system might be incorporated into the way we do things in my games, once the players encounter the rules. If that works out — in other words, if playability turns out well in playtesting — all I’ll need to do after that point is tweak and polish a little, I think.

The main body of this entry consists of four sections: Acquiring Item Enhancements, Masterwork and Special Material Items, Special Item Traits, and two sections of notes — one on how traits should be used titled Traits Are For Character Background, and one touching on how one might conceive of special item concepts titled Creating Special Items. Without further ado, then:

Acquiring Item Enhancements

At even numbered levels, a character accumulates item enhancement points — akin to feats, but for possessions rather than the person.

Those points can be spent on discovered, unlocked, imbued, or otherwise manifesting special abilities of magic items.

(edit: I don’t know what I was smoking when I first wrote this, but I got the formula all wrong. The following paragraph has been fixed to reflect the way it should read.)

The maximum gold pieces’ value of magical enhancements that a character can access in a single item is equal to the sum of all natural numbers up to, and including, the character’s experience level, multiplied by six hundred. The formula for this is:

  300 x s(L) where
  L = character level
  s(n) = 1 if (n = 1); n + s(n - 1) if (n > 1)

Laid out as a chart:

  Level:    Maximum Value:
     1             300
     2             900
     3           1,800
     4           3,000
     5           4,500
     6           6,300
     7           8,400
     8          10,800
     9          13,500
    10          16,500
    11          19,800
    12          23,400
    13          27,300
    14          31,500
    15          36,000
    16          40,800
    17          45,900
    18          51,300
    19          57,000
    20          63,000

The costs listed in the DMG for bonuses (such as weapon and armor bonuses) are cumulative, not total. Therefore, a +2 armor having a base cost of 4,000 for its magical bonuses is actually a combination of 1,000 for the +1 and 3,000 for an additional +1 on top of that, producing a cumulative bonus of +2.

Finally, each one of these special item enhancement pseudo-feats is worth roughly a +1 enhancement bonus value — making a +1 added to a new item much less costly than a +1 added to an item with a +4 value already for a total of +5. The magical enhancements in the DMG and Magic Item Compendium are all given values in a manner that makes them translatable to and from enhancement bonuses in terms of their value with relative ease, thanks to the correspondences drawn between certain non-numeric magical enhancements and numerical enhancement bonuses. The rough equivalency of actual value numbers for those items that do not correspond in value with numerical enhancement bonuses because they have static GP values means they’re relatively easy to handle as well, in that a character simply cannot acquire for his or her special item a static value enhancement whose value is higher than what he or she could acquire as a bonus or bonus-corresponding value.

Any magic items that exceed these value totals should be regarded as special items to be handed out only sparingly and with deliberate plot-driving needs in mind, at the GM’s discretion and not the players’ insistence.

If anyone reading this has any ideas for what to call these item enhancement “feats”, please let me know. I haven’t come up with a term yet.

Masterwork and Special Material Items

Masterwork craftsmanship and special materials cannot be added to an item as an enhancement at some point after the item is acquired in the first place. These qualities must exist from the moment of item creation, for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

Masterwork items are able to be magically enhanced at a later time, however, just as though they were magical items. Because special material items — such as armor made out of mithral — must generally be masterwork as a prerequisite for being fashioned of such a material, they may typically be enhanced at a later time the same as masterwork items crafted from more mundane materials.

Special Item Traits

The Pathfinder Adventure Paths introduced a new optional rule: character traits. A nascent form, manifest as character background related feats, appeared in the Player’s Guide to the Rise of the Runelords AP; traits themselves first appeared in the Player’s Guide for the Curse of the Crimson Throne AP; a finalized system for traits appeared in the first Pathfinder Companion, which contains Player’s Guide materials for the Second Darkness AP. If you don’t have access to traits-related material, you might consider not granting your PCs any “free” traits at all, and just allow them to buy additional equipment value traits as described in the following paragraphs using starting feats.

In the first Pathfinder Companion, it is recommended that starting characters get two “traits” at first level — an optional rule I will be likely to employ in future campaigns. Additional traits (or initial traits, if the GM does not allow any bonus traits) may be purchased for a new character at a cost of one feat per two traits. The official traits system does not suggest this, as of my most recent observations, but in my special item advancement system traits can be spent to acquire special item value — higher cost basic items, masterwork quality, and special material construction — but no magical bonuses or qualities without the GM’s explicit approval. Generally, no magical bonuses or powers should be purchased in this manner, except possibly up to a maximum value of 150 GP (the maximum value provided in the above chart and formula for a first level character, and exactly one trait’s worth of value) for a single item — which is quite prohibitive, except perhaps for low-power potions and similarly trivial items. Otherwise, such value should be expended only for nonmagical special items, expensive items, and qualities of items, for first level characters.

Such trait expenditures for special item values start at 150, then advance according to the maximum value per level progression as shown in the above chart — thus, one trait buys 150, another buys 600, a third 1800, a fourth 3600, and so on. This only applies if spend on a single item, and any left over points of value are forfeit. If value is to be split among separate items, it must be spent on them separately, so that (for instance) four points may be spent on one item to bring it up to 3600, and two on another for 600, but no points spent on either may be shared with the other so that a strict separation of values is maintained.

Traits Are For Character Background

The above rules add up to the potential for a first-level character to start out with an item of legacy handed down by his family, gained through illicit means from some other family’s heritage, or otherwise possessed at first level with the ability to advance in power along with the character. Thus, character concepts that involve a strong attachment to a particular item for sentimental (or other non-metagaming) reasons will not (significantly) handicap such a character as he or she advances in level.

Mundane wealth may also be purchased at first level, in the case of characters whose initial concept assumes medium or heavier armor or other high-cost items but does not necessarily involve any masterwork or other intrinsically special items.

Neither legacy items nor particular spoils of material wealth should be allowed to be purchased in this manner without an important tie into the character concept as a matter of the character’s background. For instance, a legacy item might be inherited from a heroic ancestor, passed down through generations to the character who now treasures the item as a family heirloom, or perhaps the character had stolen a 1000 GP spyglass from a pirate captain (thus marking the character as hunted by pirates if it should ever be discovered he or she possessed the spyglass). The key is that traits are to be spent to flesh out character background, and not just to acquire greater statistical advantages in the game.

Creating Special Items

This section has nothing to do with in-character manufacture of special items. Instead, it relates to how you, as a GM or player, may conceive of and design a special item.

Fred, at drop the dice, recently wrote an excellent overview of a means of working out the background, descriptive details, and essential concept of special items in How to Create a Magic Item. The focus is on creating original, inspired, rich histories and characters (in a manner of speaking) for magical items. Even if you are not inclined to follow through the steps of a “system” such as he provided there, it’s well worth the read just to get some pointers for how one might think about the process of creating special item concepts.

The same sort of care should be taken, and the same intensity of imagination invested, in the creation of all special items described in this SOB entry. Even mundane, expensive items acquired at first level using traits should receive no less attention, because those traits are meant to flesh out a character’s background — not just provide a means of beefing up a min/max bundle of stats with a name. In fact, the idea of developing a unique essence, a theme if you will, for a special item is central to the very concept of special item advancement (i.e., magic items without expiration dates).


My weekly game, previously on Thursdays, is being shifted to Fridays to accommodate the changing schedule of one of the players. This Friday, then, I’ll see if the players all want to give this system for special item acquisition a try, and adapt our ongoing game to use this system. I suspect they’ll be up for it, and I have high hopes.

Let me know if you see any glaring flaws in the system, or have any suggestions. I don’t guarantee I’ll take your suggestions, but if I believe they’re serious and constructive, I will at least aim to consider them in the spirit in which they’re offered.

31 August 2008

10 tips and tricks for NPCs

Filed under: RPG — Tags: , — apotheon @ 11:07

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

I’ve put together a list of ten tips and tricks you can use to add some flavor to your game when creating and portraying the NPCs that interact with the PCs. The NPCs, after all, are what actually lends most of the depth and character (pun intended) to a campaign world during play. If they’re all cardboard cutouts and cookie cutter clones, the game lacks a lot of the flavor that might otherwise make it memorable.

  1. When you need inspiration for how to imagine an original and unique NPC personality, draw examples from co-workers, classmates, and other people not among your fellow gamers and their friends. Obviously, if your fellow gamers and their friends are your classmates, you may have to adjust the list of candidates to exclude them. This keeps your NPCs from merely being the result of spiteful and mocking caricatures, or from accidentally insulting someone — among other potential problems.

  2. When you want an NPC to provide a humorous reference to someone familiar to your players, draw inspiration from celebrities (and the characters they play, if they’re actors of some sort).

  3. You might also draw inspiration from pictures you’ve seen. Visual stimuli such as paintings by talented fantasy artists serve as excellent grist for NPC concepts.

  4. Build concepts off characters from non-fantasy fiction. My favorite example is actually that of a PC being inspired by the idea of playing a Batman type of character in D&D. The idea was initially to play the concept as a paladin, but by the time we were done with it the player had settled on the monk class.

  5. Avoid silly voices. If you’re a talented enough actor to actually fit unique mannerisms and speech patterns into portrayals of NPCs without hamming it up too badly, go for it — but unless your intent is to run a comedy game, you might want to avoid doing a campy overdone French accent or doing the Diablo merchant’s Scottish “Wot c’n ah dew fer ye!?” brogue. In most games, it’s better to have an immersive atmosphere to your game than memorable cartoon voices that break the mood of a tense encounter by either embarrassing yourself or making people snicker at your Bill Clinton impression.

  6. Get some detailed information about your players’ characters’ personality quirks — pet peeves, potent desires, strange habits, and so on. Draw inspiration from them when making NPCs. If you think you’re weak at making NPCs who will disagree with or stand up to PCs, focus a little on NPCs whose pet peeves match the PCs’ habits, and vice versa. In general, just find ways to play on the PCs’ personality quirks via your NPCs.

  7. Make sure your players have some kind of idea of their characters’ backgrounds. Consider that, every once in a while, a coincidental meeting with someone or some thing from a PC’s past can add some punch to an encounter — or create an entire encounter in and of itself. If you suddenly find you need to save the PCs from certain doom because everybody was rolling poorly while you kept rolling 20s for the kobolds they were supposed to be able to wipe out in short order, using someone from a PC’s past as your deus ex machina to rescue them (and subsequently to draw them into some other adventure hook, thanks to this chance meeting) makes you look like a GM who plans ahead brilliantly rather than one who is really bad at fudging rolls effectively. This also shakes loose the usual expectation that all background NPCs are enemies, murder victims who must be avenged, hostages, or forgotten entirely.

  8. Keep track of your PCs’ chance meetings and NPC traveling companions. The fact someone is no longer part of a given adventure doesn’t mean he or she can’t show up again later and lend some familiarity and color to the game. Just as the game can be made more interesting by bringing in NPCs from a character’s background, so too can you do the same thing with NPCs from earlier game sessions who “just happen” to be in the same part of the world. Such NPCs from earlier sessions can also serve as more deus ex machina saviors — and an earlier session’s friend might be more fun if he or she turns up later as an enemy thanks to unfortunate circumstance, lending some humanity to the PCs’ foes.

  9. Let an enemy get away now and then. They don’t all have to fight to the death. Plan out escape tactics in advance for NPCs, and trigger points (maybe having lost a certain number of hit points, or a certain number of rounds having passed, for instance) for fleeing. Keep in mind that even if your PCs are getting their butts kicked, the enemy is probably also unhappy with some hit point losses (or even friends dying around them) — so you can save your PCs from accidentally overpowered NPCs by having the NPCs flee. Then, for an interesting twist on the recurring NPC idea, maybe you can have a former enemy show up later and save the PCs’ collective bacon because the former enemy happens to be on the same side of a new and different conflict.

  10. Use occasional long-term NPCs who basically become members of the core group, become important compatriots and (apparently?) loyal companions. Get the PCs almost as attached to them as they are to their fellow PCs. Then kill the NPC — or have the NPC decide he or she gets in too damned much trouble hanging out with the PCs so that he or she finally gets fed up and leaves in a huff, or subvert the NPC’s loyalty through some outside agent who rewards the NPC for betraying the PCs (or blackmails the NPC, or offers a morally unignorable argument for betraying them, or offers possibly counterfeit proof that the PCs have betrayed the NPC, or whatever). This kind of surprise is always fun when handled well — both for the GM and, as becomes evident when players later reminisce about the game, for the players as well (though they may just be horrified at the exact moment they figure out what is happening).

Give me some more ideas I can add to this list, please. I’m always on the lookout for more good tricks to spice up the NPCs that make up the world around the PCs in my games.

Knowledge(Local) as Roleplaying Reward

Filed under: RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 10:08

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

The Knowledge(Local) skill in D&D 3.5 has always bothered me. There are basically two ways to interpret the skill as written in the PHB, and they both suck:

  1. The way the “Local” subskill for the Knowledge skill is presented in the Knowledge skill entry, it’s a universally applicable skill. If you have Knowledge(Local), you have specific local knowledge for every single locality you encounter unless that particular locality is covered by a different skill. Of course, that’s absurd. The skill essentially covers knowledge areas that one could only really know by having been in the area for a while, soaking up local cultural norms and learning about who and what the important people and places are.

  2. The obvious way to play it, and the way it’s presented in all examples of its use where something like this may come up, Knowledge(Local) must apply to a specific locality. The assumption, of course, is that you can purchase it anew for each locality where you want your character to feel at home. Unfortunately, playing the skill this way makes it almost entirely useless for a group that doesn’t spend all its time in one place. If your adventuring party is the sort that moves around a lot, you’re strongly discouraged from “wasting” any points on Knowledge(Local) under these conditions.

The way I’ve been handling it in games I run, the Knowledge(Local) skill represents a general skill at quickly getting familiar with a new locality. The character picks up local gossip, becomes quickly attuned to the rhythms of life in a new area, notices landmarks and other places that are central to people’s lives, and so on. This is a bit more difficult to adjudicate cleanly than the other two, but seems like the only appropriate way to handle it as a standard skill.

Well . . . screw all that. I’m not going to handle it as a standard skill any longer. Instead, I’m turning Knowledge(Local) into the basis for part of a roleplaying reward system.

The way I’ll handle this now, all characters will get a set of bonus skill points to spend in Knowledge(Local) at character creation. As things currently stand, I don’t know if I’ll even allow players to spend any points on Knowledge(Local) other than these specifically set aside bonus points when initially creating a character.

Then, as the game progresses — I still won’t let them spend normal skill points on Knowledge(Local). Whether I’ll hand out free points on a level advancement schedule is still to be decided (before Thursday, when I’ll spring this new rule on my players at the next game session) — but I will definitely be handing out Knowledge(Local) points as roleplaying rewards.

At the end of every session in which characters behave in a manner that I think really warrants it, I’ll give such a character a rank in Knowledge(Local) for the appropriate locality.

Previously, I handed out roleplaying experience rewards as part of a session’s standard experience reward totals. I had a set of fuzzy categories of roleplaying activities that might warrant a reward, and a sort of scale of “zero to good” for how much XP to grant in each category depending on performance. With this new idea in mind, I’ll be cutting back on the actual XP rewards in favor of new, direct stat increase rewards like this Knowledge(Local) bonus system. Between now and Thursday, I’ll also be looking into the possibility of taking other skills out of the standard skill point system to turn into roleplaying rewards, and checking for other ways to grant benefits as rewards for good roleplaying that have a direct and deserved effect on play.

Reputation rewards and established relationships aren’t quite sufficient for this sort of thing, because often good roleplaying can actually damage a character’s reputations and relationships with NPCs. That’s why I never used such things as rewards, per se, and just played them out instead.

Thanks to this idea about how to adjudicate Knowledge(Local) so that it not only doesn’t suck so badly you never end up with any points but also doesn’t break suspension of disbelief, I’ve also come up with a line on a way to improve roleplaying reward handling.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License