Sep 12, 2019

[Review] Pathfinder 2e

I picked up a hard copy of the Pathfinder 2e core book last Wednesday, and have read it over enough to feel like I can offer a review of it. I'm still digging through the details of the spell section, but I've read the rest of it cover to cover (and separately, read the SRD).

The book is 638 pages not counting endpapers, and like the Pathfinder 1e corebook is composed of material that in stock 3.5 was scattered across the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. The Monster Manual equivalent - the Bestiary - is out but I haven't read it yet, except for glancing through some of its content in the SRD.

As many people know, the offline game I've been playing in for the past eighteen months or so has been a D&D 3.5 game. I'm not a great fan of D&D 3.5 (the group is good enough to bear with the system) and much prefer the various rationalisations and clean-ups of it, like Arcana Unearthed / Evolved, Iron Heroes, and Trailblazer. Pathfinder 1e, which is a slight rebalance of 3.5, didn't go far enough in the core book for me, and I never became invested enough in the system to follow the various developments and tweaks it made to the d20 core over the course of its run, as extensive as I understand they eventually became.

Pathfinder 2e however, has impressed me with how extensively it's cleaned up the d20 system. The strength of the d20 system is its systematic character, and I find Pathfinder 2e has doubled-down on that strength. It's not a system that leaves much implicit, from defining the three rhythmic structures of play (Encounters, Exploration, and Downtime) to explaining exactly how far one falls in a single round spent falling (500 ft. the first round, 1,500 ft. each additional round). You can hate this systematicity if it's not something you care for, but insofar as one does enjoy it (and I do), Pathfinder 2e is a surprisingly well-done implementation of it.

I designed a first-level human wizard character in Pathfinder 2e to test out how cumbersome a process it would be, and I found it took about half as long as creating a D&D 3.5 character. The main time savings were in attribute selection, skill selection, and feat selection. In D&D 3.5 these are all processes that demand a lot of consideration and often provoke "analysis paralysis" in new players, with inobvious long-term consequences and large lists of options, Pathfinder 2e breaks these processes up into a lot of smaller decisions that accumulate over the whole process of character creation and involve picking from smaller lists. That speeds things up considerably.

I also think it will be relatively easy to design your own backgrounds, ancestries, and other bits for character creation because you can get a clear sense of the scope of work for each piece. After looking over the backgrounds once, I understood what each offered (an ability boost tied to one of two stats; a free ability boost; two skills, one of which is a Lore specialty; and a skill feat tied to one of the skills) well enough that I feel comfortable designing my own.

5e breaks down parts of its character creation process in similar ways, and that brings me to the final piece of this short review, which is comparing 5e and Pathfinder 2e. I've been middlingly positive towards 5e as an edition: I own the core set and Xanathar's, and prefer it to 3.5 at the end of its run and to 4e. But I've never been in love with it as an edition either. I don't like the importance of attributes in its system, and I'm not wild about its skill list, and there are various other small choices or gaps in its design such that I'm not an enthusiast.

By contrast, after reading the Pathfinder 2e core book, I was excited and interested in running a d20 game again for the first time in maybe a decade or more. Certainly if I was going to run a campaign using a d20 system, Pathfinder 2e would be my preferred system for doing so. This is surprising for me, but I think it does a better job extending and intensifying the core strengths of the d20 system, whereas 5e tends to be structured in such a way as to mitigate d20's weaknesses.

I think Pathfinder does a better job structuring the cycle of exploration, relies less on attributes (and more on skills) to determine character capacity, and has more granular combat. I wouldn't say any of these was a key criterion for my decision, but each contributed to it, along with my more general admiration of its systematic character, whereas I think D&D 5e tends to leave much more open (and this is probably why many people love it - I'm not trying to start a fight about whether it's good).

Anyhow, I'm at the beginning of a larger conversation with my group about switching from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder 2e, and I'm quite hopeful that we'll decide to do so eventually.

Jul 9, 2019

Rationalising Overland Travel Paces

I wanted to follow up on my popular Rhythm of Procedure post with an example of a deduction one can draw from it (and that I think one should) about rationalising the pace of overland travel.

The concise version of it is that one ought to structure the pace of travel so that the PCs travel either 0 or a whole number of hexes per iteration of the overland travel procedure, from the centre of one hex to the centre of another.

This probably seems obvious, and yet you get versions of overland travel where the hexes are 6 miles across, overland travel moves you 20 miles per day, and going over sufficiently rough terrain reduces your speed to 25% of its normal rate, so you might move three-and-change hexes, or you might move less than one, depending on terrain.

These fractional moves need to be tallied and accounted for over time (every three days of travel at full speed you will get a bonus hex of travel) and break the self-containment of the procedure's iteration. Moving back to a system where the vast majority of movement is whole numbers of hexes (with the possibility of an occasional failure to progress at all) is a way of restoring that self-containment. I think AD&D 1e did this but don't care to check or use it as a precedent, but I mention it in case you wanted to see such a system.

I think most of the OSR has arrived at a consensus around 6 mile / 10 km hexes being ideal for overland travel, primarily based on this decade-old (!) post from the Hydra's Grotto that makes the case persuasively. I favour "watches" (the basic unit of time of overland travel) lasting about 6 hours (Tho' I didn't get the idea from him, Justin Alexander has been calling these "watches" since at least 2012. He uses a 4-hour watch instead of my 6-hour one).

An unencumbered person without impairment walks a kilometre in level, clear terrain (like a city street) in about 15-20 minutes. So in six hours, we could expect them to walk 18-24 kilometres under those conditions, albeit they would probably be pretty tired by the end of it. But PCs travelling overland are usually not traveling in level, clear terrain; they are eating, defecating, resting, stopping to orient themselves, etc. sporadically throughout their travels; they are finding the easiest path through a hex and are avoiding calling undue attention to themselves; and they are travelling slowly enough to be ready to fight monsters, avoid ambushes, or perform other daring deeds during or immediately after the end of their travels. So I think it's reasonable to cut their travel pace nearly in half, and make it 10 km per 6-hour watch of travel (or 6 miles if you use American units).

Because this is such a leisurely pace, I wouldn't cut it due to PC encumbrance in most cases. Similarly, it already accommodates the slowing effects of most sorts of "rough terrain" (forests, wet meadows, ridges, etc.). Taking 6 hours to go 10 kilometres is a slow pace for a troupe of boy scouts. so rather than fiddling around "Oh, now you're in forest and you're going half speed", just accept they're always going about half-speed unless they have a reason not to be, and that half-speed is 1 10km hex per 6 hour watch.

There are three unusual cases that I think could use spot rules here. One is when you're on a road, one is when you're rushing and trying to pick up the pace, and the last is nigh-impassable terrain.

Roads and paths in normal terrain allow you to add one hex to the distance you travel in a single iteration of the travel procedure.

Rushing means the PCs conduct a fast march. They don't try to avoid people noticing their passage; they select the most direct route instead of the easiest; they don't stop to eat, crap, or rest; and they are probably going to arrive at their destination exhausted.

The rules here are pretty simple:

The PCs move 2 hexes instead of 1 in a watch where they rush.

They each make a saving throw at the end of the watch, and if they fail, they are exhausted and must rest (iterate the rest procedure) before marching again. 

Riding horses or riding in wagons / carriages means the mounts make the roll instead of you.

If no PCs or mounts are exhausted, they can continue rushing. If some are, they can be left behind if the others want to continue rushing.

Nigh-impassable terrain covers your bogs, swamps, mountains, and other types of terrain where the problem isn't so much that they slow down your pace of marching, but that they are impassable without either specialised gear (e.g. mountain climbing equipment, boats) or specific paths (valleys, passes, solid ground, etc.) What counts as impassable varies based on whether you are riding, boating, or marching on foot.

Nigh-impassable terrain is impassable until a path is found. PCs must search for a path through the hex (taking a watch) unless they already know about one. Once they have found a path, they can then travel through the hex on their next watch. Depending on terrain, paths have concealment scores of >6.

The search takes 6 hours once again assuming the PCs are moving slowly and carefully, and that they must explore a number of dead-ends, false-starts, and the like to find a proper path. The right equipment in this case would aid the search roll since it allows one to convert more marginally traversable paths into usable ones.

e.g. If you have the right mountain climbing gear, you could choose to move between two ridges of different elevations that would allow you to traverse the mountain range in a way that you couldn't exploit if you couldn't actually climb from one ridge to another.

These rules are just proposals tho'. The core conceit is that regardless of the rules you use to implement it, the pace of the travel procedure should move PCs a whole number of hexes in each iteration for simplicity's sake, regardless of terrain or other obstacles.

Jun 16, 2019

Simplifying Theism in Mythras Pt. II

Blog comments have been reactivated and the spam wave appears to have passed.

This is a follow-up to this post, using some of the problems with theism and religion in Mythras that I mentioned there as the basis for a post discussing my changes to theism. Thanks to the Raptors NBA finals run, the start of the new Dawnlands campaign has been pushed to July, so I have even more time to plan than I originally thought.

There are two proposals I'm going to advocate for here:

1) Opening up theism miracle lists by removing cult restrictions on miracles
2) Eliminating the High Priest rank of initiation and changing the size of the devotional pool of the "Priest"

Miracle Lists

My proposal here is basically to allow every cult access to almost every spell. It's worth creating a list of spells you don't want any cult to have access to (except maybe a bad guy cult) and then allowing everything else to whoever.

Theist miracle lists tend to be very similar at the best of times, and limiting the number of miracles available in a cult is the worst of both worlds. Allowing only a subset of miracles per cult emphasises the duplication problem - where there are some miracles that every cult needs to have (e.g. Consecrate, Dismiss Magic) and if you follow the rules-as-written about how many miracles a cult has, these semi-mandatory options mean that out of a total of nine maximum miracles, four or five will be identical across most cults.

Allowing every cult to offer every spell doesn't fix this problem per se, but it dissolves one level of ineffective differentiation (the cult-level restriction) but intensifies the second level of restriction: the individual's knowledge of miracles.

This is good because this is de facto the point at which restriction is going to be managed in the game anyhow. By clearing away layers that obscure that fact, we can consolidate our attention on what actually matters.

Doing this also has the advantage of lowering the overhead for creating new cults. Picking out miracles and then double-checking to make sure it's not a bad or near-useless list of miracles, is one of the more onerous elements of creating new cults, and making this faster and easier is an unmitigated good if you want lots of cults.

Finally, because most PCs only ever belong to one theist cult at a level beyond "Lay Member", the broader miracle list deepens cults' offerings and encourages PCs to stick with a single cult, rather than trying to jump around and learn from 3-5 cults (which mechanically, is a recipe for being mechanically terrible at doing the thing you want to do - be a priest - for long stretches of game time)

Here's my recommended list of miracles from the Mythras core to restrict: Awaken, Corruption, Harmonise, Heart Seizure, Obliterate, Raise Undead, Resurrect, Sever Spirit

From Monster Island: Ageing, Grimoire, Summon Dead, Wish

This list is mostly composed of the most deadly "zap" spells, as well as the ones most likely to be disruptive to a campaign in a PC's hands, and the ones that work best in villains' hands.

Another alternative is perhaps to create a universal theism miracle list which all cults have access to, and then to add on additional miracles to delineate a cult's theme. This is a more conservative solution, which may make it more appealing to others.

If you want to do this, here is my suggested list for universally accessible theist miracles::

From the Mythras core: Consecrate, Dismiss Magic, Excommunicate, Exorcism, Extension, Lay to Rest, Soul Sight, Spirit Block, Steadfast (I would either restrict Awaken to NPC-only cults, or make it universal and include it on this list - your choice)

From Monster Island: Foreboding, Omen, Sagacity

Eliminating the High Priest Rank

There are only three levels of theism spells in Mythras, but there are four levels of initiation (not counting lay members). Each level of initiation increases your devotion poll by a quarter of your POW. I think it makes more sense to make "High Priest" purely a roleplaying thing, and to reduce theism to three levels because as it stands, High Priest is unexciting to achieve.

e.g. A theist PC has 12 POW and becomes an initiate. They can cast 3 initiate spells (1 magic point each). They become an acolyte, and can cast 6 initiate spells, or 3 acolyte spells (2 magic points each) or some combination of them. They become a priest, and can cast 9 initiate spells, 4 acolyte spells, or 3 priest spells (at 3 magic points each) or some combination. Then they become a high priest, and they get a devotional pool equal to their POW which allows them to cast 12 initiate spells, 6 acolyte spells, or 4 priest spells.

Compared to the previous levels, High Priest doesn't grant a new level of miracle, and it grants only a marginal increase in # of miracles over priesthood.

I believe you're supposed to sweeten the pot by making the rank of High Priest also come with a bunch of Gifts that give it extra oomph, but this violates the otherwise straightforward progression up the ranks, and Mythras is a bit shaky on how you get Gifts (e.g. do you automatically get all the relevant gifts when you attain that rank, or do you have to spend experience points, etc.).

Another benefit is supposed to be that it's comparatively easy (only a Hard test of Devotion) to invoke divine intervention for a high priest compared to anyone else, but I've never actually seen anyone do it at the table. I'd alter it so initiates and acolytes make Formidable tests of Devotion (as opposed to RAW, where only priests can do this) and let priests make Hard tests. The drawbacks - burning your skill points - to pull it off are already adequate to prevent abuse of it, and this change doesn't affect those drawbacks.

So I propose reducing initiation to three levels, and having the rank of Priest allow access to a devotional pool equal to your POW and to make a Hard test of Devotion for divine intervention. "High Priest" ranks can still exist, but they are not sacrally distinct, rather they are functional roles within the hierarchy of the cult (perhaps accompanied and distinguished by acquiring Gifts from holding the office).

Since making these two changes in the design of the Dawnlands, I've found it much easier to create theist cults and characters. I'm going to be testing this out in the Dawnlands campaign when it finally gets going, and we'll see how it does there.

Jun 13, 2019

Comments Temporarily Deactivated

I got hit with a wave of spam comments last night - a little over 60 different identical comments from a spam bot, with some posts hit more than once after I deleted the first wave. It's the same crank vampire spam I've seen a bunch of other people get as well.

I'm busy cleaning them up, but I've changed the commenting system temporarily so that only members of the blog can make them (which means de facto, only I can).

I'm going to let things sit until Saturday, June 15th, then open comments back up to the public, with the hope that the wave of spam will have passed by that point.

May 21, 2019

Shapeshifting Mystics in the Dawnlands

So there are shape-changing cults in the Dawnlands, and I model them using Mysticism from Mythras. They're most commonly found amongst the plains nomads - the Jarushim and Kadiz - where they are cross-clan associations of hunters and herders. Eagle, bear and coyote are the most common male shapechanging lodges, and crane, snow leopard and deer being the most common women's lodges.

Here's the talent list for the Coyote Runners, one of the more common male shapechanging lodges:

Augment (Athletics)
Augment (Endurance)
Augment (Survival)

Augment (Track)
Enhance Healing Rate
Enhance Movement Rate
Formidable Natural Weapons
Shapeshift (Coyote)

So this necessitated creating a Shapeshift trait. I'm using some of the information drawn from the shapeshifting spirits in the Animism chapter of Mythras (pg. 152).

In the Dawnlands, the mystic must be wearing a cloak made from the skin, feathers, fur, scales, etc. of whatever the creature they want to shapeshift into is, and they must hunt the creature and make the cloak themselves. They also can learn a "Beastform" combat style (common to all forms) that gives proficiency with Unarmed and Natural Weapons, and comes with Unarmed Prowess as a combat trait.

Shapeshifting is associated with a specific animal form - it's always Shapeshift (Coyote) or Shapeshift (Bear), etc., allowing access only to that animal form, rather than shapeshifting into any animal whatsoever. The mystic gains the average physical characteristics, armour points, hit points, creature abilities, and locomotion types of the animal when they shapechange, but keeps their own skills.

Unlike other traits, Shapeshift has variable intensity (similar to augmentations), costing 1 Magic Point per point of intensity. The mystic must maintain the trait with a minimum intensity equal to the intensity of a shapeshifting spirit able to transform them into that animal, as per page 152.

e.g. Transforming into a giant lizard requires a minimum intensity of 2, since a giant lizard is SIZ 19, and one requires an intensity 2 shapeshifting to transform into creatures between SIZ 13 and 21.

However, each level of intensity beyond the minimum required that the shapeshifting mystic invokes allows them to increase the SIZ of the animal form by 3. The mystic's new form gains the benefits (increase hit points, damage modifer, etc.) of the increased SIZ.

e.g. If our lizard-transforming mystic were to maintain their shapeshift trait at intensity 4, the extra two levels of intensity could be spent to increase the SIZ of the giant lizard to 25 (3 per additional level of intensity beyond the minimum).

Wounds and fatigue are carried over between forms.

Shapeshifting's meant to be a capstone ability for mystics who are progressing through one of these totemic cults, so I'm pretty good with it being a strong trait.

May 1, 2019

Motive, Means, and Opportunity

I have said many times that I don't plan out plots so much as create situations that drive decisions. As part of this, I require a fairly large cast of antagonists, potential allies, and other persons of interest who interfere in its development. What makes these people relevant to the situation is that they have some sort of agenda and are pursuing it, and that these tie into the situation in a way that influences a decision.

Because of this, I don't have a ton of time or use for the sort of huge backstories written in long text blocks that many published modules use when they try to set up their villains that go into their elaborate backstories in great detail but culminate in a guy sitting in a dank room waiting for the PCs to show up and stab him in the face.

So rather than writing this sort of stuff, I primarily concern myself with three characteristics of NPCs, and I suggest that if you want to write interesting NPCs who engage meaningfully with the players, you might want to try this yourself.

These three characteristics are their motive, their means, and the opportunity for them to put their plan into action.


Motives are what a NPC wants. I recommend writing it out as one short phrase.

NPCs can have more than one motive, but I suggest you concentrate on one good one instead of a bunch of crappy ones. A good one should either be extremely concrete, or it should be a broad abstraction - stuff in the middle tends to be lacks the benefits of either.

A very concrete motive should have an object it is directed at, an emotional tone or affect that adheres to it, and a clear sense of the outcome. Something like "I want to release the vampire I love from undeath by killing him permanently" is what I have in mind. For "clear sense of the outcome" I suggest you think about what the change the person wants to happen is - that's the outcome that's at stake for them and that drives their participation.

The change here, can, perhaps counter-intuitively, include preserving the status-quo antebellum, though in that case you should think about what threatens the status-quo and phrase the goal as the removal or neutralisation of what they think of as threatening it.

Broad abstract goals work best for recurring NPCs who crop up in a lot of different situations as forces or constraints but aren't necessarily direct actors challenging the PCs. Abstractions work best when they motivate lots of different actions instead of just one action. e.g. A particular character might lust after power, and constantly crop up at the periphery of different situations angling to see what they can get out of it, without directly being one of the antagonists opposing the PCs.

You also should consider carefully whether a NPC actually should just have a progression of concrete motives instead of a single broad abstract goal. Typically, the former works better than the latter.


Means are the tools, skills, resources, allies, etc. that a character brings to bear on accomplishing their motive. A common error at this stage is to phrase their means as a set of desires - they want to gather an army, build their death ray, etc. Those ideas are motives. Means are what they have in hand to progress towards realising their motives.

I recommend that you create 1-3 means that NPCs have to realise their agendas. A good split is at least one internal means (a skill or ability) and one external (a set of helpers, a magic item, a fortified location, etc.), with the third means as a back-up or contingency in case one of the first two fail.

Means are the mediating elements between PCs and NPCs. A NPC with no means has no way to effect their motive. For this reason, they often serve as key differences between NPCs. You can actually get away with recycling motives a fair bit between NPCs so long as the means by which they try to achieve them are different. Everyone can want the Gem of Ultimate Power, but if one NPC is intending to get it by sending his minions to retrieve it, while another is going to use her ninja powers to steal it from whomever has it, the PCs should have no trouble telling them apart.


An opportunity is the moment or set of moments when the NPC uses their means to try to accomplish their motives. Theoretically they are working towards their goals the entire time, even when they are not in conscious focus by the group, but in practice what you want is clear sense of when they enter the narration as agents trying to accomplish their goals.

I like to phrase these as IF-THEN statements, but you might something else useful. I try to avoid focusing specifically on PC actions, and use someone, everyone, anyone, or no one as qualifiers to push myself away from doing so.

I also like to phrase these so that there is a clear sense of what is not the opportunity. You want to be able to make a clear snap decisions that now is or is not the time for things to happen.

e.g. The opportunity for a NPC ninja assassin might be: If anyone retrieves the Gem of Ultimate Power (from inside the Dank Dungeon), then she will try to steal it from them the next time they are asleep without guards.

In that example, you know that until the PCs (or whoever retrieves the gem if they fail) are asleep without guards, the ninja assassin will bide her time.

Bringing This Together

The great advantage of this method is it steers you away from writing fan fiction about the NPCs that details their elaborate backstories and instead focuses on their decisions and interactions with other characters. It does so in a concise way that clearly lays out their future decisions and courses of actions, which are the most important parts of playing them at the table.

I also recommend doing this iteratively, and updating NPCs as you go along, rather than trying to frontload it all when you're coming up with them. Get a motive, a single means, and an opportunity written out on an index card or in an Excel spreadsheet, and then add more of each, or change entries, as inspiration strikes or the game develops in some direction.

I'm not overly rigid about things and prefer some loose improvisation as I go along, but I tend to keep a couple of big questions or decisions in mind that I'm driving towards, and what I'll often do is take a sheet of paper, write each question or decision out on it, and then write out the NPCs under each who I think bear on that problem.

From there, I can figure out whether the problem is sufficiently interesting (i.e. whether it has enough NPCs competing over it), or whether it needs more NPCs (or if there's some interaction between them that doesn't make sense or trivialises the problem accidentally).

Anyhow, I suggest trying this in your own adventure games to facilitate producing "dramatic" situations that are "character driven" without having to lapse into railroading or constraints on PC agency to make "the plot" happen (I'm putting all of these in quotes because these are the superficial impressions produced by what is ultimately a substructure of PC agency interacting with modular components).

Apr 26, 2019

The Big Dawnlands Reference Documents

I'm sure after a decade of me talking about the Dawnlands in bits and pieces, people are eager to actually get a true overview of the setting. As part of my new Dawnlands campaign, I wrote up a 25-page reference document for my players. I also wrote this 8-page campaign pitch for my new PCs which specifically focuses on one sept of the Kadiz.

The idea wasn't that they would read the either document in full in one sitting, but rather that they could refer to them as needed, and dip into them to gin up ideas for their characters.  It also helped my organize my thoughts and present a "conceptually dense" version of the setting that was laid out as something other than a series of vignettes, disorganised reflections, and occasional partial introductions.

I cranked these out in about four days of writing after my workday, so it's not my finest and most evocative work (rereading them, I notice the usual mishmash of sub-typos present in that sort of work), but I hope people find it interesting.