Nov 25, 2019

Great Battle Map Drawing Tutorial

This video starts off as a review & discussion of some Pathfinder 2e module called "Fall of Plaguestone" but around 20:40 "Classic DM" (T. Elliot Cannon) begins showing you how to draw good-looking battle maps. I thought this was a very good tutorial and easily adaptable to non-Pathfinder purposes. I'm not great at drawing battlemaps, but I've always wanted to improve.

It looks like Classic DM might be making this a series - on Oct 1 he uploaded a second tutorial video focused on "the Indigo Oasis" module.

Nov 2, 2019

The Encounter Grid: Six Years Out

This post about wandering monsters that I made back in 2013 remains the single most popular post I have ever made to this blog (over 17,000 views and counting). It crops up all the over place - Web DM has an episode that discusses it, here's someone posting it to Stack Exchange, and a link to the post has shown up on Reddit about once every two weeks for years now (example). Someone else started calling it the "encounter grid" a year or two and the name seems to have stuck.

In the nearly six years since that post, I've done a fair bit of experimenting with encounter grids, and have made some changes to how I use them. I thought it might be worthwhile to some of the insights I've had about it since then.

The first insight is that I reversed the order of entries so the monster is more likely to show up the higher the roll is. I also changed some of the categories. It now looks like this:

1d6 roll:
1 - Traces
2 - Spoor
3 - Tracks
4- Noises
5 - Monster
6 - Lair

In the old version, results of 5 and 6 were both "traces", so this has more variety and more clearly communicates that proximity is the value measured by this axis of the grid. Also, my official word on the subject is that if the PCs roll "noises" you have to act the noises out.

This rearrangement of numbers lets you use this more easily as an ersatz tracking mechanic - the PCs decide to search for a monster or enemy for a period of time (e.g. a watch), you roll 1d6, and that's how close to the beast they've gotten (I would then push them to come up with diegetic ideas to close the remaining gap). You might allow them gear or abilities that add small bonuses (+1 or +2 tops) to this roll when they're tracking, which should integrate smoothly with the way other gear and abilities add bonuses to rolls.

The second thing I encourage you to experiment with is to list more than just monsters on the encounter grid. I wrote this post about using a similar style of encounter grid to generate traps a few years ago. If you stick traps on the same grid as monsters, I suggest you reinterpret the categories slightly - tracks might be warning signs of the trap's operation, while a lair result means you discover multiple instances of the same trap in close proximity (this preserves the maximum die roll as the result with the greatest risk). Beyond traps, feel free to insert environmental obstacles requiring increasing difficulty and risk to overcome.

A third thing is that with an encounter grid that lists aspects or elements of the monster beyond just its existence, you can start repurposing your encounter grid for other uses. Need a simple fetch quest or bug hunt? Need a component for a magic item? The encounter grid lets you easily generate these things. I also use it when I'm restocking dungeons, where it creates a heavily-traveled in, almost palimpsestic dungeon that has lots of evidence of monster inhabitation.

A fourth experiment is to consider using a d8 instead of a d6, but with the bottom two entries as blanks or nulls. The table then reads:

1 - Nothing
2 - Nothing

3 - Traces
4 - Spoor
5 - Tracks
6 - Noises
7 - Monster
8 - Lair

I suggest this for a couple of reasons. First, in my game Into the Depths, when you're doing things like tracking people, you only roll a d6 if you're doing it yourself, but you roll a d8 if you're helping one another out. So this means tracking as a group instead of a single person is rewarded: You still roll the d6 as a lonesome individual, but without a bonus (from clever thinking, gear, a specialised tracking retainer, etc.) you'll never find the monster on your own. So it encourages team-work amongst the PCs to hunt down beasts.

From experience, I have found that rolling every turn as a regular part of a site exploration procedure is easier to remember than rolling every other turn or every third turn. Adding a few null results makes that easier on the players by spacing out encounters. The chances of a monster encounter of some sort (i.e. the Monster or Lair results) reduce from 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 using this method.

As an additional aid, it helps distinguish which die is which, since rolling 3d6 and picking one out either requires a die of a different colour, or a lot of trust in one's players (I have them roll the dice for wandering encounters). Having one die be a different type reduces the chances of a misunderstanding or misreading of the dice.

These are some of the tweaks and expansions I've made to the system over the years. I encourage you to experiment with them yourself and see how they work for your table.

Oct 11, 2019

Two Quick Tips For Being a Better Player

Here are two things that many experienced players do, but that new players often do not know to do.

1) Deliberate on other people's turns
2) Whenever you ask what's possible, include a reason you think it's possible

The first one is somewhat obvious, and yet it takes people a bit of time for people to pick it up. Planning your decisions while other people are enacting and resolving theirs speeds everything up, and only rarely will something change so drastically during their turn that you'll need to throw out everything you've just considered and start afresh just as the referee turns to you. 

Planning on other people's turns is ubiquitous amongst experienced players, and so most find it too obvious to mention as advice to new players. But I can clearly spot when a new player has not yet internalised this practice (and it is a practice many of them have to learn), and I see no reason to not tell them explicitly that this is a best practice. Also, while I try to avoid one-true-wayism, I think this is another one of those techniques that is a matter of skill and not style, and thus that doing this is always better than not doing this. 

Deciding what to do while other people are busy figuring out the results of their decisions is a very simple way to speed up combat and other structured activities without changing the mechanics of the game. The crunchier the system, the handier it is to have 300%+ more time to plan and calculate bonuses and refer to rules before anything is resolved. 

The second piece of advice is perhaps less succinct but also worth learning. Similar to the first piece of advice, I think it is a straightforward matter of skill at communicating and not one of style. 

It's very common for new players to ask broad, abstract questions of the form "Can I do [X]?". Answering those questions is nearly impossible for a referee to do off-the-cuff because doing so requires synthesising information about the paracosm that they have with information the player has about their character, and the player in this case has not volunteered the relevant information that needs to be synthesised. This phrasing forces a wholly unnecessary back-and-forth where the referee has to uncover the relevant information to synthesise into an answer by asking the player questions until they stumble across the right information.

If you, the player, think something might be possible, it saves the table time to provide that reason upfront. This allows the referee to shift from trying to model all of the possible ways something could be done while at the same time trying to reconcile those models with their imperfect memories of your capabilities to just evaluating your proposition. It's actually faster to list off three possible reasons you think you should be able to try something and get a yes or no answer for each.

Once again, while doing this is something experienced players generally know to do (tho' I still see many of them do it as well), it's something that takes new players a bit to learn. It's often conflated with "learning the system", but I think it's something distinct from that, since one can understand how one's powers work and still fail to provide that information to the referee.

Sep 18, 2019

Determining What PCs Find When They Search Hexes

My overland exploration procedures typically allow for three possible activities. The first is resting, the second is travel, and the third is searching a hex. This article is about the third procedure, searching hexes, and in particular, how to execute step #7, "Referee determines whether the PCs find anything". I'm going to discuss this step from two angles - firstly, placing content in hexes and secondly, the PCs conducting their search.

 As a reminder, I use hexes with a 5 km radius from centre to edge (a 10 km incircle diameter or "10 km hex" for short). A hex this size contains 86.6 square kilometres of area. Here's a calculator that will tell you the dimensions of hexagons of various sizes (metric) if you want a different size.

The Placement of Content in Hexes

My solution here is very simple. Hexagons divide into six equilateral triangles.In my hexes, each triangle covers an area of about 12.5 square kilometres, with a maximum distance of 5 km from base camp (assumed to be in the centre of the hex).

I number the triangles from 1 to 6, and roll 1d6 to determine which subsection any particular piece of content is in. ktrey over at d4 Caltrops has a tessellation system that breaks hexes up into 12 lozenges of equal area if you would prefer that level of granularity, but in all honesty my hexes rarely have more than two items in them at a time to start (not counting wandering monsters) so I don't have much need for that level of granularity.

I also assign each object a Concealment Score that interacts with my group perception rules. When in doubt, I randomly roll a Concealment Score of 1d6+3, knowing that anything with a Concealment Score equal to or lower than the # of PCs is going to be automatically spotted when they enter the hex. I try to make something immediately obvious in at least a third of all hexes, sometimes as much as a half, depending on how aggressive and interested they are in searching hexes.

Searching Hexes

In step #1 of my search procedure, PCs break up into search parties and each search party chooses a subsection of the hex to search. The most common choice in actual practice is that they all stick together and make a random roll of which subsection they're going to search, but they have the option to split up if they're in a rush or feel confident.

PCs searching a hex counts as an active search, so they roll 1d6 and add the # of PCs in the search party, and if it equals or exceeds the Concealment Score of the content, they find it.

A single iteration of a search takes one watch to complete (typically 6 hours), including time spent returning to base camp. Multiple search parties searching different subsections do their searches simultaneously.

This means that if the PCs stick together and search a hex, they will clear it in one full day (6 watches) of searching (without rest), or 2/3rds of a hex if they do. My experience is that they tend to work to the 2/3rds level by spending a day searching before moving on.

I'm not sure of how realistic this is (probably not very), but it strikes a good balance between giving them a change to discover a lot of content and leaving a level of uncertainty about whether they've truly found everything.

Lazybones / No Prep Method

If you're in a rush and having had any time to prep, you can just roll 4d6, preferably of different colours, when the PCs search a hex. The first is the subsection the content is in, the second is the subsection they search, the third is the Concealment Score and the fourth is their active search roll.

If the first and second die don't match, the PCs don't find the content because they're in the wrong spot. If the third die's result is higher than the fourth, the content stays hidden.

I usually do d6+3 for an actually randomly generated Concealement Score, and the fourth d6 will be +# of PCs since it's an active search, but you only have to get to these calculations if the first and second die match.

Once you've rolled the subsection the content is in, I suggest mostly keeping it consistent across further searches because a) it means fewer die rolls and b) it makes things less frustrating for the players because they can whittle down the location by progressively searching all of the subsections.

The sole exception I can think of where it becomes more fun is if the content is moving (e.g. it's a fugitive trying to hide from them by running around the hex), and this will incentivise the PCs to break up into smaller search parties to search more subsections simultaneously. In this case, you should still only roll the first d6 once per watch of searching.


I find these methods allow me to quickly establish whether the PCs have found anything when they search. You have one roll for stocking, and one or two rolls to resolve searching. The level of risk and difficulty of this system can be adjusted using three factors - the granularity of subsections (more likely to miss things), the length of a watch (more resources consumed, esp. time), and the Concealment Scores of content (more difficult to ensure you've cleared a hex). I hope this helps you stock hexes more easily.

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.