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June 13, 2014

Conflict is a Stretch

Today I'm going to address a very simple tool that you use every time you GM:  Conflict.  Conflict is what makes stories exciting, games fun, and simulations interesting.  Conflict is important to every kind of RPG from the most narrative story games to the crunchiest tactical games.  Designing captivating conflict is the most important GM skill.

Conflict, as employed in a tabletop RPG, is any situation where there are two or more distinct, possible outcomes, over which the player characters (PCs) have partial influence, and in which they have a stake.  

Here are the five major components of conflict, broken down.

  1. Situation:  A situation is the place, time, and circumstances that the PCs find themselves in.
  2. Two or More Distinct Outcomes:  A situation cannot be a conflict if the outcomes are indistinct.  They have to be qualitatively different, and preferably incompatible.  Compromise solutions are tricky:  The outcomes don't have to be incompatible, but the compromise solution should be less desirable than a total victory, even taking into account the risk of ignoring the compromise.  If the compromise is the best outcome for all sides, there are not multiple, distinct outcomes because there is no conflict.
  3. Two or More Outcomes are Possible:  I want to emphasize the word possible here.  A situation is not a conflict if its outcome is guaranteed.  Yes, the PCs almost always triumph but there needs to be some risk (making a consequential decision with incomplete information).  Conversely, a situation "on rails" is not a conflict, because the GM will not allow more than one outcome.
  4. Partial Influence:  If the PCs have complete influence over the outcomes, there is no conflict.  Many tabletop RPG designers make the mistake of giving PCs spells or powers that grant complete influence over conflicts (detect lie abilities, for instance).  As a GM, that drives me nuts.  A person with influence over and stake in a conflict is a disputant or contestant.  Here's what my post title means:  Conflict requires the player characters to stretch to ensure the outcome they want.
  5. Stake:  If the PCs don't care how the conflict resolves, it's not interesting.  It's not useful to the story, and it's not a good use of the table's time.  Another word for a stake is a hazard, which is to say, something that one contestant wants.

So a conflict involves a situation, outcomes, some risk, a way to influence the outcomes, and some hazard.

Final tip:  You should be able to write a conflict as a single sentence, in the form of a question asking about the different outcomes.  Can the heroes escape the swamp before one of them is poisoned?  Will the vampire kill the hunters, will it escape, or will they destroy it?  This ensures that all of the required elements are present.

If you have trouble designing interesting conflicts, remember that most conflicts have human (or at least sentient) opponents - villains.  In conflicts against villains great and small, use the villain's agenda to drive the conflict.

  1. Select an opponent and list the things that she or he wants.  
  2. Pick the items off the list over which your villain has partial influence and the PCs have partial influence.  
  3. Narrow down your choices to the things in which the PCs have the most stake.  For a major villain, start with the conflicts for which the villain doesn't need to be present in person, and can send henchmen. 
  4. If the conflict is part of a larger conflict, create outcomes for this conflict that influence the larger conflict.  Design the situation so that it is relevant to the larger conflict.
  5. Write the conflict in the form of a question, to make sure it's clear that all the elements are present.
Example:  Ghouls

In a Pathfinder game, the PCs will encounter some ghouls.  Instead of just putting ghouls on a map, the GM wants to create an interesting conflict.  

  1. The ghouls want to eat the flesh of living humans.  They also want to live forever.  They want to avoid the wrath of the gods of light.  They want to incur the favor of the gods of darkness.
  2. The PCs can prevent the ghouls from eating their flesh, kill them so they don't live forever, and channel the power of the gods of light.  So three of the four goals are ones the PCs can influence.
  3. The PCs have the most stake in not getting eaten.  The ghouls aren't major villains and don't have henchmen, so they will be participating directly.  (I chose this conflict because it's a "workaday" encounter -- the sort of scene fantasy RPG GMs employ multiple times every game session.)
  4. The larger conflict here is "Will the PCs figure out what happened to turn Sampleton into a ghost town?"  The situation will be a graveyard in an abandoned town, where a large number of fresh graves have been dug.  The new graves could give the PCs a clue about the town's vacancy, since the tombstones list the causes of death.  Perhaps they can find a pattern to the recent deaths.
  5. Can the PCs find a pattern on the gravestones marking the victims of the rash of recent deaths here, or will they be killed or driven off by the ghouls that haunt the graveyard first?

Conflict in Encounter Design

Putting the conflict in the form of a question helps the GM in every aspect of the encounter's design.  For the Ghouls example, a Pathfinder GM needs to decide how many ghouls to use.  In this case, she now knows she can use an overwhelming or even limitless number, since the dramatic question makes it clear that victory for the PCs is not "killing all the ghouls" but "surviving long enough to identify a pattern on the tombstones."

Good communication is key here.  To make this clear to the players, the GM needs to make sure the PCs know they will have to get information fast, and then flee before they're overwhelmed.  She can communicate this in-game by telling the PC with the best Perception that "There are more ghouls in that graveyard than your party can fight off." Then tell the PC with the best Knowledge: Religion that "Ghouls they don't work together -- so you might be able to get what you need and flee before you're overwhelmed."  The players know what they have to do, but they can try variations on the basic idea:  They can use stealth, distractions, speed, splitting up, sticking together, using a lookout, religious rituals, powerful spells, and lots of other options to try to tip the conflict in their favor.

By sharpening your skills at conflict design, you can avoid using "fight to the death" encounters over and over.

PS: Happy full-moon-Friday-the-13th!  This is my 99th post.  Stay tuned for #100!

June 5, 2014

Pathfinder Types and Select Subtypes

Types and subtypes are some of the most annoying system hidden inside D&D 3.x or Pathfinder.  Basically all magic attacks interact with the type/subtype system.  Spellcasters, especially arcane casters, need to know the type and subtype of just about every monster they meet.  And then they need to know what that means.  

Arcane casters tend to take Knowledge in Arcana, Dungeoneering, Nature, Planes, and Religion so that they can identify a creature as being one of the types covered by those skills.  This allows them to avoid wasting spells.  It's hardly obvious that a giant scorpion can not be sacred off with Cause Fear, for instance.

So I've made a DM tool - a Pathfinder types and subtypes cheat sheet - to speed up that first round of combat.  It doubles as a player tool as well.  The rules that govern this tool's use are as follows:

You can use this skill to identify monsters and their special powers or vulnerabilities. In general, the DC of such a check equals 10 + the monster's CR. For common monsters, such as goblins, the DC of this check equals 5 + the monster's CR. For particularly rare monsters, such as the tarrasque, the DC of this check equals 15 + the monster's CR, or more. A successful check allows you to remember a bit of useful information about that monster. For every 5 points by which your check result exceeds the DC, you recall another piece of useful information. Many of the Knowledge skills have specific uses as noted on Table: Knowledge Skill DCs. (source: )

Here's how you use it.  When you describe the encounter, give a good description of the monster.  If the PCs haven't encountered it before (typical for a fantasy RPG), call for a knowledge check as above (or allow taking 10 by just asking "Do you have at least [CR] in Knowledge [Type]?").  If they succeed, tell them the creature's Type and Subtype and let them look it up on the chart.

The Tool: A Back-and-Front Table of Type/Subtype Information

Pathfinder Types and Select Subtypes Table
(feel free to use with or without attribution, for profit or not)

Give this table to the players of spellcasters with Knowledge skills.  Let them read and reference it whenever they want.  Since type and subtype traits were developed for simulationist purposes, it makes sense that, for example, a wizard trained in Arcana would know that all Dragons are immune to sleep spells because of some quirk of their dragon mystic resonance.  A particularly good check result (if you're rolling) might give the players some more information, like what the creature's spell resistance is, or its other defenses.

Also, don't forget to telegraph the monster's really scary awesome attacks!  Do this in your basic description (before the monster knowledge check), because the point of F20 combat encounters is to make the players believe their characters are in far more peril than they actually are.  The more you scare them, the more tense the encounter is, even if their chances of winning are around 98%.

When you're giving out extra information for the monster knowledge check, always give information to help the PCs win faster, not stats about the monster's attacks -- you want those to be scary.  If I tell you a hellhound is a huge wolf from hell that breathes fire, that's scary!  But if I tell you it does just 2d6 damage, that you can save for half, that it's only a 10' cone, and that it can only do it every 2d4 rounds, it's not scary.  Instead, give away the monster's weaknesses with a good Knowledge skill or roll.  These allow the players to feel like they've uncovered a valuable secret, without making the encounter feel as un-deadly as it really is.  And if they exploit that secret to win the encounter faster, you've not only saved table time, you've done so while:

  1. Using the rules 
  2. Adding tactical complexity
  3. Making the players feel smart
  4. Rewarding good skills as opposed to minmaxed combat stats
  5. Taking no action that detracts from the sensation of danger in the encounter

Exaggerate the monster's offense.  
If you're rewarding good Knowledge, instead reveal its weaknesses.  


"This creature resembles a thin, lanky wolf with reddish-brown fur, white claws, and burning, fiery red eyes.  As it raises its head to growl at you, sulfrous smoke shoots from its nostrils, and when it opens its fanged maw to bark, red-hot flames shoot out with the otherworldly sound...  Do you have Knowledge: Planes trained and +3 or higher?"  

"Yeah, +9"  

"Then you know that this is a wolf spawned in the pits of hell.  It clawed its way into our world, perhaps with the aid of an Asmodean cult or a powerful devil.  This is a hell-wolf bent on killing, and it can barbecue entire parties because it can breathe fire.  It's a Lawful Evil Extraplanar Fire Outsider. And since you've got +9, you also know it is vulnerable to cold."

(A hellhound, by the way, is actually less dangerous than an orc, which seems rather silly to me.  You'll see more on Pathfinder monster design from me later!)

The Value of Code

In my years playing 3rd edition and Pathfinder, I've played five casters long-term:  A cleric, druid, bard, blaster type wizard, and witch each in long, multi-year campaigns (in addition to a fighter, paladin, rogue, and monk in long campaigns).  I've also run at least as much as I've played in d20.  I've learned that playing a spellcaster takes some preparation and planning in downtime, otherwise you wind up holding up the action during game time.

DMs can help the players of casters avoid slowing down the game by interfacing with them efficiently, using type and subtype as quick code for a whole host of monster immunities.  Describing an Wraith's immunities is a lot harder, takes more time, and requires more work for the DM than just saying "incorporeal undead."

The Value of Distributed Processing

The rules for the wraith's type and subtype comprise as many words of text as this blog post.  If the DM tries to handle all of these rules in the background, it's going to be a lot of work.  Instead, the DM can share (distribute) those rules with a player to process.  Now when the monk tries to trip the wraith, the wizard's player can step in and remind the monk that it won't work.  The DM doesn't have to A) remember the exact rule because the wizard player has it right there or B) referee the monk's action because the wizard player can interject.

Think of the amount of page flipping, SRD clicking, and rules arguing time that saves!