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February 25, 2015

A-Maze-Ing Dungeons

A-Maze-Ing Dungeons:  10 Maze Dungeon Tips!

In the world of fantasy gaming, nothing stands out more than a dungeon.  And no part of a dungeon is more intriguing than its twisting passages and confusing turns.  Still, it's hard to make a dungeon that the players really feel like they're lost in.  Here are a few techniques for running a maze.

A maze in a classic fantasy RPG is...

  • a type of puzzle;
  • where every move has a cost; and
  • where things are hidden that the PCs might or might not find.

Yes, that is a maze.  Good luck.

First, a system disclaimer:  I'll be assuming that you're running a D&D, 13th Age, Pathfinder, or OSR-inspired game.  Some games about dungeons (e.g. Dungeon World, Donjon) are more improvisational about their maps and generate the exploratory feel in different ways that won't apply [as well] here.  Or maybe they will!  Post your thoughts below or find me on Twitter @RunAGame

1. Don't Give Them a Map!

The first tip I have for you is simple:  Don't give the players a map.  Don't build the maze in your cool Dwarven Forge or dungeon tiles.  Don't draw it on a battlemat or a map it in roll20.  Yes, even if you're running this in roll20, don't map the maze for the PCs.  Instead, map out the combat and trap encounter areas alone.  Alternately, use a map in roll20, but hide areas the PCs have been once they leave them.  The new Fog of War feature will help here.

2. Make Everything Cost Them

If your players are just wandering around a maze, they're eventually going to solve it - with or without a map.  What's the fun in just making them wander through a maze until they solve it?  Even if there are a few combat encounters or traps, the maze part needs to be interesting, too.

Let me paint you a picture:  Let's say you create a massive maze and populate it with 10 treasure rooms guarded by dangerous encounters and traps.  Then you put 20 more avoidable encounters in your mega-maze.  And then you put the PCs in this dungeon just like that.  No time pressure.  What's going to happen?  They're going to be "completionist" to use a video game term.  They're going to explore every nook and cranny, disarm every single trap, fight all 30 monsters, and get all 10 treasures.  It's guaranteed to happen.  They have no reason to leave the dungeon until they're sure they got all the treasure that's inside.  None of their choices matter, because the outcome is always going to be the same:  Some number of days hence, they will walk out of that dungeon with every treasure collected and every monster slain.

Yuck!  So what do you do?

I've designed a few maze dungeons recently.  Here's my answer:  You have to make every single action in a maze cost something.  Put a time pressure on them or use some other constraint.

Many of the mechanics of D&D evolved to suit "exploring a maze with time pressure" style play.  Old school tournament play actually made efficient exploration competitive!  Many of the best old school dungeons put the PCs in a maze with a time limit.  The resource management systems in every edition of D&D -- even 4th edition and 13th Age, which changed them significantly -- are geared to support time-limited maze-dungeon exploration.

Example:  The dungeon is an evil shrine beneath an active volcano, and a river of magma is flowing through the caves.  The dungeon is safe for one day.  The PCs should easily find the plot on the first day, and have time to hunt for treasure, too.  On the second day, the lava fills the dungeon, destroying everything inside and killing all the monsters.  The PCs know this and ought to get warning a few minutes before the lava comes in.  The dungeon has about 7 or 8 encounters in it, but only three of them protect treasure.  The rest are avoidable traps and avoidable combat encounters.  Avoiding each danger is a different challenge -- finding a trap, outwitting a riddling monster, ourtunning zombies, avoiding dead ends, solving a puzzle, negotiating with an archon, bribing a hobgoblin, etc.  The plot for the dungeon should be based on the lava filling it up:  The PCs were sent there to witness the destruction of the evil shrine and report back if they see anything unusual happen when the lava destroyed it.  The day of treasure hunting is just icing on the cake.

3. Failure Must Be an Option

Mazes are best for treasure and side-quests.  You can put the plot in the dungeon, but it has to be easy to find.  If your PCs must solve the maze to further the plot, you have to make the path to the plot impossible to miss, or else create lots of different ways to advance the plot.

If you're going to create a maze, it's best not to hide the plot inside the maze.  Don't put the Holy Scroll of Moving The Plot Forward in a hidden room inside a maze.  Never do that.  Instead, make a clear path to the plot, but hide the treasure inside the maze.  There's no better reason to explore a maze than "there's treasure hidden in here."

The choices the PCs make must have an impact.  The PCs must be allowed to be geniuses and avoid all the dangers... or squander their resources and screw up.  Otherwise, what's the point?

Example:  In the minotaur's labyrinth, the PCs find a goblin named Tagz who resents the minotaur's tyranny.  The goblin doesn't know much about the labyrinth -- she only knows the way to the minotaur at the center of the maze.  In return for showing her the way out, she will guide the PCs to the center of the maze.  The PCs need to kill the minotaur before the end of the year, two days hence, then escape the dungeon, which will sink into the earth the night after he is killed.  But the PCs also know that hidden elsewhere in the maze is the minotaur's treasure, and one of the three treasure troves holds magic weapons that might make it easier to slay the minotaur.  They can bring Tagz along while they search the maze for treasure, or they can go straight to the minotaur and kill him first.  Regardless, Tagz guarantees that the PCs can get to the plot, but they can still fail to find the treasure.

4. Time = Encounters

I've written about time pressure before.  D&D, 13th Age, and Pathfinder slowly deplete player-character resources throughout an adventuring day.  In all editions, the PCs can realistically handle 4-6 "on level" encounters in an adventuring day.  Limiting the time the PCs have in the dungeon effectively limits how many encounters they can handle.  Then every trap that makes them stop to heal up or cast spells to avoid and every battle they can't evade pushes them toward their limit.

If they're cautious and cunning in the maze, they can explore more before their time runs out.  If they're reckless, they won't be able to explore as much.  The more they explore, the more treasure they find.

Example:  Place low level adventurers in a maze dungeon full of zombies.  Lots and lots of zombies.  Countless zombies.  Zombies are slow, and easily avoided as long as the PCs don't get caught in a dead end and have to double back.  And a lot of dead ends are full of zombies themselves.  Zombies aren't that challenging, so the PCs will probably defeat them.  But each time will cost them a bit.  The PCs will have to move fast, which means none of that "search every five feet for traps" baloney.  So you can put some traps in, but try to make them interesting -- not just surprise damage.  A real simple pit trap will slow the PCs down more than anything, and that means the zombies will catch up!  In addition, the PCs will have to send scouts ahead, to avoid getting trapped in a dead end with a horde of zombies behind them.  And that means they'll split the party!  To make this work, have everyone move in combat rounds.  Let the PCs act first, as if they had won initiative, and then have all the zombies go.

5. Give them a Map!

I'm going to contradict myself here.  One option is to give them a map!  But don't give them an accurate one.  Make it a rough map copied from a copy of the original that was drawn by the illiterate dwarf who was the only survivor of the sacking of the great mine.  Or draw a map and give it to one player, saying her character had been there before (perhaps with her mentor) and that's the best map she can draw from memory.  Make the map incomplete -- leave white space, or question marks or uncertainties.  "underwater area here -- or was it on the west side?"

(Note that Dungeon World instructs GMs to use the "incomplete map with blank areas" technique as a general philosophy for everything.  It's a good technique, whether you give the players the map or not.)

Example:  Give the players verbal instructions for how to navigate the maze to find just one thing inside it.  "To find the Lost Scroll, enter the maze, turn left, go straight at the four way crossing, pass three doors, take the stairs on the left after the statue, and make your second right in the lower hall."  But then hint that there are other treasures hidden within the maze.  They can head straight for the Lost Scroll, or else branch off when they see interesting side-passages, and hope to get back on track when they're done.

6. Sliding/Shifting Walls and Rooms

Remember when dwarves got a bonus to detecting sliding/shifting walls and rooms?  There's a reason that was a big deal in old school D&D!  They really throw you off in a maze.  Basically it's maze cheating.  It makes a maze four dimensional:  That stairway goes up, North, and West; and won't be there in ten minutes.  If you're using time pressure, as hinted above, you'll be tracking time somehow.  In the example above, the PCs and zombies are acting in combat rounds.  Well if there are portcullises that open and close every five rounds, it changes the dungeon layout (note: gelatinous cubes and centipede swarms can go through portcullises and also move slower than PCs).  You can make it more confusing by having the walls themselves shift:  You can tell that a portcullis closing has changed your route.  It's really disorienting when the four way intersection you passed five rounds ago is now a three-way intersection, and the way back seems to be gone.

Example:  Build a dungeon out of three rings.  Each ring has passages that connect to the passages in the next ring in.  Then have the rings turn relative to one another based on a series of levers or magical runes deep inside each ring.  The PCs (or just the dwarves among them!) will sense the floor moving, but not see what's going on.  The key to solving the maze is to use the levers to find your way to the treasure and then back out without being killed by the monsters and traps within.  For time pressure and plot, the reason they came here was to see omens.  Each night, they have visionary dreams, but their minds can't handle too many; and they know that they can't handle more than two such dreams.

7. Underground is Three Dimensional

Seems obvious, right?  Well consider the "right hand rule."  (the maze algorithm; not the high school physics mnemonic)  In a typical dungeon map, always following the right hand wall will eventually take a party clear around the dungeon.  A disjoint maze with the objective in the middle somewhere solves this, but the best way to confuse your players is to have multiple levels.  Have a stairway that goes down to a room with a side passage that leads to another stair up, elsewhere in the dungeon.  Make enough of these passages, and the players will lose all bearing.

Different colors represent different depths.  Light gray is 0, dark grey is -20', and green is -40'.
Created in Pyromancers Dungeon Painter
8. Teleport Them

Teleportation circles are another way to add confusion to the maze.  They have the added benefit of basically being doors that you can't look through!  So feel free to make them a puzzle or trap, as well.
Example:  Start the dungeon with a hieroglyph in red, green, and blue paint.  Draw it out for the players in marker.  It's a simple hero-defeats-bad-guys story.  In the story, everything dangerous that the hero defeats is red.  Every death trap that hero avoids instead of defeats is green.  Everything safe or righteous is blue.  Within the dungeon maze, the PCs encounter several teleportation circles colored red, green, or blue.  Blue circles safely transport the PCs to other areas of the maze.  Red circles transport them to rooms where monsters or traps keep unwelcome guests out (having a password, solving a puzzle, or disarming a trap can get past; else...).  Green circles always lead directly to death traps.  The PCs shouldn't be foolish enough to enter a death trap after reading a warning, right?  Solving the maze should involve entering at least one red circle and several blue ones.  Other red circles lead to treasure rooms, but are not necessary to complete the plot portion of the dungeon.

9. List of Example Costs

To help you design your maze, here are some example costs.

  • Time pressure.  Remember, time = encounters in D&D, 13th Age, and Pathfinder.  There are many kinds of time pressure.  See the GM Tool at the end of this post for a list of ways to use time pressure in a tabletop RPG.
  • Rivals.  This is just a variant on time pressure, but it deserves attention in a maze.  Put rivals in the dungeon who are going after the same treasure.  Because it's a maze, the two parties may never see each other; but every time the PCs take an extended rest, there's a 25% chance the rivals have succeeded at looting one of the maze's treasures.
  • Risk a loss.  Give the PCs a weak NPC to escort through the maze, so each encounter is a risk that they lose their NPC.
  • Living dungeons.  The dungeon can react to the PCs'a presence and actions.  Don't just re-stock encounters.  Running encounters twice is a waste of time.  Instead make the dungeon react intelligently.  The bad guys will move some of their treasure out of the dungeon and reset their death traps.  They will double their patrols so the monsters in the dungeon come in fours instead of twos (+2 CR for lots of encounters).  They will send spies.
  • Death traps.  Yeah, I'm getting really old school here.  Some types of games welcome sudden, unexpected death that serves no plot purpose.  But don't forget that after a certain level in D&D-type games, the PCs get access to resurrection magic.  Resurrection magic makes a death trap just a cost.
  • Gear-killers.  Once the PCs get the ability to bring back the dead in D&D, taking their magic sword is a fate worse than death.  If your dungeon is full of oozes that dissolve leather, rust monsters, green slime, golems that sunder weapons, and other nasty gear-buster encounters, each encounter potentially has a major cost. 

You might be tempted to make taking an extended rest a cost by having monsters attack the PCs at night.  This is fine if you're also using time pressure.  But on their own, nighttime encounters don't make resting a cost.  They just make the PCs rest earlier so they have resources left in case of a nighttime attack.

10. Dungeons Without Mazes

Mazes are special.  They are a story and game challenge in and of themselves.  Done well, where everything the PCs do has a cost, they present danger and a sense of wonder and exploration.  The frenzied, difficult exploration tells an amazing adventure story, and it does so without railroading the players -- once they've entered the maze, they can be cautious, bold, search thoroughly, or run out of time.

But not all dungeons should be mazes.  Unless solving a maze is complicated by other factors, don't make the players solve it.  The maze itself is not really a challenge worth playing through.  D

If you're not running a maze where every move has a cost, don't waste the table's time with empty rooms, dead ends, pointless wandering monsters, or encounters that are just filler.  You can convey the feel of a maze without actually wasting table time on one.

You can use a 4e skill challenge or series of skill checks in Pathfinder or 5e D&D to solve a maze in the abstract as a quick challenge, if that's the case.  Or just use the maze as flavor in a simple montage (just describe their journey through the maze and cut to the next scene where they have a choice).

February 19, 2015

The Social Block

A few weeks ago, a discussion online got me thinking about the value of social system.  

I have a love-hate relationship with social system.  On one hand, I would rather just handle social scenes with roleplay.  On the other hand, social system has some advantages for just about every play style.  For the gamist in me, it creates structures of risk and challenge.  For the narrativist in me, it helps me (as a GM) have my NPCs react differently than I would personally, and sometimes takes the story in unexpected directions that I would not have considered.  For the simulationist in me, it allows my players to portray characters more (or less) socially savvy than their players.

So let’s talk about social system in Pathfinder.

Pathfinder’s social system is a legacy from 3rd edition, which was the first D&D edition to try using skills.  3rd edition tried to adapt a newfangled skill system to the old D&D reaction mechanic.  It’s very conscious of the editions that went before, and was a little timid about breaking from them.  If you played previous editions of D&D consider the 3rd edition social skills:  Bluff was basically an opposed Charisma vs Wisdom check.  Diplomacy was basically a port of old school reaction checks.  And Intimidate was basically a forced morale check (“modified level check”) with a watered down result.  Pathfinder may have cleaned them up a little from 3rd edition, but they’re still a bit disjointed. Luckily, the game balance works out just fine. Each system works well enough on its own.  

But you came here for tips to help you Run a Game, right?

Below is a tutorial on writing social encounters for Pathfinder using “rules as written” or RAW.  This is important if you’re writing a module for strangers, such as if you’re selling it online or running it at a con.  Or if your table just prefers using the rules as much as possible.  Note that even though I’m walking you through “RAW,” I like

There is a short section on “winging it” at the end, to generate quick social DCs on the fly.  Even if you prefer the simplicity of winging it, you should still read the rest of this post, because there’s a lot more to a social encounter than die rolls.

Writing Social Encounters

A social encounter is any encounter that has a social interaction component.  

I find that with a little prep to untangle the clunky system, social encounters can run smoothly.  When I say “a little prep,” I mean something you can take a 2 minute break to do during your session, right there at the table, if you have to.  It’s mostly stuff you need to do anyway if you’re going to break out Pathfinder’s social system - and I think this is the smoothest way to do it using the core Pathfinder rules.

All you have to do is add a new section to the stat block for the NPC in your encounter called the social block.  (See, it’s like “stat block” but for the social system and relevant notes.)  This section is more narrative, and might deserve its own page, to help you eliminate the distraction of spell lists and CMB and such.

Nature of the Conflict

First, write down what the conflict in this scene is.  What is it that makes the PCs’ agenda and the NPC’s motivations clash?  How passionate is the NPC about their agenda?

Consider last week’s post, “With Friends Like These.”  If you’re improvising a social encounter on the fly, there’s even a set of random tables in that post to determine what the NPC’s motives are.  

Naturally for there to be a conflict, you will be tempted to make some assumptions about what the players will want to achieve.  That’s unavoidable, but try not to think in those terms.  Instead, focus only on what the NPC is willing to fight for.  If the NPC cares strongly about something, either it’s going to be a problem for the PCs, or it’s going to be useful to the PCs.  But which of those it winds up being isn’t really up to you.

You can even use the random tables on With Friends Like These to help. The examples below use the attitudes and conflicts from that article.

A tense negotiation with Barbary slavers

At the end of the Conflict write-up, bullet-point two to four things the NPC cares strongly about.  Again, if they don’t care strongly about it, it doesn't need to be mentioned.  They won’t fight over it.  The reason you want more than one bullet point is that people are complicated and have often conflicting motives.  

Note:  If the NPC is curmudgeonly and would fight over anything, then what he really cares about -- what you write down -- is “Always has to feel like he’s getting his way.”  And that’s probably very useful to the PCs.  Those sorts of people are easy to manipulate.

Sense Motive has a counter-intuitive system.  The DC to discern an NPC’s plain motives is higher than to catch most NPCs in a lie (except for NPCs highly skilled in Bluff).  I don’t know why this is, but I prefer to balance it out by making the benefits of a Hunch check far outweigh the benefits of a Catch a Lie check.

Plain motives are DC 20 (per the Hunch option under the Sense Motive rules).  The NPC doesn’t necessarily shout their plain motives from the rooftops, but PCs can attempt to discern plain motives from just a few minutes’ conversation.  Success on this check should reveal all of the NPC’s plain motives.  

Hidden motives should be listed either as the character’s Bluff skill (if you like opposed checks - I don’t) or 10 + Bluff (I would rather leave all the rolling up to the players, but that’s a personal preference).  PCs cannot attempt to discern hidden motives until they force the NPC to talk about the subject.  Then they make a Sense Motive check against the NPC’s Bluff.  Success only indicates that the NPC is lying here and has a hidden agenda.

Game design philosophy note:  Most players have the social intelligence to discern plain NPC motivations on their own; and most GMs have the basic acting skills needed to telegraph NPC motivations without much trouble.  But not all!  Between younger players, self-conscious GMs, bad actors, folks with lower social IQ, and socially skilled adults after a long day of work or a few beers, the Sense Motive skill comes in handy.  Let your players decide when to use it, though.  They might enjoy teasing out NPC motivations without resorting to the dice.

The NPC’s Diplomacy DC is based on their initial attitude toward the PCs, which itself comes from their past relationship, the current situation, and the NPC’s agenda.   Write down their reaction level and the associated DC.  

Bluff DC:

The NPC’s Bluff DC is technically an opposed roll using Sense Motive.  If you’re using the "RAW," just record their Sense Motive modifier.  I like to let the players have all the fun, so I give NPCs a Bluff DC equal to 10 + Sense Motive, as if they could “take ten” on Sense Motive.  

Also, write down how the NPC will react if they catch the PCs in a lie.  A scheming Baron might give them a knowing smile and lower his attitude toward them by one step.  A Trumpet Archon might judge them lacking and vanish into the astral plane.  A werewolf might become Hostile and attack.   A town sheriff might detain them as suspicious characters.

The NPC’s Intimidate DC is 10 + HIt Dice + Wisdom Modifier.  I like to make a note if the NPC is immune or resistant to Fear effects, because it changes how I portray them when role playing an intimidation attempt.  You can still threaten someone who doesn’t feel fear.  It just has to be a realistic threat.

Remember, forcing a character to do what you want with Intimidate only lasts 1d6x10 minutes, so write down what that character is likely to do after that time is up, and they come to their senses.

NPCs who have Intimidate themselves may try to use it back at the PCs.  (“Let us in or we’ll ruin your day!”  “Yeah, cleaning your blood offa this floor would be a pain in my ass.”)  The Pathfinder rules don’t cover this situation, sadly.  As a house rule, I would suggest you roll opposed Intimidate checks instead of a straight check against the listed DC.  The higher check result wins.  If the NPC wins, the PCs can’t attempt to intimidate them again for at least an hour.  Ties go to the PCs.  If the PCs win, the NPC won’t attempt to intimidate the PCs anymore, and the PCs get the benefits of Influence Opponent's Attitude.

Knowledge Benefits:

Knowledge can come in handy.  If there’s a particularly useful fact that a Knowledge skill might reveal, list the skill, fact, and a mechanical perk that comes with using it (see the first example).  

Alternately, use Knowledge checks to clue PCs in on the NPC’s possible hidden motives -- see the second example.

(You might be wondering "what about Disguise?" Well in Pathfinder, Disguise only applies to putting on a costume; not playing a part, so it's really not a social skill. I think it's still a useful skill, but it isn't of much use here.)

Two Sample Encounters

The Tomb Guardian  
CR 3 encounter designed for a level 2 party.

Near the town of Muddy Fork, at the top of a steep hill, is a small shrine guarding the seal to the wizard king’s tomb.  The seal is a magical seal that looks like a stone disc in the ground, and the heroes know that they can open it by casting the Bleed spell while touching it.  An aasimar and two tamed wolves guards the seal, however.  Mitzi is a young woman from Muddy Fork.  Every generation the blood of celestials breeds true in one child, and Mitzi was that child.  Traditionally, like the celestials that came before them, these heirs live on the hilltop and keep meddling adventurers and evil necromancers from opening the tomb’s seal.  The aasimar will resist any attempts to open the seal, but she knows she can’t fight off most threats.  Luckily for her, since the people of Muddy Fork use her as their town healer, Mitzi knows she can call for the town militia and they will come running.  The PCs need to get into the tomb, for it contains magical weapons they need to defeat a rising evil.  It would be nice if a friendly healer was waiting outside, but they have to convince Mitzi to let them pass.

Mitzi uses the stats of an Aasimar Cleric.

Mitzi has two tame wolves (because what else are you gonna do up on a hill all day?) that she uses to protect herself, in case combat breaks out. She will use Bless to buff them, and then flee if things look bad. Valor is important to Iomede, but failing to get away to summon the town militia if she has a chance is beyond foolish.

Social Block
Nature of the Conflict:  Cross-Purposes.  Mitzi and generations of aasimar before her have guarded the tomb of the wizard king.  Her task: To warn away any adventurers who want to mess with the seal on the tomb.  If push comes to shove, Mitzi will fetch the nearby town’s militia to help.  They love her, because she and her family before her have served as healers for the village for centuries.  Mitzi is cautious.  She is pragmatic and listens to reason, but as a result she looks down on rash and reckless courses of action, such as opening the tomb.
Sense Motive:  All motives are plain (DC 20)
  • Keep meddlers out of the tomb
  • Keep the people of Muddy Fork safe
  • Serve the will of the gods of good
Diplomacy DC:  22 (Unfriendly); PCs can get a bonus (see below)
Bluff DC 11:  If she catches a liar, her attitude toward them deteriorates by one step.
Intimidate DC 12:  She won’t intimidate back.  If chased off, she will go fetch the town militia.  Use twelve Foot Soldiers (
Knowledge (religion) DC 10:  Mitzi wears the sword-and-sun holy symbol of Iomede.  
Knowledge (religion) DC 15 (free for clerics and paladins of Iomede): Iomede is the goddess of righteous valor, justice, and honor.  Behaving dishonorably toward a cleric of Iomede will have worse results than usual.  Despite her caution, appealing to righteous valor (courage) over fear and doubt might be more beneficial here than pure reason (+5 to Diplomacy checks).

The Hobgoblin Spy
CR 1 encounter for a level 1 party

The PCs have just got their first quest, to find the Life Stone in a half-sunken temple East of town, and are leaving the tavern when they spot a Hobgoblin that was literally eavesdropping on them:  Hanging from the eaves to listen in on the conversation.  After capturing the Hobgoblin, they learn his name is Krug, it’s up to them to interrogate him and find out why he’s spying on them.  Krug doesn’t want to reveal who he’s working for, because he’s sure that if he talks, the best he can hope for is not getting paid.  Also, Krug doesn’t want to reveal that his brother, Rud, was with him and got away.

Krug (and Rud) are just normal Hobgoblins.

The combat portion of the encounter is simple:  When the PCs emerge from the tavern, they see a Hobgoblin hanging from the eaves.  Roll initiative (whether the PCs wish to start combat or not).  On his round, he drops from the eaves and tries to run away with a panicked “Yikes!”  

If the PCs look for other threats on their turn, let them roll Perception, DC 30.  Success means the PCs hear another creature sneaking away, 50’ away, around a corner.  This DC is high because of the intervening wall and distance, but also for dramatic purposes, to add stakes to the following social scene.

Social Block
Nature of the Conflict:  Frenemy:  Krug is the PCs’ enemy, but he values his life more than the wanted outlaw necromancer Razak who hired him in the ruined tower ten miles North of town, so they can get him to cooperate with a little pressure.  Krug is Passionate about trying to get paid by the necromancer and trying to keep his brother, Rud, from being captured.  Rud is, right now, running away from town, toward the necromancer’s tower.  The PCs can catch him if they give chase within the hour.
Sense Motive:  DC 9 to reveal the presence of hidden agendas if characters get Krug talking about related subjects. In this case, Krug’s plain motive is obvious (no check) since the PCs put him in this tight spot in the first place.
  • Hidden:  To keep his brother, Rud, who was also spying on the adventurers, from getting caught
  • Hidden:  Not to reveal the identity of the necromancer Razak or that Razak is laying low in the tower ten miles North of town.
  • Plain (obvious):  To survive and get away unhurt.  If the PCs genuinely promise to let Krug go, they can claim a +5 bonus to Diplomacy checks with him.  Same if they successfully Bluff that they will.
Diplomacy DC 24: (Hostile); the PCs will have to capture Krug to get him to talk, and that will make Krug pretty hostile toward them.  
Bluff DC 11:.  Krug expects the PCs to treat him poorly, so catching them in a lie has no effect on his attitude.
Intimidate DC 12:  Though he’s not very good at it, Krug will try to intimidate the PCs right back (-1 check modifier) with vague threats of other hobgoblins rescuing him or taking vengeance.  If the PCs fail to intimidate Krug, he becomes convinced of his own bluster.
Knowledge (local) DC 15:  There’s an outlaw necromancer in these parts that might be interested in something like the life stone and anyone who might be able to find it.  But nobody knows where to find him.
Knowledge (local) DC 5:  Hobgoblins are much more loyal to their clanmates than regular goblins, and they rarely act alone.

What About Winging It?

The alternative to using the social “RAW” is to set arbitrary skill DCs.  This isn’t terrible.  

  • “Easy” DCs are 5+CR/2;
  • “Moderate” DCs are 10+CR; and
  • “Hard” DCs are 20+CR.
When interacting with high CR NPCs or creatures, use the party’s level instead of the CR.  For instance, a level 4 party interacting with an indifferent Solar doesn’t need to check against DC 22 (Indiffeent DC 15, plus Cha +7) from the basic system or DC 33 (Moderate, DC 10+CR 23) from the “wing it” guideline!  Just use the party level to get DC 14 (Moderate, DC 10, + Level 4).

This “wing it” system can work for just about any skill check in Pathfinder.

Using that real simple guideline for the Hobgoblin encounter would result in Diplomacy DC 21 (hard), Bluff DC 11 (Moderate) and Intimidate DC 5 (Easy), which work pretty well, especially given that the Hobgoblin attempts to Intimidate back with a -1 instead of the PCs using the straight check difficulty.  

Using the simple “wing it” guideline for the Aasimar encounter would result in all the social DCs of 13 (all moderate).  And that also tracks reasonably well with what the RAW system generates, though it makes Diplomacy significantly easier.  

But don’t be too lazy!

Even if you’re winging it, you should still write out (or at least think through) the details of the potential conflict, bullet point the NPC’s motives, think of how they will react to catching the PCs in a lie, and determine what they will do if they are bullied.  

Other Resources

This is a very specific topic: A rules briefing and tips for using Pathfinder's social system. For broad, general advice on running a social scene, see The Angry DM's "Help! My Players are Talking to Things!" Here's a great quote about when to get system involved. The article is full of great stuff like this:

You, the DM, enter the role of the NPC and you and the players hit the ball back and forth until the players finally put themselves in a position to score. You need to constantly watch for an attempt to score and that is when you halt the scene to resolve the InterACTION!

February 9, 2015

With Friends Like These

Today, in a collaboration with Reinhart of Chaos Engineering, Run a Game presents tips and tools for GMs to portray difficult NPCs.  These are notable named non-player characters -- major secondary characters in the story -- who the player characters interact with, but who are not perfect allies.  That is, they often cause problems for the PCs, run at cross purposes, represent challenges of their own, and make difficult demands.  
Don’t Be Yourself: Change Your Perspective
It seems obvious.  It’s the definition of “role playing” after all.  Don’t be yourself.  But taking on a troublesome NPC’s role requires you to do more than do a bad accent, describe a physical quirk, and read over a list of motivations.  You have to remember that the NPC is not the GM.  You have to pretend not to know everything that’s going on.

Let me give you a scenario.  Let’s say there’s a major NPC who works as a police community liaison.  This character is in charge of the policing efforts in the slum neighborhood (territory) your Werewolf: the Forsaken characters live in (patrol).  The morning after a particularly bad battle against a spirit of despair involving the PCs using flash-bangs and shotguns (like PCs seem to carry everywhere), she and some uniformed officers approach the PCs’ row house.  They explain that they protected the neighborhood from a spiritual incursion, and they can prove it if she’ll just come with them to the old condemned elementary school.  As the GM, you know that they actually only violated some firearms laws, but she doesn’t know that.  She probably suspects they were involved in a gang war, and while no bodies were found, that doesn’t mean nobody got killed, shotguns and grenades being what they are and all.  

The quick GM response is to call for a die roll, probably with a penalty for the outlandish claims.  A player hucks some dice and gets a few successes on Persuasion.  The end, right?

Wrong.  As a GM, you should use social skills to help remind yourself that you are not your NPCs, and your players are not their characters.  Just like a single Firearms roll couldn’t instantly solve the problem of the Despair spirit, a single Persuasion roll can’t instantly bring this cop around.  And more system is not the answer.  (The god-awful God Machine Social Maneuvers system would not help here.)  

The Basics of NPC Scenes
Interacting with a challenging NPC is just like interacting with a challenging person in real life:  You have to assess their behavior, figure out what they really want, align their needs with yours, and ensure that what you say is received as effectively as possible.  In a tabletop RPG, social skill systems only do so much here, anyway.
  1. Assess their behavior and figure out what they really want:  Make your NPCs fairly simple so that the players can figure out what they want quickly.  Villains might conceal their motives, but even the most troublesome non-villain NPCs should blatantly telegraph them.  Even an NPC who has needs they don’t want to admit to should behave as if they’re hiding something (not making eye contact, stammering, hesitating, using evasive language, trying to end the conversation).  Social system might help you here, if you’re not the best actor, or if the players are stumped.  They can make Empathy, Sense Motive, Knowledge: Local, Criminology, or other such checks or spends or whatever to give them the information they need.  It’s optional, but it can come in handy.
  2. Align their needs with yours:  This is Sales 101.  You can’t sell someone something they don’t already want.  Luckily, people are complicated, and while they usually want something you’re selling, they might have reasons why they can’t buy it right now.  Your goal is to help them overcome those barriers.  This is the key to fun NPC interactions.  (Aside:  This is also why the Social Maneuvers system in God Machine Chronicle is so bad.  It abstracts this part.)  
  3. Ensure what you say is received as effectively as possible:  This is where players like to role-play their plea, argument, pitch, demand, or whatever.  This is also where good actors, charismatic players, and players with sales jobs really shine.  This is the only part of the social interaction that requires or even benefits from any system.  It allows the action to pause for a moment, allowing the players to bring in their Personality Traits, Alignment, Bonds, Flaws, Aspects, and other motivation traits.  Then it allows a die roll to override any social skills the player may or may not have.

You Think YOU Have Problems?
The fun of a social interaction encounter for players is the challenge of overcoming the NPC’s motivations and needs that make them unhelpful (if not troublesome).  The GM’s challenge is designing NPCs whose needs and motivations prevent them from being immediately and unquestioningly helpful to the PCs.  This is where it helps to prep for your session, because if you improvise an important NPC, you may find yourself listening to reason from the PCs, and that just won’t do!  Even GMs who like to improv should pause the action and take a minute to come up with the NPCs’ motives and issues that interfere.

Remember, only NPCs who are going to recur or who are important to the story should get this treatment.  You don’t need to turn every bartender, contact, and shopkeeper into a challenging encounter!

Here is a list of reasons NPCs might not be all that helpful to the PCs.  Each is listed with a few example ways PCs can overcome it.  Your creative players are likely to think of means we haven’t listed.

Aligned (for now!):  The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties support the PCs' goals.  There is no conflict or issue interfering… yet.  The NPC agrees to help, but something is bound to come up that changes things.  Pick a problem or conflict for the NPC to come down with at the worst possible time.  
Solution:  If the NPC’s help is important, they might want to keep a close eye on them, in which case, they might sense trouble down the road and cut it off before it causes a problem.

Interdicted:  The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties support the PCs' goals, but something has tied up the resource the PCs need, so they must help fix it first.  For instance, they would loan the PCs their magic rod, but the magic rod has been stolen.  Or they would send their soldiers to help defend the border, but the soldiers are torn apart by dissension and strife.  This tends to create a nesting doll quest.
Solution: The PCs need to help the NPC overcome the interdiction.  Alternately, they can use other NPCs to help, if they’re in a rush, or they can be pushy.

Judgmental:  The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties support the PCs' goals, but they disagree with the PCs' methods and refuse to be associated with them.
Solution:  The PCs can promise (honestly or not) to mend their ways, or force a confrontation and shame the NPC into admitting his or her bias.  They can hide or deny their activities, or try to spin them.  

Skeptical:  The NPC demands hard evidence, often requiring very convincing proof, before believing the PCs' need requires anything from them.  The NPC will come around with proof.  The standard of evidence required to motivate the NPC depends on their level of urgency.  They might irrationally skeptical (or just irrationally lazy).
Solution:  Obviously this isn’t much of a challenge if the PCs have sufficient proof ready to hand, so the GM should make the NPC demand more proof than the PCs can readily produce.  The PCs can leave collect evidence, or they can try to lower the NPC’s standard for proof by impressing them with their honor and reliability, or with the urgency of the need.

Interference:  Helping the PCs would distract from, interfere with, or take resources away from the NPC's other priorities.  These tend to be important projects that would suffer greatly if they were neglected.  This is the kind of problem that comes up when the PCs ask someone to take time off work to help them.  Sure, a burger flipper has no trouble calling in sick, but what if the NPC is an important police detective and there’s a high level strategy meeting that morning?
Solution:  The PCs can expend their own time and resources to support the NPC’s other priorities in return for the NPC’s help.  Usually the NPC is going to require more from the PCs than what they get in return, because of the NPC’s particular perspective.  

Personal Problem:  The NPC agrees with the PCs, but there is a pressing personal problem they have to deal with that puts them at odds with, or at least in disagreement with, the PCs.  This can be the villain's agency ("I will kill your husband if you help those guys") or just happenstance ("I'd love to help tomorrow, but if I cancel on my girlfriend at the last minute one more time, she's going to leave me.")
Solution:  The PCs will probably try to solve this like in Interdiction, above.  But here, things are personal.  And that means that the NPC is likely to have strong opinions about their “solutions” and will at least want to be involved, if not lead, the effort to fix things.  Sometimes the NPC won’t want any help.  “You’ll just make things worse!”  In that case, the PCs have to get out of problem solving mode, and try to persuade the NPC to help in any way they can.  They may even have to urge the NPC to suffer the personal cost for them, which is awkward and definitely indebts them to the NPC.

Cross-Purposes:  The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties directly conflict with the PCs' goals, but are not aligned with the villain's goals either.  
Solution:  The PCs need to find some common ground with the NPC, or identify a higher loyalty or cause that they both share.  "You may need to guard the tomb, and we may want to get into the tomb, but we both serve the gods of good, and they have sent us on a mission to cleanse the tomb."

Debt:  The PCs owe the NPC, and the NPC will not help them until the debt is paid.  The NPC doesn't trust them until the debt is paid.  Maybe the debt is a major favor or money that the PCs took advantage of.  Or maybe the PCs offended or embarrassed the NPC, and the debt means they have to make up to the NPC for the offense.
Solution:  The PCs can pay their debt, but that usually costs them much needed resources at a time when they’re already reaching out and asking for help from others.  The PCs can persuade the NPC that they’re honorable and “good for it” to build enough trust to get more favors from the NPC.  They can make a partial payment and hope it’s enough.  They can try honeyed words, casting the NPC as their savior; or on the other hand, try the hard sell.

Rival:  The NPCs are rivals to or opposed to the PCs themselves.  The conflict is not ideological but personal.  The rival is not a villain, though an extremely desperate rival is basically the same a villain.  A rival typically wants to prove themselves better than the PCs, which often means they're pursuing the same goal.  Imagine falling into an inescapable pit trap, expecting to die there, then seeing that odious rival’s face appear above you.  “It seems I’ve finally come out on top, so to speak…  Heh...”
Solutions:  Needing something from a rival is a hard place to be in.  Depending on the PCs’ need and the rival’s position, they may need to beg, threaten, or trick the rival.  

Frenemy:  The NPC's goals, ideology or loyalties are aligned with the villain's, but they are on friendly terms with the PCs themselves, willing to trade favors, and might be brought around depending on the urgency of their motivation.  Making deals with enemy agents is great for nuanced settings where there’s no black and white.  Making deals with enemy agents is great for nuanced settings where there’s no black and white.  
Solutions:  The PCs will need to be careful making deals with devils, no matter how friendly they seem.  Some frenimies are like Magneto:  They’re civil and fully committed to opposing the “good guys.” In that case, the trick is making a deal that avoids causing more harm than good.  Some frenimies are not so committed, and the PCs can play on their doubts.  Alternately, the PCs can trick the NPC into helping them, or use other leverage to force them.

Feelings Get in the Way
Even with all of the problems listed above, it stands to reason that if the PCs can find a solution that benefits all parties, that should wrap things up.  Reason prevails.  Everybody wins.

But it’s never that easy.

The problem with NPCs is that they're human, and have human feelings and passions. Feelings can get in the way.  Here’s a quick tool:  Pick (or randomly roll, if that’s your bag) one of the problems for your NPC.  Then decide (or randomly roll) how passionate the NPC is about it.  Below is a scale from least passionate to most, and how those feelings can really get in the way of the NPC agreeing to help the PCs.  The strength of the NPC’s passion increases the difficulty the PCs must overcome and cost that the PCs must pay to get what they need from the NPC.  The strongest passions can even make NPCs into potential villains in their own right, if the PCs aren’t careful.

Cautious:  The NPC is pragmatic and listens to reason, but may still have other priorities.  Because of their pragmatism, the NPC is likely to avoid helping the PCs do anything rash or reckless, but on the other hand, they are much more likely to listen to a plan that improves their safety and security.  This is the admiral who won’t agree to take the whole fleet off the blockade to search for the lost courier ship; or the cleric who insists that the PCs go through a week-long ordeal of purification before entering the sealed temple, just in case.

Passionate:  The NPC is eager to achieve their goals and will put them over approximately equal priorities, but won't ignore a credible danger to their life.  This NPC cares enough to be a major inconvenience.  This is the Baron who won’t release the soothsayer from the dungeon because he insulted the Baron’s wife; or police lieutenant who won’t send help because she doesn’t believe in zombies, even if the PCs produce “obviously photoshopped” proof.

Desperate:  The NPC puts their goals over significantly more pressing priorities, including danger to their own life.  They will not put others in clear danger for their own agenda.  This is the sort of NPC who will go try to save his son from the ogres, even if he has to go alone on a suicide mission; and if the PCs help, he’s going to want to come along.

Irrational:  The NPC will risk their life and the lives of others for their priorities.  The NPC will commit crimes and minor evil acts to achieve their goal, short of directly causing the death of innocents.

Insane:  The NPC may be driven to commit crimes and evil acts, even heinous crimes, to achieve their goal.  Try to avoid any implication of mental illness -- whatever makes this NPC so irrational should be a strong emotion like pride, grief, love, or hate.  Imagine an NPC who has tried to follow the same leads and quests as the PCs, but keeps coming up a day late and a gold piece short.  Their pride has been so injured that while they won’t kill the PCs directly, they might leave them to their grisly fate in the aforementioned pit trap.

Monster:  The NPC uses their personal goals and ideology to justify repeatedly committing heinous crimes.  This is the sort of NPC that is often more trouble than they’re worth.  Imagine a wizard with great magical power who continues sending curses down upon the House of Urala because Jericho of Urala was cruel to her and caused the death of her child.  What the PCs must do to get the help of a monster is often morally repugnant.  The PCs might be able to get the wizard’s help, but only by offering to kidnap an Urala child to replace the one she lost.  If the fate of the world is at stake, will they commit a heinous act to please a monster for the greater good?  This sort of situation raises the stakes considerably:  “If we don’t find some other way to open the portal, we will be forced to kidnap a Urala child for this foul wizard, so she will open it.  And time is running out.”  Sometimes it’s not that blatant, though.  And sometimes the monster is a literal monster.  “Watch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo, and never, ever, cut a deal with a dragon.”  - Street Proverb (Shadowrun, 1989).

The fun of improvisation is that sometimes you find yourself needing to come up with an important NPC on the fly. After you've decided their name, appearance, and other features, you can use these tables to randomly determine what makes them so troublesome.

What kind of conflict or problem is there? (roll 1d20)
1-2 = Aligned (for now)
3-5 = Interdicted 6-7 = Judgmental 8-9 = Skeptical 10-11 = Interference 12-14 = Personal Problem 15-16 = Cross-Purposes 17-18 = Debt 19 = Rival 20 = Frenemy

What is the nature of the problem? (roll 1d20)
1-6 = Love (family, friends, mate)
7-11 = Money (greed, debt, poverty, class barriers)
12-15 = Power (ambition, appearances, authority, orders)
16-18 = Religion (dogma, opposed gods)
19-20 = Ideology (chaos, law, caution, glory)

How does the NPC feel about it? (roll 1d20) 1-4 = Cautious 5-9 = Passionate 10-14 = Desperate 15-18 = Irrational 19 = Insane 20 = Monster

PS. This post was composed in Google Docs and pasted in here. Do you like the formatting better? Is it worse? Leave some feedback!