Straight Path Games is Launched!

So, I just started a company.

Like, ten minutes ago. Or maybe longer if you’re reading this in the future. Ten minutes ago from having started writing this. I’m very excited. It’s called Straight Path Games.

logo-draft-2

Straight Path Games is a small digital publishing company with the intent on creating tools, essays, and systems with the intent on making roleplaying games easier to use, and more accessible to new players.

I have a handful of products in the pipeline already, the first of which is The Wealth System, intended to ease the burden of having to track, calculate, sell and manage all the treasure parties in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game have to do.

I’m very excited. Wish me luck!

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Book Review – Gardens of the Moon

So, this book. It took me a few weeks to get through, and although I’ve finished it, its still on my mind. The biggest reason is because I don’t know if I liked it or not. And part of the problem is there are so many good and bad things that I can’t make up my mind.

The first thing about the book it’s sheer size. It’s 700 pages plus a little over a hundred pages of appendix and preview and such. That’s about the size of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Except that is a whole story, and this is the first of nine books (or more, only nine were listed in my copy). That’s much too big for a paperback, I feel. Like, physically it was difficult to hold. 

Now, Gardens of the Moon introduces a whole huge sprawling fantasy world. Unlike Lord of the Rings, it jumps in with both feet. The first few chapters start to set the scene fairly well, but every five pages a new character, or school of magic, or god, or group or race is introduced. And that continues for like, three hundred pages. That’s the length of most whole books.

Once all he introductions are complete, a there’s  lot of really neat action and plot development as the characters fight to find out what’s going on. Each section is written from the perspective of a different character, so it does some really cool fight scenes in the middle of the book where mid-fight it changes perspective to reveal something else tabout o change the tide of the fight.

Now, I say sections because the book isn’t divided into chapters the way normal books are. I mean, there are chapters, and there are collections of chapters called books, but the physical chapters don’t seem to have a clear definition. The ‘books’ do, but the chapters have very little definition because the actual writing is constantly jumping around between characters and Scenes as the plots go on. I think it’s because the book was originally written to be a TV show, that it’s broken down this way.

Which is the next thing. There is no single plot to this book. I guess there is kinda the question is “does the empire tconquer he clast free city”, but the real problem is that this is not actually the goal of any of the main characters. One of the antagonists wants it to happen, and a bunch of minor characters are working towards it in the background; but everyone is worried about what the gods are doing. 

And the gods are trying to convince or force or guide mortals to… Win? It’s not entirely clear, except that everyone keeps trying to kill the god of luck. The god of shadows wants to kill the empress, but while it says that’s what it’s trying to do the actions it takes seem entirely unrelated. “I’m going to kill the empress” it says, sending its strongest assassin to the front lines of the war, on another continent. 

There are a lot of smaller plots. Paran, one of the main characters, wants to be a hero. Then, he wants to kill his boss and maybe the empress when someone (who was lying to him) tells him his boss is trying to get him killed. 

Ben and Kalim want to kill the character Sorry, because she has been possessed by the god of assassins. Then, 3/4 through the book, another character causes Sorry to become unpossessed and that’s the end of that plot, they spend the rest of the book trying to conquer the city like all the minor characters were doing.

WhiskeyJack and Tattersail (the characters mentioned in the back of the book) are planning  something. Their plans aren’t featured in this book, although maybe Whiskeyjack wants to overthrow the empire because the new empress is trying to kill him. He spends most of the book being a generic rebellious captain character until it’s revealed in the last two chapters he has a magic connection to a rebellion on another continent. Tattersail dies not even halfway through the book, but gets reincarnated and you see her for three lines two hundred pages later.

Kruppe and a bunch of other named characters whose names never stood out enough to clearly remember… They’re in the last free city. They each have different goals, but the only one that gets resolved is that the fallen noble gets his land back because someone kills the people who took it from him in the last scene.

Baruk the alchemist and Murtallio the writer want to keep the last free city free. However, almost exclusively they serve as devices for the reader to learn what the arantagonists e up to. Crone the giant magic crow wants to be the antagonist of book four or something. She’s around a lot asking questions but basically doesn’t do anything.

Then there are the antagonists. The Adjunct wants to kill Whiskeyjack, and Sorry, and capture the last free city. She uses Tool, who belongs to one of several ancient, dead races who get mentioned way too much, because both of them have antimagic  powers. With Tool she wants to free The Tyrant, who could probably destroy be last free city, and would probably be able to stop Rake.

The  Tyrant, by the way, gets four chapters of build up, then kills five dragons in two pages and escapes a god trying to catch him before getting killed by a minor character using a weapon that wasn’t mentioned before it blew the Tyrant up.

Rake is a member of another ancient dead  race. He has a flying palace, everyone is scared of him. He wants the empress dead because she keeps trying to kill him. He also wants to stop anyone else from killing her. Partway through the book, he kills two demigods and scares away a god. Then, he later turns into a dragon. He spends two chapters preparing to fight the Tyrant and then ends the book by fighting a summoned demon who was never mentioned before the fight scene but could destroy the continent.

As you can see, there’s a lot of plots. And most of them don’t tie in together. Yet. There was a forward that explains the series was always intended to be eight books long. Which is too much, IMO. Because every time something big is mentioned you know it’s going to be the subject of another book.

Now, all this complaining aside, I think wthere as a lot of good in the book. It was all well  written, and there was a very good middle. But the ending was seriously marred by things that never got explained stopping god-powered threats, and new elements coming out of the woodwork.

For instance, the book builds up to a fight between Rake and the Tyrant, but then never pays off, as the Tyrant is stopped by plot hole A and Rake fights plot hole B. I don’t see any reason the fight that was foreshadowed couldn’t have replaced both plotholes.

There’s also the ofcomplexity  the book. It gives the world a ton of flavor and depth and uniqueness, but it happens to overshadow that no character or group of characters was interesting to deserve their own book.

If they closed that plot hole ending, and cut out all those characters whose names I forgot, the book would have probably been only 450 pages, and much more engaging and clear.

And now that I’ve written it down, hopefully I’ll be able to get it out of my head.

Recurring Villains – Legal Nightmare

As you might know, a lot of Roleplaying games involve facing off against antagonists. Bad folks who are the source of the party’s troubles – whether directly trying to kill the PCs, or indirectly by trying to… overthrow the king or something.

The real problem is, they don’t get a lot of screen time. They occasionally get some build up as the party encounters their servants, but most of the time, when they show up – the party surrounds them and kills them in a few short rounds, not learning who they are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. No matter how good their backup plan is.

So, how do you make villians come back for a second round? And more importantly, how do you do so without feeling like you’re screwing the party over with a deux-ex-machina?

Well, having them be actually part of encounters against their minions is one way, and having them become increasingly present in the background of the campaign is another.

But even better is finding a way to have the villian confront the party in a way where taking the villain out is more trouble than letting him go.

If you don’t like the combat, stay out of the dungeon

This isn’t something every villain can do, but encountering the party in a neutral public location is an excellent way to avoid bloodshed. As bloodthirsty as many PCs are, they also have a sense of self-preservation that extends out to not getting themselves arrested for obvious murder.

As soon as the party knows who the antagonist of their adventure is, or vice-versa, they should start seeking them out in civilized places. Town squares, royal balls, or at their favorite merchant. These places provide a huge safety net for the villain, because the moment the party starts drawing their swords, casting their spells and charging into battle, they become the criminals.

And even if the party is the one who calls the guards, unless they already have proof of the villain’s wrongdoing they’re just making a scene. And the guards will be keeping a much closer eye on them in the future.

Trait – Fantastic Snacker

Fantastic Snacker: You don’t eat on the same sort of schedule as anyone else, picking and choosing throughout the day rather than eating a few large meals and mostly abstaining in between. You gain a +1 trait bonus on any effect that would make you fatigued as you’re more often full than not, and you only eat half as much as normal at meals – though you ultimately eat the same amount throughout the day.

First introduced in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Advanced Players Guide, traits are a minor way to customize your character, typically on character creation.

Trap – Heat Seeking Boulder

Quick, take a left, that giant rolling boulder can’t turn corners!

– Famous Last Words

A giant boulder that falls from its mount and begins chasing someone down a long, straight tunnel is so common that it’s almost a fantasy trope. And it’s a good one – there’s no clever escape, just you versus how much time the trap maker gave for the boulder to run down the hallway.

But for particular cruelness, you give that boulder a touch of sentience through magic, perhaps by means of a bound earth elemental. Just enough that when you dive out of the way, the boulder changes directions in order to crush you anyways.

Homing Boulder Trap CR 9

Type mechanical and magic; Perception DC 16; Disable Device DC 31

Effects

Trigger proximity (location); Duration 6 rounds; Reset none

Effect a large boulder begins rolling down a predetermined pathway at 20 feet per round. Characters struck by this boulder take 4d6 bludgeoning damage and are knocked prone. Every round, the boulder either accelerates by 20 feet, or change direction up to 90 degrees. Alternately, it can stop on a dime and resume rolling in any direction at 20 feet per round. The accelerations not only makes it possible to crush faster and faster characters, but increases the damage done if struck by the boulder by 2d6 points. Characters can make a DC 20 Reflex save when they would be struck by the boulder for half damage.

The boulder has 500 hp, and hardness 6.

For maximum effectiveness, the boulder should have at least 400 feet of straight corridor, or for maximum surprise in a large open space 200 feet to a side.

Recurring Villians – a Man, a Plan

As you might know, a lot of Roleplaying games involve facing off against antagonists. Bad folks who are the source of the party’s troubles – whether directly trying to kill the PCs, or indirectly by trying to… flood the continent or something.

The real problem is, they don’t get a lot of screen time. They occasionally get some build up as the party encounters their servants, but most of the time, when they show up – the party surrounds them and kills them in a few short rounds, not learning who they are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. No matter how good their backup plan is.

So, how do you make villians come back for a second round? And more importantly, how do you do so without feeling like you’re screwing the party over with a deux-ex-machina?

As I’ve mentioned previously, a good villian needs some allies. But there’s one more problem with recurring villians: the party should know what their deal is.

A Visible Plan

Any memorable villain has a good plan. A plan that, to them at least, seems like something that would benefit more people than it would cause trouble too. Although, part of what makes them evil is often a subjective vision of who ‘people’ are in each situation, and how much benefit is worth versus cost. But, good villain motives is a separate topic. Regardless of what their plan is, for a villain to be memorable, the players need to know what they’re doing.

This is always a challenge, because it’s always hard to get information into the players hands. An NPC who knows important details might be missed, killed, or derailed before they reach the relevant information. A nefarious journal might be ignored, forgotten, or never reached. Players miss a lot of information, and they only remember some of it. Flat-out telling the PCs via monologue isn’t out of the question, but it’s a little heavy handed.

Which is why it’s important to have whatever evil plan your villain is undertaking to be visible. If they’re raising a cult, the party needs to start fighting cultists on a regular basis, sure, but they also need to start seeing cultists around even in normal situations. Their favorite barkeeper puts up a cult symbol in his bar. Someone on the street asks them to convert. Visible things, things that are everywhere. PCs need to be reminded constantly, and the more often they’re reminded, the more urgent they’ll think the issue is.

If the PCs are fighting body snatchers, and they hear rumors of it every time they go shopping, that’s good. If a minor NPC they interact with goes missing, or a major NPC they know about, that’s better.

The point of all of this isn’t just to make the PCs aware of the problem, but it’s to make the PCs realize that there are clues to be found. Because once the party is on the trail, they become very receptive to clues (sometimes too perceptive). They will figure things out on their own, and even actively start looking for them.

Variant Skill Checks – Lowest Check

The skill check is a simple part of the entire d20 family of gaming systems, and it’s about as simple as it gets. Need to find a letter in a box? Roll a d20 and add the appropriate skill modifier. Need to forge a weapon? Roll a d20. Need to convince a visiting noble to back you at the gala? Roll a d20. Need to disarm a complex trap in the middle of combat or navigate through a forest? roll a d20.

It gets dull when everything other than combat is just resolved by rolling a d20. There’s a single moment of tension and then no matter how complex the task it’s over instantly.

Which is why I like to play around and do something different once in a while.

Lowest Skill Check

At most tables, if the GM tells a party “you don’t find anything”, the result plays out something like this.

Player 2: “I also roll… 22”

Player 3: “I got a 28”

Player 4: “I only got a 4, I see my feet”

And the implication is that somehow, each character takes turns searching the entire room, because the first person didn’t see anything when they searched.

And while there’s a certain degree of handwavery involved in playing a game, sometimes you want it to be a little more realistic, because the players don’t actually need to find every treasure, or sometimes it’s more interesting for the party to miss a key or a clue. Such as when they’re working on a time limit, or searching for something they they don’t know is present – because there’s obviously nothing in those drawers I looked there twice– or trying to impress someone looking for a reason to dislike them.

The mechanics of this are fairly simple: if the whole group rolls for something that they can’t actually cooperate on, use the lowest roll instead of the highest. It’s a staggering, new direction for gaming, really.

Recurring Villains – Don’t Go Alone

As you might know, a lot of Roleplaying games involve facing off against antagonists. Bad folks who are the source of the party’s troubles – whether directly trying to kill the PCs, or indirectly by trying to… flood the continent or something.

The real problem is, they don’t get a lot of screen time. They occasionally get some build up as the party encounters their servants, but most of the time, when they show up – the party surrounds them and kills them in a few short rounds, not learning who they are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. No matter how good their backup plan is.

So, how do you make villians come back for a second round? And more importantly, how do you do so without feeling like you’re screwing the party over with a deux-ex-machina?

Don’t Go Alone

One major flaw with many villain encounters is that when it’s time to face off against the PCs, they do so one-on-one. Except that the party’s “one” is actually four to six competent adventurers. So unless the villain is so powerful that their every attack threatens the survival of a party member, that six-to-one disadvantage means they’re going down fast.

It’s important, if not critical, for villains that you intend on being recurring to have an entourage. Preferably of at least two competent bodyguards, if not three or four. Maybe a pet.At bare minimum some sort of summon monster spell in their back pocket.

And these guards shouldn’t be pushovers, either, they’ve got to be a real threat to the party to keep the attention off their boss for long enough for him to escape when combat goes south. They should be a distinctly real threat to the PCs, and interesting to boot. After all, what good antagonist keeps generic soldiers as bodyguards, of the same sort who the party has been cutting down in two rounds for half an adventure now?

Not full-fledged villains on their own, these bodyguards should nonetheless be interesting characters. Yet it’s not just enough for them to be “a moderately powerful wizard” or “a capable fighter”. They should have distinct looks and visible fighting styles, as these bodyguards are around only for this fight. The oiled wrestler who shouts with every attack might use the same statistics as the 5th level monk from the NPC Codex, but he’s going to stand out a lot more than “an unarmed man”. A slender man whose face is cloaked in shadows, and whose fingertips glow as he casts spells might just be 9th level evoker – but damned if he isn’t more memorable than “the wizard”.

Not only does being a hair more detailed help these characters stand out from their rank-and-file counterparts, it also has a side effect of taking some of the attention away from the fellow they’re guarding. When the buff wrestler leaps into the fray screaming and grabbing the rogue, the party is looking at him – not the sleazy merchant they’ve been chasing down as he ducks into a secret door. By sheer virtue of the bodyguard having a distinct description the party isn’t focusing on chasing after (and thus killing immediately) their real target, letting them come back a second time. And that second time, even if it’s only a few encounters later, is going to be much higher stakes – and much more interesting as a result.

Variant Skill Checks – Failing on Purpose

So, one of my players asked me a question: can he “take 1” on his skill check. And it was a good question, because while it doesn’t come up very often, but occasionally a PC doesn’t want to succeed at something.

Maybe they’re trying to buy time. Maybe they’re trying to throw a contest. Maybe they’re trying to enrage a crowd. (It turns out, the player was attempting to make use of deflect blame)

But when it boils down to it, there are two things involved in Failing on Purpose.

How Bad Are You?

When you are deliberately throwing a check, you still need to know how ‘well’ you are failing. However, the more you know about the subject you’re failing at, the better you can deliberately do it wrong. You can use the wrong ink, say the wrong thing, or press the wrong button – on purpose. To deliberately fail, you still roll a skill check, but instead of adding your modifier, you subtract it. You still might do an okay job, but even your best work will probably be much worse than you would normally be able to produce. And, if you’re not hurried, you can even take 10, minus your normal modifiers.

You cannot deliberately fail a check you don’t have a positive total modifier in – wearing plate gauntlets and trying to screw up picking a lock isn’t going to help you out.

Can Anyone Tell?

Usually, if you’re making a mistake on purpose, you want to hide the fact that you’re doing it deliberately. Whenever you fail in purpose and want to keep it secret that you’re sabotaging yourself, you have to roll a Bluff check, just like anything else. However, you can take a penalty to your skill check up to the number of ranks you have in that skill (in this case, adding the number to your subtracted modifier) to give yourself an equal bonus to your Bluff check to hide your deliberate errors.

Magical Material Tuesday – Hard Cloud

While natural clouds are water vapor, and clouds held together by magic are cloudstuff, even magical clouds are really quite soft. By adding a touch of frozen time to that cloudstuff, one can create hard cloud – material that looks like cloud, but is as strong as steel.

Hard Cloud: Hard Cloud doesn’t occur naturally, and exists only where it is created by powerful magic. It is less than weightless, and almost as hard as steel, making it an incredible material to forge armor and battlements from. Most hard cloud armors are two categories lighter than normal for purposes of movement and other limitations. Heavy armors are treated as light, and both medium and light armors are treated as light. This decrease does not apply to proficiency in wearing the armor. A character wearing hard cloud full plate must be proficient in wearing heavy armor to avoid adding the armor’s check penalty to all his attack rolls and skill checks that involve moving. Spell failure chances for armors and shields made from hard cloud are decreased by 25%, maximum Dexterity bonuses are increased by 4, and armor check penalties are decreased by 5 (to a minimum of 0).

An item made from hard cloud is effectively weightless, but to avoid an unattended item from floating away hard cloud often include a small weight, bringing their weight just above zero. In the case of weapons, this lighter weight does not change a weapon’s size category or the ease with which it can be wielded (whether it is light, one-handed, or two-handed). Items not primarily of a single substance or having moving pieces are not meaningfully affected by being partially made of hard cloud. (Both a longsword or a quarterstaff could be hard cloud, but a bow could not.)

Weapons or armors fashioned from hard cloud are always masterwork items as well; the masterwork cost is included in the prices given below.

However, while hard cloud is durable and light, it is still water vapor held in place by magic. Once it begins to unravel, it does so rapidly and spectacularly. Items made of hard cloud have 2 hit points per inch of thickness and hardness 20.

Type of hard cloud Item Item Cost Modifier
Light armor +3,000 gp
Medium armor +12,000 gp
Heavy armor +25,000 gp
Shield +3,000 gp
Other items +1,500 gp/lb.