Thursday, December 22, 2022

Procedures for an OSR- and PbtA-influenced Pathfinder 2e sewer-crawl!!!!!

 So, last night's session in our PF2e campaign ended in a hideous TPK against a Black Pudding (as discussed here). Urk! That aside, the evening was separately interesting, too; I tried out a new approach to large, winding dungeons in Pathfinder 2e. In short, the PCs needed to explore an ancient sewer complex, looking for guarded halls holding stone keys that could open an underground archive door. Ok, great. 

However, PF2e -- which is excellent for running fun, tactically-minded encounters -- can be a little bit of a beast for 'traditional' dungeoncrawling. Fights can take a long time (an issue I discussed recently, here), and the resource-management game doesn't seem to fit very well with PF2e mechanics (my mid-level party has Light as an at-will cantrip, and many of the standard OSR-style resource counters just don't do much to a group like this). 

But I wanted to highlight the experience of pushing your luck while exploring a really large, winding dungeon - without taking FOREVER, and without just hand-waving past the exploration to the fight scenes. (The campaign that just ended had a vast dwarven-hold on the forecast, so this was a bit of an experimental prototype with a really large dungeon in mind). Note, PF2e does include its own Exploration rules, which are alright, but I wanted something a bit different, a bit meatier, and a bit closer to the OSR- and/or PbtA-system games that I'm more accustomed to for handling the dungeon as a threatening/promising, vast space.

So, drawing on influences ranging from OSR/NSR-style dungeons, to the various forms of Jason Cordova's PbtA Labyrinth move, I put together some rules, which I'm pasting below in case they're of use to anyone else. 

The key concepts to note here:

+ There are probably widely applicable ideas here, though the current form is tailored closely to a unique environment - the sewers are flooded perpetually by magical pitchers of everlasting water, and then drained by a pressure-gate into an underground river. Much of the punch of this dungeon, and these rules, involved the cycles of waxing and waning danger as the tunnels fill and empty. To apply these procedures to a different dungeon, you'd need to think carefully about some analogous source of time-sensitive pressure and risk (sentry patrols, sleep cycles of drowsy monsters, etc.). 

+ I wanted RANDOM ENCOUNTERS, but actual random fights in PF2e would slow things down like treacle in your gas-tank. PF2e's HAZARDS and HAUNTS rules fit the bill, however! I just ran with "Simple" Hazards (no Complex Hazards), which pitch a quick Saving Throw against the risk of some kind of consequence - either a lasting Condition (Fatigue, Drained, etc.) or some Hit Point loss.

+ Our PF2e characters could nerf most HP loss with a few ten-minute rests, so I added a significant set of time pressures; flooding tunnels that made exploration harder and more dangerous in 100-minute cycles, and then "above-ground-world" political shenanigans to make overnight rests more costly.

+ I wanted to keep everyone involved and give at least a nod to the narrative implied by dice rolls, so I made two players roll skill checks each turn, tied to narratively justified exploration tasks on a continually-narrowing field of eligible actions. Two skill rolls each exploration turn allowed a PbtA-style "2 successes, 1 Success with a consequence, or 0 Successes and a Consequence" structure that helped add tension to the exploration. 

Ok, here it is.




WATER level; Time spent (6 turns = 1 hour); Skills used; PROGRESS. 


Each 10-minute turn…


1) raise the water level by 1 at the start of the turn (this runs from 1-10)


2) party chooses to REST for ten minutes (can recharge focus points, etc.), PRESS ON, or RETREAT


3) Before rolling, party chooses/updates their Exploration stances


+ To PRESS ON: 2 different players each choose one dungeon-appropriate skill check, vs. DC 22 PLUS the current water level as the DC. 

⁃            with 2 successes: players gain 2 progress to find another Hall

⁃            with 1 success: players gain 1 progress and have 1-in-3 chance of an 


⁃            with 0 successes: players gain 0 progress and have a random encounter


+ To RETREAT: all players choose a known safe/dry destination (the starting hall or another discovered dry hall) and then roll against a dungeon skill check of their choice from the list. 

⁃            Critical Success: this PC safely reaches their destination, and may raise one 

                   other PC’s result by one level (up to Success).

⁃            Success: this PC safely reaches their destination

⁃            Failure: this PC fails to reach their destination. If water level is at 10, trigger 

                   drowning procedure.

⁃            Critical Failure: as Failure, but raising safely will take 2 Critical Successes. 




1: Exhaustion - all PCs make DC 25 Basic Will OR Fortitude Save, or gain Fatigued 1 (Fatigued 2 on Crit Failure)

2: Swarm of water-snakes: all PCs make DC 24 Basic Reflex Save vs 4d8 + 18 dmg 

3: Ghostly specters seeping from drain-pipes: all PCs make DC 27 Basic Will Save vs. 2d8+9 dmg, 1/2 dmg on Success, Drained 1 on Failure, Drained 2 on Crit Failure. 

4: Large Electrical Eel discharges - all PCs make DC 24 Basic Fortitude Save vs 6d6 damage

5-6: Green Slime drops on 1 random party member (Lvl 9 Hazard)


Lvl 6 SIMPLE HAZARDS (see GM Guide p. 76)

+20 Attack vs AC - or - 24/27 DC (High/Extreme) - 4d8+18 dmg 


In most cases, the failed roll that led to an Encounter counts in lieu of the failed Perception or Initiative roll - move right to the encounter trigger. For some, may ask PCs to make a fresh Save or Skill roll as relevant for one last chance to perceive a trap.  


+ Eligible Dungeon Skill Checks (each time one is attempted, cross it off the list of eligible Skills. Reset the list when all have been attempted):

⁃            Acrobatics … you move out along a very slippery, narrow ledge as you scout a 

         way forward…

⁃            Arcana … you observe very, very old arcane symbols carved into a walls; a 

         flash of insight about their likely meaning helps you use them to find your 


⁃            Athletics … a pile of rubble nearly blocks your way. Will it? 

⁃            (Forerunners Lore – Tullem only…)

⁃            Nature … You’ve some experience with caves and underwater rivers, which 

         helps you stay focused and oriented now. 

⁃            Occultism … you’ve read rumors about the obscure logic of this ancient 

         civilization’s constructions. You use that knowledge now to hazard a guess 

         about the right direction. 

⁃            Religion … faded but uncomfortably bizarre religious carvings on the tunnel 

         walls dimly suggest a directional orientation in line with very ancient creedal 


⁃            Society … You remember a nugget of historical information about the fey 

         architects’ language. Can it help you decipher the directional symbols carved 

         on the wall before you?

⁃            Stealth … A noise - is something creeping nearby? Try to lead your party 

         sneakily away. 

⁃            Survival … The rising water is cold, and its ever-gurgling echoes are 

         disorienting. But you’ve been in tough spots before; can you keep the party 

         moving, warm, and focused? 

⁃            Thievery … the way ahead is blocked by an ancient lock, or threatened by 

         what looks like a very old trap meant to cull large vermin. It could still pose a 

         problem for you and your friends. Will it? 





+ Flooding and Drowning: the under-sewers are filled, flooded, and cleaned by an ingenious arcane system: far away in the bowels of the narrow tunnels lies a chamber eternally filling with water from a great many Ewers of Endless Water; elsewhere in the tunnel system is a similarly-remote chamber with a pressure-activated, resetting release gate. Every 100 minutes, the whole tunnel system floods completely and then drains (into an underground river) in a great rush of water. (Locating either the water-supply or water-draining rooms should be nigh impossible, but if the party insists, set a 12-Progress clock specifically dedicated to finding each room). 


Mechanically - the Water Level count goes up to 10, at which point the entire complex except for the Halls is flooded to the ceiling. If any PCs end an Exploration Turn in the tunnels while they are at Water Level 10 (before they reset to Level 1 on the next Turn), those PCs are at severe risk for drowning. As there is a double risk present - running out of air, AND being dragged and smashed along the walls - having access to an air supply still requires a roll, but grants a +10 bonus. Sharing an air supply (like the Air Bubble spell) cuts the bonus in half for each extra person sharing the supply. 

Roll a Fortitude Save, DC 32 (this includes the Water Level penalty): 

Crit Success: Almost mathematically impossible…but you survive, and suffer no lasting ill effects. 

Success: Miraculously, you find a few pockets of air in hollows in the ceiling, and just barely survive, though you feel like trash. Take condition Drained 1. 

Failure: The fact that you aren’t dead is almost inconceivable. Take the condition Drained 4. 

Critical Failure: your character dies. 

You may spend all your Hero Points to escape death - either from damage caused on a Failure, or the straight fatality on a Crit Failure. However, doing so from a Crit Failure ‘upgrades’ you to a Failure, so you are Drained 4. 



The Halls - it takes 6 PROGRESS to locate a new hall; roll randomly to find which hall is discovered next, as the party wends through the twisting underground labyrinth of the tomb-city’s under-sewers. 


+ Entrance Hall (lone shabti who can explain some of what’s going on) … uh-oh…do they only speak the ancient tongue? 

+ Hall of the First Keeper:
one glass golem with an Archive key in a hinged, clear glass compartment/box on its hip. (could be combat OR thievery encounter)

+ Hall of the Second Keeper:
one glass golem (as above), along with 2 Shabti who will warn the golem if they observe a theft in progress. Need to flesh out this encounter. (could be combat, thievery, and/or social encounter the shabti are upset about the destruction of the iron golem in Room 3…they don’t want anything to happen to their golem ‘friend’ here, and they care more about him than they do about the silly key he carries. They will warn him of a theft attempt in progress, UNLESS the party destroys the horror in the Third Hall. Ah - maybe the shabti are on the approach to a raised pedestal where ‘their’ golem is (they visit him daily in a mock ritual). They will see and warn the party. 

+ Hall of the Third Keeper:
few remnants of an iron golem, along with the Black Pudding that dissolved it. The stone Archive key is here, half-in the pudding. 

+ Hall of the Archive Gate:
a large round portal, bearing three large key-holes, and sealed by ancient, eldritch magics. It won’t open without the three Archive keys turned together. A winding stairway leads up to a distant locked door. Beyond it, horrible moaning sounds – death clearly awaits on the other side (ca. 20 Wights)

T - P - K !!!!!! Or, attack of the Christmas Pudding...

 Yeah, so...

Another TPK (Total Party Kill). 

Last night we got back together for the further exploits of our party of Pathfinder 2e heroes, veterans of The Evils of Illmire, The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford, and various awesome acts of derring-do in another region of my own devising (in their previous adventure, the PCs had assaulted a Strix-held, cursed, flying dwarven citadel loosely inspired by the dwarven sky-tomb in Dragons of Desolation). 

And then, in this last session, they ventured into the labyrinthine sewers beneath an ancient tomb-city, a place long abandoned by its original builders and then re-used as a funereal necropolis by later settlers. They went underground in search of a lost royal archive rumored to lie hidden beneath the city. This required a (rather interesting, if I may toot my horn) home-brewed OSR- and PbtA-influenced set of rules for crawling sewers that magically fill, flood, and drain every 100 minutes.

It was an epic evening! The PCs needed to find and secure three magical stone keys in order to unlock the archive door. They found two in pouches on the hips of powerful golem guardians - but the party Rogue quite daringly slipped in alone in each case, and successfully pick-pocketed the golems, completely avoiding what could have been quite dangerous combat encounters. 


But then came the hall with the Black Pudding, a magical stone key protruding from its muck...

And a number of poor rolls and, frankly, bad tactical decisions later, the entire party lay unconscious in the deadly grip of ooze. Gloooop...glooop...buuuurrp. 

I believe this is my second TPK in about three years or so. Getting a TPK comes with mixed feelings for me as a GM. On the one hand, I genuinely liked the Player Characters and was invested in their stories. There's a real "oh NO!!!" feeling. On the other hand -- in a truly non-adversarial way -- there's a sense of pride that comes along with a TPK, for me. Not at all pride at 'beating' my players, or anything like that. Rather - the sense that yes, I'm still clear on my values as a GM: my job is to make a fascinating, serious, and deadly world for my players to enjoy. The stakes here are real, and I will not just pull my punches to bail them out of trouble - even if I need to kill them all. Time for some new PCs, and maybe even a new campaign.  

That's an oddly satisfying thing to remind yourself, and I'm delighted that my players and dear friends get it, too. 

Now, to wipe the blood and acid off my dice bag...

Saturday, November 19, 2022

On Running Very Different Types of Games

Prepare ye for some musings on the philosophy of gaming... 

I used to spend far too much time, not too long ago, trying to figure out my 'perfect game system.' You know, that one, elusive RPG rules-system -- whether about to be published, somehow already published but not on my radar, or the pending product of my intensive house-ruling and hacking -- that finally would usher in a blissful millennial regime of perfectly satisfying game-play.

Yeah, um, about that...I'm pretty sure gaming doesn't work that way... 

...mainly because I don't think life itself is supposed to work that way. Pre-conditioned by a consumer-driven society to always lust after something else, anything else, just not one of the 5,000,000,000 gaming .pdfs already sitting on my hard drive, my flirtations with (one hopes!) middle-aged maturation point me towards greater contentment with what I've got ... or at least with a more realistic view of the point of getting new games. To be clear, I still love me some new gaming action, and I've got my beady eyes now on a few choice titles on the horizon ... but I'm trying to be a bit more deliberate and thoughtful about it all. 

Perhaps ironically, fixating less on the pursuit of 'that one perfect game' has helped me recognize more clearly how very different systems have lots to offer just as they are, for a particular niche. That tired old debate - "system matters! no, you dolt, system doesn't matter!" - like any (false) dichotomy, obscures the grain of truth on each side of the argument. A creative, flexible, experienced GM can make almost any RPG system do wonderful things, but of course system directly impacts the experience of gameplay. 

A while ago, I made a list of different niches for rules systems - different types of games that I find appealing at different times. What, I then asked, might be my preferred rules systems for executing each kind of game? It proved helpful to me to think not in terms of genres, but in terms of the experience of different play-styles. Here was my list of categories: 

  • OSR - more complex/substantial
  • OSR - less complex/rules light 
  • PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse games - I'd add Forged in the Dark games here too)
  • Solo or Cooperative games
  • Tactical RPGs
  • Games with High-Powered player characters 

There's a lot of potential for overlap between some of those categories, though each one has its own distinct play-style or experience. As I worked to articulate what systems might best suit my preferences in each category, I noticed some games that I like fitting in multiple categories, while others obviously had more limited roles. Somehow, breaking things down like this also gave me some clarity about the kinds of gaming I wanted to do for the present season. For example, I realized that - at least for now - the 'more complex OSR game' wasn't really where I wanted to land. On the rules-lighter side, I absolutely love Into the Odd, but I can get disenchanted with the real limitations of its ultralight framework. What I realized, however, is that I'd rather accept ItO's intended niche and use it to run a freewheeling, rules-light OSR/NSR game ... or if I wanted something with more heft, I'd rather use something crunchier than most of my 'centrist' OSR systems (I had looked in earnest into Low Fantasy Gaming for a while, for example, before settling for...something else. More below).

After shifting from a science-fantasy campaign using Dungeon World, I had been running a campaign using a house-ruled Knave-based system. Knave is great! We played through most of a mash-up of The Evils of Illmire and The Black Dragon of Brandonsford that way. But I started feeling that Knave wasn't delivering the experience we wanted for the time being (see, it's a great system - but wasn't right for the moment). On the one hand, some of my players really longed for more detail and agency for custom-tailoring their characters during advancement. And as GM, I was getting bored with the monsters-as-lightly-flavored-bags-of-hit-points phenomenon that (like it or not!) can stand out in OSR games when compared to crunchier systems (yes, yes, I know; there are ways to address that with GM creativity. But system doesn't matter, except when it does). I wanted critters that were more mechanically interesting to throw at my players, and I wanted a little more tactical specificity in the rules so I could lean hard in combat without constantly breaking the PCs - or pulling my punches. (I doubt it's a spoiler to note that The Black Dragon of Brandonsford has ... a black dragon in it. The fight with that monster, under Knave rules, was memorable, but I came away feeling that I was always one or two GM-fiat choices away from a cakewalk or a total party kill. I wanted to play hardball, without being arbitrarily cruel!). 

For a variety of reasons, we switched the campaign over to Pathfinder 2e

It would not surprise me to learn that I'm one of few (or the only?) GMs out there to have converted situations and encounters from the thoroughly OSR-ish Illmire and Brandonsford into PF2e! Or to have multiple recurring villains in an ongoing PF2e campaign who started as NPCs in those modules. I integrated them into a new region 'just across the mountains' and started up a very faction-heavy, situation-based campaign that draws on a lot of old-school resources despite the very modern rules system. (Gotta say - I am digging playing in my own sandbox full of conflicting, home-made factions). 

Well, how's it going, and what have I learned?

Here again, I'm seeing how different rule systems can offer so much while simultaneously imposing their own kinds of limits. Despite turning up my nose for years at Paizo's flagship system, I'm now finding PF2e a really excellent base for gaming centered around tactical combat. Pleasantly, I've found the system works well, too, when I set aside 'the grid' and run a much looser battlefield - in fact, it's almost easier and more fun that way. One of our favorite fights in the campaign so far used abstract zones on a vertical, side-facing cutaway color diagram of a dilapidated slum tower - from a Warhammer Fantasy RPG supplement - instead of a top-down gridded map. I ran another fight (near "Illmire") using a handrawn rough sketch of a swampy battlefield about 100 meters across that took about eight seconds to draw. Balanced fights are really easy to plan and run, and monsters generally feel distinct and interesting and often pose mini-puzzles for players to crack during combat. Several of my players are reveling in the greater customization and control afforded by the system. So, huzzah!

On the other hand ... our pace has SLOWED down!!!  

Right now, the party is exploring a floating dwarven citadel (thanks, inspiration from Dragons of Desolation!). They got there on a flying dwarven skyship, seeking clues to the reason the castle got torn skyward centuries ago, and also to recover a relic axe (the PCs are trying to help a group of dwarves boost recruitment for an army to retake their halls from a dark Duergar cult; recovering the axe should give them the P.R. boost needed to swell the army with fresh recruits - while causing some indirect problems with other factions that the PCs will have to deal with, too). 

Due to various real-life factors, our sessions of late have been limited to about 2-3 hours most weekends. Two sessions ago, we got through a bit of freeform roleplaying and lore-dumping to set up the mission, and then the PCs were dropped off on a balcony (under fire from angry Strix birdmen) and fought their way inside, finding a treasure-laden workshop guarded by several dwarven-crafted automata. The resulting fight took up the rest of the session. Then, in our most recent session, the party left that room, climbed a central stair-shaft, dealt with some brown mold on a kitchen cabinet, had a big fight in a haunted banquet hall, climbed more stairs, and entered another room where they'll obviously face a big fight - and time was up for the session. So, basically, one complex fight, and two 'empty' but trapped spaces - in a full session. 

That is kind of frustratingly slow compared to the pace of other campaigns I've run (a few years back, we used Dungeon World to roll through B10, Night's Dark Terror, and X1, The Isle of Dread. We got SO MUCH DONE some nights in those campaigns! Not to mention the night we played what would normally be an entire campaign's story in a single night using On Mighty Thews...). Right now, the slower pace required by the more detailed, crunchy combat mechanics and turns in PF2e is pushing me to focus on designing memorable, interesting encounters, but at the cost of flexible, more open-ended play. I feel like a technician instead of an artist: checking moves, maintaining order, applying rules, tracking mechanics (and that's even with a willingness to just make rulings when I can't find the 'proper' PF2e way quickly). I'm really missing the playful, creative sense of surprise that I get when GMing a less crunchy and more open system. 

So...hmm...what's a GM to do?

An earlier version of me would probably be screeching to a halt already, deciding that 'this isn't THE system, after all', and moving on in search of greener pastures. But the shift in my thinking in recent years, as described above, has me looking for a different solution. PF2e is a GREAT engine, FAR better than many other games I've run at doing certain things. But it's also slower and more cumbersome when compared to many other games I've run.  

Instead of jumping ship and looking for 'something better', I'm trying to focus on celebrating what we are gaining from using this system at this time, while thinking clearly about what else I might like at an appropriate - and maybe other? - time. 

I do think I want to tweak something, but I suspect the answer might lie in budgeting time for something else while persisting to do this current campaign real justice. I'm thinking of a few ideas ... like maybe committing to run something much more freewheeling for a break in a few months' time. Forged in the Dark systems are really calling my name right now (in fact, I've got some thoughts I hope to share soon about FitD rules-light options for 'domain play' and mass combat). Alternately, maybe the answer is to switch back and forth - maybe we could run two concurrent campaigns, with something like Blades in the Dark one week, and PF2e the next? That might scratch the right itch for everybody (I've got one player in particular who really misses the system of Dungeon World). 

Whatever I do, though ... I want to be mindful and content if I'm going to run something. I'm not afraid to abandon a campaign that isn't going well (I've done that before), but I don't think that's where I'm at right now. Instead, maybe the right approach now involves being aware of the different kinds of play that I like, celebrating the ways I'm getting some of that, and waiting patiently and flexibly to try other styles at the right time. 

Hmmmm. Thanks for bearing with these musings ... hopefully they provoke a few useful insights for somebody else, too. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

[REVIEW] PF2e NPC Index - Spellcasters / Warriors (Pathfinder 2e 3rd-party supplements)

TL;DR - This post starts off with some general chitchat about my move into running Pathfinder, 2nd edition. I then review a handy pair of third-party resources, the NPC Index: Warriors and NPC Index: Spellcasters supplements for PF2e. For disclosure, I purchased the Warriors Index, but then received a free copy of the Spellcasters volume in exchange for a fair and honest review (I decided to address both supplements here). In short, I think these are both great resources that will offer a lot of utility for any PF2e GM's repertoire - and will save lots of time, too. That being said, I also offer a few critiques about some ease-of-use features. Links to the products are OneBookShelf/DTRPG/Pathfinder Infinite affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to you. Thanks for reading! 

Purchase (affiliate) links:




Historically, at my own table I've mostly run rules-light games without a lot of crunch. Long-time readers  may be surprised to learn that my home campaign is currently running in Pathfinder, 2nd edition (PF2e). I chose PF2e partly to give players more customization (that I didn't have to homebrew constantly...), partly to re-invigorate my monsters (no more 'bags of hit points'! Everything has thematic tricks in combat!), and partly to run a more tactical system in which I don't have to pull my punches, but also don't have to worry much about balance. PF2e certainly allows as much square-counting and board-gamey action as you might want (or not...), but I find that it also works quite well for more flexible, less detailed combats. Our most recent fight was great fun, but our 'battle map' was just a vertical, side-profile building diagram from a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure. I simply gauged movement by zones and made rulings on the fly whenever something was unclear, and we had a great time in a fight against undead shadows hunting the PCs up rotting staircases in an abandoned slum building (yes, PCs could and did fall through broken steps to the landings below!).  

Having said all that, Pathfinder wouldn't be Pathfinder without some measure of crunchy mechanics. As an experienced GM but someone quite new to running PF2e, I've had a lot to wrap my head around. So far, the experiment is working well, though I've had my work cut out for me by insisting on running a sandbox campaign. First, I converted the tail end of a contemporary OSR standout campaign, The Evils of Illmire, to PF2e. My players just finished with that converted content and are now at work in a new region of my own creation.  Although many GMs grab a pre-made 'adventure path' that fills in the blanks for you, our current adventures exist on a map that I drew, onto which I placed about fifteen different factions with competing goals and assets (I wanted an intrigue-heavy, social-relationship-emphasizing campaign, albeit with some cool dungeons waiting out there). 

But this leads quickly to a problem: how to stat up all the NPCs running those factions? 


One of the great features of PF2e is that the rules and bestiary entries are free to read online. This includes the NPC statblocks published (in an "NPC Gallery") in the PF2e Gamemastery Guide (the online versions are here). That collection is very useful, but it isn't terribly flexible. If you run PF2e using the standard rules, there's a tight math loop that makes creatures or NPCs within about 3-4 levels up or down from your party fair game for a fight (outside this range, mathematical probabilities will make most fights too one-sided to be interesting; inside the range, fights can be great). The rules do provide "Weak" and "Elite" adjustments that bump a critter's level up or down by 1...but that's a pretty minor adjustment for a game built to span 20 levels. 

In my case, this posed some problems. The NPC gang leader looked cool, but the NPC Gallery profile Gang Leader is level 7. Hmmm. That's several levels higher than what I was looking for. Keep the cool thematic abilities but stay overpowered? Settle for a less thematically suitable but lower-level Ruffian? I wanted a Necromancer, but the GM Guide NPC Gallery Necromancer is Level 5...just a bit higher than what I had in mind for this role...oh, and it has a special ability with a hideous stench aura. Ok, but I wanted a necromancer who is just getting into the dark arts and is still connected to polite society, so that tell-tale stench just won't work. Can I just hand-wave these things away? Yes, of course I can - but then I'll be monkeying with the balanced math loops, etc. Not ideal.

Now, PF2e - in the Gamemastery Guide, again - does include a guide to building your own creatures and NPCs. But ... it's about 18 pages long. The 'building NPCs' section is just a few pages, but it refers to and builds upon the whole section. I am a busy person with a life and a lot to do, and ... I am not going to work through ten pages to prepare every NPC I need for this campaign. Nor am I willing to build each NPC as a proper character using the PC class rules. 

Crumbs. What's a GM to do? 


Rejoice, for my problem has a solution! 

Jamie Trollope and Paul J. Steen are co-authors of NPC Index: Warriors and NPC Index: Spellcasters. Oh, and before I forget - each supplement also has a Foundry VTT module sold separately or in bundle form, if you're into that sort of medium). The volumes are sold via OneBookShelf's Pathfinder Infinite, an official community-content marketplace for Pathfinder/Starfinder supplements (I gather this is similar to the Dungeon Master's Guild that WotC has set up through OBS as well). The service is integrated with (my preferred), so if you have any store credits burning a hole in your pocket on DTRPG, you should be able to clean them out here! :-) Each volume costs $12.99 for a .pdf. Warriors has 110 pages over 56 .pdf spreads and covers; Spellcasters offers 114 pages over 58 spreads and covers. 

Awright, awright, but what do they do

Put simply, they make class-based NPCs, at many different levels, with a variety of special abilities and ancestry templates, and they do so pretty quickly and easily. To quote the product blurbs: 

Here you'll find 100+ ready-made statblocks for spellcasting NPCs of every level, from a lowly apprentice to the most awe-inspiring archdruid.

Here you'll find 100+ ready-made statblocks for martial NPCs of every level, from a lowly squire to the most terrifying barbarian chieftain.

Spellcasters lets you craft Clerics, Druids, Sorcerers, and Wizards. Warriors contains Barbarians, Rangers, Fighters, and Champions. (I understand that a third and pending volume will cover offer Alchemists, Bards, Monks, and Rogues). The blurbs above suggest that you're grabbing a fresh list of 100+ NPCs, but don't believe the hype - the reality is even better! Because the book uses a modular format - kind of the Build-a-Bear approach to NPCs - you have here the tools to stat up something like 3,100 different NPCs, per book, and that's probably being conservative with the way I run the numbers. Let me explain. 

Each volume offers two different approaches for NPC creation. 

First approach: start with one of 31 (!!!) different ancestry templates (these are things like 'halfling, dwarf, orc, tiefling, poppet'). Then, "you can follow the rules for creating NPCs in the GMG..." and then, finally, select one or more level-appropriate Special Abilities from a list provided here. Uh-oh - my heart sank at first when I read that "use the rules for creating NPCs in the GMG." I thought I was here because I'm weak and foolish and can't handle those rules? Aaaaaah! Not to worry; although this option is available to expand options for GMs with a good handle on creating their own NPCs, it isn't necessary. Instead, we have...

Second approach: use those pre-made statblocks, but tweak them as desired with your chosen ancestry. Tweak the abilities further if you so desire. 

This is where the book really shines, in my opinion. The statblocks are organized by class, but also by level.

There are multiple versions at levels 1, 4, 7, 13, 16, and 19. This is because by applying the Weak or Elite templates, these statblocks cover all 20 levels, so you can prepare encounters with NPCs that range from the lowliest street thugs, all the way up to the mightiest warlords. 

Let's look at how this works in a bit more detail. 

Early in the book come the Ancestry templates. As the book notes, these are deliberately simplified, offering a few key thematic special abilities. Each one follows a "base, bonus at level 7+, bonus at level 13+" format, like this:

What ancestry options are present? Well (deep breath)...Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Goblin, Halfling, Human, Android, Catfolk, Fetchling, Hobgoblin, Kitsune, Kobold, Leshy, Lizardfolk, Orc, Poppet, Ratfolk, Shoony, Sprite, Tengu, Aasimar, Beastkin, Changeling, Dhampir, Duskwalker, Geniekin (Ifrit, Oread, Suli, Sylph, Undine), Tiefling. Oh, and half-elf and half-orc too. And each one feels just different enough to earn its place: hobgoblins are good at beating down demoralized foes, whereas orcs get a limited reaction that keeps them resilient when they would reach 0 hp, and kobolds can cower to try to dissuade an angry assaulter. The abilities mostly make sense, though this one made me scratch my head a bit:

That Level 13+ Revivification Protocol is a riff on an official Android Ancestry feat in PF2e, so no worries there, but the official version also includes a "once a day" limit, and clarifies that it's triggered as a free action when a PC has the Dying condition and is about to attempt a recovery check (which is why it's described as an action, not a reaction). That context doesn't really work for a PF2e NPC, as I understand it - they're just supposed to drop at 0 hp, and they don't make recovery checks. So this one needs a little tweak; unless I'm missing something, this would be better as a once-per-day Reaction triggered by hitting 0 hp, to put an enemy android back on their feet just as the PCs think they've cut it down. 

Once you've picked your NPC's ancestry template, you move over to the class sections. Each of these opens with a one-page overview of the class, its tactical features, and some general observations on getting the most out of these roles and abilities in play. The advice here won't be revolutionary, but it was helpful to me as someone new to the intricacies of PF2e. 

Then, for each class, you have a list of a FEW free abilities that every NPC of that class should gain (these, again, are simplified when compared to actual PCs of that class), some guidance if you are actually following the procedures to build your own character instead of using statblocks, and then ... a roster of more special abilities that can be chosen for further customization. These are grouped by level-tier, and there are simple guidelines on how many you should select for NPCs of different power levels. The abilities look like this:

There are enough to be interesting, but not enough to get really overwhelming. For spellcasters, the ability lists are followed by domain and sample spell-lists to simplify the options that an NPC caster has prepared. 

And then come those sample statblocks. So many of them! They are laid out just like a regular Bestiary entry, though you'll just need to fill in the few details from whatever ancestry template you also selected - and then you're ready to roll! Notice how (apart from the ancestry details) everything is pre-selected for you - spell selections, stats, attack rolls, abilities, etc. ... all you have to do is meander through the Index, around the level-range that you're looking for, until you see something suitable for whatever you have in mind. Here's one of the Sorcerer options:

By combining the 100+ statblocks in each book with the 31 different ancestry templates, you have the potential of up to 3,100 different, evocative NPCs - even without you tweaking the profiles any further, which you can do. In fact, I quickly ran into situations that did call for tweaking the statblocks provided. This is because -- as rich as this resource already is -- the pre-made statblocks only scratch the surface of the possible combinations one could make with the ancestry and special ability templates provided. Although there are statblocks provided for level 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, 16, and 19 characters (adjustable, again, to any level 1-20), each of those level benchmarks gets about 4 sample characters. That is far too few to exhaust the potential here. Sorcerers, for example, are categorized by 8 different bloodline/spell traditions: draconic, imperial, angelic, demonic, elemental, fey, shadow, or aberrant. Thus, the sample level 1 Sorcerer statblocks are: Draconic Novice, Angelic Novice, Elemental Novice, and Shadowy Novice. 

Notice that this leaves half of the 8 available bloodlines unused for the Level 1 Sorcerer statblocks; the rest of them do get used, but across later levels. This is not necessarily a problem, but it did raise two issues of note.  First, it sometimes took me longer than I'd like to figure out just which options a given level range was presenting. For the sorcerers, the use of named bloodlines made things pretty clear, pretty quickly. That's not so for all of the classes. Here are the four Level 1 wizard statblock options: Curious Apprentice, Incompetent Apprentice, Astute Apprentice, and Capable Apprentice. Why? Well, a closer look reveals that these four are also practitioners of, in order, Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, and Enchantment. Great ... so why is the Conjurer incompetent, and the Enchanter capable? I have no idea.  Apart from the different pre-selected spell selections, their statblocks are almost identical; "Mr. Incompetent" actually has a slightly higher AC, whereas "Mr. Capable" has +2 more points on his Reflex save. There seems to be a serious misfit between some of the names chosen for statblocks and the actual content of those statblocks. This problem plagued me elsewhere, too. The Cleric statblocks are distinguished mechanically by their Doctrines (Cloistered vs. Warpriest Clerics), Fonts (Harm vs. Heal), and various Domains. Their statblocks are named, however, after the various deities of Golarion, PF2e's official setting. Thus, at Level 1, we have Acolytes of Nethys, Urgathoa, Chamidu, and Calistria. Sweet. Except ... I don't use most of those figures in my homebrew setting, and I'm not very familiar with the canonical gods of PF2e's setting - making these titles a little bit of a roadblock for me (I recognize that many PF2e fans won't have this hindrance). My point, though, is that some kind of naming convention that pointed more quickly to the actual mechanical differences would help. The issue is present in the Warriors volume, as well. Quick, can anyone tell me about the expected mechanical differences among the Mean Thug, Spiteful Thug, Heaving Thug, and Irate Thug? (These Level 1 Barbarians can all Rage, of course). In actual practice, it just takes a moment to glance through a statblock to see which domain, bloodline, school of magic, or mix of special abilities has been assigned to it - but saving me that extra moment with more communicative titles would have been even better! 

The other issue with the mix of statblocks is that - as noted above - there will be cases when you want (say) a Level 5 Draconic Sorcerer, but the pre-made statblocks of the appropriate level (4, with an Elite adjustment) only offer Imperial, Demonic, Feylike, or Aberrant Sorcerers. In these cases, you're going to need to do a little reverse-engineering to get what you want. The good news is that -- as far as I can tell -- this works pretty well. So long as you understand the basic logic of each class statblock (such as whether a cleric is a Cloistered or Warpriest NPC, for example) then you should be able to grab a suitable statblock of the appropriate level, remove the non-standard special abilities and/or spell-list that you don't want, and just plug in the details from the sub-class you were looking for. I'll give you an actual example from my own prep. I needed to stat up a significantly higher-level, ambiguous patron-and-possible-enemy-someday magic user to interact with my Level 5 PCs. I figured that around Level 12 would be appropriate for now (they'll need a few levels if they want to dream of 'solving' him in combat). One simple option = take the Level 13 "Astute Highmage" statblock (a Diviner), add Human ancestry features, and then apply a Weak template to reduce the NPC from 13 to Level 12. Done, and quickly! But I sort of had my eye set on the Imperial Sorcerer bloodline, which would fit this character's background well. But the Level 13s didn't offer me an Imperial. To handle this, I could instead: 

Pick (say) the "Angelic Theurgist" Level 13 Sorcerer...
Add Human ancestry template features...
Swap out the statblock's spell-list for the spells and cantrips provided on p. 70, describing the Imperial bloodline spells...
and, finally, use the Weak adjustments to drop my man down to Level 12. Done!

So this is not so bad! But it took me a little bit of working with the NPC Index to realize that I had this option at my fingertips. It's particularly important to take each class on its own terms, get to know how it's working in this supplement, and then proceed accordingly. At first, I got kind of confused and worried, but playing around with different options for NPCs turns out to be really feasible here. 

This is nice. 


On the whole, these supplements are visually appealing. There's often a lot of content crammed onto each page, but this is a utility tool to support play, not armchair reading. The .pdfs use spreads and are well-bookmarked. In general, the layout of the pages keeps things together, but you do occasionally have to flip over to a new spread to finish reading something. One unfortunate layout bug caused problems for me. The abilities for the Catfolk Ancestry Template are spread across pages 7-8, but in such a way - due to placement of art, columns, and section breaks -- that the Catfolk entry appears just to end prematurely before "Halfling" starts on the next column (when, in fact, "Halfling" and "Human" are part of the previous section. The rest of "Catfolk" is a page-flip over, on the next spread, but two times so far I've missed this and wondered whether the Level 13+ ability was missing. I think that flipping the position of the art on this page, so that the broken text in "Catfolk" would occur right at the end of the spread in the bottom-right corner, would have been much more intuitive for readers to follow. 

As this image shows, the pages in the indices can be very colorful and, well, characterful! The art throughout is a mix of what I believe are stock Pathfinder character and monster portraits. I think these 'come with the territory' for Pathfinder Infinite productions, but they look fine and tie the product visually into the overall PF2e product line. But, additionally, each class section opens with a full-page, full-color portrait in a different style. Here's one: 

I'm not certain, but I think these may be AI-produced art (they're certainly computer-something-or-other art), but I have to say that I really like most of them! They add a certain vibrancy, whimsy, and mystery to the presentation. For a third-party supplement meant to improve play, then, I think these products look great overall. 

The text ... did distract me with a number of typos. These generally do not hinder comprehension, but they occurred juuuuust often enough to be a little distracting. Some examples: 

"TIELFING" instead of Tiefling
"Warpriests can mnake"
"Gnomes and Spites are very strongly tied to Fey" (Sprites...)
BESERKER (instead of Berserker)

Not the end of the world! But if there's ever an update or follow-up on these - and/or before going to POD, which I think fully deserves to happen - it would be good to clean this stuff up. 


Overall, then, NPC Index: Warriors and NPC Index: Spellcasters are two very useful resources for anyone who wants to run PF2e, without relying entirely on the pre-made characters in Adventure Paths. If you want to convert something else to PF2e, or come up with your own content (so long as it involves NPCs, and not just monsters!), then these guides should prove quite helpful. They make it easy to grab thousands of possible NPCs, with a wide range of possible ancestry backgrounds and distinct, meaningful mechanical differentiation. 

The books could be a little bit cleaner and tighter here or there, and it took me a little time for orientation before I realized how to get the most of the resources here. But that time was well-spent. Last weekend, my party had a near-confrontation with a troublesome barbarian prince who -- although low-level -- thinks the local community needs him and his drunken men around for protection. A fight almost broke out. If blows had been traded and initiative rolled, I would have been ready - because NPC Index: Warriors lets me grab one statblock from p. 41, add a Human Ancestry template - and start fighting. That's helpful. 

Monday, September 5, 2022

Warhammer: Age of the Valar (a thought experiment - Sauron as Tzeentch, etc.)


[Edit: added Deep Elves, below]

 LOTR and the Silmarillion are back on my mind, what with the Amazon hubbub and whatnot; and Warhammer is usually on my mind in one way or another. So here's a mash-up thought experiment just as a bit of fun (besides, it's a nice break between formatting course syllabi...). Consulting Google, I am unsurprised to see that others have put "Middle Earth and Warhammer/Sauron and Chaos Gods" in the same box before, but let's see what I can come up with here for a fun twist. Or, I dunno, just file this under sad fan-fic and move on. :-) 

In the First Age of Middle Earth, the Chaotic Enemy was one, though it bore many names - among them Melkor and Morgoth. Yet Morgoth did not fight alone - the Chaos Lord commanded a vast host of beastmen, balrogs, fire-drakes, and - worst of all - his thrice-thirteen champions, the Thirty-Nine Grand Agents of Chaos. But after an age of horror, the Valar marched against Morgoth's hold; the Chaotic enemy was cast down into the void, his forces scattered. The Valar returned home, westward. 

The Second Age seemed at first a Golden Age, an untroubled time of wise scholars and wealthy merchants linking Human, Elven, and Dwarven halls across Arda - even unto the royal isle-citadels of Numenor. But the taint of Chaos remained. For, though Morgoth still lies bound in the void, his Grand Agents cannot truly be slain while in this world; when a Grand Agent is destroyed, the chaotic energy that endowed it merely flees howling into the wastes for seven centuries, but can then return, always seeking a fitting new champion to empower. Thus the most dreadful of Morgoth's servants emerged again to sow deceit, division, and death - seeding dark cults that swayed the Numenoreans, and raising dire strongholds  to wrest the mastery of Middle Earth. Again the Valar reached forth; they thrust Numenor beneath the waves and Bent the world. Cut off from the Undying Lands, the Lords of Chaos turned on each other. At the foot of Mount Doom, an avatar of Nurgle beheaded Sauron's corporeal form and stole his neck-torque (though he did not know the torque's secrets, and thus could not imprison Sauron's wraith). Thereafter, the desperate Last Alliance of elves and men confronted the Pox-Lord and cast down his diseased towers. Many elves then fled westward from mortal realms, and the Second Age came to an end. 

Now is the Third Age. What even the wise long tried to deny now cannot be ignored: the Grand Agents of Chaos have returned in force again.



Among the mightiest and craftiest of the Grand Agents of Chaos, he is called by many names - Sauron, Tzeentch, the Lord of Change, the Deceiver, the Father of Lies. From his stronghold in Mordor, Sauron threatens all free peoples nearby - though he also schemes to steal power from his chaotic rivals. His armies are dreadful, but equally dangerous are the hidden sorcerous cults and cabals that serve him in the shadows of most kingdoms. Gonder and Harad are particularly vulnerable to his influence; Umbar has even declared openly for him.  

Long ago, aided by deceived Noldor smiths, Sauron forged a terrifyingly powerful neck torque. Its wearer - if the proper spells are known - can capture the energy of a slain Grand Agent of Chaos, preventing its exile in the wastes, trapping the energy within the torque and making it available as raw power in the service of the torque-bearer. The wise fear that thirteen such Agents already lie trapped within the torque. The torque has been lost since the end of the Second Age, but Sauron's cultic agents tirelessly scour the world's dark places in search of the relic. If found by the powers of Order, perhaps the torque could be turned against Chaos - but its true loyalty is to Sauron, and its seductive appeal is profound. Or, the torque could be destroyed, if dipped into the fresh blood of Sauron's current corporeal form - but who would dare bring the torque into Sauron's own presence, even if under arms? 


Nurgle, the Plague-King of Angmar, is strongest where minds turn most to thoughts of growth, fertility, fecundity, and the needs of the earth. Though Nurgle-fed pox threatens any dense city on Arda, Nurgle's servants are found more commonly in the countryside. Though few noticed when the lovely Shire almost fell to a Nurgling cult led by the pox-priest Bubo Baggins (I'm really sorry, I couldn't resist...), the prospect of great Ents seduced by Chaos is more disturbing; and the inner copses of Mirkwood are haunted by huge, bloated, pustulent spiders. Every year, the elves of Lothlorien must patrol their borders and cull, weeping, any trees seeded by Nurgle's taint. 



Saruman, Nagash, the Bone-White, the Necromancer, Old Sharkey - this Grand Agent of Chaos was among the wisest and (it was believed) the most virtuous of Order's heroes, until he accepted a dark bargain and became the latest avatar to the chaotic energy associated with death-magic. Now, he rules a kingdom marked by no borders but the grave - barrow-wights answer his call in the northwest, tomb-lurkers in Far Harad heed his will, and (the sea-elves say) even drowned legions beneath the sea march at his command. 


TBH, I'm not hugely into the current style of Warhammer Dwarves (especially the Fyreslayer dudes, which I've described before as "guys at a nude beach in an Asterix comic." Bring back the classic dwarves, I say - and that means Chaos Dwarves, too!

In the Grey Mountains, the northern Misty Mountains, and the Iron Hills, some dwarf-lords have yielded to Chaos' temptations, and now threaten neighbors in every direction. Fortunately (for the Free Peoples), the reconquest of strongholds at Gundabad and Khazad-Dum occupies much of these foes' attention. 


Let's assume that there are no Orcs in this vision. Nope, don't need 'em - plenty of beastmen, tzaangors, ogres, trolls, giants, wolves, undead, and human cultists around to cause trouble. Or, if you insist, we'll call GW-style orcs/orks/orruks "funny-looking green beastmen." 



Ever since the Valar Bent the world, travel to and from the Undying Lands is a dire undertaking. To travel to those lands is usually a one-way ticket; to travel from them is an even greater undertaking. 

The Stormcast are a host of penitent immortal elves, already home in the Undying Lands, who took pity on the kindreds left behind to face Chaos during the Third Age. With the grudging consent of the Valar, the Stormcast project their being from the Undying Halls into Middle Earth, riding lightning bolts that carry the likeness of their will and form. The Stormcast cannot truly be slain, for their actual being remains in the Uttermost West; but with each death in battle and re-projection, it becomes possible to send less and less of the fighter to aid Middle Earth. Thus, Stormcast might fight in a hundred battles for the cause of Order, yet seem to lose more and more of themselves each time. Whether such ordeals can touch the wellbeing of the elves at their source in the West, not even the wise know. 


Set by the Valar as wardens upon the sea, the Deep Elves' task is to ensure that any chaotic secrets drowned in the downfall of Numenor stay that way. Empowered by the Valar to patrol a watery realm, the Deep Elves are seen only rarely on Middle Earth. At times, however, they return to the surface, clad in mystical water-pockets, joining with allies to fight against Chaos. There are those, however, who whisper that even the Deep Elves themselves could be tempted by darkness - or that their true purpose might be to hunt the ancient Silmarils cast into the depths long ago...

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Painting (another) Kitbashed Chaos Champion / On the new Army Painter Speedpaints

 This past weekend, I carved out some time to attack the 'unpainted' pile. Exhibit A is an interestingly kitbashed Warhammer Chaos champion. I bought this fella second-hand last year as part of an army of Chaos figures that draw heavily on kitbashing with (for example) Stormcast Eternal parts or even bits from 40k. This particular specimen combines a 'Nurgle'-style mutated maw-in-the-tummy with a very sci-fantasy-leaning mechanical claw arm (I'm *still* not sure where the arm comes from; something Necron, maybe?). 

I fancy myself an advanced Beginner painter, or maybe a Mega-Noob Intermediate painter, or something in there. Despite a few missed strokes I'm quite happy with this guy's overall appearance.


This was also an early opportunity to try out the new-ish Army Painter Speedpaint collection, a recent splurge. It seems these speedpaints are taking the mini-painting world by storm, so I have been eager to try my hand at them. The paint-job featured here combines several types of paint. When I acquired the figure, it was already wearing a sort of minimalist blue and gray coat of paint. 

To proceed, I first drybrushed with silver...

...and then got to work, laying down (mostly) speedpaints supplemented by 'regular', metallic, and blood-effect paints for some specific local touches. 

I decided to go for a hint that the guy used his bloody axe to pulp something, used the bloody claw to pick it up, and then fed part of it to the bloody maw in his midriff.
Ah, Chaos champions! No table manners at all. 

One thing that really strikes me is the impact of the undercoat color when using these translucent speedpaints. The green on this champion is 'Malignant Green' (the 'Nurgle' color), but it came out very dark on top of the blue basecoat. The mechanical claw is painted with Stone Golem, and I think it makes a very nice 'dull bronze' look - but it is exactly the same speedpaint color used to paint the bare, white bases on these 'just tabletop ready' sci-fi grunts from Reaper Bones!

...Slapping out three of these Reaper Bones grunts, including pre-work with silver touches here and there, took about 40 minutes total (!). This stuff is great for batch processing units. 

Although I can see that the Speedpaints require their own skillset, I'm quite pleased after my initial trials.