Putting the Magic Back

Remember when magic items used to be mysterious and cool? The excitement of finding a new sword, ring, or cloak was the highlight of the evening, second only to vanquishing that pesky foe.  These days it seems we have our checklists of magic items we want for our character and if that item is not in the treasure trove we just took, we will trade that magic hammer in and get what we really wanted to begin with. It has all become routine.

I often wonder if this is because we have been playing the game for so long or simply because as we grew older some of the magic lost its luster when it came to finding new magic items. Have we become too familiar with all the available magic items that we have simply become characters with a list of necessary items to complete the build or the concept?

Why Magic Items Lose Their Luster

From the familiarity standpoint there is certainly a case to be made that many of us have been playing for a long time. We probably know the descriptions of the more popular and frequently acquired items like the back of our hand. Rings of protection, cloaks of resistance, bags of holding – all must haves and something even first level characters know they want those items. It doesn’t take much for our characters to soon just have shopping lists. This does not do much to keep the magic and mystery in magic items.

Then on the other hand we sometimes get caught up with builds of characters. Builds aren’t just reserved for the optimizers, builds are also for certain concepts a player wants to roleplay. Inevitably builds seem to come with their own shopping lists in order to complete these builds just the way we want them.

And finally there is the naming convention some of the more common magic items use. Longsword +1, Ring of Protection +3, Cloak of Resistance +2 and so on and so on. This naming mechanism really depicts the magic item for the pure mechanical advantage it is.

Bring That Shine Back

There are a lot of factors conspiring against keeping the magic in magic items for anyone that has been playing RPG games for many years. What can a GM do to help put the magic back into magic items?

Kobold Quarterly just released the first in a short series on removing the game mechanic “plus” value from the item by substituting in a name for that level of bonus. The first article talks about weapons and armor and suggests a bastion shield would note a +2 shield bonus and +1 bludgeoning weapon would be a “thumping” mace. You can of course change these designations, but the article is certainly a launching pad for coming up with your own naming conventions to step away from simply listing a numerical modifier.

Another thing a GM can do is build a little history behind the magic item. Who had this ring or cloak before? How did it end up tucked away in a trunk in the back of this orc’s cave? Perhaps there were some initials sewn into the cloak or engraved into the inner band of the ring.  The player may never fully investigate the history, but he will quite likely remember that the cloak he wears had initial sewn into it when he found it.

Sometimes the manner of getting the magic item into the character’s hands can make a difference. I had a GM give one of my characters, who at the time was a two-weapon ranger type, a finely crafted bow via a minor goddess. This shifted my character’s whole motif with him retraining feats and such to learn to use this bow more effectively.  The character even went as far to turn in a magic sword he had obtained previously to a deity’s temple so he could focus on the bow.

Most games I play in have access to the ever popular “magic shop”. Magic shops can certainly vary under different GMs though. One way to help make magic items a little more special without banning magic shops is to just limit their availability of items a bit. Do not assume that any item a character ones can be found in the magic shop. There should be some scarcity to not quite so common items. Sure, a bag of holding? Good chance the shop has that or can get one pretty quickly. A +5 Holy Avenger? Eh, not so much.

By limiting the magic shop’s supply a little you can help make going to a magic shop feel more like going to Half Price Books hoping to find that legendary Deities and Demigods book with Cthulhu rather than going to WalMart to buy a gallon of milk. The scarcity is not to punish your players, but to let them know sometimes it takes a little work to get just what you are looking for.

Summary

Tackling the lost luster of magic items is not an easy task for groups that have lost it. The GM will have to work a little harder with some of the suggestions made above to make magic items fun again. Add in that it is a fine line between keeping the player happy and trying to put the magic back into magic items the task difficulty further increases.

Still work with your players, you do not want to deny them characters they find fun. But maybe that item they desire so badly isn’t available at the corner magic shop just yet. Maybe that noble in town happens to have one that he is offering as a reward for clearing the family crypts of the undead that have infested it.  The extra effort needed to gain magic items just might make it that much more special to the character and put some of the magic back in to magic items again!

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Thinking Like A Villain: Tricks & Traps

This blog post is inspired by this month’s RPG Carnival subject of villain’s tricks and traps and how does the GM effectively use tricks or traps on behalf of their villains.

I suspect many find this a fine line to walk when determining how to place traps or plan tricks. Is the trap you are planning appropriate for your villain? How do you tell? Will the players think you were unfair?

It is easy as a GM to put a trap or trick in place, but one must do so in a manner that is fair to the players and furthers the game. Blindsiding players with tricks from nowhere is not fun for anyone – okay, maybe fun for the GM, but you won’t have many players for long! Well planned, villain appropriate tricks and traps are much more fun for everyone involved.

Strategy

One strategy is to take a step back and think for a moment about the villain in question. Who are they? What are their motivations? Are they an intellectual villain or perhaps a crafty villain or perhaps a villain by chance? Are they concerned with their plans being found out and pinned to them? Taking some time to think about these things can help with the decision making process when determining what traps and tricks the villain in question would be capable of.

A villain that tends to use his head may plan out an intricate trick or trap, likely involving several layers to further themselves from being accused of the act. A less thinking villain, but cutthroat villain may rely on brute force effectiveness. The trap or trick may have fewer layers of complexity but more outright brutality and carnage.

Beyond the basics of just taking a closer look at the villain and what drives them the GM can move on to consider just how much does the villain know about the heroes. Are they being considered a genuine threat to the villain or simply an inconvenience? Has the villain been observing them or gathering information about them? These questions can further help the GM determine how thought out the trick or trap might be that the villain sets in motion against the PCs.

Villain A

Let’s take Villain A. She is a plotter and well versed in the ways of the politically correct as well as the actions that take place behind the scenes to gain her position of power. Intelligent and charismatic she is a very real threat, but has strong motivations to never be attached to her plots against others. She tends to learn all she can about her enemies and use that information to her advantage before setting her plans in motion.

Villain A is much more apt to have a much more intricate plan to trick or trap the heroes she considers a threat to her grand plan of gaining power. She has motivation to end the threat the heroes are to her while minimizing the chance of any action taken against them resulting in her being marked the responsible party.

Villain A is the type of villain the GM can really work out the intricate plots and layers to trick or trap the PCs. Organizations or gangs working as buffers between the actual villain and the PCs so that if (and most likely when) the plot is foiled the PCs still have a difficult time pinning the plot on Villain A directly.

Villain B

Now we look at Villain B. He has made a name for himself on the street. While not the most intellectual man, he hasn’t survived life in the streets without knowing how to get what he wants. Often getting what he wants is through cold acts of brutality. He lives by his reputation as a no holds barred individual. He sees a threat and moves straight to eradicating that threat with plans to do so definitively removing the need to thoroughly research the heroes before doing so.

Villain B is has very little concern about people knowing it was him or his people that exacted some form of trap or trick on the heroes he deemed a threat. His reputation demands it. For him a swift, brutal attack in an alley arranged under the guise of an information exchange is perfectly valid tactic.

The GM can play Villain B as a cold and cunning individual. The traps and tricks are simple, but effective. One is not as likely to find as many layers in the trick setup against the PCs from this type of villain, maybe a small street gang that reports to the villain, but not much more than that.

Player Reaction

By thinking about your villains and determining their mindset you can more closely develop traps and plans that are more representative of the villain. Together this helps present greater verisimilitude for your world as traps and tricks employed by your villains seem to match their mindset.

This means traps and tricks by Villain A are going to be much more deceitful and sprung with potentially much less warning or indication that what the PCs are about to walk into is a setup. Meanwhile the PCs are much more likely suspect something or at the very least not be surprised as greatly when Villain B puts his machinations into play.

This also allows the GM as range of tools at his or her disposal when plotting against the PCs. The complex plots and tricks he wishes to weave are perfectly appropriate when being orchestrated by Villain A. For times the GM wants to spring something much simpler he can unveil Villain B.

Player reaction to tricks sprung by the GM’s villains is more likely to be favorable if the GM works within the complexity and clandestineness level of the villains at play.

Summary

I have taken a brief look at how a GM can study their villains and use their motivations and style to help shape the tricks and traps set in place against the PCs. Providing examples of two types of villains there are many villain types that fall in between the two examples I outlined above. In some cases Villain A may have enlisted a Villain B type to do her work to further insulate her form being found out.

One of the most important things you can do as a GM is to really learn your villain’s aspirations. It will not only make designing tricks and traps used by your villains easier, it will help make many other parts of your game easier as well.

Pathfinder Beginner Box Minis Unboxed

and reviewed….

Manufacturer:  WizKids
Pricing:   $12.99
Tankard Rating:  4.5/5 

The Pathfinder Beginner Box Heroes Miniatures Set arrived on my doorstep late last week much to my excitement. I had pre-ordered it as soon as I learned of it and the anticipation grew as I saw some of the pictures posted from Gen Con earlier this year.

For those that are unaware, the Beginner Box Heroes is a set of four minis made by WizKids. The Beginner Box Heroes is meant as a complement to the also recently released Pathfinder Beginner Box. Included in the set are:

  • Kyra, Female Human Cleric
  • Valeros, Male Human Fighter
  • Merisiel, Female Elf Rogue
  • Ezren, Male Human Wizard

Pathfinder fans will easily recognize these as four of the iconics in the Pathfinder game. They also match the four pre-generated characters included in the Beginner Box.

The minis come in a clear plastic case, letting the buyer see the four minis inside quite clearly. The back of the plastic case has the art from the Beginner Box cover at the top and a short description of each iconic included in the pack.

One of the first things I noticed as I popped the minis out of their plastic cases was the level of detail on these minis. For plastic pre-painted minis the detail is simply amazing. I went through my days of the D&D minis as plastic crack and these Pathfinder Beginner Box Heroes are simply awesome in their level of detail.

Let’s move on to the unboxing!

In closing, I was very impressed with the Beginner Box Heroes Miniatures Set. The paint jobs are better than I can paint and the level of detail is most excellent as shown in the pictures above. The only concern I have is they seem to be the more brittle plastic than the old D&D minis were. That leads to some minor concerns about incidental damage, but if you take care of them they should last just fine.

If this set is any predictor of how the upcoming set of Pathfinder Battles: Heroes and Monsters miniatures are going to look, we are all in for a treat!

Tankard Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Death’s Heretic

Author:  James L Sutter
Publisher:  Paizo Publishing
Price:  Print – $9.99 / PDF $6.99
Pages:   400
Tankard Rating:  4/5

Death’s Heretic is the latest novel in the Pathfinder Tales line written by James Sutter. James Sutter is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing and has many design credits to his name for Paizo Publishing and short fiction published in Black Gate, Apex Magazine, and other publications. This is the first Pathfinder Tales novel authored by James Sutter.

This tale finds us in the desert land of Thuvia following Salim Ghadafar who is on another mission for The Lady of Grave, Pharasma. Salim has been tasked with discovering who had a merchant’s spirit stolen from the boneyard to prevent his previously arranged resurrection from working. Salim finds himself paired with the daughter of the slain merchant to track down just who is responsible and why they would do such a thing.

With the investigation starting in Thuvia we learn more of the nation and the life there before we are soon whisked off on a brief tour of the Planes. Here we get an excellent description of just how unusual the planes are and some insight into how the dead souls pass from one world to another.  Meeting several planes dwellers who are all interesting characters in their own right we eventually find ourselves back in Thuvia hot on the trail of the culprit in this elaborate scheme.

Death’s Heretic is another great addition to the Pathfinder Tales line. I enjoy fiction set in various campaign worlds as they always offer another look at the world from a different perspective than typical gaming supplements. Death’s Heretic is no different, providing the reader interesting perspectives into the nation of Thuvia and certain planes themselves.

The main character, Salim, was an interesting and likable hero. With some mystery of his own at the beginning of the book we slowly learn more about him from his thoughts and people he meets. Eventually we learn more of his past as told by him further building depth to Salim.

Salim also has an unusual twist for one bound to a deity, especially for a fantasy world where deities have a prominent and obvious presence. I think the author only touched on the tip of some of these topics, but I would welcome seeing Salim again in the future and seeing more exploration of this topic.

Neila Anvanory, the woman who funds the investigation and assists Salim, is also an interesting character. Her Taldan heritage shows through at times, but proves quite useful during the story. Her switching between pompous employer and valuable ally is entertaining.

The pacing of the book was quite good. Keeping an investigative, but brisk pace to keep the reader engaged worked well. Dwelling in areas with enough detail to not feel rushed, but at the same time never pausing unduly letting the reader’s mind wander.

Overall I found Death’s Heretic a fun read. It read quickly with interesting characters and explored a part of Golarion I was not wholly familiar with which is always welcome. While I am not a huge fan of plane travel, it was done well in this book and even those sections were enjoyable to read.

Death’s Heretic is another strong offering in the Pathfinder Tales collection. You can purchase your physical or electronic copy today from Paizo Publishing.

4 out of 5 Tankards

Tiaro’s Mirror of Capture

Tiaro’s Mirror of Capture is a magic item I wrote up loosely based on an item a player in my Kingmaker campaign wanted to create. In the Kingmaker campaign the players have a museum in their city which they have been using to gather various old artifacts and tomes they find on their adventures through the Stolen Lands. They have a reasonable collection in the museum and it has been drawing people from across Golarion to see some of the artifacts stored there.

The idea for this Mirror of Capture came from the party wizard, primarily as a means to allow the group to capture an image, take a picture if you will, of some place they have been and then bring that picture back to the mirror to display in the museum. The wizard in the party is currently working on crafting this item.

The mirror I have posted below is based on that idea. I added the element of capturing a soul that can be used later to defend the mirror. Enjoy!

Tiaro’s Mirror of Capture

Aura:  Strong Divination and Illusion        CL: 20th
Slot: None                                                      Weight: 40lbs

Description:

The Mirror of Capture is a 2’x3’ mirror that has a smoky, swirling, reddish gray hue and bordered by an intricate gold worked pattern of flowering vines with painted vermilion blossoms to match the similarly colored gem fitted at the top of the mirror. The oblong gem appears to watch over those that gaze into the mirror.

The Mirror of Capture will display images on its surface when speaking a command word with the vermilion gem in the socket at the top of the mirror. The mirror can store and display a series of up to ten images. The Mirror of Capture cycles through the stored images at a constant rate, the mirror becoming the smoky, red-gray tinged hue during transitions.

A person can remove the oblong gem from the mirror and upon speaking a command word capture the image of either an inanimate or living object.  The oblong gem functions similar to a Prying Eyes spell. The gem can hold only one still image at a time until placed back into the mirror. Returning the oblong gem back to the mirror will transfer the image into the Mirror of Capture.

The Mirror of Capture also has a lesser known ability known to those who study it, the ability to capture the shadow of a soul. Capturing the shadow of a soul requires one to use the oblong gem as normal to capture an image of a living creature. Upon capturing the image the living creature must be slain and the gem coated with the blood of the creature while speaking the command word. Speaking the command word will cause the gem to collect the shadow of the slain creature’s soul.

Returning the gem to the mirror within seven days after capturing a soul will successfully transfer it to the Mirror of Capture. Failing to return the gem to the mirror within seven days will cause the shadow of the soul to expire within the gem. Placing the gem into the mirror socket transfers both the image of the once living creature and the shadow of the soul to the mirror. The Mirror of Capture will display the image as it would any other.

Speaking a second command word after the image and shadow of a captured soul are in the mirror will release the shadow. The release functions like a Greater Shadow Conjuration spell duplicating a Summon Monster VI spell that calls forth a Shadow Demon. The Shadow Demon will take the shape of the captured image.

Destruction:

Destroying the gem and mirror while combined is near impossible due to their significant power. Attempts to destroy the pair while together will fail. In addition the Mirror of Capture will defend itself by releasing one shadow soul per round up to the number currently stored in the mirror.

Attempting to destroy the gem or mirror while separated is also near impossible without coordination. In order to successfully destroy the mirror one must separate the gem from the mirror and simultaneously cast them into different active volcanoes under stormy skies.

Kingmaker Returns From Hiatus

Several weeks ago I mentioned in my Game Scheduling post that my gaming group had been on a hiatus from the Kingmaker Campaign I am running. I had some come up that were going to keep me from being the most reliably person for an extended period of time, especially to be in the position of running the game. It appears our last game was July 7th.

Here we are, in early November ready to bring the campaign back out of Hiatus. Schedules have calmed down a little bit and I think the group is anxious to get back to a longer term campaign again. In this post I plan to look at two things. One, what helped our group stick together during our Kingmaker hiatus and two, how I plan to bring the campaign back from hiatus four months later.

Why Our Group Made It

The primary reason I think our group survived an extended break from our long running campaign is that we’re all friends. Sure we game together and actually met through gaming for several of us. But over the years we’ve become good friends. Gaming is still our primary bond, but we long ago transcended the gamers that hang out together to gamers that are friends. This is certainly a primary reason why our group handled a break from our main campaign for the period of four months. I also think it is why we avoid a lot of the problems seen in other groups as well, but that is another topic for another post!

The other factor that really helped is our group has several people willing to actually run a game. It seems several groups out there only have one person willing to run a game. If that person is unable to run then the group simply does not play. This is certainly not an issue for our group. We have at least one other person who has no issues running a game. Between the two of us we run the majority of our group’s longer running campaigns. So even when the current GM needs a break or something comes up that limits his time, there is usually at least one GM waiting in the wings ready to step up and run for the group.

Further helping our group is that we have at least another two players who are good for running a one-shot or very short campaign arcs on a fairly limited notice. This also goes far to help keep our group gaming even in uncertain times.

For times that there is short notice or perhaps our substitute GM has something come up there is always board game night. People can still meet up at our host’s house and people can play a few board games instead of the normal RPG that was on the schedule.

All of this goes far to help keep our group together even when we have to put a longer term game on hiatus for a few months. It is also a good time to experiment a bit. During the course of this hiatus we were able to play Star Wars, Supernatural, Call of Cthulhu and I even ran the Pathfinder We Be Goblins as a one-shot when a short gap needed filled.

Bringing the Campaign Back

Four months. No serious talk about the campaign during that time and we are actually bringing it back to the table. How to pull this off successfully?

As GM of this campaign I have turned first to our group’s primary tool, our message board forums. When we first formed our group we created a set of message board forums. We use the forums between sessions for planning of the next game, who is picking up food on the way, are we ordering pizza, etc. We also use it for between session recaps, roleplaying and out of character commentary to help know what we are going to be doing the next session.

My first step has been to read back through some of the threads on the boards to get a solid feel for just where we left off. I reviewed the main message board forums and went through the private forums for each character to refresh my mind with what hooks we had working on a character by character basis.

I also took this return to the campaign to ask for feedback from the group to see what they had thought was working well for the campaign so far, what could use some improvement and so on. I believe this will help bring the campaign to a strong conclusion despite the four month hiatus. I received some valuable feedback from this process and helped get the wheels turning again in my own head. It helps focus the energy for campaign prep if you know what the group thinks is working well and what could use some more work.  (If you are curious they primarily want to see more from the politics side of things and a little more depth to some of the NPCs.)

I have also been re-reading the portion of the AP we are in to get my head back in the AP and know where they have been and which important plot points are coming up. This seems an obvious course of action, but certainly not one to be overlooked.

We were at the tail end of the 4th installment of the Kingmaker Adventure Path. It looks like our first session back will be getting back in the swing of things with some exploration, making sure the political pieces are a little more obvious as to what is happening at this point and hopefully some NPC spice sprinkled in or at the very least brought back to the surface again. The group also has some interest on getting a standing army due to some prior events.

Wrapping Up

I am looking forward to assuming the GMs seat once again and getting things rolling. I am lucky to have a great group to game with – both in being patient while I took the time I needed due to outside factors and to have had a group that can fill that gap where I could not GM. I think with some of the preparation noted above we will have a strong start back to the Kingmaker campaign and have a strong finish. I am looking forward to this Thursday!

How about others out there? Have you had a game go on long term hiatus? Were you able to successfully able to bring it back to life? Any tips or techniques you felt made the return to the campaign put on hold especially successful?

We Need Intro Sets

Earlier this week Robert Schwalb posted his Mythical New Gamer article over on his blog. In the post he expresses his skepticism about the success of introductory or starter sets actually bringing new people into the hobby. With big-box bookstores struggling and those that do exist putting the sets in the sci-fi/fantasy sections they lose some of their visibility or become products for those that already have an interest in starting pen and paper gaming. He then boils it down to three different customers – those that want to switch game systems, are trying to complete their collection and those that want to get someone else in the hobby and using the intro product as a crutch to do so.

The article is a good read and well worth taking a look at. He has several interesting points – some I agree with and others not so much. I suspect this has a lot to do with how I got my start in gaming.

I was one of those that came pretty cold to the hobby back around 1981. When I was a kid I used to sell greeting cards as a bit of fund raiser once a year and like any of these fund raisers, the more you sold the more points you received to cash in on a reward. That particular year the reward catalog had the Moldvay D&D Basic Set as one of the offerings. As a young kid looking to spend some reward points that purple box cover with a green dragon rising up in some subterranean chamber called my name! I applied my points and waited for it to arrive.

A few weeks later it showed up at the house. I opened it up to find some booklets, weird looking dice and a crayon. HHmmm, did someone forget to pack the game board? And what’s this crayon for? Why aren’t these numbers colored in? Time to start reading! It took some time as a kid to make my way through the books, sort of learning the rules as the best I could. It took me longer than I care to admit to realize the cure light wounds spell was not talking about wounds caused by light.

See, I grew up in a very rural area. There weren’t a lot of people my age nearby, there certainly wasn’t an Internet, and the nearest game store was 45 minutes away. There wasn’t anyone to teach me this game or even someone to give me an overview of what a roleplaying game was. In fact it was probably another two or three years before I finally found someone in school that knew about and played D&D and that was only after we hit middle school where the satellite elementary schools were combined into one, the great mixing of the rural kids in our district.

But I stuck with it. I slowly read the rules and gained enough understanding to play with some resemblance of the game as it was supposed to be. Eventually I taught some of it to my younger brother and other times I played solo games. I fully credit the Moldvay D&D Basic Set as my start into these many years of RPG enjoyment.

This set was something that I as a kid picked up with no previous exposure to RPGs. I did not buy it at a boxed store and an evangelist of the game did not give it to me. But it opened the door for me to the world of RPGs.

I think that is why I like the intro and starter sets and believe they are needed to continue growing the gaming hobby. I was excited to see Paizo putting out the Pathfinder Beginner Box. Because I know there are not always game shops close or mentors available to help teach you the game in those early years.

Good introduction sets include everything I need to play the game in one purchase. This is important to someone new to the game who might not even know there are dice other than a 6-sided die much less that they are needed for the game. Anything that lowers the hurdle to the entry to the game is a good thing and another legitimate avenue to bring new people to the game. Introductory sets fill this need.

Getting the intro sets into potential new gamer’s hands can be a tricky issue given our niche hobby. But the answer isn’t to not make introductory sets, it is to figure out how to get them into new gamer’s hands.