Tuesday, December 31, 2013

System Shock - Combat Climb

Wander climbs a colossus in Shadow of the Colossus.
It's a feat practically as old as storytelling itself: the daring hero climbing up the body of a towering monster to deliver the killing blow. Over the years, tabletop RPGs have developed different ways to represent this stunt, but both Pathfinder and its ancestor Dungeons & Dragons have both struggled to provide rules for characters to emulate this heroic act.

My inspirations for this article stemmed from two sources. One was Dragon Magazine issue #306, which included an article called "Power Fantasy" by JD Wiker. In this article, Wiker presented rules for "cinematic combat" like swinging from a chandelier and throwing an opponent. These were elements I'd always wanted to include in a game, yet found the core rules of d20-based games lacking in representation of them. The second inspiration originated roughly around the same time; a video game published by Level-5 called Shadow of the Colossus (also known as Wander and the Colossus in Japan.) In Shadow of the Colossus, the hero was a boy and his horse who traveled together across a vast countryside in search of colossi to take down by climbing, running and vaulting all over them to strike at the vulnerable points in their stony armor.

Evoking the feeling of Shadow of the Colossus is easy in Pathfinder, thanks to the universal Combat Maneuver Defense rules. This simplification of the old opposed roll checks from 3.X D&D makes it a simple matter of making a single check to perform a list of combat maneuvers. Below I've outlined a new combat maneuver called a Combat Climb, allowing characters to spring into action and clamor up and around on gigantic opponents. With Bestiary 4 out now, introducing the titanic Kaiju creature subtype, this sort of cinematic combat is delivered right on time.

Feel free to share your own stories of characters successfully (or unsuccessfully) battling atop gigantic, moving beasts in the comments section below.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pop Creature - Kee-Oth

The demon Kee-Oth from Adventure Time season 5,
episode 41: The Pit
Another Encounter Table entry, another Adventure Time inspired creature!

I just can't help myself but find scads of inspiration from Cartoon Network's Adventure Time with Finn and Jake. Today's Pop Creature comes from a recurring adversary on the show, Kee-Oth, a demon once defeated by Jake's father and bound to a sword. The concept of stealing a demon's blood, forging it into a sword, and then using it to have sway over said demon is a great idea and fits perfectly into the concetps of Pathfinder. In fact, it was such a straightforward concept that I was sure I'd be able to find it already done. Imagine my surprise when I didn't really discover anything that quite fit the bill!

This article presents three new goodies for Pathfinder: Firstly, the stats for the type of demon Kee-Oth is, a Nar-Babau (a more powerful version of the standard babau, focused directly on blood-related powers). Secondly, the stats for a demon blood sword. Then lastly, the rules for demon forging, allowing you to make your own demon-bound weapons to enslave your enemies.

These rules come right as Paizo is coming in on the final chapters of its Wrath of the Righteous adventure path. Take a look within, and maybe you can find a way to interject a demon like Kee-Oth or a demon blood sword into your own Wrath of the Righteous game!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Pop Creature - The Geth

"We are all geth."
Legion, from Mass Effect 2.

That line, spoken by the character Legion, from the video game Mass Effect 2 is now among some of my favorite lines in science-fiction. The wonderfully produced Mass Effect series introduced me to the swarm-intelligence of the geth. While they are, on the surface, analogues for a lot of Sci-Fi's most notorious robotic antagonists, the geth maintain a unique design aesthetic while drawing you into their society. Your window into their struggle for independence, acceptance, and individuality is through Legion, a geth designed to interact with and observe organics, capable of operating on his own instead of amid the hive-like machine intelligence of his networked people. Legion gives us a view into a wholly alien mindset, and one that is difficult to shake years after the fact.

Today's Pop Creature is one of those things that's been rattling around in my head for a good, long while. It's also one of the most singularly challenging entries I've done yet. Converting a race of intelligent constructs with a swarm-based intelligence into the Pathfinder rules set wound up being a lot more to chew on that I anticipated, and this entry you're reading was initially intended to be the introductory Pop Creature article, but was put on the back burner when I realized how much of an undertaking it had become.

The introduction of the robot subtype in the Inner Sea Bestiary helped pave the way for this article. While the geth still were a tricky act to pull off, James Jacobs' creation helped set the expectations for how robots should behave in Pathfinder. While the geth remained a challenge thanks to the way the Intelligence score is linked with skill ranks and skill ranks with hit dice, I had a solid foundation to start with.

After the jump, there's a wealth of geth-related information, from the geth subtype to individual stats of geth units ready to be inserted into your Pathfinder games to surprise and antagonize. Later on, I intend on designing a playable geth race using the rules from the Advanced Race Guide, but that's a little ways down the road from here.

For now, take a while to enjoy the geth and let me know in the comments what you think of the geth subtype and the mechanics for swarm intelligence.

System Shock - Mythic Patrons

The Outsider, as seen in one of
Sokolov's paintings in Dishonored. 
One of the best video games I've played in 2013 was Dishonored by Bethesda Softworks. Dishonored is a marvelously addictive stealth/first-person shooter set in a wonderfully visualized steampunk world that feels remarkably lived-in. While not particularly long, Dishonored (and it's from-the-villain's-perspective DLC, Knife of Dunwall) is relentlessly engaging and is one of the few games where I eagerly scramble around for bits of in-world lore tucked away in dark, dusty corners.

Dishonored most central figure, aside from the masked protagonist Corvo, is a mysterious figure of inscrutable agenda known only as the Outsider. It is via the Outsider that Corvo obtains an array of supernatural abilities that allow him to exercise his revenge of the people that wronged him. It was this premise and the Outsider's unique gift of supernatural power to Corvo that plucked my developer strings and made me question how something like the Outsider and Corvo's relationship could be represented in Pathfinder. It wasn't until the Mythic Adventures sourcebook came out that I had the answer for that handed to me.

As io9 recently stated in their review, Mythic Adventures is a "game changer" for Paizo and Pathfinder. Now, characters have access to a wholly new array of potential powers and abilities, many of which would feel right at home in the world of Dishonored. However, while there were some spells that could grant limited mythic power to an individual, there wasn't quite anything in that master/apprentice or patron/benefactor vein.

So, naturally, I saw that as a challenge!

System Shock is a series of articles drawing on wide-ranging sources of inspiration to create new rules systems for use in Pathfinder. Every system shock article will present a new way to use pre-existing rules from Pathfinder.

Today's System Shock article is a rules subset of Mythic Adventures whereby you become a mythic patron, bestowing power on others who can do your bidding in the world!

(Christmas Bonus) Pop Creature - Cathari

Lord President Rassilon, a Time Lord, from the Doctor
Who Christmas Special, the End of Time, Part 1.
This Christmas evening I sat down and watched the Doctor Who Christmas Special, as has been a yearly tradition for me for a long, long time. I'm a big fan of Doctor Who, dating back to my childhood when the mere opening theme would instill me with a perplexing mix of dread and excitement. For those unfamiliar with the property, it's a long-running British sci-fi television show on the BBC that started in 1963 and has been running (with a few notable hiatuses) for 50 years. In fact, the show just celebrated its 50th anniversary this November.

For a long time, a race inspired by the Time Lords of Doctor Who have graced my gaming tables in one form or another. In the spirit of Christmas, and since I'm still operating on a post-Christmas Doctor Who high, I thought I'd share how this race shakes out at my table in Pathfinder for all of you. The cathari are a powerful race (roughly 24 RP by the Advanced Race Guide's charts) and don't fit into all kinds of campaigns. But for GMs interested in emulating a character similar to the Doctor, these might just do the trick.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pop Creature - Blightburn Zombie

The Ooze Monsters from Adventure Time Season 5,
episode 42, James.

I love Adventure Time. If you somehow haven't given a chance to one of the most cleverly written and surprisingly sentimental cartoons of the last decade, you owe it to yourself to give it a look. Beneath the show's deceptive, saccharine exterior is a rich tapestry of coming-of-age stories set against a surprisingly grim post-apocalyptic landscape. 

Today's Pop Creature entry comes courtesy of one such post-apocalyptic element that is something I've wanted to recreate in Pathfinder for a while: the goo monster. First seen in the tragic and amazing episode, "Simon and Marcy," the goo monsters are horrible radioactive nightmares that evoke zombie-like reactions. The first time I saw these critters I thought about the blightburn sickness from Paizo's Kobolds of Golarion. The fusion of shambling zombies and radioactive nightmares seemed like something perfect for a Pathfinder game. 

Below, I've adapted the goo monsters from Adventure Time as the dreadful blightburn zombies! Hopefully these horrifying creatures find their way into your own Pathfinder games. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pop Creature - The Headless Horseman

The Headless Horseman, by Kevin Keele
It's no secret that I'm a fan of FOX's Sleepy Hollow TV show. The surprise is more that the show is far better than its premise gives it any right to be. I'd dismissed Hollow off-handedly when it first started airing, and only after several friends recommended it to me did I begrudgingly look to what I expected to be a schlock-fest with a time-traveling Icabod Crane. That's also exactly what I got, but somehow in the most entertaining way possible.

I've been eagerly devouring episodes of the show since it began airing, enjoying its monster-of-the-week format and contemplating, whenever a new supernatural baddie comes on screen, how I could integrate something like it into Pathfinder. Now, when I started this blog I'd had the idea about a series of articles converting pop-culture monsters into Pathfinder monsters—ever so subtly named Pop Creature—and that's exactly what I'm going to be doing here.

The Headless Horseman, the most iconic thing to come out of the Sleepy Hollow story in all its numerous iterations, has been converted into tabletop gaming appearances on many occasions and in more forms than there have been iterations of gaming systems. Pathfinder originally took their hand at it in the Pathfinder Adventure Path #43, The Haunting of Harrowstone. Here, the Horseman is presented as a haunt that emulates the feeling of the classic Sleepy Hollow story most of us have heard. Rite Publishing also did their take on it recently, which I haven't yet seen the mechanics of. But all of these are more based on the classic literary Sleepy Hollow than the current television show.

What is presented below is an adaptation of the Sleepy Hollow TV show's interpretation of the Horseman as an avatar of the Horseman of Death of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Converting this concept to Pathfinder felt natural, as the Four Horsemen have their own presence as deific figures. While this Pathfinderized version of the Headless Horseman isn't the Horseman of Death himself, he is a soldier in his army and a servant of Charon's most powerful minions. I tried to do justice to the Horseman's implacable nature, weaknesses as presented on the show so far, while blending those elements into the Golarion setting.

Below, you'll find a sample headless horseman based off of the statistics for a Hellknight NPC as detailed in the Inner Sea NPC Codex, rules for creating your own headless horseman NPCs with a new template, the statistics for a headless horseman's severed head, and a ritual used to raise unwilling victims from the dead as headless horsemen of Charon.

I hope you enjoy!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Wonderful Journey

When I was ten years old, I was living in St. Augustine, Florida. Surrounded by beautiful scenery, white sand beaches, ancient Spanish forts, and smothered by sweltering heat that a New England-born out-of-towner might never acclimate to was an interesting environment to grow up in. It was at this period of my life when I was first exposed to what would become a life-long hobby: tabletop RPGs.

The first friend I made living in St. Augustine was Taylor. He was a year older than me, into video games, computers, comic books; all the things I had enjoyed having in my life. Late into our friendship, Taylor would introduce me to his tattered old copy of Dungeons & Dragons in a battered old red box with dice that had crayon scribbled into the engraved numbers to make them more legible. I was too young to really appreciate what I was being introduced to, at the time, but Taylor's explanation of make-believe, fantasy, dragons and adventure was tantalizing. It was everything I liked about playing with action figures cranked up to eleven. It gave me something to draw in between the margins of my homework and daydream about in my spare time.

My introductory experience to D&D is a hazy memory of goblins, a dungeon, and my very first character named Karrn. I don't think Karrn had any personality to speak of, I don't think he was anything other than a pregenerated stack of numbers stuffed into plate armor that I got to choose the name of. But for about two months Karrn was my personal avatar into a world of fantastical worlds. Unfortunately, it was not to last.

Just a couple months after learning about Dungeons & Dragons, my parents split up and I moved back to New England with my mother. I eventually forgot about Taylor, forgot about D&D, but kept the fascination with making little maps and imagining stories of dragons, caves, and plunder. It was this initial exposure to D&D that got me into fantasy novels, and when my new school proved to have a treasure trove of classics from Lord of the Rings to Redwall I devoured them as fast as I could.  I craved the interesting world-building, yearned for the excitement of a good, fantastical story, and never really stopped between books to contemplate the source of this new hunger.

Two years would pass, and I would catch some school-mates playing D&D during recess—I recognized it right away from the crazy polyhedral dice—and watched over their shoulders for a few days before asking if I could join in. For a little while I was back in the frame of mind I had found in Florida, but I was older and getting more interested in developing a story rather than just gleefully hurling dice while imagining Karrn massacring his way through a horde of goblins. I started to come up with character stories, imagining where they had been before their adventures, where they were between them. Suddenly I wasn't just drawing pictures in the margins of my homework, I was writing whole stories in them.

As the years passed, friends grew apart and classes changed I lost touch with the first real gaming group I ever had. By the time I was a Freshman in High School, I'd turned my interest in storytelling into writing and illustrating my own comic books in my spare time. It was around then that a close friend of mine introduced me to a Senior he'd been hanging out with, and told me all about this fun, interesting game he'd been playing.

Dungeons & Dragons came back into my life.

But this was different, this wasn't just dog-eared copies of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books and a bunch of lined paper, I had been brought into something more involved. It was a box, not unlike the red box that the old 1st Edition D&D I'd played back in Florida came in. But this box had striking art of a desert wasteland on the cover, of humanoid insect men with bone weapons under a blazing red sun. This is how I was introduced to my first Campaign Setting, how I was introduced to Dark Sun, one of the most creative settings published by TSR in their run with D&D.

This was where it all really began, because after a year our Senior friend graduated and bequeathed his Dark Sun boxed to my group as a gift, and we were adventuring across the wastelands of Athas with reckless abandon. It was also here that I became my group's de-facto DM, and it became my responsibility to craft stories, manage the back-end of the game, and keep my players invested and interested. It was a thrilling experience, and when I began DMing Dark Sun in 1994 (just a hair's breadth away from a whopping 20 years ago, as of the time of this writing) I began my long-time obsession with a hobby I will never put down again.

From 1994 onward I developed my interest in tabletop gaming. I created long, sprawling stories that played out in basements and living rooms throughout High School. The game evolved as I grew older, my maps became more colorful and detailed, bringing with them my passion for illustration and cartography. I drew full portraits of important characters. I even started making mix-tapes (then later mix CDs) of video game and orchestral music to use as backdrops. Eventually, I started veering away from pre-published worlds and began crafting entire worlds of my own, building mythologies, histories and entire game systems in the hobby that had become my passion.

In my time I delved into other tabletop game systems, but always came back to D&D. I stuck with it through the dramatic revision to 3rd edition when TSR folded and Wizards of the Coast picked up the rights. I stuck with it through turbulent changes and eventually shifted to its spiritual successor—Pathfinder—when it became clear I didn't like the direction that Dungeons & Dragons was going as a game system in its later years. To their credit, my original gaming group from 1994 stuck with me until 2005, 11 years of continuous storytelling and world-building. A few people we picked up along the way towards the end of the 90s still game with me today, and I'm proud to still meet with them nearly every weekend.

Now, an adult in my 30s, I've taken another step forward. This year marked my initial foray into freelance writing for the hobby I've been passionate about for more than half of my life. Working for Paizo, the company that publishes Pathfinder, has been a dream come true and I've only just begun to really experience all there is out there and what the freelance writing lifestyle will be like. But I'm excited, I'm here, and I'm going to share my anecdotes, inspirations, and creations through this blog to anyone who'll enjoy listening.

It's been an wonderful journey so far, it only makes sense to share it.