Session Zero: The boring bits

Session zeros are awesome. Being an old, I remember a time when they weren’t a thing, and boy, we had so many mis-steps. Beyond lines being crossed, there were very basic things that we missed, like “how long should this campaign be” and “what’s the premise”? Yes, there was a time when you just showed up with a sheet and hoped it would all turn out for the best, and that the GM wouldn’t hit you with “Oh, I decided this would be a low magic campaign and also everyone hates elves” as you sit down with your Elven Wizard. I love a solid Session Zero, and I fully believe they lead to longer, more fulfilling campaigns.

There are great guides out there as to what your session zero should cover, from the game stuff to the safety stuff. There are some things, though, that get left out because they’re boring. People want to talk about the fun stuff, like if characters know each other or if the GM is going to allow third party content. No one wants to talk about spreadsheets.

You need to talk about spreadsheets.

Taking notes

Notes are one of those things that happen accidentally at a table. They honestly shouldn’t be. Notes can be a huge boon to both the players and the GM, since memories get foggy and gaps in play happen.

After you get all the fun and important stuff settled, talk about who’s going to be taking notes. If no one steps up, then talk about that. I’m an avid note-taker, but I know that this isn’t for everyone. This might change how the GM chooses to run the game (fewer subplots, reminding players of critical details) or it might encourage them to record what happened another way (like an actual recording). In a few of the games I GM, no one takes notes, so I use OBS to record the screen and then upload it for everyone later.

Oh, and also important? Where are you keeping the notes?! Decide this, record it somewhere, and keep it pinned. People will keep asking if you don’t.

Loot tracking

If there’s any place that a campaign can go haywire, it’s over loot. I’ve lost entire sessions to someone insisting that at some point, we got a certain wand, and yet no one can find it on their sheet, or discovering that more than one person wrote down a critical item as belonging to them.

Even if no one wants to take notes, I’ll often insist that someone keep track of the loot. In my games, we do this via spreadsheet. It’s taken years, but we finally figured out the minimum number of things you want to track per item:

  • What was it?
  • How much is it worth?
  • How many did you get?
  • Are we selling it or giving it to someone? Who got it?
  • How much gold is everyone getting once we hit the pawn shop?
A spreadsheet showing the following columns:
Item, Worth, Number, Sell?, Given to..., Total, Total gold, Per player
Screenshot of my group’s loot sheet for our Curse of the Crimson Throne game. Each tab covers what we got between our chances to sell stuff. We’re currently in book 5, so we have a LOT of tabs.

Can it seem like a lot to keep track of? Sure. But it’s also stopped several arguments about who got what, or the GM insisting we got X when it was accidentally skipped.

Streaming / Recording

This seems like an odd one to bring up, since wouldn’t you discuss this well before session zero? I’ve seen it happen a few times, though: Mid-game, someone says, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could put this on Twitch… Or, hey, we already have these recordings. Why not put them on YouTube?

This is a good time to get everyone’s feeling on this ever happening. Some people work in jobs where they don’t want their face out there. Some are in precarious personal situations. Some just hate how they sound or look in video.

So get everyone’s feeling on this before anyone starts dreaming, because this is an all-yes/one-no situation.

Audio / Video

And while you’re at it, check everyone’s audio and video. Even if you’re all in-person, things happen [waves frantically at the world circa 2020].

Quorum?

The hardest part of playing TTRPGs isn’t punching above your weight class: it’s scheduling. Life is busy. People work late, get sick, have other obligations. What’s your minimum group size?

Your first instinct might be to say “everyone is here or no one plays,” but that’s the fastest way to a dead game. A more nuanced approach is deciding what the minimum number is, and how you’ll deal with balancing for it. For my games, my minimum tends to be three players, and we balance by tossing in an NPC or two during fights so that I don’t have to redo all of my encounters.

You also need to decide what the missing player was doing. I strongly advise against anything that gives anyone IC reasons to snipe at the missing PC. It already sucks that they didn’t get to play with everyone. There’s no need to rub salt in the wound.

Food

Okay, this one feels dumb and obvious, but if you’re eating together, this one thing can make gathering super complicated. I’ve lost so much time during sessions because someone said “hey, is anyone else hungry…?”

So, during session zero, hash out food.

  • Does anyone have any allergies? Food restrictions?
  • How about other medical conditions? (Waves in hypoglycemia)
  • Are we eating during the game? Or should everyone grab their food beforehand?
  • WHERE are we eating (nothing like being told you can’t eat at the game table, only to find out there’s literally nowhere else with a flat, clear surface)

And the dumbest boring thing…

Dice.

Because people will die on the hill of using physical dice over the VTT roller. Best to know from the beginning, so you can tell them they completely misunderstood what ‘pseudorandom’ means.

Why the boring stuff matters

It can feel like so much of this is silly and pointless, and that it’ll work itself out over time. However, this is the kind of stuff that can derail a session, and I’ve seen some of these things end a really cool campaign well before its time.

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Quest for the Frozen Flame: Book 1

When Paizo announced that they were releasing an Adventure Path set in the Crown of the World, my first reaction was to squeal MIMMIFS and immediately recruit a group. Let’s just say I’m super into a campaign where mammoth races could potentially be a thing.

The group

Because people will ask, the group make-up was:

  • Human Gunslinger
  • Orc Monk
  • Human Alchemist
  • Orc Battle Oracle
  • Elf Fighter

We opted for monthly play because everyone involved tends to be busy, and bi-weekly slots are precious. Only one person was new to PF2, and everyone had significant experience with TTRPGs. Hell, a few of them had even played in a wilderness campaign before.

The set-up

I decided to run this game with Automatic Bonus Progression, because it takes the pressure off of me as a GM. It means I don’t have to worry about players getting runes at the right time in order to keep balance, and they can save their cash for more interesting options. 

I didn’t use Free Archetype because the AP didn’t explicitly recommend it, and none of the players were clamoring for it. 

Otherwise, I had no limits, outside of anything tagged Unique. If it’s printed by Paizo, it’s up for grabs. 

And… I decided to try something new.

Speed run!

I love the idea of running APs in non-traditional ways. While I still enjoy (and default to) running them as written, I’m drawn to the idea of mucking around with them. For this game, I pitched an idea to the players: SPEED RUN.

Rather than start at level one, players would start at the max level for that book. So, they start the game at level 3, at the start of book 2, they’ll be level 7, and at the start of the last book, they’ll be level 10. My hypothesis was that the players would blast through the first half of the book, but by the end, will be appropriately challenged. 

I wasn’t doing this just because I could. My biggest concern with the game was that we could only play once a month, and one player was in a drastically different time zone, so would be staying up until WTF o’clock to play with us. I wanted to keep things moving at a decent clip without taking two years to finish one book. I considered streamlining the AP, but this can be tricky: Sometimes, that innocuous encounter comes up again later, so if you skip it, you could end up having to frantically backfill content. 

I already spend enough time prepping. I don’t want to spend even more time re-writing. 

In the end, it played out just how I thought: Players raced through the first two chapters, but by the last chapter, were appropriately challenged. This does mean players don’t get a chance to get used to their classes over time, though, so I’d only recommend it for a group with some experience. 

So, how’d it go?

Warning: After this point, I will be spoiling with unfettered glee. Abandon all hope of a blind run, and that includes my players.

The book

In this AP, you play as members of the Broken Tusk tribe. The players are at the cusp of being accepted as official scouts, whether they’ve been with the tribe their entire life, or only the past few months. The main conflict is facing off with a rival tribe that they were once a part of, who have, quite frankly, lost their god-damn minds. 

When Paizo said that this was a wilderness campaign, they were not joking. There are no towns, encampments, other tribes, magic shops, ANYTHING you can trade with during book one. You do find treasure, but if your group is loot hungry, it won’t be enough to satisfy them. Yes, crafting is a thing, but you spend much of the AP literally on the run. There’s no downtime to speak of, unless you want to risk coming face to face with your rivals.

While there were lots of fights, there were also lots of opportunities to solve conflicts peacefully. Nearly every encounter included a chance to recruit members to your following (something that becomes important later), or to walk away without a fight. If you have players who are always looking to avoid coming to blows, they’ll have lots of chances to stretch their social skills. 

What’d the players think?

The players seemed super engaged with the plot, and quickly caught on that they were going to have to take the wilderness part of the story seriously. They also all agreed that without ABP, they would have been struggling.

Also, they hated, and I mean HATED, the personal antagonist. While the Burning Mammoths are the real danger, the face of them throughout the book is Pakano, a jerk from your tribe who defects to the enemy. Something about this NPC rubbed them the wrong way, and the normally peaceful PCs were thirsting for his blood. In fact, one told me that his eventual death didn’t feel bad enough

My thoughts

Personally, I think this is an awesome AP for anyone who’s up for the challenge of surviving in the wild and living communally. The only issue I had was that there was no motivation to explore, since you were being chased. Okay, the Burning Mammoths are way behind you and quite a bit slower, but the pressure is still on. One encounter was so far out of the way that I couldn’t imagine a group ever going that way, unless they were extremely cocky or obsessive completionists.

Even with ABP, loot is still very low, so if you have a hungry group, I’d recommend planting a traveling merchant somewhere, or establishing a crafter in the following who can provide certain items. You may even want to tweak the rules to make crafting on the run easier to do.

I didn’t push hard to get players to grow the tribe, since in this book, it’s not super important. They passed over a few encounters where they could have recruited someone, but this was mostly because they were focused on the task at hand. Having prepped book 2, though, I know I’m going to have to push them to get more people to join up. In fact, I’m going to put a rough counter on the start page so we can all keep track. 

My recommendations

  • Automatic Bonus Progression, in case you missed that
  • Figure out crafting and/or shopping 
  • Make sure players have their skills covered. There are lots of skill checks in this AP.
  • If no one is playing a healer, plan for that (or let the bodies hit the floor). Maybe a healer in the tribe, or a steady supply of discount healing potions?

Next book!

I just finished prepping Book 2, and I’m stoked. It has a small dungeon crawl (it’s Paizo, there always has to be at least one), and so many more opportunities for exploration and roleplay. If your players were annoyed by being chased, rest easy, because the Burning Mammoths are basically stuck behind an ice wall, giving players a chance to explore at their leisure.

(Image credit: Paizo, from the Player’s Guide)

Dhampir$: Lenore’s Shopping Spree (session five)

Author’s note: I’ve recently started a PF2 stream with a few friends on the Twitch channel Roll the Role. The premise: A crew of dhampirs with the same ‘sire’ have banded together to make coin, a name for themselves, and sort out their complicated past and future. This flashback takes place after session session 5.

[ < The Datoning ] [ Next > ]

Years before…

Absolom seemed to be the place to start. Where else to plan but in the city at the center of the world?

Anna dismissed her driver, sending her off with some coin and a glowing reference. The Kellid woman seemed relieved to go. Ever since taking the position, she’d had nightmares and had been growing ever weaker. Her once ruddy complexion had become sallow and pale. Obviously, traveling in this soft, hot land was taking its toll on her. 

Obviously.

Anna set up in a small apartment her father had set up for ‘business.’ As the business was less than gentlemanly, it wasn’t a part of his holdings that the rest of the family knew about. She could remain there unperturbed… mostly. 

Lucia kept to herself, mostly hovering in corners, watching Anna sort through papers. She sometimes offered a morose comment, but she was hardly one for conversation. Left to her own devices, Anna noticed that the spirit tended towards household tasks. She even took to braiding Anna’s hair, which was just as well: It wasn’t as if Anna could hire a proper staff. 

Still, it was curious, and a clue. Had the spirit been a lady’s maid? 

Whatever she had been, a conversationalist she was not. Anna was never overly social, but her time at The Acadamae had given her a taste for company. She found she regretted not doing more to bring back poor Everett, and missed the uneasy banter between herself and Maizon. She wondered if he had made his way to the Magaambya. Perhaps she could visit… but no, that would be too much of a distraction. Besides that, she had read up on the arcane college’s moral bent. She doubted her research would be welcome there. 

She sighed. It was a pointless train of thought, at any rate. While she hadn’t been explicit, Maizon was no fool. He realized what she was, and had left as soon as humanly possible. Anyone who realized would quit her company out of ignorant fear and, she had to admit, valid concerns. 

She ran her tongue over her sharp cuspid, and an idea came to her. Mortals would flee, but if they were like her

Her father said little about her condition, save that it was an unfortunate side-effect of his attempt to break the family’s curse. He would obliquely mention a visitor, some sort of expert, in unguarded moments, but if she pressed, he would change the subject. She moved to a trunk that she had yet to unpack and opened it. She hadn’t packed much when she left, but she did take what couldn’t be replaced: The LeClerche registry and journals. 

It was the custom amongst the noble class to keep track of who visited the estate, when, and for how long. After all, one never knew when a biographer might see fit to immortalize you, and you would want to prove that you had hosted illustrious individuals. More practically, it allowed the house staff to prepare for a returning guest. 

Anna flipped through the leather bound journal, scanning until she got to her birth. No, she knew all these names… family, clergy, healers. Back further, then. Few visitors during her mother’s confinement. A dinner party with cousins. A visit from some of father’s business associates. And then…

She found it. Her blood turned to ice. 

Julian. A viscount, with a family name she can barely make out. He stayed for a month, so obviously a traveler from far. That month? Nine months before her birth. 

She did some quick mental math. A human pregnancy is 40 weeks, but two of those weeks don’t count. Her mother may have already been with child when he arrived… or Anna may have arrived early. 

She stared at the name. She had her father’s journals, but she’d never seen mention of a Viscount, nor a Julian. She’d read over the events of her birth more times than she could count on the way to Absolom, and outside of family and healers, there were no visitors. Her father had always been a voracious journaler, never leaving out a detail of leading his household. Would he have been able to resist recording such an auspicious visit?

Of course not. Not unless he wanted to hide something…

She found herself looking around the sitting room. The accommodations were lush in a way her home never was: Deep, soft fabrics, overstuffed divans, candleholders placed just so in order to give guests a lovely glow to their skin, suggestive paintings of fruit and scantily clad nymphs. A love nest for a man who, at home, was formal to a fault and never drank more than one glass of wine in an evening. 

If he had kept a secret apartment, then why not a secret journal…?

She was on her feet in a second, tearing apart the desk. Lucia rose from her morose reverie. [Mistress? What do you seek?]

“A journal. One my father kept.” The spirit looked at the trunk Anna had brought with her.  “No, not any of those. One that’s here. It might be hidden, or it might be out…” 

It took an hour. The bookshelves were emptied, the desks and curios gutted, the walls tapped upon. Anna finally found it: A slim green volume, just like the others, with only one difference: The pages were gilded silver rather than gold. A subtle difference, but one that would stand out to one in the know. She opened it, and her father’s words stared back at her.

Met with the most unusual gentleman at Mistress Honeysuckle’s salon. A Viscount… My favorite practitioner had taken ill, so I spent the evening talking with him instead. I find myself envious of how well-traveled he is. I can barely extract myself from my responsibilities long enough to look after our interests here once a month. 

She looked at the date. A year before her mother would have fallen pregnant with her. She scanned forward. It seemed that every time her father made his way to Absolom, he made certain to find time to spend with the mysterious Viscount. ‘Smitten’ was the only word she could use to describe his entries. 

Nine months after their first meeting: He asked if the rumors of the LeClerche curse were true, and I confess, I was too drunk to be a convincing liar. A fortunate folly, though, for it seems he has some ideas on how to break it… He spoke of previous ‘experiments’, but I was too much in my spirits to retain details. Not that it matters. Vincent is terribly clever, and I confess, my training was scant at best. 

She stared at the words for a long time. Experiment.

And she wasn’t the only one.

And her father… not a bad man. Never a bad man. But obviously pulled too easily into someone’s confidence. She suspected his favorite ‘practitioner’ falling ill was no accident. Anna never knew her mother, but by all accounts, she was a lovely and mild woman… And even if she were a shrew, she was Anna’s shrew. 

Carefully, she paged back to their first meeting and started making notes. Where had the Viscount been. How long had he stayed. What names he dropped. It wasn’t much information, but it was enough, for she knew two things: She wasn’t alone, and this man had likely killed her mother and preyed upon her father’s hope. He promised a cure and left behind a monster. Well, so be it. A plan was forming her head:

She was going to find the others. 

They were going to find the Viscount.

And then, they would get their revenge. 

Together.

Tarot and planning your next session

I want to start off things on the right foot: When it comes to tarot, I am at best a dilletante. I got into it back when I was in high school in the mid- to late-nineties, when there was a resurgence in interest in anything “New Age.” I had runestones, crystals, decks of all kinds, books on numerology, reading palms and tea leaves. I had pretty much everything but astrology.

Ya girl was woo as hell.

These days, I view most of those things as interesting, but tend to use them as tools in creative pursuits or self-reflection. If you’re a believer, trust me, I don’t mean any of what follows as any sort of insult, but you may want to skip the rest of this post.

For those of you who are still here, let’s talk about tarot and RPGs!

Tarot and planning

While most of the games I run are pre-written, I also run games that are completely homebrew plots. For these, I’ve found that using tarot as a kind of prompt has helped me come up with scenarios that I may not have reached for before because I’m a bit of a softie. Tarot cards are not soft.

The idea behind a tarot spread is that you lay out cards in a pre-determined pattern, with each position having a different question, and each card having a different meaning. If a card is reversed (upside down) the meaning is going to altered (usually worse, but not always). There’s a lot more that can go into it, but for our purposes, this is enough to work off of.

My favorite spread for this sort of planning is the Celtic Cross. I don’t use it quite like you might find in any guide, since we’re not looking to tell a fortune. We’re looking for inspiration. I don’t even try to use all of the cards. I use the ones that stick out to me as being potentially interesting for the game to pivot around.

Resources

You’ll need a few things to get started. Thankfully, they can all be found for free or cheap!

Cards: I love using physical cards (they’re just so pretty!), but you can find all sorts of apps and websites that will let you draw a random card. Just make sure, if you choose an app or a site, that the drawn cards are sometimes reversed.

A guide: There’s so many books, sites, and apps out there to tell you what all the cards mean. Hell, if you bought a deck, it’ll come with a little guide. The trick is finding a good one that hasn’t gone soft. Some modern guides try to put a positive spin on every card, and some even leave out the reverse meanings. We are not here to give your players a good time. We’re here for mayhem.

A quick way to see if a guide is soft? Look for their interpretation of The Tower. If you think “Hey, that doesn’t sound too bad,” put it back and keep looking. The Tower is pretty much always bad. I’ve linked some of my favorite resources at the end of this post.

The layout: The Celtic Cross

The Celtic cross layout. Ten cards, with some in a cross pattern, and the other in a line. The layout matters less than the numbers, which follows.
The Celtic Cross layout! Terrible graphic by me.

As I said before, I like using the Celtic Cross because it covers a lot of ground. You may get inspiration from an event you can introduce during the game, or it may remind you of an event in the past that you should drag up.

It’s a rather old layout (it’s first referenced around 1910, but it could be older? Or it could have been made up by the author. Tarot history can get wobbly), so you’ll find a ton of variations out there. This is what I came up with specifically for planning a game.

1: The current situation

This card is all about the status quo, or rather, a part of it. Is this aspect of ‘now’ something you can focus on? Maybe give players a moment to chill out in the present? Consider this card with the next card, which is…

2: An obstacle or challenge

This card covers the first card because it’s what is going to shake up the status quo. If the first card was a peaceful one, this could be what disrupts the calm. If the first card is gloomy and chaotic, this might be what makes it worse. In short, this card kicks the players in the pants.

3: The past

What happened in previous games, or before the game even started? Even if it’s the first session, a game has a past. The world existed before the PCs showed up (unless you’re playing a really out there system). This card might inspire you to bring this bit of history back for the players to deal with.

4: The future

What could be happening in the near future that you could drop hints about? This card deals with the immediate future. We’re talking weeks, not years. Unlike the second card, this is less a kick in the pants, and more a note that the players are scheduled to be kicked in the pants next month.

5: Current concerns

What are the players openly concerned about? A table of observant players are always worried about something. Someone finding that body. Losing position. That dragon finally showing up. This card might inspire you to press on something the PCs have openly worried about.

6: Secrets

Players also have things they tend to hide: A secret tryst, a worrisome bit of their backstory, a stolen trinket, a promise made behind closed doors, hidden feelings… What’s going on beneath the surface? This card might inspire you to drag that morsel into the light.

7: Advice

This one is pretty straightforward: What’s a piece of advice or a request that could be made of the PCs? I like working with this one because it can get the PCs moving in a completely different direction than they’re used to.

8: NPCs

Most games have a number of NPCs knocking around, doing their own thing. If this card reminds you of one of them (or a group!) maybe it’s time for them to come back and poke the PCs some.

9: Hopes / Fears

What are the players striving for, and what are they running from? If this card plays into your player’s deepest fears or furthest hope, now might be the time to play on those. After all, a fear isn’t worth anything if it never happens, and hope is for naught if it’s always just out of reach.

10: Outcome

Is this something you could hint at happening (especially in conjunction with one of the other cards)? If it’s good, you can use it as a carrot. If it’s bad, it’s what should be avoided. This card should not be taken as a given, since it’s only one of many possible outcomes. Players still need to work towards this if it’s positive, or against it if it’s a negative outcome.

Reading time!

Once you have your cards laid out, write down all of the positions and meanings, then start looking for things to jump out at you. I never use the whole reading, but rather pick a few cards that give me an interesting direction to move in. Maybe they’re evocative… but maybe they just remind me of something I’d been meaning to return to from a previous game.

I do recommend resisting the urge to do another layout if the current one doesn’t appeal to you. When you do that, it’s often because you’re looking for something safe, and that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to shake things up. So spend some time pairing up different cards/interpretations to see what might take your story forward in the most interesting way.

A sample layout

I tend to use this layout the most with my VTM games, since those tend to be less tightly plotted. Vampires have a tendency to make their own problems, so it’s often wiser to just set up a situation and see how kind the dice are to them that evening. This is the layout I drew for them:

The celtic cross layout I made. The cards follow in a table.
The deck, if you’re curious, is The Shadowland Tarot by Monica Bodirsky. Also, my 14yo upon seeing the spread: “Sucks to be them…”

First, I did a quick and dirty reading, which was just me writing down the cards, positions, and some of the meanings that stood out to me.

PositionCardMeaningInterpretation
SituationDeathEndings, change, transitionsI tend to run games in arcs. Could the game be ready for the next arc?
Obstacle7 of Wands, ReversedExhaustion, giving up, overwhelmedHas someone been pushed to the brink recently? Could we get them there?
Past6 of Cups, ReversedLiving in the past…Maybe an older vampire… One who’s been mentioned before?
Future5 of Cups, ReversedPersonal setbacks, moving onOnce again, maybe the players are meant to be moving on to a new arc…
Current concernsThe World, ReversedSeeking personal closureAre there any personal plots that the players want to see wrapped up?
SecretsThe DevilAddiction, restriction, sexualityMaybe poke the players’ baser natures, which they spend a lot of time repressing
AdvicePage of SwordsNew ideas….Someone could prod them to go in a new direction?
NPCs5 of SwordsConflict, winning at all costsCould that old vampire be looking to win at any cost?
Hopes / FearsThe Empress, ReversedDependence on othersAbsolutely something the group fears. Play on that.
Outcome8 of SwordsImprisonment, negative thoughtsSo the stick rather than the carrot: Something to work against, since the group tends towards being hopeful

After writing down all the meanings, I realized that I probably should kick off the next arc, which I’d been putting off. So many of the cards pointed towards change, decisions, and showdowns. In the end, it worked out perfectly: A (very, very) old Kindred showing up in town came looking for a place to settle (conquer), which kicked the crew into high gear. They were forced to band together and make some big decisions. Not only did they have to decide what to do with the old guy, but they had to decide what they, as a group, stood for.

Sure, I could have read the cards differently, but this methodology is all about inspiration and letting a mix of chance and context take you to new, interesting places.

Favorite Resources

One would think I’d have a ton of books about tarot cards, but when it comes to interpretation, I tend to prefer apps and websites.

Biddy Tarot: I use this site for card meanings, but also potential layouts. For quick readings, I love their list of three card layouts. They also have a great run-down of the Celtic Cross spread.

If I’m on the go, I use the app from Labyrinthos. It has a good database, and you can do a layout on your phone (and yes, it has reversed cards!).

The book that inspired me to use tarot for game planning was Corrine Kenner’s Tarot for Writers. A great book with some alternative layouts that are geared towards plot rather than traditional readings.

If I’m at my desk, I use this absolutely baller Google sheet (via Reddit) by u/adlist for looking up meanings, grabbed from various sources.

Physical cards: 100% optional, but if you decide to get a deck, make sure you get one with the traditional cards. That means 78 cards, major and minor arcana. There’s some decks out there that have their own system, which is fine, but I find that traditional cards Rider Waite set to be the most varied. Llewellyn Publications makes some super nice sets, and tend to be my go-to.

An alter cloth: Even if you’re not into new age, there’s a very good reason to get a piece of cloth to read on: It protects your cards. You don’t need anything fancy! I’ve used t-shirts and dishtowels when I’m not sure if my my table is perfectly oil-free.

How to have a GMPC without making everyone hate you

Oh, man. The hated GMPC. IF you’ve been playing TTRPGs for more than a few years, you’ve probably run into one. They’re overpowered, they grab up too much of the plot, they take away the agency of the players. r/rpghorrorstorries probably features at least one a week. And yet…

They’re kind of a useful tool? As long as they’re not run by a complete tool, that is.

Personally, I like having a GMPC on the board, but you have treat them with a super light hand. Done right, they can enhance your game, lead to happier players, and give the GM something to do when the PCs are just hanging out.

What’s a GMPC, and do you need one?

TTRPG games assume you have a ton of NPCs rattling around, but a GMPC is slightly elevated. They’re an NPC who sticks with the party, and (ideally) statted and geared at the same level as the PCs. They’re basically a party member that the GM controls.

While I do like using them, not every game needs one! Times when I decided to add one:

  • The party is small, and we’re running an Adventure Path. APs are built for a balanced party of four, and I don’t want to spend a ton of time adjusting it.
  • The players know what they want to play, and there’s an obvious gap. As a GM, I tend to run long campaigns, so I’d much rather a player play off a sheet they’re happy with, rather than one they wrote up because “someone had to play the X.”
  • You have a player or two who sometimes can’t show up, because being an adult is complicated and hard. It can be useful to have a GMPC hanging out in the background who can step in. Sure, you could just run that player’s character, but then you get into the weird gray are of the PC knowing stuff the player doesn’t.

Times I wouldn’t add one…

  • You want to play, too! I mean, this isn’t the WORST reason to bring a GMPC, but it’s a dangerous road to go down. You know too much about the plot, and players might feel pressured to defer to you.
  • You want to use them to move the plot along! I mean, it’s a nice idea, but in practice, it can lead to players feeling like accessories to the plot. Leave the plot hooks at the bar, nursing an ale.
  • You have this awesome idea for a character concept and you’re the forever GM so just this once… Honey. No. Like, this might be fun for a one-off NPC, but a better long-term solution is to start working on getting one of your players to GM.
  • Your players don’t want you to add one. Even if their party make-up is whack, even if you know Tom is going to flake, even if it’s just three people… don’t add one.

GMPC Best Practices

So, your game could benefit from a GM and the players are on-board. How do you make sure this doesn’t get weird?

Don’t make them the center of the plot

The figures at the center of the plot should always be the PCs. Even pre-written adventures (and I run a ton of them) tend to put the PCs at the center of the action and hope that they’ll grab the hooks they should in order to stay there.

Yes, it’s tempting to make them the keeper of all the hooks, but that starts to take agency away from the players as they feel like they have no option but to say ‘yes’ to everything this one dude asks of them.

That said, you don’t have to have them be a cardboard cutout that sometimes swings a sword. You should absolutely…

Give them motivation

Sure, the players can just offer them a cut of the gold and leave it at that. Some may even prefer that. Personally, I like to give the GMPC a solid reason to stick around. Some options:

They believe in the cause. This is a good option if the PCs are doing something where money isn’t the best motivator (think overthrowing a corrupt regime). The trick is that they should view the PCs as the decision makers, deferring to them unless they’re needed as a tie-breaker.

They have their own thing going on. You can have a lot of fun with this one. They’re writing a cookbook and are on the hunt for novel ingredients. They were working on their autobiography and realized it was dull, so they want to spice it up with some adventure. Whatever deity they have encourages them to give in to wanderlust / go into hidden places / etc., which happens to mesh with what the PCs are doing.

They’re a professional adventurer. Many systems have some sort of ‘adventurer guild’, so why not let that work for you? They’re out there to get clout and experience, and hey, your group seems no worse than the other chaos monkeys back at the tavern, so why not buddy up?

Don’t go against the grain

Is the group a bunch of Paladins set out to Do Good? Don’t give them a CE troublemaker. Are they, in fact, the trouble in the world? Don’t give them a paladin. The GMPC is there as grease for the machine, not a monkey wrench.

Make them optional

When I have a GMPC, I make it very clear to the players that they are ALWAYS optional. The character won’t even be mad if they’re asked to stay behind! They’ll go do paperwork / some writing / shopping / whatever feeds into their motivation. If the players decide to permanently part ways with them, it’s with no hard feelings.

They’re also optional for me. Now, I’ve never had players do this, but I know there are players out there who would look at an ‘extra’ character and see them as expendable. If the GMPC dies, there’s no free rez, and the party can’t just run back to town and get a new one. I won’t block the party forever, but it may take several sessions for them to gain a new murder buddy.

Don’t go overboard on the build

How do you build a GMPC? If I’m the one maintaining the sheet, I tend to load up RPGBot and go with the most basic build for that class. That way, the character will be effective without outshining the players, who have spent WAY more time thinking about their sheets.

Another option is to give the sheet to the players and have them build it. Will it be more powerful? Sure. But in this case, this is what they wanted.

Another option, if you’re playing Pathfinder: Iconics! Another upside to this as that they come with backstories and personalities, which can save you time if you’re working on a tight schedule. Also, you can download the pre-built sheets from Paizo, which is great if you’re adding a GMPC at the last possible moment.

Final thoughts

At the end of the day, I want to emphasize this once again: A GMPC is a tool, and like any tool, it has its uses and misuses. It should be used to enhance a campaign, and removed as soon as it starts to hurt it.

Note: Hilariously awkward portraits rendered by Deep Dream Generator‘s Text 2 Dream service. Prompts provided by me.

Dhampir$: The Datoning

Author’s note: I’ve recently started a PF2 stream with a few friends on the Twitch channel Roll the Role. The premise: A crew of dhampirs with the same ‘sire’ have banded together to make coin, a name for themselves, and sort out their complicated past and future. This takes place after session session 4.

[ < Study Hall ] [ Lenore’s Shopping Spree > ]

After wishing her siblings good night, Anna returned to her room with no intention of sleeping. Instead, she opened her notebook and started to write. A journey to another world, filled with dangers but few explanations. Perhaps it was the fey? But it seemed almost too orderly for the wild folk. And the gifts they had found were of the Material world. A magical tattoo. A feast for the undead. Instructions on creating a revenant. Deadly weapons…

Almost as if someone wants them tested and armed. 

She found herself flipping through journals, looking for signs of a benefactor. Enemies they had, but friends…

She stops on a page towards the front of one book. It contains one thing: A list, carefully copied from a previous journal, which itself had been copied from an even older journal. It contained only four items. She’d long ago lost track of how often she’d rewritten it, but even so, not a single item had been ticked off…

✱✱✱

She didn’t go home.

She did send word back, once she found an inn, that they were to close up the wings and admit no guests. She gave leave to the family’s butler to pull from a special fund of reserves to keep the estate standing, but otherwise, the manor would be kept silent and still, like a tomb. 

She also sent the driver back, hiring a new one. After all, the man had family he wouldn’t want to leave for weeks on end. Also, he was older. She wanted someone hale, who could endure longer roads and harder climes, and… well. Just in case. 

Food didn’t really satisfy Anna. Not completely.

So a Kellid, far from home, was hired. A woman, to keep tongues from wagging, but still able to move her luggage around with one arm and crack the skull of anyone who might give them trouble. She also didn’t ask questions, as long as the coin kept coming. In fact, she didn’t seem perturbed that Anna’s only instruction had been to vaguely wave east when asked where they were to go. “Give a shout when you want to stop.”

Anna stared out at the road from within her carriage. She didn’t have a plan. A plan, though, was useless if you didn’t know your goal… or what threatened you. And it was clear that the vultures were coming. Her cousin had been warned off easily enough, but could she keep everyone at bay? Her particular line of the family was small (just her, in fact), but several generations back, it branched out and spread through Golarion. Word would spread about a part of the estate being up for grabs, and it wouldn’t take long for a cousin with more guile and desperation to come calling.

She took out a journal and began to make a list of things that could secure the LeClerche estate in her name without question:

  1. A marriage of good standing
  2. A writ from the Emperor of Taldor
  3. A legitimate birth

She stared at that last one, then scratched a deep line through it. That could take centuries. Betting on that sort of luck was for fools and halflings. 

The shadows stirred across from her, and her fingers tightened on her pen, leaving her white knuckled. She forced her face into  a placid mask and looked up. “Ah, good. I was hoping we might talk.”

She had been hoping for nothing of the sort. The spirit dredged up uncomfortable emotions in her. It had saved her, twice, possibly thrice. It had answered her call. 

It killed her father. 

The spirit’s form was of a woman, of an age that was neither young nor old. Her eyes were void-filled pits of shadow, and her skin so pale it was practically see through. Her clothes, dark, were tattered beyond recognition. Her hands were unnaturally bony and long, with ragged nails. The aura around the creature screamed malevolence, both pinning Anna to the spot and daring her to flee.

Anna, however, was a monster as well. She didn’t scare easily. 

“Thank you,” she said, “For playing along back at the house. Cousin Preston would have been an enormous headache.”

The void studied her. 

“And, of course, your help with the solicitor.” She’d already forgotten his name, again. It wasn’t important. He’d drawn a weapon on Anna, after all. He’d lost the right to a name. “And his body.”

The face floating across from her remained impassive. Time to press.

“Was that the first time you helped me?”

She braced herself, ready for her fears to be confirmed. The spirit spoke, its voice caught somewhere between a hiss and a gurgle. [Of course, mistress. We have helped before. The servant.]

Anna blinked. “Servant?”

[You were small. So small. Your mother, she had just passed. The woman, the servant, she was a lady-in-waiting, and followed the Lady of Graves. She said you were wrong. That you should be made right.]

Anna thought back. A story, told in whispers in the back hallways, caught only in bits and pieces, came to her. Yes, something had happened to her mother’s maid… “What did you do?”

[She went to fetch water. Deep wells hold many secrets.]

“Ah. Well. Thank you, for that. Good help and all that.” She barely noticed the words tumbling out of her. Her father had always called her a ‘creative’ child, when she talked about seeing things in the shadows. All this time, she had a guardian angel… 

The spirit had not stopped talking. [–wanted to take you, kidnap you, ransom you. A fire took him. The parson who carried Daemon’s Touch meant no harm, but could not be allowed upstairs. His heart gave out in the parlor. A grey hound who took offense to you–]

A rather enthusiastic guardian angel. Anna held up a finger, and the spirit stopped. She had to ask. 

“And my father?”

The spirit was silent for a heartbeat. [He did not mean you harm.]

“So, you didn’t kill him?”

Another silence that stretched. [Mistress, he was marked. I did not like it, but he bore the mark.]

The death was fresh in Anna’s heart. Her father was only a few weeks gone. With her research, she knew exactly what state his body would be in by this time. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out… Technically larvae, but that doesn’t scan as well. She blinked back tears that she could not let herself cry here. 

“What mark, praytell?”

[The one that draws me. The one they bear when the time has come.]

“And me. I suppose I’ll bear the mark?”

The spirit cocked its head to the side, dark caverns regarding her curiously. [Mistress, only the living can bear the mark.]

Interesting. “Did my mother bear it?”

[She might have, in time. But another took her away. Something rotten in her veins sapped her strength. I would have regretted that one, as well. Most, I have regretted.]

Something rotten in her veins. Anna ran a tongue over her cuspids, too sharp for comfort. They drove her, sometimes, to do things she didn’t wish to do. And a mark that appears… that sounded rather like something with some logic behind it, rather than mere bad luck. And this poor creature had been bound to it for who knew how long.

Rather than hate it, he felt a growing kinship with this wisp of a soul. 

“Do you have a name, spirit?” It shook its head no. “Well, that won’t do. You’ll need one for the task ahead.” She added an item to the list: Revenge.

“We shall call you Lucia. Our enemies will need something to use in their laments.”

Reusing APs: Agents of Edgewatch

I’m a huge fan of Paizo’s Adventure Paths. I’ve run them, I’ve played in them, and I have a list of APs I want to play in that’s inadvisably long. Many players, however, prefer to run homebrew stuff, so they tend to ignore them, thinking there’s nothing for them to use there. What they may not know is that APs are often made of scenarios that you can yank out, file the serial numbers off of, and jam into your campaign.

So, what can you rip out of Agents of Edgewatch?

Important note: If you had any hopes at all of playing in AoE without being spoiled, turn away now. I'll be sharing many of the extremely significant scenarios in the AP.

Book One

Because the first book has the fewest ties to overarching plots, this is the easiest book to grab from. While every book has something to steal, this one has so many great things to snag. In fact, if you had to pick just one book to buy and rip apart, this is the one to grab.

Knight’s Marvelous Menagerie

In this scenario, the players deal with a petting zoo that’s lost its damn mind. The kicker is that the animals are being poisoned, but you could swap this out for so many things: A disease spreading through the area, some druid who’s gone off the rails, ghosts… whatever suits your plot. The end goal is to subdue as many creatures as you can without killing them and find a cure, which can easily take up a 4 hour session.

And, best part? It’s no longer necessary to kill off two adorable NPCs who are murdered off-screen. Knight and his ladylove vet can become regulars if your players are into that sort of thing.

Dragonfly Pagoda

A breakdown in worker compensation leads to a bunch of kobold contractors taking over a spa. This is a super interesting scenario where there’s so many ways players can approach it. Do they sneak past a dozen traps and try to subdue the kobold’s quietly? Do they take the side of the workers and find something more fair for all parties? Do they go in with swords swinging and leave a trail of bodies behind them?

Also, at the end of all of this, the PCs have a nice bath house! Trust me, they’ll find ways to use it when they feel like relaxing, or kicking off a little romance subplot.

House of the Planes

This is less useful as a scenario, and more useful as a super cool bar. Each room is themed around a plane. The NPCs detailed here are a ton of fun, and it would be a great place to toss players for grabbing hooks, clues, or just seeing what interested them the most.

It also introduces the owner of a local rag, which could be an interesting addition to your campaign. The newspaper plays a minor role in reporting the actions of the PCs throughout AoE, and if you have the creative juice for it, could be a fun way to give your players an spin on how the world at large might see their actions.

The Murder Hotel

As a True Crime fan, this scenario had me cackling. It’s clever, it’s dangerous, it’s creepy, and it’s based off of a real-life murder hotel. Trust me, anyone in your group who follows True Crime will have a moment where they say WAIT, I KNOW THIS ONE.

Because your PCs are the ones to figure out what’s going on once you get in there, it can be something you drop into any campaign where the players are in a reasonably big city with a fair number of people moving through it.

Book 2

Every Paizo AP includes a book that might as well be called “the one with the dungeon.” For Agents of Edgewatch, that’s book two, and it’s a super good dungeon. Expansive, including several levels, a broad variety of creatures, and it’s not so bespoke that it can’t be pretty much anywhere.

This also would be a book where I’d grab the book for the maps and print them, or just skip straight to getting the module on whatever VTT platform you use. Setting up the lighting for this dungeon was no joke.

Book 3

If you have a group with a face or a sneak who is tired of everything being a fight, I highly recommend grabbing the casino encounter from the second chapter of book three. It’s a heist, where the players have to infiltrate an upscale casino in order to get information and find (or rather, not find) a MacGuffin. Need to get some info to your players and they keep refusing to talk to that one bartender who knows the deal? Pass it via one of the many guests there. Need the players to get their hands on something vital? Put it in the footlocker where they’re supposed to find AoE’s MacGuffin.

There’s a huge lead-up to to the heist involving planning, so you can easily get several sessions out of this chapter. Players can choose their approach, getting jobs as staff or entrance via the rumor mill or sucking up to local celebs. It’s absolutely something where you can give them their options and then go catch up on your reading while they debate amongst themselves.

Book 4

Chapter 3 has a creepy carnival. Why do you need a creepy carnival? A better question is why haven’t you included one in your game yet?

Running around the carnival, the players are trying to find a madman who’s leaving behind Harrow cards, which adds another layer of creepy. The only thing I’d change, honestly, is the ending, which is extremely AoE specific. It’s easy to update, however: Swap out a trap for a fight, and you’re golden.

Book 5

The second chapter of book five includes an awesome map that’s made of ships. Like, six of them, each with three levels. There’s places to cross, to jump, and hell, I’m sure someone could break out their Drive lore and make some chaos.

The creatures included aren’t too spicy, so really, could work with most adventures. All you have to do is give them a reason to go mess about on ships, and a way to get there. Just be familiar with how you might split players to different levels if needed (Personally, I’d put all of the maps on one page if you’re using a VTT, but that’s just me).

Book 6

The cover of book six features a gnome who I was very distressed to learn was a major enemy. He looks awesome! He absolutely looks like someone I’d recruit to be in my party! Is he evil? SURE. He’s an angry architect. Who hasn’t been mad while working a desk job? And he’s redeemable. If you rescue anything from this book, make it this guy, who I’m sure the party could have a ton of fun getting to know and turning to the grey side.

Part of the cover of book six. It features a gnome with short purple hair, BIG EYES, thick glasses, and so many scrolls.
LOOK AT HIM. LOOK AT THAT FACE. LOOK AT THOSE FEET. AND WE STAN AN ARGYLE KING.

To be honest, I would use Blume as a quest giver who has a ton of money and might be a tiny bit unhinged. Hell, maybe he lets the PCs set up shop in an unused wing that’s full of ‘creative’ architectural details. Think Winchester House if it were mildly sentient.

What did I miss?

I’m sure I skipped over an encounter that could be fun to run for players (I ran only about 70% of the AP in a West Marches setting), so comment if there’s one that should be included! Next, I’ll be pulling apart an older AP: Council of Thieves!

Dhampir$: Study Hall (session three)

Author’s note: I’ve recently started a PF2 stream with a few friends on the Twitch channel Roll the Role. The premise: A crew of dhampirs with the same ‘sire’ have banded together to make coin, a name for themselves, and sort out their complicated past and future. This takes place after session session 3.

[ < Save the Princess ] [ The Datoning > ]

Anna’s head swam as she looked over the collected notes from La Bibliotecha de los Meurtos. She’d long known the library existed, of course, but she’d never realized what a treasure had been at hand. She’d sent off her request to gain access on a whim, and had only been interested in a ritual she’d heard rumors of…

She settled into her desk, even though she should have been seeking her bed instead. “I wonder if I could petition for full access. They seem to like deals? Perhaps if I had an interesting enough project…”

ɖơɛʂ ɱıʂɬཞɛʂʂ ῳıʂɧ ɬơ ცɛ ą Ɩıცཞąཞıąŋ?

She could feel her spirit floating behind her, bringing a damp chill to the air. It bothered Anna, once, but now, she only reaches for a shawl and pulls it around her. 

“Mistress is much too busy to take up a profession. I’d prefer something looser, like a fellowship.” She frowns, flipping between a selection of papers: The journal written concerning Lenore’s mother and her journeys. Notes on dragons, especially white. The timeline of where her father had been over the years. Raveners. She tried to tease apart what was coincidence and what was connected. 

A fellowship of adventurers, one who would bear a dhampir some years later. Of them, one ended up as a lich, one was reincarnated to be an undead bookshelf, one showed a fascination with death.

A white dragon was hounding them, hoping to use them to bring forth a ravener. 

Their father spent much time in the north, in the cold, where two of their group hailed from, and where white dragons roam. 

Death and snow and second chances. A motif that played on her mind like a concerto that grew ever stronger.

Anna sits back and rubs her temples. Once she had been given a choice. She might have had a comfortable life amid learning and books and research. But she took another path, started by the breaking neck of her family’s solicitor. 

✱✱✱

Once the maid was calmed, the butler and the gardener were tasked with getting him down, then with fetching the dead man’s cohorts. It didn’t take them long to materialize on her doorstep, aided by a mage for hire. Anna put on a show that was made of grief and sympathy. How terrible this business was.

Of course, Anna agreed to cover up the unfortunate incident.

Of course, she would swear up and down it was an accident with a horse.

Of course, she wouldn’t dream of sharing that letter. 

Suicide, in a client’s house. How dreadful. Had they known, they never would have sent him to help her family in their time of mourning.

Anna waited for them to bring up the papers encouraging her to give up the title, but it never came, confirming a suspicion she’d had since leaving the solicitor strung up in his bedroom. He’d worded things very specifically, as his kind were wont to do. Her father would have wished the family name to continue. Her parents would have liked the estate in more fecund hands. She couldn’t speak for her mother, but she could never imagine that her father would ever have ousted her from her home and made her a commoner. 

The solicitor had been acting on his own. Well, not completely on his own, of course. He needed motivation. That motivation, she suspected, was from a certain distant cousin of hers who had more children than estates to hand out–

“What are your plans, now, milady?” The senior solicitor,  an older half-elf woman, looked at her with sympathy that was almost sincere.

Anna pulled herself out of her reverie. She managed a thin, sad smile. “I was thinking of visiting some family.” The other woman smiled, and patted Anna’s hand.

“That would be good for your spirit.”

The air around Anna grew cold, but she managed to keep the smile where it was, unshaking. “That was just what I was thinking.”

Several days later, she found herself at the Howes estate. Unannounced, of course, but that had been her intention. She wanted her cousin caught off-guard. Besides, they were family, were they not? Etiquette dictated that they were closely enough related so that surprise visits were still acceptable. 

He must have seen her approach, so by the time she was at the grand entrance, the whole clan had gathered to greet her. A host of what children he had left at home (five, by her count, including the youngest, who would have usurped her lands), his overly-fertile wife, and him… Preston Howe the Third. It was a temperate day, and yet the sweat clung to his brow. Anna alighted from her carriage and made a show of smoothing her mourning garbs. 

It was the wife who broke rank first. Her smile was more practiced, but she came from Galt, one of the few noble families to escape the bloody revolution. She was good at wearing a mask. “Anna!” She swept Anna into an embrace and kissed each cheek. “Oh my dear, you poor thing. We were going to come by, but Edouin wasn’t feeling well.”

Anna accepted the embrace stiffly before she was ushered inside. The children, ranging in age from marriageable to still having milk teeth, kept their distance. Preston echoed his wife’s sentiments, but he lacked the social graces to give them heart. He was anxious. Good.

Of course she understood why they didn’t come to pay their respects.

Of course she would stay for dinner. 

Of course she wouldn’t brave the road again tonight.

Of course, she would welcome a chance to visit. They were family.

Dinner was dimly lit, and Anna spent much of it trying to ignore the flicker of shadows in her peripheral vision. Even though the night was warm, the air grew cold, leading the children to finish their dinner quickly so they could retire to the sitting room, where a fire had been stoked. 

Preston, finally, said something that wasn’t an echo of his wife’s platitudes. He cleared his throat. “Did your father’s solicitor talk to you?”

Anna looked up from her final course, barely touched. Food never sat well with her. She cocked her head to the side. “Oh… you haven’t heard, have you? It’s so sad.” She took up her wine and took a sip. “You’re family, so I suppose you should know the truth. His people will say it was an accident, but the truth is, he hung himself.” Her tone was neutral. “In the guest bedroom. A broken heart, it would seem.”

Preston turned several interesting shades of gray. His wife covered her reaction with her napkin, but didn’t manage to hide sideways glances at her husband. 

“How dreadful,” Preston said, once he’d gathered his voice. “I never knew he was such a sensitive soul. Did he–” The man fiddled with his wine glass. “Were you able to talk business before he… passed?”

“He did mention something of import, but I’d only just gotten back. I suppose he put it off. Something about the title?” 

She was giving her cousin a chance. Greed can do strange things to a person, but so can direct confrontation. Perhaps he would take the bait and allow this all to die gracefully. But of course he didn’t. Greed would always win. With halting words and darting eyes, he laid out his plan to Anna, pleading his case. He knew of her condition, so could she even pass the family title on? And she was an academic. Wouldn’t she be happier, getting a position at one of the many centers of learning in Golarion? Surely, she wouldn’t be content, throwing balls and hosting dinners and dealing with minor politics. And the money, why, he could offer more. And even a tithe for a certain amount of time. And the boy was so bright and…

“And technically, not a blood relative,” offered the wife. “The curse wouldn’t touch him.”

And there it was. Anna smiled coldly. 

“So you subscribe to that theory. Interesting.” 

A pair of frowns. Hope had been building while they spoke, since Anna didn’t appear to be arguing with them. These fools actually thought they had been making good points. Anna refilled her glass, the servants having taken the hint to vacate some time ago. 

“The unpleasantness doesn’t just travel through the bloodline. Great Aunt Martina married in, and she was the one who fell to house drakes, of all things. Cousin Albert was technically adopted, but ended up beheaded in Galt when they mistook him for someone else. Also, of Mother and Father, only one was of the line, and, well…” She touched her dark clothing. “Both are gone well before their time.”

She leveled a look at Preston as she sipped her wine. “I’ve done my research. What did you think I was doing at the Academae? Reading poetry?” She set down her glass. “I was researching the curse. And do you know, I do think I learned a few things.”

Here was the gamble. She prayed to her mad god that he might show her mercy as the lie she’d prepared came smoothly from her lips. 

“For example, that it might be controlled. That it might be wielded. That denying it only makes it strike out, but if one learns to live with it, why… it becomes a most effective tool.” She leaned forward. “You and yours can barely talk about it. I know you don’t have the will to bend it.”

The room was still. The others barely drew breath. Preston had his hand around a dinner knife, his knuckles white as he gripped it. A shadow behind him darkened, and the air grew cool.

“What did you do to Javert?”

“Who?”

The grip tightened. “The solicitor.

“Oh. Was that his name?” She leaned in. “A better question: What do you think I’ll do to you and your brood if you cross me again?”

Her cousin almost struck out at her, but something stayed his hand. Perhaps he felt the presence at his back, not yet fully manifested. Perhaps he saw the tiny shake of his wife’s head, begging him to rethink his actions. It was more likely, however, that it was only cowardice. He let go of the knife and sat back, defeated. Anna dabbed at her lips. 

“Thank you for the lovely dinner,” he said, her best manners back on display. “I do think I’ll head out, though. The night has never bothered me, after all, and I’ve so much to put in order.” And she excused herself and made her way to the carriage, which her driver had never unpacked.

Pathfinder 2e and West Marches

As my cohorts and I are wrapping up three years of running a West Marches game using Pathfinder 2e, and I thought I’d do a brain dump about what worked for us, and what didn’t. This isn’t a guide that’s set in stone: Different approaches will work for different groups, numbers of people, etc.

Also, I’m focusing on the Pathfinder 2e specific stuff here. I covered the general stuff in another post.

Respecs

This isn’t necessarily 2E specific, but it becomes necessary because Paizo is a never ending source of system updates. New stuff is coming out constantly, and players will always want to play with the new things. At first, we considered telling players they could only change some things, but then realized we would get overburdened with paperwork. So, we told players that they could basically toss the old sheet (except for stuff they bought and the character’s personal history) and make a new one.

Whenever a major book came out that offered updates that you can’t train into (like ancestries), we offered every character a respec point. A few times we offered a meta for the server, but for the most part, it was up to players to explain why they were suddenly a strix, if they chose to explain it at all. Once a player used up that point, they were stuck with that sheet until the next time we handed out points. Also, characters never had more than one respec point, so that cut down on what we had to keep track of.

Surprisingly, being extremely permissive didn’t lead to any huge headaches. Players rolled with the changes, and they often lead to interesting plots as the PCs coped with their new forms. It also got players re-engaged with characters they may have ignored for a while, since they now had interesting new mechanics to play with.

Rewards and gold

Items and runes are incredibly important in PF2e. The math assumes that you’ve been upgrading your stuff as you go, and you’re expected to have a few useful potions on hand. Rather than worrying about giving out items for games, we just gave players a flat amount of gold, based on level.

One thing we discovered at the leaders level was that the math wasn’t perfectly linear. There’s several jumps where gear becomes much more spendy. If the only way players can get gear is gold, then we needed some math to accommodate for that.

After much tweaking of numbers and checking data, we landed on the following equation: Each game got a set base reward, plus an additional amount that was the APL * another number. To put it in math terms:

gold = base + multiplier * APL

And the values we came up with:

APL 1-5: Base 15, multiplier 5 
APL 6-10: Base 75, multiplier 25
APL 11-15: Base 250, multiplier 80
APL 16-20: Base 1000, multiplier 500

So, if you were a group of level 16 players, your payout is 1000 + 500 * 16, so 9000 gold. Level 3? 15 + 5 * 3, so 30 gold. Yes, this can feel like a lot of money! However, we had to keep in mind that some players could only make one game every month, or every other month.

I do think these numbers are super solid (we never had to tweak them again). However, I’m also open to giving all players a ‘base salary’ and just giving a multiplier for the games attended. I do think there should be some reward for attending games, but keeping track of physical items can be difficult if you have more than one GM. After all, GMs vary a lot when it comes to how permissive they are.

So what happened with the players who were flush with cash? They often indulged in buying things that many cash-starved players will ignore: Consumables. I know in my regular games, players tend to wait until they find them in the wild to actually grab them, or they get an archetype that allows them to make them for free. But if you have a pile of gold in your aresenal, why not grab some Antler Arrows?

GM compensation

Because items (and therefore gold) are super important, we decided that when someone ran a game, they would get the same gold as the players. This became super important early on, when we had fewer GMs running games, so the active GMs couldn’t actually gear up their characters.

Some GMs always remembered to pay themselves, and some only went back and grabbed the cash when they were low. We didn’t really notice any imbalance, and it seemed to be a fairly transparent way to reward GMs that didn’t lead to feelings of favoritism.

Variant rules?

PF2e comes with some great optional rules to help it adapt to any table. As time wore on, we found some rules that helped to cut down on the paperwork. Others, we avoided, but I’m open to using in the future.

Free Archetype: Everyone always asks about this. Players love Free Archetypes. On this server, we didn’t use them. I’m not opposed to them, but it didn’t quite fit the feel we were going for. On my next server, I’ll probably allow a limited number of them. This comes down to GM style, since FA can lead to a bit of a power creep, but can also be useful for GMs who want a certain feel for their server. I’m definitely eyeing the ones that could work for a game based around a Pathfinder Lodge.

Automatic Bonus Progression: I’ll be honest: If I’m GMing, this is now a ride or die rule for me. We adopted it because PF2e assumes that players are geared up in a certain way, but if a player couldn’t make as many games, they wouldn’t have as much gold laying around. ABP makes that much less of a worry, since it gives the base runes and bonuses for free. Sure we still had people running around with stupid amounts of money, but more often than not, we saw the rich players buying things for others.

Let’s go shopping!

Early on, we established the home base as a town that was ‘big enough.’ For levels 1-4, players could buy any item up to level 4. After that, they were capped at their current level. This helped players who could play more from getting too powerful.

Also, to cut down on the amount of admin work, we allowed all items but unique to be purchased. If it was written by Paizo and it had a price tag, have fun.

One thing we missed until the game was almost over was that “Access” on an item didn’t make it inaccessible. It made the item one level hard to get. So, if it was a Common Pathfinder item, it became Rare. Oof. Lesson learned.

Balance?

One of our biggest concerns going into this was balance. How do we make sure that a party is balanced in such a way to deal with whatever encounter they’re sure to face. Should we only pick monsters once the players signed up? What do we do if we have a group that shifts around at the last minute? What if we don’t have enough healers or tanks?

Shockingly, balance wasn’t something we had to be overly concerned about. As long as players adjusted tactics and built flexible characters, things were fine. Sure, there were some hairy situations, but over god-knows how many games, parties ended the session with everyone on their feet.

Some things that became super important:

  • Healer’s gloves. OMG. Everyone had a pair of these. Some bought a spare and kept them in their bag.
  • Battle Medicine. This, too, was vital when it came to keeping everyone on their feet. Many players made sure to keep their Medicine skill up, as well.
  • Buy a damn ranged weapon. Sometimes, the solution is to keep your distance and kite the hell out of something.
  • Keep one of every ‘healing’ thing in your bag. Potion. Anti-plague. Antivenom.
  • Keep one of every mundane damage type on your person.

This is part of why having players with so much gold didn’t bother us: It let players build up an arsenal that let them take on pretty much anything, as long as it was at their level.

We also had NPC healers in town who could remove whatever ailed players, since it was never a given that PC healers would log in every day. No one wants to kill off Bob the Fighter because June the Cleric was backpacking in the Rockies for a week.

So, is PF2 good for West Marches games?

Personally, I say yes! It works exceptionally well when it comes to West Marches!

  • The rules have very few places where the GM must make a call, so it’s easy to keep every GM on the same page.
  • Encounter creation is fairly easy to do, while still offering a ton of options so things don’t get repetitive.
  • While the game is balanced on a dime in many ways, it’s more flexible than some might expect. You don’t need a perfectly balanced party to survive.
  • All the rules are online, and there’s inexpensive character builders to be had. This means players (and even GMs) can join without having to lay down serious cash.

West Marches: (Almost) three years later

Way back in the long before, before the world turned into a flaming dumpster fire, I was approached with the chance to do something I’d want to do for a long time: Start up a West Marches server. One thing that had been stopping me was the effort that goes into recruiting players and finding like-minded souls to help GM, but this one would be attached to a stream and existing community.

So… why not?

Two and a half years later we’re planning on winding it down when we hit the three year mark. The players will be hitting level 20 soon, so it feels like a natural time to close shop. I’ve done large scale games before, and one thing has been true with each one: Everything dies, but it’s on you to decide if it’s via entropy or explosions.

Now that we’re approaching the end, I thought I’d write about lessons learned, because boy, I learned a lot. The large games I’d run before had been mostly play-by-post (PBP) and been under the Amber system, which is a completely different animal. They’d also had a more stable player base (again, nature of the community)… and also didn’t happen during a freaking pandemic.

Leveling system

When we started, we gave out XP every month based on how much everyone had chatted. Seemed sensible: It encouraged people to talk to each other, and players who had been around longer would have more XP, which seemed a fair reward for joining earlier. When we added alts, we decided that players could choose how to allocate their XP between their three characters.

Over time, however, level spread became a huge issue. Games would either not make (not enough people with a character at that level available at that time) or people wouldn’t be able to play a character that month (GMs were already spread thin). Some of us found ourselves running double the usual number of games just so people had a chance to play that month. Some players wanted to rush to 20, but found they didn’t have enough fellow players hit the minimum for a game.

In the end, we switched to a banding system: Every character on the server got a set level of XP, leaving us with only three levels to plan for. This made planning so much easier. I could easily plan three encounters without having to worry about scaling. There were always enough PCs bumming around to make games happen.

To be honest, in the future, I probably wouldn’t worry about chat XP, but instead, set a steady rate for leveling (maybe a level every other month?). Or, maybe set milestones, so players can race towards the next level, or choose to screw around at their current level a bit.

Alts

We introduced alts because PF2 had so much stuff coming out (seriously, when we started, the only thing out was the Core Rulebook). Alts allowed people to try out these new classes and races. It also gave people a chance to shake things up, if they were bored of their current character.

There were upsides and downsides to alts, though. Some people loved having more characters, but some really only wanted one. It also meant more characters to remember and engage with, even as a player. I won’t say it was bad, but it’s also something I probably won’t bring into the next server I put together. Instead, I’d rather have a mechanic that allows players to explore different builds if they want, and let people retire characters more often.

Respecs

Respecs became very important on the server as more and more cool stuff came out. There was some initial discussion about how much we should allow, but I was wary of anything that forced the GMs to look over sheets. Admin work can be killer, and looking at sheets can be arduous. So, our only rule was that your history stayed the same, but everything else could change.

This is something I absolutely will be allowing in every server I run. Hell, I’ll probably allow it for every home game: If a big book comes out, feel free to change anything you want. We just have to figure out the meta for it (and the fey are always an excellent excuse).

Time Zones

I don’t know who decided that the earth should be round, but that was a terrible design decision.

I kid, but… it’s also kind of true? Having time zones that are far apart lead to resources being spread thin. It lead to clusters where it was hard to get cross-pollination of players. It lead to hurt feelings. And hey, maybe we were just a weird collection of variables where it didn’t work this time, but worked well for others. If so, awesome! But, in future servers… I’ll probably keep player slots to those who can work with a more limited number of time zones, rather than pushing for 24/7 gaming possibilities.

Establishing jobs and expectations early

Running a West Marches game is absolutely a team effort. Maybe some people make it work with just one leader/GM, but once you hit a critical mass of people, you need people to help you keep it going. At a minimum, you need more GMs (trust me, I was solo GMing the server for a bit, and it was rough). It also helps to have other rules experts who can help make tough calls, and people to help out with the admin work, like looking over sheets.

Balancing this can be tricky, because enthusiasm makes you feel like you can do literally anything. This was especially true during lockdown, because hell, what else were we doing with our lives?

But, even if you’re still not going anywhere [ waves in permanent remote worker ], enthusiasm will eventually wane and become a normal level of interest. If you don’t want to burn out, you have to be reasonable in what you commit to.

I do think we established some good division layer at the top, even if the roles were fuzzy. We each had our own areas of expertise, and big decisions came to a vote. Below that, though, things weren’t quite as clear. I absolutely didn’t want to put any pressure on GMs ever (I was grateful for every game they ran, since that took the pressure off). However, we probably could have put some guidelines out there, like expecting GMs to run a game a month, or something like that, or what time zones people would cover.

Scheduling

We went through a few phases of how we do scheduling, and I’m still convinced that the right solution depends on how many people you’re working with.

Hella old screen shot of polling

When the server was smaller, polling worked great. Toss up some times, have people react if they’re interested. When I started having to make several games out of one poll to get things to work out, we switched to a sign-up sheet. That worked great as well, though sometimes we had to prod to get things to fill up.

Which solution would I use in the future? Eh, hard to say? Calendars are hard. Humanity has been trying to figure them out for 5000 years and still there’s start-ups out there that want to “fix” your schedule.

Will I do it again?

I mean, if you missed the context clues of me saying “next time” over and over, of course I’ll do it again. I loved running a large server and having a chance to see all sorts of groups of people play together. While I also love a dedicated table, it is fun to watch how characters interact in different groups. It’s neat to watch them build relationships outside of their ‘core’ group. And, well, I don’t have enough hours in the day to game with all the people I’d want to game with. And, as a GM, it’s nice to have a simple encounter idea that I can toss out there and see what a round group does with it.

It won’t be attached to a show (while that was fun, it’d be nice to completely control the meta), and it likely will be a smaller crowd (though still big enough so that not everyone can sit at one table at one time). But I’ll absolutely throw my hat into the ring again. I’m just going to need a chance to replenish my energy reserves first.