Creating Threats and When

For my current campaign, I’ve been trying to follow the guidance Apocalypse World gives for creating threats. Accordingly, after every session, I go through my notes and create threats for any of the new NPCs that were introduced during that session. However, I’m not sure that’s working out well for me.

Apocalypse World is a game about scarcity and relationships. Open Legend can be a lot of things, but I’m running it as a fantasy RPG. The world isn’t quite like a typical D&D-like (which I hope to write about in the future someday), but the basic gameplay loops are similar enough. I try to name everyone and make them real, but that means my NPC roster is growing quite large. I also try to create PC-NPC-PC triangles; but, again, my NPC roster is growing quite large.

What I have been thinking about doing is separating my NPCs into primary and secondary NPCs. The primary NPCs are those with PC-NPC-PC triangles and (probably) deserving of being threats. Secondary NPCs are NPCs the PCs know, but their relationship with them is superficial at best. It’s possible for secondary NPCs to become primary NPCs, but I think it would be unlikely for them to go the other way. When they do, they should have acquired a PC-NPC-PC triangle and become threats.

And to be honest, having not played Apocalypse World, I may be reading it wrong. I do like the utility that threats provide, and that’s why I’m writing Roark, but it gets a little exhausting to churn out three or more new threats after every session. Maybe I need a setting appropriate list of threat types and subtypes I can use. Perhaps that’s something I can do as preperation for my next campaign. It’s something to think about, anyway.

Dependency Inject in Roark

A few months back, I explored redoing my blog in Vapor. I still may, but that is on hiatus right now. One of the things I liked was its dependency injection framework, Service. It’s not as sophisticated as the one Microsoft provides with ASP.NET Core, but that may just mostly be due to Swift’s limited support for reflection.

Since Service is designed for server-side Swift, it a took little bit of work to get it going in an iOS project. I discussed this a bit in my previous post. Once that was done, the rest came down to application architecture.

When using DI, the composition root should be as close to the application’s entry point as possible. Normally, that would be main. However, I am using storyboards in my app, so my app doesn’t have a main function. Instead, it has its app delegate. I also want to support providers (although I don’t currently anticipate taking advantage of them), so I had to make sure I implemented the provider boot phase.

The approach I ended up using takes some inspiration from Vapor. I have a configure function that serves as my composition root. I call it from my AppDelegate’s initializer just before I call willBoot for each of the providers in my app. In application(_:didFinishLaunchingWithOptions:), I call didBoot for each as well. Additionally, I turned the default initializer into a convenience initializer to faclitate testing and conformed my AppDelegate to container.

init(config: Config, environment: Environment, services: Services, configure: CompositionRoot = configure) {
    self.config = config
    self.environment = environment = services


    configure(&self.config, &self.environment, &

    do {
        try{ try $0.willBoot(self) }).flatten(on: self).wait()
    } catch let err {
        let log = try! self.make(Logger.self)
        log.fatal("‘willBoot’ failure during initialization: \(err)")

func application(_ application: UIApplication,
                 didFinishLaunchingWithOptions launchOptions: [UIApplicationLaunchOptionsKey: Any]?) -> Bool {
    do {
        try{ try $0.didBoot(self) }).flatten(on: self).wait()
    } catch let err {
        let log = try! self.make(Logger.self)
        log.fatal("‘didBoot’ failure after initialization: \(err)")
    return true

One slight complication is that Vapor 3 is asynchronous, using SwiftNIO. Fortunately, SwiftNIO works on iOS (with some caveats). I got my EventLoop working, but I ran into a problem in my unit tests. I was testing to make sure that I implemented everything correctly, and that service registration was working as expected. To do this, I was creating a new AppDelegate for each test. This caused problems in my deinitializer. I ended up having to switch from using shutdownGracefully(error:) to syncShutdownGracefully(), which works. I’m not sure why, but it does.

deinit {
    do {
        try self.eventLoopGroup.syncShutdownGracefully()
    } catch let error {
        let log = try! self.make(Logger.self)
        log.fatal("EventLoopGroup failed to shutdown gracefully: \(error)")

Now that I have this all working, I hope to start in on that actual database part of the app. I still plan on storing the user’s threat maps in SQLite databases. I’ve split support for reading and writing them across several projects (domain, service, and data access) to try to keep things testable (and limit temptations to reach across those boundaries).

Course Correction

Last night, Ionide stopped parsing my project files correctly, which completely killed code completion. That was frustrating, since I was getting ready to start working on the document browser portion of the app. As much as I had wanted to do it in F#, I decided to save myself the grief and go with Swift instead.

Getting Swift going was pretty easy, incredibly easy in fact since there was a template that provided what I wanted out of the box, but there were a few complications with dependencies. I want to use Fluent on top of SQLite for my documents, much like I was going to use EF Core before. I also want to use the Vapor’s DI framework, Service. This presented a problem since those are only available via Swift Package Manager.

When I explored Vapor earlier this year, I found generating and regenerating Xcode projects really painful. To be fair, I wasn’t aware that I could provide an xcconfig to override the default target SDK (from 10.10 to 10.13). Fortunately, there’s another approach that works well. The idea is to generate a “Dependencies” Xcode project that one references from the iOS project. Someone also wrote a script to fix up the project to compile correctly for iOS.

After fuzting around with it a bit, I got my app back to where it was. I’m not happy about having lost a few days of development time, but I think I will be better off working with Apple’s preferred toolset. As a bonus, took the opportunity to check out Tower, which I ended up purchasing.

The change to a subscription model appears to be controversial, but I don’t mind paying for good tools. Tower’s workflow for interactive rebasing is very slick. I make pretty heavy use of history rewriting and topic branches when I use git, so something to make that workflow go even easier is very nice. I quite like being able to select a couple of commits and squash them down. Obviously, I could (and did) do that using rebase -i on the command-line, but this is so much easier.

I’m hoping this weekend I can get my app reading and writing files. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to make my model work with UIDocument. I’m not using Core Data, so I can’t use UIManagedDocument. Anyway, that’s a problem that will be solved in due time.

A Small Step

I had a productive weekend, although the screenshot in this post wouldn’t suggest that. I’ve decided to work on a mobile app to scratch an itch. I got it set up and building against Xamarin.iOS while still using my preferred environment (Visual Studio Code with hand-written fsproj files). I can’t use dotnet build to compile my solution, but MSBuild.Sdk.Extras lets me do an Sdk-style project with MSBuild that can target Xamarin.iOS (and other platforms in the same project too, since it supports multi-targeting).

The plan for this week is to work on the foundation while my wife works on the design. I think I have settled on using EF Core with SQLite for the app’s documents. I decided against using JSON for my document format because it doesn’t seem well-suited to what I want. Threat maps are repositories of relationships. If I did something JSON, I’d effectively end up rolling my own database anyway.

Oh, the app is a threat mapper that I am tentatively calling “Roark”. A threat map is a prep structure used for improvisational GMing. It was first described by D.Vincent Baker in Apocalypse World 2nd edition. As far as I am aware, no one has tried to create this kind of app before.

Threats and Threat Maps

Dangers (née threats) are one of my favorite things from Dungeon World. They’re a handy tool for managing points of conflict in one’s game. I’ve probably thought about them way too much, which is probably due in some part to their poor presentation in the source material. For the Open Legend campaign we just started, I decided to go back to basics a bit and try the structure as described originally in Apocalypse World. That extends as far as using a threat map to manage my threats instead of fronts.

I like to run out of Scrivener for iOS on an iPad Pro. One of the complications of that setup is that it does not handle embedded graphical references very well. To work around that, I’ve come up with a textual way of representing a countdown. It borrows some language from Dungeon World; but, unlike in that system, the steps in my textual format are fixed (like the wedges are in the graphical representation in Apocalypse World.

There are three sections in a countdown. The first section consists of three steps. This section represents signs of threat as it makes its presence known in the world. These are things the PCs can stop. The second section consits of two steps. These steps reflect the threat’s impact on the world. The threat can’t be stopped at this point, but it can be mitigated. The final section contains just a single step, which is the threat’s full effect on the world. I label the sections containing these steps: grim portents, impending doom, and the catastrophe.

Threat maps, unfortunately, can’t really be managed by text representation. One could indicate the section of the map where they are located, but that doesn’t really help show the relationship between threats very efficiently. It really needs a visual representation to work. To handle that, I created a template in Affinity Designer. I then opened a copy of that template in Affinity Photo for iPad and made note of my threats directly on it. It’s not a perfect setup, but it seems to work pretty well. I’ve uploaded copies of my template in both the original afdesign format as well as SVG. The font used in the template is Alegreya.

Open Legend Character Creation

This is an expanded version of a post I made on the Ars Technica Open Forum.

I had an interesting conversation with one of my players tonight regarding his character in my upcoming Open Legend campaign. I have a feeling that character creation will be tricky for us.

My player wants to make a character who fights with telekinetic swords, using them to attack his enemies and defend himself and his allies. Think Nashetania from Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers. For his first attempt, he tried to take Movement for access to the telekinesis boon, but that doesn’t work like he thought it did. Telekinsis just lets you move things around. It’s not intended for fighting. If you want to fight telekinetically, you have to use Movement to fling objects. His second attempt used Energy for access to the summon creature boon. That doesn’t really work the way he wanted either. His swords aren’t creatures, nor are they made of energy.

At this point, we digressed into a discussion of the setting I’m putting together for my campaign. I haven’t gone into a lot of detail yet, but I’ve hinted to my group a few things I’d like to do. I want to veer away a bit from the traditional D&D setting and go with something a little more anime and/or JRPG inspired. That will be reflected in the way elements are related to each other. I don’t anticipate having something like “force” as a damage type, which is how my player was trying to argue that his non-elemental swords would use Energy (i.e., “energy type k” as my old gaming group used to call it). I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

We want back to his concept and discussed what he wanted to do. He envisions his character summoning swords and flinging them. Creating swords is Creation, but that attribute is not intended to be used to make attack (or defend) rolls. It would be absurd to invest all the way into Movement just to make attack rolls with summoned weapons. The answer was to use Attribute Substitution II to allow him to use Creation in place of Movement for attack and defend rolls. This does force him to actively defend and make choices about how and when he defends, but I think it captures the character concept well. It also allows him to shape the battlefield by summoning swords to invoke the barrier boon.

Reflecting on the conversation, I’m glad we had it now rather during character creation. Character creation is mostly dissociated in Open Legend. It doesn’t mean anything to have Energy 5. Your character needs to have or do something that requires an action roll involving Energy to resolve. Everything is gated by narrative permission. I’m used to building characters from a concept, but the players in my group tend to pick options that allow them to say something about their characters. It’ll be a different way of approaching character creation for them, and I’ll need to be mindful of that when they make their first characters, so I can help them realize their concepts.

Thoughts on Open Legend

I ran an Open Legend one-shot for my group this weekend. We’ve been playing Pathfinder, but I’m looking for a system to replace it. I was considering 5e when a backer update for Open Legend caught my eye. I read the book, and I liked what I saw quite a bit. It felt like a mashup of the things I want out of a game with the things my players want out of a game. That’s not to say there weren’t things I disliked, but those are almost all things I can address in house rules.

Before I ran the one-shot, my group had some concerns about combat. I was a little worried that it would be too crunchy. The list of boons and banes is pretty big, so I worried that it would be difficult to know everything that you could do. My players were worried about how lethal combat would be given the way damage works. After the one-shot, I’d say we were right to feel that way, but neither were big issues in practice.

The list of boons and banes is indeed quite big. We got by well enough with just the common actions that were written on everyone’s character sheets. Towards the end, people started experimenting more with their abilities both in and out of combat. I like that. I hope to see more of that when we start a full campaign. One complaint I do have about banes is they can sometimes feel a little confusingly written. I had some trouble fully grokking persistent damage at first and how resisting it worked until I noticed the note at the end that you can still resist it normally.

Combat itself was more of a mixed bag. My players’ concerns about hit points were unfounded. While it’s possible to get dropped quite quickly, the requirement that you take a killing blow to die makes it unlikely for someone to die unintentionally. It’s not impossible (persistent damage is nasty in this regard), but it helps keep combat dangerous without being too deadly. Lethal damage is definitely serious business. The next time we play, I think we’ll use a tactical grid. It fits my group better, and the system would work better for us with it. I plan on changing up the XP system and tweaking the legend point economy a little bit in my full campaign. I had a good discussion on the community forums about my tweaks. I like keeping XP as the reward for contributing to the story and legend points for keeping it interesting. The one tweak I am making to the legend point economy is with my goals mechanic: if you complete both goals, you get a legend point. I think the legend point economy will be just generous enough to give people a reliable source of legend points, so that they use them regularly. We can make adjustments if it doesn’t.

I also experimented with a few things in this one-shot. I pulled from Apocalypse World for my threats and threat moves. I think that went mostly okay. I’m going to try expanding that to my Pathfinder campaign next. I did have some trouble with defaulting to failing forward instead of giving my PCs success with a twist, so I will have to do better at that. One thing I did differently for my NPCs and PCs was to give them an impulse. I think that worked really well. One of the players picked the druid pre-gen, and he gave himself an impulse I was able to compel quite nicely towards the end of the session. I also gave NPCs single-word personality traits, but they seemed less useful in practice.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with Open Legend. The community seems pretty nice, and the system works really well for my group. There were definitely some things I did wrong when we ran, but those are easily correctible. I do look forward to getting the boon and bane decks I picked up as an add-on to my pledge. Being able to give players a card with the effect on it should be really helpful for them. We had to dig around on the website just a little too much.

The Five Phases of Project Planning - Principles

I intend to discuss in a later post how I use Things, but I wanted to take a quick moment to discuss how I manage my projects.

When I create a project, I follow the five phases of project planning. In particular, I like to document the purpose and principles for every project I put into Things. In the beginning, my purposes were pretty lame. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of restating the project’s outcome in other words. However, with a bit of practice, it becomes second nature to put why I’m doing a particular project. I find it a valuable reminder, and if I can’t even do that, I should ask myself whether the project is well enough defined. However, I have struggled with writing good principles for a while. They often seemed self-evident.

The way David Allen portrays principles in Getting Things Done is as constraints on the outcome. He writes in the second edition, “A great way to think about what your principles are is to complete this sentence: ‘I would give others totally free rein to do this as long as they …‘ As long as they what? Whath policies, stated or unstated, will apply to your group’s activities? ‘As long as they stayed within budget‘? ‘satisfied the client’? ‘ensured a healthy team’? ‘promoted a positive image’?” I don’t find this advice particularly helpful.

At work, I recently started reading a book on writing user stories: User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development by Mike Cohn. I’m going to be pushing my team and our developers to more fully embrace Agile development and writing good user stories, so I wanted to do a bit of reading. While there are differences between the two methods, particularly since they have different purposes, there are similarities between Agile and GTD. One the things I learned from that book was that part of writing a good user story includes the acceptance criteria, often writing it before the project begins. For those who aren’t familiar with software development, acceptance criteria are the things the software needs to do before the user or customer will accept it. Hmm, this is familiar: acceptance criteria is to a user story as principles are to a project (in GTD).

Before this realization, my principles tended to be very vague. I wasn’t getting everything out and documented that needed to be. It would be like writing “Pizza” when I should have meant to write “Call Hound Dogs to order a pizza for the gaming group on Saturday”. Now that I’m writing my principles like they were acceptance criteria, I feel much more comfortable with the idea that I could (theoretically) hand my projects off to someone else and still get a good outcome. Even if I don’t plan on doing that regularly, it shall serve a reminder of what I am actually trying to accomplish, and it’s in my trusted system rather than in my head creating distractions.

Wilt Ghoul

Wilt ghouls come in as many shapes and sizes as humans, but they’re usually between five and just over six feet tall and weight between one hundred and two hundred pounds. Wilt ghouls differ primarily from humans in that their skin has desaturated to a grayish hue and their hands end in wickedly sharp claws they use for letting blood.

Named by the adventurers who discovered them, wilt ghouls don’t actually have anything to do with ghouls. They are abominations created by arcane and possibly alien magic, humans twisted into vicious creatures that live to let blood. Wilt ghouls are commonly found in urban environments—places where there are plenty of humans as a source of stock as well as subjects to bleed.

Wilt ghouls are canny hunters, using their dexterity to sneak up on their prey and their wits to trap and ensnare it. They’re not particularly sadistic in their hunting, preferring to bleed their prey out quickly rather than to make it suffer. Lest this be thought a kindness, their reasons are really more utilitarian. After all, the quicker a victim bleeds out, the quicker one can move on to the next. Wilt ghouls typically hunt alone, but they are not adverse to working together if there is reason to believe it will result in more bloodshed. Perhaps surprisingly, wilt ghouls tend not to fight amongst each other.

Wilt ghouls have little use for treasure. They sometimes wear the armor of their victims, but they prefer to use their claws rather than weapons to do their dirty work. Survivors of wilt ghoul attacks describe the wilt ghouls as taking an almost sacramental joy in the work they do. Survivors, however, are very rare.

Download: Wilt Ghoul.pdf

Starting the new year off with someone special

Yesterday I proposed to the most amazing woman I have ever met, and she accepted. These coming months will be tough as we navigate the K-1 financée visa process, but I am confident that we will be able to make it through and finally be together. Meeting her is easily one of the best things to have ever happened to me. I look forward to the future and exploring it together with her.

A picture of my financée’s and my hands clasped together

Ruin Delvers, Session 3

Before returning to the dungeon, the party decides to rest for the evening. They make camp, and Rita uses her magic to allow her and Basil to handle watch duty. They don’t notice any problems during the night, but Rita catches a hint of curious disgust coming from Bob. Rita decides to check up on Bob and finds Pavo’s mule covered in feces. Concerned that something had obviously infiltrated the camp, Basil and Rita look for tracks while Pavo cleans his mule. They find a number of small tracks in the dirt. These tracks belong to pugwampi—a kind of gremlin known for its mischief. They try to follow the tracks, but none of them are actually any good at tracking, so they quickly lose the trail. Basil and Rita return to their watch while Pavo goes back to sleep.

When the party wakes the next day, they decide to bring Pavo’s mule inside the dungeon just to be safe. They’ve decided to explore the passage beyond the grate, so they leave it tied up in the entry area while Pavo goes up on the balcony to repair the rusted lever that they believe opens the grate. After he does, he flips it, and the grate drops into the floor revealing a room with a bench and numerous cubbies. Inside some of the cubbies are very old and very fragile cloth, the remains of clothing. Basil checks out some of them, causing them to crumble when he touches them. Before they are completely destroyed, he notices a couple of things: they bear insignia of crystals and Azlanti glyphs; and the shadows are in the wrong places. The rest of the group notices the latter as well.

The shadows move swiftly to attack the party. The first goes for Basil, passing its hand through his armor and weakening him slightly. Pavo tries to protect himself by drinking a shield extract, but one takes a piece out of him too. Basil calls for everyone to flee, but Rita notices that these are only lesser shadows, which are not as dangerous as regular ones. Pavo adds that you still need magic weapons or force-based spells like magic missile to hurt them. Accordingly, Rita blasts one of them and destroys it instantly. While still freaked out a bit; Basil agrees not to flee, turns his attention to the other one, and clobbers it.

As a matter of course, Pavo leaves some of his daily extracts unprepared. Today is another day where that will come in handy. Pavo prepares lesser restoration. While he does, Basil finishes documenting his findings, Rita goes over to the stairs opposite the entrance that lead down and takes a look, and Bob pokes and destroys the old clothes for his amusement.

The party eventually makes their way back to Zarkus’s chamber to finish examining it in detail. They know that there’s some miscellaneous treasures along with several unopened chests. Basil also wants to use object reading on the crystal shards they found earlier. When he does, he finds that they’re part of a set of eight crystals, but he is not sure exactly what they do. Pavo goes around to each chest, examining them for traps and opening them. The first one has coins. The second one is sticky, causing his tools to get stuck on it when he examines it. Taking Pavo buy surprise, a pseudopod shoots out from the chest and grabs him. The chest bashes him into the floor and tries to strangle him. Basil stops what he’s doing, activates sudden speed, and rushes over to assist Basil against the creature, a mimic. As Rita casts scorching ray and burns the evil chest, she notices a longing coming from Bob—Bob wants to get inside the box (even if it would totally try to eat him). Rita yells at Bob, “Not yet!” and Bob meows back at her annoyed.

Although stuck to the chest, Pavo has one hand free and starts drawing daggers and stabbing it with them. Meanwhile, the mimic tries to demoralize him by vomiting coins all over him. Unfortunately for the creature, it looks silly more than intimidating, and it fails utterly in its attempt. Basil summons a wolf help fight the creature, which bites it and promptly gets stuck to it face-first. The wolf is very unhappy about this. Basil backs away momentarily from the chest as Rita blasts it with magic missiles and Pavo continues drawing daggers and stabbing it. The mimic tries to demoralize Basil, but all it successfully does is blow a raspberry at him while he works on creating a node of blasting from a coin that he attempts to drop on the it (but misses). The chest returns its attention to Pavo and knocks him unconscious. The wolf continues to flail about uselessly. After the mimic goes for Basil, he grabs his sword and finishes it the old fashioned way by chopping it to pieces.

Rita gives Pavo a potion of cure light wounds before he can bleed out. She tells Bob that he can use the chest as a scratching post. Bob tries, but he gets stuck to the dead mimic, and Rita laughs. In the detritus, Basil finds a marble idol of a gothic, busty woman. He uses object reading to determine that it’s an idol of Zura that could fetch a nice price if sold to the right buyer. The rest of the party makes crude innuendo as he does so. Once they’re all done, he gets out the party’s wand of cure light wounds finished healing Pavo’s wounds. Not wanting to make the same mistake again, Pavo grabs a halberd from the miscellaneous weapons lying about the alcoves and strikes the remaining chests with it before examining and opening them. Of them, one contains more coins and the other a metallic shirt and a twisted length of wood—a wand. Basil examines the wand, again drawing more crude innuendo, and determines that it’s another wand of cure light wounds with about half of its charges spent. The shirt is a mithral shirt.

While the rest of the party gathers their treasure and starts preparing for the return home, Pavo turns his attention to the coffin in which the vampire was interred and finds nothing of interest. Basil starts moving the chests by the door, trying to consolidate the coins into just one of them. Pavo drinks a comprehend languages extract, but all he can ascertain from Basil’s notes is that the insignia he recorded is a set of Azlanti glyphs that, along with the crystals, are suggestive of crystal guardians. Unlike regular Azlanti runes, glyphs are symbolic and not meant to be taken literally. Finally, Rita and Pavo work together to search the rest of the room for secret doors but find nothing. Rita grabs a rock, casts light on it, and tosses it into the pit by the bridge. If it screamed when it hit bottom, she never heard it. Her guess is that the pit probably leads to the Darklands—or pretty close if it does not.

As they return to civilization, Pavo raises a concern about what to with the cat lady’s corpse. He also raises a concern about the vampire spawn that got away, but Basil’s not worried about it. As they leave, they bury the corpse and hold a small ceremony for it. None of them are followers of Shelyn, but they all say a few poems after burying her. Basil recites a couplet about dead cats. Pavo says a haiku about the dead traveler. Rita recalls and sings a song she once read from Melodies of Inner Beauty, the primary holy book used by followers of Shelyn.

When they leave for Freehold, it’s 11 Erastus 4716. The journey back will take them just a little bit over a week and a half to make. About four or five days into the journey, Rita notices a shadow following them in the sky. It’s a griffon. A few days later while they’re making camp for the night, she sees it again much lower in the sky. Rita yells out, asking if it’s looking for Delcy, the dead cleric. The griffon swoops in and tries to grab the chest, but its claws aren’t really made for grabbing things and taking them away the way a roc’s is. It drops the chest and lands to regain its composure. Basil tries to talk to it about Delcy and the chests, but it’s not particularly interested in that. It tries to nudge past Basil, but he interposes himself between the griffon and the rest of their gear. Rita readies to attack the griffon if it makes a threatening move again, and Pavo starts downing extracts to buff himself up. Basil casts create water on the griffon and yells at it to back off, which it does. The griffon backs up, hops once, and then takes off into the night at a steep angle. Not really sure what happened (or almost happened), the party moves the packs back by Pavo and his mule and returns to watch and sleep. The griffon follows for a few more days, but it’s not seen again after that.

The party arrives in Freehold. It’s now 21 Erastus 4716

Session Questions Answered

  • Did we learn something new and important about the world? Yes, they learned more about Azlant, a set of crystals, and crystal guardians.
  • Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy? Yes, the party fought a mimic and several shadows.
  • Did we loot a memorable treasure? Yes, they found an awesome statue.

Ruin Delvers, Session 2

While Pavo prepares his extract and Rita works on copying the mural, Basil returns to the fallen cleric and resumes looking through her things for clues. All he finds is a journal, which is light on details but provides context for her presence here in the ruins. She met up with her companions in Kalabuto and was following someone. The journal didn’t identify who this person was, but it compared their relationship to the one between Shelyn and Zon-Kuthon, her brother once lost amongst the stars.

Pavo eventually finishes deciphering the message on the mural, or as much of it that he can. The message is indeed written in Azlanti, and it dedicates this tomb to Zarkus the Slayer, who was the guardian of … something. The last part is unreadable, its having been vandalized recently (in the last few decades, which is recent compared to the apparent age of the tomb itself). No one is really sure whether that means he’s a vampire slayer or a vampire who slays people, but Pavo voices concerns about vampires regardless. Basil notes that it’s peculiar that a follower of Zon-Kuthon should be found in this area given that he’s not commonly worshiped here.

With Pavo’s work done, the party returns to the task of tossing the chambers they’ve explored. Other than the odd bits of adventuring gear, there’s little left that’s interesting. Pavo checks throughly for traps, and while he does that, Rita investigates the mural. She suspects the crack through which the vampire spawn had escaped in gaseous form could lead to another passage, but she is unable to find a way through short of bashing through the wall with mining tools. However, she was right. Pavo finds the mechanism that opens the door—the noses on the vampires in the mural can be pushed. When he does, the wall slides in and to the side, revealing a passage that leads further into the tomb a bit before jogging to the left.

Abandoning plans to pull the lever in the other room and explore the area past the gate, the party decides instead to explore the newly revealed passage. After reaching the bend, they creep forward, the passage narrowing vertically down to a height of approximately four feet. Basil finds it uncomfortable, but that doesn’t deter him. As they get to the apparent end of the passage, he stops and listens. Hearing nothing, he pokes his head out and looks around. The passage is about fifteen feet from the floor of a large chamber. Hanging from the ceiling are numerous bats. The floor is covered with guano in places, but there’s not much of it because the bats mostly hang over a large chasm in the center. Basil worries that these might be some kind of monstrous bats, but Rita assures him that they’re just normal ones. They need to be careful to avoid spooking them or else they might swarm.

After affixing a rope and climbing down into the chamber, the party sees another entrance on the opposite side their own side of the chamber. On the far side, on another platform, is a door with what appears to be a skull on it. Stairs run down and around the perimeter of the chamber. Pavo and Rita move up and look over the edge of the pit to see if they can see the bottom, but all they can make out is a bridge down below, running from an opening on the far side just below the platform with the door to presumably likewise on their side, which they eventually confirm when the party carefully makes its way down the steps and around to the other side.

Basil recognizes the skull on the door as they get closer. It’s not just a skull but a skull with spiked chains coming out of its eyes—a symbol associated with Zon-Kuthon. He speculates that it may have been added recently, which Pavo confirms after studying it. Conveniently, the chains appear to be an actual fixture on the door, which allows it to be opened when someone pulls on them.

While the party investigates the door, Bob looks up at the bats. He’d wanted to explore more, but right now he’s knocking whatever he can into the pit while plotting the inevitable demise of all the bats above. Rita can sense joy coming from Bob. Bob sniffs some of the guano and after getting some of it on his paws, runs around like he’s been possessed. Eventually he settles on just watching the bats, tail twitching back and forth behind him.

Expecting Basil to get blasted off the pit or something equally bad; Pavo and Rita grab a chain on the door, pull, and stand to the side. Instead, Basil sees an apparently desecrated ceremonial chamber. There’s blood and viscera everywhere, an altar, and a mangled corpse sitting upon it. It’s obviously related to Zon-Kuthon. The group convinces Pavo to go inside and check out the altar, but he’s worried about the cracks in the floor that Basil saw earlier. Expecting a pit trap of some sort, he gets a small running start and jumps over into the corner. Using the glaive they recovered from the cleric of Shelyn, he starts tapping around looking for traps. While he’s tapping the walls, the head on the corpse pivots to the side to look at Pavo.

Basil gives a shout and offers his hand to help Pavo back out, but Pavo decides to clobber the zombie instead. After studying it briefly for the right time to strike, he drops the glaive and pulls out his shortsword and then stabs the zombie. Unfortunately, shortswords aren’t the right kind of weapons for fighting zombies, so it’s not very effective. The zombie throws itself at Pavo, slamming into him. Out of concern for the floor ahead, Basil decides to wait before entering. While he does, a streak of frost shoots past him from Rita’s extended finger. Basil asks Pavo to pick up the glaive and hand it to him, which Pavo does, but not before taking one final shot at the zombie, which finishes it off. Disturbed by the sound of combat, the bats start to stir. Bob is very excited by this development.

Not wanting to get caught in a swarm of bats, Basil decides to test his weight on the floor in front of the altar—the floor the party believes to be a trap. It holds. Rita follows and so does Bob eventually. A few taps confirm that the floor is hollow on the other side. Basil decides to search the altar for an activating mechanism. However first, he conjures water to clean off the water and places his hand on it. Basil hopes to see into the altar’s recent history, but instead he sees a vision of dark-skinned, voluptuous woman drinking the blood of a man and he hers. When he describes the scene to the group, Rita recognizes it as an obedience practiced by followers of Zura. Zura is a demon lord known as the Vampire Queen. While her true form is something more akin to a cross between a haggard harpy and a bat, she often chooses to manifest as a voluptuous woman. While interesting, Rita is not really sure how this all relates to Zon-Kuthon even after Basil reminds the group of the tale he read in the cleric’s journal. Basil resumes cleaning the altar and eventually finds a button under the front lip. Everyone stands back, Basil presses it, and the floor drops away on a hinge to reveal a ladder extending down below.

Unsurprisingly, the ladder leads down the the bridge, which leads to a door on the far side of the chasm. There is text on it, which Pavo is able to read thanks to the extract he consumed earlier. The text on the door reads: Here lies Zarkus the Slayer, kept in repose by crystal magic. Basil is excited that the rumors of crystal magic here are true, but he’s concerned that taking the crystals will revive Zarkus. Overall, he’s left with mixed feelings on the issue (but still a determination to have those crystals).

Pavo and Basil check the door for traps and then give it a push. Actually a double door, its sides swing open to reveal a room with four columns and a platform with a sarcophagus at the end. Alcoves containing offerings of gear and armor along with chests are situated along the walls just behind the columns. Rita can just barely make out the shape of a man in the distant dimness. He stands with back to them but turns around and faces the party as they move into the room.

The man cocks his head to the side as he studies Basil, then moves forward suddenly before just stopping in front of him. In each of his hands are sickles, twitching now in anticipation as if daring someone to approach him. Pavo ducks around one of the columns and studies his foe from the safety of his position. After casting a spell to increase the apparent mass of his weapons, Basil readies for the man to attack. Both of them are tensed up, ready to explode at whomever makes the first move. Rita throws an alchemist fire at the man but misses. She decided to change tactics and uses mage hand to grab a crossbow from one of the piles of treasure. The man is the first one to attack. He steps up, and Basil’s readied blow strikes true, but it barely hurts the madman. The man howls and strikes at Basil with fury, hacking away at him with his sickles. After Pavo gets into position to bolster Basil’s attack, Basil returns the man’s blows and puts up a mind barrier, one of his occultist arts, for his own protection. Rita fetches some bolts from the weapon pile, loads her crossbow, fires, and misses the man again. He steps out of the flanking position that Pavo had tried to establish, feints, and digs his sickles deep into Basil. If not for another reactive mind barrier, Basil would be dead. Fortunately for him, Basil’s crystal energy resonates with the crystal power that once kept his opponent in stasis. His next attack strikes true without regard for his opponent’s natural toughness. The man turns to gas and retreats to his coffin to recover. Unfortunately, it’s just a few tens of feet away on the far side of the room. Using one of Rita’s bolts, they stake him and take the corpse outside to burn in the sun. Meanwhile, Basil digs a wand of cure light wounds out of his pack and starts popping off charges and then borrows Pavo’s flask for a swig.

All that remains of the man is the tatters of his clothes and his cloak. Basil examines the cloak with his object reading and determines that it is magical—a cloak of resistance. He also sees a vision of the man hacking him to bits, which he decides is something that he’d have rather not seen.

Session Questions Answered

  • Did we learn something new and important about the world? Yes. Not only do the ruins confirm the presence of Azlanti in Garund, but they have a relationship with Zura as well.
  • Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy? Yes. Zarkus the Slayer.
  • Did we loot a memory treasure? Yes. The party found a cloak of resistance +1. Also, there’s a bunch of treasure back in Zarkus’s resting chamber.

Ruin Delvers, Session 1

A narrow passage in the cliffside of the the Devil’s Cradle foothills transitions from natural to worked stone before ending in an entry chamber where the party now find themselves. They were brought her by Basil’s research. While he himself expected to find untapped crystal knowledge, the others were also interested in expanding their knowledge here in some way. However, Rita had an ulterior motive. She felt a need to keep the other two out of trouble.

The floor is covered in bits of smashed pottery. Opposite the entrance running diagonally across the corner of the room is a balcony twenty five feet or so off the floor. Passages on opposite sides of it lead deeper into the ruins, the one on the left from the entrance’s perspective blocked by bars. This one interests Basil, who heads over to check it out while Pavo starts looking for traps and secret passages. However, their tasks are soon interrupted by arrows raining down from the balcony above.

Everyone looks up to see what’s firing on them. Basil and Pavo can’t quite make out the figures by the light of Basil’s wayfinder, but Rita can see clearly skeleton archers, who at least aren’t very effective. The arrows fly wide of their mark, and the party shifts quickly into an offensive posture.

With carved bloodstone figure of a bear in hand, Basil summons a wolf up on the balcony to deal with the skeletons while he assumes a defensive stance. Pavo tosses a couple of throwing daggers at the skeletons, but they bounce off ineffectively. Rita’s magic strikes true, missiles of magical force streaking from her hands and dropping one of the skeletons. Basil’s wolf makes short work of the remaining skeletons.

The bars forgotten for now, everyone is interested in the balcony and what the skeletons could have been guarding. With Basil’s help, they tie a rope to the railing balcony, which Pavo uses to ascend. At the top, Pavo lights a torch to help him see and notices a lever that he assumes triggers the gate below. However, his first order of business is to check the skeletons for loot. The skeletons were pretty poorly equipped, most of their gear being broken. Regardless, Basil is still interested in the bows since he had neglected to bring a ranged weapon with him to the ruins. While Pavo gets to work lowering the bows and ammunition down to Basil, Rita checks out the pottery shards on the floor of the room. She’s not quite sure, not being able to identify the language or meaning, but symbols on them have to have some meaning. Unfortunately, distracted while looting the skeletons, Pavo doesn’t notice the two figures sneaking up on him from the passage at the back of the balcony.

The balcony flashes with scintillating colors. One of the small figures successfully got close enough to Pavo to hit him with a disco-like blast of color from her small hands. Pavo isn’t phased by the spell, but he is disturbed by what he sees: vampire spawn! He wonders aloud just why would there be vampire spawn here. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to handle them himself, Pavo retreats to the rope to escape back down. The other figure follows but stops at the edge to sever the rope with his dagger, dropping Pavo to fall to the floor with a thump. The two groups trade spells and ranged attacks, but the tide of battle shifts only when Rita scores a particularly nice hit with her scorching rays, forcing the vampire spawn to retreat. Pavo moves into position to boost Basil up in order to follow after them, but Basil decides to help Rita instead, who had been hurt by the enemy mage. Basil uses his wand to heal her wounds while Pavo looks over incredulously.

Everyone is concerned about the vampire spawn. For one, if there were vampire spawn, then that means there are probably vampires. It also means that the crystals they came to find might have been disturbed if other people know about the location too. Basil also sighs, complaining that this won’t just be a milk run smashing skeletons. As for dealing with the vampire spawn, the party decides the only reliable approach is to beat them senseless and drag them outside to burn in the sun.
After rejecting a plan to send Rita’s familiar past to bars to scout ahead, the party decides to send him down the other passage. Bob, which Rita insists is what her feline familiar wants to be called, skulks down the stairs, sees a scene of carnage in the next room, and bolts up the stairs: Big cat! There’s a big cat! Bob describes the scene as something like when you’re hunting in the garden, and your prey just blows right up.

Still worried about being flanked by the vampire spawn, Basil comes up with the perfect plan, which Pavo bungles it. All he had to do was convince the vampire spawn that they were heading down the stairs while the party waited to ambush them, but he put in an awful and unconvincing performance. After waiting for a bit and hearing nothing, the party descends down to the next room. To watch their flank, Rita convinces Bob to hang back and keep an eye out for vampire spawn. She promises Bob many fish in return.

The room at the end of the stairs is filled with many old weapon and armor racks. The walls are spattered with blood. An overturned table in the middle of the room is surrounded by the remains of chairs. It appears the contents of several adventurers’ packs has been scattered around the room. A feline humanoid lies slumped against the door, a glaive lying at her side. Shortly after the party enters, Basil moves over to the body to examine it. It appears to have been clawed to death by something and has been here for a little while. Basil rifles through her stuff, finds a couple of potions and notices her holy symbol—a multicolored songbird. How peculiar that a cleric of Shelyn would be here of all places! Basil drags the body away from the door to continue going through the rest of her stuff, but Pavo notices the door creak open a bit and swiftly moves to hold it shut. Putting his ear to the door, he hears muffled voices on the other side. Pavo signals quietly to the party that the vampire spawn are most likely on the other side. Basil grasps the raw quartz amulet hanging from his neck, creating a protective barrier, and gets ready to charge in on Pavo’s go.

Pavo pulls the door open and slides out of the way as Basil goes barreling past. From the right comes and blast of color, the same that almost but not quite got Pavo earlier. The other vampire spawn comes from the left, slamming into Basil and trying to drain Basil’s life with his unholy claws. Basil keeps the vampire spawn back with his greatsword, sees an opportunity to put presure on the mage and closes on her, trapping the mage between the two bunks where she had been hiding. Pavo follows Basil so that he can study the mage and tell Basil her weaknesses and the opportune time to strike. Given that she can’t do much against vampire spawn, Rita decides to shut the door until at least the mage is down. This draws a concerned look from Pavo, but Bob tells her telepathically that he totally understands.

The vampire spawn continue ganging up on Basil, but they are unable to penetrate his defenses—both physical and mental. The warrior spawn tries to intimidate Basil, but there’s just not something very intimidating about a halfling vampire spawn that can’t hit to save its unlife. After Basil cleaves the mage with his greatsword, Basil suggests the other one surrender. Hearing this turn of events, Rita opens the door again only to get slammed by the remaining spawn, which drains her of some of her life energy. Basil doesn’t let up on the final spawn, smashing it good with his greatsword, but it’s not enough to drop it like he did the caster. The spawn turns slightly misty and translucent and tries to escape. Pavo thinks he recognizes the effect, but he’s distracted by the mural on the far side of the room—a large piece depicting numerous light- and dark-skinned creatures feeding on the living with a particularly nasty looking one behind them holding two sickles. The remaining vampire spawn escapes through cracks in the wall on the mural.

Assuming they have a bit of breathing room, the party drags the mage’s body outside (while smashing it for good measure), and burns it in the sun. During this brief respite, Pavo prepares an extract to help him read the inscription on the mural and starts studying it. It would appear that the text is written in ancient Azlanti!

Session Questions Answered

  • Did we learn something new and important about the world? Yes. Azlant had some kind of presence in Garund, which is very unexpected.
  • Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy? Yes. They defeated one vampire spawn and drove the other away.
  • Did we loot a memory treasure? Yes. The cleric of Shelyn was carrying a potion of bouncy body, which every found amusing and somehow appropriate for a catfolk.

Ruin Delvers

Setting and Issues

Ruin Delvers is an exploration-focused campaign taking place in western Garund in and around the nation of Sargava. The characters are seasoned adventurers, beginning play at 4th level. It’s only a matter of time before they draw the attention of rivals; including the Aspis Consortium, whose influence has been growing in the region recently.

Session Questions

Because we’re using the Dungeon World XP system in Pathfinder, we ask ourselves the following questions at the end of each session. If I’ve done my job well, then we should be able to answer “Yes” almost every time!

  • Did we learn something new and important about the world?
  • Did we overcome a notable monster or enemy?
  • Did we loot a memorable treasure?


Rita Smithonal

Rita lived a sheltered life growing up in Westcrown. She attended a local school for wealthier residents where she was always very popular thanks in part to her half-elf heritage. People wanted to be seen with her, and she always got what she wanted.
Rita’s mother was an elf, whom she never knew. She was raised by her father and step-mother along with two younger brothers. Her father tried to instill a sense of justice in her, which ultimately played a part in her being kicked out of the house.
With nowhere to go and not enough money to attend the Acadamae in Korvosa or the Arcanamirium in Absalom, Rita left Avistan for Garund to study at the Magaambya in Natambu to become an enchanter. Something there prompted a change in heart because she realized she no longer wanted to take advantage of people the way she did growing up. She also found herself preferring the company of cats to people.

Basil Windtail

Basil uses psychic magic and a handful of arcane spells to practice crystal magic. Although a Pathfinder, Basil is really more interested in spreading the word about crystal power and how to use crystals to access one’s inner strength. If one were to ask him, he’d explain that even basic arcane cantrips like read magic relate back to crystals in some way (read magic increases knowledge, knowledge is power, and power = crystals). Some say his rantings about crystals are a bit unhinged, but that didn’t seem to matter when he was invited to join the exclusive White Feather Arcanist Society in Oppara, where he proved to be quite popular.

Basil is naïve and arrogant, thinking himself better than almost everyone because of his belief in crystal power. It is not known whether his parents believe in crystal power, but his sister’s lack of belief is a source of disappointment. He hopes that his membership in the Pathfinder Society will provide him access to crystal artifacts that he can take and use for his own purposes.

Pavo Krupt

Pavo grew up in a small village in Cheliax, located near the border with Andoran. His family ran a general store until they lost it in a dispute stemming from an unfortunately worded contract. Unsurprisingly, Pavo strongly dislikes the state religion in Cheliax, opposing diabolism and preferring the teachings of Cayden Cailean instead.

After his family lost their store, he left Cheliax for Andoran to attend Almas University. He studied history there after being turned onto it by a compelling professor. He subsequently became an investigator and a chronicler, working with Basil Windtail on several occasions to document his adventures as a Pathfinder.

Drinking is something of a sacrament to Pavo. It didn’t start out that way, but he picked up the habit due to a rival student at Almas University. He found that it helped him focus and stopped the shakes he was experiencing, which were caused by his rival’s use of magic to undermine his studies.

The Party

On his way to Almas University, Pavo stopped to investigate rumors of a cave containing a fountain that improved the health of those who consumed its waters. He thought it sounded interesting, and he wanted to see if the rumors were true. Unfortunately, the waters in the fountain had no curative properties when he found it. Pavo later learned what happened from Rita when she blabbed to the whole town that Basil had taken the crystal that powered the fountain.

Another time in Westcrown, Rita was looking into the disappearance of several people in town. She found not only that thieves were killing people and fencing their belongings but that one of them was an associate of her father’s. However, before she could act on her findings, she was exposed by Pavo, who had been hired by her father to tail his daughter and keep her out of trouble. Ultimately, however, the scheme was exposed by Basil when when his psychometry revealed that the owner of one of his recently purchased crystals had been killed, and he reported it to the authorities. Rita’s father blamed her for it and kicked her out of the house.

Basil and Pavo first met on boat to Taldor from Westcrown. They bonded over a shared interest in history, and Pavo agreed to accompany Basil on a Pathfinder Society mission to Osirion to recover a particularly interesting scroll. Rita was traveling on the same ship, passing through Osirion on her way to study at the Magaambya. She overheard Basil and Pavo discussing their plans to sneak into forbidden ruins. When they arrived in Osirion, she reported them to the guards. This caused problems for Pavo and Basil, but Pavo was able to talk their way out of trouble.

A few years later, the three of them meet again in Sargava. They’re working together this time, investigating some old ruins in the Devil’s Cradle.

Creating Better Dangers

Update on June 26, 2017: My thinking on fronts and dangers has evolved. I was right that fronts are just an organizational tool, but I now think grim portents and danger moves should be kept separate. The important thing is to not forget your danger moves. Dungeon World fails to do an adequate job of emphasizing this (to its detriment).

Although they originated with Apocalypse World, fronts were popularized by Dungeon World. I was first exposed to them when I tried to run Dungeon World last year, but I struggled to utilize them effectively. I made one front and then ignored them for the rest of the campaign. However, I like them in theory. Part of the problem is the way in which they are presented by the Dungeon World book.

Fronts are supposed to be an organizational tool for the GM. You spend time between sessions creating new ones and adjusting existing ones so that when you disclaim responsibility (as Apocalypse World puts it), you can look at your prep and react appropriately to what the characters are doing. Did someone roll a miss while undertaking a perilous journey? You could do something boring like have them get lost or take longer, but it’s much more interesting if you can look to your grim portents and make a move that follows. For example, perhaps they still arrive on time, but the town was assaulted by a surprise ogre attack. That grim portents ought to be moves is something of a throwaway comment in the Dungeon World book when it’s really quite important. One of the many mistakes I made trying to learn to use fronts effectively was to treat them as a sequence of events that happen until you reach the impending doom, but that’s problematic. If grim portents happen outside of the characters’ influence, then you’re failing in your agenda to fill their lives with adventure. However, even if they always involve (or can involve) the characters, it’s still too easy to create grim portents that are not as effective as they could be. It’s similar to the problem of writing good next actions in GTD.

Well written next actions in a GTD system should be the next physical thing you need to move forward. An action like “pizza” might make sense when you write it down, but you’ll probably forget what it means when you look to your lists for things to do. One problem this creates is the temptation to ignore the action because you haven’t finished thinking about it. An action like “Order pizza” is better, but it might still be a little too vague unless ordering pizza is habitual. Personally, I like to provide additional details in the form of appropriate direct and indirect objects along with an appropriate action verb: Order pizzas for the party (with the specifics of the order available my reference system). What does this have to do with fronts? Quite a bit, actually.

Fronts are composed of dangers, which are analogous to projects in GTD. Impulses are your principles. Impending dooms are your outcomes. Grim portents are your next actions. Fronts themselves, however, don’t really have an analogue; and I suspect that they’re superfluous. Apocalypse World 2nd edition actually dispenses with them, replacing them with threat maps. A threat map is essentially a default set of contexts in which your dangers (called threats in Apocalypse world) exist. If the characters are traveling north, then you look at the north part of your map for move to makes from the threats there. This is exactly like GTD, where you look to your contexts for things to do. Apocalypse World does use a literal (if abstract) map, but this is really nothing more than a visualization of the relationship between the default contexts it defines.

While there are similarities, there are also differences between the two systems. One of your principles as a GM is to draw maps and leave blanks. Essentially, a project and your next actions should as specific as necessary to create the desired outcome, but the elements of your dangers should be just specific enough to provide the spark needed to keep the game moving forward without being too specific. This seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. Ultimately, the system has to serve your needs, and grim poretents have different needs than purely next actions. What follows are my suggestions for creating better dangers.

A danger’s impulse should be written as an infinitive, simple yet evocative. Like the principles in a project in GTD, the purpose of the impulse is to guide and constrain the grim portents you create for your danger. If the grim portents don’t follow from the impulse, then you should consider whether the danger itself is still relevant to your game. It’s possible that it fizzled out and was replaced by a new danger with its own impulse. This also helps you determine whether a danger is resolved: if the characters are able to undermine the danger’s impulse, then it is resolved.

Dungeon World provides a decent list of impending dooms, but don’t hesitate to create your own. Unlike the outcome of a project in GTD, you don’t want to be too specific. I recommend sticking to the style used in Dungeon World and denoting the impending doom as a noun ending in -tion. It’s worth noting that many fronts created by third parties don’t do this. I think that’s a mistake. By being too specific in your impending doom, you’re prescribing a certain outcome, which undermines your agenda to play to find out what happens.

As I suggested above, you want to be specific when writing grim portents, but you don’t want to be too specific. Use a verb and an object, but avoid further detail. Grim portents are moves; a well-written move should be an command, telling you what you need to do to portray a fantastic world and fill the characters’ lives with adventure when your players look to you to see what happens next. Moves written in the passive voice feel too far removed from the action: consider “put them in a spot” versus “a character is put in a spot”, or more specifically: “Judgement is passed” versus “Pass judgement” (or even “The Light passes judgement”). One side effect of this approach is that the grim portents in your dangers will require regular review to keep them relevant, but I that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. The time between sessions should be spent pre-thinking, so that when you’re at the table, you have the tools you need to keep the game moving, keeping downtime while you think to a minimum. In GTD, this review process known as the weekly review, and it’s the backbone of a well-functioning system. I expect a similar approach to managing dangers will make them really shine.

At this point, I’m inclined to dispense with fronts. At their best, they represent plot threads in your campaign. At their worst, they’re a distraction. How many fronts should you have? Is a front a campaign or an adventure front? Does that even matter? I don’t think it does. The dangers are the driving force in fronts, and they can function just as easily if not more effectively outside of the constraining bounds of fronts. In my upcoming Pathfinder game, I plan to create dangers and tag them with contexts as appropriate. I haven’t decided yet whether to use threat maps specifically, but my intuition is that I’ll likely start out with something a little more specific to the setting we choose. However, since I will be reviewing them regularly after each session, I can always change them if my initial contexts aren’t working for me. One of the things I’ve learned practicing GTD is to always be looking for ways to improve my system. The same goes for the structures I use when GMing.

Thoughts on starting equipment

In my upcoming Pathfinder game, my players are going to be creating 4th level characters. There are only four of us, so I want to compensate for the smaller party size without doing something ridiculous like creating gestalt characters or having players run multiple PCs. I’d also like to have a little more flexibility creating encounters. 1st level opponents are pretty limited. We’d end up killing rats and goblins (and other fractional CR baddies) until the PCs got tough enough to start taking on real challenges, assuming I could resist the temptation to ignore Pathfinder’s encounter building guidelines. That was a problem with many of the Pathfinder modules I’ve run.

Justin Alexander wrote an essay on encounter design and followed it up a few years later with an analysis of several 3e modules, including “A History of Ashes” from Curse of the Crimson Throne. He found that modern adventure modules tended to build encounters way tougher than the guidelines suggested, but if you ran them for PCs a two or three levels beyond the recommendation, the encounters more closely fell in line with the system’s guidelines. Having run more than a few Pathfinder APs, I can say they were definitely pretty tough unless you ran for a group of optimizers, which my players never really were. If I ever ran another AP, I would start the PCs out at 3rd level instead of 1st (plus an additional level for having an undersized party to make the APL three). I’m not this time around, but that’s where I got the idea to start the PCs at a higher starting level.

Several days ago, I came across a thread on the Paizo messageboards. The PC in that game had started at 4th level along with a bunch of minions. The responses raised several questions about the build, but I don’t think that’s really important. The question I had was what the narrative justification was for those build options — “Ask questions and use the answers.” That got me thinking about how I was going to handle starting equipment in my campaign.


My plan initially was to stick with the guidelines listed in the core rulebook, which suggest a split of: 25% on weapons, 25% on armor, 25% on magic items, 15% on consumables, and 10% on ordinary gear and coins. That’s balanced. Characters with an appropriate distribution of gear will meet the system’s expectations, especially consumables, which my PCs never seem to invest in enough. However, it’s also pretty boring. If players want to go against the norm when building their PCs, why shouldn’t they be allowed to? They just need to provide narrative justification.

Just like anything else on their character sheets, gear can tell a story. Magic items are an obvious candidate, but even regular gear can tell a story. For example, if you’re going to two-weapon fight with kukris, why kukris and not a longsword and a shortsword? Yes, I know it’s a common optimization choice (for the expanded threat range), but why would the character choose to use them. It may take a little prying, but one should be able to get a little world building out of it.

By the end of session zero, I want to have many tools at my disposal. Along with character backgrounds[1], narratively justifying the PCs’ startring gear should meet that goal nicely, providing a nice source of not only plot hooks but also organizations (both friendly and hostile) as well as relationships with NPCs and responsibilities to either or both (if any).

  1. One of the other things I like about starting past 1st level is that it helps the phase trio part of character creation make a little more sense within the context of Pathfinder. In the phase trio, characters go on an adventure and then cross paths with each other (twice). It doesn’t really make a lot of sense for that to have happened if the characters are starting out at 1st level with 0 XP.

It’s time to learn me a Haskell (for great good!)

I seem to have a thing for learning new programming languages. Over the last few years, I’ve picked up ECMAScript, F#, Powershell, and Swift. I enjoy learning, and learning a new language often reveals new ways of doing things, but I’d also like to eventually do something practical with them. That’s why I’m writing this post.

When I saw last week’s announcement that Microsoft would be acquiring Xamarin, I initially grew concerned. I use a Mac and prefer to work under OS X rather than Windows, and the announcement pretty strongly played on the value that Xamarin brought to Visual Studio in cross-platform mobile development. However, after thinking about it, I realized that I’m really just programming for my own edification at this point, and worrying about whether I would be able to develop apps using e.g. Xamarin.iOS or Xamarin.Mac. That’s why I decided to buy RPG Maker MV to make an RPG.

With that in mind, I decided to reconsider the language I was using. I already tend to write code in a pure functional style and have even tried to do point-free style in F# even though it’s not a particularly good fit (due to the value restriction and limits on automatic generalization), so it made sense to give Haskell another go. I tried learning it back in college, but I didn’t really grok functional programming back then like I do now.

I picked up a copy of Learn You a Haskell for Great Good!, which I’m reading now. Having some experience with functional languages, I’m not quite its target audience, but I wanted to start easy. After that, I’m going to read Haskell Programming from First Principles. I’ve been wanting to learn more about lambda calculus, so I look forward to the introduction that book provides (along with all the other topics it covers). At the same time, I definitely need to find some projects to work on to put what I’ve learned to use. I did a some Advent of Code in Swift and F#, but I’m not sure about doing it also in Haskell. I do have a new Pathfinder game coming up. Maybe I should write that weather generator I’ve been meaning to write ever since I ran Kingmaker for my group several years ago.

Character creation in my next Pathfinder game

I’m going to be wrapping up my current game in the next month or so. I’ve been running Dungeon World and Fate Core, but our next game is going to be Pathfinder. One might wonder why we’d go back to such a morass of rules and splats, but my group likes it for the most part. My players aren’t really optimizers, but they like building characters; everyone knows the rules, and I’ve made some tweaks to how I run skills to make them play better at the table; and we enjoy tactical combat, which neither Dungeon World nor Fate Core really do on the same level. We also all know and like the Pathfinder campaign setting, though to be fair we’ve been using it in the other games I run without issue. However, there are some things that Dungeon World and Fate Core do really well that I’d like to incorporate in my game while avoiding some of the elements that didn’t work well for my group.

Session Zero

There were several elements of both Dungeon World and Fate that I liked and felt worked well with my group when I ran those games. The most important one, and the one that lays the framework for everything else that we’ll be doing, is the dedicated character creation session, also known as ‘session zero’.

It’s tough for everyone to find time outside of the session to work on character backgrounds. We’re all busy adults with families and other responsibilities that tend to take priority. Even if they did have time, some people just aren’t interested in the spending the time on a background. It could be that they don’t like the creative writing exercise, or maybe they’ve been burnt by past GMs who asked for a background and then never used it. I’ve played in my share of the latter, so I can certainly understand the sentiment. However, if we do everything together, then it’s kind of like rolling up characters in the old days: everyone bounces ideas off of each other until the group arrives at a consensus regarding what to play. The only difference is that there is an added element of world building.

In Fate Core, session zero is dedicated not just to character creation but figuring out just what sort of problems interest the players (and their characters), which helps set the tone of the game. It gets everyone on the same page, and it starts laying the groundwork for narrative collaboration in the game.

Ask Questions and Use the Answers

One of most important things I took from Dungeon World, which I hate to frame it as such since it’s so obvious in retrospect, are its principles, which actually come from Apocalypse World. During character creation, none of these are more important than: Ask questions and use the answers. It establishes that the game as a conversation between the players and the GM telling a shared story rather than competing to overcome challenges devised by the GM.

Using the answers is critical. It reënforces the shared ownership of the narrative, which goes a long way to allaying concerns by players having been burnt in the past by GMs who asked for information and then never used it. It does require me to step up my game and always be asking questions, but I think that’s a good thing. In addition to providing me with ways to engage the game other than just combat encounters and challenges, it pays off by offloading some of the work from me to the players, and it can be an excellent source of plot hooks.

Aspects and Bonds

Being a source of plot hooks is one of the things I liked about aspects. During character creation, players create a number of aspects related to their characters. These include a concept, trouble, and what Fate calls the phase trio. The phase trio is a series of incidents happening prior to the game’s start involving an adventure and the crossing of characters’ paths. These are all good things, but we found aspects themselves to be a bit more trouble than they’re worth (outside of a Fate game).

I’ve tried hacking aspects into other games before. During my last D&D 5e campaign, we converted our backgrounds into aspects. The idea was to use compels as a source of inspiration. It didn’t really work out very well. I tried the same thing in my last Pathfinder game, except substitute hero points in place of inspiration. Neither worked very well in practice. The problem was that fate points require aspects to be pervasive, and they just weren’t. It would require far too much work to hack aspects into those games, which relates to the reason why I ended up running Fate Core: I was grafting so many elements of Fate onto Pathfinder that it seemed like a better idea to convert and just run Fate Core instead. Unfortunately, aspects are just really difficult for players new to them to grok. A good aspect is evocative, says something about the character and her relationship to the world, and it can be a source of both invocations and compels. They can get too caught up in trying to phrase them properly. Ironically, there’s something of a dearth of good examples. Sure, the book is full of really good aspects, but they’re maybe a little too good, so players would try to emulate those: trying to run before they learned to walk and ending up flat on their face as a result (due to the aspects they created not working very well in practice).

With practice, I think we all could learn to create some great aspects, but since we’re going to be shifting gears back to Pathfinder, I think we’ll take worked well generally (such as the phase trio) and leave behind the ones that did not.

I should note that Dungeon World has something similar for player characters called bonds. These are a little more narrowly focused, specifically on the characters relationships with each other. I don’t think my players ever resolved a bond in play, so they never marked XP for that. However, we liked the Dungeon World XP system in general and will be using elements of that in Pathfinder.

Game and Character Creation

For our first — zeroth, really — session, we will hash out the themes and setting but also the parameters of character advancement. As I noted above, everyone generally liked the XP system in Dungeon World, and a big part of that were the end of session questions. While we could use them verbatim, I think tailoring them to the campaign would be best. Dungeon World is at its best when the mechanics reënforce the game’s theme and setting, and if I’m going to take from it, then I should respect that. Any issues that we decide will fuel our initial fronts, another idea from Dungeon World that I find myself using in pretty much everything I run now.

Character creation will be a little looser than what we tried in the past. My players will work out their concepts first, then we’ll generate stats — yes, generate. If you look at the way classes were designed in early editions of D&D (or offshoots such as Pathfinder), some have higher ability score requirements than others. While the explicit requirements were dropped from 3e, they’re still functionally there. Rather than give everyone a heap of points in a point-buy system or provide an alternative to the usual ability score bonus progression (such as a level-dependent point buy), we’ll be using what I call the card method.

I’m not sure who created it originally, but I believe I found it on the Paizo forums. Since we started using it, it’s come to be our preferred ability score generation method. It’s random, but it’s generally pretty fair. There’s a range of power, but no one is getting to get multiple 18s nor multiple poor scores. The card method can be described thusly:

  1. Shuffle together two sets of cards numbered in ascending order from four to nine.
  2. Deal the resulting deck of cards into six piles of two cards each.
  3. Total each pile individually and record the results. These numbers are your ability scores.
  4. Assign your ability scores as you see fit.

While we won’t be using aspects per se, the ideas behind them are still important. After creating their characters, players will provide a statement concerning their characters’ alignments. While it might be nice to remove alignment completely, it’s so ingrained in Pathfinder that one pretty much has to just deal with it. Even the alternatives suggested in Pathfinder Unchained barely patch over it. After that, we’ll go through the phase trio. Of course, I intend to ask lots and lots of questions. Everything on their character sheets ought to have a story behind it, and with those stories comes supporting characters, relationships, and obligations that can all serve as sources of plot hooks. This should give us a solid foundation on which to build a campaign.