Saturday, July 21, 2018

Generating Random Encounters in Pathfinder

We've all seen Pathfinder random encounter tables like these before, right?

They're in most every Pathfinder product, definitely every adventure path issue. (This one is from the Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition.) You use them when you GM to fill in the cracks, to provide a bit of extra material during long periods of travel and so on. They're familiar and they're simple.

But they're also often boring, and easy to ignore.

Pathfinder's random encounter tables are a vestige of the game's origins, back in original D&D's dungeon crawls and wilderness explorations. Random encounter tables back then put the screws to players, providing an ever-increasing tension and stress on resources. Random encounters - even the possibility of them - break up the idea of the five minute adventuring day because they guarantee the PCs cannot account for all threats in all directions. They also provide some world building, by showing you what kinds of monsters are native to or traveling through specific areas. And they're just great inspiration, putting the game into the dice and seeing what comes out. You often get surprising, unusual results. Fantastic ones that make your game more interesting.

In order for your random encounters to be richer, you need richer tools. So I've looked through a variety of sources and stole, adapted, or reconfigured tools for Pathfinder - for your game, no matter what it might be. It doesn't matter whether you're in the wilderness, underground, in a dungeon, or a city: what I'm about to lay out will make your encounters richer and more interesting. Better yet, these tools don't require you to change anything about your game. They just provide a setup for generating random encounters in Pathfinder. All you need is this page, some dice, and a random encounter table like the one shown above.

Ready? Let's get started.

A Note

Random encounters are really for the players as much as you. If the players know that random encounters will occur when they do specific things, when specific amounts of time and so on pass, it motivates them to keep careful track of their actions and their time spent. It makes the game more meaningful. Because of this, I strongly recommend you actually have your players roll for random encounters, not you. Don't tell them what the table results are outright, but do ask for d100 and d12 rolls and watch as they realize what they're bringing upon themselves. To go with that, lower results are generally more interesting on the following tables and results - this is the reverse of how tables usually work in Pathfinder, but it does add some spunk and spice to the usual cry of despair at rolling a 1.

Encounter Frequency

First off, when do you roll for random encounters? Pathfinder is frustratingly vague about providing answers or guidance for this question. There is some information in D&D 3.5, but it's mushy and bad. We can do better by going back to the 1e DMG and similar sources. Before we begin, it's worth remembering that some sources do provide instructions on when to roll for encounters. As an example, Rise of the Runelords suggests rolling once per day or a night of rest. You might want to adjust how often you roll, decreasing it for safe areas or increasing it for particularly dangerous ones. As a general rule, however, roll according to the following.

Wilderness Roll every four hours. Generally PCs travel about 6 miles per four hours, so you'll have 3 rolls while traveling 12 hours, and 3 while asleep or resting. Nice and neat. Distance matters in addition to time when doing exploration gameplay (from Ultimate Campaign or Ultimate Wilderness). For exploration gameplay, roll every six miles travelled. (Note Ultimate Campaign's hexes are 12 miles across, so you'll want to roll twice per hex for those.)

Dungeon Roll every 30 minutes of activity, or every four hours while resting. Additionally, roll when the players make a lot of noise in game (a loud battle, a lot of firearms going off, explosions, whatever.) If you have players that insist on checking every nook and cranny, roll every time they take 20 on a Perception check to inspect something.

Why? Random encounter checks keep the game moving and stop it from getting stuck. By rolling in response to player actions (and time in Pathfinder is a function of player actions) you're reinforcing that player actions have consequences, and that those consequences can often draw out resources or attention.

The flip side of this is that if the game is running well and your players are ON, ignore the random encounters if you want. If they are doing stuff and people are having fun, don't slow them down. But if they're uncertain about their next move, if they're arguing, or if they're pointlessly searching everything, make it time for a random encounter. Make the game exciting.

The Encounter Roll

Every 4 hours? Every 30 minutes? My players are going to be drowning in monsters and we're never gonna get anywhere! Well hang on. I didn't say every roll was a full on monster encounter with a battle map and everything. That would be boring. We can do better than boring.

When you roll for encounters, grab 2 sets of dice. One is a d12, and one is whatever the table you use calls for. (So if I was rolling on the above Rise of the Runelords table, I'd have a d12 and 2d10 for a d%.)

Your dice for the table you're using are as normal. Those give you a monster, its source, and its number appearing (don't forget to figure that out while you're at it.)

Your d12, you check on this following table, which we'll call the encounter roll table:

1d12 Result (Chance of Occuring)
1-2
 Monster (16.66)
3 Lair (8.33)
4-5 Spoor (16.66)
6-7 Tracks (16.66)
8-10 Traces (25)
11-12 Nothing (16.66)

Monster The PCs encounter the monster you rolled with your other set of dice. Don't just go right to Initiative - I've got some more details for you below.
Lair The PCs find the lair of the monster. By lair I mean a reasonably sized space that the monster lives in, and presumably where it keeps its treasure and other interesting things. You can fit this in no matter where you roll this result, I bet - outside it's really easy to think of monster lairs, but in a dungeon fill up your next empty room. Yes, the dice have just completely changed the geography of your game. That's surprising to you and it's inspirational and isn't this hobby cool?
Again, lairs usually contain the monster's treasure as outlined in the monster stat block, except for anything the monster would actually carry on it.
When you're rolling to see if the PCs and the monster spot each other (see Encounter Distance below), if the PCs would spot the monster but the monster doesn't spot the PCs, the lair is actually empty. Yes, that means the PCs may get some treasure without fighting a monster. That's pretty cool!
Clearing out a monster's lair or slaying monsters in their lairs may result in permanently removing it from the encounter table. It's dead, or scared off, or just moved on. Obviously this most likely happens with unique monsters, or ones in small numbers. You're never going to kill all the goblins, they breed like rats!
Spoor A sign that the monster has just been here, like a victim's body, the monster's dung, or something else. The next time you roll on the Encounter Roll Table, take a -6 penalty. At your discretion, keep the same result from your encounter table so the PCs run into the monster they just found the spoor from.
Tracks The monster has passed this way recently. PCs can make Survival checks to track the monster. Some monsters (invisible, incorporeal, flying) might not leave tracks, but don't make all your monsters not leave tracks.
Traces A trace or other sign of the monster. Unlike Spoor, the monster hasn't been here recently, but this is a noticeable sign of its existence. PCs with applicable Knowledge skills can make checks at a -2 penalty to identify the monster when they find its Trace.
Nothing Nothing happens.

Now, this is the mechanics. For each of the results on the Encounter Roll Table above, you really want to come up with a unique narrative element for each individual monster on your encounter table. You design unique elements to give the monster a place in the world, some context and some influence before the PCs actually meet it. You could design all of them before play, in which case you can just add Lair/Spoor/Tracks/Traces as extra columns to your encounter table, or just come up with them as you roll them (in which case keep notes.)
You do want two Traces for each monster, both different, so that the PCs can get an idea of what the monster is like even if they don't actually make the Knowledge checks.
Here's an example from the Rise of the Runelords table, for the mite:
Lair A low, small cavern shared with vermin.
Spoor A gnome viciously stabbed hundreds of times.
Tracks Tiny three-toed tracks.
Trace 1 A scrap of cloth coloured a vibrant, unnatural green.
Trace 2 A dead dog-sized spider with riding saddle attached.

See, aren't those cool? And all that from the mite's entry in the Bestiary and a little thinking.

Encounter Distance

If you're going to have an encounter, you're going to need to have an idea of the terrain. It's all too easy to just set up the same battle mat and put people roughly 60 feet apart and everything feels the same all the time. We can do better than that. Figure out the rough terrain of your encounter, and then roll on the following table. Keep your result in mind, you'll need it again:

Spotting Distance By Terrain (Or Other Factors) Distance In Feet
Smoke, heavy fog, other dense concealment 1d4 x 10 feet
Murky water 1d8 x 10 feet
Jungle or dense forest; rugged hills 2d6 x 10 feet
Medium forest; swamp; urban 2d8 x 10 feet
Gentle hills 2d10 x 10 feet
Light forest 3d6 x 10 feet
Scrub, brush, or bush; marsh or moor, sandy deserts 6d6 x 10 feet
Clear water 4d8 x 10 feet
Mountain, valley, or canyon 4d10 x 10 feet
Flat desert 12d6 x 10 feet
Plains or grassland 12d12 x 10 feet
Total darkness or indoors (dark) Limit of shadowy light from light sources or other senses (darkvision, blindsight, tremorsense, etc)
Indoors (lit) Line of sight
Underground As most similar aboveground terrain to limit of light if necessary (other lights can be seen at standard spotting distance)

So now you know roughly what distance your PCs and your monsters might perceive each other at. Spotting is really only half the story - the parties could hear or smell each other, for example. It's just a rule of thumb. Don't worry about direction, or actually being able to see each other - this is just their general distance when they might become aware of each other.

To check if the groups become aware of each other, have them make Perception checks (the DC is the number you rolled to determine their distance apart.) If either side is trying to be stealthy, skip to Stealth below instead of rolling this.

Some common modifiers that might apply to this roll for one or both sides:
Size -1 for each size category the other group is smaller than Medium; +1 for each size category the other group is larger than Medium
Six or more creatures in the other group +5
Bright Light (noontime) +2
Dim light (dusk, tree cover) -2 (low-light or darkvision negates this penalty)
Starlight (darkness) -4 (darkvision negates this penalty)
Weather varies

If at least one character or creature succeeds at this Perception check, the encounter begins at full distance. Place the characters on the map and roll for initiative; successful characters act in a surprise round.
If no one succeeds at this Perception check, the encounter begins at half distance. Place the characters on the map and roll for initiative; there is no surprise round. Both sides essentially run into each other.

Note that full or half distance, either group might not be able to see each other - successful Perception checks could be hearing the other group, not seeing them. Find out what happens when your PCs hear orcs coming for them from one room over, but can't see them yet.

Stealth
If either or both side is trying to be stealthy, encounters always occur at half rolled distance. Stealthy creatures always receive surprise. Other creatures roll Perception, with a DC equal to 10 + the Stealth modifier of any stealthy creatures. Characters that succeed on this Perception check are not surprised and may act during the surprise round.

Reaction Rolls

One thing Pathfinder always assumes is that any given monster or encounter is always going to be hostile. It doesn't really state it specifically anywhere, but the default assumption is that an encounter is going to be combat. Not everything turns out that way though. Goblins are sometimes enemies, sometimes friends. Some creatures from the Bestiary are actually helpful to adventurers. And not everything wants to fight - a pack of wolves could just warily look on and then fade into the distance. Pathfinder even has room for more than just outright hostility - Diplomacy allows you to change a creature's demeanour, and so does charm person.

Old-school D&D had a term for this called the reaction roll, and I've duplicated that here. It's your last step in rolling because it determines what your monster will do when it actually hits the table. It doesn't necessarily need to fight! But you need to apply a bit of thought as to whether it's appropriate to make a reaction roll or not - monsters are still monsters after all, and in a big evil lair they're probably going to regard intruders as intruders no matter what. Fighting is often the first resort for many creatures, and for good reason. Conversely, mindless (Int --) creatures probably only react in instinct or according to simple instructions, and don't have different responses that the reaction roll would apply to. Unintelligent (Int 1-2) creatures may or may not have different responses, but are probably governed by their base needs. Again, use your own initiative and see what makes sense. Don't let the dice overrule you on this roll.

Reaction Roll Creature's Demeanor
1-2 Hostile, attacks
3-6 Unfriendly, may attack
7-10 Indifferent, uninterested
11-12 Friendly, may offer aid.

These categories are the same ones used in Diplomacy, Intimidate, and so on, so that your group can bring skill checks/magic/roleplaying to bear as they see appropriate.

Treasure

One big change that I would recommend from the Pathfinder standard is not to have treasure carried by random monsters (except any gear they are equipped with or things they would be carrying.) Random monsters are cool, but you don't want them to be reliably rewarding (except for XP, don't shaft your players on that.) By keeping treasure as a function of interacting with the actual campaign, you're motivating your players to dig into your dungeons, complete your quests and so on. Not all Pathfinder monsters carry treasure by default anyway, so this shouldn't be too big a change. You can use random monsters as your treasure-free monsters to balance out NPC gear distribution (see Core Rulebook page 400), place treasure elsewhere to make up for the experience gained from random monsters, or just not worry about it. Most PCs end up way ahead of the expected wealth per level anyway.

That's my suggested additions to generating random encounters in Pathfinder. I hope you find these helpful, and that they help you as a GM flesh your game out a bit. Please provide any questions, comments, or suggestions below.

Sources

There wasn't an absolute ton of original design that went into this article. It was more synthesis and conversion from other systems and ideas. Credit goes to the following:

http://retiredadventurer.blogspot.ca/2013/05/a-procedure-for-wandering-monsters.html
http://recedingrules.blogspot.com/2010/05/wandering-monster-checks.html
https://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=63729
http://dmdavid.com/tag/you-roll-for-random-encounters-wrong-and-so-do-i/
Anydice.com
1e Dungeon Master's Guide
3.0 Dungeon Master's Guide
Labyrinth Lord
Pathfinder Core Rulebook

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The OSR Campaign: System Selection

Hello everyone!

My first step in planning my OSR campaign was simple to imagine, but surprisingly complicated to achieve. I had to choose a system to run the game in, of course. I'm going to walk you through how I did it, and why I made the choice that I made. There's a lot of different systems, and a lot of different options in OSR gaming.

It's 2017, so I of course googled around to find some discussions of different retroclones and their qualities. There's not actually very much substantial discussion out there that I found, at least not recently. There's always new retroclones, and maybe I'd missed out on the right game for me! (Remember, I'm starting this as "the game I've always wanted to run," so I'm picking what I like.) The only good resource I found was the grand list of retroclones of all shapes and sizes, which is here.

With little discussion I could use, I had to figure this out for myself. If I'm going to find the right system, I want to find one that fits the game I'm going to run. Nothing hurts more than fighting a system to make it work for the game you want to be playing (and I usually run Pathfinder, so I know that pain very well.)

Stripping down my campaign idea, I want these qualities:

  1. I want simple character creation. There's going to be PCs dead a plenty, and I'd like something where someone can roll up a new character in 5 minutes and get thrown back into the action Paranoia clone-style.
  2. I want a relatively simple, clean ruleset. Something easily digestible. I have a lot of players who like me as a GM, and would like to play whatever I run. Which is why I'm not worried about having people to play whatever game I come up with - but they might not necessarily be familiar with the system, and I want them to be able to play easily.
  3. I want something for relatively traditional fantasy-style play. Part of what I like about the OSR is the endless inventiveness, the unwillingness to settle for the usual goblin or elf, but I don't know how far I'm going to go with that. I do know that there's going to be swords and monsters in a dungeon, so it should support the classics.
One easy question suggests itself: Why don't I use an actual older edition of D&D or AD&D? I have in the past, I've run Rules Cyclopedia BECMI, and that was a lot of fun. But I want something more recently published and with cleaned up language. I like the freedom of rulings, not rules - but I want to know what my rules are and not worry about interpreting commas in Holmes Basic or something.

First place to check for options was my own OSR folder. Second place was the list of retroclones I linked above. Third was asking some people on a cool OSR Discord server I hang out on. (You can join it here!) My general list of options after that was: Adventurer, Conquerer, King System; Beyond the Wall; Castles and Crusades; Dungeon Crawl Classics; Hackmaster; Labyrinth Lord; Lamentations of the Flame Princess; OSRIC; Swords & Wizardry; and The Black Hack. I did a cursory skim of all of these to winnow them down a bit, and pulled these out as not suiting what I wanted to do:

  • Adventurer, Conqueror, King System. ACKS is really notable for its extended, detailed rules for high-level play. It's got developed trade rules, strongholds, mass combat. But I'm not anywhere near that. I'm thinking goblins, dungeons, level 1. And ACKS' higher-level emphasis involves a campaign focus with long-lasting that I'm not sure my death trap will ever get to.
  • Beyond The Wall. Developed to emulate some novels that don't fit what I want to do with my game.
  • Castles and Crusades. Too detailed, too much stuff to it. If I wanted a bunch of supplements, I have my Pathfinder stuff.
  • Hackmaster. Even more detailed. Way too much stuff. Cool game, but I don't think I have the fortitude to actually run it.
  • OSRIC. A straight conversion of 1e seemed a little bland-ish for me. I've used OSRIC before and it's fine, but it was a bit too much with not as much reward.
  • The Black Hack. Way too simple. I don't want things simplified that much; I do want something recognizably D&D in both feel and actual rules. I've run Dungeon World before and hated it; this wouldn't be quite the same but I don't think it would be fun for me.
What's left on the list? Dungeon Crawl Classics; Labyrinth Lord; Lamentations of the Flame Princess; Swords & Wizardry. For each of these, I ended up breaking it down into a pro and con list. At this point, I was starting to consider support for the system in question. I don't want something with a ton of player-facing options or complexity, but I did really start playing D&D with 3e, and I do want something with some good DM support if I need it.

  • Dungeon Crawl Classics. Pros I actually have this in hard copy, and I really like referencing actual books. I really like the gonzo, table and crazy-dice heavy style. Cons This is a big book, even just for players. All those tables add up. It has some great support, but its support is mostly prewritten adventures, and I want to do my own thing. I'm not sure how the funnel would interact with a lot of changing players.
  • Labyrinth Lord. Pros Great support, with the Advanced Edition Companion if I really need more player options. All of Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons stuff is for this, as well as some other highlights (Dwimmermount, Stonehell, Barrowmaze, ASE.) Nice, succinct rules. Cons Uh, not much. Looks a little drab?
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess Pros Amazing horror-fantasy style, and the game definitely lives up to the art. Reasonable core rules. Plenty of support in all kinds of ways, from game industry luminaries like Kenneth Hite and D. Vincent Baker. Cons Amazing horror fantasy style might be a bit too much for a lot of people. I like black metal, but I'm not sure how many people would want to join me in that kind of game. There's a lot of confusing different versions of the core rules, and it might be difficult to find a single one to refer players to. LotFP also has a fairly strong implied setting that I might not want to include.
  • Swords and Wizardry Pros The third printing core rulebook is gorgeous and with amazing representation. I look at those sample characters and I want to play them all. Plenty of good support, and I like Frog God's stuff a lot already from using it in my Pathfinder games. Nice, clean core rules. Cons Suffers a bit from the lots of basic rules versions problem as LotFP, but a reliable usable version is available for free. I'd want to try to show people third printing though, because OMG.
I ended up bouncing my ideas off my partner next, who's a big OSR fan and I know would want to play in whatever I do. They agreed with me that LotFP was going to be a bit offputting for a lot of our usual RPG social circle, and pointed out that a lot of what interested them about Dungeon Crawl Classics was closer to campaign-style play, which I'm not necessarily going for. The final two contenders were Labyrinth Lord and Swords and Wizardry. My partner suggested Swords and Wizardry, and with that wonderful third printing it was easy to agree with them. I've already read through the entire core rulebook, and I definitely like it and can work with it. It'll be a great starting place for my own tinkering, and that's just what I wanted. I'm definitely going to add some gonzo randomness that I could never pull off for balance reasons in Pathfinder - critical hit/fumble tables and so on.

Back to considering house rules now!

Friday, August 18, 2017

So I've decided to start working on my own OSR game...

Hello everyone, I'm Erika and this is my RPG blog. Right now I'm going to talk about an OSR campaign I'm going to start prepping. I usually play Pathfinder, but I've decided to run an OSR game instead because I think it's going to fit the kind of game I want to run better.

I've always been interested in the classic megadungeon/site-based campaign style. One of the very first RPG books I ever read was the 1e Dungeon Master's Guide, and I remember distinctly how magical it seemed. Cramped tables, terrible organization - and a million little details to spark images in my mind. Gygax in the 1e DMG was still discussing the tentpole campaign dungeon, and a strong link between character level and dungeon level was in effect.

I've tried touching on this magic a couple times, with different groups and different systems, but I think I've always been fighting doing it for real. I've always tried it in Pathfinder for example, or half-heartedly. This time I'm going to do it in a system designed for bloody, stack-character-sheets-high play with a big tentpole dungeon, and I'm just going to throw in everything I like and everything I've read from the OSR. Call it gaming "mulligan stew," I suppose.

What really got me started recently was this image from Jeff Rients' blog. I definitely want to end up with a death table and a memorable, deadly dungeon like that. I've always wanted to, and my usual Pathfinder players are wusses who can't deal with their characters dying by the bushel. They want "progression." That's fine, but it makes me realize that that model of play is incompatible with what I want to do. They also don't want to map, or ask a lot of questions - they're used to provided battle maps, and simple dungeons, and that kind of thing. Again, that's fine - but it is different from what I want to do.

So I'm going to stop fighting it. I'm going head on and making my own OSR campaign. For me. When I get it done, then I'll share it with a group and go from there. I always liked sandboxes, and I'm a big fan of Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons. I'm going to follow roughly his starter for the Hill Cantons: a small, local sandbox like this. I'll fill that out, let people play through it, and go from there.

I hope you'll join me in figuring this out, and thank you for reading.