In my last play report on +Jeromy French ‘s Pathfinder campaign, I made a drive-by reference to the effect that it would be pretty cool to see support for Golarion with Dungeon Fantasy. I noted that it was unlikely for “what are presumably a whole host of reasons.”

I was surprised to see someone bring this up on the SJG Forums. Mostly because I’m still intensely gratified people actually read this blog.

Still, as I said on the forums, I’m only going to deal with this in a general way.

***

Here was the advice I got in my McKinsey min-MBA training way back when when it came to Joint Ventures: “Don’t.”

It’s the business equivalent of a spiked pit trap.

They tend not to work, by and large. And for every one that does, there a many, many more that fail. Some utterly, some just don’t meet the needs of one or more partners.

Let’s say I were to start publishing Doug’s Improvisational Simulationist System (“DISS”) as a new, awesome, groundbreaking attempt at a roleplaying experience. Now, I’ve got a good rule set, a niche I’m trying to fill. But I also have my way of doing things, not just because my name is on the cover, but the feel of a system, the way it’s written and presented, from style to trade dress, is key to my success and ability to eat, live, and continue to publish more cool stuff.

Let’s say I want to contact Pizza, the 800-lb gorilla of the game industry, because I think DISS and their immensely popular gameworld might go well together. Gotta be win-win, right? I bring them money for their world (call it Gorilla), and people who like Gorilla can play with DISS!

Hrm.

Well, first, how do I approach this? I could try and hook up with someone creative over at Pizza, and we could try and set up some sort of true joint venture, where we combine resources to make a new sub-company (Pizza-Hampton Publishing?) that would write, publish, and distribute this new product. Gorilla with the DISS rules! Their (um) Trailblazer system isn’t required!

OK. We have an upstart (me), working with an established brand (them). I have Very Definite Ideas on how things should be done. It’s my DISS system! Yeah, but it’s their property, and they be bigger than me. So any issues in how things are to be approached – what are probably referred to in Hollywood press released explaining why some ex-Director is in surgery for a broken nose after being escorted off the set of a theoretical-Blockbuster movie as ‘creative differences’ – will need to be resolved. Unless I’m particularly ego-less, this won’t go well for me. Even if I am a leaf on the wind, it may still end the same way. [If you haven’t seen Serenity but might one day, do not click this link. I mean it. By the power of Captain Tightpants, I command you to Stop.]

OK, so a “true” joint venture might not be ideal. So perhaps I like the world so much I want to try and licence it. Hrm. Why would they do that? Well, to make money, of course. For every player that does DISS but not Trailblazer, or DISS and Trailblazer, they might get a bit more cash.

Great. But how do they get that cash? Money up front? DISS is good, but not huge. It’s not their system or anything like it. So I might not have enough money for any up-front payment they might like to receive. Sure, they might take a chunk of my profit every time I sell a Gorilla-based DISS product, but would it be worth the administrative hassle for what might be like nine sales?

Also, what happens if I take Gorilla in a direction Pizza doesn’t like? Is it worth risking the damage to the brand?

Why would they take valuable resources and siphon them off to anther company or project that will probably make them less money if they do something with those resources that directly supports their own game?

Finally, how viable is the partnership/licence anyway? Will they really add to their business, and me to the DISS base, by this? Or will it really be that the number of DISS players will be constant, and only a small fraction will also play in Gorilla? Are there really enough additional potential sales of Gorilla-based stuff that it will be interesting to Pizza? Will they want to review whatever publications I make? Will they ever recoup the opportunity cost of the editing/review resources?

So, for a bunch of reasons, this is going to be a tough sell, even neglecting more proprietary possibilities like “if you’re going to play Gorilla, play it with Trailblazer.”

The opposite can also be true! If DISS is based in a default world of Hamptonia . . . then I might not want to drive to a Gorilla-based campaign, since it will consume sales from my own world.

Anyway, that’s the kind of thing that I think of when I think of this sort of venture. Any of these might make one of the two parties nervous about even starting up a conversation.

After all, the first rule of Joint Ventures is still “Don’t.”

**********

Final note: David Pulver (thanks for reading!) points out in this post that SJG does, in fact, have a long history of trying out licences. So it’s not unheard of or impossible.

+Jeromy French reminded me, however, of this.  So perhaps it’s not quite as unlikely as all that after all. hrm…

Sometimes it goes right, and sometimes it doesn’t.

So, let’s talk about another show that started out one of my favorites, and then . . . faded.

The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.

First, a few words about GURPS BSG. There was a short thread on it in the SJG Forums, but I’ll ignore it for a moment.

I think that as a setting, BSG makes excellent roleplaying fodder. Especially since I think the series could have gone in a couple, maybe better directions. Such jumping-off points make for nice campaigns.

It’s mostly TL8 or TL9, but with some real excursions into superscience for plot purposes. It’s got nearly infinitely scalable engines (from the Viper to the Galactica – they all run on the same fuel), artificial gravity, and jump drive. The Colonial economy was able to support very large starships on a scale of fleets.

The tech is a blend of the familiar and the awesome. They use nukes, but they’re believably limited in power as space weapons. The need for swarms of fighters is a stretch – it always is – but it’s presented as a “just accept it” part of the genre that works (for me).

The awesome part of this as a RPG campaign is that it thrusts the PCs into any imaginable encounter in a believable way. You’re planet-hopping, so nearly anything is possible. You need to periodically refuel, there’s a bad guy who is entirely likely to show up every episode, and can also show up as a surprise since the new cylon models can blend in with people. You can have mining, special ops, fighter pilots, politics, and interpersonal stuff, up to and including trading, crime, and romance.

GURPS? Well, GURPS can handle the PC stuff no problem. You can just mostly crib TL8 weaponry – and a lot of High Tech’s TL8 weaponry outclasses Ultra Tech’s stuff . . . but you’ll want the TL9 ammo types to scrap toasters with. For the ships, you can just pick up GURPS Spaceships and wing it and if you want tactical combat, you can grab Spaceships 4 which has some mods for cinematic fighter combat.

Honestly, that ought to do it.

But . . . what about the Awesome?

Well, it started great. The miniseries was wonderful, I think, and the first regular episode, 33, is one of the finest hours of television in the genre. All of Season 1 is very strong. After all, “. . . and they have a plan!” is the tagline.

Season 2 was also strong, but soon after, it very much seemed that while the Cylons had a plan, the writers did not. They tried to be pretty political with “ripped from the headlines” stuff with suicide bombers on New Caprica, and that entire plotline could have been handled better, I think. The show lost its way in a fashion that Babylon 5 did not.

It didn’t hurt that J. Michael Straczynski had all five seasons plotted out in advance, more or less. Despite jamming the fourth and fifth seasons into what became the fourth, the fifth was strong enough to stand up, though not stand out. But the entire show had the right pattern to it.

BSG seemed to have that for the first two seasons, or maybe the first and the first half of the second. But then the show seemed to lose its grasp of itself, losing it’s theme.

I’m not hating on the show. I liked it, and the first few seasons were very strong . . . but when the Cylons seemed to, well, not ‘have a plan,’ it foundered. My expectations were not met, since both the humans and cylons seemed to be making it up as they went along. Whatever the Cylon’s grand plan might have been, I never got a sense that the cylons or the writers knew what it was.

Destroy the humans and enslave them? OK. Fine. They WON. Why was Galactica (and later Pegasus) so freakin’ important? Let ’em go. Set up a Colonial perimeter and let them come to you, where you can toaster-pile them instead of trying to hit ’em one Basestar (or two, if you’re going against the Pegasus) at a time.

Anyway, I think that somewhere in Season 1 or 2 would make a great jumping-off point for an RPG campaign, but a prospective GM would be wise to ensure that his Cylons actually have an overall plan. The bad guys would not be bad guys in their own minds – and in fairness, they weren’t in the show, either – and should have a clear objective (or set of objectives) that they are trying to achieve.

OR . . . if they don’t, one must understand why. Did they get wind that Galactica is looking for the lost Colony of Earth? Does that fire the imagination? Why? Why chase them across the light-years.

I don’t know if that was ever clear to me – perhaps there’s more information out there than what I picked up from the show. But one thing I did understand: the primary driving force of the Telepaths, the Shadows, the Vorlons, and the Centauri were all clear to me.

Toasters?

Not so much. That made it hard to get swept up in the arc, even if some individual shows were quite good.

For a while I had my posts scheduled for a 1am release on any given day. I tend to write ahead by 2-4 days when I can, so that I can put something out there every day or two.

On the 18th, I experimented with posting at 6-8am . . . and had something like 100 views in about an hour!

For the bloggers out there: what’s the right posting frequency? Every day? Every other day?

What time to post gets you the most interest?

What kind of posts make people flock to your site? Rules nuggets? Play reports? Reviews?

I’d think that having one solid post every few days would ensure that so much doesn’t happen that people miss things . . . but Google Analytics tells me that, perhaps unsurprisingly, my “best day” since GA started tracking was January 10, with over 100 unique visitors that day. I posted three times: Forthcoming part 2, Serve up the Fun, and Travel in Gaming part 2.

A retroactive introduction: After an actual-play hiatus where I was mostly writing and playtesting for GURPS. I was invited to play in a Pathfinder game, and after a few sessions, it was time to buy the book and learn the rules! I decided to try and read the Pathfinder Core Rulebook cover-to-cover and see what inspiration strikes, for good or ill!

This is a compilation of the links to read-throughs of Pathfinder-related material

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

0.  Prelude
1.  Introduction
2.  Races


3a. Classes (Barbarian – Monk)
3b. Classes (Paladin – Wizard)

Please make any comments you have at the individual entries!

With that in mind, let’s get it on!

The chapter starts with some brief and very, very important information. That the rate of advancement is up to the GM, and that you get one Feat at 1st level, and another every other level, regardless of class. You also get +1 to the ability score of your choice every four levels. Note that your ability score bonus is the difference between your score and 10, divided by two, and rounded towards zero. So that first +1 is most useful taking any odd score (which you should avoid if you can; as far as I can tell – they may be pointless) that you got stuck with and moving it to an even one. What that means is that if you spent time optimizing your character for start-of-play bonuses, you’ll get your first increase in ability-score bonuses every eight levels, which may drive you in search of mystical quests to raise them magically long before you hit that point!

One important point that has come up more than once as I read: When studying a rule, class, race, or power, it is very important to read the entire section that you’re in, and to do so with deliberation and care. While sometimes, such as in the description of the Monk’s AC bonus, the info is effectively repeated twice, in other cases, crucial info is dropped on you and you had better have caught it the first time. That’s a warning, not a complaint. A 500+ page rulebook has to be spare with words to not grow into a 750+ page rulebook. Still: read closely.

It also gives a brief rundown of multiclassing, where you can follow more than one class progression sequentially. I don’t see any game-rule reason other than efficiency that you can’t jack-of-all-trades it and do all eleven classes. Well, that and it’s almost certainly dumb. Some of the classes have rules like what armor and weapons can be used that will preclude another class from being effective. If you’re a Monk and get slammed if you put on armor, and also try and be a Fighter where you want full plate and a tower shield, well, if the cognitive dissonance doesn’t kill you, a party of goblinoids probably will, and your GM probably should.

Finally, it introduces the concept of the favored class, which does put the brakes on how good you really can get while multiclassing, You get a game-mechanical bonus every time you gain a level in a favored class (half-elves can start with two): either +1 HP or +1 skill rank.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow on each class. Well, I am, but I’m going to try and get to some high-level themes instead of “well, in my expert opinion, having Played Pathfinder for all of five to ten sessions and only having read the rules this one time, you should . . . ” 

’cause that wouldn’t make any sense. The entire point of this read-through is I’m new at this, with only the Core Rulebook in front of me. 

(Now in shiny hardback, too. There’s something visceral and nice about having actual books. I love me my eBooks and PDFs . . . don’t get me wrong . . . but given a choice, I’ll often get both)

Instead, I’m going to pick at some things I noticed on reading the classes a few times, and with that, I’ll start with some definitions:


Hit Die (HP at 10th Level):
You get the full HP at 1st level, and then I assume the average roll on your particular die for nine more levels. This can go up if you have a CON bonus, since that bonus applies to every hit die roll. Since Pathfinder HP are basically an ablative form of life, more is definitely better. 


Skill Ranks (Number of Class Skills):
How many ranks you get per level, and the number of class skills associated with that character.


Skill-Ability Breakdown:
How many of those class skills receive their bonus from each ability. Will help you think of where to put your ability bonuses at character start.


BAB Total (10/20):
The maximum BAB you will add on achieving 10th and 20th level. As this number is added to both melee and ranged combat, it’s a good proxy for how good you are in conventional combat. Lower bonuses mean if you’re looking to deal smackdown, it’s not going to be swinging swords or shooting bows in a stand-up fight.


Save Total:
The sum of your eventual bonuses at 10th and 20th level to your Willpower, Fortitude, and Reflex saving throws. Basically, the higher this is, the more consequences of certain stuff you can avoid, like traps and spells.

Feats, spells, and talents I’ll leave to the descriptors, though they can be a major focus (or the major focus) of a character.

Barbarian

Hit Die (HP at 10th): d12 (71 HP)
Skill Ranks (Number of Class Skills): 4 (10 skills)
Skill-Ability Breakdown: STR (2); DEX (2); CON(0); INT (2); WIS (2); CHA(2).
BAB Total (10/20): +10/+20 (extra attack every 5 levels past first)
Save Total: ( 13/24 )

Barbarians are the Pathfinder equivalent of Mister Furious, who ‘gets his power from his boundless rage.’ But more like him at the end of the movie, where his stuff actually works. They have a long list of “rage powers,” from adding a bite attack to night vision to getting a boost to lost HP through Renewed Vigor. The downside here is that they can’t use skills that require finesse: no DEX, INT, or CHA skills while raging. Pretty sure, though, that attacking is not a skill, so feathering people with arrows, should one choose to do so, is not precluded. Though it’s hard to really imagine what an incredibly angry archer would look like. Not as terrifying as the slavering NFL shoo-in swinging a big axe at your head.

The upshot here is that, by and large, you’re going to be up close and personal, dealing out the hurt with simple and martial weapons, protected by up to medium armor and using shields. Front-line melee types.

You have a fairly limited skill set available, but given the Barbarian’s proclivities for getting in people’s faces and staving them in with a maul, STR and CON seem obvious choices, since the HP bonus for a high CON hits every level, but the DEX bonus to AC occurs but once. 

Bard

Hit Die (HP at 10th): d8 (49 HP)
Skill Ranks (Number of Class Skills): 6 (19 skills)
Skill-Ability Breakdown: STR (1); DEX (4); CON(0); INT (5); WIS (3); CHA(6).
BAB Total (+7/+15): +7/+15(extra attack every 5 levels past first)
Save Total: ( 17/30)

Bards overlap a bit with Rogues in some ways, though they lack Disable Device. They have some pretty cool abilities with the bardic performance schtick – even at low level, the Inspire Courage bardsong (+1 to hit and damage) is a major help, since the +1 damage can be a significant boost to low-level attack results. They can also cast some spells. A quick scan shows that most of the spells and songs are driven by the Bard’s CHA modifier, so between the skill list and the powers, CHA is your go-to ability for a bard. No surprise there, really. We’ve got a bard and a bard-alchemist in our party, and both are really nice to have around. Some of the spells look cool, like what must be the medieval equivalent of the power chord with a magical amplifier (Sonic Blast).

Cleric

Hit Die (HP at 10th): d8 (49 HP)
Skill Ranks (Number of Class Skills): 2 (13 skills)
Skill-Ability Breakdown: STR (0); DEX (0); CON(0); INT (9); WIS (3); CHA(1).
BAB Total (+7/+15): +7/+15(extra attack every 5 levels past first)
Save Total: ( 17/30)

Wow. You’ve got 13 skills, but you’ll suck at all of them. On the flip side, with nearly all of them concentrated in INT, you can focus a pretty major bonus here to good effect. Let’s see . . . the channel energy thing is either a smackdown or healing buff, this one driven by CHA. The maximum level of your spellcasting, however, is driven by WIS, and so is the Difficulty Class of resisting those spells. Cleric spells go to 9th level, and you need WIS 19 to cast a 9th level spell. You’ll have +4 to some attributes by the time you can cast even one 9th level spell, and if you focus that on WIS, you’ll still want to start (or end) with WIS 15. Or higher. So three key stats: WIS, CHA, and INT, if you like those skills.

I’ve not played in a game with a Cleric yet. I do remember the old days of D&D where 1st level Clerics had the “Hit him with my mace” option . . . and that was it. Not so now, with 0 and 1st level spells and channel energy at 1st level. Fairly credible combatants if their deity allows it, too, though not feat-centric like fighers. The Domain powers, of which you get to pick two, are pretty interesting, and the domain spells bear a close look. The domains are tied to the Gods, which are tied to Golarian – another nice advantage of having a vibrant and detailed world.

This is, in a way, where things kind of make my head swim. Each spell or power or feat is a very technical special case. The good news is, they come on slowly, level by level. Still, one could easily see a set of index cards or something to keep track of each bit, one per ability.

Druid

Hit Die (HP at 10th): d8 (49 HP)
Skill Ranks (Number of Class Skills): 4 (13 skills)
Skill-Ability Breakdown: STR (2); DEX (2); CON(0); INT (4); WIS (4); CHA(1).
BAB Total (10/20): +7/+15(extra attack every 5 levels past first)
Save Total: ( 17/30)

Velociraptor animal companion. I’d say “’nuff said” but that’s the wrong genre,and I do have more to say.

Alas.

Because really, once you get to “velociraptor” (and the One Velociraptor per Child program. No shit. Really.) everything else is bound to be anticlimactic. Kudos, also, for identifying the Deinonychus, the  V-raptor’s bigger, badder, Hollywood-star cousin.

These guys can probably do the hand-to-hand with weapons thing, but their mission in life seems to be to turn into an animal (fear the DIRE KIWI). Jokes aside, this is any animal of the appropriate size type, and the possibilities for infiltration here are legion even without turning into something fierce. 

They also get spells, up to four per level per day, with nine spell levels available.

But really: Velociraptor. With a single attack that grows more badass as the Druid gains levels, more Feats than some PCs, good saving throws and AC that, if I read it right, can hit 26, this is really why you want a druid along. As long as the wee beasty doesn’t get hungry and eat your party Halfling. I mean, Velociraptors ate Sam “BMF” Jackson; they’d have no issue with Merry or Pippin.

Fighter

Hit Die (HP at 10th): d10 (60HP)
Skill Ranks (Number of Class Skills): 2 (10 skills)
Skill-Ability Breakdown: STR (2); DEX (1); CON(0); INT (3); WIS (2); CHA(2).
BAB Total (10/20): +10/+20(extra attack every 5 levels past first)
Save Total: ( 13/24)

Heavy armor, tower shields, and abilities that make them less hindering than for most. Focused weapon training. But basically, this guy is Feat Man, and by 20th level, he’ll have 20 of them. Presumably, though I won’t get there ’till Chapter 5, these are badass. 

This guy is going to be decked out in the best armor you can get, and will take his weapon – or weapons – of choice and render unto you like a Cuisinart. The low number of skill levels  means that you’ll largely be fishing for the +3 you get when you put your first rank in something, but really, noncombat stuff just Isn’t Your Thing. Why aren’t you boosting your STR and CON and skewering something right now? 

“Why read words when you can just kill the stuff the words tell you stuff about?” 

                                                                     – Snotlout, How to Train Your Dragon

Yeah, that’s exactly right. Where’d I put my longsword?

Monk

Hit Die (HP at 10th): d8 (49 HP)
Skill Ranks (Number of Class Skills): 4 (14 skills)
Skill-Ability Breakdown: STR (2); DEX (4); CON(0); INT (3); WIS (3); CHA(2).
BAB Total (10/20): +7/+15(extra attack every 5 levels past first; nearly-indecipherable flurry of blows if unarmed)
Save Total: (21/36)

First, a drive-by: WIS is super-important. It drives your AC bonus and later accumulation of ki points, which put Monk abilities into overdrive when spending them. The AC bonus is driven by your WIS level, and with proper point investment you can start off with an unarmored AC bonus similar to that of a chain shirt, and at high levels, it can hit levels only matched by full plate and a shield. So this is pretty cool stuff.

The flurry of blows comment above? It took me three days to understand how it worked. Largely due to lack of attention to detail, and a bit of Do It Yourself requirements and interpretation. Let me break it down. Your flurry of blows BAB is equal to your Monk’s level, less penalties for Two-Weapon Fighting. Now, those penalties are normally -6 for the good hand, and -10 for the bad one. But Monks don’t have an off hand fighting unarmed. So you really only have to worry about the -6. Two-Weapon Fighting drops the -6 by 2 for big weapons, by 4 for light weapons, and unarmed strikes count as light. Therefore, each attack is at -2. When you get to 8th level, you get two more at -5 beyond that, and at 15th level two more still at -10. 

I think, though, what happens is that you get these paired attacks (one pair at 1st level, two pair at 8th level, three pair at 15th level) . . . and if your BAB is still high enough when you’re done with that, you get one last attack at -5 past that. This explains, I think, why at 7th level, with only the pair of attacks you get from Two-Weapon Fighting (two attacks at -2, with a BAB of +7, equal to your level), that leaves you with +5/+5 . . . whereupon you then apply the usual Pathfinder rule that if you can subtract 5 from your BAB and get zero or more, swing away.  

That is a funky-weird way of interpreting the rule, to my mind. I would have thought that the natural two-fer you get with Two-Weapon, Improved Two-Weapon, and Greater Two-Weapon fighting was more than enough, and that this rule preempted the other. Oh well, at least I figured it out eventually, though I broke some brain cells doing it.

The Monk also does some nice Unarmed Damage here, equal to a shortsword or composite shortbow at 1d6 even at first level, and by 12th level, you’re into as much maximum damage unarmed as a greataxe. Not shabby.

There are a bunch of other powers and abilities the Monk throws down. You can stun targets, do nonlethal damage, reduced damage against special attacks if you make a saving throw – and note that saving throws are a Monk’s forte. 

(Thats FORT. Not For-TAY. One strong like bull, other loud like metal. Think “the forte of a blade,” pronounced ‘fort.’ And yes, it’s listed both ways in the dictionary, since incorrect things get assimilated all the time. Hrmph, I say. Pet peeve over.)

Along the way, the Monk gets more and more resistant to special attacks, from poison to spells to aging. Eventually he transcends into the magical spirit realm or something.

I still want a Velociraptor, though.

This is already a monster post. For my own sanity, I’m breaking it up into two parts. Paladins through Wizards will be covered in the next installment.

I was reminded by a friend’s facebook post about putting socks and shoes on about the dialog between Sinclair and Garibaldi in Season 1 of Babylon 5. Due to sheer greatness, I’ll post the entire bit of dialog from WikiQuotes:

Garibaldi: This is the part I hate most: the waiting.
Sinclair:Hmm. (There’s a moment of silence.)
Garibaldi: Mind if I ask you a question?
Sinclair: Sure.
Garibaldi: Okay, it’s morning, you’re getting ready for work, you pull on your pants –do you fasten and zip, or zip and then fasten?
Sinclair: What kind of question is that?
Garibaldi: Well, look, we’ve got two hours to kill —
Sinclair: Forget it.
Garibaldi: Just a question.
Sinclair: Why do you want to know?
Garibaldi: Why do I want to know? Because I think about these things sometimes. I was getting dressed this morning, I couldn’t remember how I did it, and I started thinking about it. Does everyone do it the same way? Is it a left-handed/right-handed thing –?
Sinclair: (incredulous) You think about this stuff a lot?
Garibaldi: Yeah. Look, okay, I’m sorry I asked. You’re always so serious all the time. Not every conversation has to be the end of the world as we know it.
Sinclair: I didn’t mean to —
Garibaldi: Never mind. It’s okay. I’ll just — watch my console. Don’t worry about it. (After a long pause, Sinclair sighs.)
Sinclair: Fasten, then zip. You?
Garibaldi: Fasten zip. (Sinclair chuckles.)
Sinclair: How much longer?
Garibaldi: One hour, fifty seven minutes. (pause) Want to talk socks?
Sinclair: No.
Garibaldi: Just a question.
Sinclair: I’m not having this conversation.

Why is this even a tiny bit relevant?

Let me get back to you on that.

Still, I was reminded that the plotting style of Babylon 5 was my model of a successful roleplaying campaign for years, and it was easy to understand why it served that purpose.

  • Each season of the TV show had a pretty defined “ooo!” major arc that was revealed slowly over 20+ episodes. 
  • Each episode of the show had a defined story that would be exposed and mostly closed – some sort of climax or mini-climax reached – during that one hour
  • It had a key group of characters that each got notable screen time and impacted the plot in a significant way; even “minor” characters who weren’t featured every time had major impact (G’Kar, I’m looking at you!)
  • “NPCs” were occasionally promoted (Zack Allen)
  • It had a whole host of bad-ass villains, all of whom had a rational reason for being “the bad guy.” Even the Shadows.

Even now, in my dreams when I have time and a group to actually run a game again one day, I aspire to that level of integration, from character to macro story, in my campaigns. The above wasn’t any particular campaign, but B5 served as a checklist of how to try and think of how plot arcs fit together.

The Pathfinder game I play in with +Jeromy French+kung fu hillbilly , +Matt Sutton , +Joshua Taylor , and +James Stanton is working through Skull and Shackles. We had started playing using the Organized Play rules, but did not find them to our collective liking. So we made the campaign switch, and now are playing characters of the not-nice variety.

This is thus my second Pathfinder game, and I still consider myself a novice. Jeromy has been very kind to help me by suggesting the right character advancement pathways, since his knowledge and experience with Feats and the various class enhancements is better than mine.

My current character is a 4th level half-elf Rogue regrettably named Pelagiyel by cruel parents. He goes by Pel. I conceived him as a pirate from the start, where his role would be to sneak into towns, see what plunder is available or being loaded on to ships, possibly get on board said ships, and help take them down from the inside. Chaotic Neutral, baby. Thus, his key skills are Appraise, Stealth, Sailor, maybe some Climb and Swim, and the ever-popular Perception. When I got into this, I had no idea how skill-heavy Rogues are . . . something I’ll revisit in my Pathfinder read-through on Chapter 3: Classes. (Prelude, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2 already published)

Previously, we’d been through what looks like the first subset of the adventure, having been press-ganged aboard a pirate ship with a notably nasty set of officers. The Captain was high-level but disinterested in the likes of us, leaving his stooges to deal with his crew. Harshly.

We’d previously done some faction-building, weathered a storm, fought off some monsters, and captured another ship. We were sent aboard that one, got lost in a storm, and had to stop at an island to replenish water supplies. Whereupon we returned, carried off a pretty slick mutiny with the aid of our resident alchemist and some sleeping potions, killed those opposed to our faction and preserved the rest. That glosses over a lot, but gets us caught up.

We were then severely understrength and undercrewed – even more than usual – but we managed to locate and dock at a local pirate haven, and set out to refit the ship into something a bit less obviously stolen. I think that’s about where we started off last night.

The adventure opened with what seemed to be a shopping trip, where we were spending some of our communal loot to get some cool/magical items appraised and purchased. Pel didn’t score anything worthwhile – he’s got masterwork chain shirt, rapier, composite shortbow, plus a few non-masterwork daggers for chucking, so he’s pretty well kitted up for now. He did make good use of 10 ranks in Appraise to get the value of some gems we’d found. Nothing much – a few hundred gold worth – but a spinel and some traded items were enough to secure +Matt Sutton ‘s PC (Malgrim, our notional captain: we voted and he was the most intmidating as a Hobgoblin Corsair/Summoner; with 10 ranks in Sailor, I became the bosun) some quality purchased loot – a magical weapon, if I recall.

After that, we were naturally attacked by a swarm of giant wasps that flew in from the wilderness. Wandering Monster indeed. We made short work of them, and Pel did his usual two-arrows-per-turn thing thanks to Rapid Shot. The dice were fairly evenhanded this game, and I managed to vacillate between being quite useless and quite effective this time, as opposed to a ludicously-unlikely string of the die-roller program having me roll a 2 on 1d20. So, managed to get and confirm a critical, and otherwise nail the wasps pretty hard. I needs to get me a magical bow. I was able to accomplish something pretty much every round, and the uniform d20 distribution was more uniform that day.

After that, we parlay’d (parlaid? parlayed?) with a newly arriving pirate guy, who recognized our ship and with a wink welcomed us, seemingly, into the world of dashing villainous scum. Woo hoo! We then decided to go plunder a town, to get into practice.

Pel used some alchemical awesomeness to swim to shore, checked out the place, and found out that there was a large amount of alcohol to be had, and maybe some grain. There were maybe five elders who might pose any sort of threat, and the rest were noncombatants.

We started to lay an elaborate plan to rush in and wipe them out. Given the nature of the opposition, I had flashbacks to Mystery Men, seeing us as the Red Eyes, pillaging an old-folks home for dentures and artificial limbs.

Malgrim suggested that rather than go that route, we get close to shore, go up and Intimidate the hell out of them, getting what we want by threat of force rather than something much like boxing with a six-year-old. 

We liked that plan better, and so we executed it, and then Malgrim crit-failed his Intimidate roll (see! the dice hates us!) and the elderly spear carriers mocked us. Two catapult shots later (one on target, the other landing perilously close to Malgrim; our crew needs more practice) we had the booze, the grain, and limped out to sea with the tattered remains of our dignity.

We thought the next-best plan would be to find another village, do some basic capitalism and try the buy-and-sell route, while also recruiting, we hope, the local Dwarven smith to join our crew. Meanwhile Pel would use our “trading” excursions to scope out likely plunder, both on land and at sea.

That was basically the session.
***********

So, game stuff and random observations.

I continue to be frustrated with the flat distribution of the 1d20, which especially for combat can make for a very aggravating day. The Armor Class of your foe, the roll you must beat to hit, seems to range from about 10-20, with 15 being a fairly common number. This means that you’re going to be looking at needing some serious skill ranks before you have a decent chance to hit. Pel has a Ranged attack modifier of +6, which is usually at -2 for Rapid Shot, but +1 since one of our bards is usually inspiring us to be more badass than usual. So at 1d20+5, twice, I can expect to hit with at least one shot 75% of the time, and both 25% of the time . . . but given a low number of rolls, the streakiness of the dice can be either awesome or render you ineffective.

I have grown used to the tactical flexibility of GURPS. I like the ability to aim for the head, or limbs, or whatnot. But that’s not how Pathfinder works, so that’s fine. WEG d6 Star Wars was “I shoot at the stormtrooper, I hit” as well, and it was still fun.

My solution to this issue works better for my class (Rogue) in non-combat areas, which is to build up so many ranks in the skills I care about that the dice can be my enemy and I still succeed. Thus, 14 ranks in Stealth and Perception, 11 in Disable Device, and 10 in Appraise and Sailor. The Stealth/Perception combo had a few rolls of 30+. Rogues are brutal with this. My INT isn’t that high at 14, but the +2 modifier I get means I get 10 skill ranks per level, plus another if I’m getting a rank within my Favored Class. I think I traded my other favored class (as a half-elf) for Rope Master or something like that. Still, as long as I play nicely within Rogue, I pick up 11 ranks per level. Yowzers.

Pathfinder has a pretty condensed skill list, maybe two dozen or so (a few more, since there are lots of Professional and Knowledge skills that do not overlap). This means with the right stats and a good selection of “class-skills,” it’s pretty easy to be good at things, and to cover the required adventuring specialties. I have to wonder if these can be turned into GURPS Wildcard skills pretty easily, for those who really don’t want to muck with the extensive skill list in GURPS. Hrm. Pyramid article or blog post?

Technically, the Skulls and Shackles Adventure Path is the second PF-style game I’m playing in. The other is Jade Regent, but using GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. My impression of the Adventure Path thus far is that they tend to be a bit railroady. That being said, one of the reasons that GURPS pre-written adventures tend not to sell well is that in order to have an actual volume of material that can be used all at once, they have to be railroady. Still, my take-away (and this has been echoed by others) is that you get into a situation or a plot nexus, and find “there are eight things you can do. Five are useless or counterproductive, two circle around back to this same place, but if you pick that one, please turn to p. 134 and the plot can continue.”

Along this line, but in a nice way, though, I must say that Golarion seems to rock on toast. Lots of places to visit, a variety of cultures and races and adventuring prospects. It would make for a great sandbox in any game system. I see enough people converting Golarion to GURPS Dungeon Fantasy that there’s a fair amount of agreement here. A Dungeon Fantasy cross-licence with Paizo is unlikely for what I presume are a whole host of reasons, but it would make a great cross-platform item to bring a fragmented hobby closer together.

What else? Oh . . . whatever you may like or dislike about Class-Level systems, I will say that at least in my limited experience with the skill-heavy Rogue, leveling up simply rocks. There is a Tyrranosaur-sized difference between a Level N and a Level N+1 rogue. I’m not sure if the spell-based or feat-based classes feel the same way – perhaps the more experienced PF grognards can tell me.

Next weekend, the same GM will be playing his newly started and Firefly-inspired GURPS Space campaign, hopefully joined by both me and my wife. Tomorrow is GURPS Jade Regent. We’ll see in two weeks if our plan to rule the seas in Pathfinder Skulls and Shackles is successful or not . . .

This is the first real “meat” chapter in the Pathfinder RPG book, and it’s a short one. Still, it gives a flavor for what is to come from a game design point of view.

The chapter opens with seven individuals who can probably divide up 7% body fat between them. I’m not sure if that’s a good way to start, but it certainly gets one’s attention. Halflings never looked so buff (and half-elves never looked so, well, cold).

The first few paragraphs note that you mostly get to pick your race but once, while classes come and go. It also points out quite explicitly that some choices are more complimentary with certain classes than others, and makes no apology other than caveat emptor. 


Your choice of race will give you extra ability scores, and some special powers/abilities/talents that come along with it. It claims that each race is roughly equal and balanced with the rest. We’ll see.

Each race starts with a physical description, a discussion of the society the adventurer will have come from, discusses which other races or monsters that race tends to hate or like, mentions typical alignments and what Gods and religions are favored, and dedicates a paragraph to why a member of that race would go adventuring. It end with sample names for men and women of that race. After all that, comes the goodies: the list of bonuses, penalties, and abilities that you get by choosing that race.

Dwarves


Low sense of humor, high hatred of giants and goblins. Craftsmen and warriors, and “little hairy women.” ( – Gimli). Lawful good fighters and barbarians are set up as a natural match. Noted. Let’s check out the goody bag: It’s a long list.

Abilities: The attribute bonuses seem to all net out to +2, and in this case Dwarves get bonuses to CON and WIS (which is a stand-in for perception), but penalized for being gruff with a slap to CHA. Checking the skill list, the only thing they might care about there is maybe Intimidate. We’ll see what happens later; I’ve heard reference to “dump stats” where you can purposefully sink an ability score with little damage to your character’s abilities or survival – but we shall see.

Positives: they can see in the dark, bonuses to AC vs giants, boost to ability to value gemstones and craftsmanship, boost when fighting orcs and goblins, boost to some saving throws, boost to certain types of combat maneuvers, bonus to notice stone traps and such. And axes. Lots of axes.

Negatives: 2/3 normal movement (but even that has a benefit: armor and encumbrance doesn’t weigh you down).

Huh. Elves may be Just Better than You, but Dwarves seem pretty badass.

Elves


Long-lived (until eaten by orcs), standoffish, Just Better than You (see above). Fashion models who are also back-to-nature types. Would do well in Hollywood, apparently. Do not make good baby-daddies. Love of magic. OK, we get it. Now, let’s see if the Trope holds:

Abilities: Dexterous and smart, but frail.

Positives: Can see farther in dim light, immune to magic sleep and resistant to enchantments. Bonus to resisting spells in general and to identify magic items. Perceptive.

Negatives: None. (See? Just Damn Better than You.)

As an aside, am I the only one who looks at “immunity to sleep spells” and says “Oh, I gotta have that.” Seriously – I dislike it intensely when the bad guy waves his hand and you just decide to catch a few Z’s right there in the middle of the octagon.

OK, so elves wind up looking good as rangers and wizards, as the book plainly states. Bet they’d make decent rogues too.

Gnomes


Punk-rock midgets? Kender with ADHD? But they make good druids. OK. Rock on. After all that, you’d think druid or rogue/thief, but no . . . sorcerers and bards.

Abilities: Hardy and clever, but weak.

Positives: Small size gives AC and attack bonuses and a major boost to stealth. Good low-light vision.  Even more AC bonuses (presumably doesn’t stack) vs. giants, and they get a bunch of spell-like abilities if you have CHA of 11+, so you’d best do that. Bonus to hated foes, bonus to resist illusions, bonus to perception, bonus to craft or profession skills. This is a pretty big list of small-scale goodies.


Negatives: penalty to Combat Maneuvers, 2/3 normal movement. They don’t get any racial weapon stuff like Dwarves do with axes or elves do with bows.

Half-Elves


The elves have to amuse themselves somehow, and apparently making really hot offspring is it. Hot sulky and bitter emo offspring. Open to new relationships, lonely, less likely to turn to religion – and prone to playing RPGs, apparently.

Abilities: +2 to any one score, player’s choice. I might allow +1 to any two scores for fun, but no problem there. This makes them the same as humans and half-orcs – just pick a stat and be good at it.

Positives: Low light vision, an extra skill focus, immunity to magic sleep, and the elven resistance to enchantment. Boost to perception, and two favored classes with extra HP and skill points. Start speaking two languages.

Negatives: Maybe you can count that anything that impacts humans or elves hits them, but that’s pretty blah.

So they’re Just Half-Better Than You.

Half-elves don’t seem to be tailor made for any particular class . . . but since I actually play a half-elf rogue in the Pathfinder game I play with +Jeromy French , I’ll note that with the right allocation, the massive amount of skill levels you get adds with the bonus skill points to make for a metric crap-ton of skill points.

Half-orcs


Because what could be more fun than playing the child of overly-exuberant culture sharing between sapients? These guys are Darth Vader big, and channeled into jobs where that size is useful – mercenaries and enforcers.

Abilities: Odd. +2 to one ability score – any ability score. I’d have pegged it perhaps as +1 to STR, CON, and maybe WIS (for perception), with a -1 to CHA.

Positives: Dark vision, Intimidation bonus, some racial weapon familiarity, and some sort of oddball ferocity thing where you get to fight for one more round, but if you don’t get healing, you KO and start to die. Woo hoo. You do get to speak orc, though. Bonus.

Negatives: Not many. Orc blood, like elf-blood, makes you susceptible to things that hurt both orcs and humans.

This race seems lame to me. I’d maybe play up the orcish nature more; I’d like to know what orcs look like, but looks like unless I buy the Bestiary, I can’t find out. Huh, I’d have thought that some of the common monsters were included in the book, but when they say the Bestiary is required, they really mean it. Maybe even up the ante, with +3 STR, +1 CON, and -2 CHA (or even -1 CHA and -1 INT).

Halflings. Not Hobbits. We mean it.


The entire writeup screams “thief.” It’s hard to escape that, from the loyalty to friends, not nations, scrap and scrounge, etc.

Abilities: Dexterous, charming, but weak.

Positives: Size bonus to AC and attacks, +4 to Stealth due to size. Yow. Bonus to saving throws versus fear, and another generic bonus to all saving throws. Perceptive, nimble.

Negatives: penalty to CMB and CMD, plus 2/3 speed due to small size.

This is a nice set of packages, but doesn’t really sing to me.

Humans


Hey, that’s us. This is the jack-of-all races. Endlessly varied, can be and do anything.

Abilities: +2 to any score. This makes a bit more sense, though it would also be interesting to be able to (say) adjust any score by +1 or -1 so long as it nets to +2, or even any score by up to +/-2 so long as it nets to +2 as well.

Positives: An extra Feat when they start, and an extra skill rank every level.

Negatives: None.

Ballistic’s Parting Shot


The chapter on races contains the barest minimum of information to play the character and understand the overall society from which each non-human race derives. It then presents some variables by which to tweak your stats, but those don’t always appear to be balanced, and they definitely steer choices for later class selection. That may not be a bad thing, but it does suggest that while the book says “pick race, then class,” you’re more likely to do well by choosing a class you want to play, picking a compatible race, and then (if allocating ability scores by points) tuning your stats accordingly.

What about GURPS? GURPS is unapologetic point-buy only. You can do pretty much anything. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy makes heavy use of Templates, which aren’t exactly race and class, but can come darn close.

The whole point is to provide a limited set of interesting choices that provide variability without bewilderment. Racial packages in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy have an assigned point value to them. You may not like the point costs, but if you take a racial package (for example) that’s Just Damn Better than You, you’ll have fewer points to spend on skills and advantages and attributes.

The Pathfinder rules claim the races are balanced. With no decent accounting method to hand, I can neither dispute or affirm that claim. But given the lists of abilities, I think I will be playing a Dwarf next time. And given the art, I think I want to date that half-elf, but (a) my wife, a red-headed Human Sorcerer/Monk in real life, would pull out my pancreas through my nose, and (b) she’d be really hard to dance with, being all of 6’2″ or something.

*****

This is a compilation of the links to read-throughs of Pathfinder-related material

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

0.  Prelude
1.  Introduction
2.  Races


3a. Classes (Barbarian – Monk)
3b. Classes (Paladin – Wizard)

Please make any comments you have at the individual entries!

+Peter V. Dell’Orto noted here that sometimes there’s a bit of a mental squaaawwwk! when it comes to comparing piercing vs. impaling damage types.

He makes some good points, and partly, this ties into penetration and injury GURPS-physics.

Impaling damage, by and large, is assumed to result from a deep, often narrow, penetrating injury that gets into your gooey center and punctures important bits.

Piercing damage, by and large, is assumed to result from, er, a deep, often narrow, penetrating injury that gets into your gooey center and punctures important bits.

OK. WTFP? (What are The Factors at Play?)

The difference seems to be that impaling damage assumes a relatively low ratio of energy to momentum; piercing damage seems to be mostly relegated to bullets and stuff that have very little momentum, but penetrate very well.

There are special cases. Bodkin arrows (as defined by GURPS, not hoplologists) change to a (2) armor divisor and pi damage . . . but their energy-to-momentum ratio is no different than the impaling arrows (presumably broadheads . . . and yes I know there’s controversy that the “armor piercing” Type 16 arrows are decidedly not bodkin-points, which seem to be harassment-style flight arrows. Deal with it.).

That being said, here’s a link to an image of some arrow typology. You can see, there’s a lot of them. Some of them (like the Type 9a) are pretty boldly squarish in cross-section, and supposedly make better plate-piercers. Though you still need a wickedly strong bow and a hardened lozenge-shaped arrowhead to even think about it, and accomplishing it requires a few things to go your way, including thinner armor, a properly orthogonal strike, and maybe even poorly heat-treated plate. People will assert that types 7 and 8 are designed to slip through mail, but properly riveted mail is pretty darn strong, and while you may get a narrow puncture, it may also be quite shallow. Ironically, the arrows that have been reportedly confirmed to be hardened through-and-through are the Type 16 compact broadheads (my term). Still, period writings contain censure against smiths who produce improperly soft arrows, so who the hell knows?

Bleargh. Not meant to be a treatise on arrows – but it’s hard to say why GURPS would classify any of the arrows pictured as piercing rather than impaling, though a few are some bastard child of cutting and impaling, it would seem.

But let’s take a “realistic” war arrow: 1400 grains (0.2 lbs., or twice the weight of a standard arrow in GURPS!) fired from a 150-lb bow. GURPS pegs this at about ST 18, or about 1d+4 (or about 2d). Using my rules from The Deadly Spring, it clocks in at 1d+1. In either case, the arrow will have about 160J of energy and about 5.4 kg m/s of momentum. Both arrows are impaling, so they wound like 2d+2 and 2d+8.

Let’s take a .22 LR and a .45ACP, which do 1d+1 and 2d penetration, respectively. With bullet size modifiers, they will wound like about 1d-1 and 3d. The .22LR has only 130J of energy (less than the arrow), the .45ACP has 450J (slightly less than 3x more). The bullets have 0.82 and 3.66 kg m/s of momentum (with the .45 having more), both are less than the arrow.

Wounding? The .22LR is a worse wounder than all others considered here by quite a bit; the .45ACP is either slightly better (by about a point) than the arrow using my “realistic” scale, or quite a bit worse using the GURPS thr-based, more cinematic scale (nearly 4d+1 injury equivalent for a 1d+4 imp arrow). A war arrow can be about the same diameter as the .45ACP, so 3d or more injury isn’t far wrong.

So:

Arrow: 160J  and   5.4 kg m/s momentum. KE/MV = 29.6 m/s
.22 LR 130J  and   0.82 kg m/s                 . KE/MV = 158.5 m/s
.45 ACP  450J and 3.66 kg m/s                .  KE/MV = 123.0 m/s

As it turns out, the .45 ACP has the lowest KE/MV ratio of all the modern bullets I have. Maybe there are some heavy black powder loads with lower KE and higher MV. The upper end seems to be about 500 for the ratio, until you get into saboted projectiles (the M829 tank projectile is nearly 1000!).

But you can see that if “impaling” is for lower velocity ratio stuff, maybe less than 50(?) then there’s really no good reason to distinguish between a GURPS bodkin (armor piercing) point and a regular one. A better division is probably that the AP point is heavier in point and shaft and more expensive with shorter range, the regular point is, well, regular, and you can buy flight arrows with an armor divisor of (0.5) with very lightweight shafts with poor penetration but longer range.

All would do impaling damage. Assuming you have such a thing.

Every now and then people talk. Usually on game forums. And they say things like:

“Oh, yes. I like my flying dragons that eat starships and crap magical poop to be realistic.”

My thoughts on that were similar to how Bill Stoddard replied when someone commented that an increase in Basic Speed granted by a magical Familiar would be perfectly realistic:

“Familiars that grant powers are not realistic in any case, no matter what the powers are'”

Exactly.

But as noted in a previous post, believability isn’t really an axis of gaming. If something is un-believable, likely the game grinds to a halt. Can you have something that’s believable but unrealistic?

Of course.

Example time:

A human NPC gets shot in the chest with a .50 caliber machine gun bullet (a .50 BMG, for those keeping score at home. This is Gaming Ballistic, after all). This person dies. Messily. Realistic, right? OK. Believable? Totally.

Captain America is said to have the strength of ten men, or be the peak of human ability. Depends on the source you go for; comics are notoriously inconsistent with such. Can probably squat or press 800-1000 lbs, since that’s a world-record. If he’s truly super-human, with the strength of 10, maybe he can even squat something like 1500-2000lbs. OK, great. Now stuff all that strength into a 115-lb girl. Call her Buffy. She’s got at least a 10-1 strength to weight rato . . . how fast do you think she can run? How high can she jump? I’d bet on the order of 10-20 feet in the air (1). Straight up. That’s . . . not realistic.

But it’s believable. Or, in the language suggested by a commenter, it has plausible verisimilitude. It plausibly gives the appearance of truth.


I think the language people use to communicate about the topic – sometimes including my own – gets pretty muddled. So for the purposes of discussion, to wrap my own mind around the issue, and to set the tone for future posts on the issue, here’s my own way of looking at things. This assumes most people either want or require believability in a game, as per my previous post.


That’s really what makes stories sing. Not necessarily realism, since so much of gaming is beneficial and/or entertaining escapism/fantasy. But a level of action-reaction that conforms with the expectations of what should happen given the situation involved.

So is the opposite of realistic, then, cinematic gaming? That often seems to be how things are expressed.

But I don’t think that really works.

I think the harsh end of this particular (un-named) axis is probably gritty.  The other is likely something like heroic. And those two descriptors are really both talking about consequences. If I can get my statistics on for a moment: it’s about where in the probability distribution of (potentially plausible) outcomes our event lands.

A gritty tale has the outcomes be from the “normal” outcome of an event to “pretty damn harsh” along the consequences scale. The guys getting riddled with bullets on Utah Beach? Charging a machine gun nest, and getting taken out, as the expected outcome? That’s gritty.

Now, surely you can’t have realistic and heroic, right?

Of course you can. Out of respect for the man, I reproduce in full the following:

Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50. Lieutenant Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective.

It’s very heroic; the Medal of Honor citations are pretty much the definition of military heroism (there are lots of other kinds, of course). It’s also cinematic. I know this, because they made a movie out of it.

So Major Murphy (his rank when he retired) did realistic things, as a real man, and had an outcome of which stories are told, and movies are made. I think it’s the outcome of the various axes that wind up being described as cinematic.

What’s the point? Most fantasy roleplaying thus lies in the realm of believable storytelling with cinematic results. Even the stuff with funky powers, or men dressed up as a bat. But you can wind up with a cinematic tale even with gritty outcome expectations, based in the real-world.

So, is realism not an issue? Of course it is. Some don’t want a game with funky powers or dimension-hopping in the multiverse or fire-farting dragons, who may or may not eat spaceships. I think another axis other than gritty-heroic is something like mundane – fantastical. This is the realism axis.


Realism is more or less the probability you can find a given person, place, thing, or action in the world as we know it today, or as we can potentially project with what we know. As the probability of finding invented (unreal?) plot elements in the game world goes up, the setting becomes more fantasticial. You could pick another word. Exotic might do.

I don’t want to get into fantasy vs. science fiction discussions here. Most FTL travel is “fantastical” in that it doesn’t conform to what we know, though it’s probably less fantastical than some other fictional conceits like magic, since there are at least people, often serious people, talking about warp drives. I always thought Stutterwarp, that is, macroscopic quantum tunneling from the old 2300AD game, was a clever justification for FTL travel that allowed people to believe (!) in the technology.

I think it’s perfectly plausible to have a fantastical game that is also gritty. If you made healing harder in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, so that the consequences of getting hit with that 3d+8 (2) cut weapon were pretty instantly and uniformly grisly, you could have a game that is described as both fantastical and gritty. The high point values would provide pretty cinematic action, but much like a George R. R. Martin novel, no one is truly safe.

Note that neither of these two axes really touch on the capabilities of the characters themselves. Low point value characters (in GURPS) are not automatically gritty and mundane (though it’s going to be easier). High point value characters, to a certain point, are not automatically fantastical. Navy SEALS and billionaires and professional athletes are likely pretty high point-value realistic characters.

That means we have a third axis – capabilities, which could be a low-medium/average-high scale, but it can also be some level of breadth as well. You can have relatively low point value characters that are very, very capable in one particular area. The oft-repeated warning about not assuming that a 50-point NPC is a mook (you can have ST 12, HT 11, and Guns (Rifle) -15 on 50 points; this will be a one-dimensional but credible threat if armed with any number of TL7+ weapons). The higher the GURPS point total, the higher the skill levels can be. As the total gets still higher, you can either go for breadth (either through more skills, or stat increases) or start picking out Advantages that enhance capabilities or mitigate potential penalties in circumstances (like Catfall for balance, Weapon Master for Rapid Strikes and damage, Combat Reflexes for surprise and defense).

GURPS’ character generation is large and varied. “First depth, then breadth” is one way to go about it, but there are infinite other choices. However, with a large enough point total, you almost get to stop choosing. The Black Ops templates, when I converted them for Fourth Edition, were about 1,000 points, and made use of some newly invented (at the time; this was years ago) wildcard skills too. There’s a basic capability with nearly everything for every op; there are merely some areas in which they are awesome.

Wrapping this up, I’ve picked out three axes to describe a game. I’m sure there are other ways to look at it, though:

1) Background reality: From mundane to fantastic
2) Character capability: In the broadest sense, from a barely specialized focus in a few skills and mostly average stats, to a broadly competent (or super-competent) polymath with loads in stats, advantages, and skills
3) Consequences of risk-taking: from gritty (mistakes are costly and likely permanent; high-risk activity tends to focus on the cost of failure) to heroic (outcomes of high-risk behavior tends to be success-focused, and the game usually has metagame mechanisms to enforce this, like Luck or Destiny Points).

It’s very possible (check out Sean Punch’s weekly GURPS game, The Company) to run a game that’s mundane, with broadly competent characters, but that’s also gritty. The outcomes are highly cinematic (movie-worthy!) stories, but believable, since the stories posit what would happen if you could get a group of special-ops or higher level of characters, trained exquisitely in real-world skills with real-world equipment, carrying out dangerous missions.

The trick, I think, about having discussions about “realistic” versus “cinematic” gaming – and why people fight about it – is that realistic-cinematic really isn’t a good axis. Realism is one aspect of a gameworld description; cinematic is the outcome of the stories. But there’s much more to it, and it’s easy to talk past each other.

(1) Showing my work. Call it 1750 pounds of force, exerted over maybe 1.5 feet. Buffy probably weighs in at 100-120 pounds, tops. Energetically, Force x distance = Weight x height, so that’s about 24 feet, straight up. 1000 pounds over a one foot range exerted on a 100-lb. girl gives you about a 10-foot vertical leap. Karch and Eric? Bite me.