Faith in Play #37: Balancing on the Corner

This is Faith in Play #37:  Balancing on the Corner, for December 2020.


When “balance” is mentioned in connection with Dungeons & Dragons™ alignment, thoughts immediately leap to neutrality, and of course neutrality is frequently about balance—but not always.  As we noted in connection with the side alignments neutrality can often mean simply ignoring one axis in favor of the other.  Thus a character who is neutral in one axis can be religiously devoted to one value, whether Good, or Evil, or Law, or Chaos.

Yet there is another aspect of alignment in which balance is happening constantly, and players seldom recognize it.

When I was talking about the side alignments, I told the story of a Neutral Good cleric/fighter who tortured a criminal suspect in an effort to obtain a confession.  When I penalized him for violating his alignment, he said that he was “only” Neutral Good, and he could justify a penalty if he were Lawful Good.  What does a Neutral Good stand for, I asked, if not Good?

He might have been able to make an argument that torturing that particular acolyte ultimately would benefit the greatest number of people; he did not.  On the other hand, at least one of the characters who participated in this, who was also penalized, was Lawful Good, and he could have made a more cogent argument:  the preservation of order in the settlement demanded the solving of the murder, and so justified the use of torture to obtain critical information from one of the key suspects.  That is, in this particular situation my commitment to Law outweighs my commitment to Good.

That is the balancing act of the corner alignments.  If I am Chaotic Evil, in this particular situation do I stand by my commitment to individual freedoms or pursue my own selfishness?  Sometimes it looks simple.  When Chaotic Good Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor, he is fighting against an oppressive system that takes the rights—and the money—from the peasants by restoring it to the peasants.  When Lawful Evil Darth Vader kills people on behalf of the Emperor, he is both maintaining the rule of his master and securing his own position.  Yet when Lawful Good Ivanhoe comes to the aid of the Jewess Rebecca, it is because he has decided that Good—the benefit of Rebecca and her family and her people—is more important than Law—the authority of the Paladin who would demand her servitude.  Yet even as he takes this more chaotic stand, he does so in as lawful a manner as he can.

It is, I find, the characters on the corner alignments who make the toughest choices in following their faith.  Law does not always align with Good, nor Chaos with Evil.  Someone once pointed out to me that an American Soldier had to be Neutral Good, because usually for the sake of protecting people he became part of a very structured and orderly organization to maintain another social structure which was primarily built on Chaos, that is, on preserving the rights of individuals.  He of course still had to make difficult choices for his neutrality, but could more easily justify them.  Those who have chosen to commit to two separate values, one moral and one ethical, face the most difficult choices in balancing their distinct commitments.

That, it strikes me, is very like us, as we find ourselves committed to more than one value and have to make choices between them.


Previous article:  Thanks.
Next article:  Places of Worship.

Spreading Yuletide Fear: A Dark Holiday-themed Adventure

The following is a stand-alone holiday-themed 1st edition AD&D adventure for five to six characters level 5-6. Because this is an entire adventure module, it’s substantially longer than our usual fare.

A small group of adventurers stumble through a portal and find themselves in a snow-blanketed land of forested mountains. They find shelter in a tiny village, but they also find the villagers to be cursed and in desperate need of help. The PCs can assist the villagers in one of two possible ways in return for the knowledge of how to get home. Or they can venture into the wilderness to obtain this knowledge from a centuries-old crone.

Spreading Yuletide Fear

A Dark Holiday-Themed Adventure by Michael Garcia (2020)

Players’ Teaser

The scents of pine needles, wood embers, and roasted boar fill the air, but the pleasant aromas do not match the mood in the room. Mingled with the clinking of earthenware tankards, hushed voices fill the darkened great hall with anxious whispers. The thick oaken doors, barred against the many evils of the night, give the illusion of safety. You and your companions huddle together around a worn oaken table, not far from a great stone hearth. The roaring fire within it crackles and pops, causing shadows to dance eerily in the corners of the room. The reddish glow of the firelight reveals the nervous faces of your fellows. They look uneasily at each other, painfully aware that dozens of dour villagers, seated in  the darkened recesses of the hall, send hardened stares in your direction. They are awaiting your answer.

How have you come to this god-forsaken place? Twelve hours ago, you were skulking about in a mysterious dungeon outside of your hometown. One or two wrong turns, and you found yourselves outdoors, stumbling through a snow-covered wilderness of rocky forests and rolling moors. Unable to find your way back, you made a long trek through the deep snow to this tiny village. Stunned, exhausted, and seeking answers, you found instead only fear and mystery.

The fretful villagers told you that winter snows had already blocked the mountain passes until spring. Worse, they claimed that the power of the old gods had returned in recent years to haunt this secluded valley. To wit, a company of spectral horsemen supposedly gallops nightly through the snow-filled sky, sweeping across the moors and across the very treetops, killing all in its path. Moreover, in the tangled forests that envelop this tiny settlement, malicious elves prey on anyone foolish enough to enter their dark realm. Pondering all this, you begin to understand the villagers’ distrustful stares.

After much debate, your friend beside you clearly lays out your options. The villagers claim to know your way home, but their price for this information is your help in breaking a curse on their village. Another way to get their aid is merely to protect them against the Wild Hunt and other terrifying night creatures while they complete their year-end rituals, needed to drive away darkness and to bring good fortune in the spring. If you spurn the villagers, your only other option seems to lie in the goodwill of a monstrous crone, who dwells alone in the trackless forest nearby. Said to be a powerful enchantress, half-woman and half-demon, this crone seems little better than the dreaded Huntsman and his spectral company.

Disgusted by your predicament, you are tempted to do none of the above! Let them figure it out! Vengeful curses, heathen rites, and evil ghosts are none of our business! Yet the grim stares coming from all corners of the darkened hall make it clear that you will find no shelter here if you refuse their pleas for aid.

Outside, the wind moans loudly and rattles the oiled parchment that covers the nearby window. Forceful drafts, like icy fingers, seem to seek you out, creeping beneath the barred doors and around window coverings. Standing abruptly and pushing the oiled parchment aside with your finger, you gaze outside. Wind-driven snow swirls frantically in the pale light of the full moon. An icy blast causes you to shiver, and you back away from the window. It is time to decide.

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RPG-ology #36: Phionics

This is RPG-ology #36:  Phionics, for November 2020.


I was conversing with someone via messaging and he misspelled a word.  I recognized what he meant, so I overlooked it—but it got me thinking.

The word he wanted was psionics, which had just been mentioned in our conversation, but he misspelled it phionics, which is probably more intriguing to me than to most of you because I do a bit of study in Greek, and I know that psionics comes, indirectly, from the Greek word psychos, which has several meanings but we usually take to mean soul, and it begins with the letter psi.  We get a lot of words connected to the inner person from that, including psychology, psychiatry, psychic, and of course psionic.  But in my mind he had replaced the psi with a phi, a different greek letter and the first letter in the word physis, which literally means natural but which is connected into our language with things that are physical, including physics and things that have to do with the body, like getting a physical or engaging in physical fitness.

So why not a category of special powers called phionics?

My first thought was the D.C. Comics joke hero Super Elastic Plastic Man, who could stretch his body in all kinds of crazy ways—and you could certainly go there if you wished.  Yet we all know people who can bend and stretch in ways we find unthinkable.  One of my sons from an early age would sit on the floor, lie forward, and put his chest and face against the rug between his legs and go to sleep like that.  Now full grown and taller than my six feet he still sometimes puts his feet behind his head and walks on his knees.  In terms of what people do, though, that’s out there.  Do a Google images search for contortionist and you will see bodies that look as if they must have been sawn apart and glued back together.

And while these are certainly due to special talents and plenty of exercise, they are obviously all within the realm of humanly possible.

As with psionics, you can parcel these out in small doses—Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon 2 can dislocate his shoulder to escape from a straitjacket.  The titular character in Kick-Ass feels no pain and so enhances his ability to take damage.  You could go beyond these, with physical powers that seem supernatural such as the Iron Fist, or those which actually are impossible, such as the aforementioned rubber body.

In the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, psionics were rare gifts with which some characters were born (or perhaps otherwise accidentally obtained prior to the beginning of the game).  In 2nd edition they became primarily techniques taught by masters in which individuals were schooled, working from the simpler, less potent, to the more powerful.  With phionics, you could do either—or both.  Just create a list of incredible through impossible body skills, and rank them from the simple to the amazing.

So here’s a short list to get you started:

  1. Hyper-flexibility:  the character can bend and stretch in surprising ways, such as putting his feet behind his head, and so can fit through narrow spaces and such.
  2. Double jointed:  Some of the character’s joints bend in unusual ways.
  3. Hardened musculature:  the character can cause muscles in some part or parts of his body to become excessively hard, such that they can withstand blows or deal significant damage.
  4. Adrenal control:  the character can give himself a brief boost of strength and/or speed.
  5. Disconnecting joints:  one or more of the character’s joints can be disconnected, permitting the body to take a different possibly useful altered shape.
  6. Reduced pain response:  the character’s ability to feel pain has been reduced or eliminated such that although he can be injured he does not feel it.
  7. Expanding ligaments:  the character can stretch his arms and legs by expanding the joints while holding them together with stretched ligaments.
  8. Rubber body:  the character can stretch and reshape his body in nearly any imaginable way without reference to bones.

Call it one more tool to enhance your game without using magic.


Previous article:  Believable Nonsense.
Next article:  It’s Greek to Me.

Christian Game-ism

Editor’s note: As usual, opinions of Guild members do not reflect the position of the Guild as a whole. As an organization, we neither condemn nor endorse any given entertainment product. However, neither do we discourage members from offering their own opinions.


What makes a game “Christian?”

Intent

If I handed you a rock and said, “Here you go, this is a Christian rock.” You would likely respond with, “How can a rock be Christian?” Yet if I were to hand you a DVD, CD, video game, or book, then said the same thing about those items, you would not question my meaning like with the rock. The question at hand is “why?” I suggest that it is the understanding of the intent of the item. Christian entertainment is by definition understood to be influenced by Christian ideology. This leads us to another question, “Can a rock sculpture be Christian?” If we can agree that it’s the intent that allows the title “Christian” to be applied to inanimate objects, then I would say yes. The rock sculpture can be a Christian sculpture. Let’s go back to the rock at the beginning. If I handed you that rock and said, “This is a Christian rock because we’re going to build a church with it.” Now, the intent of the rock is to create a building that is supposed to exemplify Jesus and Christian doctrine. I, for one, would say okay. Like the sculpture, I can now agree this rock is a Christian rock, through its intent and purpose. Before you giggle, remember what Jesus said in Luke 19:40 that even the rocks would cry out. Read more

Faith in Play #36: Thanks

This is Faith in Play #36:  Thanks, for November 2020.


Later this month Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving, a secular holiday established for religious people to give thanks to God.  Canadians did the same in the middle of last month.  Most cultures and nations historically have had a harvest festival celebration to express gratitude for the food; indeed, Pentecost was originally such a celebration.

I’m not going to ask why we don’t have these in our games; as holidays go, this is an obvious one, and I’d wager many of my readers have had an in-game harvest celebration at some point in their gaming calendars.  Nor does it make much sense to discuss cultural details, as feasting and frolicking are the obvious choices.  Rather, I would raise the fundamental point and address gratitude.

Years ago we ran a miniseries on Faith and Gaming about how to express faith within the game; it began with playing the Good Guys and ran through quite a few very different ideas over the course of eight articles.  To those perhaps we can add having your character express gratitude to his deity for good things, from food on his plate to the outcomes of battles or adventures.  Such thankfulness ought to be natural in those who believe that a god is involved in their lives, and a natural expression of it within the game world makes perfect sense.

Further, as we said of a number of those other ways to express faith in the game, what is true of your character ought also to be true of you.  Express your real-world gratitude in real-world ways.  Let your fellow players recognize that you are grateful to God for the good things that come, and that you know that all things which come to you come from God and are good.

I trust you all will have, or have had, a happy Thanksgiving filled with gratitude for all God’s good gifts.

On a related subject, let me express our gratitude to you for reading, encouraging, and supporting this ministry.  Some of you have promoted our efforts by purchasing what our webmaster calls “swag” from our Christian Gamers Guild store.*  Many of you have registered for and attended our worship services at various conventions.  Apart from support of the guild, I would thank those of you who have supported me (I may be chaplain of the guild, but I am a volunteer in all I do here) both by encouraging posts and by support through Patreon or PayPal.me.  These contributions keep me online and writing, and are greatly appreciated.

So thank you.


*Editor’s note, for the purposes of transparency: The purpose of the store is to provide branded materials to members in order to advertise the Guild. Most items are priced at just a little bit over cost. We do make a small amount on each purchase, but so far the account hasn’t earned enough for Cafe Press to send us a check.


Previous article:  Seekers.
Next article:  Balancing on the Corner.

Starfinder Stuff for Pathfinder Second Edition

Conversion rules for the inclusion of Starfinder content in a Pathfinder Second Edition game, if you like to mix your chocolate and peanut butter.


  1. Starfinder Stuff can be taken from the Starfinder Core Rulebook, Armory, and any other official Starfinder resource with GM approval. Normally, these would be located or obtained through events in the story, not during character generation or in markets.
  2. Damage Types: Bludgeoning is a subset of Kinetic. Kinetic is a subset of Force. Ballistic is a subset of Piercing. Lightning is the same as Electrical. All other energy types (sonic, fire, cold, etc.) are subtypes of Energy. Light and Darkness damage are subsets of Spiritual damage. Evil, Neutral, “Negative Energy,” and Chaos are also subsets of Darkness. While Good, “Positive Energy,” and Lawful are subsets of Light. Other damage types are subsets of existing Pathfinder 2e damage types, and GM may need to rule on which ones if they are not obvious.
  3. Weapons and Armor: Weapons and armor are to be used AS IS, including level, etc. The GM may need to modify a specific armor or weapon for a specific character in a given story element. Pathfinder 2e weapons work similarly to how Archaic Weapons are described in Starfinder; with Archaic weapons doing 5 points fewer Weapon damage on a strike against Modern or Starfinder Armor. Archaic only effects Weapon Damage, not other kinds of to damage that may be added to a Strike such as Precision damage from a Sneak Attack, etc. In Pathfinder 2e, unless otherwise stated, weapons and armor are level 1 and are Archaic. Uncommon, Advanced, Racial, and magic are not Archaic. Weapon Damage is capped at 6 damage dice. This does not affect other kinds of damage that are applied to a weapon’s total damage done in a successful strike. Armor is capped at a +10 Armor bonus. This does not affect other kinds of bonuses to AC. KAC and EAC from Starfinder is in effect for Starfinder armor, but not Pathfinder 2e armor. EAC is only applied to a Starfinder armor wearer being targeted by energy damage.
  4. Modern Firearms: Modern Firearms are a subset of Projectile weapons and do Ballistic damage. Modern Firearms are not as advanced in technology as Starfinder Projectile weapons. Modern Firearms will typically have more ammunition per magazine than Starfinder weapons, but they also produce Report Shock and Recoil. A separate article covers damage, range, and conversion of Modern Firearms to PF2e.
  5. Handguns/Small Arms Proficiency: Unlike other ranged weapons, Handguns can be used to make Reactions, such as Attacks of Opportunity, if the Reaction is available to you. Likewise, they do not provoke Reactions, such as Attacks of Opportunity, as other Ranged weapons do. You must have the Small Arms Proficiency to use Reactions with a Handgun.
  6. Story Weapons: Force Lance, Light Saber, and activated Heritage Katana do Light damage. The GM reserves the right to add or delete story element weapons and modify their statistics as needed to keep the game balanced.
  7. Skills/Proficiencies: If you have access to a skill/proficiency (as determined by the GM), then you may be able to take it from Starfinder, so long as a Pathfinder 2e Proficiency does not cover the same area of skill or knowledge. Most of the differing Proficiencies are subsets of existing proficiencies. For example, Lore: Computers in Pathfinder 2e is the same as Computers. Crafting is the same as Engineering in Starfinder. Society is the same as Culture (except it does not grant a language, as it does in Starfinder). Security Systems is Thievery. Lore: Piloting is the same as Piloting. Lore: Driving is the same as Driving. Once you have access to a skill, even if you have not actually trained it, you may attempt untrained actions if an action is allowed untrained. Humans may apply their Improviser feats to the newly accessed skill.
  8. Classes, Class Features, Races, Racial Features, Feats, Spells, etc. in Starfinder are not available to Pathfinder 2e characters.
  9. Enhancements for armor, weapons, etc. are treated like Runes in Pathfinder 2e.
  10. Economics: 1 Credit in Starfinder is equal to 1 Silver Piece in Pathfinder 2e for the purposes of price listing and development costs. However, converting them back and forth may prove to be very difficult as Silver is a commodity. One day 1 Silver may be worth 0.2 credits, and the next day worth 2.3 credits depending on the market and location of the characters.
  11. Non-Pathfinder 2e Weapons Proficiencies: Once you have access to Modern or Starfinder Weapons (and an instructor to teach you), and when you gain a Class Feat, Skill Feat, General Feat, or Ancestry Feat, you can use it to take the Elevated Weapon Proficiency Feat. The Elevated Weapons Proficiencies are Small Arms, Long Arms, Heavy Weapons, and Sniper Weapons as described in Starfinder. Modern Firearms and non-Pathfinder 2e weapons fall into these. The Elevated Weapon Proficiency Feat allows you to become Trained in Small Arms or Long Arms. You can take it multiple times. You can take it again if you are Trained in Small Arms or Long Arms, and gain Trained in Small Arms, Long Arms, Heavy Weapons, or Sniper Weapons. At 1st level or higher you can take it to increase Trained to Expert in an Elevated Weapon Proficiency you are Trained in. You can also take it at 7th level or higher and gain Master in an Elevated Weapon Proficiency you are already Expert in. At 13th level or higher you can take it and gain Legendary in an Elevated Weapon feat you are already Master in.
  12. Non-Pathfinder 2e Armor: If you are trained in Light Armor, and you have access to Starfinder Armor (and an instructor to teach you), you can take the Powered Armor Feat as a General, Skill, Ancestry, or Class Feat, and become Trained. You can take it again at 1st level or higher and become Expert. At 7th level or higher you can take it again and become a Master. And at 13th level or higher you can take it again and become Legendary.

RPG-ology #35: Believable Nonsense

This is RPG-ology #35:  Believable Nonsense, for October 2020.


This article is named for the lost Game Ideas Unlimited:  Believable Nonsense, whose original ideas are recalled here.

Years ago I assisted two of my sons in burying a beloved cat, somewhere along the outside of the fence around our yard.  That event inspired the original thoughts for a number of articles, most recently Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  However, the aftermath of that event inspired an entirely different line of thought.

On my way back into the house I left the spade on the deck by the front door.  I should have known better, merely because it’s the kind of thing my wife would consider unsightly and inappropriate—you don’t leave garden tools lying by the front door.  It wasn’t long before she saw it and objected—but her objection completely surprised me.  Didn’t I know, she said, that it was bad luck to track dirt from a grave through the front door of the house?  Did I not know that this was why whenever you returned from a funeral you entered the house through the back door?

In fact I did not know any of that.  Dirt is dirt, and its origin is not particularly interesting to me most of the time.  Perhaps it would be different were I a geologist or a forensic scientist, but these things are of only general interest to me.  When I return home from anywhere I always use whatever door is most convenient for me, which is usually the front.  I can usually fathom the origins of most superstitions—walking under ladders has a chance of dislodging tools from above or knocking someone over, breaking mirrors in dressing rooms where you’re likely to use them probably means slivers of broken glass which will be in the floor boards for a long time before vacuum cleaners are invented, and black cats are easy to overlook particularly in the dark.  I’m afraid, though, that I don’t grasp the danger in grave dirt.

What intrigued me at the time, though, was the realization that the world is filled with superstitions, every culture having developed its own.  I wondered, how do you bring these into the game?  How do you create believable nonsense for your non-player characters, taboos some fully believe and others claim not to believe but are still wary about?

It strikes me that many of these would have a forgotten origin story—someone got sick eating a melon on the new moon, and so now it’s bad luck to eat melons on the new moon; someone was fishing from Long Point at high tide and got swept away, so it’s bad luck to fish from Long Point at high tide.  Or reverse it:  the only crewman to survive the wreck of the Sarsaparilla was also the only one wearing a blue shirt, so it’s good luck to wear blue shirts aboard ships.

Of course, if you can keep your wits about you you can slip these into non-player character interactions, even invent them on the fly:  “Don’t do that!  Don’t you know it’s bad luck to…”  It’s more difficult if you want it to be a superstition of a player character race, because you have to give these summary versions to the player and discuss to what degree his character believes them—fully, or only in that incomplete way in which they make us nervous, or truly not at all?

That then leads to the tougher question:  how many of them are true?  What happens if the player characters ignore the seemingly nonsensical superstitious wisdom of the locals?  There might be something to the local belief that you shouldn’t touch the rock at the end of the village, or drink from the fountain on the side of the mountain.  Superstitious nonsense might be true; there might be hidden dangers in the claptrap spoken in the village.

Anyway, it can make for a good story.


Previous article:  Invisible Coins.
Next article:  Phionics.

Tough Choices Make for a Good Game

Many years ago, when we were just learning to play D&D Third Edition, our weekly gaming group spent over a year exploring the Temple of Elemental Evil. What started out as a brief tutorial in a new game system never ended, and a year later several players grew bored and frustrated. Though I joined the group a few months after they began, when the PCs were already at 6th-level, I soon had a 9th-level fighter. Moreover, this fighter had a laundry list of magical items and equipment, though where he kept any of that stuff was beyond me. When my mind began to rebel against such senselessness, some players just shrugged, while others told me that the ‘campaign’ was only a tutorial so it didn’t matter. Well, after more time passed, one exasperated player finally said aloud that the campaign lacked any hint of realism, but rather than blame the DM, he instead took the high road and suggested that the group start, you know, role-playing. Now that we had most of the mechanics down, perhaps we should either start over or start playing the characters like real people. He pointed out that the PCs had been exploring the seemingly endless underground site for close to two weeks in a row (in game) without ever stopping to rest, to eat, to drink, or to sleep. Unfortunately, the players largely ignored his objections as trivial. The game dragged on for a few more months, but it eventually imploded because there was zero interest left. While that two-year campaign was torturous in many ways, we had a lot of laughs and also learned to play D&D Third Edition. More importantly, I learned something fundamental that later helped me as a DM: tough choices make for a good game. The reverse is also true, of course: a lack of tough choices often makes for a poor game.

Though this concept of tough choices could be the title of an entire series of articles, I wish to limit myself here to just three annoying practices that I have witnessed countless times. Though I hardly expect that everyone has had the same experiences, some of you, especially those that have played for a while, can probably attest to seeing a few of these. Perhaps you do these things yourself and even defend the practices. No matter. This isn’t about right and wrong or about assigning blame. I simply suggest that these practices actually detract from a good rpg game session (at least one in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons). If these practices are common in your game, you may not even realize that your game is hindered. I suggest trying a few changes. After a few sessions, you may notice that your game has changed a bit, and you may like it.

IGNORING SUPPLIES
I have watched PC archers loose one or two arrows per round at their monstrous foes, doing so in six, eight, or ten encounters in a row, yet somehow they never run short on arrows. When is the last time that you heard a player say, “Guys, I’m down to two arrows”? Maybe your playing history is different than mine, but I honestly can’t recall a player saying that. Some characters purchase arrows during character creation and then go for months or years without every buying more. Talk about getting your money’s worth!

Art by Toren Atkinson for Meatshields!

If someone objects, a player might argue that keeping track of such minutia is boring. “This is a game about adventure, not book-keeping!” a player once told me. Two other players that I remember seemed more bothered by the loss of coin than the effort of tracking arrows. One wonders why someone like that would buy a weapon that requires ammunition. Who knows? However, when pressed, at least one said, “I can’t afford to keep buying arrows. The prices in this village are inflated.” By the way, he was not wrong.

Many years ago, my friends and I sent our PCs deep underground, venturing for days without ever giving a thought to our supply of torches or oil. I remember fighting many creatures in that place and eventually getting out alive with plenty of treasure. I don’t ever recall running low on light sources. More recently, I have seen a party of about ten PCs in a long file, winding its way through a narrow tunnel. When the PCs in the lead, carrying the only light source, ran forward to scout ahead, the DM told the PCs in the back of the party that they were now in the dark. An annoyed player grumbled, “We have torches, ya know.” To that the DM flatly asked, “Did you light them before the fighter in the front ran off with the lantern?” Annoyed and a bit incredulous, the player responded with, “We would have when we saw him move away.” This sort of play makes me bury my head in my hands. Yet, we did have fun, and we did so without worrying too much about light sources.

My opening anecdote already touched on how a group could completely ignore the importance of food and water, let alone rest. It was silly, and again a few players seemed annoyed at the suggestion that we start tracking such things. Yet, we had some fun. As a kid, I remember playing in Tracy and Laura Hickman’s desert-themed adventure called Pharaoh. It is still one of my favorites, but I laugh now at our silliness because I recall that food and water were never concerns during that adventure or during the two sequels. One could certainly argue that we had a blast without ever giving a thought to food or water, and that is true.

IGNORING CARRYING CAPACITY
I submit that bags of holding and portable holes are perhaps the most useless magical items in the entire Dungeon Master’s Guide. Do I dislike the idea of those items? Certainly not! In fact, they’re great. My issue is that so many players and DMs completely ignore realistic limitations on what a person can carry that those items become pointless. A player might moan, “But the encumbrance system in AD&D First Edition is awful!” I couldn’t agree more. It may have improved in later editions, but I haven’t met a single player that has liked any system for carrying capacity.

More recently, my gaming group was exploring an old castle. I watched a fellow player run his seven-foot-tall, female, half-orc barbarian-cleric in her characteristic style. She has a penchant for bull-rushing enemies, dropkicking them, or tackling them. As a side note, I love that she does this for flavor, though some other players dutifully remind the player that the PC could deal more damage with standard moves and attacks (yawn). Anyway, twice or thrice in one recent session, the half-orc delivered a tackle that would have made Jack Lambert proud. After rolling around on the ground several times with her opponents, she then pulled out a javelin and hurled it at a new foe. I could not help myself and asked, “Where did she have this javelin all this time?” Without missing a beat, the player responded, “Tied to her back.” Ok. I laughed inside, for having fought full-contact, mock battles in medieval armor for more years than I want to admit, I can tell you that carrying just an extra longsword can be positively unwieldy when you’re in the grind of a melee. Carrying a long weapon on your back, not to mention rolling around with one on your back, is absurd. I laughed inside but said nothing. The half-orc missed with the javelin, but what did she do the very next round? “I try with another javelin,” announced the player. “Where did you get that one?” asked the DM. You know the answer, right? “It was tied to her back. I had two,” he said with a straight face.

IGNORING AN ITEM’S LOCATION
I have no funny anecdote for this, but several times in the last few months, my fellow players have become disgruntled while their characters were in the middle of combat. It may have been a wounded character that wanted to drink a healing potion. It may have been a character that wanted to read a scroll. It may have been a character that wanted to make the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail with oil and rags. In each case, the DM informed the player that it would take at least one round to accomplish the task. In each case, the player grumbled. Again, I put my head in my hands. Of course, the DM was correct. Indeed, in the AD&D game that I run, I would have required a minimum of one round to do such things, and in AD&D a round equals one minute. In these instances, we are playing D&D Edition 3.5, and the players were annoyed that they lost one round, which is only six seconds! Few of the players can roll their dice in six seconds, yet they expect their character to back away from combat, take off the mysterious backpack (that holds everything and never gets in the way), throw it on the ground, rifle through it, retrieve the desired item, and then use it in six seconds.

“I don’t want to miss my turn,” a player might object. He might even continue, “It takes at least ten minutes in between rounds—on a good day—and I don’t want to wait ten minutes before I can actually do something!” I admit that there is logic there, and of course one can sympathize with not wanting to miss out. I think of my eight-year-old when she doesn’t want to go to bed because she doesn’t want to miss anything.

SO WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM?
I just laid out three common practices, but in each case, I seemed to admit that the game continued, we usually had fun, and some of the players’ complaints were at least partially justified. So what’s the problem then?

Dungeons & Dragons, as initially envisioned, is a game of exploration and treasure hunting. In this game, player-characters, after carefully selecting their equipment, explore dark, dangerous, and sometimes remote locations in search of treasure, confronting any monsters that threaten them along the way. Exploration is a fundamental part of the game. Removing that, by and large, leaves mainly combat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but if that is all that you want, why not just play a gladiatorial game with alien races? That could be fun, but the experience would be radically different from the initial vision of D&D. Some may object to the idea of clinging to a decades-old vision just for the sake of orthodoxy, and that would be a sound point. Yet, I submit that anyone making that argument has not given Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson enough credit. Their initial vision of the game took into account a very basic precept: tough choices make for good games. Consider the following ridiculous example:

Your DM allows your party to have the entirety of the equipment list in the Players Handbook, spread out between the various PCs. He doesn’t care how you manage to carry it all. Furthermore, he does not let the incredible burden that you now carry inhibit your ability to gather as much treasure as you want. This is every player’s dream, right? Even better, when the PCs realize that they need a particular item, even in the midst of a battle, the DM does not force the PCs to spend several rounds rummaging through their colossal hoard of possessions. Instead, a PC can find the item instantly and carry on without losing even one round of action. For the moment, let’s put aside the objection that this breaks radically from the initial vision for the game. Let’s ignore that this would break radically from the exciting and legendary literature on which the game in based (the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, the adventure tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber, the Lord of the Rings saga by J.R.R. Tolkien, or the various legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table). Let’s dismiss the fact that this would make the game much more akin to Pokemon with medieval trappings. I submit that more important is that the game would be BORING. Logistics force players to make tough choices, which in turn creates tension. Tension is what keeps a movie audience on the edge of its collective seat at the movies. Tension is what makes you keep flipping the pages of a book when you are an hour past your bedtime. Tension is what makes many role-playing sessions dramatic and memorable. Eliminating these for the sake of convenience actually does more harm than good to the experience. Consider another silly example:

Imagine playing a game of Monopoly with some friends, some of which have never played before. In this example, all of the players love the game (or at least the idea of it, though if they are over the age of eight, I question their sanity). The game begins normally, but as it progresses, half of the players get increasingly annoyed with having to pay rent, having to pay fines to get out of jail, or having to pay random fees like a luxury tax. Another player even grows tired of collecting rent and collecting money when he passes Go. Thus, several players advocate for doing away with the use of money in the game, as they find it trivial.

Hmmmm. Are they wrong? Should they be able to do whatever they wish with their game? Isn’t the most important thing that they are having fun? Well… no, yes, and yes. However, the real question is this: why would those people that wish to get rid of money play Monopoly in the first place? When asked, one might tell you that he loves rolling dice and just likes to see if he can move fastest around the board. Another might say that she likes seeing if she can avoid going to jail and can instead land on Free Parking, Broadway, or Park Place. These are not ‘wrong,’ of course, but the game without money certainly isn’t Monopoly. Anyone that truly loves the game, as is, and sits down to play in a game without money is in for a big disappointment. If they are new to the game entirely, they might not complain, for they have no idea what they are missing. That is my point though. They would be missing much of what brings tension to the game—much of what forces players into tough decisions. As this is a key ingredient of any challenging and memorable game, they are missing out.

Before I continue, a quick request: Please don’t write me to tell me that ‘having fun is what it’s all about.’ I already know that. If you think that I’m trying to stop anyone from playing their games as they wish, you haven’t read this carefully. I am suggesting that, if players have come to ignore logistics and other hints of realism in their games, they may be missing out. They may not even know that they are missing out. I merely suggest that they try reintroducing some logistics, as they may change the game for the better. How to do this, you ask? I think that players can certainly do their part, but I think that DMs must take the lead here. DMs can design their adventures in such a way that logistics can make or break the party’s chances for success. That’s the key. Consider the possibilities below.

DESIGNING ADVENTURES WITH LOGISTICS IN MIND
When it comes to ammunition, keep track. A character that is heavily invested in a bow, for example, will only have so many shots. The game changes for him when he runs out of ammo. That should not mean that the fun is over. Far from it! This new challenge requires that PC to be more creative and more careful, at least until he can find more arrows. Great memories often result when characters face terrible danger when already disadvantaged. Moreover, such a situation allows the DM to place arrows as meaningful treasure. In a game in which even magical arrows can seem a bit hum-drum, the player can find satisfaction in finding two quivers of mundane arrows. This is how you keep the game fresh and avoid the slippery slope that leads to Monty Haul campaigns.

As a history nerd and a movie nerd, I cannot help but think of several movies in which a lack of ammunition plays an important role. I’ll offer here just one example. The 1979 movie Zulu Dawn is based on the true tale of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, in which several thousand Zulu warriors attacked an invading British expeditionary force in what is now South Africa. The supremacy of modern industrial warfare is on full display during much of the battle, as the British soldiers, armed with Martini-Henry breach-loading rifles, just mow down the onrushing Zulu warriors. Yet, a beleaguered British soldier, nervously eyeing the Zulu lines, mutters, “but bullets run out, and those bloody spears don’t!” As the British fire volley after volley, the tension becomes palpable, and when the movie shows a diligent British quartermaster, handing out ammunition one small box at a time to a line of desperate soldiers, you want to jump through the screen and smack him. For a moment, try to imagine that movie (or the battle itself) if the British had endless ammunition. Yawn.

If tracking ammunition seems like added work that you, as the DM, do not want to do, ask the players to help. I do not mean simply asking players to mind their ammunition. In a group of great players, they will do this naturally, but if your group needs a little more accountability, try this instead. Fill out an index card, listing each missile-using PC and his or her ammo. Keep the card in the center of the table. Whenever someone looses an arrow or bolt, ask him to cross it off the card. You may need to remind players a few times, but after a while, it should become habit. This ammo card goes to the DM between sessions. Not only will there be an accounting of ammunition, but every player that uses missiles will notice when the group as a whole is running low on ammo. This may urge players to have their PCs start looking for more ammo, and if nothing else, it makes several players aware that their limited resources are dwindling. This adds tension. The ranger that has weapon specialization in a bow, a +2 magical bow, and only a few +2 magical arrows left will start to squirm, knowing that soon he will have to draw his non-magical longsword, with which he has no bonuses at all. For such a character, the next battle will be tense. Will they be able to prevail before he runs out of ammunition? If not, he’ll have to make do with his longsword, and that will be memorable! Even advancing down an empty tunnel becomes tense because the player will be anticipating the next combat at any moment. Does the party hear a noise coming from down the tunnel? While this may generate tension in any circumstance, it would now generate even more because of limited resources.

When it comes to food and water, keep track. This is admittedly more difficult to use, at least at face value, because most editions do not clearly state that you lose hit points or strength points whenever you miss meals or fail to drink enough water. When game mechanics ignore something, you can be certain that players will too. I am convinced that if the game mechanics did not have rules on drowning, many players would expect and demand that their characters be able to walk for days underwater without ill effect. Rules encourage or discourage behavior. It’s simple. Though the game often lacks rules on food and water, I suggest that you do what most early DMs were entirely expected to do: make up a simple mechanic. If a character is in a desert without shade or water, perhaps he loses a strength point every hour (if you are feeling strict) or every day (if you are feeling generous). Instead of strength, perhaps the PC loses one hit point every hour. There is no right mechanic. Just make up whatever seems sensible. Is this being cruel? Not at all! The goal is not to kill the PCs. The goal is to make the PCs aware that they will not survive for long in a desert without shade or water (imagine that).

If tracking food and water (not to mention strength points and hit points) seems like a lot of work, don’t worry. It need not be complicated. You need not calculate how many ounces each waterskin holds or research the exact hydration needs of the human body in certain conditions. Keep it simple if you wish, but clearly give the PCs a reason to carry and to keep track of water. If you wish to be grossly generous, perhaps each PC on your typical wilderness trek must consume at least one skin of water per day. If they do not, they lose strength or hit points. That certainly isn’t complicated, but it does provide complications for the group. Will they go off the trail to search for water? Will they drink from the stagnant pond that they come upon next (risking sickness and throat leeches)? Will they push on and risk dehydration, fatigue, and collapse? Remember—story complications (like dwindling resources) lead to tough choices, which create tension and make for a memorable game.

One small side note on the above: I tend to favor loss of hit points instead of strength points for two reasons. First, most players instinctively get that hit points mean life. Without them, it’s “Game over, man!” (quoting the late, great Bill Paxton in Aliens). Players may be less aware of the danger of lost strength points. The second reason that I favor hit point loss has to do with mechanics. In AD&D (First and Second Editions), a loss of strength only affects a PC if he initially had extremely high strength or if his strength drops to an extremely low score. That means that strength loss poses little threat. In contrast, in Third Edition and in later editions, a PC’s strength score does indeed affect most characters and in many ways (attacks, skills, etc.). This seems good, until you realize that it requires you to do many mathematical adjustments up and down the character sheet, which slows play and takes the focus off of the story. Hit point loss, on the other hand, has little to no effect on other mechanics (regardless of edition) so there is no delay or distraction.

When it comes to light sources, keep track. While the need for food and water is obvious, it may not seem urgent. After all, you can live without food for weeks and can survive without water for about three days in temperate conditions. In contrast, the need for ammunition can seem immediate and pressing when in a dangerous dungeon, abandoned temple, ruined castle, etc. Yet, even running out of ammo pales in comparison to losing the gift of sight. Of course, darkness is a staple in horror movies, and for good reason. Even some action movies make limited use of the effect. We find a poor example in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right after the Nazis seal Indiana Jones and Marion in an underground chamber. As Indy tries to figure a way out, Marion fends off snakes and yells, “Indy the torch is going out!” If the torch had died, they would have been trapped underground in pitch darkness with hundreds of snakes. This is a poor example only because the condition does not last long enough for the audience to feel anxious. Indy sends a giant statue crashing through a wall and discovers a way out. If he hadn’t, though, the movie would be much darker (bad pun—not intended). The same is true with the classic movie Jaws (which is really a horror movie, but the second half of the film seems much like an adventure movie). Toward the end, after the characters spend hours excitedly hunting the shark, water damage to the boat causes the lights to go out. In that instant, despite all that you’ve seen to that point, the mood changes. This too is only a mediocre example because there is still some light outside. Imagine the movie if that had occurred in the middle of the night. Terrifying.

I think many DMs can use darkness to better effect in their games. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time that the party had no light source at all or was in danger of losing it for more than a few moments? I imagine that most DMs require the party to light a torch or lantern, but as time passes, can the characters simply light another torch or refill the oil lantern? Put differently, has the party really had to contend with being in a dangerous or hostile environment in compete blackness? If not, consider a few possibilities on how to bring about these conditions or how to use darkness once you have it.

First, keep track of torches or flasks of oil the same way that you track ammunition. An index card will do just fine. In fact, you can even put this light-related information on the back of the ammunition card suggested above.

Second, design your dungeon (ruin, temple, etc.) with an area that makes it difficult for PCs to bring torches through. A narrow underground tunnel may have a fierce draft that blows out just about any flame. Though you may know that the draft only exists in a limited area, the PCs should not know that. Will they turn back, will they push on while blind, or will they innovate and find another solution? Tough choices make for good games. In addition to drafts, you could use water as a barrier between two areas. This too is common in movies (even if light is not the focus). Consider The 13th Warrior, at the end of which the characters, trapped underground with monsters closing in, try to escape by swimming through an underwater tunnel in the hopes that they will find their way out (talk about desperation—would you do that?). Another silly example that comes to mind is in Conan the Destroyer, when they enter the wizard’s castle to get a magical key. Yes, the movie was terrible (I know), but my point is that the only way in was beneath the water. In your game, perhaps the only known way to access a certain cavern is by swimming underwater. Do the PCs push forward? If so, they will be without light at least temporarily. Will they manage to keep the torch dry so they can light it on the other side? If not, how would they see? Do they decide not to swim underwater and turn back instead? Do they seek another, perhaps longer or more dangerous route? Tough choices make for good games.

In addition to making it tough to maintain their light sources, consider how to use darkness effectively if they fail. For starters, remember the notion that the greatest fear is that of the unknown. While we often repeat this saying today as a way of implying that we actually have nothing to fear, in our games there may be very good reasons to fear the dark. Let’s start with terrain hazards. Pits (man-made or natural), crevasses, chasms, and crumbling ledges are common underground, and each could lead to serious injury or death.

Continuing with this idea of the unknown, consider how the DM can use darkness to make monsters more frightening. Though the PCs may not be able to see, a crafty DM might add tension by allowing PCs to hear creatures around them, to smell creatures around them, or even worse, to feel creatures around them. That hissing, slimy thing that just bumped into the character in the rear of the party may be terrifying and powerful or it may have one hit die. The players will not know (and will often assume the worst).

If it eventually comes to combat, a good DM will realize that fighting monsters should be exponentially more difficult, if not impossible, without any light. PCs suffer hefty penalties to both their attacks and their AC, and they may lack the ability to direct missile fire at enemies. A generous DM may allow a PC to fire blindly and have a tiny chance of success—though there should be an equal chance that the PC might hit a companion. PCs would also be unable to read from magical scrolls. They might not be able to cast certain spells if they cannot see or cannot find their spell components. A thief or rogue cannot use his backstab ability on a foe that he cannot locate. Even the ever reliable and inerrant magic missile requires a clear target. Furthermore, intelligent creatures that can see in the dark will use every advantage. They may strike from a distance. They may strike a PC and back away from the dumbfounded target. Why stand in a line and wait to be hit? More than anything, they would make every attempt to stop a PC from relighting a torch or lantern. In short, fighting in darkness should be terrifying and desperate. Realize too that your game can improve even if a battle in the dark never occurs. It is the threat of such a battle—the fear of such a battle—that can make a session more tense and memorable. Even better, if the PCs ever have such a battle, you can guarantee thereafter that tensions will rise whenever light sources start to run low.

Darkness brings one last side-benefit. In the Stygian darkness, even relatively weak creatures (like goblins) can be terrifying, provided that the DM runs them properly. This is another way to keep the game fresh without having to resort to increasingly powerful creatures to the keep the PCs engaged.

When it comes to carrying capacity, keep track. In the games that I run, I am a stickler with this, but not as you might suspect. The encumbrance rules in AD&D First Edition were indeed awful. They measured weight in gold pieces, each equal to a one-tenth of a pound. Moreover, each item had an encumbrance value, representing not only its weight, but also its bulkiness. Your strength and your armor type indicated how much you could carry and fast you could move. It was logical (sort of), but unplayable. In Second Edition, things improved some. They started measuring things in pounds, and they did away with encumbrance points. This was certainly better, but still a bit clunky for my tastes. In Third Edition, much remained the same, though they simplified the five categories (unencumbered, light, etc.) to just three (light load, medium load, and heavy load). While this is manageable, I opt to use an even simpler way.

As DM, you need not use a Byzantine system to track carrying capacity. I simply ask each player to note on their character sheet where each item is on the PC’s body. Some find it easier to draw a stick figure diagram, showing me where each item is. Before we start, I ask each player to give me a sixty-second rundown. Reason is our only guide. Usually, players are very practical, and I recognize that the PCs are sometimes stronger than the players that run them. Yet, I insist on common sense. A few months ago, when a player told me that he had a spear strapped to his back, I marched into my garage, produced a nine-foot spear, and offered to strap it to his back while he ran around my front yard. He declined. Sometimes we just need a visual as a reality check. When dealing with a simple list on paper, it is sometimes too easy to keeping adding stuff.

When it comes to retrieving items, use common sense. If you ask each player to note where each of his items is located (as suggested above), then this becomes easy. Before we go any further, remember that editions matter here. In AD&D (First and Second Editions) the combat round is one-minute long, while Third Edition and those that followed use a six-second round. Keep that in mind as you use common sense. My rule of thumb is that if a character has an item within his grasp and does not need to look for it, he can usually grab it in one round or less (though using it may take longer). If a disagreement arises, I just ask a player to walk me through the steps that his PC would need to take. Through experience, I have noticed that disagreements usually begin when a player starts with a vague statement like, “I reach in my pack, grab my flask of oil, light it, and throw it at the monster.” Rather than being argumentative or authoritarian, I usually just ask him to clarify each step for me. My favorite phrase here is “I just want to make sure that I understand you correctly.” This is often followed by something like this: “You have a shield in your left hand and a battleaxe in your right. You have one troll in front of you and one to your right. You now want to withdraw from combat—how far by the way? Ok. You want to withdraw 25’. Then you want to drop your axe and shield. Then you want to shrug off the leather pack that was on your back. How many items do you have in there? Sixteen? You want to rummage through those and grab a flask of oil, a rag, and the tinderbox. You then want to open the flask of oil and stuff the end of the rag into the flask, put down the flask, open the tinderbox, remove a piece of charcloth, wad up a bunch of tinder, grab the flint and steel, hurriedly make sparks until one hits the charcloth, blow on it until it flames, throw the tinder on top, blow on it again, use that flame to light the rag, get up, and then throw flask at the monster? Ok. How long do you think that would reasonably take? Usually the conversation never gets into the weeds because just calling attention to the many steps involved helps the player to realize that it would take longer than he imagined. Sometimes a player responds with, “Forget it. I’ll just attack again.” But more times than not, a player will say, “OK. I’ll do that as fast as I can. If it takes two rounds to prepare the oil, so be it.” I want to stress this point: As DM, I don’t want to stop PCs from doing certain things. Quite the opposite! I just want players to be clear on how long it would reasonably take. I have found that the more we discuss this stuff, the more reasonable their desired actions become. They don’t stop doing fun things; they just realize that it may take them a round or so to pull off their cool idea. In the end, they get to choose. Does the PC continue fighting a losing battle against trolls, trying to save his companions from injury and death? Does he call for the whole party to retreat? Does he withdraw from the battle, leaving his friends even more vulnerable for a few moments, while he tries to put together a weapon that might turn the tide? Tough choices make for good games.

If you have not used logistics in your games (for whatever reason), consider dabbling with some of the above ideas in your upcoming sessions. I think you may need to try them for more than a single session, as enough time must pass for supplies to dwindle. Yet have no fear. The ideas are easy to implement, and they force PCs to make tough choices. This adds tension, which players will remember, regardless of what their characters choose to do. Freaked out, frustrated, and anxious players may even thank you afterwards for the wonderful experience. As DMs, we indeed have a weird job.

Faith in Play #35: Seekers

This is Faith in Play #35:  Seekers, for October 2020.


The “magic” in our role playing games is “make believe.”  It’s not real, and no one could by reading any of the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks or source books learn how to do any “real magic,” if such a thing exists.  Indeed, you can’t learn it from any of our fantasy fiction, not Narnia, not Middle Earth, not even the Harry Potter books in which young “wizards” and “witches” attend classes in which the teacher characters explain to the student characters how to do it.  It’s just not in there.

The image shown is the alchemical symbol for sulfur and as such has no more occult meaning or power than the letters of the alphabet.

Yet once in a while someone tells about how the game was a sort of “gateway” for him to become involved in paganism and occult practices.  What should our concern be for such individuals?  How should we respond in such situations?

The first point that should be noted is that such people aren’t casually drawn into magic by the games or books.  They are looking for something, and they use fragments of information from the books as a starting point to help them look.  Magic in games such as Dungeons & Dragons is inspired by a wealth of sources, including the Bible (healing, parting water, calling fire, raising the dead, and more are all miracles from scripture), but also from other sources, mostly fictional, some of which have tapped popular culture and books about occult practices.  It is apparently not impossible to use books about fictional magic to help search for occult magic, and easier now in the world of the World Wide Web than it was forty-some years ago when such searches required hours in library card catalogues.  But these people aren’t stumbling into magic because it happens to be included in game books; they are seeking it, and using game books as a reference.

That matters because people who are seeking such things can usually find them.  Game books and fantasy fiction are hardly the only sources for such information; they’re not even very good ones.  Yet fantasy games do something in relation to these seekers that other sources do not:  they bring them into contact with other people.  This is why it is so important that Christians be involved in these games—if we leave the games to the Pagans and Wiccans and occult practitioners, then when someone is seeking magic, there will be people there to point them to Paganism and Wicca and the occult, and no one will be there to point them in the right direction.

While that is critical, it might seem that the second point contradicts it:  it is not our job to prevent people from falling deeper into sin; it is our job to point them to the way out.  Many people cannot be saved until they recognize just how lost they are, and we are often trying to prevent them from becoming that lost, damaged enough that they recognize their own need.  At least sometimes we need to let go and let them fall, so they can grab the hand that really can save them.

But to help them at all we need to understand why they are looking for something at all.  My impression is that people who want magic feel inadequate; they need something to make them feel more important, more empowered, than other people.  We have the answer to that.  We are in touch with the greatest of all powers, the Name above every Name, and He tells us that each one of us is infinitely important, important enough that Jesus died for us, not just for all of us, but for each of us.  We need to communicate that to these lost people.  Those of us who have truly connected with God don’t need the paltry substitute that they call magic.  Our reality is much greater than that.  We need to offer that to those who are seeking magic in their lives.

The author has previously written on this subject in Difficult Question:  What if Non-Christian Friends are Interested in Magic?.


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Complex Firearms for D20 Games

Public domain photo. Source: https://www.pikist.com/free-photo-sjtuq

There are several concepts that need to be understood for proper potential damage dice for a given firearm system. There are two kinds of cavities that are created when a projectile hits a body. The wound cavity is created by the track of the projectile damaging tissue as it travels through the body, creating a hole or tunnel as it goes, and in some cases creating multiple tunnels of damage if it fragments. The second is the Stretch cavity which is created when the shockwave of the projectile hits the body and moves tissues around like throwing a rock into a pool of water. For handguns, there are many impressive gel tests that show very dramatic stretch cavities using slow motion video. However the stretch cavity does not actually damage any tissue. Only the wound cavity damages tissue. Tissue damage causes bleeding, and when there is enough blood loss, the target is stopped. Larger projectiles make larger holes and thus more blood loss potential.

The shock of the stretch cavity can, in rare cases, cause enough shock to the nerves that it can render the target unconscious. Hydrostatic shock, where the stretch cavity actually causes tissue damage, does not occur with any tissue damaging results unless the projectile has enough foot-pounds of energy when it strikes the body, depending on the size of the body being hit. Energy is mass times velocity squared. Heavier projectiles have more mass, but require more pressure to give them velocity. The smaller the target, the larger the stretch cavity, the more potential for hydrostatic shock. This is not easy to translate into game terms. However, as a general rule, in Tiny targets, Firearms always product Hydrostatic shock. In size Small, 400 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (in hunting terms, this would be Class I game—Rabbits, Badgers, Coyotes, Antelope, etc.). In size Medium, 700 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class II game—Cougars, Deer, Antelope, Black Bear, Humans, etc.). In size Large, 1200 foot-pounds of energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class III game—Brown Bear, Mountain Sheep, Elk, Caribou, Moose, etc.). In size Huge, 1200 foot-pounds or more energy would be needed to create hydrostatic shock (Class IV game—Elephant, Hippo, Dragon, etc.)

The next issue is entropy; the projectile slows down, thus reducing its energy, as it travels. All Centerfire Rifles do Hydrostatic shock (unless they are chambered in a pistol cartridge) at under 100 yards. Some handguns under 30 feet can also do it. Beyond 100 yards, it depends on the cartridge being used (higher pressure has more velocity; heavier projectiles have less velocity but more mass) and the barrel length (the longer the barrel the more velocity). Things like barometric pressure, elevation, and so forth also play a role in the velocity of the projectile, and therefore the energy of the projectile when it impacts its target. The further out a target is, the less energy the projectile has to apply to the body. The furthest away, unless using specialty optics, that a good shooter can shoot effectively is 1200 yards. Game hunters and guides recommend you not take a shot with any standard cartridge rifles at anything further out than 400 yards. In order to have a humane kill, the magic number is 1200 foot-pounds of energy. If your platform and cartridge being used can’t produce that at the range you are considering taking the shot at, don’t take the shot.

There are literally thousands of developed loadings for a given cartridge. To simplify things, though, there are three basic bullet types: Standard loading for most cartridges is a full metal jacket bullet. Expanding, in most cases, is a jacketed hollow point or soft point round. Armor penetrating is typically an iron core round. The standard loading is assumed in the following pages. Expanding bullets will do an extra die of damage in exchange for a 25% penalty to the Accuracy Range increment. These are usually ‘defense’ rounds in Handguns. Armor Penetrating adds a bonus to hit to represent the negation of armor class and an identical penalty to damage to reflect the energy lost punching through the armor. In most cases, a flat +4 to hit and -4 to damage should be assessed. If the armor has a Damage Reduction rating (DR), you ignore it. Yes, they are nasty! But they are also dangerous, as they ignore Hardness of objects. Don’t use them inside a space ship!

Taking all these factors into consideration, we can lay some ground rules in determining weapon damage for Firearms in simple fashion. First, Rimfire Rifles, Black Powder, Pistols, Shotguns, and Centerfire Rifles have different pressure thresholds, and so they are separated. Rimfire uses a flash compound in the rim of the case that ignites the powder. Because of this, the weaker case does not allow for higher pressure. Centerfire uses a primer cup held in a primer pocket in the case. This allows for much higher pressure. Black Powder doesn’t use primer at all. Second we can simply utilize generic data on cartridges in “standard” platforms for that cartridge off Wikipedia.

What follows is a “simple” way to determine damage and range for a given “standard” platform for a given firearm cartridge using Pathfinder Second Edition rules. I took the “normal” top and bottom end cartridges to calculate the range increments and rounded the numbers off to make is simpler. There are more powerful, and less powerful, guns than what I used to determine the mean, but I kept it to what would be considered common firearms. For example a 500 S&W Magnum does 5000 J of energy out of pistol, and a 50 BMG rifle does 21,000 J of energy… and they cost between $5 and $20 per shot to fire… so they are not very common, and really mess with the numbers if you include such beasts.


All Firearms have a Damage Range increment, in addition to the normal Accuracy Range Increment other ranged weapons have. The Accuracy Range increment can be improved with the use of an Optic system.

Firearms Range Increments, Table 1

Weapon Type Accuracy Range Increment* Damage Range Increment
Centerfire Rifle 300 feet / 100 m 300 feet / 100 m
Rimfire Rifle 150 feet / 50 m 150 feet / 50 m
Handguns 75 feet / 25 m 30 feet / 10 m
Shotguns (scatter) 50 feet / 15 m 10 feet / 3 m
Smoothbore Black Powder guns 75 feet / 25 m 30 feet / 10 m
Rifled Black Powder guns 225 feet / 70 m 50 feet / 15 m
Black Powder Scatter guns 50 feet / 15 m 10 feet / 3 m

At the first Damage Range increment, damage is normal. But for each Damage Range increment out, the firearm does one damage die less. If it is down to its last die, the die type reduces by one die type for each Damage Range increment after that; with a minimum of 1 damage.

*Hollow point and soft point bullets give a 25% penalty to the Accuracy Range Increment

Optics

A Scope adds the Volley 30 trait to the weapon. In Pathfinder 2e terms, you have a -2 penalty to use the gun if your target is within 30 feet / 10 m of you. The Accuracy Range Increment is increased by 33%.

Red Dot systems do not impose the Volley penalty, but only increase the Accuracy Range Increment by 10%.

Optics may also grant features such as night vision or recording capabilities, depending on the system used.


The bigger the caliber of projectile, the larger the wound cavity, reflected in a larger damage die size:

Firearms Damage Dice, Table 2-1

Imperial Caliber Metric Caliber Damage Die
.17 – .236 4.318 – 5.994 d4
.237 – .302 6.02 – 7.671 d6
.303 – .368 7.697 – 9.347 d8
.369 – .434 9.373 – 11.024 d10
.435 – .50 11.05 – 12.7 d12

Most black powder pistols are .36 or .45 caliber (d8 or d12). Most black powder rifles are .45, .50, or .58 caliber (d12).

 The higher the energy, the more dice are rolled:

Rifle Damage Dice, Table 2-2a

Energy in Joules Dice**
< 2000 J 2d
2000 J / Black Powder 3d
3000 J 4d
4000 J 5d
5000+ J 6d

Pistol Damage Dice, Table 2-2b

Energy in Joules Dice**
< 300 J 1d
300 J 2d
500 J / Black Powder 3d
900 J 4d
1300 J 5d
1500+ J 6d

** Expanding bullets get an extra die of damage.


Shotguns shoot multiple projectiles and are treated differently as they are designed for short ranges, and therefore the size of the shot determines the number of dice:

Shotgun Damage Dice, Table 2-3

Shot Size Dice
#000 Buck 5d12
#00 Buck 5d10
#0 Buck 5d8
#2 Buck 5d6
#4 Buck / Black Powder Scatterguns 5d4
#5 Shot 4d4
#7½ Shot 2d6
#8 & #9 Shot 1d6

If only one die is being rolled, it may ‘explode,’ meaning that if the highest possible result is rolled, the die is rolled again, and the result is added to the original roll. This can continue until the highest possible result is not rolled.


To determine the damage and range of a specific gun, we simply look up a cartridge on the Wikipedia and compare its caliber, type (centerfire, Rimfire, or handgun) and energy. Use the highest rated energy loading on the page. For example, I’ll look up 7.7×58 Arisaka on Wikipedia. It has a diameter of 7.92mm. It’s highest rated energy listed is 3136 J. So looking at our lists above, it uses 4d8. Not too shabby. So instead of creating long laundry lists of damage, we’ve created a formula to convert any firearm to Pathfinder 2e damage.


Here are some more common cartridges converted:

A standard 5.56 NATO (AR15/M16) would use d4s, and at 1859 J it gets 2 of them (they can also fire .223 Remington at 1814 J, still only 2 dice).

A 9×19 Parabellum (9mm, 9mm Luger) +P Pistol uses d8s and at 617 J uses 3 of them. This covers the Beretta M9 (FS92), the standard NATO side arm from 1985 until 2017. Also the Sig Sauer P320 (RX17) from 2017 to Present. It is the most popular round next to .22 Long Rifle. The Glock Model 19 is the most popular handgun in this cartridge. Portland Police use Glock Model 17, as do all Federal Agencies except the Border Patrol and NCIS.

A .357 Magnum Pistol uses d8s and at 964 J uses 4 of them. Examples include the Smith & Wesson Model 27/28, Colt Python, and Ruger Security Six. A lot of State Police agencies and the Border Patrol switched from S&W 10s to S&W 28s in 1955 and used them until 1992.

A .357 SIG Pistol uses d8s and at 978 J uses 4 of them. The Glock Model 31 is the standard U.S. Border Patrol and NCIS sidearm.

7.62×39 (AK47/SKS) Rifles use d8s (0.310 caliber projectiles) and at 2108 J uses 3 of them.

The .38 Special +P Pistol (S&W Model 10 was the standard Cop gun from 1899 until 1990) uses d8s and at 476 J gets 2 dice.

The .40 S&W Pistol uses d10s and at 797 J uses 3 of them. Most cop guns are Glock Model 22.

.45 ACP (Colt 1911) uses d12s and at 796 J uses 3 of them. This was the U.S. Forces Pistol from 1911 until 1986 with 8+1 rounds. A smaller 6+1 round Officers’ version was carried by U.S. Forces Officers from 1955 until 1985. A 7+1 Round Commander version was available for Civilians.

A .270 Winchester rifle uses a d6 and at 4006 J uses 5 of them.

30-06 rifle uses d8 and at 4042 J uses 5 of them.

M1 Garand is a 30-06, but must be loaded to under 2800 J so they get 3 dice (use of regular 30-06 ammo will blow the op rod off the gun and damage it).

7.62×45 NATO rifles (M14) use d8s and at 3560 J uses 4 of them (they can also fire .308 Winchester at 3700 J, but still only 4 dice)

.22 Long Rifle in a Rifle gets d4s and at 277 J gets 2 of them, but only 1 in a Pistol.

Note: There are more powerful guns, but this keeps them capped for playability.


Additional Rules

Report Shock: When you fire a firearm without a suppressor, Report Shock takes place. The rules may vary depending on the game system, but by and large, if you are within 25 feet of the muzzle of an unsuppressed firearm, you must make a Fortitude, Constitution, or equivalent saving throw. In Pathfinder 2e, it would be a Simple DC for your level at Good Difficulty. If you succeed, nothing happens. If you fail, you take 1d8 points of non-lethal damage, and are both deaf and stunned for one round. If you are already deaf or have hearing protection in place, you are immune.

Overpenetration: If a target’s hit points are reduced to zero and there is still damage left over, the bullet “blows through” the target and may strike a creature or object behind the target. The original attack roll is used to see if the round hits, and if so, the remainder of the damage roll is applied to that target.

Recoil: Modern and Black Powder Firearms generate Recoil after each shot. A cumulative -1 penalty to hit is applied per shot fired to the next shot. This lasts until the shooter takes the Readjust action, Moves, or performs some other Action other than firing the weapon. However, Firearms are Agile weapons. In Pathfinder 2e, Recoil offsets the Agile trait when doing a multi-attack. If you do not do some other action prior to firing, the penalty continues to accumulate across combat rounds.

For instance, in Round 1, you fire three times. The first shot has no penalty. The second is at -5 (-4 for an Agile weapon and -1 for Recoil). The third shot is at -10 (-8 for Agile weapon, -2 for Recoil). In Round 2, you keep firing. The fourth shot is -3 for Recoil. The fifth at -8 due to -4 Recoil and -4 Agile weapon. The sixth is -13, and so forth. In Round 3, you take the Readjust action, which clears the Recoil penalty.

Reloading: Reloading is an Interact action and may require more than one action, depending on the weapon system being used. Most magazine-fed systems take two actions to reload: one to draw the magazine while ejecting the old one, and one to load the magazine and charge the weapon system.

Non-detachable magazine systems take a number of actions equal to 2 per cartridge being loaded, as do swing-out revolvers when not using a speed loader. Using a speed loader device takes only 3 actions to reload. Single Action Revolvers take an additional action per cartridge to eject spent cartridges through the load gate.

Modern single shot systems take three actions to reload: One to eject the spent cartridge, one to ready the new cartridge, and one to load the cartridge.

Black Powder weapons take 10 actions to reload. This time is cut in half if they have pre-measured powder wraps and a wad and ball block. Paper cartridge and cap & ball weapons take five actions to reload per chamber. Non-cap (primitive) Black Powder weapons such as wheel-locks take an additional two actions to ready the pan unless the user employs a single-action fire ability or spell to ignite the pan.