Monthly Archives: September 2015

“I noticed you noted that I didn’t notice anything…”

Alright, so imagine you’re running a Pathfinder game. You’re party opens a door to a new area, and this happens:

You: Make a Perception check.

Player: Uh… I get 14.

You: Alright. The room is empty.

Player: But why did you make me make a perception check? There’s a trap. There must be a trap. Send the fighter first.

And… end scene.

People who DM know what I’m talking about. You need to give your players a chance to notice something (monster hiding, trap, secret door, whatever). They fail their roll so their characters don’t see anything… But now the players know that there is something they didn’t notice. Will that affect how they play? Well, it shouldn’t. In theory, that falls quite firmly into the meta-gaming category, using knowledge their characters don’t have to make character decisions… But it’s hard not to, especially for newer players.

So how do you handle it? By the rules, you need to give them the opposed check (Search, Spot, Perception, whatever it’s called in the game you’re playing) at a certain point. But you don’t want them meta-gaming. So what do you do?

All the rolls

One option: they roll all the time, whether there is something for them to find or not. They walked into a new room? Roll for perception before you describe it. If there is something for them to notice, add the appropriate descriptive elements.

The problem with this one is obvious. It takes time. It slows things down. It gets boring. Is it worth making the game slog through roll after roll to save your players from getting “too much information”? Maybe it is, for you. By all means then, do it. But, if not, you need a different option…

None of the rolls

Don’t let your players roll to find things automatically, ever. If they want a chance to see something, they have to make a conscious decision to look for it. That will make it a lot less likely for your players to actually find things, though, since they may not think to look. Or maybe it will make them paranoid, and they’ll just choose to roll all the time (see above). It also ruins the narrative idea of “catching a glimpse of something”… If a monster is trying to hide and does a crappy job (rolls a 2), does it make sense that the players need to decide to search, rather than just notice them?

Another alternative to this idea is that you, as a GM, make the rolls for them. You don’t tell them what you’re doing, you don’t tell them the results… but anytime they need to make a check to notice something, you make the roll and give them the information as necessary. It’s not a perfect system for a few reasons. It’s more work for you, for one. And, if a player really wants to meta-game, they’ll do it no matter what (“Gasp! He’s rolling again! I bet there’s a trap!”). But it gives them a *bit* less information, without completely stopping them.

…Some of the rolls?

My personal preference, for players who meta-game too heavily, is a bit of a cheat. Figure out who has the highest bonus in whatever stat or skill determines the “notice something randomly” factor (Spot in D&D, Perception in Pathfinder). Figure out what the total would be if that player rolled a 10 (or an appropriate half-way average if not rolling a d20). That’s your baseline. Now, if the party comes across anything that could be spotted with that baseline as a result, someone (whoever has the highest) notices it, no roll required. Anything higher than that baseline, they only notice it if they look for it (actively decide to search).

So let’s say I’m playing Pathfinder, and Bob the Ranger has a Perception of 15. If he rolls a 10, his result is 25. So anytime Bob comes into a room where something is hidden, if the difficulty of that hidden thing is 25 or less, Bob notices it automatically. If it’s 26 or higher, Bob won’t see it unless he decides to roll for it and gets a result higher than 10.

The advantage of this is that it keeps the “random notice” factor, without ever giving information away… Because the party is only getting information if there is a success, even if that success is an automatic, no roll required success. It also speeds the game up by eliminating rolls when you know the party is likely to succeed them.

Or, you know, just go with it.

The final option is to just play by the rules, and trust your players not to cheat. Most people (at least, most people you’ll want to play with) won’t cheat on purpose or maliciously. If you think you’re players won’t meta-game, or you think they understand the transitory nature of characters enough to not be obsessed with keeping them from all harm, just play by the rules.

If, however, your players do have a habit of meta-gaming (even if it’s only because they’re new and don’t understand how to separate player knowledge from character knowledge), try out some other techniques. See what works for you.

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Posted by on September 30, 2015 in Role-Playing Games


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Boss Fights: Making them work again

In our previous post, we discussed the problem with solo boss fights. But the idea of a final showdown against a boss is just too much fun to give up on. Sure, some of the problems can be avoided by making the big bad a cabal of big bads, a group of people to fight rather than just one. But that’s not the only solution. If you have your heart set on a single boss, there’s plenty of ways, both in the rules and outside of them.


Ok, I just said we would look at solo bosses, so this is a bit of a cheat. But one option is to give the bad guy lots and lots of support. I say lots of support, because in order to keep the big bad as the threat, his support should be… well, “pitiful” is a bit mean, perhaps, but it gets the point across. They shouldn’t be completely useless, but they also shouldn’t be big threats. Think of them more as crowd control. Obstacles for the players to get around, limiting their ability to close distance with the big bad and hold him still.

Mobs help to slow the conflict down, while (hopefully) not making it boring. It adds an element of risk for the party (having to move safely through the crowd), and take some of the damage instead of main bad. It’s even more fun when you make it thematically appropriate. A necromancer surrounded by a horde of zombies, for instance.


One of the simplest ways to make a boss fight last longer is to lie. Shhh, don’t tell the players. If you don’t want a bad guy so strong that he KOs a player for sure, but also don’t want him to go down within a couple rounds, just up his hit points. Same bang, better buck. If youn double the number of rounds the bad guy lasts, you double the chances to do something fun with him.


Cheat is a strong word. Let’s call it… No, no, let’s stick with cheat.

There are plenty of ways you can give your bad guy abilities to help make the combat last longer or be more interesting. You’re looking for something to A) make more things happen in the same amount of time or B) make the fight last longer or C) both. Here’s a few ways you can do it.

My personal favorite was suggested by a friend of mine, and found by him on another website. I’m sorry I can’t cite it better than that. Anyways, one thing you can do is double the bad guys hit points and roll their initiative twice, giving them two actions each round. While everyone else gets to act once, the bad guy gets to act twice. In a way, acting twice and having two times the health points basically makes the combat work as if there were two identical bad guys instead of one, and you should adjust the challenge rating appropriately. The lasting power of a group fight with the atmosphere of a solo showdown.

Another option is to give the bad guy some sort of ability that makes him more of a threat. Consider a villain whose shadow works independently of him. You don’t need to give the shadow statistics like a independent monster, but perhaps give it a single type of action it can perform. I made a villain like this in Pathfinder whose shadow could perform Combat Maneuvers… Trip, disarm, even grapple players who got to close, without taking up the main villain’s actions to do so.

Those are only a couple of simple ideas for how to cheat to give your bad guy some lasting power… Make up your own, if you want. If you’re looking for ideas, take a quick browse through monster abilities, supernatural abilities, even low level spells that you could make at-will powers.

And so…

Basically, if you want a solo boss fight, you need to find ways to make the fight last long enough to be fun. Change it up, give different bad guys different abilities. And if you’re players get upset that you’re cheating, just remind them… It’s a game. Remember, though, as a GM you’re job isn’t to win. It’s to make things fun. Cheat to that end, and you’ll be fine.

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Posted by on September 28, 2015 in Role-Playing Games


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Boss Fights: Why don’t they work?

I like boss fights. Maybe it’s the story teller in me that thinks there is nothing more satisfying then having a party of players finally facing off against the megalomaniac villainous mastermind who has been behind all of their troubles. A the fiery heart of a volcano, the villain stops just long enough to toss out of cliched villain line (“I guess I’ll just have to deal with you myself!“) before he attacks. The battle rages, molten rock flowing around the rapidly shrinking bastion of safety upon which they fight to the death, the very survival of the world resting on the shoulders of the party. The villain casts his most terrible spell at the party, his wrath hotter than the lava that surrounds them…

Then it’s the party’s turn. They all move in to surround the villain. Between them they his him four or five or six times before he gets to do anything again. Maybe he gets one more spell off before they hit him even more (getting multiple attacks, of course, since they don’t have to move), and he dies.

Disappointing? I think so.

In turn-based games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, solo fights can be… meh. The story for them is great, but when it comes down to it, this all powerful enemy that has single-handedly orchestrated every problem the party has faced is just going to get squished when faced with a full party of angry players. And, worst of all, he’s not even going to get squished in a fun way. Solos are boring for all sorts of reasons.

I want a turn, too!

Probably the main reason solo fights get boring is simply because of how turn systems work. If there’s only one bad guy facing a party of four that means that it gets one turn for every four turns the good guys get. It gets worse if the party is bigger. So a single bad guy is going to have trouble lasting long against a group.

I’ll take you with me!

Problem number two for solo boss fights comes from the correlation between monster toughness and monster danger. We’ve established that for every one attack a bad guy gets, the collective party can get four or more. So if you want the bad guy to last more than a couple of turns, you have to go with something that has a lot of health. The problem is, the more health that something has, the more dangerous it is, and inevitably, the stronger it’s attacks. This is especially problematic if you have a party of more than 4 players, since the challenge ratings in D&D and Pathfinder are made for 4-players parties. Anything that’s strong enough to survive several rounds of getting pounded by five or six players is also going to be strong enough to kill at least one of them. Let’s look at Pathfinder’s Troll, a CR 5 monster. This means a party of 4 5th level characters should be able to face off with three or four trolls a day before they’re completely boned. So it’s a tougher fight (more appropriate for a final boss) for a party of 4th or 3rd level characters.

A 4th level fighter that’s wielding a greatsword and built solidly might do an average of 10-15 damage per hit (1d12 for the greatsword + 5 for strength and a half + 2 for weapon specialization). A wizard of the same level can drop 2nd level evocations which might deal between 2d6 and 4d6, so an average of 7-14 damage. So, if a Troll has 63 hit points (their average), he can take an average of 5-10 hits. With the Troll’s low AC (16), he’s probably getting hit almost every time. Even with its regeneration ability, gaining 5 hp back each round it is not damaged by fire, it’s still only going to last 3 rounds of combat if 2/3 of the attacks swung at it by a party of 4 or 5 players hit (which they probably will). Doesn’t sound like much of a fight, does it?

In that same 3 rounds? The troll gets 3 attacks per round, plus extra rend damage if it hits with two of them. At a +8 to hit, it’s easily hitting at least 50% of the time. So let’s say 5 out of it’s 9 attacks over 3 rounds hit (3 bites and a 2 claws), and only once does it hit with both claws in the same round and get the rend damage. That’s still 3d8+3d6+32 damage. Average of about 56 damage. More then enough to kill at least one 4th level character. Even if it only gets one round and hits with all of it’s attacks (remember, there’s a solid 50% chance that it does), it will do between 26 and 48 damage. Still enough to kill some characters.

And that’s if you want a boss fight to last a measly 3 rounds. If you want it to last longer, you need a monster with more hp, and therefore, stronger attacks.

There is no way a troll could kill a party of 4th level characters… But it would be very hard for it to not kill at least 1 of them, if it’s smart.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

The battle described above is a boring one. Party hits monster, monster hits party, repeat. Thing is, in a solo boss fight, most of the time they can end up exactly like that. Assuming half of a given party is geared towards melee combat… Well, in the first round of the fight, they will close the distance to the boss and try to surround it. If the boss is melee based, this works just fine for it, who won’t want to move much in order to get it’s full attacks. So it becomes taking turns punching each other. Sure, you can avoid this by making bosses with different techniques (a caster who can fly, someone with teleport, whatever), but most of the time the party’s technique won’t change. Melee fighters get close and try to hold the boss still, ranged fighters and casters stand back and shoot. With only one bad guy and serious penalties for moving around in combat (losing attacks, inducing attacks of opportunity) combat can become… stagnant.

Lucky Hit.

And don’t even get me started on what happens if you only have on bad guy and a player gets a lucky hit. One save-or-die spell, one powerful critical hit, and the combat is done. Just… done.

And so…

And so our epic battle, our final show down with the villain, has come to a boring, quick, and potentially fatal end. Anti-climactic and un-enjoyable.

So how do we make boss fights more fun? We’re going to touch on that in the next part of this series. We’ll play by the rules for a bit, but then we’ll cheat, we’ll lie, we’ll make stuff up… And we’ll make it work.

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Posted by on September 27, 2015 in Role-Playing Games


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I have a confession to make.

I’ve been playing role-playing games since I was eleven. As of the time I’m writing this, that’s sixteen years of doing this. That’s not the confession part; I’m quite open about the fact that I game. I started with Dungeons and Dragons 3.0, and moved on to 3.5 when it was released. I’ve tried D&D 4.0 and even a quick round of 5e. My personal favorite is Pathfinder, which was adapted from 3.5 and is still being updated today. So no, it’s not a confession that I game.

I’ve ran D&D games since about a month after I first played. Back in grade six, out of the group of us that played, only one friend and I were willing to try running the games. So we took turns. I learned more mechanics and rules of the game while I ran the thing than I ever did when it was first taught to me. Admittedly, the first few (ok, the first many) adventures I ran were a bit heavy handed, a bit cliched, and not that strongly attached the the rules of the game. Really, there’s no reason fourth level adventurers should be meeting gods. That was a mistake (sorry, grade six gaming group, but it really was). But that’s not the confession, either. I imagine most first time DMs (that’s Dungeon Masters, the people who run the game, for those of you who don’t know) make similar mistakes. All of a sudden the world is yours to create… Why wouldn’t you go all out?

No, my confession is much, much worse.

In the sixteen years I’ve been playing and running the game, I’ve never once read a rulebook.

Oh, I’ve used the rulebooks, certainly. I’ve skimmed through them. Looked up answers to specific questions. Opened a random page and glanced at it. But I’ve never read them all the way through. The truth of the matter is, I’m still learning rules to games I’ve been playing for more than half of my life.

And you know what? I think that’s ok.

Ever since I was young, I put more focus into the story of the games I created and ran than the mechanics. Oh, the rules are important. After all, without knowing how to play the game, how could you explore the story? I like to think that my story-focused approach to learning the game (and to teaching it to new players, something I’ve done a lot) makes me a fun DM. Maybe not the best DM. Maybe not the most true-to-the-game DM. But I make a fun game.

After all, isn’t the point of games to be fun?

Welcome to Another Worldsmith, a place where I will explore and share my ideas on role-playing games. My hope is that I might give new players and DMs some different ways to think about the game, some new ideas, and some resources to use. Even if you’ve been playing games like this for years, maybe I can spark some new ideas in you, too. A fair warning to you experienced players: things I say, things I advocate, might not follow all the rules of the game. Heck, there are times when I think, for the sake of a story, the rules need to be ignored entirely. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

Because it will be fun.

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Posted by on September 14, 2015 in Uncategorized