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Check This Out – Son of Thor

November 25th, 2014

In 2011 I posted the Ruined Temple of Illhan here at the Alexandrian: It’s an old school dungeon crawl based around the Neo-Norska Pantheon and the supporting mythology I created. The centerpiece of of this mythology was Illhan, the eldest son of Thor. Illhan led the Eight Sons of Thor and Three Daughters of Hel to fight the legions of Nidhogg, the Great Serpent of Shadow. He was notable for wielding a hammer in each hand and his primary holy symbol was a pair of crossed hammers.

A few days ago, I was linked to this amazing piece of art entitled “The Son of Thor”:

Son of Thor - 0BO

This isn’t a direct depiction of Illhan, the Son of Thor. (It’s some other son of Thor.) But if you were going to use the Ruined Temple of Illhan, this piece of art would be pretty cool to use.


Sometimes it takes years for your brain to puzzle things out.

For example, I wrote Revisiting Encounter Design way back in 2008. The basic thesis was that you should generally abandon the new wave fetish for My Perfect Encounters(TM) and embrace a more flexible method of encounter design that would emphasize faster-paced, strategic-based play.

The four major tenets I argued for looked like this:

(1) Design most 3E encounters around an EL 2 to 4 lower than the party’s level.

(2) Don’t be afraid of large mobs (10+ creatures) with a total EL equal to the PCs’ level. The common design wisdom is that these creatures are “too easy” for the PCs. This is true if you’re thinking in terms of the “common wisdom” that sprang up around misreading the DMG, but in practice these types of encounters work just fine if you’re looking for fast encounters and lots of them.

(3) Encounters with an EL equal to the PCs’ level should be used sparingly. They should be thought of as “major encounters” — the memorable set pieces of the adventure. It actually won’t take very long before the expectations of your players’ have been re-aligned and these encounters leave them thinking, “Wow! That was a tough encounter!”

(4) And that means you get even more bang for your buck when you roll out the very rare EL+2 or EL+4 encounter.

(The general philosophy of this advice, it should be noted, is widely applicable beyond D&D. In Feng Shui, for example, it means “keep a healthy supply of mooks flowing through your scenario. In Shadowrun it means not letting a ‘run bog down into a single giant melee; keep the action on the hoof by making it possible for the PCs to cut their way rapidly through waves of security. And so forth.)

Most people seem to have grokked what I was selling. But there was a smaller group of people who insisted that I was wrong: That if they built an encounter with sixteen CR 2 creatures that the PCs would take a lot more damage than if they used a single CR 10 opponent. In fact, I still get fairly regular e-mails to this effect six years later. And I could never figure it out: Running the math on hypothetical scenarios regularly confirmed what years of play and hundreds of game sessions had taught me. It certainly wasn’t impossible for the mob of CR 2 creatures to out-perform the CR 10 creature, but in general the fighter was goign to rapidly cleave through the mooks or the wizard’s fireball was going to rip them apart.

Were the people e-mailing me fudging dice rolls to toughen up the weaklings? Did their players just have no idea how to use mass damage or area control spells?


It took six years, but then I was driving down a highway in Wisconsin the other day when epiphany finally hit me: These are reports of anecdote. And the problem with anecdote is that it selects for the exceptional and the unusual.

You don’t remember the 19 times that you used a CR 10 monster against a 10th level party and it took a few rounds to take it down while tearing out a few large chunks of hit points from the group. Instead, you remember the time that the party faced a single tough opponent and miraculously chopped his head off in the first round of combat.

Similarly, you don’t remember the umpteen times that your wizard casually fireballed a group of mook orcs and cleared ‘em out without any hassle. What you’ll remember is that one time that a horde of kobolds left the PCs screaming and fleeing in terror.

It’s also likely that the actual numbers aren’t actually being looked at in these anecdotes: “Remember that time that the six orcs in area 4 were a lot tougher for the party to take out than the demon in area 10?” Sure. But were those actually EL equivalent encounters? Or were the orcs all CR 8 (for an EL 13 encounter) while the demon was CR 10?

None of this is a problem, of course, unless you start using the exceptionalism of your anecdotes as a guiding principle of scenario design. You want your scenario to be exceptional, of course, but you won’t achieve that if you’re expecting the statistically exceptional in every encounter.

(Of course this is another advantage of the encounter design method I advocate for: By increasing the number of encounters experienced, I increase the number of opportunities for the memorably exceptional moments to happen. Sometimes that will be the result of improbable math; sometimes it will be the result of clever and unexpected play. That’s the beauty of a non-deterministic medium.)

Untested Numenera: NPC Allies

November 19th, 2014

Numenera - Monte Cook GamesNumenera features player-facing mechanics: Whenever an action requires diced resolution, it’s always the player who rolls the dice. If a PC is being attacked, the player rolls to dodge. If the PC is attacking, the player rolls to hit. There are a lot of advantages to this system, particularly in the ways that it seamlessly interacts with the pool-spend, GM intrusion, and difficulty adjustment mechanics.

But the drawback of player-faced mechanics is that they can’t be used to resolve contests between NPCs. Numenera opts for one of two relatively straightforward work-arounds (to be used at the GM’s discretion):

(1) In keeping with other mechanics in the system, the NPC with the highest level automatically succeeds.

(2) If that’s undesirable for some reason, “the GM should designate a player to roll for one of the NPCs. Often, the choice is obvious. For example, a character who has a trained attack animal should roll when her pet attacks enemies.”

The problem with this method is that, because of the way NPC stat blocks and pools work in Numenera, the result doesn’t factor in the NPC’s skill whatsoever: There is no modifier applied to the roll, so an NPC that’s level 2 at attacking has the exact same chance of hitting an NPC opponent as an NPC that has a level 7 attack.

What makes the problem even more vexing is that a large number of character options feature allied NPCs (like the aforementioned trained attack animal).


NPC allies have an effort pool equal to level x 3 per day.

NPC allies also gain one recovery roll per day. This recovery roll can be used as an action at any time, restoring 1d6 + level points to their effort pool.

When rolling for an NPC, adjust the die roll by +1 or -1 per difference in level. For example, a level 5 NPC attempting a level 3 task would gain a +2 bonus to their die roll. The same NPC attempting a level 7 task would suffer a -2 penalty to their die roll.


These rules are short, simple, and to the point. They present a minor disruption to the purely player-faced mechanics, but without bulking out an NPC to have the same complexity as a PC. (In terms of utility, it’s particularly important that the mechanics don’t actually require a specialized NPC stat block: The effort pool can be easily derived from any existing NPC or creature.)

In actual play, the addition of the effort pool provides just enough interest to make running an NPC ally interesting while the level adjustment to the die roll for NPC vs. NPC actions provides enough distinction between characters that their interactions don’t feel flat or artificial.

These rules can be found in the “House Rules” section of my Numenera system cheat sheet.

Big Hero 6 - DisneyThe first thing to say about Big Hero 6 is that it’s a ton of fun wrapped in a beautiful aesthetic surrounding well-earned emotional heartaches and catharsis. If you’re the type of geek who’s likely to be reading this website, then you’re probably going to adore this film.

With that being said, I was interested in the way that Big Hero 6 failed to be an ensemble movie: It comes very, very close (featuring a diversity of interesting characters in supporting roles), but ultimately misses the opportunity. (And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the film, which instead succeeds very well at being a film about its protagonist.)

I found myself making an easy comparison to The Incredibles, which is many ways a completely different movie but which also features the formation of a team of superheroes. But whereas Big Hero 6 just misses being an ensemble piece, The Incredibles is a very successful ensemble piece.

The key distinction here is that all four main characters in The Incredibles are fully developed while each possessing a full narrative arc (which is also connected to the overall narrative arc of the ensemble). This is contrasted to Big Hero 6 where all five members of the team are given unique personalities and great dialogue… but notably lack fully developed arcs.

The reason I bring this up is that I noticed that a key difference between the films is that The Incredibles featured multiple sequences in which the main characters are separated from each other, whereas Big Hero 6 basically did not.

So what I’m saying here is:


Because it’s a really effective way to allow individual characters to develop identities separate from the group identity. (Which will, ironically, enrich the group identity.)

(More on splitting the party over here.)

The problem with GURPS-style advantage/disadvantage character creation systems is that the actual impact of a given advantage or disadvantage is highly dependent on the circumstances of actual play: “Immune to psionic attacks” is totally amazing if your campaign is The War Against the Illithids; it’s completely wasted if your character never encounters a psion. Similarly, “Horrifically Claustrophobic” is a crippling disadvantage in a megadungeon campaign; it’s basically a non-factor if you’re playing Lawrence of Arabia.

So in order for these systems to work, the advantages and disadvantages need to be made equally relevant in actual play.

IME, however, there are two typical actual play dynamics in RPGs:

First, the players are given a free rein. Players will naturally seek to play to their advantages and play away from their disadvantages. This isn’t even really abusive play: It’s just a logical way of interacting with the world. (If I had no legs, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time buying ladders.)

Second, the GM is railroading the players. You might initially expect this to reverse the dynamic, but it typically doesn’t because (again, IME) most railroading GMs are more focused on achieving a predetermined goal: Their focus is an internal one. It might inadvertently force players into confronting their disadvantages, but often will not. (While the players will still be able to tactically exploit their advantages.)

In order for an advantage/disadvantage system to really work, IMO, you need a GM who’s willing to advocate as strongly for the inclusion of a PC’s disadvantage as the player is to advocate for the inclusion of the PC’s advantage.

The GMs most willing to do this are (in terms of the Threefold) dramatists and gamists. Simulationists are much less likely to put their thumb on the scale and “force” the inclusion of disadvantages.

This becomes a particular problem for GURPS because most the features in that system are heavily focused on supporting simulationists: So the people most likely to be running GURPS are the ones least likely to adopt the GMing techniques necessary to keep the advantage/disadvantage system balanced.



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