GM: Friend or Foe?

Something happened in out last game session that is so unimportant and unremarkable that I don’t even know that I should write about it. It had no effect on the outcome of the session and no one was worse or better off with or without it happening. So what was it? My character tried to set aflame a pile of dead kobolds and the GM said “no.”

The context is that our party was dug-in to a narrow hall in a kobold mine, defending it as our alchemist brewed a concoction that we would need to advance. After multiple waves we had accumulated quite the number of kobold corpses and thought we could use them to strengthen our position. So we stacked them across the hall to provide a barrier and then to add that “little extra” to deter anymore attacks we put our torches to them. Nothing happened. Our GM ruled that it was unrealistic for bodies to catch fire like that and after a very short debate we conceded to his judgement.

Without getting into the science of burning bodies, of which there hasn’t been a lot of research, I feel our GM made entirely the wrong call. He chose to punish or at least discourage our creative spirit over an encounter that will not have any major bearing on our character’s development or story arc. What I mean is the next and last wave that attacked us we thoroughly destroyed and routed. The bodies that we laid were pushed out of the way and didn’t have any major role in the battle.

So I’ve been wondering when it would be beneficial to penalize the players for being creative, which is exactly what happened here. In a recent post by LS he describes how he essentially let a low level character get multiple attacks and access to cleave without having any of the prerequisites. It’s worth reading if you’re a GM. I think in his situation LS made the right call. After all, why penalize players for creativity? Because of rules or reality? Those are terrible reasons.

If a player is willing to suspend his disbelief for a few hours and pretend he is a dwarf clearing a mine of kobolds is it too much for the GM to do the same? (That is suspend his disbelief). Let’s say I read about our situation in a book and the author had his character ignite the bodies using nothing but a torch. I’m not going to throw the book down in frustration because I don’t think that’s realistic. I’m going to enjoy it and keep reading. Why isn’t the same mentality adopted in gaming?

Throw the rules and realism arguments aside for a moment, I think this goes deeper than those.

What I think this comes down to is the way GMs and players think about each other. Is the GM working for the player or against them? Because of our experience in the gaming world (from table top to computer) I think there’s a natural tendency for players to view the GM as their opponent and likewise for the GM to view the players the same way. Because of this mentality GMs will often find themselves trying to defeat the players, especially subconsciously.

To support this, after our session my GM (who I love by the way and I’m not bashing him) even said that he was out of ideas to throw against us in the last encounter. Essentially he had run out of ideas to defeat us. Now our GM is pretty generous with helping us survive so it’s not like he is maliciously trying to kill off our characters. But as he observed we had effectively defeated the obstacle set before us; however, instead of accepting this and letting the story advance, he kept trying to defeat us to the point where he told us we weren’t allowed to defend ourselves by putting burning bodies in the hallway to dissuade any more attacks.

I wonder what end he was trying to reach, surely not a character death or party wipe?

The more I read and research the more I’m aware of how many people view the GM as an opponent. When the reality is that he is a player’s ally. Not just a judge to walk us through the world, but a cooperant, working with us to see our characters grow and enjoy the adventures we go through.

I’m not suggesting a GM hold the players’ hands or fudge so many rolls that we’re never in any danger. Not at all actually. Players want challenges, we even want failures (though not fatal) as they make our victories all the sweeter. The obstacles the GM places in front of us provide the conflict that make our characters’ stories dramatic and worth going through. The obstacle aren’t there to end the story or defeat the players.

So before you, the GM, say no to the players ask yourself what denying them adds to the story. Likewise ask if allowing them to do something takes away from the story. But ultimately for the sake of the story and for the sake of fun, be willing throw out the rules and suspend your disbelief just like the people around your table are already doing. I mean hell, we bought you beer and pizza.

Encumbrance & Backpacks

I want to take a break from the reforging of Pathfinder skills to write about something else.  First, I have been doing a lot of traveling across the blogoverse, especially taking time to study other people’s house rules.  I’ve been loving a lot of what I’ve seen.  But since I’ve mostly been scribbling my thoughts in a notebook and not bookmarking pages I don’t have many links to share with the original ideas.  So I hope that saying what’s written here is inspired and not solely the child of my own creativity will suffice in place of the sources.

(EDIT: Found the source of this inspiration. The Post and the Character Sheet)

Encumbrance through slots instead of weight.

The current system of keeping track of encumbrance is cumbersome. Keeping track of weight down to the pound to figure out what you current penalties are is tedious and takes away from the joy of the game. And as far as I can tell not too many people, aside from large items, bother with this. That tells me (at least for my group) it doesn’t work. By now you’ve noticed the image to the left. That represents my backpack (the common 2gp version). It’s divided into three sections: small pockets, big pockets and weapon straps. So let’s break em down.

Small Pockets (green) are meant to hold stackable items, but the items don’t actually have to be small per say. Stackable items are any item that players naturally stack in their inventory without much thought, such as ammo, potions and trail rations. It will ultimately be a DM’s call what can be stacked. The great thing about small pockets is the items they hold don’t add to a player’s encumbrance, but only stackable items can be put in them. As a DM you should decide how big stacks are allowed to be. For me: Ammo is 20, potions are 5 and rations are a weeks worth.

Big Pockets (blue) represent the main compartment of a backpack. This main compartment is divided into three separate big pockets and like small pockets each can only hold five items. Each pocket, starting from the top and working down, adds different encumbrance effects to the character. As you can see placing an item in the first pocket gives a character a -1 AC penalty. All it takes is one item in a particular pocket to incur the full effect, i.e., additional items in the same pocket don’t penalize a character further. However, once items spill over into the next pocket additional penalties are applied. Big pockets can hold any item, but there are special rules that I will go over below.

Weapon Straps (red) are located on the outside of the backpack and provide a convenient way to carry additional weapons without taking up backpack space. Each weapon strapped onto the backpack applies a -1 AC penalty, but movement is only hindered by quarter speed regardless of how many weapons. Only weapons can go in these slots.

Now what do we do about strength and carrying capacity rules? As far as LOH, LOG, P&D go we leave them as are. But light through heavy loads we ignore. Don’t worry though, super strong characters aren’t forgotten… and neither are the super weak ones.

For strong characters, every +1 to your STR mod turns one big pocket slot into a free slot. (Note: these are individual slots, not an entire pocket – which is 5 slots – additionally start the free slots from the top and work down). Every positive even number modifier (2, 4, 6, etc.) also turns one weapon slot into a free slot. So using our backpack as the example, a character with a +2 STR mod wouldn’t take penalties for the torches, rope or dwarven waraxe. So this character would have a -2 AC penalty and a 1/4 speed reductions applied to him because of the bedroll and shield.

For weak characters every -1 to your STR mod removes a slot from your backpack starting with your small pocket slots working down from the top. Additionally every even negative number (-2, -4, -6, etc.) removes a weapon slot. So a character with a -3 STR mod in this example would lose the first three free slots and a weapon slots. Their penalty would be -3 AC and -1/2 speed. This is because, assuming they carried all the same items, the bedroll would be into the second big pocket.

Additional Rules

I said earlier that any item can be put into a big pocket slot but that there were special rules. The first and simplest is that stackable items act as regular items in these slots meaning they’ll incur the penalties like any other item. The second rule is that weapons can be placed in the big pockets too, but a weapon (or shield – excluding tower) takes up 5 slots. And the last is about armor in a backpack. Light armor takes up 5 slots, medium 10 and heavy 15. Pretty simple.

Masterwork backpacks push the penalties for the big pockets down one set. That is, if this were a masterwork backpack the first big pocket wouldn’t have any penalties applied to it and the penalties would start at the second big pocket (that pocket would only be a -1 AC).

This system also allows you to create your own backpacks. But I would suggest that anything bigger than the common backpack I’ve presented have a strength requirement in order to carry it at all. And get creative with it, you could use this system to create belt pouches that increase the number of small pockets a player has on them or have cloaks with hidden pockets. I haven’t had a chance to take this system for a spin yet, but on paper I like it. Let me know if you use it.

PF Skills: Reforged – Social

Social (CHA): The ability to navigate the labyrinth of politics, barter with traders, sell a lie or discern the truth and perhaps inspire courage or fill a person with fear.  In general, your conversational interactions with npc’s.

Absorbed: Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate & Sense Motive

So if you’ve been following this blog you know that the general objective behind all the skill modifications is first) to decrease the reliance on fate (the dice) and second) to increase the value of skill points where possible.  While this skill doesn’t do anything to decrease die rolls it does greatly increase the value of any point put here.  You’re getting 4 for 1 after all.

Because social interaction is so fluid I won’t bother giving DC examples or detailed breakdowns.  But it should be pointed out that each of the skills that have been absorbed are still separate from each other.  What I mean to say is if you get a bonus or penalty to a particular skill (say diplomacy) that negative only applies to that skill without affecting the umbrella “social” skill.  So for class bonuses or starting traits there’s no need to rework them, they still work as is.

It’s very important to be flexible and creative with this skill in finding new ways to apply it.  One idea from Rich Burlew is particularly appealing to me and I’d encourage you to read it for yourself.  But essentially it turns social interactions (in his case diplomacy) into a mini-game of sorts.  Check it out.  I think if a true re-working of these skills is to take place it should be something along what he is proposing.  But I’m not currently up to the task and took the lazy way out by making this skill. (A smiley is probably appropriate here but I will resist the urge).

There’s not much to say about this skill because it really is nothing more than an umbrella for skills that I decided not to change but that I didn’t think were equally valuable on their own.

PF Skills: Reforged – Linguistics

You are skilled at working with language, in both its spoken and written forms. You can speak multiple languages, and can decipher nearly any tongue given enough time. Your skill in writing allows you to create and detect forgeries as well.

That’s the definition you’ll find for linguistics on  In the few campaigns I’ve played I’ve only ever once used this skill to decipher text and that was a road sign that had been worn by the weather and damaged by time.  I’ve never had to spot a forgery or had any use for the multitude of languages I learned by putting skill points in it (beyond 3 or 4).  So scrapping this skill would be easy.  But easy is for losers… well maybe not, but for the sake of this argument it is.

So how can I keep it and keep it interesting?

Well, it’s sort of a spin-off of decipher text, Interpret Language.  Unlike learning a language (which for my house rules isn’t decided by this skill) linguistics gives a character the chance to interpret a language that he doesn’t know.  It’s a reflection of the character’s time devoted to studying language in general and the chance that they may have come across a particular speech.  Here’s the scenario…

DM: The hallway is almost pitch black save for the yellow light escaping through the gap between a door and the stone floor.

Player: I quietly crawl up to the door placing my ear against it…

DM: You hear voices, only slightly muffled by the door you can tell they sound upset, but they’re speaking a language you don’t know…

Player: I’ve studied foreign tongues for years and have been to many places around the world, can I interpret what they’re saying?

DM: Roll linguistics…

Now here’s where those skill points come in handy.  The higher you roll the more you understand of the conversation, the lower, the less.  I’ve broken the check up into four levels of proficiency: Basic, Simple, Competent and Complex. (you could probably make it 3 if you wanted).

Basic: You can understand and speak simple individual words and commands, e.g., go, move, attack, run, happy, sad, etc.

  • To Understand: DC15
  • To Speak: DC20

Simple: You can understand and speak simple sentences such as, “See Gorm run.” and “Run Yrt, run!”

  • To Understand: DC20
  • To Speak: DC25

Competent: You can understand and speak compound sentences like, “Do you need a heal, or can we continue?”

  • To Understand: DC25
  • To Speak: DC30

Complex: Basically everything else making you 100% conversational, example, “He was found stabbed with the dagger your father made 10 years ago.”

  • To Understand: DC30
  • To Speak: DC35

In all honesty you probably should combine the last two to avoid confusion and debates at the table (I don’t know the level of literacy or linguistics your actual players have, hell, they could be smarter than you).  But the point of this addition to the skill should be clear.  It could give players access to information they might not otherwise know.

Now before you spout off, “If it’s information they need to know then why not give it to them?  And if it isn’t pertinent information than how is this skill still relevant?”

First, the example I gave wasn’t a mission to collect information.  If I sent players on a gather information mission then the challenge would be in getting there and escaping, but I would give them the information when they were there.  I wouldn’t withhold pertinent information from the players.  So onto the latter objection.

If it isn’t pertinent information why does this skill still matter?  Well I think as the GM you should view this roll as a “rewards roll” of sorts.  If the player fails then think nothing of it, they are unable to to figure out what is being said.  But if they pass you could reward them with information that will make their mission easier, such as learning about a hallway where an ambush has been set or learning which floor the princess is being held on.  The higher the roll, the higher the reward.  That’s how I plan on using it anyway.

The other obvious situation would be where players are about to enter a fight with another group.  Passing their linguistics roll would give them a chance to talk their way out of the fight and look for another solution, or at the very least know what the enemy is planning on doing to them in the moments ahead (such as who will be targeted most).  Get creative with it.  Lastly I only require/allow one roll per encounter.  You pass or fail once, period.  If you later run into the same group or another group speaking the same language you get another chance to pass or fail.

Now earlier I mentioned that I don’t use linguistics to learn languages.  This is a personal choice primarily driven by the fact that I don’t want players knowing 20+ languages.  So what you could do is have learning languages tied to your intelligence modifier.  You can know as many bonus languages as your modifier.

So there you have it.  I didn’t want to get rid of this skill as both LS and -C suggested because in the campaigns my usual GM runs we find ourselves in scenarios where we don’t understand our enemy or a neutral party on a consistent basis.  Easily more often than I find myself deciphering writing or detecting forgeries.  So this is my current best attempt to make this a more worthwhile skill, but perhaps you still have no need of it.  Thoughts?

(EDIT: I have not forgotten about the Comprehend Languages spell, only chose not to mention it… not everyone can cast it after all.)

PF Skills: Reforged – Athletics

Athletics (STR): The ability to “push through” and maintain movement in situations that tax your strength beyond the norm.

Absorbed: climb, swim

At it’s core this skill is nothing more than climb and swim checks combined.  But if you read my last post on acrobatics then you know I’m not a fan of excessive skill checks.  So I wouldn’t make people roll a check for climb or swim unless under extreme circumstance (and if you read acrobatics then you already know what those are).

So when are athletic checks required?

When taking damage!  This is also a good place to mention that, just like balancing (see acrobatics), when climbing or swimming you lose your shield and dex AC.  The check is…

  • DC 5 + 1/2 Damage (min 1) + weight check (explained below)

So, for example, if you’re climbing and get struck for 10 damage by a crossbow bolt the check is… 10 (DC5 + 5).

Really, unless a check serves some dramatic purpose to the overall story or will just lead to an awesome situation I won’t bother.  So the rules regarding swimming conditions and incline on climbs I ignore.  The only exception I have is when a character is attempting to do either action with excessive weight (think Andre the Giant scaling a cliff side with two people on him in “The Princess Bride”).

Weight Check

For either climb or swim checks need to be made if a character is attempting to carry their lift over head load (LOH),  lift off ground load (LOG) or their drag or push load (DOP).  These weights include all gear the player has on them and anything else (such as a person) that they’re trying to swim or climb with.

  • LOH – DC15
  • LOG – DC20
  • DOP – DC25

Remember to add these DC’s to damage checks when getting attacked.

Failing Checks

If you fail the athletics check for climb, you fall.  Depending on distance your DM could let you try to grab whatever you were climbing on again.

If you fail your swim check you get dragged under water at a rate of 5 feet per round until you pass the check that you failed (or hit the bottom).  The only way to lower the check is to drop whatever it is you were carrying, but this would only get rid of the weight check DC (you’d still have to pass the 5 + 1/2 damage).

So that’s athletics.  Nothing ground breaking, but I feel a good way to increase the value of skill points used for swim and climb.

May the fourth be with you.


PF Skills: Reforged – Acrobatics

For my reforging of the skill system I want to eliminate a lot of the rolling of dice that modern gaming has come to rely on.  My hope is that this will free up players’ creativity as well as the GM’s creativity and ultimately lead to more story and less mechanics. (That’s why we’re playing it, right?)

Without further ado… I give you…

Acrobatics (DEX): How well a character can maintain balance, skillfully move up-over-around-under obstacles and maneuver in unnatural ways (e.g., flying).

Absorbed: Flying & Riding

Expunged: Falling Damage (Now a rogue, monk and barbarian class trait)

First, I decided to bring flying and riding under the umbrella of acrobatics because I couldn’t come up with a good reason not too.  They’re all dex based abilities involving movement of some sort so absorbing them here not only shortens the skill list but it also increases the value of points put into this skill because you can do more with it.

Second, I decided to get rid of falling damage and make it a class trait for rogues, monks and barbarians because I wanted to give each of those classes an edge in this department.  This was really personal preference for me as I thought about each class and what they remind me of and how I felt they should have an advantage here: For the rogue I envisioned a parkour master leaping from roof top to roof top at insane heights, the monk… Jackie Chan, who no matter the stunt or fall involved always gets up and the barbarian with his cat-like reflexes always seems to be able to land on his feet (at least in my mind).

Moving on to the checks…


The rule for balance is this, a character can balance moving at quarter speed without requiring a check.  End of story.  Quarter speed for me represents the character taking the necessary time and precautions to not fall.  But checks are sometimes required, perhaps a character chooses to rush across a ledge or tight rope.

  • Half Speed = DC10
  • 3/4 Speed = DC15
  • Full Speed = DC20
  • Running… I’ll decide on the spot.

So when else are checks required? When the situation changes in such a drastic way as to hinder a character’s current action.  You can decide what that means, but for me, the only situation is taking damage while balancing.  If damaged while balancing an acrobatics check must be made to maintain movement and keep from falling.  The check is…

  • DC 5 + 1/2 Damage (min 1) + Speed DC

So if a player is moving at half speed across a tight rope and gets hit by a crossbow bolt for 8 damage the check would be 19 (5 + 4 + 10).  Failing the check by 10 or less forces the character prone and in this example would have them hanging from the rope (turning it from balancing into climbing).  Failing by more than 10 and the character falls off whatever they were on.  This check is essentially your reflex save so you won’t get to roll a reflex to stop from falling.

Oh, I forgot to mention one thing.  While balancing you lose your shield and dex AC.  Maybe running across that rope while trying to dodge enemy fire wasn’t such a good idea after all.


I’m an adventurer, I’m a hero and hell, one day I’ll be a legend.  I know how to ride a horse.  I am one with my horse.  My horse sleeps at the foot of my bed.  My horse fights with me.  My horse is so in-tune with me it tries to keep me on it.  We love each other.  Ride checks, what are those?

Well there’s one, did you take damage?  Roll baby, roll.

  • DC 5 + 1/2 Damage.

Hope you’re strong in the saddle.


Unlike my horsemanship skills I’m not so good at flying.  *Checks for wings* In fact I wasn’t meant to fly at all.

First I’ve adopted the maneuverability table from D&D. (Fly Table) How do you determine your flight maneuverability? Check your acrobatics score.

  • 0 – 4 = Clumsy
  • 5 – 9 = Poor
  • 10 – 14 = Average
  • 15 – 19 = Good
  • 20+ = Perfect

I’m still iffy about doing flight like this, but I want to let it run its course and see how things turn out.  As far as flying checks in weather conditions you can use whatever suits you, but the rules provided by pathfinder work fine for me.  Otherwise if you’re damaged while flying…

  • DC 5 + 1/2 Damage. (surprised?)

Collision While Flying

To avoid falling make an acrobatics check.

  • DC = Speed both objects were traveling at the point of impact.

If unsure of speed then use the last rounds flight speed.  Of course if the character could possibly land on whatever they flew into then that would be preferable over a check.  Failing results in character plummeting to his death… unless he survives the fall by making another acrobatics check.

Avoid Falling Damage

  • DC = 1/4 of falling distance.

Falling 20 feet, roll a 5.


Jumping distances have been modified.  Otherwise rules for jumping remain the same.

Long Jump Acrobatics DC
5 ft. DC10
10 ft. DC15
15 ft. DC20
Great than 15 ft. +5 per 5 ft.
High Jump Acrobatics DC
1 ft. DC4
2 ft. DC8
3 ft. DC12
4 ft. DC16
Greater than 4 ft. +4 per 1 ft.

So that’s acrobatics in a nutshell.  Some of this information might seem incomplete and I apologize.  Remember this is untested as of yet and that my ultimate goal was to merge all these skills into a simple acrobatics check.  More to come.  Thoughts?

Pathfinder Skills: Reforged

The following is my theoretically improved skill list for Pathfinder.  As of this writing none of it has been tested and it is in the very earliest conceptual stages.  My list was inspired by two separate break downs of Pathfinder’s (and AD&D for that matter) skill system; one from Papers & Pencils and the other from Hack & Slash, as well as my experience (however limited) and my insatiable  drive to tinker with gaming rules.

Over the next few *cough* days, weeks, months *cough* I will be breaking down how my particular list of skills work, as the house rules I will use these in change certain aspects of them.  But first, here’s the list:

  • Acrobatics
  • Athletics
  • Knowledges
  • Linguistics
  • Perception
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Social
  • Spellcraft
  • Stealth
  • Survival
  • Use Magic Device

You’ll notice, for those of you who’ve played before — and if you haven’t you should — that there are some new skills added to the list (Athletics and Social).  Some of the skills haven’t changed (Knowledges) but others have been reworked (Linguistics).  Skills that are completely gone for now are Perform and Craft only because a better system for these needs to be built from the ground up.

For those of you who will disagree with me… be gentle.