Actual Play – And we shall call this land… Our land! (11/24/2013)

PathfinderCoreCoverGM: Dennis Jordan
Players: Regina Joyner, Karen Twelves, Mia Blankensop, and Sean Nittner
System: Pathfinder
Adventure Path: Kingmaker

So much fun playing Pathfinder! Now that we have Mia in the group, I feel like we’ve got a perfectly motley crew of Aldori daughters.

TL;DR – We founded an new kingdom, with the intent to build our strength and they ally with Rostland! We also patrolled the region near our capitol and found some of Gloarion’s more aggressive flora, to which we applied sword and flame in equal measure.

This actual play report is a bit long. I’m dedicating the first portion of it to discuss a topic that is near and dear to my heart…

System Matters

After this game a twitter feed that sparks my particular interest followed:

The essential crux of this argument is that system matters. I’ve been parts of system matters conversations on forums, over email, and in person. I’ve also taken both sides of the argument. For me it comes down to this:

System Matters argument:

If the game system you are playing doesn’t mechanically reinforce the game play it strives for, that game won’t happen. Fantastic examples of this are D&D 4th Edition and World of Darkness. 4th Edition is extremely honest about it’s goals. It’s a tactical miniatures game with progression mechanics. However, if gamers come to 4th looking for “their” D&D they will be sorely disappointed. The game is about combat, and it’s good at that. Trying to do anything else outside means heading out on your own (as we have done with Pathfinder). You can do it, but the system won’t back you up.

White Wolf’s World of Darkness is a far worse offender in this arena, because the game advertises itself as a “stortytelling game” when all that is in the game are combat mechanics. I heard an interview of Sam Chupp who worked on a lot of these games, and he said that the technology to make a game that wasn’t about combat just didn’t exist at the time. The method they used was to fill the pages with rich flavor text and hope that gaming groups followed their example. In the interview though he lamented at how frequently what he saw was D&D with vampires.

Result: You need a mechanic to back up the play you want to see. Burning Wheel is my go to game to show this off. Specifically because of setting the stakes and opening the arena for important conflicts to cover any part of the human experience (social, spiritual, mental, physical, emotional, you name it) and then creating a driving force to have those conflicts which changed as play progressed (beliefs, instincts, and traits).

Another factor in the system matter’s argument is that without rules to govern interactions, player social dynamics become character social dynamics. The charming player who knows how to get his way can playing the Charisma 5 Half-Orc and still get his way, because the player himself is charming and good at getting his way. By enforcing a mechanical resolution, you even the playing field (at least on that level) between more or less socially aggressive players.

Get your system out of my role-playing argument:

This rests on one of two different approaches.

1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We’ve been gaming for 30 years and I’ve had plenty of adventures with amazing stories. I don’t need rules to make awesome role-playing happen.

2. Rules interfere with the natural flow of the game. Burning Empires, with it’s structure scene economy. Monsterhearts with it’s rules to turn someone on, the Authority’s limited options (to only oppose the YO) in Misspent Youth, and the required belief all Dogs in DiTV must posses all transgress upon the idea of free flowing narrative based on the whim of the players at the table. Play is specifically structured, and the game requires players to play inside that structure. Like a board game, or a video game, or a miniatures game, or really most any structured activity.

I generally find myself leaning very heavily on the system matter’s side of the argument (you can probably see my bias above), but I’m not unsympathetic to the “let me do my own shit” argument, especially the second one. I’ve run Burning Empires and been confused as fuck as to how I’m supposed to present challenges to the players, or how I go about running my FoNs in a way that is interactive with the PCs.

What I do now

I used the tools I learned in any play environment.

Sure, I like to go back to my Burning Wheel games to build up those muscles, and make sure I’m not being lazy, but now when I play Torchbearer, I don’t worry about whether or not I’ve set the stake in advance (which you specifically don’t) because I know that success or failure, the results will move the action forward. I know because I’m confident in my ability to make it so, and in I’m confident that I play with other gamers who will make it so. Lastly, I’m confident that if we make a bad choice, go in a direction that stalls the action, or hit a roadblock, I’ll stop and talk to my fellow gamers and as people we’ll figure what we need to get the game moving again and make sure it’s satisfying the needs of the players at the table.

Some of the best gaming I’ve ever done has been in the PTA game Blue Gene with Lenny, Rich, and Scott. One of the themes we’ve run into over and over is that none of us as players are in a rush to resolve scenes and to push for the mechanical resolution. Rather we prefer to push the scene as far as it will go, build up as much tension as possible, till we finally hit a question we’re burning to have answered, and then let the cards tell us the truth from there. Those scenes are so richly rewarding because each one has been built up and invested in by all of the players (including the ones not in the scene). We’ve talked, and agree that while PTA has a great resolution system, we’ll get to it when we get to it, and in the mean time our collective instincts will build awesome scenes.

So, when Dennis said he wanted to story-fy Pathfinder I had no question that we would do just that. We’ve built up a great struggle of one family trying to redeem itself inside the context of the Kingmaker adventure path.

What is probably certain about this game: We’ll kill stuff, get treasure, go up in levels, and get more powerful. All tropes of D&D. What’s also likely is that we’ll build up a powerful kingdom in our wake (an aspect of the Kingmaker). In power we’ll move linearly up.

What I don’t know: The sacrifices we’ll make for that to happen. The sides that will form, or the hearts that will be broken. Everything Dennis mentioned in that tweet, the stalker, the forlorn love, the alcoholism, and everything else was real in the game. I trust that we’ve gained enough from playing Fiasco, Burning Wheel, and PTA, that we’re going to push those issues to the forefront and that they’ll be meaningful to our characters and to the players.

Set this straight

We started with our return to Rostov and I immediately opened with Merrowyn accosting Miquela.

“We’re going to set something straight before we get to Rostov!”

We had a hilarious discussion revealing Merrowyn’s insecurity about being the family outcast. Toti and Elara joined in, voicing some of their on concerns being left out, or thought lesser of. I can’t reproduce the dialog, but trust me, it was divine. Dennis chimed in that Domingo had warned Toti she might be excluded. I kept citing Merrowny’s achievements as ground for why Miquela should support her, and Miquela was quick to respond that only for maybe the first 1/3 of their adventure did she thing Merrowyn was a liability.

It was a humorous argument for sure, but an important truth rang out of it. The Aldori daughters were standing together, no matter what they faced.


The return to the Aldori homestead was eerie. When we arrived the keep appeared deserted. As we entered, everything seemed normal, except nobody was there. We explored further (sending Tad to check out the servants quarters) until finally we noticed some lights coming from the great hall, which hadn’t been in use for ages. We cautiously approached and when we entered….

“SURPRISE!” The family and servants alike yelled. The had thrown us a welcoming home party… and what a party it was.

Toti got smashed on two pints of ale (she’s a lightweight) and we got to see an endearing scene of Domingo stoically caring for his drunk mother and drunk sister.

The rest of us cavorted, drank, and sang with the family. After some of the festivities had died down Uncle Bog summoned us to his trophy room, where we discussed the next phase of our exploration. As we predicted, settlement into the Stolen Lands had always been part of the plan. But what we didn’t realize was just how far back the plan went, or how devious it was. Apparently Bog and the now lord mayor had been planning this expansion for the last 20 years, long before Bog was head of house Aldori, before the disappearance of house Rogarvia, and before the Lord Mayor held his title in Rostov. The two had been in cahoots for ages.

Which is even more peculiar, because when they were young men, Bog nearly killed Ioseph in a duel over a woman. As uncle Bog explained it, the lord mayor is giving house Aldori another chance because “20 years ago I gave him one.”

After that revelation, we got to discussing some of the specifics about settlement, namely where to start. The Stag Lord’s Keep would offer us a castle in ruins that could be repaired and a strong central location to branch out from [1/2 cost on a Castle, +1 Economy/Stability/Loyalty]. Oleg’s Trading Post had the advantage of being on the road, near fertile plains, existing trade routes, and existing infrastructure [Free Shop, Stable, or Watchtower, plus existing roads]. The Temple of Erastil was a holy site, which would draw ardent followers as well has already having a temple, which once repaired would be serviceable [1/2 cost on Temple]. After some discussion we settled on our going back to our initial instinct, we’d claim the Stag Lord’s Keep as our own!


Back in Rostov we were able to spend some of that hard earned loot. Most of our purchases were uneventful. Uncle Bog accepted a donation to the House, and in turn gave Miquela one of his first enchanted blades [+1 Aldori Dueling Sword]. She also commissioned magically hardened armor [+1 Agile Breastplate]. Elara conferred with druids in the area and from them purchased enchanted Wooden armor [+1 Wooden Armor] and a Cloak of Elvenkind.

Others were more involved…

Toti conferred with several orders of Abadar about her plans to expand civilization into the Stolen Lands. One group scoffed at the notion, deeming it impractical. Another group thought it had merit and was curious to hear her reports. A third was enamored with the plan and jealous it wasn’t them making the journey south. From the church she purchased a headband to reflect on the teachings of Abadar [Headband of Wisdom +2].

And some were just downright brutal…

On her first day back in Rostov, Merrowny visited the temple of Gorum. She had to literally fight her way into the temple (a standard practice) and then petitioned to have her blade enchanted. She recounted her battles and the blood already drawn by her greatsword. After a donation to the temple the priest prepared the blade, first with the blood of the petitioner (that would be by back handing Merrwoyn in the face and having her bleed all over it it), and then by blood of the fallen (an execution). Showing a little of her moral leanings [Merrowyn is Chaotic Good, Gorum is Chaotic  Neutral] she knocked a guard back and stole his blade, set the man free and the gave him a chance to fight. It was a small mercy, if any at all. He was already a dead man. She just gave him a chance to hope before cutting him down. Day one ended up returning with a split lip and a smile on her face. She told uncle Bog that she named her sword “Great Bog”.

On her second day in Rostov, Merrowyn earned another split lip, this time from a beating from what seemed like the entire thieves guild. She had been asking around for her contacts from the Red Brigade to purchase some not quite off the shelf items [spring loaded wrist sheath] when she found out the hard way that the red brigade wasn’t in favor with the Rostov “family” and by asking for them, neither was she. Luckily it turns out that the band Cobb, who they had set free (or rather just allowed to escape) upon his promise to return to Rostov and lead a productive life, was not just a member of the family, but a “made man”.  Just as the fight was going from fists to knives he appeared and broke it up. “Sorry Cobb, I didn’t know she was a friend of yours.” “No, she’s a friend of ours.” (Incidentally, yay, I’m a friend of theirs). Cobb and Merrowyn talked and she agreed to spread the word, at least to the people who it mattered to, that the Rostov family was the one that sent her to deal with the Stag Lord (apparently he had gotten too close to Rostov for their comfort). Also, Merrowyn might have just let it slip that they were building up a new kingdom in the south and they might have use of a spymaster that was connected with affairs in the north. Cobb reassured her of the family mantra “If you build it, we will come.”

Kingdom Making

At the end of our stay, the Aldori daughters were invited to a grand ball. Lots of who’s who big wigs were their, as well as three of the four chartered “explorers”. Present were:

  • House Aldori – Charged to explore the region of the Stolen Lands south of Oleg’s Trading Post
  • Drevoy – A lone noble with a band of hired mercenaries sent to explore the Slough. A swampy land filled with centaurs and barbarians that he was systematically going to war with. Charming.
  • Group C – The other adventuring group. Like us, but different, you know. The Linear Guild I’m sure.
  • Lord Varn and his fellow band of adventurers. Sent to the direct south in the Nomen Plains.

The Lord Mayor himself then, commenting on the success of the of the expedition teams, revealed what we all knew was coming…settlement. What we didn’t expect however, was the new charter he offered up, specifically a charter to create a new kingdom of our own. A charter go expand Rostov was expected. A charter to go start our own… with support from noble houses, is just crazy talk! It makes sense. If Rostland expands it will be obvious to Issia and the impending civil war will erupt before we’re ready. By sponsoring independent nations which will then ally with Rostland, we may be able to grow without all of Brevoy being savvy to the plan. Makes sense. Wonder if we can keep it under wraps!

Bumping into old flings

When official announcements weren’t being made, socializing of one kind or another happened.

Elara – A strange man who introduced himself as Ugo Sordello found Elara and seemed to expect her to recognize him. Disappointied when she didn’t, he proceeded to read her a poem of unparalleled awfulness, which he had apparently written for her. Yeah, that was some creepy awfulness. [Backstory: This is the NPC that we made up who had a forlorn love for Elara’s mother Donna years ago, and has transferred that affections to Elara]

Miquela – When walking through the throng of people, Lady Miquela bumped into a man. When the both looked up she recognized Luca Strozzi, the man everyone thought she would marry, right up until the moment he married Larissa Lebeda, a wealth noble from Issia. The first words out her mouth “I was gone for a few months and you couldn’t wait!” It was going to be like that. Luca, it seemed never received Miquela’s letters, and more to the point, his did what his family required him to do. Something Miquela could understand, even if she didn’t like it. She threw him a pair of turquoise earrings at him “There. A wedding gift…for your lovely bride!”

Merrowyn & Toti – Merrowyn wanted to talk directly to the Lord Mayor himself, which everyone agreed was a terrible idea. Toti went has her chaperone, which was wise on account of the fact that Merrowyn started the coversation with “You know Lord Mayor, I am really sorry that I beat up your son and broke his precious sword. I mean, he really deserved it, but -” That’s about when Toti cut in and took over. She also got to the point, which was that Merrowyn wanted the mayor’s contract on the Fearsome Badgers. Specifically she wanted to hire Kasten Garess and his small unit. The Mayor’s wife Marissa came to his side. She and Toti hit it off well, and made all the arrangements necessary. As we parted she told us to give their greetings to Bogathotus, which made us both do a double take.

And then we had that light bulb moment. Bog didn’t attend because that woman he nearly killed the mayor over twenty years ago was probably his wife Marissa!

Hitting the Road

Soon we were back on the road… but instead of going at it alone we head out with a heard of cattle, a few dozen workers, the fearsome badgers, lumber, stone, livestock, feed, foodstuffs, and everything else we needed to create a settlement! [Entering Kingdom Building with 55 BP].

As a group we decided to alternate between Kingdom building and adventuring, representing our characters spending time working on the construction and once wheels were in motion, exploring the region for further development.


No, we haven’t called our nation Aldoria… but Tad did, and it just might stick.


The first thing we did was determine the outlook we would foster in our new nation. One of loyalty to Rostland, but defiance of Brevoy. And one of moral standing [Alignment: Neutral Good]


We then set about appointing our leaders:

  • Ruler: None for now. We’ll fill that role when needed [Dennis has house ruled there are no vacancy penalties in the first 12 turns].
  • General: Merrowyn – Yep, she’s in charge of the Fearsome Badger and Akrios (we got him to come along)
  • Warden: Miquela – Nobody sets people straight like Mequela. She’s keeping the peace.
  • Councilor: Toti – The friend of the people, er Tad!
  • Marshall: Elara – Patrolling outside of camp.

We also convinced, or perhaps coerced friends of the family to fill other roles

  • High Priest – Jahad. The cleric who had visions granted by Erastil.
  • Grand Diplomat – Domingo. This was a perfect choice for us. Someone to be far, far away.
  • Treasurer – Giovanni. After managing finances for merchant traders, we felt good about putting him in charge of our books!
  • Magister –  Tad. He really, honestly didn’t want the position, but he’s the smartest of us all!
  • Royal Enforcer – The role has been filled, and we think we know by who.
  • Spymaster – Also vacant, though we’ve got a few ideas here (Mik Mek or Cobb, assuming Miquela doesn’t kill Cobb the moment she sees him).


  • Holidays – Founders Day [1 holiday/year]
  • Promotion – Sure… we’ll give land, if you can make it out here [Token promotion]
  • Taxes – What’s to tax? [No Taxation]


Though we didn’t do them back to back, here are the Kingdom turn expansions.

Turn 1

  • No Upkeep Phase [Starting BP = 55]
  • Edicts (see above)
  • Expansion
    • We claimed the region of the Stag Lord’s keep [G5] [-1 BP]
    • Farm built around the old Stag Lords keep [-4BP]
    • We struck ground and started preparing the old bandit keep to be a new city. [-2BP]
  • Events Phase: Bandits on the roads. Some of the Stag Lord’s missing recruits were terrorizing our supply lines, trying to loot what they thought were easy pickings. The Fearsome Badgers set to the task of make thing a painful lesson and drove them off [Stability roll succeeded]

Turn 2 

  • Upkeep: Our nation stayed stable [Stability check succeeded. Consumption -1BP]
  • Edicts (none changed)
  • Expansion
    • The Tusk of Aldori (or simply The Tusk) declared a settlement!
    • Construction of a castle from the ruins of the keep begins. [-27 BP]
    • We claimed the ford between the Thorn and Shrike rivers [F6] [-1BP]
    • Farms build along the river. [-4BP]
    • Roads out of The Tusk started. [-3BP] (See thoughts below, I think we should have paid double for this)
  • Income Phase: Our new nation was prosperous and bountiful [Rolled a 30 on the Economy Check = +10 BP]
  • Events Phase: Giovanni brought his own resources to our castle, a river boat! [Beneficial event +9BP]

Ending Kingdom Stats:

Aldoria - Turn 2

Paperworkfinder? No, this is Pathfinder!

Thought the session flew by, I can now hardly believe how much stuff we did. In addition to all of this, we explored and cleared out seven nearby hexes! Between those two Kingdom turns we went out adventuring.

G6 – A hilly region, most notable for the small spring we found and the Shambling Mound that leapt out of said spring onto our heads. Tentacles, grabs, and constriction, oh my! Slashing and stabbing seemed to work well enough on this lovely specimen of nature.

H6 – The Gudrin River ran fast and high through this region. Once we found a ford (in H7) we discovered some bramble covered cliffs overlooking the Tuskwater on the south side of the river.

H7 – Nothing remarkable about this hilly region except the Ford that allowed us to cross the Gudrin.

Tendriculos_smI5 – Mostly hills but in the north western portion of the region was a foul smelling sulfer spring. What we thought might at first be an pleasant mud bath turned into an exfoliating experience Merrowyn will never forget.  What looked like a pile of rocks exploded into this thing, which tried to eat our faces… and succeeded. Well, it at Merrowyn’s face and the rest of her as well. Yay, we got to play with “swallow hole” mechanics and I got to ask Dennis the most awesome question ever. “Does being inside the creature count as flanking it?” Hah! Merrowyn cut her way out, as Miquela filled the critter with flaming arrows and Elara scorched it with her Flaming Sphere spell (we figured out it didn’t like fire).

Merrowyn will never, ever, ever take a mud bath in that sulfer bog. Ever.

H5 – This partially hilly, partially swampy, and partially forested region was inhabited by a figure lovingly known as the “swamp witch”. She didn’t how crude Merrowyn was, nor how polite Toti was, but she seemed adequately appeased by Miquela’s straight forwardness. The old woman invited her into her cabin and closed the door behind her. As Miequla entered the Scarecrow in the garden turned it’s pumpkin head to follower her until she entered. When we advanced (notably uninvited) the Scarecrow climbed down from its post to block the path. Creepy. But not as creepy as the old witch who served Miquela tea… and thankfully didn’t turn her into a newt. Miquela said her business (to expand into these lands) and the woman made it clear that as long as people stayed clear of her, she wouldn’t trouble them either.

When Miquela exited, still in one piece, we all agreed that maybe building another fence around the witches fence would be a good plan.

G4 – In the forests west of the lake we met Arvin, a hunter and fisher. He seemed a likable fellow and had an offer for us. Down a secret path between the brambles on the cliffs over the Tuskwater was his favorite fishing hole. However, a giant snapping turtle had recently claimed the location and made it impossible (as well as very dangerous) for him to fish there. Kill that turtle for him, and he’d give us a magical ring he found in the belly of a giant eel [Ring of Feather Fall].

F5 – Fangberries. Woot. We finally found Fangberries. Surrounded by spiders and vicious thicket. Screw you Bokken, I got your Fangberries right here!


Description Qty  Value  Cash Value  Kept by
Previous Total* 15939.8
Stag Lord Bounty 5000 Quest Reward
Credit for Cobb tipping us off 1000
Dueling Sword enchanted to +1 -2000 Miquela
Greatsword enchanted to +1 -2000 Merrowyn
Wooden Armor +1 -1170 Elara
Mithral Breastplate +1 -5200 Merrowyn
Wand of Shield -750 Merrowyn
Headband of Wisdom -4000 Toti
Cloak of Elvenkind -2500 Elara
Agile Breastplate +1 -1550 Miquela
Scale Mail 1 25 Miquela Sold
MW Chain Shirt 1 125 Merrowyn Sold
Spring loaded wrist sheath -25 Merrowyn
Silver Blanches (10) 10 -25 Group
Cold Iron Blanches (5) 5 -100 Group
Dragon Tapestry -100 Group
Wand of Burning Hands 1 390 234 Merrowyn Sold
Wand of Magic Missiles 1 1170 702 Merrowyn Sold
Ioun Stone: Vibrant Purple Prism, Craked -2000 Merrowyn
Total at end of Session     1605.8


This is somewhat lower than the value from the previous report (Death to the Stag Lord) because we opted to keep (or gift) some of the loot found rather than sell it. (Specifically the swords, bows, and arrows, which were kept for castle defense, and the turquoise earrings given to Luca Strozzi as a gift for his new wife).


XP award is 4,325 per character. Current total is 13531. Woot, 5th level is getting close!

Thoughts on this game

I think we should have paid double for the road section in the Tuskwater Lake Hex. Specifically because the Terrain Improvement cost section has a footnote (#5):

Road cost represents the BP cost to establish a Road that crosses a hex and connects to all adjacent hexes. The cost to build a Road doubles if the hex contains rivers.

Much of my reflection on the game is above in the system matters discussion. I’m really enjoying the tale we’re weaving. It’s got plenty of mechanical crunch in the combat arena, and plenty of depth in the personal, emotional, and political ones.

I was surprised to see Cobb back in play. I like conservation of NPCs and reincorporation, so I’m glad the thieves guild had a face we knew, but I swore we had pegged him as a farmer down on his luck, backed up with sense motive checks and all. Seeing the reversal felt like we had been duped, and I wasn’t sure if the “we” was the characters or the players. I like twists like this in stories so I’m inclined to roll with it, but I’m wary of smug, unaffected NPCs that hold all the cards. The can end up as NPC-as-plot-device, which goes against the ethos that external problems should be solvable, often with swords.

I’ve been reading about performance combat (and sad to see that my character would probably suck at it) but I’d like to see some duels handled using those rules. Specifically, I really can’t wait for the day (and hopefully this is a way off) that I get to defend against charges of treason, because, c’mon, you know it’s going to happen! That and witchcraft.

I forgot about Edward and Arlette (Merrowyn’s parrents). I was totally going to ask them to come down and live with us. But that’s cool, now that we have a castle and soon some houses, I spend some of the downtime between kingdom checks heading up to Rostov to get them.

Really looking forward to next session. We’ve got some quests to wrap up: Fangberries to deliver and a giant turtle to shell. I also want to have Toti do some potion brewing during the downtime between kingdom turns and to go negotiate mining rights with the Sootscale clan!


  1. i’m biased because 4e was my edition of d&d, but while the system may have failed to offer a resolution system that worked out of combat, it bloody well tried.

    Skill challenges and many of the options for utility powers, be they Skill Powers or Theme Powers (less so Class utilities) were all there to make the game one that could mechanically handle more than combat. Admittedly the role played by many of those powers were covered by spells in prior editions (and some feats but they weren’t well integrated into the core math), but the availability to all classes made all the difference to me.

    Did they work? Eh, not so much although it did hybrid well with the combat system. But the best official modules i’ve played and my favorite wotc articles touched on it.

    Ditching that system for next is why i dropped my WotC subscription. I was moving to other games more anyways, but i’d have stuck around if they were going to learn from their mistakes and give it another shot.

    I realize I’m being prickly about this, but this was the sentiment of several in our group that similarly treated 4e as a gateway to indies, and we made purchasing on the basis of that sentiment.

    Anyhow, my one online game is slowly trying to reboot in Fate, i’m going to run Monsterhearts for friends in a few weeks (Battlestar to follow in some future month), and i will try Burning wheel after i train up more on Freemarket and Mouseguard. But for a few years there, we had a lot of fun with a flawed skill system and i wanted to give some love for the designers and mod writers that tried to make it work.

    • Sean Nittner

      Hey Greg,

      I know where you’re coming from. When 4E first came out, we played a lot of it. And I worked my ass off to build fun skill challenges. Some were social, others were for chases, heists, or other high action (but non-combat) challenges. The battle grid (which I know is prevalent since 3.0) and the power economy won out every time though. What’s the point of an awesome Daily if you can’t use it? Why invest in social utility powers when you can just talk your way out of something. As I saw it, D&D 4E built a really good combat engine, but then didn’t want to loose players so they tacked on some ancillary systems to cover other conflicts.

      That said, my purpose in this post wasn’t to bash any other game. If 4E worked for your group, that’s killer. I mean that’s the same thing we’re doing with Pathfinder. The game supports a linear power progression, that’s what the system does. And I’m really happy that we’ve brought more to the table than that. It sounds like you guys did too!

  2. Sean,

    Thanks for the response. I feel a little foolish on the Skill Challenges, as I now remember listening to some of the cool things you’ve done with them on narrative control. They did ultimately fail because they were neither mechanically robust nor inherently fun when not paired with combat. We did have a good experience with them not just at our table but with the help of WotC Adventures, but I do know second hand that the lack of inherent fun meant that those authors similarly had to work their butt off to achieve that. Also, the points you make did a great job of reminding me of the times I’ve been burned by the lack of robustness. So point conceded.

    If you’ll indulge me though, I’d like to argue that you’re underestimating the utility powers. The lack of a unified resolution system with teeth made them sub-optimal and other flaws in the skill system undermined them, but unlike Skill Challenges they could be inherently fun and had mechanical support throughout the production cycle of 4e. Specifically, I’d say the introduction of Skill Powers, and then the theme and racial utilities published in Dark Sun, Forgotten Realms, and Elemental Chaos showed that they were a robust part of the game long after Skill Challenges were left to whither on the vine. To give a quick example to those less familiar, a favorite of mine had been Arcane Mutterings, which allowed substitution of Arcana, once per encounter, for a social skill. It had mechanical oomph, didn’t trump genuinely social characters (laying aside that Arcana got seriously broken by epic), and was easy to roleplay for anyone familiar with Star Trek technobabble or the like.

    Bringing in a little terminology from a recent Ask Ken & Robin podcast, they represented a huge advance over feats when it comes to prix fixe (such as class-based) systems. They don’t really matter as much for a la carte systems, where solutions like Fate Core’s procedural options for stunts represent an alternate but equally valid path. Nonetheless, I suspect that there will probably be several tablet-based, subscription model, prix fixe RPGs in the future that would benefit from having 4e Utility Powers in their Ludography.

    Specifically, I think think the real trick they managed was letting the player first choose from a selection of menus. In the 4e case, there’d be one for race, class, theme, and additional ones for trained skills (I’m not sure how core that is to the concept).

    This approach has a range of benefits over classic feat lists:
    * The player has a small number of big choices at character creation and key junctions.
    * Even at epic level, even with several menus to choose from, there’s at most a couple dozen options (more if you count options from lower levels, but you’re already familiar with them). This compares to often having literally hundreds of feats to choose from. (Cross-class stuff is an escape valve, but a costly one that your average player doesn’t have to worry about).
    * This is fantastic for a subscription model, where instead of just bloating skill lists, a publisher can put out new menus. This may make choosing your menus a bit more unwieldy, but it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a “new and recommended” shortlist for a tablet.
    * I think they managed inherent fun because they are easier to flavor and balance than feats. Obviously prerequisites and skill chains are old tech, but both of those can increase complexity and often result in place holders on the character sheet. With a properly done theme, every power should be in context of the broader idea and reinforce it mechanically. Sometimes the level 6 power is great and the level 2 is meh, but that’s part of the balance and if you aren’t leaning hard towards the menu in question then you probably just took a cool power from a different menu instead.

    You are absolutely correct, the utility powers were sabotaged by the lack of a core resolution system. That said, unlike skill challenges, they are a modular system that could be basis of the entire power system in a different game with a non-combat core.

    (For the internet record, worked this through last night and taking a the comment time out of my lunch hour).

  3. Sean Nittner

    Points for limiting choices! I agree, managing feats, class abilities, and all that jazz at high levels is mind boggling.

  4. Josh

    I find the d20 system has an easy means of adding social challenges to them. My game group in the past has used Justin Evan’s Battle of Wills (heavily influenced by Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits system) to provide a system based mechanic for social challenges. It works well in d20 as it requires 3 social skills and d20 has 3. It is super easy to plop right into a game. Sean knows where it is but just in case, the link to it is here:

    It is a little better at running social challenges than a skill challenge in my opinion as it is designed just for that. Anyway, great read and I look forward to future installments of the Kingmaker saga. It makes me want to play it!

    • Sean Nittner

      Yeah, I might throw out the Battle of Wills as an idea. I’d propose that d20 social skills can actually a bit broader than 3, by adding in Sense Motive as well as relevant knowledge skills. I’d propose:

      Aggression: Intimidate or Knowledge (relevant)
      Deceptive: Sense Motive or Bluff
      Social: Diplomacy or Perform (relevant)

    • Sean Nittner

      Also… totally. Kingmaker is a really fun adventure path. Plenty non-standard challenges.

  5. Lindsey Lewis

    This was pretty cool. I was wondering, what program did you use for this, the one from the picture of your kingdom? I haven’t been able to find any programs to do this with, and it’s a pain in the butt.

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