Why are RPGs Crap at Modelling Stealth?

It occurred to me, whilst dumping my sixth unconscious guard into a bin whilst playing Dishonoured (I’m British damn you, it includes a ‘u’) that stealth is something that isn’t handled especially well in tabletop games. There’s an issue with the interaction between stealth and perception and simply rolling one against the other doesn’t model the subtlety of it. In many ways it’s a similar problem to the dissatisfaction with having to resort to social mechanics rather than pure RP.

There is a difference though, I think. While some of us find it damn near impossible to play ‘smooth’ or ‘intimidating’ or to come out with a pick-up line for an NPC that has ‘game’, just about everyone can understand the principle of ‘How not to be seen’ (or heard or whatever).

What we need, then, is a way to represent a state of alertness and the fact that, really, it’s only when the sneaking person a) fucks up or b) gets caught unawares themselves that they’re likely to be detected.

Genuine stealth isn’t just ‘being quiet’, it’s staying in the shadows. Using distraction, opportunity, speed, acrobatics and athletics to move unseen.

I think a way to represent this is stealth being the knowledge of how best to go about it and how best to recover from ‘fucking up’. To get away with fucking up.

This would take a bit more preparation and you’d have to start with a guard ‘alertness’ level based on an average or less than average roll. As more incidents happened you would ramp up that alertness level and it would get more and more difficult to get away with screwing up.

Using 3.5/Pathfinder purely as an example (in 4th Ed this would be a skill challenge). Say you had a temple on a cliff, protected by an elite temple guard. A long avenue runs up to the temple with trees every ten yards or so.

How could you approach?

In disguise, climb the cliff, flit from tree to tree, engineer a distraction. Their alertness level would ‘take ten’ so, perhaps DC 15, at night you might drop that to 13 and they wouldn’t expect anyone to climb the cliff so that might be 13 as well.

It would take several rolls to climb the cliff, which would be steep and dangerous, screwing up doesn’t mean you fall (unless you mess up really bad), but for the dramatism of the stealth ‘minigame’ each failure would knock some rocks loose, make a noise, raise the alert level and require you to make a stealth roll against the DC (which would rise with each incident).

Running from tree to tree without being seen? That’s a matter of speed, stealth is really a matter of timing and if you screw up the speed (athletics roll probably) you’ll have to make a stealth roll to ‘get away with it’ and the alertness level will go up.

It makes stealth a bit more involved, adds a little bit more back and forth and, in a way, will make it a bit more like combat.

The other problem we have is that knock-out mechanics also suck. The problem with knock-out mechanics in a lot of games is that if you make the NPCs easy to knock out, that also makes the PCs easy to knock out, and that’s massively disempowering. It also leads to important NPCs being dropped and having their throats slit.

If you’re trying to simulate reality, drugs don’t knock people out that quickly or reliably and knock-out blows are also hard to gauge and its a lot harder to knock people out than it seems in the movies. You can’t expect to render a dame unconcious with a tap to the chin or  to press-gang someone with a single blow of a cosh. At best you’re probably going to stun and concuss them.

In cinematic games you can differentiate between cannon fodder and major baddies in a way that lets you be cinematic while also preserving the ‘hardcore’ nature of the bosses, but that’s not an easy option in every game.

What do you think? Any ideas? Any games that handle stealth really well?

6-Pack Adventures: THULU! (Pathfinder) RELEASED!

A 6-Pack Adventure: pick-up-and-play adventures designed to fill 2-4 hours of play and containing everything you need.

  • Battle Map
  • Tokens
  • Pre-generated characters

For longevity you can use the tokens and the map for anything else you care to do and the adventures should be fairly easily adaptable to fit into your existing campaign if you want.

THULU! Has a ragged band of grizzled warriors trying to hold off the orc horde long enough for relief to arrive.

Pathfinder and associated marks and logos are trademarks of Paizo Publishing, LLC, and are used under license. See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Buy download HERE

In print HERE

Gangworld – Fuckin’ Fairies – Released

“The sun shines on our friends. The rain chills our foes.”

The Fucking Faeries is one of the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the kingdom. These corrupt faeries exploit their Seelie Court connections to control local weather and natural phenomena, and their Unseelie Court connections to kidnap, assassinate, and spy from the shadows.

Now with added OGL type crunchy bits. Mmmm, good for what ails ya.


D&D 5e? Flee!

So the net is rife with speculation about fifth edition D&D, again, much as it has been since 4e came out. I’m not especially interested in the speculation but perhaps that’s because I’m just not as wedded to D&D as many are and I often find its sacred cows to be more like heavy weights dragging against my feet.

4e is, of course, a success compared to the rest of the industry, with the notable exception of Pathfinder which, it seems, is doing better at least in some quarters than 4e D&D has done. There’s a whole host of mistakes and fuck-ups we can point out as to why 4e hasn’t been the success that it could have been but there’s no need to point them out really… oh, all right.

  • Once you free something up it’s a) hard to put the genie back in the bottle and b) you’ll piss people off by trying. 3e owed a lot to the OGL, trying to constrict and thus pissing off the third party publishers and fan publishers was a disaster.
  • The shiny cool looking online tools never manifested, at least not in the style and promise they’d been touted as having. It comes to something when the Neverwinter flash game on facebook is a better and more immersive experience than your online tools.
  • 3.0-3.5 freed up the game to be much more customisable and RP friendly, looser class/skill meant you could represent and play a much broader variety of characters. The RP options were – potentially – infinite. 4e, comparatively, was a huge leap backwards.
  • It was stupid to try and compete directly with the MMO model (niche protection, subscription model in the way it was handled). The strengths of RPGs were not played to.
I haven’t played every edition of D&D but there’s always something that gets in the way and frustrates me. With Basic it was the simplicity of the rules in that they were inflexible and frustratingly incapable of dealing with things I wanted to do, plus my heroes were damn fragile and there was no engaging world expressed.
With AD&D you could get it to do more things you wanted but only really at the end of its 2e incarnation and only by hacking the rules with all sorts of options and house rules. One game of D&D was often nothing like another. At least AD&D moved away from the wargame roots and had some engaging worlds.
3rd Edition finally felt like a ‘proper’ RPG, but it was still, basically, a fibreglass shell over the same old 2CV engine. Multiclassing was easy, but then classes themselves were an issue. The skill system was great for customising characters, but made ‘Rogue’ the default option for anyone who wanted to be a skilful expert. While the OGL lead to a massive amount of creativity and a gaming renaissance, it did also make it ‘messy’. Still I’d rather have that than not. Making up monsters and NPCs was a chore in 3e too, but at least it was directly relatable to characters.
4e was, for me, a massive leap backwards, back to much more hard and fast classes and niches, very difficult to adapt (due to the nature of powers), bloated with powers exception cases, disunified rules and so on. Some of this has been ‘patched’ (fibreglass body shell again) in the later ‘core’ books but still… it’s a bodge job. The massive over-concentration on minis was also massively off-putting after we’d been somewhat freed from it.
Enough armchair analysis of the past, what about the future?
  • MMOs do niche, combat oriented dungeon bashing better.
  • Lego Heroica – and others – do intro games better.
  • Ground in crunchy build-your-own has been lost to Pathfinder.
  • 3PP/fans are still pissed over the GSL and Hasbro heavy handedness and contradicting statements/enforcement.
  • Fantasy Flight do mini board games better.
So, what would I do?
I see two possible paths, but I wouldn’t want to pursue both because that would divide the audience. Either you need to go for something easy, graspable and universal and keep it that way, or you need to embrace what makes RPGs unique, special and makes them work so well. Of these, I’d prefer D&D to finally become an actual RPG, but I can see the worth in both.

Whoa there hoss, D&D IS an RPG!

Sure, in the sense homo habilis is a computer programmer from Milton Keynes. While people bitched about 2e, 3e and 4e for much the same reasons ‘It’s not like it was!’ the same few, new zombified, sacred cows are still marching on. Class, level, hit points in particular.
D&D hasn’t ever really been an RPG, it’s been a skirmish game in which roleplaying occasionally takes place. It could do more to encourage and allow for roleplaying and in my opinion, it should.

Option 1 – Simple and Universal

Strip the whole thing rrrrrriiiiight back as simple as you feel you can go. Hit points? Fuck no. LIVES. Classes? No. Cobble together what you want by picking ‘powers’ or a bunch of templates, like, say Fight/Magic/Expert/Scholar in various combinations. Levels? Bugger that, just improvement in individual things. Make it use d6s instead of dice salad. Makes it easier for people to pick up. Go Gamma World style in presentation and push the fucker in toyshops and bookshops. The D&D brand is enough to carry the change through and blow me if it wouldn’t attract a shitload of attention and publicity.
Option 2 – The Proper RPG
Keep the skeleton of the system and the world as is but concentrate on the aspects that make RPGs different (and in my opinion better) than the board game and computer game alternatives. The freedom, the characterisation, the roleplay. Budge the mechanics to be more freeform and RP encouraging, espouse that ethos in the books along with the mechanics, engage people in the story and the world, place it front and centre. Rather than rules – necessarily – teach GMs techniques and approaches, example heavy, explanatory, hand holding. License the same IP OUT of the RPG into board games, computer games etc using the RPG side for IP production and the other aspects as the cash cows, leaving the RPG side free to experiment, take risks etc without being held hostage or having to ALSO be all these other things.
Is any of this what’s likely to happen?
Is it fuck.
The only thing I will absolutely hope for is that licensing remains and frees up from the GSL’s next-to-useless absurdity. Your fans and third parties are creative and they drive your success. Embrace them.

Pathfinder: Defying the Gods

It was all very well going on about pure logic and how the universe was ruled by logic and the harmony of numbers, but the plain fact of the matter was that the Disc was manifestly traversing space on the back of a giant turtle and the gods had a habit of going round to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows. – The Colour of Magic

As anyone who has known me for any length of time knows I’m an atheist and the insufferable kind of atheist that goes on about it all the time and has the sheer temerity to point out how nonsensical religious beliefs are. I mean, really, what kind of caddish oaf has the gall to point out the world isn’t flat or that there never was a worldwide flood?

Needless to say, this being such a big part of my life it bleeds over into my games, my approach to gods and clerics in games and my thoughts about magic and gods in games and materials that I write. Personally I like to leave gods in my game worlds uncertain, so that faith has a place in it. I don’t like faith, I think it’s a dangerous thing in the real world but in the fantasy worlds it’s usually all too obvious that there are gods around as they clash in the heavens, provide tangible boons to their followers, manifest and can even be visited when you slip and slide into other dimension.

That sets you on another track of thought though. A pantheistic set of gods, as is typical in most generic fantasy worlds, tends to have a lot in common with the Greek or Roman pantheons and/or some version of the Asgardian gods. Many pantheons share a common thread of mythology in that the various gods squabble, produce dozens of demigods, interfere constantly in the world of men and are often rebelled against by mankind, particularly their demigod offspring.

After a particularly heated discussion with someone I realised that even if I could be convinced that there was a god, given the mythologies around so bloody many of them I would view it as the duty of any good, moral human being to oppose them.

Human history is filled with examples of people standing up against overwhelming odds. Starting revolutions from a handful of people, raiding different states in their own country to try and free slaves or standing in front of tanks in a hopeless gesture of defiance.

Even in a world where gods existed, people might well stand up to them…

Godless Feats


You are untouched, uninterfered with, beneath the notice of the gods and they are beneath your notice. Your scorn for them shields you from both the good and bad side of the divine.

Prerequisites: This feat must be taken at character generation. Wis 12+.

Benefit: Any divine magic directly cast against you, whether of benefit or denigrating effect, has no effect.

Moral Relativism

Good, evil, law, chaos, they’re just points of view. There is nothing special or metaphysical about it and you are beyond the concerns of subjective morality.

Prerequisites: Wis 12+, Int 12+

Benefit: You ignore all alignment effects and restrictions on item use.


Others can call upon their gods but in your presence it may well be in vain.

Prerequisites: Wis 12+, Int 12+

Benefits: Your level gives you a pool of points which can be used – in a 24 hour period – to negate a number of cast spell levels equal to your level. EG: If you are level 5 and a cleric casts a level 3 spell, you would spend 3 levels to negate that spell and still have two left.

Faithless Strike (Combat)

Your incisive intelligence and focussed defiance of the gods lets you strike them for great harm.

Prerequisites: Intelligence 14+, Wis 12+,  BAB +5,

Benefits: You do an additional 1d6 damage when striking holy or unholy outsiders (but not elementals).


You apply your mind, rather than your heart, to the problems of the universe and your understanding gives you a degree of power over the world that rivals that of the priests.

Prerequisites: Intelligence 12+, Wis 12+, Cha 12+

Benefits: The godless cannot normally be clerics but philosophers can mimic many of their effects. They use their Int in place of their Wis for determining what spells they can cast but can otherwise cast divine magic.

Doubt (Combat)

Your presence, your existence as a godless figure disconcerts the faithful and makes it difficult for them to maintain their unquestioning faith.

Prerequisites: Wis 12+, Con 12+

Benefits: Any divine magic caster within five feet of you has their DC to cast spells increased by +4.


You can weather the wrath of the gods with a smile on your face and a defiant shout straining from your breast.

Prerequisites: Iron Will, Improved Iron Will

Benefits: Against any divine effect, special ability, magical ability or other effect of a divine source you roll your saving throw twice.

Pathfinder: Bladesoul Magic

Blade Soul
“The mind is a blade as keen as that of any swordsman. Lightness, speed and accuracy are our weapons but also our knowledge, as sharp as the edge of any paper. A mage can be too distant, too remote, standing apart and shaping the world with nothing but thought. We can do more, we can stand together, rather than apart, side by side with our brethren.”

Book of the Edge
The leather tome is bound with metal and embossed with crossed swords over an intricate sigil. Its pages contain spells that form a different kind of magic, the summoning and forming of blades from the material of the planes, imbuing them with power and force that channel’s the mage’s power.

Petrius Van Caladorn was a mage who was deeply invested in the adaptability of magic. He saw the specialisations and profusion of different foci in different schools of magic to be a weakness rather than a strength. “Adaptation…” so one of his aphorisms goes “…should stem from the magic, not the mage.”

To that end, rather than encouraging his students to pursue powerful specialist knowledge (Prestige classes) he encouraged them to remain generalist wizards and sorcerors and to find ways to use magic to do the things they wanted to in the form of new spells.

Van Caladorn’s legacy includes many spellbooks of unique or relatively unknown magicks, of which The Book of the Edge is but one.

Sword Spells & Edge Spells
The Blade Soul spells summon a blade into existence with a gesture. The caster can simultaneously cast 1+ Intelligence modifier Edge spells to enhance the blade and can even cast multiple Blade Soul spells – as edge spells – to enhance to sword’s bonus. The blade can be further enhanced – one spell a turn – on following turns if the character so chooses but the duration of the spell is only as long as that of the first blade casting.

Morgan has a +2 Intelligence modifier. He can cast a Sword Spell and three Edge spells all at once to summon his blade. He calls up a Silver Bladesoul and enhances it with two Corona of Power spells (+2d6 electrical damage) and an additional +1 from a second Silver Bladesoul spell.

Sword Spells
School: Conjuration Level: Sorceror/Wizard 1-9
Casting Time: Swift Action
Components: S
Range: Touch.
Target: Self.
Duration: 1 minute/level.
Saving Throw: N/A
Resistance: No.

Edge Spells
School: Conjuration
Casting Time: Swift/Conjoined with with Sword Spell.
Components: S
Range: Touch
Target: Sword Spell
Duration: As Sword Spell
Saving Throw: N/A
Resistance: No.

Sword spells can be extended, maximised etc, but cannot be made permanent.

0th Level
Bladesoul – Creates a magic blade (as a longsword) with no bonus to hit or damage, though it counts as a magic weapon against creatures vulnerable to that.

1st Level
Firefly Edge – The blade glows, shedding a greenish-yellow light in a 10 ft radius.
Lurid Razor – The blade takes on a noisome appearance of clashing colours and gains a poison effect. Injury; save Fort DC 10+caster level; frequency 1/round for 4 rounds; effect 1d2 Stat damage (caster’s choice); cure 1 save.

2nd Level
Elemental Infusion – The blade takes on a damage type according to the whim of the caster (Dark, Light, Holy, Fire etc). This cannot be changed without the casting of a new spell that overrides the old.

3rd Level
Silver Bladesoul – As Bladesoul, but counts as a +1 magic weapon.
Screaming Blade – The sword shrieks and screams when it tastes enemy flesh. Anyone hit by the sword – damaged or not – must make a Will Save against a DC of 10+Caster level or become Frightened.
Corona of Power – The blade crackles with magical electrical energy and does 1d6 electrical damage in addition to its normal damage.
Archon’s Sword – Your summoned blade gains an additional +1 to hit, provides you with a +1 bonus to save checks and a bonus of +1 to your AC.

4th Level
Elemental Burst – Driving the blade into the ground (a standard action) creates a blast around you, 5ft in radius doing the sword’s damage +1d6 to anything in the radius that fails a Reflex save against a DC of 10+caster level.
Hellforged – The blade gains a corona of yellow, flickering flame and does 1d6 fire damage in addition to its normal damage. As a full-round action you can unleash a 10 ft cone of fire that does 2d6 fire damage plus the normal damage of the sword if the target cannot make a Reflex save against a DC of 10+Caster level.

5th Level
Golden Bladesoul – As Bladesoul but counts as a +2 magic weapon.
Blade of the Storm – The blade crackles with powerful energy and rumbles like thunder. In addition to its normal damage it does 1d6 electrical damage and as a full round action it can unleash a 5d6 damage lightning bolt (plus the normal damage of the sword) with a range of 120 ft.
Binding Blade – The blade can be flung out on the end of a chain, allowing it to reach, and attack, up to 15 feet away. Anyone struck by it must make a Reflex save against a DC of 10+caster level or become Entangled. Breaking free of the chains requires a Strength or Escapology roll against a DC of 10+caster level. The blade can attack others, it simply leaves extra lengths of magic chain to bind those it strikes.
Heatwave – The sword is white hot and radiates heat that can hurt those around you. It does 1d6 fire damage in addition to its other damage and anyone in 5 ft of you must make a Fortitude save against a DC of 10 + Caster level or take 1d6 fire damage.

6th Level
Shadow Razor – The blade is black as night and deepens the shadows around the wielder making them effectively Invisible in shadow or darkness.
Kiss of Darksteel – The blade gains an oily, beguiling sheen and when it strikes a target they must make Fortitude save against a DC of 10+Caster level or be drained of energy taking one negative level.

7th Level
Diamond Bladesoul – As Bladesoul but counts as a +3 magic weapon.
Shattering Blade – The blade thickens and hardens. When it strikes a target wearing armour that target must make a Fortitude save against a DC of 10+Caster level or the armour is cloven, falling off and losing half its hit points. The blade does double damage against constructs.
Ringing Blade – The blade can be struck against the floor to ring like a terrible bell as a full round action. This creates a burst effect around you with a radius of 30 ft. Anything within that radius must make a Fortitude save against a DC of 10+Caster level or be stunned for one round. The blade also does an additional 1d6 sonic damage in addition to its normal damage when striking in combat.

8th Level
Earthtearing Blade – The sword can be slammed into the ground as a full-round action, tearing a boulder free and hurling it at the enemy as a ranged attack. If it strikes it does 2d6 damage plus the normal damage that the sword does in close combat. It leaves craters in its wake and can be used to tear at stone battlements or fortifications doing the same damage to the hit points of the structure and what the boulder is flung at. You can even strike a fort – or an Earth/Stone elemental or construct with parts of itself.

9th Level
Adamant Bladesoul – As Bladesoul but counts as a +4 magic weapon.
Raging Stormblade – The blade is a frozen arc of lightning. It does 3d6 electrical damage in additional to its normal damage and anyone struck must make a Reflex save against a DC of 10 + Caster level or take Caster level xd6 extra electrical damage. If this succeeds and there is another target within 5ft of the target just struck, the lightning arcs to them. They make a Reflex save again and if they fail take the damage. Continue until each available target has been struck once or a save has been made.