Campaign of the Month: September 2016
Age of Serpents
“Don’t just crawl through dungeons… make them sorry they ever met you!”
~ Wicked Fantasy Factory
Everyone knows—a lot of times—combat can be a bit of a drag in Pathfinder. That’s unfortunate, because in a crazy action flick, or a two-fisted pulp adventure story, the violence is the best part!
I’ve seen that the trend in published adventures is not necessarily to reduce the number of fights, but to have fewer enemies on the battlemap and to make each of them more powerful and deadly. The problems this creates is several-fold.
a) higher level enemies have more powers and are more work to create and run in combat.
b) it breaks verisimilitude. Why would the big-badass only have generals?
c) the PCs never have a chance to look wicked awesome when everything is scaled to their level.
In Age of Serpents, there are dangers aplenty—deadly hazards, lethal deathtraps, and yes, challenging foes. There are a thousand ways for your characters fail, suffer, and to die horribly. But at the end of the day, you are the heroes and I want you to feel larger-than-life most of the time. You are the Dragonborns, the Doc Savages, the Lara Crofts, the Indiana Jones’s, The Rambos—the daring dames and fearless fellas capable of killing their way—with cooperation and caution—through hordes of henchmen on the way to the head honcho, where a knock-down drag-out nail-biting battle awaits in true cinematic fashion.
The following rules will (hopefully) capture the gratifying spirit of exaggerated pulp-style violence and facilitate the feeling that your character’s deeds are the stuff of legends. Most importantly, they should make the many combats strewn throughout this campaign FUN.
You chop the monster. It dies. Cool, but how much cooler would it be if you planted a foot on its chest, ripped out its arms, and golf-clubbed it out of the dungeon?
Each hero gets to make up his own finishing moves. Here’s what you need to know about them:
¤ The most important thing about finishing moves is that they are flashy and over-the-top. Think video games in which you dismember, decapitate, and explode your opponent. You want your finishing move to strike terror into your enemies; to make even the staunchest dragon piddle its scales when it sees you tear out its ally’s intestines, or incinerate its head with a blast of fire, or plug arrows into — BAM! BAM! BAM!—both eyes and its crotch.
¤ A finishing move is a separate sort of attack. (Diverging from WFF here,) you should create a finishing move that incorporates your character’s theme, your trademark weapons or spells. But they don’t have to be things you can normally do by the rules. Again, think if your character was the ultimate master of brawling, magic, archery, monster summoning, knife-throwing, or whatever your character is designed to do in combat, what would it look like when you dispatched your foe in truly spectacular fashion? Of course, they don’t necessarily have to utilize your character’s modus operandi, these are just for fun.
¤ When can you use a finishing move? You can attempt a finishing move only once per combat. Other than that, you can attempt it whenever you like, but if it doesn’t take out your opponent (i.e., if you fail), you screw it up somehow and probably wish you had just swung your sword in the time-honored tradition.
¤ What if you succeed on your finishing move? You destroy your enemy in some gruesome, impressive, and/or awe-inspiring way. And you get bonus XP! (And a Fortune Point!)
¤ How do you know when to use your finishing move? The GM should let you know when an enemy is nearing finishing move range. He should say, “This guy’s looking pretty woozy!” or “You could probably bring the pain to this guy!” or maybe “Finish him!” The general rule of thumb is that the GM should let slip this information when the bad guy is down to about 10% of his hit points. Of course, if you think you can take him out before this point, you’re welcome to try your finishing move at any time.
¤ Finishing moves work the same way on all monsters, no matter if they’re incorporeal, ethereal, or whatever. Even if your finishing move doesn’t incorporate a magic weapon, you do not suffer a miss chance against these creatures.
Inventing Your Finishing Move
The first step is to decide what your finishing move looks like. Remember: flashy, gruesome, and over-the-top! Remember too that you might have to use it on creatures with various anatomies, so make sure it’s versatile, or invent a different one for different creature types (or just variants on your primary move).
Then, determine whether your finishing move is melee, ranged, or magic. The answer should be obvious, since you’ve already decided what it looks like.
Performing Your Finishing Move
A finishing move is a full-round action that does not provoke attacks of opportunity. To perform it, follow these steps:
1) Select the target. If your finishing move is a melee move, the target must be within your melee reach. If your finishing move is ranged or magic, you must have line of sight to the target, and it must be within 30 feet.
2) Roll a d20. Add the following:
¤ If you have a melee finishing move, add your base attack bonus + twice your current Strength bonus. (If you have Weapon Finesse, you can instead add your Dexterity bonus instead.)
¤ If you have a ranged finishing move, add your base attack bonus + twice your current Dexterity bonus.
¤ If you have a magic finishing move, add all your caster levels + twice your key spellcasting ability (Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma) bonus.
Note that you don’t get to add bonuses for magic weapons, Weapon Focus, and so forth on this roll!
3) (Diverging again from WFF) The bad guy makes an appropriate saving throw, depending on the nature of the attack (Fortitude for Melee, Reflex for Ranged, and magic can target any of the saves—PC’s choice). Modifiers from buffs and cover etc. apply for the bad guy.
4) If your total is greater than or equal to the bad guy’s save, you might take him down! Roll a number of d6 equal to half your character level, rounded up. (For example, a 3rd-level hero rolls 2d6. A 10th-level hero rolls 5d6.) If your total is greater than or equal to the number of hit points the target has remaining, your finishing move is successful. Describe it in gory detail!
5) If you successfully perform a finishing move, the poor sap is worth an additional +50 XP x Challenge Rating. Congratulations! This bonus XP is divided among the party as normal, primarily to prevent cries of “kill stealer!”
6) If you failed, something goes wrong. The bad guy dodges out of the way, or pulls out of your grip, or you slip on a kidney and make a fool of yourself. Nothing horrible happens, but you pretty much wasted your turn this round.
Other Finishing Moves
You’re welcome to add more than one finishing move to your repertoire or invent them on the fly as your rolls succeed. Be aware, though, that finishing moves are often a signature of a mighty hero, and the masses learn to identify him based on his moves!
Finishing Move Examples
The following are some examples of finishing moves. You are welcome to use these directly or use them to inspire your own.
¤ Rondo, the axe-wielding dwarf barbarian, kicks his opponent in the privates so hard that important parts of his anatomy explode out his head!
¤ Laeriel, the elf archer, pins her opponent’s feet to the ground with two well placed arrow shots, and a third mighty shot tears the helpless foe’s head from his shoulders!
¤ Mathees, the human sorcerer, causes his foe’s head to crack open—his brain then floats out and bludgeons the body to pulp!
¤ Xanna, the halfling rogue, backflips onto her opponent’s shoulders, plunges her daggers into his eyes, then uses them as handles to swing back to the ground!
¤ Kor’lec, the druid, mutters a word than casually turns around and walks away—a tyrannosaurus appears right behind the bad guy, chomps down on and swallows the unsuspecting jerk then majestically roars as a “When Dinosaurs Ruled Golarion” banner falls.
A BRILLIANT suggestion by one of my players. If PCs are acting on or near the same initiative count—either by delaying actions or because the dice placed them that way—they can do a tag-team maneuver that combines both their (or three, or the entire friggin’ party’s) powers into one devastating attack. One player roles and gets a +4 to the attack roll for each player involved in the move—herself included—against the most logical saving throw of the opponent. Thus if three players are tag-teaming the enemy with their awesome combined finisher, the roll gets a +12. If it hits, ALL the players roll damage dice. If the total’s over the remaining hit points of their foe, man that poor shlub is gone. Maybe forever…
The risk is great—if the PCs fail, they all basically wasted turns that round, but if it succeeds:
¤ The dead idiot is worth a bonus of 50 XP x Each PC who did the finisher x CR.
¤ Each PC gets two Fortune Points.
¤ If the entire present party pulls off a massive combined finisher, the bum is gone for good. He can never be resurrected, animated as undead, return from hell as a demon, cloned, declared alive because the GM said so, or come back in any way, shape, or form. This guy is—from that point forward—erased from the narrative.
Minions. Henchmen. Goons. Small Fry. They can be zombies, goblins, armored guards, sleestaks—whatever. In hordes they can overwhelm even the staunchest hero but individually they aren’t in the PCs’ league. These glass-jawed goons can certainly do some damage but in the movies and pulps they go down without too much trouble. So in this campaign, certain enemies are designated mooks. Any successful attack on a mook does maximum damage and stuns him for one round (or if they are immune to stun, they are staggered instead). Spells/Powers are considered to do maximum damage to mooks too, and affect the maximum number of targets for the maximum duration, as appropriate.
Remember—even though they go down easy, mooks still have the potential to hit and hit hard while they are up. So, yes, you can probably take out an army, but scouting and having a strategy to avoid being overwhelmed or shot to death by unreachable marksmen is still advisable.
And yes, you are welcome to attempt your finishing move on mooks even when they’re at full hit points! It has a good chance of succeeding and might make the mook’s buddies flee in terror!
See Mooks at TV TROPES for the importance and history of mooks.
Trading iterative attacks for 5-foot steps
“Iterative attacks,” those extra attacks normally gained when a character’s Base Attack Bonus (BAB) reaches +6, +11, and +16; often discourage movement around the battlefield—which is not very swashbuckling. While not removed from your tactical options, you can choose to take a free 5-foot step in lieu of an attack during a full attack action.