The Inquisition: Characters vs. Players

Can these guys just stand up there and say “I’m good at swordfighting”?

Sometimes it happens right away, and sometimes it takes a while for a player to realize, but eventually every player comes face to face with one of the great hobgoblins of roleplaying games: meta-gaming. For you neophytes, meta-gaming, simply put, is behaving in a way that betrays a character’s in-game knowledge. We might also call this “breaking the fourth wall” or “acting out of character”, but this behavior most often takes the form of a character acting on knowledge he or she doesn’t have. It can be as meaningless as “he doesn’t have many hit points left, he’s only CR 3” or as suspension-of-disbelief-shattering “I teleport 438 feet to the northwest… oh, right into the room my friend is in.” I, personally, don’t mind meta-gaming that much; it’s the kind of thing that can easily be walked back or simply undone by asking “Why does your character do that?”

But I don’t want to talk about meta-gaming today. I want to talk about something related, though. By it’s definition, meta-gaming occurs when the player has knowledge that the character does not have (that he or she learned by sitting at the table while a side-plot was being played out, that he or she learned by reading the rulebook or a supplement, or that he or she learned by stealing a peek at the GM’s notes, or something). I want to get into a maybe more-frequently encountered situation: what happens when the character knows more than the player ever could?

One of the players in my longest running game was a very smart guy, but he played a character, a wizard, who was a super-genius. Literally, this character was several standard deviations outside of normal intelligence for his species. This is all well-and-good, considering the Dungeons and Dragons rules (3.5) accounted for this kind of supreme intelligence within their ability score scale and he was awarded a commensurate number of extra skill points and bonuses on intelligence checks.

However, I can distinctly recall a situation in which we were faced with a particularly troublesome puzzle whose solution had thus far eluded us. He argued that his character, and by extension he should have some additional insight into the workings of the puzzle. He argued that his character was far more intelligent than he was, and thus that level of natural talent should be expressed in game. I sympathized with his point: his character was far smarter than he would ever be, and thus should be able to accomplish things of which he couldn’t think. Imagine a similar situation: you stutter, but your character is an extremely persuasive and charismatic speaker.

We’re used to playing heroic or extraordinary characters when roleplaying; though it is a sobering and rewarding experience to play a character who is completely mundane. By their nature, these heroic characters will do something exceptional. And while this exceptional capability is usually expressed in terms that are easy to imagine (swordplay, archery, slinging spells), sometimes they come in forms we might not be able to easily imagine, such as charisma, persuasiveness, and outright intellect. We’ve seen systems that have tried to apply the same skill-treatment to social and puzzle-solving skills as applied to physical and martial skills, and we usually remember that those skills (IMO) are rarely played rules-as-written (prime example: Diplomacy in DnD 3.5 – and I know some of you will disagree about this).

One of the key issues here is that it’s easy to visualize someone being a good swordsman physically or being incredibly beautiful (when I was a kid all Charisma-dumped characters were hideous hags and all Charisma-enhanced characters were stunningly handsome), but it’s much more difficult to identify that there is an element of intelligence and instinct involved in being a champion duelist, be it with the sword, the pen, or the podium. Anyone who’s ever been in debate knows that an intelligent debater is just as dangerous and persuasive as a charming one, and anyone who’s ever played a sport knows that players with an eye for strategy and tactics can run with much more physically gifted athletes.

So the question becomes: how can you roleplay someone who is incredibly intelligent if you are not incredibly intelligent? Put better, how do you play someone with mental capabilities that far exceed your own?

First, we’ll inevitably retreat to the comfort of our rules set? Don’t the rules account for these kinds of things? Well, yes, of course they do (or any system that is worth its salt should). We get more skill points or bonuses to certain types of rolls for being intelligent, a better modifier on social interactions for being persuasive, and so on. But we still face problems such as the player who walks into every situation and asks to roll Diplomacy. Or the player above who wants extra help on puzzle solving because he’s a genius.

I think we can all agree that the first situation (the Wordless Diplomat) is not the way most of us want to be playing. We want to roleplay, not roll-play. So, my question to you: what is the acceptable amount of roleplaying necessary to be able to roll your skill in social situations? And I don’t have a good answer to that question. I typically weight creative roleplaying more than raw character sheet skill, but both are important for success in situations. A good diplomat with a poor in-character argument is probably on the same footing as a crappy diplomat with a good argument. I usually don’t let my players just declare “I’m trying to Fast Talk this guy”. If that’s what you’re doing, do it! However, to be fair to my players, they might not believe that they can Fast Talk effectively. It’s a totally reasonable position that you as a person might be terrible at thinking on your feet, but your character (by his/her stat block) might literally be among the best in the world at it.

So, I am left wondering what the players’ responsibility is in, you know, actually being a good player. Roleplaying, in itself, is a skill, and naturally some are much better at it than others. Some people are really great problem solvers, others can slip into and out of numerous characters at will, and still more have vast reserves of creativity and energy for creating worlds, races, nations, pantheons, and so forth. I feel that we should be rewarding players for quality role-playing if that’s what is most important to us. I do feel bad sometimes that the player who spent no points on social skills might end up being a more effective party face than the player who put a ton of points into it, and that’s bad for roleplaying. Because gaming for a lot of us is about getting outside our comfort zones and trying something new. Putting more weight on roleplaying tends to push the players who are more comfortable with social interaction to the social interaction roles.

Is there a solution to this problem? I don’t know. I think that roleplaying system designers have been trying to solve this particular puzzle since Gary Gygax invented DnD in his basement. What I know for sure is that we should reward good roleplaying, we should reward creativity, inspired character design, quick thinking, well-designed characters, and so on. In short, we should reward and therefore encourage the kinds of behavior we want to see in our games. I typically hate using a die to determine that which roleplaying should determine, so I put more weight on the roleplaying. But it’s obviously a fine line to walk.

PS. Coming back to the “intelligent people should have an easier time solving a puzzle” idea, I really like adding non-modifer benefits to show that a character is better at a certain task. Maybe the super-genius can have 6 minutes to solve a puzzle instead of the party’s normal 5 minutes, due to the fact that she thinks faster. Maybe the tactical genius can rearrange himself before combat starts, showing that he always seems to be in the right place. In a social situation, maybe the party face has more paths to success, much like options in Mass Effect or KoTOR, rather than just being flat better at being generically “persuasive”. There needs to be a way to show that a character has more ability than a player – we don’t, after all, make our fighters stand up and wield a greatsword. But we do make our diplomats come up with good arguments? That seems a bit unfair to me.

Photo credit: Flickr user hans s. CC BY-ND 2.0

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The Inquisition: Picking Nits

This guy is nitpicking, too. Thanks to flickr user Pete Lambert. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Inquisitor is back now after a well-deserved holiday break, and I come bearing gifts: talk about the little nits we pick during our games.

This comes at the heels of last week’s post regarding how we are all free to choose the rules with which we play. I tend to rely on the wisdom of game designers (especially those of large publishers such as WOTC) simply because they’ve probably devoted hours and hours of playtesting and tweaking spread across dozens of players and GMs. I just don’t have that kind of time myself, and I get worried about interrupting the homeostasis of a game system. Furthermore, there are plenty of indie designers who make games that are excellent and well-tested, balanced and thought-out.

However, there are also design blind-spots that folks run into, even with the best of intentions, and from those blind-spots crappy rules are made.

Thus we have today’s post about nitpicking: some rules just don’t seem to add very much to the game. Why are they there?

You know the rules I’m talking about, the ones that at first glance seem quite annoying. Bonuses not stacking, encumbrance, prerequisites and prohibitions, and so on. Why do they exist?

Everything has a reason

I’m a firm believer that everything has a reason. Well, rather, I believe everything should have a reason. If you can’t find a reason for something existing, than that’s the perfect excuse for eliminating a rule completely.


For most games, and gamist games particularly, annoying rules are there to preserve balance. They prevent the characters from outclassing monsters quickly, and, maybe more importantly, they prevent certain characters from outclassing other characters. These type of rules ensure that the carefully tuned balance of the rules universe remains.

Most of your rules are going to be balance-maintaining. After-all, at some point role-playing is a game, and there needs to be some kind of structure. What that structure is, however, depends on how these balancing rules are implemented. In the most free-form of games, the rule might just be that each character can have three skills, and that those skills are based off single words chosen by the players. Ignoring this rule would allow an unfair advantage to the character who simply put more


Since I’ve tried my hand at creating a few games here and there, I often run into the wall of “realism”. I mean, we’re role-playing here, there is some element of fantasy involved (whether that fantasy takes the form of spies, or dragons, or otherworldly demons, or magic, or whatever), so it always seemed kind of funny to care about what is “realistic” and what isn’t. (Remind me about this for next week’s post)

Anyhow, I think the vast majority of “trouble” rules end up promoting some sort of misguided realism. Every game needs a little bit of realism, but all of the worst rules I can think of sacrifice smooth, fun gameplay for the sake of realism.

What about my game?

It goes without saying that different GMs, players, and groups have different styles. My first DnD DM heavily focused on intrigue, diplomacy and roleplaying (maybe it was because we didn’t have a Monster Manual back in those days). My second DM was one of the best 3.5 optimizers ever, so our games were very gamist and all the little nit-picky rules were adhered to for the sake of balance. One of my current GMs throws out rules such as the -4 penalty for shooting into melee and AOO’s against archers, but forces us to constantly worry about rations, food, water, and carrying capacity, something which I just usually dismiss (as long as you can make it to civilization now and again). My players got pissed at me once because they didn’t specifically SAY that they tied up their horses, and they were scared off in the night by some approaching monsters.

We all selectively apply the rules. Sometimes it’s omission: some games have quite a few rules and we don’t even know are there. The commercialization of roleplaying games leads to more splat books and expansions of the rules, more modules and more options, so naturally there are rules we might not be aware of. Furthermore, some designers tend to put rules in, let’s say, less than obvious places.

Now, I’m going to tell you to just throw out the rules you don’t like. Just have an open mind. Try to understand why rules exist, try to grasp what they do for the game, and then adjust accordingly. Take the pulse of your players: if they are chafing under the regime of stringent rules, then perhaps its time for a change.

I have a friend who really enjoys intricacies in games. I like them too, maybe not to the same extent, but we get along because I enjoy the little pieces of bookkeeping that go along with the game. However, this aspect of the game, the keeping track of rations and how much each little thing weighs, the locations of specific pieces of gear, how long it takes to get those gear items out of your pockets in a combat situation, this all can be frustrating to another, or even to the average player. And frustration for the sake of balance, or for the sake of verisimilitude is not worth it.

Pick your nits well, I say, choose those specific annoyances that ADD to the game. The goal of the game is to have fun, isn’t it?

The Inquisition: Freedom!

Thanks to flickr user ctj71081!! CC BY 2.0

The Inquisitor has been on holiday this past week, so I just have a few quick thoughts this week.  Next week we’ll continue with our regular features, drilling into the psychological and philosophical aspects of gaming. For now, on the history of the declaration of American Independence, we’ll talk about freedom.

We’ve got a lot of freedom issues in RPGs. There’s the freedom to play whatever character you might want, the freedom to go down whatever road interests you (commonly known as the freedom to NOT be railroaded), and so on.

But most importantly, we have the freedom to really do whatever we want when it comes to the games we play. If Rule 0 is that The GM is always right, then Rule 0.1 should be that if there’s something you don’t like about your game, change it.

I think a lot of us get caught up in the advanced rules systems whose heyday was the mid-90’s. Games move toward being universal; we started to see systems trying to account for every situation possible, and thus, rules creep became more and more of a problem.

We’re seeing the rubber band snap back nowadays: how many retro-clones have hit the “market” (which I hesitate to say since many are free) in the past few years?

This is not to say that these games do not have rules that cover every situation. They just have general rules that can be applied, rather than specific rules for every situation. However, there seems to be some kind of strange reverence for the olden days when there were no rules for grappling, or X, or Y, or Z. Having fewer rules is not necessarily a good thing if you live in a world where you have the freedom to choose which rules to use and which to throw out.

It seems that this is the way D&D Next is going: rules modules that you can choose to use or not. But remember, every edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has had a short section saying that if you didn’t like a rule, throw it out or change it. I’m not going to fault Monte Cook et. al. for giving me more options! I don’t know a GM out there who hasn’t changed or ignored a whole swath of rules to make their game more suited to their group’s style. Of course, changing or removing rules makes certain aspects of the game weaker, stronger, or simply nonexistent (removing Attacks of Opportunity for grappling would power up grapple-focused characters, for example), so keep that in mind. Every system is its own ecosystem; change some of the parts, and other things will be affected.

So, sometimes it’s hard to remember, and the worst rules-lawyers of us will complain, but we have the freedom to choose our system, but also choose which subset of rules within that framework is best for our group. Don’t be afraid to tinker.

Have fun at your barbecues, and if you don’t read this until a few days later, I hope you had a happy mid-week holiday.

The Writing is On the Wall…of Wargaming

Photo by Flickr user SpecialKRB

There’s something powerful about writing by hand. It resonates with an intimacy barren from a computer. It evokes imagery of declaratory signatures, illuminating manuscripts, and wax seals. Handwriting is so primal. Much can be told from one’s handwriting. When the message is fed to a machine, the life is sucked out. The machine acts like a not distant enough black hole. The emotions, thoughts, and powers are reduced. No! They may be removed entirely.

We know that words have power. We’ve known this for millennia. Ancient peoples believed that writing or speaking a word breathed life into that word. One need only write the word dog and the word would spring to life.

This is not a writing blog. But, it is important to note the machinations driving what you read. When I create my articles you can, I hope, discern which have been composed by hand first. You can, I hope, also acknowledge which articles were fed to my iMac. The same needs to be true of Wargaming.

When gaming a period or a system we must make choices. How do we choose what we choose? I hope we feel the embers glowing within each of us. Do those embers ignite a passion at the mention of certain phrases? We must have a yearning for what we game. We need not be intimately aware of every nuanced detail. That can be achieved in time. But, we must have that primal emotion drawing us to our designated rule set and/or era. Wargaming is a LOT of fun. It is also a LOT of work. The workload can be petrifying for grognard and noob alike.

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Wargaming Red Dead Redemption

This past week I downloaded Red Dead Redemption for my Xbox 360. Each hour spent tapping X, Y, A, and B taught lessons, which great wargames should emulate.

In my brief time with riding through the wild west gathering flowers, killing outlaws, and playing poker I glimpsed behind the game design curtain. Some of the valuable tenets, which make Read Dead Redemption a success translate to the table top.

Any good game should have a great story that seduces the gamer to pick the game over anything else. The background to the game needs to draw you to it like that proverbial moth to the flame. You need to crave it like a box of Swiss chocolate, a cup of Earl Grey tea, and a plate of homemade lasagna. Maybe I’ve been hanging out with fictional characters too much. But, you get the picture. The game’s world has to sustain your interest through the many weeks of assembling, researching, and painting the multitude of models necessary to war game.

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Wargaming Blends Old & New School Gaming aka a Response to Ben Gerber’s “Thinking in the old school”

Photo courtesy of Jonathan J. Reinhart

When I first read Ben’s article, “Thinking in the old school – a philosophy of role playing” my initial reaction was “who wants to play games where the rules can change without notice?” Then I spent time digesting his words and I came to a realization. It is possible to blend new and old school styles of gaming.

Who doesn’t want to spend quality time with people they like? Who doesn’t want to have fun? Who doesn’t want to have an adventure? It is possible to answer Y-E-S to each of these questions without firmly pigeonholing oneself into the new, or the old school styles. The undercurrent running throughout his post seems to be the importance of having a fun and exciting time while gaming without being limited by a system of rules.
That appears to be good. The problem remains that shifting landscapes, even one that is only potentially shifting, means that players could be unaware of their footing. Certainty is needed. It is possible to go with too much certainty and also with too little.

In wargaming there is a rule set put out by Warlord Games. The set of rules is titled Black Powder. I actually hate to call it rules because, in part, the rules go out of their way to alert the players that the rules are in fact not rules but guidelines. I tend to call the item “Guidelines for Gentlemanly Wargaming.” The authors explain that the rules, I’ll call them rules here on out, were created to allow the authors to play games with the models they own. The authors enjoy games that allow them to have common ground but are also adaptable. The emphasis is placed on the players using the base rules, modifying them beforehand as they see fit, to play games and conclude the festivities with a glass of port.

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Thinking in the old school – a philosophy of role playing

Not too long ago TC’s tech visionary Scott turned me on to this wonderful document – A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew J. Finch.

I’d highly recommend you read this, whether you gamed in the golden age of RPGs or picked up your first d20 yesterday.  It goes a very long way in explaining the thought shift between old school systems and the more mechanically based modern systems, and also has some helpful examples of making that mental shift. Even if you agree with nothing written in this post, reading that article will help you wrap your head around one of the old school gaming philosophies.

Matthew’s article prompted a conversation between Scott and I where we touched on all the cool points of playing like we’re still 15 and not getting hung up on the mechanical aspects of a game. That’s where this post comes from – a rehashing of our childhood gaming experiences and a deep conversation about Matthew’s 13 page PDF.

It’s important to note that when I say “Old School” I’m talking about a style of play, not necessarily the age of the game or system. There are plenty of just released games which are rules-light. As the folks over at G+ are pointing out – the new school games I’m talking about are those that are mechanics heavy.  Dungeons & Dragons 3+ and Pathfinder are the two systems that most come to mind, but there are others.

If you’re interested in what you read here, I’d highly encourage you to grab an old school game system (there are plenty of free games out there) and enjoy the light footed feeling of being a flexible player in a flexible system.

The old school way of thinking

One of the most important points Matthew brings up is the difference between using a rule and making a ruling.

Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling. It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.” The players can describe any action without having to look at a character sheet to see if they “Can” do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens or rolls a die if he thinks there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on.

This is a pretty huge shift from some modern systems. Rather than looking up your “disarm nasty trap” skill to first detect said trap, and then attempt to disarm it, the player instead says something like:

“I look at the floor for any cracks, oddly fitting stones or signs of traps”.

If they have the forethought to say this before aimlessly wandering down a dungeon corridor, they then have a chance to find a trap. Should they find a loose stone, rather than disarming it for an arbitrary amount of experience; they can sidestep it, jam a spike into it, carefully pick it up or soak it in oil and light it up.

In this example, the old school way of thinking has the players using their characters to interact with the gaming world without having to make an arbitrary roll. A roll which, if they are successful at, means that they know without a shadow of a doubt what the corridor contains – a trap, or no trap.

This is the difference between character ability and player skill. A well-played character who is not a rogue should still be able to think critically about that weird crack in the stone floor even if their character doesn’t have a specific skill to do so.

I love this style of play – it’s how we did it when we were kids and it’s led to some of the most memorable sessions we’ve ever had, sessions that we still talk about to this day.

Take for example….

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Recapturing the Magic

One of my earliest clear memories of role playing, in any form, is of running a few friends through an AD&D adventure.  We were 12 years old and having the time of our lives. I know that one of our characters was a 44th level Dwarven Wizard.  I also know that we had access to the most powerful spell we’d ever seen, and it was a second level spell!  We would charge through the dungeons, throwing this spell around like nobody’s business and laying waste to monsters left and right.  It was madness!

I’ll never forget this uber-spell.  It was called Feign Death.

Looking back, I can’t help but have a mental image of a series of well rested, slightly bewildered monsters waking up and looking frantically around for the armed-to-the-teeth party that just tromped through their living room in a threatening manner.   I also can’t help pining for, keenly at times, the sheer, raucous, pure fun we had.

Now that I’m a crusty old RPG player and designer, I have to be hyper-focused on the rules.  I’ve got to check and double check that adding a single mechanic won’t break the entire game or tweaking a class this way or that doesn’t cause the players to fall in to a min/max hell they can’t escape from.  In the rules heavy systems like D&D and Pathfinder, it can sometimes be a ten minute pause to figure out who got staggered and why they weren’t exhausted instead.  There’s a big part of me that misses those earlier times when the rules were there to fall back on if we needed them, but the majority of the game took place with us barely cracking a book open.

We weren’t encumbered by a lot of adult concerns at 12.  Mortgages, car payments, jobs, rules.  None of these were our primary concern.  We simply met at the local library once a week to play a game.  And oh, what a game!

In the space of a few minutes of setting up all of us were transported in to a realm where the only limits were our imagination and the only real problem we had to overcome was a librarian shushing us every 15 minutes or so.  Even that couldn’t dampen our fun.

That others were watching us and scratching their heads, I have no doubt.  Didn’t bug us in the least.  That we missed, misinterpreted or plain old ignored any number of rules and mechanics in the game I also have no doubt.  And I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun gaming as I did in those first years of playing, between the ages of ten and fourteen. Everything was pure storytelling and reacting – we built a world together.  Granted it was a juvenile world filled with things that were very, very cool to 12 year old boys, but it was our world and we were eminently comfortable inhabiting it.

As our group grew and the last of us made it through puberty, we started playing a new system.  I don’t remember which one of us was the first to pick up the books, but by the time I was 13, we were deeply embroiled in a massive campaign using the 1st edition of the Palladium Fantasy RPG.  This was by far the best system I’ve ever played with a group, and it lead to the longest campaign I’ve ever run as well.

Go ahead, take a moment to stop shaking your head, and laugh uncontrollably until you’ve got your breath back.

Mechanically this was not the best system we’ve ever played.  The rules had any number of holes in them, and the game was supremely unbalanced.  And thank goodness for that because if it had been straight up, mechanical  D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder,  we wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun!  If we didn’t like, or as was often the case, couldn’t find a rule, we’d house rule it.  On the fly, with barely a pause.  Unbalanced?  Damn right it was!  That was the point – a 1st level Human Wizard just wasn’t going to survive the same kind of encounter as a 1st level Elf Assassin.

Remember, this is the 1st edition of PFRPG, before such atrocities as MDC had been released on the world, and Glitter Boys were but a twinkle in a game designer’s eye.  Yes, if you rolled a 6 on a d6 during character creation, you could add another die to it.  The charts for stats and bonuses went right up in to 30.  To a group of intelligent thirteen and fourteen year old kids who could now grasp rules but hadn’t quite left that magical existence of being a kid, this was pure awesome.

The heroes in our campaigns (us) were extraordinary in a very literal sense. They could easily overpower the typical peasant.  Kings?  When you’re a 12th level Warlock, Kings are simply people with fancy hats.  Also, the enemies we faced were of the same stripe.  We (as characters) had risen far above the normal mortal existence, and why not?  The Universe needed us to combat those villains who had done the same!  Was it a bit silly?  Actually, no, not in the world we had created.   Did we have an amazing time?  Absolutely.

If the game hadn’t been unbalanced, we wouldn’t have been able to build the amazing characters that we did.  If the system didn’t have a few holes, we would never have learned to plug them on the fly and continue on with the meat of the thing – the story.   In stead, we would have been frequently stopping our joint narrative to look up a rule, find an obscure reference or (horrible of all horribles) try to grapple something.  That would have been a good 30 minutes of two people pouring through books while the rest of us twiddle our thumbs or doodled on our character sheets.

That just about never happened in our games though.  We’d gloss over the bad by making it our own, and the story would continue.  Out of character discussions happened, but far less frequently than they do now, as adults, playing many of the modern systems.   We were closer in spirit to Fiasco than we were to D&D.  I realize there are rules light systems as well, and this may be a prelude to me trying some of these out – and on that note, I’d love to hear your recommendations.

We find that now, for every hour of game play, there is at least 10 minutes of minutia – checking rules, looking up something special about a spell, and what not.  I really feel like we’re missing the total immersion, the complete sense of fun that we had when we could gloss over all of that stuff and not worry about throwing a monkey wrench into the incredibly, delicately balanced systems that we play in now.

To hell with that, I say!  Rules heavy systems have their place, and they can be very fun to play.  As much as can be accounted for is done so within a massive system which anyone can reference at will.  Those are not bad things.  But for now, I’m also going to encourage you to give being a kid again a try.  Play like you’re 12 years old, and you don’t care if anyone is watching you.  Cast aside your minis and maps in favor of pure imagination.  Put your trust in your GM when it comes to where a particular foe is.   If you can’t find that one rule, skip it!  Stay as much in the world you’re creating as you can and get goofy with the amazing things that can happen when the only limit on the game is how far your collective imaginations can stretch.

[tags]rpg, role playing games, puberty, gaming, immersion, rules, mechanics, D&D, pathfinder, palladium[/tags]

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