Wednesday 20 February 2013

Random Urban Encounters

Running a roleplaying game is not the easiest of activities. Gamemasters have to keep track of a lot of small details, as well as the big picture. They need to track names, personalities, and motivations for numerous NPCs. For many of those NPCs, they’ll also need at least some basic statistics. They also need to keep track of locations, treasures, and a whole bunch of other things I’m probably forgetting right at this moment. And while some GMs are better at winging things than others, they all have to put in quite a bit of preparation before any game session—and those with limited time will often rely on various published game products to cut down on that preparation time as much as possible.

But PCs will always manage to do unexpected things. No matter how much preparation GMs put in, there will always come a time when they need something spur of the moment—when the PCs decide to abandon their quest to go find a druid to reincarnate their dead friend, for example, or when they decide to go to a different city than they were originally heading for. Also, sometimes GMs just decided on the spur of the moment that they need add a little change of pace. Whatever the reason, at times like these, GMs need some sort of encounter to present to their player characters. This will often result in rolling on a random encounter table, or simply opening up the Bestiary or the NPC Codex and choosing something randomly to show up at that moment. As this is a spur of the moment creation, these encounters usually end up as combats, since the GM doesn’t need to worry too much about backstories and motivations in this case.

But random combat encounters can get dull if there are too many of them, especially when there’s no real backstory behind them or reason for them to be there (other than to provide the PCs with a few experience points). This is where a product like Random Urban Encounters from Raging Swan Press comes in useful. Written by Ben Armitage and Creighton Broadhurst, it presents eight encounters for urban settings for low-level parties between levels 1 and 6. All of them are short encounters that can be easily inserted into any other ongoing campaign. Random Urban Encounters is written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is published under the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Compatibility License.

I haven’t previously reviewed any non-Paizo Pathfinder products, and I wanted to point out that this isn’t out of any dislike or disdain for other companies. I have encountered an attitude amongst some gamers before that if a product isn’t published by the game’s primary publisher, then it is automatically inferior to products that are. I’ve always considered this a very unfair attitude to take. It’s true that in the early days of Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons, when the Open Gaming License (OGL, under which Pathfinder itself is published) and D20 License were first introduced, there was a glut of products published, most of them rather bad. But that glut calmed down over time as people realized that publishing secondary products under the D20 License was not a workable get-rich-quick scheme. Nowadays, people publishing under the OGL and Pathfinder Compatibility License are generally accomplished game designers with a genuine love and mastery of the game. That doesn’t mean that every product is going to be the greatest thing ever (personal taste will always ensure this, no matter how well-crafted something may be), but there are a lot of very good and useful third-party products out there.

Random Urban Encounters is the first product from Raging Swan that I’ve read and based upon it, I’m certainly interested in taking a look at some of their other offerings as well. This is not a book of random encounter tables as its name might imply. Instead, these are just a selection of unrelated encounters that can be used in place of a roll on one of those (let’s face it, rather boring) encounter tables in other books. Each encounter is one or two pages long and contains an overview of the situation, details on the NPCs involved (including background, personality, and distinguishing characteristics, as well as stat blocks), and relevant information about the location. Some of the encounters may not seem the most inspired or creative, but that’s not really a concern. This book accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: provide gamemasters with quick ready-to-run and easy-to-use encounters. The layout of the book is professional, straight-forward, and easy to read. There is only a limited amount of black-and-white artwork, but this is not something that in any way bothered me.

The best part of Random Urban Encounters is that there is a good deal of variety in the different encounters. These aren’t just combat encounters (although combat is certainly a possibility in each of them). All the NPCs have personalities and motivations, and are more than just people trying to rob or kill the PCs. Every encounter includes information on how PCs can resolve the situation using skills like Diplomacy or Intimidate. “Double Dealings” involves a slightly corrupt security force using excessive force against a fence, with the PCs caught in the middle. “Ghouls in the Graveyard” is pretty much exactly what its title suggests it is, while “’Ware the Wererat” is almost a little mini-adventure in itself.

Some of the encounters are less defined, and are more just a selection of personalities that can be used (and re-used) in a multitude of different ways. “Law and Order: The Taxman”, for example, presents two different taxmen that GMs can spring against their PCs at any given time, allowing for a style of encounter that I suspect very few players have ever actually experienced. Taxes may get mentioned from time to time, but how many PCs have ever actually had to pay taxes on the treasure they’ve found? “Law and Order: The Watch” provides characters to fill out local town guards and watches. “Thieves, Cutthroats and Pickpockets” is similar to the two “Law and Order” encounters, but instead of presenting specific personalities, it presents advice and scenarios (including “distractions”) for handling these more common types of urban encounters. There are, of course, generic stat blocks for GMs to use as well.

My favourite encounter is definitely “For the Birds!” This encounter takes a fairly standard pickpocketing encounter (in this case with a group of tengu) and turns it into a chase using the chase rules from the GameMastery Guide. I like the chase rules and have received very positive responses to their use in my games, but one downside is that they require a fair amount of preparation. And considering that chases often happen spontaneously, this can be a very major impediment to the chase rules’ use. I know I’ve had occasions in the past when I’ve wanted to have the PCs’ enemies try to run away, but have instead opted for simple surrender because running away would be just too awkward and complicated to play out. “For the Birds!” helps overcome this problem with the chase rules by providing a ready-made chase complete with obstacle cards, saving GMs a lot of preparation time. Best of all, these particular obstacle cards can be easily used for any urban chase, not just the one with the tengu here. By mixing them up a bit and perhaps combining them with cards from other sources, GMs can be better able to handle those situations that show up without prior warning.

One small problem with Random Urban Encounters is that none of the encounters includes a map. For most of the encounters, this really isn’t a problem. The “Law and Order” encounters can take place anywhere, so a map with these would be pointless, and “Double Dealings” takes place in a generic enough location that GMs can improvise a quick battle map without difficulty. However, encounters like “Ghouls in the Graveyard” and “Shop ‘Til You Drop” have slightly more detailed locations and each could have benefited from having a small map. That said, each encounter does contain information about the area’s features, including helpful rules reminders (such as areas of dim lighting providing a 20% miss chance, and how to handle moving through crowds), making the lack of a map less of a problem. I know there are some people for whom the lack of maps will be a deal-breaker, but personally, I find it a minor annoyance at worst.

Another thing I noticed about Random Urban Encounters is that, with the exception of an 8-year-old girl in “Shop ‘Til You Drop”, none of the NPCs are female. The tax collectors are all men, the watch are all men, all the antagonists are male, and so are all the victims. The generic stat blocks in “Thieves, Cutthroats and Pickpockets” do not list a sex, which is good, as they should be able to be either male or female, but the lack of other female characters in the other encounters is somewhat striking. I highly doubt this was a conscious decision on the part of the authors—more likely it was a case of male oversight—but it is something that the authors would do well to take note of so they can aim for more inclusivity in future products (and for all I know, not having yet read any other works by these authors or other works from Raging Swan, this may well be a one-time aberration and not an indication of their normal output).

From the “crunch” side of things, a couple things caught my eye. First off, to indicate their difficulty, all the encounters use encounter level (EL), which is a term that is no longer in use in Pathfinder, but is rather a holdover from 3.5. Pathfinder now uses just challenge rating (CR) to indicate both the difficulty of an individual monster and the difficulty of a full encounter rather than using two separate terms. This is something that people familiar with Third Edition D&D probably won’t even notice (indeed, I missed it on my initial read-through and only noticed it when going back over a couple of things); however people who started playing with the Pathfinder rules might be a little confused. That said, it’s pretty straight-forward and not likely to cause any real problems.

Second, the book (and I’ll presume other Raging Swan products) uses a slightly different layout for the stat blocks, and I have to say, I think most of the changes made are improvements on the official stat block layout used by Paizo. For example, the initiative and senses line lists the character’s Sense Motive as well as Perception. This is something I’ve actually been doing in my own home-made stat blocks for a long time, and I’m glad to see others have had the same idea. While characters don’t use Sense Motive quite as often as Perception, Sense Motive is still a skill that sees frequent use, especially as, like Perception, it is used for many opposed rolls. Also, the stat block moves CMD up to the defence section and lists it with AC—a much more logical place for it than near the bottom of the stat block where it’s hard to find. While this different stat block might seem a bit odd at first glance, it works very well, and the back of the book does contain a page describing the stat blocks to help avoid any confusion regarding the differences.

Overall, Random Urban Encounters is a highly useful book that does exactly what it sets out to do. It makes GMs’ jobs easier by removing some of the pressures of spur-of-the-moment encounters. It’s inexpensive as well, making it easy to fit into just about any budget. The lack of maps might bother some people, and its all-male cast is something of a concern, but otherwise it is well worth the purchase. “For the Birds!” has already made me look forward to springing a seemingly spontaneous chase on my unsuspecting PCs sometime soon.

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