Speak With Dead

The dead will not always give you clear answers

In part one, you saw how spell details can inspire encounters. In part two today, we continue to walk through the plight of poor Halcos and who the PCs’ enemies plot to prevent them from casting Speak With dead. We also offer tips on how spells can help you design game worlds and regions.

We have covered the first of a series of steps I run through when mining spells for game play: determine limitations. Let’s pick up with step 2.

2. Guess PC actions

We have gone through the spell rules to determine what options the game world (aka reality) presents the PCs and NPCs. Lots of interesting ideas and tactical options there.

Next, I try to guess what the PCs will do. I split this into two parts:

  1. What will the players do?
  2. What will the players have their characters do?

Question #1 lies at the meta-game level. As a fair GM, NPCs only ever act on information they have at hand with the abilities and resources at their disposal. For example, a stupid NPC will not make chess-like moves against the PCs. An aggressive NPC will not take a subtle approach unless properly counseled.

In this case, the NPC leader, a Crime Lord in Riddleport, is smarter than me and has many wise voices whispering in his ear (wise in the ways of magic and war). To make up for my lack, I use meta-gaming to game NPCs smarter than me.

First thing the enemy does is cast divination spells to determine the best or most likely course of action. In-game, I rule that it lets me make decisions about NPC decisions after knowing what actions the PCs take.

Because I am a geek GM, I like to play such scenes out in my head while driving or killing time elsewhere. I will make dice rolls, if needed, when I get the chance. And, I make notes about the results so I do not forget.

I know I could give NPCs the best in all things (stats, equipment, resources, knowledge, decisions) but I like to simulate things out. Mega-NPCs are boring to GM, are uninteresting, and frustrate players.

However, to roleplay and game genius NPCs and NPCs with more resources than I have, I meta-game to simulate their abilities.

My players prefer direct action over subtlety. During debates, chances are good at least one player will make his character jump into action, deciding the situation through impulse. (It is always tough getting consensus, or being subtle-by-committee, so this is no mark again my players, it’s just the current group dynamic).

In this case then, knowing my players, they will most likely take Halcos to the Temple of Dreams for a casting. They will go as a group, and put Halcos in a sack or just over a shoulder to carry his body around. They might do this at night. They will suspect an ambush, but because each day is filled with so much activity, they will hold off on spells and temporary buffs, holding out for an emergency.

3. Turn limitations into tactics

Step three, we have already done. When doing this by myself, I read the spell, skill or game rules for whatever is in play, then think about my players and their PCs, then start writing down ideas for tactics.

However, in this blog post, I went over the tactics in step one when exploding out the spell details to share my thought processes.

The most likely enemy tactics will be:

  • Cast divination magic for counsel
  • Spy on the PCs
  • Ambush the PCs en route to the Temple of Dreams
  • Find out where Halcos’ body lies
  • Cast Animate Dead, Speak With Dead or any other spell that mitigates Halcos talking to the PCs
  • Destroy Halcos’ body
  • Buy off or coerce the Temple of Dreams to prevent their services to the PCs
  • Find leverage to arrange an exchange – Halcos for a hostage, key information, or large sum of money

Just thought of another tactic: disguise a priest as a Temple of Dreams cleric and have him go drinking at the PCs’ home base – the Silver Chalice Inn. The PCs spot him, think how lucky they are, and take the priest to Halcos. The priest then casts Animate Dead.

The enemy priest would need to disguise his alignment and have an escape plan.

An Amulet of Proof against Detection and Location would offer some protection against Detect Evil spells and abilities.

Better yet, an Undetectable Alignment spell offers more robust coverage.

Escape is trickier, as Halcos is likely stored somewhere in the Silver Chalice (he’s actually in the cold room in the cellar, but the enemy does not know this), a clear escape route is possible (jump out a window or run out a door) but not if the cleric gets cornered.

So, I need a diversion. A henchman will also be drinking at the Chalice. When the priest is picked up by the PCs and taken to Halcos, the henchman will give the signal through the tavern room window to ambushers hiding invisibly across the street. On the signal, they wait 30 seconds and charge in.

The cleric knows he has roughly a 30 count to stall and cast his Animate Dead spell. When Halcos awakes as a zombie, the priest will tell the PCs it is Halcos’ spirit come to life to answer their questions. Hopefully, at that time, the diversion starts and the PCs rush downstairs.

I will also repurpose all these NPCs to form an ambush party in case the PCs go mobile.

4. Convert into details

Next, interpret these parameters to what NPCs and PCs would experience in game. What would people in the game world know about this stuff either from experience, stories or consulting experts?

World details

Back to the spell description – I like to imagine how it becomes reality to the game world inhabitants. To commoners, for example, they would likely not distinguish or even be aware of such magics as Speak With Dead…. Unless it was a service offered by temples:

  • “Speak with your loved ones for guidance and peace of mind.”
  • Estates and wills: get it right from the source who gets what
  • Criminal investigations, especially murder
  • Service to ancestors – the dead who cannot find each other in the afterlife could get on a conference call through temple priests

These services and more could either be a valuable and good service to society, or a cash cow, depending on the ethos of the temples.

In Riddleport, the Crime Lords have power. I think they would say “dead is dead.” Which is code for, do not stick your nose where it don’t belong.

In other areas of Golarion, Speak With dead might be well known and valued, but in Riddleport, it is forbidden (except to Crime Lord, of course).

As Riddleport has a busy port, many foreigners would come and go. So, I would say Speak With Dead is uncommonly known, but spoken about in hushed tones else an informant might overhear and a Crime Lord gives them grief.

However, Riddleport being the kind of city it is, for every forbidden thing an underground economy exists. That means mid-level thugs would known about Speak With Dead as a service you could pay for if you keep your mouth shut and pay well. That knowledge would slowly seep into the streets.

The purpose of this step is to provide flavour, clues and options to your game by roleplaying the rules in your head as part of world building. It is too late for me to sew the seeds of Speak With Dead in my campaign, but you could start doing it now.

I am armed for future encounter seeds and flavour, though. The PCs can brush up against Speak With Dead now that it’s been embedded in my world a bit better.

Encounter details

Spell rules turned into details help flesh out and govern encounters. (They could also spawn campaigns and adventures, if used right.)

I play a game with rules. Pathfinder is tactical and rules-heavy. Therefore, I play within the rules. When I played D&D 1E and 2E, I hand-waved a lot of stuff. When I play FUDGE or some other rules-light system, I did not use rules or this type of thinking.

For rules-heavy systems such as D&D 3+, Pathfinder, GURPS, and Rolemaster, however, rules are excellent seeds for encounters, which is really what this post is all about.

The spell parameters dictate PC and NPC options. You turn those options into plans and actions. Those actions become encounters if triggered.

Actions within encounters are further influenced by spell details. Casting time and range are huge factors in this particular case. The NPCs have to get close to Halcos. One option requires them to linger for 10 minutes. Another option requires them to be around for at least two rounds of combat.

For flavour, I also think about the casting process and how that looks, sounds and smells. Sometimes I can convert that to boxed-text or ad-libbed description, which makes gameplay fun and deep.

5. Determine the cost

I do not give NPCs free rides. They do not have unlimited resources. Neither do the PCs.

So, I take a minute to figure out how much various tactics and options might cost.

As a rule of thumb:

  • Cheap = many uses
  • Moderate = specialized uses
  • Expensive = highly specialized uses

The greater the expense, the more important a situation must be for an NPC to expend the needed resources on it. In this case, the situation is important but not dire. If the PCs do get information out of Halcos, the enemy can try to eliminate the PCs. So, much budget is Moderate.

The enemy has spell casters on their team. No cost there. The spell components incur no extra cost. Flunkies are already getting paid, and no special talent is required. Turns out, this is a Cheap endeavour for the enemy.

The PCs will either pay for the casting or come to some kind of arrangement with the Temple of Dreams (my preference, because favour owed = future quests and encounter hooks). The cost is Moderate for them.

The end cost questions are, who can afford their intended actions, and at what cost do they come?

For this situation, PCs and their foes can continue along without any cost barriers. Further, the expenses involved are not enough to modify tactics or bring in new tactics.

Best case for a campaign like this is a tactic costs so much the PCs must take additional action. “This spell is more than we can afford, so let’s go out and get the extra money somehow.” Enter more plot hooks onto the stage!

6. Embed into your world

For any spell, ask these questions:

  • What problems could it solve?
  • What pleasures could it bring?
  • How could it be used to gain power (social, resources, wealth, political, authority, physical)?
  • How could it be put to evil use?
  • How could it be put to good use? How could it be used to help the poor and weak?
  • What side effects or consequences does the spell cause (economic, military, political, cultural)?

We already discussed world details, but I did this in passing while working at the campaign and encounter level.

It is always good to step back and look at the larger picture to help your world building. Spells offer a unique element in fantasy games to make worlds unique. Use implications of spells and magic to prevent your world suffering from Star Trek rubber mask syndrome.

Take any game world book and open its table of contents. Pick a spell. Run each item in the contents against your spell to see how your world or region could be shaped a bit differently.

Creatures are emotional, imperfect, irrational, and surprising. You have a lot of leeway with that fact to create interesting interpretations, reactions, and uses of any spell to spin off unique cultures and regions.

7. Bonus: generate encounter seeds

This whole post has been about how the enemy will react to the death of someone who has too much knowledge. All this thinking and planning will result in actions, which will result in at least one encounter.

Giving a spell the treatment we have given Speak With Dead should also give ideas for future plots and encounters. Make note of these in your ideas book for future reference and inspiration.

A quick trick is to take the PCs out of the picture and replace them with NPCs. What will happen if NPCs and their enemy get into the same bind? How could the PCs get caught up in all the machinations and ensuing events?

Another trick is to recycle your plans. What if this happens again? You’ll be able to react much faster, possibly taking NPC actions with all this thinking and planning already informing their plans.

And what if this happens again, but just between NPC factions? The PCs, having already been through a similar situation, will enjoy using their hard-won knowledge. They will roleplay and take actions with the glee of experience.

A third trick is to mess with scale. In this case, what if this is either a common occurrence or situation, or is becoming one? Who will step in to make a profit, difference, or power play?

Give it a try

This process seems at first glance long and complicated. However, that’s just because of my long rambling about it. After a few times, it becomes fast. Just run through the steps in your head:

  1. Determine limitations
  2. Guess PC actions
  3. Turn limitations into tactics
  4. Turn limitations into details
  5. Determine the cost
  6. Embed into your world
  7. Bonus: generate encounter seeds

You can defer Steps #6 and #7 if you have little planning time available between sessions. The first five steps become fun and fast, especially as your rules knowledge grows, if you play a rules-heavy game.

I asked Mike for advice on helping me learn the Pathfinder rules. This technique with spells is another fine way to get on top of your game system.

How have spells changed your world?

What about you? Any memorable moments in games caused by spells?

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