DMing A Tabletop Game: First Book Post-Mortem

As of the time I'm writing this, I fairly recently completed running "In Hell's Bright Shadow", the first book of the "Hell's Rebels" campaign for the Pathfidner Roleplaying system. This is a retrospective on my involvement with tabletop, my views on the game itself, and how it's helped me better understand game design.


My experience with tabletop RPGs is fairly limited. I started with Warhammer 40K's Dark Heresy back in University back when some of my friends were in a small group. It took some getting used to (it didn't help that I knew next to nothing about the 40K universe at the time), but the experience itself was great and I got some fantastic stories out of it (the butter story, the sacred oil tale, and the self-destroying boss are some of my personal favourites).

Come August 2014, I tried getting back in touch with an old friend of mine from high school, and got invited into a Pathfinder game (Mummy's Mask) that he was running through a site called Roll20. We got to the end of the 2nd book before our party was wiped out, but it definitely made firm my interest in the game. After that, I researched and dabbled with some other systems (5e and Fate primarily), though most of my gaming has been with Pathfinder. According to Roll20, I've clocked just over 700 hours of time in-game. I've played in about 10 games (though only 6 of them got past the first couple sessions).


The System

As I mentioned, Pathfinder has been my primary game system. I had the good fortune of having friends that knew the rules fairly well, because I can safely say that many of the rules for that game are rather opaque. It's generally said that between Pathfinder and D&D 5e, Pathfinder has significantly more content, but also a great deal more bloat in numbers and systems.

Overall, Pathfinder is a great system, and if you have someone willing to guide you, it's a fantastic way to start playing tabletop. It's built on the D&D core, so a lot of its ideas are very classic fantasy and therefore easy to recognise. I've used Hero Lab (another great tool) to make the character creation process easier to deal with. And gradually I've been stepping out of my comfort zone to explore more technically challenging aspects of the game. Notably, I recently started playing my first prepared caster (an arcanist), which is a big leap considering I don't usually play magic users (rogues are more my style).

All that said, as I've played more of the game, some of its flaws are becoming more readily apparent. Combat manoeuvres are something that bother me, since they are implemented in a way that makes them generally much less advantageous compared to just using a standard attack. They require a great number of feats to be usable, and even then they use an additional set of rules that mean the table more often than not has to stop and pull out the rulebook when they occur. Grappling is apparently better than it was in 3.5e, but still requires a flowchart to understand. I remember the first session I ran, one player tried to play a weapon sundering-based character, but the system made this very obtuse and generally less effective than just hitting the guy instead. Considering how cool these sorts of actions are, it strikes me as sad that performing them is so much more difficult.

Another gripe is the feat taxes in general. I played a rogue my first time, and because I invested a lot of time in my character, I really didn't want to let her die. Ranged fighting therefore seemed like the way to go. But it took ages just to make that bow useful. Same with weapon finesse. There are many other "feat taxes" that have been brought to my attention since. Fortunately, most of my DMs have simply used this solution, and it's worked out. Many of my other gripes, such as the limitations on actions, alignment, and the lack of balance for certain classes (notably the rogue and summoner) have been addressed in the Unchained rulebook. Nonetheless, it's a topic I could easily spend an entire day rambling about, so I'll move on.

The Setting

As for Pahfinder's setting, after the first couple games I made a concerted effort to explore the wikis and learn the lore. I was very pleased to find that there was an impressive database of information. There is a lot of good work that has been put into Golarion. The setting is rich and interesting, even if some of the parallels are a bit obvious (Vudra, you mean Fantasy India; Kelesh =Arabia, Osirion = Egypt, and so on). The writers have done a good job of providing ample setting information with which to run the adventure paths, while still having a system that is general enough to not rely on the setting entirely. Plenty of the games I've played are homebrews that do a good job of replacing the setting.

One aspect in particular I've taken an interest in is religion. Pathfinder has an established pantheon with major deities, minor ones, demigods, and everything in between. Lately I've been having a lot of fun reading about them and seeing how the story accounts for the existence of actual gods. In fact, one of my latest projects has been to go through the major pantheon and create "iconic worshiper" characters that represent their assigned core deity's aspects. It's proven to be an excellent character development exercise, and it's led me to produce some rather interesting personalities that also serve as functional characters. Incidentally, expect those to appear on this site some time in the near future.

Hell's Rebels

Hell's Rebels is Pathfinder's first "Chaotic Good" aligned game. It sets players as revolutionaries in the cultural city of Kintargo against the oppressive devil-worshiping Thrune government, that due to an ongoing invasion is getting all the more vicious and totalitarian. I like to simplify it for my players as "you are the French resistance in occupied Paris". The campaign starts off primarily as an intrigue and base building game, then eventually escalates to a full on rebellion and combat. However it's easily the least combat-oriented campaign that I know of.

Prior to this Hell's Rebels being released, I had wondered about DMing a game. However at the time there were no campaigns that really struck me as ones I'd particularly want to run. My greatest interests were political intrigue and an emphasis on tactics and strategy that would not necessarily be combat-oriented. I had actually started developing my own campaign using the Fate system and my Or8Weaver setting with those ideas in mind. However, when I learned of Hell's Rebels, needless to say I jumped on it.

Having now run the first book and read the others, I can say it is definitely my favourite campaign by far out of those I've seen. However it does still have plenty of flaws. There are some instances where the game outright states that there is a right way to go about certain things, and sometimes it conflicts with itself in terms of whether it wants players to be non-combative or not. The game clearly has the idea of allowing for different tactical decisions, but at times it feels as though the system itself doesn't make it particularly viable.

The Game

The Rules

Now, I started my game with a lot of preparation, and with story heavily in mind. I looked into and implemented several variant rules and extras with the intention of making combat smoother and easier (variant action economy and the feat tax fix being the main ones). I gave everyone a custom item that would level up with them as they progressed, the idea being that they would act as a kind of indicator of story progress (I also didn't use XP, for reasons that will be apparent soon). I also tried very hard to ensure that everyone's character fit the campaign and the setting. Because at least two of the people who planned on joining were completely new to Pathfinder, I wrote documents to simplify many rules and aspects of the game, like classes and religions.

All in all, I spent a great deal of time on that prep, but I was careful not to overdo it. I know the rule that players will inevitably mess with your expectations, after all. Most of what I did after that was emergent: I added characters based on quips or funny events that occurred. Eventually, I started writing scripts for dialogue and streamlined the information in the book (because sometimes I had to spend a solid few minutes flipping through pages to find out a small piece of information for a particular room).

The Players

I was prudent about people I didn't know mucking up the game for the others (since I had certainly seen it in the past), so I stuck to people I knew. Most were people I played with previously and people I knew outside of the game. A couple were friends I had who were interested in trying the game for the first time. I was fortunate in that three (later four) of my players knew the rules well, much better than me in fact, so I could rely on them to explain how something worked when need be.

Admittedly, the party did not mesh particularly well initially. Some of them had very different play philosophies, and it resulted in characters and players clashing. Fortunately that has since calmed down for the most part, and as they've gotten used to each other and I've discussed things with them personally it's been largely smoothed over. However it is always a concern.

There was one last factor to mention that I think in hindsight was a mistake on my part: I recruited six players. I learned a bit too late that four players is what Hell's Rebels was built for, and I now understand why some DMs don't allow for more than that. Juggling encounter difficulties to reflect that has been a constant challenge.

Most of the party came in from the upper side of the map and used nonlethal attacks. Hagger took the other route and asked if pools of blood could be considered difficult terrain.

My Experience

Technically speaking, Hell's Rebels is the second game I've been the DM for. Last summer, I briefly ran my Or8 game with a couple friends to test it out and see how I enjoyed DMing in general. It turns out I absolutely loved it, and now that I've gone through a whole book, I can safely say that I genuinely enjoy DMing even more than playing. I suppose that is as good a testament as any for why I want to become a game designer.

I should probably preface that as far as DMs go, I'm extremely lenient. My philosophy is that, at least for this particular game, the characters were more important as figures within a story than as statblocks with which to solve problems. Some dungeon runner games seemed to put more of an emphasis on making optimised characters largely for the purpose of surviving. I didn't want that to be what happened, so I was much more willing to let players twist the rules a bit in order to make adjustments that fit the characters. As a result, I allowed for some rather broken characters (I let someone play a Synthesist Summoner; that should more than explain how lenient I was to anyone familiar with Pathfinder).

As a result of giving the players several boons and allowing for six of them, I found that encounters were rather trivial at first. It led to the first few sessions having a lot of back and forth as I adjusted the difficulty of enemies to account for the team. It's something I still haven't mastered, though I've definitely gotten better at regulating encounters to match the players.

As for how the players have been addressing the game, I'd say it's been bumpy. From the start, players have on a few occasions clashed. I've had players nearly sabotage the efforts of other team members, or kill characters the rest of the group planned on sparing. The term "murder hobos" has come up. However, initially a lot of this had to do with the fact that I did not make the consequences of these actions very clear. It occurred to me that while the book does state that in most cases killing enemies is a bad thing, Pathfinder does conform to the standard game rules of "enemies are things you kill for XP". And even then, some characters, bosses in particular, are stated to fight to the death, and have no details about how to deal with them if they are simply knocked out or captured instead. It's a lack of internal consistency (or at the very least a loophole) within the narrative of the books that I've had to navigate.

One thing this had led to is a lot of improvisation on my part. I've gotten into the habit of claiming to "invoke DM-fudge" in order to simplify rules. Given the way I run my game (which involves actively encouraging less traditional means of dealing with problems and using tactics and the environment), I fudge a great deal. Often times when discussing the game with my players, I'll mention some aspects that I've altered, and they find themselves agreeing that they preferred this method for the most part (usually because it's in they're favour, if I'm to be fair).

What I've Learned

The main takeaway that I have from this game is just the extent to which players subvert expectations. Not only in terms of the players versus the game itself, but also relative to each other. Team dynamics are often complex and illogical, and when they are presented with a loose set of rules, it can often lead to chaos.

I find myself bouncing between giving players more agency and less. In the first book of this campaign, there are a multitude of missions that can be completed in any order. However, I found myself having to limit this, since I couldn't fully craft each encounter for them to all be ready from the start. Were I to redo this game, perhaps I could, but given my player's feedback, it seemed like something more linear would have been preferred. In fact, since I've started scripting scenes and sequences, players seem much more willing to go along with my story and at least attempt to follow what they believe to be the ideal path. I think it largely had to do with the fact that no one wants to "lead" the party and make decisions about how to proceed for all of them.

Now, I don't know if I could say it's convinced me that linear narratives are better. I am still more inclined towards giving players choice when I can, and hard railroading still strikes me as bad practice. However some of these factors may be circumstantial to this campaign (after all, the game itself seems to suggest a correct or ideal path), so I've tried to consider what my experience means in context. What I've determined is that while choice is generally beneficial for players since it gives them agency, it has to be very clearly outlined, and the consequences have to be evident from the very beginning. Moreover, this is rendered even more important than usual the more players you have working together.

Those statements are of course self-evident when stated out loud, but it's amazing how often their forgotten or not fully appreciated. I'm guilty of that myself. But with this game, I'm getting better at learning how to recognise good and bad game gameplay decisions of that kind.

Another important lesson is the importance of balancing challenges for the player. Between balancing the player's equipment and levels, as well as the enemies they face, I've created many instances of "enemy AI" that I built to challenge the players without being unfair. I got into the habit of rolling enemy dice manually rather than in roll20, so that I can decide when to adjust the numbers (mainly to avoid the enemy getting a nat20 on a character and killing them off on a fluke). It's made me appreciate the significance of randomisation in games.

I play Warframe at a high tier so I'm acutely familiar with farming and "RNG". There's obviously a balance between giving players moments of gratification at achieving an unlikely success and presenting frustrating lack of success due to consequences they can't control. Evidently giving players perfect odds of success can lack engagement, but make it too hard and it's just annoying. So I've taken to putting much more of an emphasis on "circumstantial modifiers" as a way of balancing that out. Things like small bonuses for using an environmental factor, or planning ahead, or even simply based on how well the party is doing. I could easily see that as translating to "enemies do less damage when a player loses most of their health in a single attack" in some games. Honestly, it's a concept I think many games would benefit from.

Evidently, all of that is part of a game designer's normal job. It's a balance that needs to be found and struck, and it's unique to every game (and never quite perfect). What Pathfinder so far has been teaching me is how to do it on the spot. It's sharpening my instincts and in the process showing me the kind of designer I am. I understand my biases, my habits, where I need to reinforce my skills and where my desires as a designer can conflict with a player. For those reasons, I consider this experience invaluable (and very fun, for that matter), and look forward to continuing on with it as part of my journey to become as great a designer as I can be.

A Note On Fate

I mentioned it briefly, but I feel like I should mention it a bit more. Fate is quite simply my favourite tabletop system I've ever encountered. It's significantly more free-form than many other games, and allows for the sort of gameplay experiences you simply don't find in a more rigid system like Pathfinder. It does so by stripping down a lot of the numerical complexity and putting an emphasis on player and DM generated content.

Evidently its greatest drawback is that it requires a lot of creativity on the part of the DM and the players. The rules are vague, so people have to resort to just saying what they want to do, and the DM determining what sort of roll that translates to. It's also heavily skewed against players who want a more structured system. That said, for a designer like me, It's ideal, because it's pretty much all fudge. The core is so basic that from there, anything can be crafted by the DM, and the sorts of dynamic adjustments I was mentioning before are a matter of course. I think that in the one instance that I tested out DMing a Fate game, it taught me a great deal about how players act when given very little guidance. It results in something that's a lot more organic and fluid, and by observing those trends, it becomes much easier to build more sophisticated mechanics, rather than constructing a whole lot to begin with and watching it crumble when players break expectations with what they want to do.

Honestly, I would strongly recommend trying many different types of systems out. Each has their own unique traits that make them a very different experience. It's easy to think of all tabletop RPGs as being fundamentally the same, and to a degree it's somewhat true. But the slightest nuances in how each system is approached makes a huge difference, and understanding the implications of these decisions is a very compelling thing for any designer.