FlexTale Encounter Generator 1.0 (PFRPG/5e)
The FlexTale Encounter Generator 1.0 clocks in at 92 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages colophon (including backer thanks), 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page information about the studio, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 85 pages of content- 5 of these pages include some explanations of concepts Infinium Game Studios books use, including explanations of boxed text colors, etc. – which are, for this book, less relevant, and probably here for the sake of the book template, and to establish the notion of 4 different general power-levels, as indicated by differently-colored icons. An icon with a red box with white swords indicates the highest level version, while a white one with black swords indicates the lowest level one; this is effective, and lets you quickly discern the proper content.
This leaves us with 80 pages of FlexTale-relevant material, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Okay, so the first thing you need to know about FlexTale is, that it is a TOOL for the GM; this is not a book you’ll read from cover to cover, but it is one you’ll actively use at the table. While penned for PFRPG’s 1st edition, the book is functionally almost system neutral and retains most of its functionality regardless of system used. If you want to see what this book can do in action, Dark Obelisk II: The Mondarian Elective makes ample use of it. While the book is billed for 5e as well as Pathfinder’s 1st edition, it should be noted that, for the purpose of the weapon/armor-sections, the book does not provide a scarcity level like uncommon, rare, etc. – if you are using this with 5e, you might be better off considering it as system agnostic, as the book was clearly designed based on PFRPG.
But what is the idea here? Well, know how randomized treasure tables in RPGs tend to be singular experiences? Well, the system proposes so-called “contexts” for everything, from NPC interaction to research, to loot. FlexTale generally presents 4 such contexts to roll on, with a module or GM determining the appropriate context: The sample example takes a wizard’s chest, and establishes contexts based on the attitude of the wizard to the PCs: A hostile or indifferent wizard’s chest may well hold a cursed reward, while a helpful wizard’s wouldn’t.
This might seem odd at first from the GM’s side, but it makes a surprising amount of sense and actually puts MORE mechanical agenda in the PC’s hands; an example not taken from this book might illustrate this better, and that is gathering information: Just randomly looking for clues yields context A, pointed and more specialized inquiries yield another context. You still roll as a GM on the context column of the respective table, so there is still the factor of chance, though it is a more finely curated and relevant one.
In order to properly explain what this book does, let you consider an average dungeon room. In function, it behaves very much like something from a point and click adventure game: There are fixed dimensions and interaction points, areas that trigger certain responses. Much like in an adventure game, the very medium in which it is presented, is subject to limitations. Due to constraints on both wordcount and time of the author, it is not feasible to e.g. describe the contents of all 8 barrels inside, right? This is where the potential problem comes in. If the contents of such a barrel are irrelevant, the module will not differentiate between the barrels, and state that they hold the same content, perhaps brush it off with a general notion. “The crates contain moldy sheets.” “The barrels contain spices worth 50 gp each.” That’s functional and efficient, right? Okay, so what if the module’s plot hinges to a degree on e.g. one of the barrels containing an exotic spice, perhaps being laced with poison? Suddenly, there will be more information given by the adventure, and more information relayed by the GM. In the context of a point and click adventure, we would probably get a zoomed-in screen of the barrel in question, but probably not of the others – the constraints of the medium, whether wordcount or time of the designer, limit this aspect. If it’s not relevant what herb there is inside, it’ll just be “medicinal herbs”, right? On the other side, if there’s a werewolf stalking the region, a shipment of belladonna would spark interest and be called out.
This issue in the “zoom-factor” of interaction points may not be something that most players consciously think about, but it’s one of the things that happen regardless. An experienced player will perk their ears when a GM starts describing the contents of a container, the herbs strung up in a witch’s cottage, in detail, as opposed to the use of the general term. In a way, there is a basic kind of spoiler by experience, a kind of unconscious metagaming going on. After all, even the best of GMs and adventure-writer will not spend their time and wordcount describing in detail every little thing, right? That’s neither helpful, nor compelling, and thus, we have found a limitation of the medium of table-top roleplaying games that has been accepted as system-immanent. To be precise: I am NOT talking about the macro-level: Raging Swan Press’ superb dressing books allow for the creation of compelling landscapes and dungeon dressing that help make these areas feel alive.
No, I am talking about the fine details that may or may not spoil an investigation. When it comes to the small tidbits, to the treasure found, to the goods? More often than not, it is a GM’s responsibility to generate details for these aspects on the fly, and that is a task few would relish in. Heck, I am as OCD as they get regarding the plausibility of a world and environment, and yet, I have never felt the urge to rectify this “zoom-in problem.” And, at least according to my experiences as a reviewer, I haven’t seen any other book trying to do that either. Everyone just accepts this as one of the concessions that must be made for the medium.
Well, turns out that not “everyone” accepted this seemingly intrinsic limitation – J. Evans Payne, with his extremely detail-oriented vision wasn’t happy with it, not content to just make the GM take care of that. Enter FlexTale.
We get tables. Tables upon tables, and all with 4 contexts. For the purpose of this book, the default context is A; if the players had a negligible challenge to get to it, it’s context B; if the party had to face a great challenge, it’s context C, and if the party seems disinterested, it’s context D. Sizes of a haul, where relevant, are swift and easy to determine: Small makes you roll once, and use the result; medium makes you roll 1d4 times, doubling the given value; Large makes you roll 2d6 times, quadrupling the numerical value.
The book then proceeds to provide 28 such tables. To illustrate how this works in practice, let’s say the PCs open a container containing simple foodstuff/spices. You roll a d%, and get a 77. If you use context A (default), the PCs will find rosemary (1d6 lbs., 1 gp each). If you use context B (negligible challenge), they’ll instead find saffron (1d6-2 lbs, 15 gp each, good chance of finding nothing). If the PCs had to face a greater challenge, and you’re using context C, they’ll find lots of potatoes (4d20, priced at 2 cp each); in the “not interested” context D, the PCs will find turnips (5d12 lbs., 2 cp per lb.). This illustrates the utility of the system, but also a minor issue in it: From a pure design-perspective, context C should have yielded better results than B, but didn’t. That being said, the table as a whole makes sense: The context C has greater chances of providing more valuable yield than the one provided for context B.
Let’s take a gander at another example, the writing supplies table. We rolled a 36 on the d%. For the default context, we get an inkpen, including value noted. For context B we also get an inkpen – in this table, that’s the entry for 27-50; same for context D (33-57 here). For Context C, however, we get invisible ink of superior quality – an entry that can only be found in context A and C; contexts B and D don’t ever yield this result. Value is provided for these entries, in case you were wondering. This system has a surprising depth, and sizes are noted individually for the respective tables. It also allows you to zoom in farther than usual. Regarding glass, metal and ore, we have a proper write-up of obelisk-tainted ore and its taint as a general property.
It should be noted that the book’s tables also sometimes differentiate between the 4 different power-levels of the PCs – for coin treasure, the higher entries on the table differentiate between suitable treasure for the 4 general level-categories; on a 100 on a d% using context A, a 2nd level party would e.g. find 3d20 gp, 1d12 x 10 sp, 1d20 x 100 cp.; the same group, at the highest levels, would instead find 1d20 x 100 pp and 5d20 x 500 gp. It should be noted that this also holds true for all 4 gem tables. Yep. 4 gem tables. Somewhat to my chagrin, there is one pretty bad glitch here: The very second table, the one for rations and prepared food, is actually missing: A gaping hole of half-blank page is all that is here. This sort of stuff REALLY should have been caught. Thankfully, it’s the only table missing, but one missing table is bad enough.
It should be noted that there is a general supplies table as well, and that it points towards some more specific tables in some entries. If anything, I LOVE this engine. I mean it. It is deeply satisfying for my more compulsive behavior patterns to be able to reference this amount of detail at the throw of a die, and the potential for expansion, not only of the individual tables, but of the master-system as a whole, is VAST. The engine could carry a whole lot more than what has been provided in this 1.0-version.
Of course, the book also provides tables for more traditional “adventurer-relevant” treasure like weapons and armor. The global table denotes whether you roll on light, simple, ranged, martial one-handed or two-handed, or on the exotic weapon table.
And this is where my previous warning announcement regarding 5e becomes relevant: If you object to Pathfinder’s weapon categories being used in 5e, then this might be problematic for you. Same goes for weapon types. The 2-handed martial weapon table can, for example, yield a bec de corbin, or a horsechopper, and it differentiates between a glaive and a glaive-guisarme, which 5e per default does not do. (And there obviously are no exotic weapons in 5e, which would necessitate that items in that table be categorized as simple or martial in 5e. In short: For 5e, immediate functionality is somewhat diminished. This also extends to the prices of the regular items in some instances. Take the bullseye lantern –per the 5e PHB, it’s 10 gp; per this book, it’s 12 gp. Hooded lantern? 5gp per PHB, 7 gp per this book. In case you were wondering: The prices in this book are the ones for the PFRPG-items. Most groups won’t mind this, but it certainly is something to bear in mind when using this with 5e. This also holds true for enhancement bonuses: While PFRPG’s magic item creation engine provides a direct correlation between item enhancement and abilities, 5e has decoupled these to a degree; as such, the tables providing enhancement bonuses for weaponry, armor, etc. have a more limited utility for 5e games.
This becomes more obvious still when taking a look at the lock-tables, which note not only their hardness and hp, but also 4 Break and Disable Device DCs, with each sporting a randomization element: Let’s say, we rolled 82 on Context B of the table, and the PCs are of 8th level: We take the second of the 4 values, which lists the Break DC as 12 +1d8, the Disable Device DC as 14 +1d8. Of course, this is not at all how 5e handles locks and breaking them – no damage threshold is provided. On the other side, the DCs to open the locks remain very much feasible in 5e, while the DCs quickly become automatic successes in PFRPG. Which high level (16+) PFRPG-rogue would even have to roll to beat a DC of 18 +1d6, for example? The highest Disable Device DC can be found on stronghold doors, and clocks in at DC 29 +1d8, which is something well-built rogues can routinely beat at the mid levels. And that’s the extreme end, mind you.
So yeah, as far as the quadding concept is concerned, this book has not managed to win me over; my observation that the automatic progression breaks apart at the 3rd statblock, at the very latest, still holds true here. This also holds true regarding the traps (which drop any pretense of working with 5e in mind); while these generally work and e.g. list their damage types MOST of the time, two, the acid needle and arsenic needle, are WEIRD. They e.g. list: “Atk 10 +1d8 melee and melee touch (2d6 plus arsenic).” The ardent reader will have noticed the absence of a damage type noted here (which previous traps did have); furthermore, and attack can’t be “melee and melee touch” – it’s either or, and this verbiage implies two attacks! To further underline my point regarding the quadding-scaling for these not working properly in PFRPG: The Perception DC to notice such a trap is 10+1d6 for the lowest levels, DC 16 +1d8 for the highest levels. As noted: the first two power tiers kinda work, the higher two…don’t.
In summary for this section of the book: The 5e-implementation is problematic, and the quadded concept tends to hamstring the combat-relevant aspects in the higher tiers for PFRPG; this is a significant issue – but it does not invalidate the enormous utility the system provides regarding its ability to simulate the micro-level; the issues are in the mechanical details and the assertion of trying to cater to two systems that diverge greatly in assumed player character power-curve, which would be impossible in a regular file, the problems exacerbated by the quadded challenges and high-level scaling not working properly for PFRPG.
The second part of the book deals with random encounters: It provides a global table to determine the direction from which the encounter comes, and whether or not they have surprise or are surprised, and one more table to determine the source of the creatures. The book presents a total of 10 such extensive tables, once more with quadded challenges. This section does refer to creatures such as dracolisks and dullahans once in a while, so while the majority should yield no problem in either gaming system, PFRPG groups will have 0 work here, while 5e-groups might need to find or make some builds for a few of the more obscure creatures. Still, as a whole, this works pretty well. As a downside, these tables are not necessarily global – they are tables for Dark Obelisk II, and limited to thematically-adjacent environments.
Editing and formatting is, as a whole, better than you’d expect from a one-man-operation – much better. That being said, a whole table missing is a glitch that should have most definitely been caught. Layout adheres to the 2-column/1-column two-column standard in full-color, with artworks being suitable public-domain photographs; there are a few pages wherr there is more blank real-estate than I enjoy seeing. The book comes in two pdf-versions: The regular one comes fully bookmarked; the printer-friendly one has a white background, but no bookmarks. As the books make use of color to indicate contexts, tables, etc., I do not recommend printing it in b/w. My hardcover is a solid little book, with name and icon properly noted on the spine – you can easily pull it out of your GM-shelf at one glance.
FlexTale’s 1.0 Version has me more torn than pretty much any book I’ve read in a long, long while.
In an ironic twist, the book has different issues for both PFRPG and 5e.
For 5e, the issues lie in rules mechanics simply not being catered to – it can be used for 5e, but so can OSR or 13th Age books. This is a PFRPG supplement in many ways, in the items referenced, in the name of potions found, etc. In PFRPG, the issue is an old one: The quadded approach for challenge-related content (traps, items, armor, etc.) simply does scale appropriately for PFRPG –you can essentially ignore the entries for the higher two iterations, because they are ridiculously low for PFRPG. Heck, high-level DCs can end up in a range that I’ve seen in modules for low levels adventures. Ironically, the bounded accuracy paradigm of 5e means that it works better than PFRPG with the DCs of the challenges provided, at least unless you are playing a particularly permissive and min-maxy group.
These are serious issues, and depending on your priorities, this might suffice to disqualify the book for you.
HOWEVER, this does not invalidate the crucial and genuinely amazing thing that the engine per se accomplishes, the fact that it increases the depths of the details of a gaming world to the point where the “interaction point” and “zooming-in” issues become impossible to discern for the players. That is a HUGE boon for GMs like me, for groups that want this level of detail. This book does something that no other book I’ve encountered does, and it does so well.
It is somewhat ironic for an Infinium Game Studios-book, for a book of a company devoted to making ginormous tomes with sheer obsessive amounts of details, that the main issue of FlexTale 1.0 lies in its scope and its allocation of content. This 1.0-book was obviously made with Dark Obelisk II in mind, and not necessarily as a global toolkit; this is reflected by the tables included, obviously.
In many ways, I wished that the book just focused on the FlexTables, provided more of them, and put the random encounter tables in Dark Obelisk II. Focusing on the detail-oriented tables would have been wise, as the rules-relevant issues outlined above make the challenge-relevant part, like interaction with magic item systems, DCs, etc., problematic. The detail-oriented tables don’t have this issue and work just as intended, to a degree that is amazing, that warmed my cold GM-heart. Instead of those problematic parts, know what’d have been useful? Weight values. Okay, so you find 1d4 nets. How much does one weigh? The tables list weight for items like spices, ore etc., as you roll the amount of pounds you get, but from lanterns to ermine pelts, the individual items don’t list eight values, which, if you’re peculiar about the like, will require page-flipping. And let’s be frank, if you’re using this book, you will be one of the people who track carrying capacity!
How to rate this, then? I’ve thought for a long time about this. There are, as noted, issues in details for both systems this was crafted for. The random encounter engine works as intended, and if you’re playing Dark Obelisk II, certainly adds to the experience, but it’s not something special; I’ve seen plenty of those before.
The main draw of this book, at least for me, lies in the sheer power to generate mundane “treasure” and components lying around, something that seriously adds a whole dimension of plausibility to Dark Obelisk II particular, and other games in a more limited scope. It is here that the engine does something truly novel, efficient and thoroughly rewarding. I wished that it further developed this aspect, and since this book is explicitly denoted as “1.0”, I am hopeful that we’ll get a bigger FlexTale book at one point. In such a book, a focus on making the details stand out, from plants to herbs to tools, might be prudent way to go.
How do you rate this? Ultimately, it makes most sense to rate this as a companion tome for Dark Obelisk II, as it does not have the scale for long-term, global application – yet. In that task, the book at once triumphs and stumbles, as outlined above. I can easily see this being a 2-star book for some groups, but similarly, I can see veteran GMs realizing what this system does, what I is capable of, and consider this to be a solution for a subtle, yet persistent problem of the medium itself.
As you have probably determined by now, I am in the latter camp: I am rather obsessive regarding details, and an engine like this is right up my alley. In fact, for the very first time, I am not simply curious regarding the future direction of Infinium Game Studios – I seriously want more! I really, really want this system to be expanded. Without the persistent quadded scaling issues and proper commitment to a single system, including implementation, and with a scope of 200+ pages, this system has all the makings of having the potential to be deemed an EZG Essential.
As provided, this is a mighty engine for Dark Obelisk II, but one that does have pronounced issues; its genius aspect notwithstanding, this must be considered to be a flawed book. Provided you want to use it for the lower two level-categories in PFRPG, and for Dark Obelisk II, this does get a wholehearted recommendation from me. If not, then I hope that my ruminations above have helped you deduce whether or not this is for you.
I have to rate this, though. And I thought long and hard; I genuinely should not rate this higher than 3.5 stars, and I can’t justify rounding up for the book as a stand-alone offering: Missing table and issues in both systems make that impossible. And yet, there is a genuinely inspired and amazing core here, one that made me want to slap my seal of approval on this, in spite of its flaws. I thought long and hard, and as a reviewer, I can’t do that, as my excitement for the engine’s potential and for what it does is not necessarily supported by broad application in context thematically divorced/ far beyond Dark Obelisk II. As a person, I love this. I want more. I want the formula to be refined. If you’re as OCD as I am, this might well hold true for you as well, though I can’t assume that. This is, ultimately, a deeply flawed book that contains a genuine diamond in the rough of an engine, one that demands to be polished to the proper shine.
Provided you use this in conjunction with Dark Obelisk II, this’ll enrich the experience significantly, as the random encounter tables are made with that book in mind. In such a case you should round up, which, after much deliberation, my official final verdict will do as well, solely on the basis of rating this as a supplemental book for Dark Obelisk II. As a stand-alone book, you should consider this to be a book in the 3-star vicinity. Please do note that, if the core engine here, the addressing of the detail-issue, is not worth as much to you as it is to me, that you should instead consider this to be a 2.5-star book at best.
Either way, I sincerely hope that this is not the last I’ve seen of FlexTale.
You can get this deeply-flawed, but also genuinely intriguing supplemental book for Dark Obelisk II (review forthcoming) here on OBS.
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