Thursday, November 08, 2018

Leveraging Warlocks for Campaign Greatness

Warlocks are one of the great post-TSR additions to D&D. Their relationship with their patron is much closer than that of a cleric's deity, and yet they can't take a direct hand in the campaign. Even better, they can be awesome frenimies for the PCs, power they know they shouldn't use but hey, one of them has already taken a big bite out of that forbidden fruit, so how bad can it get, right?

Someone over on Quora asked about what an Archfey could want from their warlock. And that inspired the following thoughts:

1. Why did the Archfey take the warlock on?
Maybe it was a whim of a moment, maybe it was an accident. But maybe there was something about this character that drew the attention of the Archfey. If so, that may dictate what the Archfey wants.

For a new PC, this can be the hardest way to go, because neither you nor the player may yet know what makes this actual character tick. Or, even worse, you might have a solid idea, only to see it morph and mutate when the character starts interacting with the other PCs and the world.

Still, the key to an awesome warlock experience is to make it personal, so if you think you can pull this off, do it! Look for something that capitalizes on a trait that makes this character unique, whether it’s something in their background or personality, or the people they know.

If the warlock is a PC, like all PCs they’re bound to have interesting adventures, almost as if they are fated to happen. Legend says King Arthur would not begin his New Year’s Day feast unless he’d heard of or seen some marvel. Perhaps, like Arthur, what the Archfey wants is an account of the warlock’s amazing adventures. And, if they are deemed not quite amazing enough, the Archfey will take matters into their own hands, perhaps by bribing the PCs to take on certain adventures, and then offering the PCs' adversaries some help so the warlock’s eventual triumph will be all the more exciting!

2. What does the campaign need from the Archfey?
You’ve got your world, you’ve got your villain-types and their victims, you’ve got your starting location. How are you going to put your PCs in the path of the villains? Your Archfey can help here. Maybe they want the same thing the villains want. Maybe they want something else entirely, but two things are mutually exclusive somehow. Maybe they’re just in the same neighborhood.

The nice thing about Archfey is how flexible they are. Need the PCs to focus more on the quest? The Archfey wants something related to the quest. Want to mix some romance into things? Archfey wants to help a pair of star-crossed lovers. Things getting to heavy and dramatic? Archfey wants a pig dressed up to look like the Queen of Dramatopia. An Archfey can work like a safety valve, releasing or storing up pressure as needed.

3. Being Fun-fun Silly-willy Absurd
As others have pointed out, the desires of the Archfey can at times seem a bit… off. Not quite sane. Certainly not understandable by mere mortals. To help with this, make three lists of 20 items each, one of verbs, one of adjectives, and one of nouns. Then roll on all three lists. The Archfey now wants their warlock to verb the adjective noun. The more ridiculous it sounds, the better.

Art by Sophie Anderson.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Death & Dismemberment for 5e

Yes, I'm still alive! ;p

In addition to the Stars Are Right table I posted last time, I also created a new Table of Death & Dismemberment table for the new 5e game. Like the previous versions, this stops hit point loss at 0; further successful hits just cause additional rolls on the table. When a PC is dropped to 0 hit points, roll 3d6 and consult the table.

What makes this table different? I've added psychological effects and taken some advantage of 5e's status rules. Let's check it out:

3 or less: Your character is dead!

4: Your character has lost their leg. Move at half-speed until it is replaced; a wooden peg-leg allows you to move at your normal speed -5’. Your character is unconscious until they are restored to positive hit points.

5: Your character has lost a hand. They are unconscious until restored to positive hit points. So long as they still retain one hand, they can still cast spells and wield weapons.

6: Your character is grievously wounded. If they are not stabilized within 3 rounds, they will die. It takes one action to stabilize; any magical healing that brings the character’s HP total to at least 1 also stabilizes the character.

7: Your character loses an eye. They have -1 on all ranged attacks until the eye is restored. However, their scarred visage also gives them +1 on intimidation checks. They remain unconscious until they are restored to positive hit points.

8: Your character is physically scarred beyond the ability of healing magics less than Regeneration to remove. This will effect your use of social skills, but exactly how will depend on the situation. This character will remain unconscious until restored to positive hit points.

9: Your character is emotionally scarred by their near-death experience. They are now frightened (PHB page 290) by the creature/spell/type of person who dealt the near-mortal blow. This fear can be removed by a Greater Restoration spell or other magics or special abilities that remove or negate fear effects. The character is also unconscious until they are restored to positive hit points.

10: Your character is knocked out and will remain unconscious until they are restored to positive hit points.

11: The weapon your character is wielding is shattered! They remain at 1 hit point and can stay in the fight… for now. If your character isn’t weilding a weapon or that weapon is magical, they are instead knocked out (see 10 above).

12: Your character takes a grievous wound to the leg. They are still conscious, but at 1 hit point and can only move at a speed of 5’. Any healing magic restores normal movement.

13: Your character’s armour is battered by the attack. Your AC suffers a -2 penalty and will take one day and 10% of the cost of a new set of armor to repair. Your character is still in the fight with 1d4 hit points. If your character is not wearing armor, they are at 0 hit points and unconscious until restored to positive hit points.

14: Your character takes a nasty blow to the head. They remain in the fight with 1d4 hit points, but they lose one spell slot (player’s choice). Spell slots are regained after a long rest (or a short rest for warlocks) as normal.

15: The attack leaves your character stunned until the end of their next turn (PHB page 292). They otherwise stay in the fight; roll a single hit die to see how many hit points they have.

16: The brunt of the attack is absorbed by your gear. Lose one potion. If you have no potions, lose 1d4 pieces of mundane equipment. You stay in the fight with 4 + your CON bonus hit points. (If you have no gear at all, roll 2d6 on this table.)

17: You get blood, mud, or some other icky fluid in your eyes. You are blinded until the end of your next turn (PHB page 290). Stay in the fight with 4 + your CON bonus hit points.

18: You experience a surge of adrenaline! Roll half your max hit dice and regain that many hit points. If you’ve already rolled this result in this fight, then you are unconscious at 0 hit points.

First off, yeah, this is an insanely forgiving table. It's far easier to die using the RAW of 5e than it is on this table. (Though you can die from just a single roll, which you can't do in the RAW.) And yet, I had one player voice misgivings about it; the Table of Death & Dismemberment continues to work it's old black magic. ;)

This table interacts more with the rules than previous versions and also creates more ongoing effects (for low-to-mid level characters; high-level characters will almost certainly have the spells needed to banish long-term effects, but they also have the spells necessary to mitigate death, so...)

It hasn't been used "in the field" yet, but I'm looking forward to how this shakes things up. If I change it, I may add more ongoing psychological effects a la Darkest Dungeons. If you've got some suggestions for sexy-ing this up, don't hesitate to let me know.

Art is The Wounded Gaul in the Musei Capitolini.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Stars are Right!

Had a character-building session for the new campaign last night. After we worked out who the characters were going to be, I dropped just over a thousand words on them of house rules (though much of that was a Table of Death & Dismemberment; more on that later). As the setting has an ancient-word vibe, I wanted to include some sort of astrological connection to things. At first, that was largely going to be supplied by the hidden enemies of civilization lurking in the perfumed, flower-laden jungles of Kiru and the various uncharted islands of Zob. But then Jeff Rients posted this bit of awesomeness and I had to do my own.

Alas, my dice have gone through multiple purges, and I don’t have so many ugly ones left. But by mixing some of my few older dice with some acquisitions from GenCons recent and past, I was able to find seven dice that would fit the bill nicely. I’m also far lazier than Jeff; I was not about to come up with a massive list of correspondences like he did. Instead, I limited myself to pairs plus groups of three or larger where what matters is the die with the most sides. This makes the list far more manageable, in my opinion.

Like Jeff, I only put good things on the table, and for the same reason; enlisting the players to keep track of this sort of thing makes it a lot easier to enjoy. At the start of most sessions (or in the middle of a session if at least a week passes), I’ll roll a d6, a d8, 2d10, a d12, and a d20. If any of those dice come up with matching numbers, those stars are said to be in conjunction. Consult the chart to find out what benefit is available while the conjunction lasts. To use the benefit, everyone in the group must agree.

The benefits of most conjunctions involving just two stars can only be used once per conjunction. The benefits of more than two stars in conjunction are dictated by the largest star (highest number of sides) in the conjunction and remain in effect for at least one day.

Monday, August 13, 2018

PC Complexity in 5e

So one of my players asked, "What's a good class for beginners?" This is 5e, with lots of classes, so the game ramps slowly to keep you from being swamped with options. That said:

Fighters are still the best if you want simplicity. You'll have a few bonuses to keep track of that apply under certain conditions, but mostly what you get is lots of hit points.

Monks probably come next in complexity. You'll acquire points that you can spend on one-shot cool abilities, like making extra attacks or movement.

Rogues are probably next in complexity. Rogues have the ability to take extra actions and get bonuses to their attacks under certain conditions. If you're prone to analysis paralysis, you might find rogues easier than monks. On the other hand, if you have trouble keeping track of what's going on around your character, or remembering that under certain conditions you get special goodies, you might find the monk simpler.

Barbarians have a few abilities, like rage, that trigger a number of bonuses all at once. They also have some cool abilities that, like rogue abilities, only trigger under certain circumstances. That said, if you can keep on top of range of things that change when you turn you abilities off and on, the barbarian class can feel pretty simple to play. For organized people they can be even simpler than the monk and rogue.

Rangers, like rogues and barbarians, have conditional powers that kick in when the situation is right (like when facing a favored enemy or in a favored terrain). They also have a few spells.

Warlocks are probably the simplest of the spell-slinging classes to play, especially if you build them right. It's easy to create a warlock whose abilities are always on (for instance, always being able to read any writing, or always being able to detect the presence of magic). They also have much shorter spell lists. You might even be able to build a warlock who's less complex than a barbarian.

Paladins are more complex than warlocks. You've got your martial abilities, your spells, your divine powers, plus abilities that are always on. Since some powers are just like others with small tweaks, paladins are not for people who hate paying attention to details.

Sorcerers are a big jump up in complexity. They have shorter spell lists, but they also have points they can use to modify their spells; increasing the range and duration, for instance.

I think bards come next. Bards come with lots of options for cool things they can do. Do you inspire your friends, cast a spell, distract the enemy, or heal the wounded? On the other hand, you'll always have something cool you can do. Not recommended for folks who suffer from analysis paralysis, they are perfect for people who like a wide menu of options to pick from.

Wizards are technically less complex mechanically than paladins, in my estimation, but the range of spells you can cast is the broadest of any class. Wizards are a great choice for players who have excellent memories or who don't mind flipping through the books to check on the details of a spell.

Finally, the class I consider the most complex is the cleric. You've got the largest number of spells to pick from (especially at lower levels), plus additional abilities dictated by your pantheon. There's a lot of accounting with the cleric since you're tracking not just your spells but also your "channel divinity" powers. And your more likely to run across spells that are cast as reactions or bonus actions.

The druid is like unto the cleric, especially once you start picking from among the various beasts you can turn into. Do you want the wolf who gets a bonus to attack when beside an ally, or giant spider who can climb walls, or the tiger who gets a special pounce attack?

All that said, one of 5e's virtues is that it ramps up slowly. It dribbles out the complexity over time, allowing you to digest each piece before adding another. So if you really want to play one of the more complicated classes, I say go for it. It might require a bit more effort on your part to create tools to help you get the most out of your PC, but better that, I think, than a character that bores you. :)

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Tékumel Shock Syndrome Turned Up to 11

I’ve moved to the ubersuburbs of Seattle recently, so far out you’ll probably need a boat to find me. (You could take a bridge, but that would probably be the long way around.) Thankfully, with the burgeoning popularity of D&D, it didn’t take me long to find a group. The first two people we talked to wanted to learn 5e, so 5e it is. (For now…)

I prefer bespoke campaigns and one of the players said he wanted to play a character with some Aztec-ish cultural aspects. Fine by me; they’ll be fantasy-Aztecs, naturally, probably with tamed dinosaurs and bronze if not iron tools, but I’ll also vet this stuff with the player since I don’t want him thinking I’m making fun of his ancestry.

While I was rolling this stuff around in my head, I came across this interesting article about setting your game shortly after some sort of systemic cultural and geo-political collapse. Neat stuff, and the author makes some good points. After all, that Common tongue had to come from somewhere, right?

More on that stuff later; in a post on G+, Kasimir “RPG Pundit” Urbanski chimed in about his true-to-history (but with the magic folks believed in at the time) setting, Lion & Dragon. Now, first off, Urbanski’s absolutely correct; a true-to-history medieval Europe is incredibly alien to modern suburbanites. If you’re looking for a truly different setting, you can’t go wrong with history. But the reason most folks play in pseudo-medieval RenFest fantasy is because everyone knows the lay of the land. The more alien you get, the harder it is for players to act and invest in the setting. I call this (unfairly to Empire of the Petal Throne, but it’s the first place I encountered this sort of thing) Tékumel Shock Syndrome. And while I’m sure Lion & Dragon is pretty cool, it’s something that’s going to show up in spades if you play there.

If I say we're playing a campaign inspired by the Arabian Nights and Orientalist paintings, that's pretty easy for players to wrap their heads around. I show some pictures, explain how camels differ from horses, everyone gives their character an exotic-sounding name, and we're off to the races.

If I say we're playing in a historically accurate Fatimid Caliphate, well, that's a bit tougher, but most folks in a Western suburban environment feels confident in their ignorance of what that means. So they’ll lean on the DM to help them flesh out the details. With some work and dedication, we could get a game rolling, and I imagine such a campaign would be a rewarding experience.

When you start talking about historical England during, for instance, the reign of Richard the Lionhearted, there’s no lack of cool adventuring opportunities, but it’s what people don’t know that they don’t know that’s going to cause trouble. They’re going to be a bit freaked out when told they have to witness their friend deflower his bride and possibly testify to the consummation in an ecclesiastic court, for instance. If they find an inn (which most towns won’t have; even a “tavern” was often a home where the missus had brewed a large pot beer that would look more like stew to modern eyes), they’ll almost certainly be sharing not only a room with strangers, but a bed. Most people live in literal one-room huts. In Scandinavia you might still have folks living in long houses, which are just multi-family one-room huts. (Yes, just one room. No interior doors or walls, so no privacy, no separate bed room, and in the winter you’ll have the animals in the house with you.) They’ll have read something about Magna Charta enshrining the whole “jury by peers” thing, but that’s during John’s reign, and even after that many medieval trials seem as nonsensical to modern eyes as Zak’s “trial by pie” thing.

In short, if you want to do historical correctly, it’s going to take time and effort and a lot of open-mindedness on everyone’s part to pull it off. But if you do, you’ll certainly have a campaign to brag about.

As for me, I’m thinking my Aztec-esque dinotopia is ruled by dragon demi-gods. ;)

Thursday, July 26, 2018


Well, this was unexpected. People have been yakking about crossing the M:tG and D&D streams since WotC consumed TSR. While both games involve high-magic fantasy universes, there’s never really been much overlap between them. And it’s no mystery why. M:tG is a competitive (usually one-on-one) game based on a complex, multi-state version of rock-paper-scissors. D&D is a cooperative game built around niche protection.

I could go on and on about how the five-sphere structure of M:tG magic poorly maps with D&D magic. I wish 5e’s magic system was as atmospheric and evocative as M:tG’s, but to bring them together would mean a serious overhaul of the 5e schools and how they work. I don’t expect them to do this. I expect them to gloss it and make handwavy noises about Green magic being analogous to druids and rangers while White is cleric and bard magic, if that much. That’s kind of a shame, because the ten guilds of Ravnica are based on really clever pairings of the colors, and that, I suspect, will get shoved into the background. Oh, they’ll still talk about the culture and resources and modes of the guilds, they just won’t touch much on the wellsprings of those things.

But what they are talking about doing really caught my attention. Mike Mearles, at about 5:35 in this video, says:
And then what’s really fun, what I think is the real interesting thing that the book is trying to pull off, is that the Dungeon Master looks at the players, looks at the guilds they’ve selected, and then we give you an entire adventure and campaign building system based on the guilds. You can look at the guilds the players have selected, and the book has suggestions for good adversarial guilds. Then each guild gets a section on building adventures that are driven by it.

Sound familiar? This looks very much like it’s taking a page from David McGrogan’s Yoon-suin the Purple Land, Zak’s Vornheim, Kiel’s The Hell House Beckons, Kowolski’s Scenic Dunnsmouth and, maybe to a lesser extent, Jacob Hurst’s Hot Springs Island book. Though I think the comparison to Yoon-suin is the strongest; this is an adventure and campaign-building set focused on the guild conflict of the setting.

This is an adventure book, from WotC, that has no plot.

The plot has been replaced by an “adventure and campaign building system” that guides the DM in crafting and improvising a bespoke experience for their players based on the choices the players make.

Is your mind blown yet?

The only thing that could make this more OSR/DIY is if they’d set the damned thing in the City-state of the Invincible Overlord.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What Hath Raggi Wrought?

So there was some chatter on G+ recently about what it would take for another Lamentations of the Flame Princess to happen. And by LotFP was meant the publisher, not the game; there are a handful of neat second-generation OSR games out there now that are on par with LotFP as regards rules. That said…

Raggi’s main claim to fame is that he never gives us something we’ve seen a dozen times before. There is no LotFP goblins-in-a-hole-in-the-ground adventure. Instead, we get things like Death Frost Doom (horror movie that can result in a zombie plague), Blood in the Chocolate (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with all the body-horror and implied cannibalism no longer implied and turned up to 11), and Broodmother Sky Fortress (a combination of gaming manifesto and an adventure designed to blow up beloved segments of your campaign). Even when he does something we’ve seen before, he does it differently. The best example of this may be Scenic Dunnsmouth, which doesn’t just give us a cursed village with a dark secret, but a generator allowing us to produce an endless series of cursed villages.

This is one of the reasons Raggi runs towards controversy. “Fantasy fuckin’ Vietnam” was a pejorative way to describe the Old School style of play. So of course James gave us not one but two different variations on that theme and, in the process, not only gave us the amazing Qelong from Ken Hite but also completely defused the phrase as a verbal bomb. If something is controversial or otherwise scary for publishers to associate with, well, that’s low-hanging fruit for Raggi. He knows he won’t have any competition in that space, so he goes for it.

(This is one of the things I adore about Raggi. You simply can’t attack the man. Any rhetorical ordinance you lob his way will get repurposed as grist for his publishing mill. That which does not kill him literally makes his publishing house stronger.)

But it’s not just topics and themes where Raggi pushes envelopes. Damn near every aspect of his business is involved in giving us stuff we’d never seen before. The LotFP game doesn’t just take incumbrance and make it useable at the table, he weaves it into the rules. Everyone knew that boxed sets killed TSR and that nobody would publish boxed sets again, so Raggi of course published his core rules in a boxed set (twice). He publishes books that aren’t monster coffee-table books but handy little reference books designed to be used in the heat of play, with sturdy bindings and covers, satin bookmarks, and endpapers full of important bits you’ll want to find quickly during play. He read along as Kiel Chenier excoriated the poor information design of WotC’s books and then challenged the man to put his money where his mouth was. He listened as Zak ranted about dice drop tables and making every inch of surface on a book a valuable source of at-the-table utility and published Vornheim with a dust jacket that’s more than protection for covers with drop-tables on them. He’s worked with people everyone knew he couldn’t work with, published stuff everyone knew you couldn’t publish, pays what everyone knows you can’t afford to pay the creatives, and thrived doing it.

And then there’s the art. This is probably the most obvious difference: the bare-breasted snake thing on the cover of the original LotFP boxes, the gross-out horror of the interiors. But again, what Raggi’s giving us is stuff we’re not getting from anywhere else. In any other publisher’s work, the duel between a man and a woman (especially a woman who’s one of his game’s iconic characters) would naturally result in the female winning the fight, delicately skewering her foe with a modicum of blood (if any at all). Not so LotFP: Alice gets stabbed in the face, right through her eye. The eponymous Flame Princess gets her leg eaten away by some sort of horrid slime beast and goes through most illustrations hobbling about on a peg leg. The medusa isn’t just a coy coquette, she’s in the midst of a ménage à trois when she petrifies her lovers.

Now flip through the closest RPG book to hand that’s not LotFP and you’ll see art you’ve likely seen a million times elsewhere: the grip-and-grin hero just staring ahead without background, the line-up of heroes striding towards the viewer, someone fighting a skeleton, someone healing a comrade, someone hiding up in a tree, someone riding a dragon. The quality will vary, depending on the publisher, but it’s the same stuff you’ve seen over and over again since the Easley/Elmore/Parkinson days of D&D. Hell, even they were not nearly so cliché as the stuff you’re most likely to get today.

What does Raggi give us? In the first boxed set of core rules, the illustration for the cleric shows our hero using his divine magic to burn elves. The halfling in the race-as-class description for them is hidden amidst the death and slaughter of a post-battle scene, Waldo-like. Where the art isn’t setting the heavy metal/Hammer Horror tone, it’s demonstrating how the rules for LotFP are different from the games you’ve played before. Sometimes it’s doing both.

Raggi’s the guy who gave Zak carte blanche to write and illustrate Vornheim when everyone would have said Zak’s style was completely wrong for RPGs (and most especially Old School rpgs). He’s also the guy who told Kiel that his style wasn’t yet up to snuff and teamed him up with Jason Bradley Thompson for the art. Raggi has a vision and he’s not afraid to pursue it.

And none of this is secret. James is loud and proud about what he does and how he does it. So what’s it going to take for their to be another publisher like LotFP out there? Simply this: someone with James’ chutzpah, honesty, vision, and the skills to see those through into finished products. When that person appears, I suspect James will be their loudest cheerleader.