Friday, August 22, 2014

From the 5orcerer's 5croll: Concentration and Spells

WotC was, shock and surprise, really rolling out the red carpet for 5e at GenCon. One of the best parts was getting to listen to Mike Mearls and others on the team speak about their intentions for the game and why they built the rules the way they did. I hope a lot of what they talked about is in the DMG because there’s some stuff that seems (inadvertently) designed to trip up us old-timers. If you basically treat all RPGs as additional rules, gear, and monsters to bolt onto some version of Basic D&D from when Reagan was president, then you’ll want to keep your eye out for these things.

Magic is one of the big ones. I’ve already discussed the changes to how preparing spells and spell slots work. Mearls, however, pointed out a few things I’d missed that are probably more important to how 5e is supposed to play at the table. So, in the spirit of “5e is always right,” I’ll be combing through my notes and sharing what I heard with y’all here.

One change that’s huge is how 5e handles concentration. Nearly every spell that lasts longer than 5e’s six-second round requires concentration. Concentration isn’t that limiting; you can still fight, run, drink a potion or whatever while you concentrate on maintaining a spell.

One thing you absolutely can not do while concentrating is cast another spell that also requires concentration. This is huge because most (though not all) buff spells require concentration. This means stacking buffs (like bless and enhance ability) can only be done if you’ve got multiple casters. Gone are the days when the party’s lone cleric would start every fight casting bless and prayer and whatever else buffs, stacking a pile of +1 and +2 bonuses on the rest of the party.

This is part of streamlining the game. One of the things advantage/disadvantage (and I’ll be talking more about that later) does is remove the chained arithmetic that plagues older versions of D&D: +1 for you STR bonus, +2 for being specced, +1 for bless, +2 for holding the high ground, -4 because your foe is invisible…

So, with a limited number of buffs, and most situational modifiers handled by advantage/disadvantage, it should be a lot easier to judge whether any given roll is a success. This shaves seconds off every player’s turn in combat and minutes off every combat.

There’s more to concentration however. If you’re killed or KOed, you lose concentration. Also, if you take damage while concentrating you have to make a Constitution save and the target number is 10 or half the damage you took, whichever is higher. Fail and the spell goes poof.

This isn’t just a big deal for buffs because a lot of spells that used to be fire-and-forget now require concentration. This includes the various “wall of…” spells and those like it, like web. That’s right, stop concentrating and your wall of sticky webs vanish and whatever was trapped in it is free. I don’t know about you, but that radically changes how I assumed those spells worked.

But wait, there’s more! Check out this bit from the spell flesh to stone (page 243 for those of you playing along at home):

A creature restrained by this spell must make another Constitution saving throw at the end of each of its turns. If it successfully saves against this spell three times, the spell ends. If it fails its save three times, it is turned to stone…

Yep, turning someone to stone is no longer a quick, save-or-die roll. I think all the old save-or-die spells have been changed this way. Mearls said he wanted to end the anticlimax of facing down the ancient dragon in its lair, only to have it fail a save in the first moment of combat and end the fight right there.

I’m not sure how much I agree with that goal, but it certainly makes those spells a lot more exciting and dramatic in combat.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Spell-slinging in 5e

During the playtesting for 5e, I never DMed and I never played a spell-slinging class. Most of my play was with a low-level monk, a class I don’t think I’d ever played before. It was neat, and did a good job of introducing me to the basics of 5e as they evolved through the playtest. However, I completely missed what they’d been doing with spellcasting in the game.

The writing of the rules is subtle but the changes are dramatic, and if you’re as guilty as I am about treating all later editions of D&D as just extra options and monsters to bolt on to the BX/BECMI rules, then these changes may come across as jarring at first. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

The 5e rulebook describes spell slots as “a grove of a certain size--small for a 1st-level slot, larger for a spell of higher level.” This sounds just like the spell slots we’ve always known and (sometimes) loved, but that’s absolutely not how they actually work.

A better metaphor for spell slots would be capacitors. A 1st-level spell slot holds enough magical juice to power a single 1st-level spell. A 3rd-level spell slot holds enough juice to power a single 3rd-level spell.

Yes, magic-users and clerics still prepare spells, but the number of spells and their levels are NOT based on your spell slots. Wizards prep a number of spells (that they have in their book) of any levels they know equal to their Intelligence modifier + their Wizard level. Clerics can pick from their whole list, but it’s about the same: Wisdom modifier + cleric level = number of spells you can prepare.

Now, why would you prepare spells in a ratio of levels that doesn’t match your spells slots? Because, while a 1st level slot doesn’t have the juice to power a 3rd level spell, you can use any higher level slot to power a single lower level spell. So if you really need to fire off another Jump spell (1st level transmutation), you can burn a 3rd level slot for it. (And yes, it uses the entire slot; you can’t cast three Jump spells from a single 3rd level slot.)

But wait, it get’s even weirder, because casting a spell doesn’t end its preparation. By that I mean, if your wizard has prepared Jump and they cast it, it’s still prepared! From a single preparation, your wizard could go on to burn every single spell slot of every level to keep casting the Jump spell over and over and over again.

So, the number of spells you can prepare (appropriate stat modifier + class level) is the breadth of your spellcasting ability. It defines your character’s magical flexibility. Your character’s spell slots define the depth of their magical ability; how many spells they can sling before needing to rest and recharge their magical capacitors.

This gives those classes unprecedented flexibility in spell-casting. You’re going to be seeing a lot more unusual spells prepared and actually used. (I expect we’ll also see a lot less angst and time spent in picking just the right spell list, too.)

But wait, there’s more! Because that’s just the cleric and magic-us- er, I mean, wizard.

Sorcerers work from a much more limited selection of spells known, based on their level. But there’s nothing in their description that mentions preparing spells. If you played any 3.x D&D this won’t be surprise to you. Bards handle spell-casting in an identical way (but do not get “sorcery points” that allow a sorcerer to use 3.x-style metamagic abilities to modify their spells).

The warlock, on the other hand, gets a set number of spell slots and each of those slots is at the same level. Combined with their Eldritch Invocations (largely power-boosts to particular spells), most warlocks are going to have a very limited number of magical tricks they’re very good at which they’re going to use repeatedly. Sorcerers are going to have a wider variety of spells, but still not as wide as most wizards and never as wide as clerics. However, the sorcerer is going to be able to do more with the spells they have in ways that will surprise people who think they know how those spells are “supposed” to work.

The changes are subtle in how they’re explained in the rules, but have dramatic effects on play, so you’ll want to take a closer look at those classes before you either play them or DM for them. The end result is greatly expanded flexibility across the board for every spell-slinging class while simultaneously removing the need for agonizing over every spell slot in advance for fear of not having just the right spell when it’s needed. While the changes were jarring at first (literally causing me to sit up and say, “What, what the fuck did I just read?!?”) I’m cautiously optimistic about how these will play at the table.

And now you know, and knowing is half the battle!

Monday, August 04, 2014

Playing with Kyma - the Fields & the Farmers' Gate

The Fields
The terrain west of the city is, by ancient decree, kept flat and clear of trees and bushes. The current Sultan’s father modified the law slightly by turning it into wheat and barley fields tended to by slaves, principally prisoners-of-war, criminals, and their descendents. These are kept in barracks nearly a mile from the city walls.

Tending miles and miles of grain fields is grueling work, but the bread they make is the lynchpin of the Sultan’s popularity in the city, as the food is given out for free to the poor (and sometimes these distributions are used as hunting opportunities by slavers). These distributions occur at noon in various spots in the city, but the largest happens at the Farmers’ Gate.

The slaves themselves are generally on good terms with their overseers. During the monsoon season, when there’s little work to do, they’re eager to hire themselves out for whatever work will earn them a bit of coin, and few have any scruples about the sort of work they’ll do.

Farmers’ Gate
Actually a large plaza just inside the largest of the city’s gates, it’s a daily market of fresh foods, livestock, oils, and fuel.

Every 2 hours the PCs are in the Farmers’ Gate, roll a d6. A roll of 1 indicates a significant encounter. During the monsoon, roll a d12 and consult the table below. The rest of the year, roll a d8.

  1. Relatives of POWs or convicts sentenced to slave in the fields looking for them. Roll a d4. On a 1 or 2, they are human and will reward any successful location of their loved ones (or other significant aid) with (1-10 on a d12) their gratitude and 3d4 silver pieces, (11) a useful rumor, or (12) a treasure map. On a 3 they are orcish and will swear a blood-oath to perform one important service (usually limited to killing or breaking something/one, though they will do up to a month of bodyguard work). On a 4, they are elvish and reward successful aid with (50%) two useful potions or six silvered arrows of such excellent quality that the shooter has advantage on rolls to hit.
  2. A farmer looking for help rescuing his wife and daughter from a gang of satyrs who have seduced them away.
  3. A farmer looking for help rescuing her husband from a dryad who’s seduced him away.
  4. Frightened farmers with tales of (1-3 on a d6) marauding orcs, (4-5) nocturnal werewolf attacks, or (6) wyverns carrying off livestock.
  5. Werewolves posing as frightened farmers in order to lure skilled warriors out to their collective of huts where they will be infected and charmed into the pack.
  6. Rangers looking for aid in hunting dangerous game (probably wyvern, griffons, or possibly even a roc).
  7. Centaur seeking to complete a bride-challenge in order to win the hand of a female centaur. The task she has set requires him to either (1-3 on a d8) acquire at least 50 gold pieces, (4-5) a prize goat for her herds, (6-7) an object of art blessed by the priests of Phaedre, or (8) a useful magic item. He’ll have 1d4 rivals in town, also seeking to complete the same quest.
  8. A riot as too many of the poor showed up and there’s not enough bread to go around. For four hours, the players will be challenged every round you roll a 1 or 2 on a d6 by (roll of 1-2 on another d6) their number multiplied by the result of rolling a d4 in 0th level squatters from the Warrens, (3) a gang of slavers looking to capitalize on the lawlessness including 0th level fighters equal in number to the party plus two 1st level fighters and either a 5th level thief leader or a 4th level priest of Shkeen, (4) city guards angry and looking to bust heads including a number of 0th level guardsmen equal to the party’s number +2d4 lead by a guardsman lieutenant equal in level to a roll on a 2d6, or (5-6) a gang of orcs on a rampage equal in number to the party, lead by a pair of half-orc fighters equal to the party’s average level. During any fight, there’s a 50% chance that assassins from the Beggar’s Guild will strike if the PCs have earned that Guild’s enmity.
  9. A witch from the countryside, come to procure (1-2 on a roll of a d6 + highest Charisma bonus in the group) the eye of an elf, (3-4) expensive alchemical equipment she needs transported 20 miles back to her home (25% chance a rival witch attempts to interfere), (5-6) the egg of a fertile woman of orcish ancestry (25% chance she has a magical method of procuring it that doesn’t involve the death of the donor), or (7+) one or two high-charisma individuals she can charm and lure off into slavery to her.
  10. 1d4 field slaves looking for work. They have no useful skills but know the city and the surrounding countryside extremely well.
  11. 1d8 field slaves looking to settle old scores. Their target is (1-3 on a d6) a wealthy merchant, (4-5) a city judge, or (6) a master of the Beggar’s Guild.
  12. A skilled slave looking for work. Determine the slave’s race and class randomly. They will be 1 + 1d4 levels lower than the PCs, though never lower than level 1.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

On Zak S.

If you asked me to draw a picture of an apple, I’d probably whip out something that looks a lot like the logo for Apple computers. From an objective viewpoint, the logo really doesn’t look like an apple. It’s flat, usually colorless; a gross simplification of the real thing. Like eyes in the paintings by ancient Egyptians or the modern smiley face, it’s more symbol than reproduction, an easily recognized and processed shorthand that, by itself, conveys a simple idea and then gets out of the way. These sorts of symbols play to our assumptions (no matter what color Apple’s logo, we all know apples are red) and work as a very convenient shorthand in our day-to-day lives.

When my mom paints apples, they look like this:

You don’t need to look closely to realize these are some really messed up apples. They’re a dozen different colors at once: red, yes, and green, but also blue, grey, purple, violet, various shades of yellow and gold and even white. What the heck is wrong with my mother’s eyes?!?

My mother’s eyes don’t just see what is assumed, but what is actually there. Take an apple and really look at it. Don’t just let your mind process “apple” and then speed off to the next thing. See it. See how the skin retains hints of every color it’s ever had as it matured from bud to fruit. Notice how it reflects the light and with it the colors of things near it. See how even the red is actually a complex mottling of various colors, nearly pointilist.

My mother doesn’t paint apples as we expect them to be. My mother paints apples as they really are, with the parts we miss in our daily lives highlighted, brought into focus and shoved in front of our faces, where we can no longer ignore all that we gloss over in our headlong rush to towards five minutes from now.

That’s not something all artists do, but it’s something that many good artists do. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about art giving us new eyes to see the world with, of helping us see and appreciate what’s always been right in front of us.

It’s something Zak does. When Zak decides to make a gaming book and asks, “How can I make the cover useful?” or wonders, “What else can we do with dice when we roll them beyond just seeing what number is on top?” he’s doing the same thing my mother does when she paints apples. I love getting into things with Zak because I know he’ll see what I miss. He doesn’t gloss over the things I just assume. Zak takes ideas to the next level and asks questions like, “What does it mean that Tiamat has five heads?” and “How can we convey the important stuff about our settings in a way that the DM will actually remember and use at the table?” or even how avoiding immersion is part of the fun in our immersive fantasy games.

Perhaps most importantly, Zak calls me on my bullshit. (Oddysey is also indispensable for this.) You need people to do that to keep you out of deep, stifling, and creatively barren ruts. Of course, some people love wallowing in such ruts and hate being prodded out of them.

Nobody has asked Zak to drink hemlock. Not yet. But folks have gotten grumbly. The world, as seen through the eyes of an artist who sees things as they are, lacks the comfortable assumptions that most of us need to get through the day. Some people simply cannot endure what the eyes of such an artist see. Sometimes, they’ll lash out bitterly at those who knock over or ridicule the illusionary worlds they’ve built for themselves.

They’ll also lash out at you when you accidentally bump up against the set-dressing you can’t even see because you don’t share their illusions. Just something to keep in mind.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Playing with Kyma - the Market District

The ocean-side port, warehouses, and shops on the southern shore. Heavily fortified to protect against both storms and pirate attacks. Good source for exotic fruits and woods, spices, gemstones (especially turquoise, obsidian, coral, and pearl), whale oil, wool and furs, marble and exotic construction materials, and human and dragonborn slaves, as well as more exotic sorts. Also includes accommodations (inns, taverns, low-end brothels) for travelers).

Connected to the Bazaar District by the Grand Canal. While you can get seafood here, those in the know go outside the city walls to the Tumbles.

During the monsoon, encounters happens on a roll of 1 on a d10 every hour. The rest of the year, they occur on a roll of 1 on a d6 every hour.


  1. 2d12 Palace Guards searching for something (or someone) missing from the palace. Roll a d6. On a 1-3, they are alone, not terribly serious about the search, and eager for a distraction. On a roll of 4-5, they have a weretiger forced into half-form on a silver chain sniffing down their quarry for them. On a roll of 6, they are being guided by a seer.
  2. A selkie disguised as a human or elf. Roll a d4. On a 1-3, it’s searching for a good mate to conceive a child with. On a 4, it’s searching for a lost sibling.
  3. Werefox disguised as an exiled elven noblewoman, searching for a suitably talented elven or (if really talented) human woman to serve as her slave/lover/apprentice.
  4. Devotees of Xithras, heavily armed and looking for trouble. During the day, they’ll be attempting to discourage the sale and transport of necromantic paraphernalia and transformative magic, especially fertility enhancers like minotaur milk. If encountered at night, they’ll be conducting a clandestine raid on a warehouse or ship, and will be led by a paladin 25% of the time. In either case, they’ll avoid confrontations with city or palace guards, and will not engage in violence with any group that is equal to them or greater in strength.
  5. Human barbarians from the west. They’ll be heavily armed and looking for excitement and adventure. They’ll be boisterous, but polite to women and any they perceive as weaker than themselves. However, disparagement of their honor or character (and any negative comments about their mothers) will lead to drawn blades and shed blood.
  6. Human barbarians from the east. They’re quiet, seeking as little attention as possible, stick together, and will shrink from open combat. However, they’ll happily murder anyone they see as interfering with their quest (and will even hire Hasheeshins to do the job if they don’t know they’re up to the challenge), and will not hesitate to employ any means they deem necessary for the completion of their mission. They are in the city in order to (d6) 1-2: rescue a kidnapped princess; 3-4: recover a lost scroll; 5: assassinate a wealthy merchant; or 6: steal a powerful magic item.
  7. Delegation from one of the Sea Princes. 25% chance they’ll have an escort of Palace Guards. Haughty, rude, expecting to be hated, but eager to capitalize on opportunities for profit.
  8. 1d8 sailors on carouse. 1 in 20 chance that one of their fellow carousers is a selkie in disguise of either sex. For every hour the PCs spend with them, there’s a 1-in-6 chance of one of the following happening (d4 + highest CHR bonus):
    1 - fist-fight with rival crew.
    2 - knife-fight with rival crew.
    3 - acquire a pinch of dreamblossom snuff (powerful hallucinogen and aphrodisiac, and even a pinch is worth 10 gp).
    4 - PC gifted with a selkie-gold earring (advantage on sight-related rolls once per day).
    5 - PC wins a talking parrot in a game of chance (1-in-10 chance the parrot is a fey in disguise, else 1-in-20 chance it’s an eastern barbarian prince/ess transformed by spell).
    6 - PC wins lifelong friends who will smuggle things/people/PCs out of/into town when the ship is in port (1-in-10 chance any given week, 1-in-20 during monsoons).
  9. western barbarian witch hunting a man who owes her (d6) 1-2: 50 sp, 3-4: the skull of an enemy, 5: his soul, or 6: his firstborn.
  10. delegation from the merfolk. 2d6 humans (25% they’re actually selkies) plus one merfolk noble being carried in a bowl-like litter filled with seawater born by burly human (10% instead sharkfolk) slaves.
  11. 1d6 escaped slaves, looking to smuggle themselves out of town. If returned, they’ll net a reward of 2d6% of their market value.
  12. 1d3 agents of the sharkfolk intent on (d6) 1-3: securing protection money from a bold but broke ship’s captain, 4-5: disguised as carousing sailors looking for victims to kidnap and return to the sharkfolk as slaves/food, 6: looking to burn a ship that didn’t pay its protection money.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How Deep Is My Rabbit Hole

This sort of thing rubs me the wrong way. Specifically, this part:

It turns out that if you simply think "hey, there's a village of people here, maybe we can talk to them and figure out what's been going on" then the storyline starts to break considerably, and when the adventuring party starts to make peace treaties with them and get regular intelligence updates, a lot of later "OMG SURPRISE MONSTERS!" moments become less surprising. That's a good illustration of Fucked Up Trope #1: everyone you encounter, if they don't have a Special Plot Helmet, is presumed to be someone you're going to murder and rob, probably in that order.

Ok, by itself, yes, this points out an area where the Temple of Elemental Evil is surprisingly weak (especially compared to Keep on the Borderlands, Vault of the Drow, and especially Shrine of the Kuo-Toa). But that’s not his principal point.

Mr. Zungar’s pointing out the murder-hobos nature of D&D and asks, “Hey, what if we make peace with the hobgoblins instead of attacking them?”

To which I respond, and completely without sarcasm, “By what methods do you make peace with the hobgoblins?”

The hobgoblins are not some misunderstood noble savage, a more pure culture unsullied by contact with “civilization” or the magical brown people de jure. (Though I suppose in Mr. Zungar’s games they could be.) They are a race of slave-owning militarists who consider other sentient beings to be a delicious part of this complete breakfast. They’re medieval Nazis, or Spartans with the humanity filed off. Those who befriend the hobgoblins in the Caves of Chaos are likely to be invited to join them as they feast on plump merchant-and-wife. I don’t have ToEE in front of me right now, but I imagine the hobgoblins there are devotees of Zuggtmoy, demon-goddess of evil (and, one imagines, tasty) fungi. (Seriously, I could totally see Zuggtomy being an Underdark fertility figure, Goddess of the fungal fields, a sort of monstrous Persephone who seduces Hades and robs him of his fecundity in order to feed her legion of followers. Vault of the Drow kinda implies that she, and not Lolth, is the principal deity worshipped by the drow, and that Lolth is an upstart looking to instigate a coup.) In order to befriend the hobgoblins, will the PCs be expected to join the cult? Why not?

I think this is why I find Raggi’s vision of D&D so compelling. It’s a Dashiell Hammett world with swords. These guys might not be so vile as those guys, but nobody’s in the running for the title of actual, unadulterated good guy. It’s vice and greed and brutality and foolishness as far as the eye can see.

But that’s how I play D&D. Mr. Zungar is, of course, welcome to get all post-modern and deconstructive in his games. Others are welcome to go the opposite direction, declaring hobgoblins to be manifestations of the Mythic Underworld, shadows without personality and personhood, and thus “killable” without moral consequences.

Flavor to taste, y'all.

Monday, July 21, 2014

More A5t Via boingboing

Via boingboing, more 5e art, in this case specifically from the Player's Handbook.  Scrolling past the article, we find a red dragon facing off against some heroes by Daren Bader.

My first reaction: the Hildebrandts called and want their color palette back. 

It's ok.  There are bits of it I like, bits of it that kinda remind me of Otis, and the colors and shades and composition and little details all have a pleasantly fairy-tale feel to them.  But it doesn't grip me or get me excited about playing.

I like Tenery's wood elf city much more, in spite of it clearly owing a lot to Peter Jackson's movies and medieval Russian architecture.  Also, the clearly cut-and-pasted elements in it.  In spite of all of that, it has great mood and character.  Looking at this, I can tel you things about the people who live here.  As a player, I'm intrigued and want to explore.  As a DM, I'm inspired and eager to portray the inhabitants of this city to my players.  In short, it does (for me, anyway) exactly what I want art in an RPG to do.  This is especially so when you look at the bigger version at the top of the article. 

WAR's Mordenkainen's Sword is amazing.  I want to play this character and cast this spell against a foe who's been my nemesis for the past three adventures in a final spell-to-spell showdown.  He oozes cool.  He's clearly a bad-ass high-fantasy version of Dr. Strange, Harry Potter grown up and in another universe, an ass-kicker and name-taker supreme.  This piece grips me exactly in the same way that Trampier's  Emirikol the Chaotic did.  If this character doesn't wind up on a lot of character sheets or in campaigns (alas, most likely as a DM PC), I'll eat my hat.  This is Reynolds doing what Reynolds does best.

Then we have Claudio Pozas' Cloudkill.  It kinda looks like a MtG illustration, more so than even Reynold's Mordenkainen's Sword.  I think that's because in Reynold's piece, it's clearly the spell-slinger that's the focus of attention.  Here, it's the cloud. 

I like the details, especially the dwarves that strike me as vaguely Babylonian.  I think a bit too much punch was pulled on what is, in effect, a summoning of mustard gas.  But maybe I've been spoiled by Raggi's art.

I think I'll come to appreciate Scott M. Fischer's High Elf Wizard the more I look at it, but right now I appreciate the pleasant colors and shapes, but as a composition it just doesn't gel for me.  And is it just me, or does she look like she's just tripped and is about to impale herself on the spikey end-caps of her scroll?

As for the warlock page, it looks good: easy to read, easy to find information, pleasing to the eye and complex without feeling cluttered.  I'd have used a bit more sans serif, but they probably get better effect using color.

I've already said I think all there is to say for now about the cover.

All-in-all, I'm pleased.  I think too much emphasis is put on having a unified look in RPGs.  Sure, with some RPGs that have a very strong theme and setting, that can be important.  In a more generic RPG, like D&D, variety is called for.  There's stuff here that leave me feeling very meh about it, but there's also stuff that gets me excited to play.  And I'll bet you there are folks out there who feel exactly the opposite of how I do on the same pieces.  Variety means, sure, some of your pieces won't click with some viewers, but gives you a much better shot at having something that will click with everyone.