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.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Elite: Not So Dangerous

The Thargoids are here! For definitions of “here” that are limited to certain locations in the game Elite: Dangerous, anyway. And ObisidanAnt, premier journalist of the game, asks, “Does anybody care?”

The short answer is that some do, but most don’t, and I’m pretty sure this is on purpose. One of the sacred cows of these sorts of games is, “Don’t impact the fun of the players.” For the most part, this gets translated into, “Whenever you add some new content to a game, make sure people can ignore it if they want to.”

This makes sense. After all, if you’ve got tens of thousands of players having fun, you don’t want some new, untried, and experimental content harshing their buzz. But it also traps the game in its current state. Nothing momentous can happen because truly momentous things can’t be ignored.

ObsidianAnt observes that, while everyone thinks the Thargoids wrecking space stations and leaving them on fire is cool, not everyone is gung-ho about hauling the massive list of materials needed to repair them. And why should they be? Let’s be honest: a burning station is far cooler to fly past than another perfectly normal and functioning station. Sure, you can’t really get all the normal services at a wrecked station, and they can even be hazardous to dock in, but that’s not a huge deal when there are almost certainly other stations and even planetary bases elsewhere in the system to dock at. And these invariably have not been affected by the Thargoid attack. Because if the Thargoids could disrupt an entire system, then players would have a harder time ignoring them.

This should bring to mind Jeff Rients’ Broodmother Skyfortress. That game is all about blowing things up: favorite taverns, political alignments, even the very mechanics of the game the players have come to rely on. When the Broodmother shows up, you can’t ignore her and her brood. It’s do-or-die time and no matter what you do, your campaign will never be the same.

And it is AWESOME!

Granted, it’s far safer to take these sorts of risks around your table. Your players are probably not paying you to play and you’re not relying on them to keep the lights on. And if some change really does the dead-fish belly-flop at your table, you can always retcon it out of existence. Frontier Developments don’t have that kind of flexibility or security. But if Elite: Dangerous has a problem it is this: nothing really matters. You can wrack up your various scores (ships in your stable, credits in your account, prestige titles, etc.) but there’s little you can do with that stuff that’s meaningful to the game as a whole. For good or ill, it’s difficult to have any sort of visible impact on the world of the game. Which means your fun is unlikely to be interrupted, but it also means once the fun is over, there’s really nothing left to hold your interest.

For something like the Thargoids to matter, they have to have some impact. And for them to truly have an impact, something needs to be at risk. And risk is far easier to pull off around your kitchen table than it is on a triple-A computer game.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Whither Weather?

Over on the GeePlus, Steven Menteer asks: How do you make weather meaningful both in terms of story and game mechanics?

He’s asking this in the 5e group, but I’m going to answer mostly generically here. Story-wise:

  1. Weather Reflects the Story: dark, heavy clouds hang oppressively over the lands of the tyrannical evil baron. Mischievous autumn winds catch up the motley leaves in a wild and playful dance through the streets of the halfling village. For miles around the dragon’s lair, the land is barren, the wells dry, the creeks choked with dust, and even the warmth of the sun is sucked away by a persistent haze, until only a dull, bloody glow permeates the veil of dust.
  2. Weather as Antagonist: this can be implied, as in the stories of Jack London, or some degree of literal, as in Caradhras in The Fellowship of the Ring or the darkness in Veins of the Earth. Nature is trying to defeat you somehow and the weather is one of its tools to do so. Passes will be snowed in, damp wood refuses to light or only allows weak, smoky fires, deep fog hides the movements of enemy troops, ice breaks underfoot, rocks or even entire trees fall on you, snow and mud reveals your tracks and slows your pace, pollen clogs your nostrils and stings your eyes, gales howl or winds refuse to blow and becalm your ship… The possibilities are endless here.
  3. Weather as a Weapon: like above only possibly more limited. Lots of “epic” critters have Regional Effects they can invoke along these lines, such as the kraken’s control weather ability and the chilly fog or swirling blizzards that surround a white dragon’s lair. Druids and other spell-slingers can also mold the weather with their spells aggressively.
  4. Weather that Marks the Passage of Time: spring rains, muggy summer nights, crisp autumn evenings and icy winter mornings help set the scene and let your players know that they’re exploring a living, breathing world. And you don’t need to stick with the standard weather patterns either. You can have exaggerated weather patterns (“Winter is coming.”) or more extreme weather patterns (dry vs. rainy season of the Serengeti, tornado season in the Great Plains, the monsoons of India and Arizona, etc.) and the cultural events that surround them.

As for rules, 5e makes this pretty easy. Even if you don’t use the exhaustion rules on page 291 of the PHB, it’s easy to include the effects of weather as advantage or disadvantage on a roll. Heavy rain or howling winds or smothering fog impede your perception checks. Rain or snow can obscure footprints. Strong winds can push arrows and javelins off target or diminish their effective range. Being forced to sleep in the open while bands of cold rain sweep over the moors could prevent the PCs from enjoying the benefits of a long rest. If you’re feeling really nasty, persistent rain could soak the PCs belongings, ruining maps or mildewing spell scrolls (a survival check could dictate how well the PCs protected their belongings from the insidious damp).

That all said, I probably wouldn’t invoke rules on weather unless it served your game. This sort of thing is a no-brainer in survival-focused Old School play, but if you’re all about the super-heroic epic conflict, I’d probably not even bother with the weather except as set-dressing unless it was actively being involved in things by some power interested in what the PCs were doing or attempting to thwart. Weather-as-nuisance is a thing that happens in real life and totally fits when the PCs are trying to scrape a living from a harsh and uncaring world. Weather-as-nuisance is just annoying when the PCs are all about thwarting the Arch-lich’s plans to replace the High Queen with a transformed red dragon right in the middle of her coronation ceremony.

Art by Pierre Auguste Cot.