Tuesday, March 03, 2015

What's Up at WotC?

Joe Kushner of the blog Appendix N isn't happy with the support WotC has given 5e:

Wizards of the Coast just released something called "Unearthed Arcana". A few pages with no illustrations and no page design to them. It looks like something that fell off of some designer's desk that WoTC said, "Yeah, put that up online."

This is terrible. People, well, me, I expect some professionalism from WoTC. With all of the stock art they have, with all of the templates for designed books they have, with all of the trade dress they have, the best they could do is this? This half-baked mess? Well, you get what you pay for here.

Just how bad does Mr. Kushner think it is? “My opinion hasn't changed much from my earlier musings on the subject. Unless WoTC somehow surprises me, 5th edition will be the last print edition of the game.”

So what is going on? I think, I honestly do think, that WotC has no idea what they want to do with D&D.

Over at ENWorld, we have this quote from Mike Mearls on the non-publishing of the Adventurer's Handbook:

we've played things close to the vest is that it's a huge, open question on what support for the RPG should look like... we do a lot of stuff that may or may not end up as a released product. For instance, we now know that the high volume release schedule for 3e and 4e turned out to be bad for D&D. It wasn't too many settings that hurt TSR, but too many D&D books of any kind. lots of experiments ahead...

Ever get the feeling that, so far as Hasbro is concerned, WotC can do what they like with D&D just so long as they keep the IP alive and don't fumble the glorious gravy-train that is Magic: the Gathering?

Seriously, it very much feels like D&D is this tiny department whose directive from on-high is, “Don't go over-budget, but keep the name alive until somebody figures out how to make real money with this thing.”

Frankly, if that's true, it's very exciting.

The truth is, lots of supplements are bad for a game. Paizo recently launched a “core rules” version of their organized play. Why? Because, in spite of Paizo's slow-drip release schedule for rules, there's simply too much there for new players to master, and if you don't master it, you're going to get overshadowed and steamrollered by the veterans. Also, their original adventures crumble when you toss the new character options at them.


This sort of thing is bad for the an RPG. It inhibits growth, it alienates existing fans that don't want to always have to scramble to keep up with the latest-and-greatest, and, if you read between the lines, it looks a bit like some of the original classes may now be obsolete next to the new sexy hotness. That's not going to sit well with fans of the old classes.

The last thing Paizo wants to do is release a new edition of their game. Helping people keep playing 3.x D&D is how they got started. It's the very foundation of their success.

The last thing WotC wants is to be where Paizo is and be forced to shatter their fanbase by releasing 6e in four years.

So what to do?

This is pretty uncharted territory. Chaosium's really the only outfit I can think of off the top of my head to pull off a long-running RPG business without seriously mucking with their core rules. And they're not exactly know for a hot-and-heavy publishing schedule. Their big seller support product still appears to be “Horror on the Orient Express” which was first released in '91. And they've just kickstarted a new edition of the game.

Tori Bergquist thinks Green Ronin's go this thing down, able to keep a strong publication schedule rolling in spite of the current environment. Sure, they've got a robust schedule for 2015. But what's Green Ronin's flagship game? M&M? Only one dead-tree release is scheduled for 2015. Their Dragon Age RPG is getting what amounts to a new edition, replacing the boxed sets with a book, a revised DM's screen, and a dead-tree, expanded version of an old PDF adventure. You can maybe-sorta count the release of the Dragon Age mechanics in their own book with the setting stripped out as another book in that series, but that's kinda stretching it.

And the story is the same for their SoIaF RPG: one big adventure book, one rules supplement, and some PDFs. In short, while Green Ronin's publishing schedule may look robust, for each individual game it's a rulebook, an adventure that may or may not be in dead-tree form, and maybe some PDFs.

It sounds like Mearls wants to do something different. That sounds very cool to me. It also sounds like they're still figuring out exactly what that is. Here's hoping for something innovative and sock-blowing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Succubi Suck!

The succubus of 1e AD&D is the stuff of jokes because of the picture. Still, she was a classic femme fatale, able to lure the innocent to their doom with a come-hither gaze, copious charm spells, and a deadly kiss. She suffered from being rather fragile in a toe-to-toe fight (unless she could summon in some help), was yet another good reason for PCs to be constantly paranoid, and, honestly, was eclipsed by the more flexible and dangerous lamia.

When WotC took over,the succubus’ repertoire got broadened. She became the ultimate spy, an expert in such skills as bluffing, intimidation, impersonation, and investigation. Toss in her magical powers and she could become the true power behind the throne, a sort of Grima Wormtongue with more sex appeal.

So, what did WotC do with the succubus in 5e?

Frankly, I’m not sure.

Oh, I have the MM. She (and the incubus) are on pages 284 and 285. The flavor text talks about the succubus infiltrating the dreams of a chosen victim in order to weaken their moral resolve. That might be a fun thing to play, or a neat little side-plot to a more developed adventure (“Why is Brother Anselm always looking so tired these days? And why is he so cranky?”). It’s not, however, the sort of thing D&D adventures are typically made of. Nor is her sleep-invading power defined in any way, so exactly how you thwart it is really up to the DM.

She’s got great Deception and Persuasion skill bonuses (+9) and a good Insight bonus (+5) to back them up. But while those skills are exceptional, they’re hardly supernatural. She can still shift her form. But she’s lost all her magical abilities like suggestion except for her charm power.

Which can only be used on a single person at a time.

And only lasts 24 hours at most.

And then, when it ends, can’t be used again on the same individual for another 24 hours.

A harem of inc/succubi could be a really annoying additional obstacle in a fight; you're here to kill the Grand Warlock, but while you're attempting to put the hurt on him, his whatever-cubi buddies are hanging out in the ethereal, tossing charms and popping into the material world just long enough to drop 5d10+5 points of slobbery kootie damage on someone. But, frankly, is that cooler than a wand of lightning bolts, a flock of pet harpies, or a pair of amorous red slaadi?

To put it bluntly, I’m a bit at a loss as to what I’m supposed to do with this critter. She’d probably be most effective popping in, charming some NPC, then going ethereal while she interrogates her new best friend via her telepathic bond that can bridge planes. Useful, sure, but it would seem you could replace the monster with a nifty spell or two. Like scrying.

Scrying is one of the powers the lamia has, in addition to suggestion. She can also toss geas once per day. Her intoxicating touch, while nowhere near as potent as the old Wisdom-draining one, is a lot more fun and useful than the succubus’ boring kiss (which does nothing but deal damage and can only be used on someone she’s charmed, and even then gives the target another saving throw to break out of the charm).

The only thing that the succubus has over the lamia is the ability to go ethereal. It’s a neat trick that will allow the succubus to escape certain death most of the time (until the PCs get a way to thwart it). Whether that allows for a cool repeating villain or creates an annoying and not-fun headache for the players will depend on careful play by the DM.

As for me, right now I’m tempted to replace every inc/succubus with a lamia. They’re both rated at Challenge 4, the lamia has more neat tricks in her bag, and she’s much more likely to come across as challenging rather than annoying.

Monday, February 23, 2015

You're Not Wearing That Tonight, Are You?

Or, 10 Random Facts About Kyma.

Kiel Chenier suggested we share ten “random” facts about our campaigns that make them unique. The campaign that I’m getting the most play in now is my face-to-face 5e game. It’s a (mostly) urban game, taking place in a metropolis that’s heavily inspired by ancient Babylon, medieval Constantinople, and fantasy cities like Sanctuary. The urban random encounter tables I’ve been posting were made for this game.

This was my first attempt at running a 5e game, so a lot of things are fairly bog-standard. I didn’t create any special classes or races, and I made room for all the things that were in the PHB.

However, that still left a lot of space for me to put my own spin on things. Here are ten examples of that:

  1. Orcish Manhood: when a male orc reaches a certain age, he is tried by his clan, found guilty of being a feral beast, and banished. He must then prove his worth to another clan before he’s allowed to join it and fully be accepted as an adult orc. Typically, it’s the females of the tribe who’ve successfully raised sons to the point where they’ve been banished whose approval must be won. Kyma is thus home to a steady population of young orcs looking to win gold, fame, and steel in the city by whatever means necessary. They often end up fighting in the colosseum, acting as thugs to those with money, or forming fraternal gangs in the city’s expansive sewers and catacombs. If orcish females are about, one or more of these “juvenile” males won’t be far away, looking for an opportunity to prove his mettle.
  2. Warlocks: most citizens of Kyma believe that warlockery is illegal. Technically, this isn’t true. What is illegal is fraternizing and dealing with demons, devils, and other inhabitants of the “Lower Planes.” Those whose powers derive from an Archfey are not in violation of the law. Technically, neither are those who’ve turned to the alien Great Old Ones. However, since most folks can’t really tell the difference between a demon and a Great Old One, the distinction rarely saves a warlock from being burned at the stake. However, the warlocks can easily tell, and those who serve Fiends and those who serve Outsiders revile each other. Violence is common when they can get away with it while not drawing too much attention to themselves.
  3. Paladins: in 5e, these come in three flavors. On the streets of Kyma, they come in four flavors. Those who take the Oath of the Ancients serve the Fey Powers. They tend to be hedonists with hearts of gold, and if you think Fandral or Volstagg from The Warriors Three, you won’t be far wrong.
  4. Most paladins who take the Oath of Devotion join the priesthood of Xithras the Defender. When not slaying monsters and routing the undead, they turn themselves to rooting out the warping powers of Transmutation magic. Feeling that the “natural” forms of creatures is sacred, anything that threatens that purity is anathema, even the use of potions fashioned from minotaur milk to enhance fertility. As an organization, they are distrustful of tieflings, seeing them as living examples of the horrors that await anyone who starts down the slippery slope of magical enhancement.
  5. The Hasheeshins of Skotas the Hidden take the Oath of Vengeance. They seek to pierce the veils of lies and illusions people cloak themselves in via the use of powerful hallucinogens. The line between dream and reality is of vital interest to Hasheeshins, and thus they have a harder time of perceiving it than most. However, where others assume, the Hasheeshin looks deeply, and is more likely to root out hidden truths.
  6. The paladins of Phaedre, goddess of War and Love, are all women (though not all were born that way). They can swear the oaths of Devotion or Vengeance. All sorts of rumors swirl around their mysterious rituals and practices: that they are cannibals, that they will remain forever young so long as they bathe in the blood of their goddess’ enemies, that any man who slays one of these Warriors of the Red Dawn will sire a daughter who will be his death. Phaedre’s paladins do little to discourage the rumors.
  7. Calendar: Kyma exists in a sub-tropical zone with monsoon-dominated weather patterns. The calendar I used is a modified version of this one.
  8. Elves: have words, rituals, and patterns to accommodate a large array of what humans would call romantic relationships, from one-night-stands to lifebonds (until death do them part) and even soulbonds (which persist through this life and into the next). What humans would more easily recognize as marriage does exist, but is usually contracted for a period of years divisible by seven. Tradition favors seven, 49, and 210 years. This is the most common arrangement for the raising of children. The most famous such relationship was between Kyma’s great sultan Zafir and the elven princess Kosmyna. It was a time of strong unity between the humans and the elves. Unfortunately, Zafir was slain during a campaign against the tiefling Sea Princes. When word of his death reached Kyma, the harem exploded in a frenzy of bloodletting and murder. Kosmyna was among the first to die. Kosmyna’s homeland, the coastal city-state Galazos, declared war against Kyma. In spite of gifts and abject apologies from a number of sultans over the decades, Kyma's ships still keep a sharp eye out for vengeful elven corsairs. After all, a marriage that took place 88 years ago may seem like ancient history to most humans, but is within the living memory of all adult elves.
  9. Fashion Tips for Men: Pants, and pretty much any bifurcated garment, are seen as barbaric in Kyma. A man in trousers is making a statement, being publicly humiliated, or doesn’t know any better.
  10. Yuppie Street Violence: dominated by middle-class artisans, the Terraces are a bustle of noise and industry during the day and a bustle of noise and revelry (mostly by the artisans’ apprentices) in the night. The streets are mostly clear of crime and gangs from the other parts of the city because the apprentices are quick to defend what they consider their turf (unless they’re busy in guild-vs-guild shenanigans and rumbles). Most of the ruckus dies down by midnight, when the apprentices have either settled into their favorite taverns (the Terraces sport a wide range of them) or moved on to the Night Blooms to spend what coin they’ve managed to scrounge up.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Brandon Liao

Just added a new artist to my art links on the right: Brandon Liao.

His work has a very Numenera-ish feel to me, a sort of '70s-80s-era Saturday-Morning-Cartoons-grown-up feel I find pleasantly inspiring.

You can also see his stuff over at Deviant Art under madspartan013.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Turning "What did we get?" Into "Here's What You Know."

Angry’s got a pretty good rant (or, rather, how-to) on exposition. Suffice it to say, your best world-showing probably happens in the game, rather than before (though I never fail to sneak in a little via character creation, and D&D 5’s backgrounds are a great opportunity for more of that).

There are some related thoughts on ars ludi about using treasure as a method for providing exposition:

There are lots of times during a game when players are half-listening, or thinking about other things, or maybe just wandering into the kitchen to get a soda. But in the magical post-combat pre-treasure window, everyone’s attention is high, their curiosity is piqued, and they are clamoring to hear what you will say next.

Couple this with the Three Clue Rule and you shouldn’t have much trouble filling out your treasures with interesting stuff. The treasure doesn’t just include a map to the ancient elven forge, but an elven silvered dagger worn by the scholar the map was stolen from bearing his family crest on the pommel, and an ornamental lapis-and-gold bowl engraved with runes commemorating a deal between the forge and a dwarven nation which agreed to supply the forge with mithril in exchange for an even weight of brandy.

Which answers the question Zak brought up when I was trying to find where I’d read the ars ludi quote above:

I just go "…aaaaaad 5200gp worth of random fancy junk". The thing I hate is when it's like "…and 37 copper and 2 tourmalines worht 6000 each and…" like: why are we doing math for no reason and hearing random jewel names?

I’ll admit the Gygaxian Naturalist in me knows exactly why the hobgoblins have a chest full of uncut rubies, but, as Zak points out, it’s really all the same to the players. (Most of the time. My college group was big on the types of gems they were getting and using them in jewelry they designed and commissioned for themselves. But they were an exceptional bunch in many ways.)

With treasure-as-exposition, you get to eat your cake and have it too. Just be sure the exposition gives them something actionable. That is, it’s not just, “Hearken ye back to the days of yore…” and is more, “Hey, I’ll bet these elves could tell us something about the lost forge,” or “Wait a minute… these are all tools for hunting vampires. Do you think these guys knew something we don’t?”

Friday, January 16, 2015

"There's Gonna be a Rumble..."

Mr. Robertson has been contemplating urban adventures lately after flipping through the 1e DMG’s urban random encounters table (you know, the one with the wanderling harlot subtable). As per usual with 1e random tables, there’s no effort spared on encounter balance. Just as in the wilderness where 3rd level PCs could encounter ancient dragons, so too could that wandering harlot be a succubus and that old man could be a high-level wizard. So Mr. Robertson asks:

While the idea of letting players run into this range of adversaries is appealing to me, I wonder if other people have had success with this? How did you make players aware of the risk involved in the average man they meet with a sword when they could be a 0-level person, or 10th level fighter? If they are not dressed like a Lord, do not have obvious magic items, and are hanging around in a common sort of place do you give any hints to ensure the players don't unwittingly bite off more than they can chew?

Well, as long-time readers of this blog know, I’m more than happy to let my players bite off far more than they can chew anytime they feel like it. That said, my current 5e campaign is almost exclusively urban (we’ve been playing since September and I think they’ll have their first real dungeon-delve of the campaign in our next session or the one after). So I do have some recent observations to throw into the ring.

In general, I've found players avoid violence inside cities. The social repercussions are seen as too daunting. Sure, you can kick around that one-legged beggar, but if he's a member of the Beggars Guild, that means facing enforcers from the guild later, large men without necks and a pinch or two of ogre in their background and absolutely no senses of humor.

And this pretty much holds for the entire city: the pencil-necked alchemist could hire an expert duelist to call you out, the sailor just off the boat has his crew backing him up and the urchins travel in packs.

So violence, when it happens, tends to be very focused, very quick, and the PCs have to be all but pushed into it. (Of course, since we're playing 5e, that also means I've had to chunk the EXPs-for-murder mechanic the game is built around).

Now, I did front-load this by tying local knowledge into character creation, using their chosen backgrounds as opportunities to speak of the dangers of the Beggars Guild, the political alliances of the city, and tying the PCs into their own alliances (that are too useful to threaten by acting like jerks).

Another consideration going the other way, however, is the openeness of the urban environment. If they players haven't wandered into a well-planned ambush, they can almost certainly flee in multiple directions. So if they do get in over their heads, they can generally beat a hasty retreat, regroup and figure out who they need to pay off to make this problem go away.

Mr. Robertson adds:

I was thinking of the 'Rake' encounter from the DMG: 2-5 young gentlemen fighters of 5th to 10th level (d6 +4). The rakes will always be aggressive, rude, and sarcastic.

In this case, the NPCs are begging for a fight. If the PCs take the bait (the wood elf barbarian and feral, raised-by-wolves half-elf ranger in my current group absolutely would), what then?

Well, assuming they’re badly outgunned, they’re unlikely to suffer a TPK in a single assault. Even 10th level fighters can rarely do more than 20 points of a damage to a single individual in a single attack, and that’s only if they roll critical. (I think. Important caveat here: I've only played so much 5e and barbarian rage can be pretty scary.) So it’s unlikely even one PC will be KOed after the first round of combat. Even a wizard with no Constitution bonuses or defensive spells up has 14 hit points by 3rd level, and the party’s fighters will have 22 without Constitution bonuses. So they’ll get a single round of fighting at the very least where I can make clear to them the skill of their foes when describing the wounds they take. A smart party would hopefully see what’s happening and take the opportunity to flee, regroup, and plot revenge.

And if they don’t? Well, as Mr. Roberts points out, “The 5e rule where they could elect to make their attacks non-lethal might be helpful as well.” Why did the rakes start the fight? Maybe they just roll the PCs, lifting all their loose coinage and jewelry and leaving them for others (local clerics or the like) to rescue. Were they just trying to make a point to a patron or organization friendly to the PCs? Or do they drag them off for ransom? Sell them to the Temple of Shkeen? With a TPKO, the adventure’s just begun.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Whither DUNGEON and DRAGON?

I haven’t heard. I have heard scuttlebutt that they’re still trying to figure it out, and I suspect that’s the case. Magazines aren’t the revenue-generation machines they used to be. With the existence of the internet, DRAGON can’t be the social hub and font-of-all-news they were back in the 21st century. Print is expensive to produce and ship; unless you plan to go the Raggi artisanal route (which is kinda the polar opposite of what we expect from a magazine, but in this age of retro-cool maybe it could work) there are better methods for delivering that sort of stuff.

For 3e, WotC farmed out production of the magazines to a third party. This created Paizo. I suspect there’s some resistance inside WotC towards going down that path again. Still, it is in keeping with farming out the production of the Tiamat adventure series to Kobold. So while I see this as terribly unlikely, I don’t see it as beyond the realm of options they’re probably looking at.

The magazines went digital in the era of 4e, serving as loss-leaders and content generators for a digital portal that was supposed to be the hub of 4e play and a strong source of revenue. Alas, about the only part that really worked was the (admittedly indispensable) character generator. With the faceplant that was the Morningstar project, I suspect D&D’s digital future is still being hashed out. If they go digital with the magazines, there’s a very good chance they’ll be attached to whatever online offerings WotC offers behind a paywall. I see this as the most likely option, but that’s assuming WotC doesn’t just throw up their hands and walk away from any sort of digital for-pay products. Their history with that sort of thing isn’t exactly festooned with success.

Which brings me to what I consider to be the most interesting option. Assuming a fairly permissive third-party publication license, DUNGEON and DRAGON could be the methods by which WotC leads and guides that sort of thing. They could serve as a sort of Manual of Style for publishers. They could be used to showcase the sort of work they’d (officially) like to see more of. The magazines could be a vehicle for publishers and designers to get their names out there. In short, they could serve as a sort of guide and ideal and possibly even imprimatur by which WotC could lead third party publishers and their customers towards the best work.

What appeals to me about this is that, as a guide-by-carrot, it won’t shut down the likes of Raggi if they decide to publish something really out there for 5e, but could possibly mitigate some of the tide of utter dross a really open publishing license is likely to unleash. However, I’m not seeing a really good way to directly monetize that sort of thing short of selling ad space (which isn’t a bad thing, mind you, just not a recipe for financial success to date). Maybe they could go the route of digital comics and sell dead-tree collections, or maybe best-of compilations as they did in the 1e days?