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.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Useful Strange

Over on the Monsters and Manuals blog’s 10 year anniversary post (congrats!), reader Mufn said of McGrogan’s blog:

Your blog is at the heart of what i call the 'Useful Strange' corner of the OSR blogoscene, im glad that you keep chugging away at things.

When asked what other blogs fit that category, the mysterious Mufn replied:
You have the usual suspects of Coin and Scrolls, False Machine, Goblin Punch, Zak, Against the Wicked City, though there are many MANY others as I'm sure you know haha

(Links added for your convenience.)

The central point being that there's an onus on developing strange/weird/new ideas that are mechanically simple enough to slot in almost anywhere with a minimum of fuss.

I’d put Elf Maids & Octopi on that list, as well as Wizard Thief Fighter, Swords & Stitchery, and A Monster Manual Sewn From Pants. Cavegirl's Game Stuff absolutely belongs on this list. I’d love to put Hill Cantons on that list, but it’s been almost a year since the last update (but do go through the older posts for lots of fun weird goodness). Jeff's Gameblog probably belongs on this list, though compared to some of these others he might come across as a bit tame. ;)

Useful Strange is a wonderfully evocative description of a flavor of blogs we are blessed with. Hear’s hoping we see many more and for a long time.

And, of course: which ones did I miss?

EDIT: I oopsed and spelled Mufn's name as "Mfun." Fixed, and added a link to Mufn's blog.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Go and STAHP!

So, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is, as I’m sure you’ve heard, like that Volo’s book but different. Where Volo’s was more “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood,” Mordenkainen’s is a 30,000-foot view of the default multi-dimensional politics of D&D. The first section is the Blood War.

Now, straight up, the Blood War is one of my least favorite bits from Planescape. It’s just not that terribly compelling to me. It’s an endless, eternal war with no real prospect for major movement, forget climax. The way it’s described in Mordenkainen's makes it clear that, should either side actually achieve any serious victory, it could very well cascade into a rolling series of conquests that result in the end of everything, everywhere.

This is perfect if your game is all about the PCs trying to prop up the status quo by running around putting out little fires. To me, it feels way too much like Joss Whedon stomping on your face with the “Reprise” episode of Angel forever. Anyone who scratches at it even a little will see the nihilism-filling under the candy shell. It’s the antithesis of everything in Rients’ Broodmother Sky Fortress. If your idea of a good time is unleashing the PCs on your poor, unsuspecting worlds and watching them actually change things and knock stuff over or build their own stuff, the Blood War could serve as the outer bounds of that sandbox, but it threatens to become a wet blanket to smother the whole thing.

Even worse, it takes WotC something like 2,000 words to basically say that the demons and devils are engaged in near-constant warfare on the banks of the river Styx, primarily where it flows into the first layer of the Hells. The war is trapped in a deadlock where vast hordes of ravening demons smash against the highly organized and disciplined defenses of the devils. Both sides scour the multiverse for a way to break the impasse, thus creating all manner of opportunities for PCs to thwart cults, treasure-hunters, etc.

That up there is less than 100 words and gives you just about everything in the 2,000 words from the book. Paying writers by the word is a sickness that needs to be stamped out.

Now, we do get some fun stuff on demonic and devilish cults, the big personalities of the Hells (which is new for 5e) and the Abyss (which is largely lifted from the Out of the Abyss adventure) as well as fun random tables for creating cults and the like. Lots of useful stuff here for DMs, especially if you’re running a sort of PC-Inquisitors-vs.-Cults-of-Evil campaign. There are ways to customize cambions based on who their otherworldly parent was. We also get some tiefling sub-races based on the heavy-hitters from the Hells. Alas, there’s nothing in there about Abyssal tieflings. Boo!

The section on elves is probably the most useful for players. It’s nearly 30 pages long and gives us what may be the most Tolkien-esque version of D&D elves to date. It’s laced through with that melancholy sense of doom, this time cast as family drama, with the elves eternally longing for the acknowledgement and acceptance of a father who never really wanted them and can’t set aside his jealousy long enough to forgive them for wanting something he had no interest in giving them or helping them acquire. (Seriously, everyone comes out of this looking like self-centered jerks.) We get a nice big elven pantheon, and then we get new elven subraces, including sea elves, shadar-kai, and yet another version of the eladrin (this one kinda being four sub-races in one, as your eladrin character can shift between four seasonal versions depending on their general mood that day).

This is followed by shorter sections on the dwarves (including the duergar subrace), the giths (including playable versions of both gith-kind and an excuse for gith of both kinds to cooperate temporarily), and finally a section on halflings and gnomes (including rules for the sverfneblin sub-race).

This stuff could be nifty-keen if:

  1. Your DM reads this stuff and agrees that it describes how it works in your campaign, and…
  2. Your players read this stuff and incorporate it into how they play their characters.

The shortest of these sections is 12 pages long. There was a time when I would have read these entries with the obsessive eye for detail of a medieval scholastic. But that was junior high, and I was weird. For most of us, we might incorporate some of the sub-races listed here, as well as some of the fun random tables. Otherwise, there’s a lot of stuff that you might read once and then promptly forget.

In spite of all that, if you’re a DM, you want this book. Why? Because it has some of the best monsters ever officially produced for the game. The very first monster, the allip, is what happens to a scholar who learns cursed knowledge. The only way to escape the curse is to basically infect another scholar with a manic episode in which they scribble out all manner of nonsense that also includes the secret that cursed you. Flip the page (past the Astral Dreadnaught) and you find the balhannoth, a teleporting tentacle monster that uses illusions of your deepest desire to lure you into its traps. There’s the boneclaw, the result of a botched attempt to transform into a lich and which bonds with someone with “an unusually hate-filled heart.” They might not even realize they now have a talon-fingered undead slave eager to fulfill their most blood-curdling revenge fantasies, resulting in all manner of Carrie-esque hijinks. The cadaver collector is an automaton that spears corpses on itself and then raises the spirits of those corpses as specters in combat, which alas is mildly overshadowed by the more versatile corpse flower which kills you before adding you to the flower-like arrangement of corpses in its tangles, which it later uses to power its magical abilities.

And that’s just the first handful of pages from the bestiary. It doesn’t include the various sorts of deathlock, warlocks who have gravely offended their patrons and paid the price, or the alkilith, demonic fungus that grows in broken windows and open doorways, transforming them into portals to the Abyss. We also get the duergar hammer and screamer, mining machines with punished duergar strapped inside, which feed on the pain of their tortured occupants. There are the very Harryhausen eidolons, guardian spirits that animate sacred statues. There are the elder elemental kaiju, and the trapped-in-armor elemental mamluk myrmidons. We get horror-movie-esque baddies like the giant nightwalker and the body-snatching oblex. We get wargamey ogre variants: battering-ram, bolt-launcher, and howdah. We get some interesting variations on old favorites. The retriever is now a drowish automaton that scours the Demonweb for demons to enslave. Grue are now a version of the star spawn, cthulhuish monsters analogous to demons or fey. The grey render is the very embodiment of Kiel’s “Good Boys.”

Alas, the failings of the first part of the book do intrude in the bestiary. This shows up most strongly in the devil and demon entries, most of which read like units for a wargame. Still, there’s a ton of fun stuff for DMs in the monster section. If you’re a player, you can probably give this book a pass, especially if your DM uses bespoke settings and will allow you to use the Unearthed Arcana versions of the sub-races in this book.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Back to B2

Lady-love wanted to play some D&D this weekend, something quick and dirty without much prep. So she rolled up a gnome wizard botanist/inventor and I dusted off good ol' B2: Keep on the Borderlands.

I don’t remember the last time I ran this module. It was absolutely back in the 20th century. Shock and surprise: it holds up really, really well. I considered giving it an early Iron Age feel but didn’t pull the trigger on that; might still, but might not, also.

The opportunities for RP are excellent. Our PC fell in with a certain visiting priest and his two acolytes; if you know the adventure you know the fellow I’m talking about. Plot-balls are already rolling nicely.

The adventure badly needs a set of player maps. Of course the first thing PCs with access to the sleep spell are going to do is capture some goblins and interrogate them. It could also benefit from some NPCs or NPC generators. But maybe not; I’ve got access to so many of the things they’re hardly necessary.

The bare-bones structure also creates minor issues. The Caves of Chaos are insanely close to the Keep; even with my saying the CoC crew plans to take over the Keep and move in, the distance is frightfully small. There are some questions about the diets of the monsters, where they came from, how the location calls out to them, but if you’re a halfway decent DM that’s just opportunities for world-building. Ditto with the lack of names and interior details.

All-in-all, I’m really happy with how it runs even after all these years. We’re using 5e and not having a hard time at all with the conversion. Once again I’m tempted to run an old-school game with Moldvay/Cook built on old published adventures. Maybe if we find a group after the upcoming move.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Down-time Ding!

I recently dropped GP-for-EXP in one of my 5e games. It works great until about level 5. At that point, on a 1-for-1 basis, it starts getting silly. 6th level requires 14,000 EXP. I was saying PCs get 1 EXP for each gold piece they spent, and they could spend it on anything they wished. Unfortunately, 14,000 gp is insane. That’s individual, not total, so if four players pooled that kind of cash (56,000 gp) they could buy two warships, five longships, 50 spyglasses, 140 warhorses, 280 elephants, 1,000 camels, or 746 hand crossbows. Which would be great if the PCs were trying to start the world’s biggest circus or bankroll a small war. But keep in mind that this is only going from 5th to 6th level. Each character going from 9th to 10th level would need to spend 64,000 EXP, so its more than each of the things listed above before they’d pool their money.

Now, it’s entirely possible to organize a game to work with these sorts of numbers. According to the DMG, 5th through 10th level play is described as “Heroes of the Realm” tier play, so you could totally have the PCs involved in political shenanigans that would warrant those sorts of expenses: outfitting mercenary forces to supplement their liege lord’s border defenses against a rampaging orc horde, for instance, or an expeditionary force to a distant and exotic locale. From 11th to 16th level (“Masters of the Realm”) the PCs could be funding their own colonies on the edge of the wilderness old-school style and paying the upkeep on their own personal armies. And that’s a fun way to play, and fit our expectations of the game back in ‘80s. So yes, I think 1 EXP earned for each gold piece spent can work. But it does require the campaign to scale up sharply as the PCs level up.

Unfortunately, the campaign in question was a far more intimate thing, dealing with the politicking of neighborhoods and guilds. Granted, this was in a massive city, and reading about the history of the Roman Republic (Amazon Associates link) has given me some ideas on how the gold could have been spent to further that sort of play. In fact, studying this more closely I’m now kinda jonesing to run a game with that sort of structure. But that’s not how things were set up for this particular campaign, or how we’ve been playing the game. So it’s gone off the rails and I now reward levels on a completely subjective basis.

So yeah: new ideas for a new campaign. What’s new, right? 😉 But alternatively, I’ve also been tinkering with an alternative leveling-up system that would keep things on the small and intimate side. This system would allow the PCs to level up whenever they wanted (and could afford) to take the time. It would work like this:

Whenever the players wanted to level up their PCs, the PCs would have to spend at least one week preparing for and then actively studying/praying/communing with totems/etc. They would need to spend their normal costs-of-living amounts (bottom of page 157 in the PHB) plus 20 gp per level they wished to attain (so 100 gp to go from 4th to 5th level) per week. At the end of that week the player would roll a d20. If they rolled 20 or higher, the character leveled up.
If this isn’t the first time they’d spent a week trying to gain this level, they get to add +1 to the roll. For each two contiguous weeks they spend, they add another +1 (so spending four weeks in a row to gain a level gets you +2 on the roll). They might also get additional bonuses for having a mentor who is at least the level they wish to attain, special materials or the like.

Players can attempt to level-up their characters anytime they have the cash and time to do so. However, they must be in a relatively safe and civilized place, somewhere where they are not actively adventuring or traveling. Small, short events don't interrupt this training (getting mugged, attending a ball, rescuing kittens from trees), but being forced to travel more than six miles in a single day or spend most of a day in life-or-death situations (that isn't the training) will ruin it. Also, each week must be seven contiguous days of studying; it can't be broken up. Once the have leveled up, they can’t do so again for at least twelve weeks.

This sort of scheme absolutely demands down-time. If you run the sort of campaign where it’s a cliffhanger every week and players hop from crises-to-crises, this ain’t the leveling-up system for you. However, if you love slice-of-life sort of play, where you can actually delve into what else is happening during that down time (politics at the cleric’s temple, rivalries with warlock’s patron’s other warlocks, etc.) you can have a lot of fun with this sort of thing. If you want to slow things down and enjoy the scenery more, this is probably a good fit for your campaign.

The big caveat here, however, is with the random rolling it’s entirely possible you’ll end up with characters spread across levels, with high-rollers two or three or more levels advanced from the unlucky. You can absolutely weight things for those who’ve rolled poorly by offering them resources to help out. It might also make sense to extend the length of time that has to pass between a successful leveling-up and the next attempt in order to slow down the lucky. Or you can dictate that a character automatically succeeds if another PC is at least two levels higher than them.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Visual Summary of Hesep

This looks like a fun idea. So here we go...

From my current weekly campaign, I'm picking the city-state of Hesep. It's location, where a major river meets the ocean, makes it analogous to New Orleans in the US and Rotterdam in western Europe. Further adding to its cachet as a trading city are permanently open portals to the Elemental Planes of Earth, Water, and Air. It did not exist before the Wizards' War, but sits on a spit of the Dry Land, terrain raised from the ocean floor during the Siege of Port Entldon. It is currently ruled by a council of nine archons; six are shaitan (aka dao), two are marids (one of whom lives in an undersea palace guarding the gate to Water) and one djinni (who lives in a floating citadel above the city guarding the portal to Air). It's a massive place, home to nearly a million living beings. So let's start with the pictures!


The majority of the citizens are humans, but they wield little political or economic power in the city. While skilled craftsmen and merchants can do quite well for themselves, they are shut out of any direct political power by the genie folk.





Most farmers are slaves working on massive genie-owned plantations and truck farms.

Most of the city's soldiers and guards (which also operate as a police force) are mamluks, slave-soldiers, most of whom are hobgoblins.


PRIEST of Abzu


PRIESTESS of Ahmayru


Proper shaitan ladies, of course, never appear in public unveiled.

I'm going to stop here for now because I've already spent too much time on this. More later!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Would you Play D&D with E.L. James?

Noisms pokes at the latest of the culture-war’s tempests-in-teapot moments which distract from the really cool things going on.

For instance, if we take at face value the numbers from WotC and believe that “8.6 million Americans have played D&D in the last twelve months” and that we can apply the 38% of people playing D&D are female, then that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.27 million American women played D&D in the last twelve months.

3.27 million.

Let that number sink in for a moment.

Even if the real number is half that, and its only 1.6 million, that’s still one-freakin’-point-six million. If you think that only one-in-six folks playing D&D are female, that’s still 1.43 million.

There are, today, literally millions of women playing D&D. Think that’s going to have an effect on the hobby moving forward?

Those of you who’ve read me for a while are probably rolling your eyes already. Yeah, yeah, I’m a broken record. And yes, “gaming fantasy” is now a thing that most folks are exposed to before they begin playing D&D. But as Noisms points out, there’s been nothing stopping you from having gender-fluid elves in D&D before now. Hell, it’s been a running gag in Order of the Stick for the last 15 years. On the flip side, there’s nothing stopping you from having gender-determinist elves now. But I’ve had bisexual elves in my games since ’91 largely due to the women I was playing with at the time being fans of Mercedes Lackey and Marion Zimmer Bradley. There’s nothing more important, or influential, than the expectations and interests of the people at your table right now. And the number of potential players for your games has exploded.

Think any of these women are among those who’ve read the Fifty Shades books (35 million copies sold in the US)? How about a little Pride and Prejudice or, maybe more apropos, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series?

How many of the folks you played with five years ago had read those books? How many of the folks you play with today have read them?

It doesn’t stop there; WotC also claims 40% of folks playing D&D are college age or younger. Working from our 8.6 million number gives us 3.44 million. Think they’ve read Harry Potter? How many of them saw the LotR movies before they read the books? How many of them have any idea who Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are? Hell, how many of them, of any gender, have any idea who Mercedes Lacky or Marion Zimmer Bradley are?

Want to do something really fun and cool? Play D&D with someone whose experience of fantasy is shaped more by JK Rowling and Peter Jackson than Tolkien and Moorcock. Find a DM who wants to build a campaign world that’s “a little bit Throne of Glass mixed with GoT and Evans’ Brimstone Angels novels.” In short, find someone whose expectations of fantasy are different from yours and let them influence your play and rediscover these games all over again.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Golden Age Goes to 11

On Tuesday, March 13th, at the GAMA Trade Show, WotC announced that D&D 6e won’t be coming out any time soon.

Ok, that was not an official announcement. What they officially said was that 2017 was the biggest year for D&D ever. That they sold more copies of the 5e PHB in 2017 than they did the year it came out. That Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was the fastest selling product (I believe the word was “product” and not “book”) in D&D history.

In short, they’ve no reason right now to invest in a new edition. Everything is coming up roses (or, at least, as close to roses as things get for the publisher of D&D).

They also mentioned that Hoard of the Dragon Queen has been printed seven times (or was that seven reprints?). Reprints can be a mark of how badly a publisher predicts the popularity of a book as much as its popularity, but seven seems pretty large regardless.

Some other numbers they tossed out: 38% of all D&D players identify as female. 40% of all D&D players are college age or younger.

I don’t trust those percentages because I’m pretty sure they come from those polls they link to on their web site, so it’s very much a not-scientific poll. That said, it doesn’t appear they need to retool the game to appeal to a broader audience.

They blame live-streaming games like Acquisitions Incorporated and people publishing videos of themselves playing on Twitch. (More numbers they tossed out: over half of new players were inspired to play the game because they saw a live-streamed game.) Again, not entirely sure I buy it, but I also don’t have a more likely suggestion. (It would mean that another piece of conventional wisdom, that there’s nothing more boring than watching other people play D&D, has just been gored to death by reality. So that’s amusing to me.)

Now, admittedly, the GAMA Trade Show is where manufacturers and distributers are wooing stores to carry their product. Everyone’s going to paint as rosy a picture as they can. But everyone’s talking the same thing. The folks at Gale Force Nine talk about how spell cards are flying off the shelf. Folks at Monte Cook Games talk about how sales for Numenera and No Thank You Evil are rising. Numenera is a 5 year old game. That’s ancient for an RPG. It should be deep into its shrinking long-tail assuming it has one. Instead, they’re doing everything they can to reassure everyone that Numenera Discovery and Destiny are not a new edition. In normal times, they’d be at the point in the lifecycle where a new edition would make a lot of sense, assuming they wanted to keep the IP alive. Outfits that haven’t published RPGs before, like Renegade Game Studios, are getting into the market. Renegade is mostly known for family-style games like Clank! and The Fox in the Forest. This year they’re releasing three RPGs: the second edition of Outbreak: Undead, the Stranger Things inspired Kids on Bikes, and the high-concept Overlight.

But it’s the attitudes and interests of the retailers that is really telling. One couple told me their store went from sometimes having a Wednesday RPG group to having at least one group nearly every night. I saw another get excited when he learned that Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle Earth was written for 5e. If it’s compatible with D&D 5e, he wants it in his store.

Are we about to kill another bit of long-held conventional wisdom: that the boom days of the late-‘70s and early-‘80s are never to return? I don’t think it’s going to be that good, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong. We keep talking about it being a Golden Age for RPGers. Maybe we’ll soon need to be talking about a Platinum Age?

Friday, March 09, 2018

10 More Things

I’ve done this before but I’m happy to do it again. Besides, that was a number of campaigns ago.

The new campaign is called Ravished and Conquered Kingdoms. (Yes, the acronym is totally on purpose.) The elevator speech is:

There was a golden age when the arcane arts rose to such heights that everyone enjoyed lives of ease and luxury, their every whim catered to by magical constructs and enslaved magical beings. When those arts were repurposed for internecine war, the world was warped and nature corrupted. Now, the safest places to live are pockets carved out of the madness by genie folk and demons. Mortals must bow to their new overlords or scratch out an impoverished existence under constant threat by the sequela of the Wizards’ War.
As per Mr. Chenier's request, here are 10 Random Facts (that make the Ravished and Conquered Kingdoms setting totally unique):

The Stone Worm: during the Wizads’ War, the Stone Worm was the most powerful and infamous of the siege beasts. It was a magically mutated purple worm over 15 miles long and a mile wide. It was able to swallow entire villages whole and devastate armies. Romantic legend says an enslaved medusa defeated the Stone Worm by petrifying it with her gaze, risking her life to save her lover.

Those wise in the anatomy of both medusae and purple worms doubt the veracity of the popular legend. What is beyond dispute is that the Stone Worm was, in fact, turned to stone. The petrified guts of the worm now serve as passages beneath the massive chain of mountains known as the Pillars of the Sky. A cabal of dao princes claim most of the Stone Worm as their domain and use an army of enslaved dwarves to mine gems and precious metals from the beast. They’ve carved an entire city out of the upper portion, now inhabited by humans and the ogres the dao use to control their slaves. The lower portions of the worm serve as a crossroads for underground races, and it’s not unusual to find duergar, svirfneblin, and drow merchants trading the riches of the deepest parts of the world for resources from the surface. The tunnels the worm was eating out have been expanded as well, allowing for passage beneath the Pillars to the jungle empire of Asurali beyond.

Asurali: this realm of thick jungles is ruled by rakshasas and populated by humans, orcs, and goblins. While the maharaja of the port city of Kanlas is thought to be the richest person in the world, he is not the most powerful rakshasa in Asurali; that distinction goes to the mysterious emperor of Asurali, Asurak. Asurak is said to be a nine-headed rakshasa who rules from a mysterious palace hidden deep in the jungles. Some claim Asurak doesn’t really exist and is instead used as a focus for the anger of the peoples abused by the tyrannical rule of the rakshasa.

Cults of Juiblex: the land now covered by the Fungal Forest was once fertile fields that were the breadbasket for the world. The massive fungus, smuts, and molds that make up the forest constantly fill the air with spores that have strange and sometimes lethal effects on those who breath them. The Fungal Forest hosts an ongoing war between the cults of Juiblex and the cults of Zuggtmoy. The cults of Juiblex currently have the upper hand thanks to two innovations. The first is a suit of living slime that coats the wearer entirely and does a far better job of protecting them against the spores than the bulky protective gear worn by most others. The Juiblex cultists also mastered a spell that allows them to implant deadly slimes and puddings inside their agents. Should those agents be found out or turn traitor, the implanted slime or pudding is released, quickly devouring the agent from the inside out.

Speedy Sebat: the ruling genie-folk often use flying ships to travel over the magically ravaged lands. Among the fastest is the airship Sebat. Unlike most airships, Sebat is actually a giant magnolia tree, its woven roots forming the hull of the teardrop-shaped ship. Sebat’s dryad is a concubine of the ship’s owner, the dao prince Rashdan ibn Qabis.

Inhuman Justice: Rashdan’s father, Qabis ibn Rachim, is one of the nine archons who rule Hesep, perhaps the largest city in the world. Qabis considers himself a philosopher prince and his bailiwick in the city’s government is justice. While humans make up most of the nearly one million living inhabitants of Hesep, they have almost no part to play in its justice system. The rule of law is enforced by an army of hobgoblin mamluks loyal to Qabis. Judgement is passed down by altered spectators, the hideous beholder-kin a dangerous vestige of the Wizards’ War repurposed for service as impartial and incorruptible judges. The spectator judges are overseen by an androsphinx who serves as chief justice for the city-state. Qabis himself does not act as a judge himself, but spends his time tweaking the system of justice he’s created, studying old scrolls of philosophy, and partaking in the domestic joys of his extensive harem.

There Used to be Two Moons: before the Wizards’ War, there was a larger, green moon sister to the silver moon that still remains. The Wizards’ War was nearly won by a woman who called herself Moonglory. Her nastiest secret was a spell that allowed her to break the enchantments that enslaved genies, demons, and other creatures to the wills of her enemies. She was frequently hailed as a champion of the oppressed (though others contend that reputation was not deserved and she only fostered it for her own self-serving ends). When it was discovered that much of Moonglory’s magic was powered by the green moon, a cabal of her enemies performed an unprecedented ritual to destroy it. Moonglory was slain shortly afterwards. Today, all that remains of the green moon is a band of emerald dust arching across the night sky. The world’s calendar counts from the day the green moon was destroyed, the current year being 182 After Moon (AM).

The Dry Land: Near the end of the Siege of Port Entldon, terrible magics were unleashed that boiled away part of the sea and lifted the seabed. The combined magics pushed the shoreline 42 miles away from the port, exposing vast tracts of the seabed to the open air and destroying the merfolk city of Triaina. It’s said the stench ended the siege as much as the sudden loss of the port city’s strategic importance. The commanders of both sides involved went to their graves blaming the other for the tragedy. The major terrain feature of the Dry Land is a maze of dead coral that had once been an extensive reef.

The Ravenous Furze:
This is a giant forest-hedge of brambles. Tunnels, both natural and shaped, are the only way through it. It’s said that the Furze hungers for the flesh and blood of living creatures. What is known is that the brambles are spreading in all directions at the rate of a foot a year.

Swordsfall: during the Wizards’ War, the city of Tumpult was bombarded by a rain of giant glass-steel swords. Most of those swords shattered on impact, seeding the land with glass-steel shards and making it impossible to cultivate. Some of those giant swords still tower over the ruins.

I Love You (in Chains): among genie-kind, marriage is a matter of politics, used to build alliances, cement treaties, and create bonds and lines of communication between the powerful elementals. Love has no place in marriage. If you love someone, you kidnap them and make them a concubine (or concubinus if the kidnapee is male) in your harem. Genie culture is full of ballads, plays, and poems celebrating famous couples who forged their relationship via the tradition of kidnapping. Some of the most famous involve cat-and-mouse games of mutual attraction, with both seeking to gain the upper hand over, and the enslavement of, the other.

The Incredibly Talented K Yani is Doing Maps for Me:
and not only do they look amazing, they've also been the source of all sorts of new coolness, including the above-mentioned Swordsfall.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Diversity in the Dungeon

Guess what’s back? Quantum ogres! Only the folks talking about them may not know that term. And hey, straight up, I understand the appeal. Well, ok, I understand the heartbreak of pouring your soul into a thing only to have the PCs bypass it.

What I don’t understand is the notion that railroads save the DM time. Sure, you only have to prep stuff that will actually show up in the game, instead of all the different possibilities. But look at all the work that has to go in to that prep:

  • You have to accurately guess what the players are going to want to do at game time, often days or weeks in advance.
  • You have to make sure it’s balanced to the abilities of the PCs and the players (and, again, often days or weeks in advance).
  • And it needs to be entertaining because if it falls flat, you’ve got no Plan B.

Conversely, if you give players actual choices, you take a lot of the stress out of DMing. For instance, let’s suppose the PCs need to cross a massive chasm deep in the Underdark. Their options might include:

  1. A bridge guarded by duergar raiders.
  2. The magically labyrinthine alleys and shops of the Goblin Market.
  3. A trolls’ tea-party on a flying carpet.

Right there we’ve got all three pillars of 5e D&D. If the PCs want to fight, they can attack the duergar. If they’re more in the mood for exploration, the Goblin Market’s got them covered. And, finally, tea-parties with trolls are available if the players are in more of a social mood.

Instead of trying to guess what the players are going to want to do on a particular day, I give them options. Instead of trying to balance the encounters, I let the players decide how much risk they’re willing to take on. And if the option they pick turns out to not be as fun as expected, they can always go back and try one of the other paths.

Most importantly, instead of being the players’ dancing monkey, we’re all involved in creating a good time together. The DM is not the sole point of failure at which the whole thing falls apart or succeeds. Everybody at the table is invited to lift some of that weight and be responsible for their own good time.