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.