I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Harder stealth (5e quick fix)

5e quick fixes are exactly what they say on the tin. Small house rules to fix D&D problems you probably don't have. One day I'll put then all in a good looking PDF and the whole will be SMALLER than the sum of the parts - that is how small they are! Use them wisely!

So, you're a ninja.

Somebody has to sneak past the town guards to steal the Jarl's scepter while he is away.

That should be easy. You check the DC, you stealth bonus... Yeah, you only fail if you roll 3 or less. Okay, you're probably not getting caught. But what if you do? Then the Jarl would find all about your ninja clan hiding at the woods!

You need to improve your chances. But how?

Wait - you have a whole clan of ninjas with you! You don't need to do the task alone! You can call your fellow ninjas - they all have a stealth bonus that are similar to yours - and you can ALL sneak past the guards at the same time!

Picture the scene - three hundred ninjas sneaking past the town's gates at night! What are the odds somebody will see any them?

Well, if you're using group checks (PHB 175), the odds are infinitesimally small.

To make a group ability check, everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds.

If you have a 15% chance of failure as a single ninja, ten ninjas have less than 2% chance of failing, and if you have a hundred ninjas you can safely add a dozen of untrained peasants to your group and you still have no chance of failing. You can add people that are worse than you (provided they have more than 50% chance of success) and still improve your chances.

It makes no sense.

Granted, this is not a 5e fix: 5e doesn't say you should use group checks for stealth. But many people seem to use this rule for sneaking around, which might be a bad idea.

I like group checks. They are fast, easy and cool. But they are obviously not a great fit for situations where having more people will actually hinder your chances.

And group checks can cause the opposite problem for incompetent PCs. If a group of people is lost in the woods and they must find a way out but each individual has less than 50% chance of succeeding, a group of a hundred has basically no chance of ever finding the way out and will all starve to death.

The idea of rolling stealth "as a group" is pretty bad in combat too. It is nice to have the thief being able to stab the Minotaur in the back while the creature only notices the loud paladin walking around in plate armor. Even better, the paladin may talk to the Minotaur and distract it while the rogue snakes around unnoticed. But in other circumstances, group checks might be useful - trying to infiltrate a place without leaving traces, for example.

If you want to use group checks for such situations, here is a quick fix (first part is from the 5e SRD, second part is my suggestion, adapted from Days of the Damned).

You'll never see them coming!
Group Checks (5e SRD)

When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish something as a group, the GM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren't.

To make a group ability check, everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds.

Otherwise, the group fails.

Group checks don't come up very often, and they're most useful when all the characters succeed or fail as a group. For example, when adventurers are navigating a swamp, the GM might call for a group Wisdom (Survival) check to see if the characters can avoid the quicksand, sinkholes, and other natural hazards of the environment. If at least half the group succeeds, the successful characters are able to guide their companions out of danger. Otherwise, the group stumbles into one of these hazards.

(my suggestion)

Sometimes, the fact that multiple people are attempting the same task at the same time may worsen their chances. The most common example is moving silently as a group, or trying to speak at the same time in a debate. In this case, the GM will add +1 to the roll for each character attempting the task. If there are three characters are attempting a DC 15 stealth check, for example, the DC is raised to 18.

Conversely,  if the situation is such that the task is made easier by the number of characters involved, the GM may subtract 1 from the DC for each member of the party.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Unearthed Arcana: Feats for Skill - Grappler and expertise have been fixed!

The new Unearthed Arcana is out, with feats for skills. Slowly but surely, WotC has been fixing the obvious holes in 5e's skill system. Now everybody has access to expertise (which, really, should've been a thing in the PHB), for example. This is cool for a number of reasons.

First, now anyone can specialize in a given skill, making a multitude of new character concepts possible. Second, with new feats come new possibilities - specially for fighters, that get more feats than anybody else, but not much else in some cases (the Champion, for example).

Combine these two and you get... The Grappling Fighter!

 I just googled "D&D grappling"... Thanks, Douglas!
See, the grappler feat in the PHB is a trap even for grapplers:

The hands-down most disappointing entry in the PHB, Grappler is the ultimate trap ability. Its first ability is a worse version of the shove-to-prone combat option grapplers already have. Why invest in a feat for advantage when you can do it with basic combat actions? The second ability is what earns Grappler its green status. A restrained target suffers from disadvantage to all Dexterity saving throws, which works nicely with grapplers who use Dexterity-based spell damage. Or grapplers who have allies using that magic. This is a niche way to grapple but a fun one, so I leave it out there as an option for grapplers looking for new ways to enjoy the combat style. As for the last bullet point, it's a leftover of an earlier edition. As the PHB Errata clarifies, " Ignore the third benefit; it refers to a nonexistent rule". All told, this is the feat that should have made us tick and instead it's one of the first you'll ignore.

Now, look at this new feat from UA:

You become stronger, gaining the following benefits:
• Increase your Strength score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
• You gain proficiency in the Athletics skill. If you are already proficient in the skill, you add double your proficiency bonus to checks you make with it.
• You count as if you were one size larger for the purpose of determining your carrying capacity.

This is an awesome feat to every Fighter - nah, to most "warrior" classes, including Barbarians, Paladins, etc. - and it is only a half feat", i.e., you also get +1 to Strength.

With decent strength, double proficiency, and increased carrying capacity, you will be able to grapple most monsters (unless they are more than one size larger than you) with ease and drag them around freely. This is no joke - you can reliably take down a death knight, most demons and young dragons!

Grappling might still be a bit limited - you can find some options here and here - but it just got a lot stronger.

There are lots of other interesting feats there. The medicine skill finally gets some use, you get a new version of the Help Other action, you get to intimidate foes during combat, and so on. Maybe I am not the greatest fan of feats - the bloat went to far in some former editions IMO - but some of these are really good.

I know, I know, many will say there is nothing broken in D&D 5e. But I'm really glad they are fixing it!

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

A quick note on minimalist/maximalism (give me the awesome already!)

I just read a great post about the subject, and felt let chiming in, albeit briefly. This is not a response or comment to the original post, but some reflections inspired by it. It is also a little rant-y, so reader beware.

The problem with maximalist settings, in my view, is an excess of boring stuff. I admit I loved detail when I was younger - it made the worlds feel real. Nowadays, I just don't have the time for that. I literally have more free RPGs in my HD than I can read in the next 10 years, not to mention the hundreds I payed for.

What is boring? Once again, Joseph Manola has successfully explained it: it is the predictable ("exactly what you would expect") and the irrelevant ("the headman of this village is tall and old and cheerful").

Now, this isn't a problem with campaign setting and modules only, but it affects monster manuals, player books and whole rules systems (it might even be a problem with a sizable part of modern literature, but I won't go into that here).

Take the three monster manuals I'm reading right now: Teratic Tome, Fire on the Velvet Horizon and Volo's Guide. While the first two aim to give you the awesome in every page (even at the risk of missing the mark), Volo's alternates freely between being awesome/useful (the new monsters and races, for example) and boring me to tears. For example, Gnolls are evil because their god is evil. Giants are artists, warriors or gluttons depending on their gods. and the hierarchy between goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears are determined by each one's gods. When I got to the "Orcs: the Godsworn" section, I put the book away and haven't pick it up since.

Or consider the infinite number of retroclones/neoclones: I really like reading this stuff, but why do I have to read 80-pages of d20 copypasta before I get to that one cool idea that makes your retro-clone different from the rest? Give me the awesome already!

For me, a 20-page PDF is ten times more useful than a 200-page PDF if 90% of it is filled with the obvious, and 50 flexible spells are better than 500 spells I won't read. 10 monsters I've never heard of? I'll take that over 50 orcs any day of the week. Please do not describe what a Minotaur (or - God forbid! - a human) looks like. I already know!

Sure, there is room for stuff such as Low Fantasy Gaming, which puts a S&S twist on the familiar stuff it presents, or thematic retro-clones like Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, but unless your work is very unique, we probably don't need another retro-clone by this point.

I am aware that many people think RPGs are meant to be referenced, not read. There is a place for this stuff, too; but honestly, if your game requires me to open it upo multiple times during play, I'm probably not te target audience. Give me something cool to read, and the chances I use it rise exponentially.

This is why I like Titan, by the way. This might be nostalgia talking, but everything seemed to be focused on adventure and fun, and it frequently departed from the obvious. Orcs are evil, which might sound dated, but not because they worship evil gods. In fact...

As you encounter servants of some of the gods of Good on
your travels, you may begin to wonder why so many 'evil'
races worship them! Surely, you would say, foul creatures
like Orcs would not wish to worship a god like Galana (who
they know as the Lady of Corn and pray to for good harvests
in the few areas where they still bother to grow crops), and
in return Galana would not bestow her favours upon servants
of Evil and Chaos, even if they were also farmers? This is part
of the very nature of Goodness, it seems: the powers of Good
are such that they can forgive the creatures of Evil enough to
grant them their blessing when they need it.

Creatures such as the Life-Stealers, who worship Sukh, are
considered servants of Evil because they live by violence and
killing, which they seem to do in the name of their god. In
such matters, religion breaks down a little, it must be said,
and priests have argued with one another for centuries over
such points. In the case of Sukh, it is generally agreed that
Life-Stealers kill their victims only because that is the way
they are. Certainly, no one seems to argue much when
humans slaughter Orcs or Goblins, though most servants of
Good would agree that killing is – at least in principle –always
an act of Evil.

When I was a teenager, I wrote a "kitchen sink" setting with all the stuff I wanted to have in a D&Dish world. I took a completionist approach to it: everything had to make sense and have a detailed explanation, down to the percentage of people that spoke a given language in a given country. I eventually gave up on it because this kind of detail became uninteresting even to my players.

Recently, I tried rewriting it, with two rules in mind: everything must be either awesome or short. Which, in my opinion, is the cure for predictable and irrelevant. Yes, you need some irrelevant stuff to make sense of a setting ("the king is called Damocles the Third..."), but if you make it short you leave the spotlight to the cool stuff - and save everyone's time.

There is a lot more to be said on the matter, but making this too long would miss the point, right? So, rant over. See you soon!

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Specific backgrounds (5e quick fix)

5e quick fixes are exactly what they say on the tin. Small house rules to fix problems you probably don't have. One day I'll put then all in a good looking PDF and the whole will be SMALLER than the sum of the parts - that is how small they are! Use them wisely!

Does it bother you that the wizard in the party knows more about religion than your cleric? Or that the forester/outlander barbarian knows so little about nature and survival, even though he can easily find hidden sources of water in the hot savanna after being raised in snowy mountains in the neverending cold of the frozen North?

Do you think Acolyte and Outlander are boring backgrounds? Would you prefer to be a Former Cultist of the Great Old Ones or a Savage Barbarian of the Icy Peaks?

Do traditional backgrounds leave you cold? Do you prefer your characters to be special snowflakes? Are you reading this after all these puns?

If the answer is yes for any of those questions, try this.

A samurai background is easier to do than a samurai class (art: copyright WotC)
From now on, all backgrounds must be specific. No "Acolyte", but "Former Cultist of the Great Old Ones", etc. You still get the same skills and tools, but now you also get advantage (or expertise, if you prefer) when dealing with your specific background. You're proficient in religion - which applies to all religions - but when you roll to see if you know something obscure about your own religion, you roll with advantage.

This is not new, of course; compare the Uthgardt tribe member from Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide with the PHB's Outlander and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Also, since the PHB doesn't mention it explicitly, let me suggest that you use these backgrounds as sources of advantage. For example, let the Acolyte of the GOO (or Sorcerer, for that matter) get advantage not only in his religion rolls, but also when trying to intimidate the superstitious. Give the Outlander advantage when persuading other tribes that share a similar culture. And so on. Don't get too crazy, though: them sorcerer does NOT get advantage in all her intimidation rolls because he can cast a cantrip.

By the way, that is also how backgrounds work in my Days of the Damned game, as I mentioned it in this post about 13th Age. Click the link for other examples and a discussion of some pitfalls this technique may cause.

Want a downside to go with it? Your background feature also become specific, if it isn't already. So the GM may rule that your Outlander character must roll the dice to find food in the savanna. He rolls with advantage, of course, since the feature is still included in the background. If you think this is too harsh, let the Outlander use the feature as written after a few successes in the savanna. Same idea can be applied to a pirate's reputation; let her make some intimation rolls at least until she gets a reputation in her new home.

Many backgrounds are already quite specific, so no need to change those. And, of course, don't make the players roll for stuff that should be obvious! Of course the Acolyte of Cthulhu knows it waits dreaming in R'lyeh!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

12 Things I Wish I Would Had Known Before Running My First Game

Okay, I'm jumping on the bandwagon. The awesome posts that inspired me are here, here and here. I'll certainly repeat something that has been said before in these links, but I might disagree a bit too.

* Your PC is only cool if he is cool during play, not because he has an amazing backstory. Likewise, your NPCs are only cool if they do cool stuff during play. Your adventure is only good if it provides good times to people playing it.

* The story does not have to be cool or make sense to anyone other than the people playing the game. Like in real life, you go on adventures to have experiences, not to tell stories after the fact.

* Different people like different things, including mechanics. Some people will never spend inspiration or that last potion of healing, no matter what you do. Some people want to pick fights, some people want interaction, some people want to play ninjas. If it suits them, that is okay.

Find the best system for you and your players. Eventually, this will be the system you have created yourself.

* That puzzle (or conspiracy) you built for your players is not as obvious as you think. The players are not in your head.

* Everybody will forget most of the details after a couple of days. If you want long arches and complicated plots with various adventures, that is fine, but don't expect you player to remember every NPC they meet, unless they are recurring. Also, if something happens to the PCs - specially if they are wronged - they are more likely to remember.

* Every important person, thing or location should have ONE obvious distinction. Not grey hair, but a mohawk. Not a scar, but a distinct lack of nose. Not grey houses, but impossibly tall spires. Think "caricatures".

* Do not plan the story in advance and do not keep safeguards against derailing. No fudging dice, no saving the players from bad luck or bad choices. You're robbing them of some amazing experiences. Failing is part of the game.

Few fights should be to the death. People are more likely to surrender than to fight to the bitter end, and few animals will take a beating if they can escape.

* Common sense trumps the rules. But if the rules defy common sense all the time, you should be looking for a different set of rules. This is about rules as physics, not story - people defy common sense all the time!

* Let the dice push you out of your comfort zone. Your PCs all failed their saving throws - now what? Your important NPC was killed before he could start his plan - what happens now? If you rely on common sense to decide probabilities without using the dice, everything will become predictable.

* Everyone said that already, but expect the unexpected from your players. Do not assume they will be nice to a baby in the crib when they are invading a castle.

There is a story to the last one, of course, but I'll leave it to another post. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

5e quick fix: Flanking and Facing

5e quick fixes are exactly what they say on the tin. Small house rules to fix D&D problems you probably don't have. One day I'll put then all in a good looking PDF and the whole will be SMALLER than the sum of the parts - that is how small they are! Use them wisely!

I like the idea of flanking. But giving away so many advantages at once sounds unbalanced (bounded accuracy makes it even worse - now your 5th level fighter has no chance against a bunch of kobolds). Also, if I to mess around with those cool flanking rules, I would still be playing 4e, right? To be honest, I don't even use a grid.

I also like the idea of facing. It just makes sense to me. But it is all a bit too fiddly. Also, if I wanted those nifty facing rules, I would still be playing 3e, right?

Who am I fooling, I don't even use miniatures in most of my games...

But - wait! What if flanking IS facing?

Wayne Reynolds, Copyright Paizo.
Try this:

If a character gets surrounded by two or more assailants, the assailants can divide themselves in two groups in order to flank/back-stab the character. The character chooses which group to face. The other group has advantage when attacking the character. The number of assailants that can attack a creature at once is limited by their size, position (no backstabbing people who have their backs to a wall), and the length of their weapons.

No need for minis, grids, "drawing diagonal lines" or more than one paragraph, really. Giving advantage to only half the attackers makes things a lot more balanced, and letting the victim choose is even better. And flanking becomes a bit more interesting because it now involves some tactical choice: do you give advantage to the big boss or all his annoying minions?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Wendigo

Just finished reading The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood. I can't exactly remember why I downloaded it, but I'm glad I did. This is awesome stuff. There is little point in reviewing a short, public domain book that is over a century old. Just go read this thing.

Or scroll down for the monster already!

But if you want my opinion, Blackwood succeeds in creating a marvelous atmosphere out of the somewhat predictable plot (well, it is predictable nowadays) of  four hunters entering the uncivilized lands in search of moose but finding... something else.

Blackwood's prose compares favorably to Lovecraft's, in my opinion, and although this monster is less alien and incomprehensible than the Mythos' deities, the author nevertheless manages to put an exotic spin on it, using the Wendigo as the representation of men's natural impulse to go back tot he wilderness, which gets called out by a character:

"The legend is picturesque enough," observed the doctor after one of the longer pauses, speaking to break it rather than because he had anything to say, "for the Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction."[...]"for the Voice, they say, resembles all the minor sounds of the Bush—wind, falling water, cries of the animals, and so forth. And, once the victim hears that—he's off for good, of course! His most vulnerable points, moreover, are said to be the feet and the eyes; the feet, you see, for the lust of wandering, and the eyes for the lust of beauty. The poor beggar goes at such a dreadful speed that he bleeds beneath the eyes, and his feet burn."

But the monster is not only a metaphor, as the hunters will soon find out, although it never becomes one hundred percent "real", either, even as characters disappear or fly through the sky. Witnesses are unreliable (it is no coincidence that the main victim is described in the first chapter as  "deeply susceptible [....] to that singular spell which the wilderness lays upon certain lonely natures"), smells are faint, mutation is quickly covered by a blanket, traces disappear in the snow, a doctor mentions suspects of collective hallucinations, etc. The monster is never fully seem or described.

The Wendigo stays in a dark  zone between reality and wilderness-induced madness, between prehistoric beast and forgotten superstition:

Something that had survived somehow the advance of humanity had emerged terrifically, betraying a scale of life still monstrous and immature. He envisaged it rather as a glimpse into prehistoric ages, when superstitions, gigantic and uncouth, still oppressed the hearts of men; when the forces of nature were still untamed, the Powers that may have haunted a primeval universe not yet withdrawn. To this day he thinks of what he termed years later in a sermon "savage and formidable Potencies lurking behind the souls of men, not evil perhaps in themselves, yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists.

The Wendigo of this story is not a threat to the body, but to the mind and soul. Which is why I think this cover (by Matt Fox) is better than most depictions of the Wendigo that you can find online, as it shows the monster as something more than a dangerous beast:

In short, if you like Lovecraft, chances are you'll love this story; it certainly feels like a precursor of the monster as an unimaginable horror that cannot be fully understood by the human mind without risking insanity. But don't take my word for it:

Less intense than Mr. Machen in delineating the extremes of stark fear, yet infinitely more closely wedded to the idea of an unreal world constantly pressing upon ours, is the inspired and prolific Algernon Blackwood, amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age. Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision. Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere; and can evoke what amounts almost to a story from a simple fragment of humourless psychological description. Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination.
Another amazingly potent though less artistically finished tale is “The Wendigo”, where we are confronted by horrible evidences of a vast forest daemon about which North Woods lumbermen whisper at evening. The manner in which certain footprints tell certain unbelievable things is really a marked triumph in craftsmanship.
- H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

Frank Victoria-  source.
If you came here looking for a 5e D&D monster, here are some ideas.

We will call it "Wendigo, Blackwood", because, frankly, its too good to pass, but you can call it "Wendigo, Burning Feet" if you prefer (and you can keep the "traditional" Wendigo in your world too). There is no need for stats - you can find some online easily, or come up with your own. What this story has to offer is a different view on the Wendigo, one that doesn't rely on cannibalism and the taboos that surround it (if you want to read about cannibalism and devouring spirits, try this awesome post), but on guerrilla tactics and "the call of the wild", that may have powers such as this:

Call of the Wild. The Wendigo is more enticing than scary. It lures lost travelers not to eat them, but to transform them in companions. A victim that sees the Wendigo up close (100 feet) or feels its curious scent must make a Wisdom saving throw or be charmed, following the Wendigo wherever he goes.

Burning feet. The Wendigo is increasingly fast for its size (speed 80 feet), and not only on the ground - it can jump or fly through great distances (fly speed 40 feet). Victims that fall under its spell gain the same ability, although it hurts their feet so much that they constantly cry and complain about the pain. These agonizing cries will cause fear to everyone nearby (unless they save against fear), discouraging allies to go looking for the victim.

The creature's strategy is enticing a single victim and running away, which can cause obvious problems to the party. Once the victim follows the Wendigo beyond sight, it enters a battle of will against the call of the wild. Use the three strikes rule, with a new save every day. The victim has advantage if its allies manage to tie him down or remind him of the upsides of going back home, but people who come in contact with such a cursed person must also make a saving throw with advantage.

Every successful save allows the victim to spend a day running back for his allies (the Wendigo will not follow at this point), while every failed save (including the first one) causes 1d3 levels of exhaustion (one level with a successful Constitution save), but without affecting speed. The process is not over until the victim manages to break free and go back to normal (three success), becomes a Wendigo (three failures), or dies of exhaustion.

By this point you must have realized that having a cursed victim in your camp is almost as bad as facing the creature itself!

By the way, the Wendigo will only fight in some rare circumstances (cornered, attacked in its lair, unable to move, incapable of enticing anyone in the party, etc.). It is big, strong, and has several immunities and resistances (cold, fire, necrotic, charm, etc). The most effective way of fighting it might be hacking it to pieces, for a change. Good luck with that!
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