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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Torture: should it have a game mechanic?

DISCLAIMER: Please understand that I am talking about torture in fictional narratives, not in real life. If you stumbled upon into this blog by accident, notice that this is about literature, movies, TV (think Game of Thrones), make-believe games, and so on. This has nothing to do with politics, human rights, or moral philosophy. If you cannot understand that, or just don't like to read about the subject or find it distasteful, please ignore this post.

"Interrogating goblins by torture seems to be creepily prevalent in D&D games. Anyway, it’s not necessary, because goblins will always tell you everything when threatened with torture, no Intimidate check necessary. They’ll mix in 20% malicious lies, but they’d do that under torture as well." - source

I don't like player characters torturing people in my games (I don't allow torture against them, too, but that is not what this post is about). It's not that I have a weak stomach for the suffering of fictional characters; I enjoy splatter films as much as the next guy (and FWIW I even think there might be a good argument of gory violence being more responsible to put on film than some kind of sanitized PG-13 violence when bad guys get shot and die without bleeding or suffering, as if violence was a nice, clean thing to do).

The problem is that torture quickly becomes a pointless, gruesome exercise.

A player character can torture another character for three main reasons: sadism, punishment/revenge, or information gathering. I have never seem the first one in my games; the second one is rare, and usually ends quickly; the third one is the problem.

In any brutal, lawless setting, medieval or otherwise, there will be plenty of PCs that are willing to resort to torture to get information, specially against foes that have attacked or murdered other people in the past, or might do so in the future.

The justifications are not that important; once the line is crossed, torture becomes just another tool for the PCs.

After that, every time a prisoners is captured, you go through the same process: torture is described until the GM thinks it is enough and then the NPC talks (true or not) or clearly demonstrates he will die before talking. Where is the fun in that? There is little creativity, no excitement, no risk, no surprises.


Of course, there are plenty of reasons for the characters to avoid torture:

A) Someone in the group (player or GM) is uncomfortable with it, or it goes against the tone of the campaign; so it is just forbidden (maybe not even villains can torture, or player characters must all be people that would never do that).
B) A character has some kind of alignment or personal code of honor (or, I don't know, basic human decency) that prevents it.
C) Torture is a crime and has legal consequences even when murder is not (during wartime, for example).
D) Many NPCs are immune to torture, and they prefer to die than to tell any secrets about the guy they work for.
E) Torture brings some kind of mystical corruption or the wrath of the gods against those who perpetrate it.
F) Torture causes mental problems to the torturer.
G) There are other social consequences for torture - you will lose face (and allies), and now your enemies now will be more willing to torture your loved ones if they get captured.
H) Torture is useless because after a while most victims will say almost anything to avoid suffering, even if they have to lie or invent things they know nothing about.
I) Torture may kill the victim, making information impossible to recover (or maim the victim in unintended ways, making the crime very easy to prove).

Not all of those work for my group.

"A" is a very personal matter; in my "Game of Thrones"-like setting, villains are not above torture, for example, and everybody in the group is okay with most fictional violence (of course, you should be SURE that everybody on the table is on board before messing with such themes). "B" depends on the characters; it may work for most of the group, but not necessarily for all the characters all the time, and specially not for all the character concepts one might be willing to try. "C" depends on how willing characters are to obey the law - and, in most of my campaigns, the answer usually is "not very much". "D" is a bit ridiculous (unless used for special cases) - where does anyone finds thieves and villains that are so loyal and courageous?

"E" may be a bit of a cop-out - does humanity need some outside force to learn the obvious fact that torture is evil? - but the idea could still be interesting as horror; maybe the tortured souls come back as undead, or awaken demons that lie below. The players should be aware of the possibility beforehand, though, or it will fell like you're trying to teach them some lesson.

"F" is potentially more interesting, specially in character-driven campaigns where violence and madness play a significant part, like Call of Cthulhu and other games with sanity mechanics (check this for D&D - it is meant for the victim, but torture would surely affet the torturer somehow...). The best game about the subject that comes to mind is Unknown Armies, where perpetrating any kind of violence will make you more resistant to it, but also more callous (and, eventually, psychopathic). Still, these kind of mechanics are not for every game, and not for every setting.

"G" works quite well for my games. Even though it is also an "external" force to the individual character (but not to humanity itself), it makes players consider other aspects of the setting - NPCs, reputation, honor, and so on. Torture becomes a reason for shame, as it should be: it now must be kept secret, and torturers will be shunned. Villains get a tool the heroes cannot use without becoming villains themselves in the process (on the other hand, allies may turn a blind-eye if the tortures have other uses). And even foe may now claim the moral high ground over the PCs.

In short, resorting to torture makes the character less self-confident; it becomes a power other people may have over them.

"H" is also interesting to consider. If the victim is highly motivated to tell exactly what the torturer wants to hear, how can the PCs know the victim is telling the truth (or even knows it) at all? Most NPCs should quickly tell anything a torturer wants to hear to avoid further harm (in many books and movies, the character will allow himself to suffer significantly before lying, in order to make the lie more believable).

The only situation where torturing a character could yield useful results is when the truth can be checked before the prisoner is released ("Where is the treasure? If we don't find it, you'll suffer more!"). But this is not much different than intimidation; the pain only makes the threat more imediate and credible.

There are another, more interesting ways of making threats, specially by knowing the person being threatened. For a self-righteous man, blackmail could be worse than physical torture, for example. Or, if you captured an exotic monster, showing it to a captive might make him talk in no time - even if the creature is actually harmless. Deception may work well too. An example that comes to mind is what Jaime Lannister does to Edmure Tully in the book A Feast for Crows (or in the Game of Thrones TV show).

Again, this makes the characters engage with the characters and setting instead of just randomly cutting body parts until everyone is bored or sickened.

This way, torture becomes a tool of intimidation - so you don't necessarily need a specific game mechanic for it. This is how torture is handled in the Book of Vile Darkness, for example.


"I" is where game mechanics might becomes useful.

Now, you certainly don't need to have torture in your games, but if you do allow it, it seems to me it should include the possibility of real harm. This reminds the players that torture is gruesome and dangerous, but also includes a risk-reward mechanism to it: the more violent the torture, the more effective the intimation, but the higher the chance of death (or permanent injury, if the victim is someone who must be kept alive).

It also opens the possibility of having villain NPCs specialized in torture (which is to say, specialized in causing pain WITHOUT harming the victim), torture devices, or smart PCs that can threaten effectively WITHOUT using torture by resorting to creativity, deception, etc.

If you want to resort to die rolls, here are some mechanics to go with it.

Old-school D&D (or any other version):

There is a very easy method for this: the "subduing dragons" rules in AD&D. Decide the damage you want to inflict - say, 3d6 - and roll for it. If you take 50% of the victims HP, he has 50% chance of talking. If you roll too high, the victim dies before taking. Repeated attempts, if allowed, should be progressively harder.

Or just bypass HP completely: choose a number form 1% to 99%, and roll twice: the first to see if the victim survives, and the second to see if the victim talks.

In any case, even in failure the victim still gets a death saving throw to avoid death, and a spell saving throw to avoid talking.

D&D 5e:

From the torturer's point of view, you may gain advantage in the Intimidation roll, but roll Medicine to avoid killing the victim in the process.

From the victim's point of view, you may make a Constitution saving throw to avoid a failed death save (or permanent damage, etc), and a Wisdom saving throw to avoid compliance (succeeding three times means you will never break in the present situation).

Combining these two ideas: make the saving throws as described above, and BOTH the DCs is defined but how violent the torture is (i.e., it is the same DC). The Constitution save gets a bonus equal to the torturer's Medicine skill, and the Wisdom save gets a penalty equal to the torturer's Intimidation skill (or Deception, if using lies instead of pain).

Give advantage or disadvantage according to the nature of the secret being kept (and loyalty, etc) and the "creativity" of the torturer (for example, showing snakes to someone with ophidiophobia will be very efficient).

Should you roll or describe?

Making it a simple die roll allows you to use this without describing it (and thus making it happen on the background); I personally prefer to be gory and make clear that this is an ugly thing than to pretend it is a clean, efficient thing to do. If this problem comes up, I would use both descriptions and dice rolls (to add danger and unpredictability), but you mileage may vary.

What do you think?

Is this useful? Is the subject too heavy for RPGs, or for my blog? Would you ever allow PCs as tortures or victims in your games? Do you have nay interesting stories to tell? Let me hear from you in the comments.

Images from "Berserk" by Kentaro Miura.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Suicide Squad in Hell! A campaign pitch of Orphean Rescue

I'm pretty sure I read this idea (or something similar) in some old school blog or rpg thread recently. Let me know so I can give due credit. Lots of repeated themes coming from nowhere (and everywhere) in the last few days; see the end of the post for some references that may or may not have anything to do with this post.

BTW I haven't even watched the movie. But the trailers look cool, and I used some lines.


"This is blasphemy! Madness! Break into Hell, to steal from it! Why would one even try it? And for what? A soul which is exactly where Divine Law demands it to be!", said the old man.

"I know", the young man answered.

"How would you do such a thing? Enter the Abyss without permission! Fight layers upon layers of bloodthirsty demons! Hordes of damned things whose names even the foulest grimoires dare not mention! Go through rivers of fire, clouds of acid, halls of living flesh! Endless deserts of ash and glass with skies of blood!"

"I have a map. And I wouldn't be alone."

"Who would follow you in such lunacy?"

"I found some people. A mercenary. A barbarian. An assassin and a thief. A diabolist. A witch. A... lunatic, I guess."

"Bad people, then". 

"The worst of the worst." 

"And the price? Eternal damnation! Do you think the gods will ever forgive the attempted rescue of someone they put in Hell? Foiling of Divine Justice?".

"As you might have guessed, these people know they are not going to see Elysium anytime soon".

"Never mind Elysium! When you die, your souls will be trapped for eternity! The Abyss will punish you harshly for your arrogance!"

"We are aware of the risks".

"You will be on your own! The blessings..."

"Yes", the younger man interrupted. "I must do what I can with what I've got."

The two sat in silence for a few minutes, looking down. The elder man got closer to the fireplace, and shivered. Finally, he spoke again.

"I... I cannot help you. The price is too high. May the gods forgive me for even hearing you".

The younger man rose.

"I understand. Still, I had to let you know".

"Wait! You are not like this people! You spent your whole life in service! Your soul is meant for heaven!"

"Not anymore", the paladin replied, before leaving the room. "Pray for me, father".


Some random thoughts about the scenario:

- You thought the Paladin in Hell was doomed enough? Well, now he is also forsaken by the gods. Body sacrifice is nothing when compared to soul sacrifice.

- Here is a chance to use all those demons in the Monster Manual! And probably some Petty Gods too! What about deceased PCs and NPCs?

- This is certainly high-level and better suited for dark grey characters that already have committed their share of sin.

- Why would anyone do this? A tiefling, born cursed, rejoicing at the opportunity of offending the Abyss. A rogue looking for the ultimate heist. All kinds of people looking for power or wanting to defy the divine status quo. Obvious, a pious man who damns his own soul to save another.

- There is strict hierarchy in hell, and they want to keep their prisoners... but certainly not everyone is happy with the current arrangement. In fact, the whole idea is so blasphemous that only demons will be willing to help the group, and for the worse reasons one can think of. Even angels may descend to hell to stop the characters from foiling justice. Fallen angels, though, may be another story... Damned souls would be willing to cooperate, maybe. Or would they sell the group for a chance of redemption? And what about outsiders, elementals, etc?

- First idea that comes to mind is someone damning his own soul for a loved one... But what if the group needs to rescue someone with no redeeming qualities at all - and actually let him get away with his sins - in order to achieve a different objective? All the more dramatic.

- Don't pull any punches! The price for this mission is damnation. Even the most merciful gods will not help the PCs after this. They will be hated through heaven and hell. Better find a house in some forgotten corner of Limbo for the afterlife. Or try to convince some neutral or extra-planar divinity to take you in. Maybe the PCs can save themselves if they give up on the original mission and repent. When the campaign ends, at least one of three things (the mission, the PC's souls, or the whole universal order) will be destroyed.


Things on my mind in the last few days: Orpheus, Suicide Squad, the classic picture above (David Sutherland), Perdition, Hell is the Absence of God, Jurgen, True Story, and the Scorn trailer. I'm not necessarily recommending any of them or saying they fit the idea above, but they probably inspired this post. I am also writing an adventure on a similar subject, without the whole "spiritual" angle.

And TV Tropes, but I'm not linking it - you can thank me later!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Old school D&D and the Yin-Yang method of ability generation

The original order of abilities in old school D&D is Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma (SIWDCC). The idea is that you had "prime" abilities first (Strength for Fighters, Intelligence for Magic Users, Wisdom for Clerics) and then three abilities that were useful for everyone (Dexterity for speed, Constitution for HP, Charisma for morale).

With the introduction of many different classes, the original meaning of the SIWDCC order was lost, which is why WotC have adopted a Physical/Mental divide, listing abilities as: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.

The modern order doesn't bother me; it seems to make sense, and I like the Physical/Mental division. Here is a great post about the subject, by the way.

However...

There is at least one interesting (and probably accidental) feature of SIWDCC: when you think of most common archetypes, each pair of abilities can be viewed as "opposites" in a way.

Here is what I mean:

Strength x Intelligence: the dumb brute versus the weak wizard or scholar; Fighter versus Magic-user.

Wisdom x Dexterity: careful consideration and patience versus quick action; Cleric versus Thief.

Constitution x Charisma: the rugged, stoic type versus the sweet-talking singer or swindler. Dwarf versus Elf, or Ranger versus Bard.


This is mainly a curiosity; some D&D archetypes and classes will need "opposite" attributes (monks, assassins, etc), but it can become useful when generating NPCs or even PCs if you want results that might a little more sense than 3d6 in order (and yes, I get it, it might be cool to think of a justification for seemingly disparate abilities),

For example, let us assume you're using 3d6 in order and want "balanced" characters (i.e, not straight 18s or "hopeless" characters).

Try this: roll 3d6, write down the result, subtract this result from 21, and write down the new result. You now have two results that add to 21; for example, 15 and 6, 18 and 3, 7 and 14, etc.

Do this two more times, and you have three pairs of results (for example: 15 and 6, 18 and 3, 7 and 14).

(If you are using the "4d6 drop lowest" method you can make the sum of each pair equal to 24 or 25; see the table below).

If you already know the type of character you want, distribute the results accordingly - the original pairs should be kept.

For example, if we are creating a Wizard, we can use: Strength 3, Intelligence 18, Wisdom 15, Dexterity 6, Constitution 7, and Charisma 14. This is an old, wise wizard; a quick-thinking, smart but inattentive wizard (another common archetype) with the same numbers could have Dexterity 15 and Wisdom 6 instead.

A big, dumb Fighter, like Gregor Clegane from A Game of Thrones, would have Strength 18, Intelligence 3, Wisdom 7, Dexterity 14, Constitution 15, and Charisma 6.

If you don't know the type of character you want, use the original order (i.e., just fill the character sheet in order): Strength 15, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 18 , Dexterity 3, Constitution 7, and Charisma 14. This looks like some kind of stoic cleric (or paladin) to me; maybe an old veteran, a natural leader, still a good fighter although somewhat fragile and slowed down by age.

Let us try some other examples? I rolled these as I was writing, with no re-rolls, I promise:

- First I got 9, 12, 9, 12, 10, 11... yeah, a bit boring. Maybe I should do something to avoid such results. In any case, it clearly looks like a Thief (Strength 9, Intelligence 12, Wisdom 9, Dexterity 12, Constitution 10, and Charisma 11).

- Strength 15, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 12, Dexterity 9, Constitution 11, and Charisma 10. Your typical Fighter: strong, a bit slow, but with enough courage and common sense. Maybe a soldier or tough knight.

- Strength 11, Intelligence 10, Wisdom 14, Dexterity 7, Constitution 14, and Charisma 7. An average Cleric, hardy and strong-willed.

Most iconic classes AND races in D&D I can think off would fit in this Yin-Yang pattern, but a few exceptions can be made. The Monk (or Mystic), which requires Wisdom and Dexterity, seems to be the main problem (the Ranger in 5e is similar - although I would argue the archetypal Ranger would need Constitution or even Strength before Dexterity, if you think of Aragorn). There are also, of course, plenty of classes that rely on multiple abilities; a Paladin or Warlord might need both Charisma and Constitution, but also Strength, and probably some Wisdom or Intelligence (come to think of it, the Ranger and Monk could use some Strength and Constitution too...).

There are also some non-iconic "special classes" that would break the mold. The Muscle Wizard comes to mind. Some kind of super-model/celebrity class could be built around Constitution and Charisma.

For all those classes, some special exceptions would have to be made to make them "optimal" or even viable; one option is on the second table, below.

Source. Or maybe here?
In short: get an old school character sheet, roll 3d6 for Intelligence, calculate Strength, roll 3d6 for Dexterity, and so on, and you get a viable, balanced character very fast.

If you don't like subtracting, use this to find the value of the second ability in each pair:





First Ability Second

18 3

17 4

16 5

15 6

14 7

13 8

12 9

11 10

10 11

9 12

8 13

7 14

6 15

5 16

4 17

3 18




Or this one, if you prefer something closer to 4d6 drop lowest (the sum is 24, and the lowest ability is 6; if you roll 5 or lower, roll again):





First Ability Second

18 6

17 7

16 8

15 9

14 10

13 11

12 12

11 13

10 14

9 15

8 16

7 17

6 18

5 roll again*

4 roll again*

3 roll again*




* Alternatively, results from 3 to 5 in the first roll would break the mold to create a Monk, Dexterity Ranger, or some other special class.

What is the point?

This method is good for creating fastrandombalanced, archetypal characters. If you want more creative results, less randomness, more customization, and so on, many traditional methods will do just fine.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Lost Mines of Ravnica, III - Phandelver Remade

Read Part I here and Part II here. The first two parts were about ideas and techniques for adapting LMoP to Ravnica or some other setting. This third and final part is a straight-up conversion, or a description of what I did to LMoP without any criticism or analysis of the original module.

It will probably only be useful if you actually want to run LMoP in Ravnica, but who knows. I still plan to run this campaign again to people that are new both to Ravnica AND LMoP, one day.

Here you go - you need to be familiar with LMoP, but not necessarily Ravnica, to make this work. In fact, I altered some bits of Ravnica lore to fit my tastes, and I encourage you to do the same.

---

Introduction to Ravnica

(There is an astonishing amount of lore in the MTG salvation wiki; the challenge is reducing it to avoid overwhelming first-time visitors).

The city of Ravnica is a sprawling gigalopolis that covers most of the surface of the planet. It looks like a high-tech world with magic in place of technology, insanely tall spires and towers, and multiple underground levels.


There are innumerable creatures in Ravnica, but most intelligent humanoids are humans, goblins, minotaurs, elves, centaurs, dryads, ogres, trolls, giants, Vedalken (think of blue-skinned, bald Vulkans), Viashino (lizard-people), Loxodon (elephant men), demons, mutants and the undead. Other races in the PHB such as orcs, dwarves, haflings and dragonborn should be re-skinned, although in such a cosmopolitan setting almost everything is possible.

In ancient times, innumerable factions were in constant war against each other (and, as legend goes, against gigantic alien monsters, but that is probably exaggerated...), until the ten most powerful ones made a magical contract - the Guildpact - that would keep the planet peaceful. The lesser factions were disbanded or destroyed.

999 years later, the guilds are still at relative peace - even if they disliked each other, the Guildpact stops any serious attempts of war. One of the guilds has been destroyed and forgotten. The other nine guilds control a separate aspect of civilization each - law, religion, food, mining, recycling, and so on.

There is no government "per se"; the guild often negotiate with each other and the Guildpact prevents things from derailing. The exact terms of the Guildpact are known to few, and understood by fewer, but basically it is a set of magically enforced laws that cannot be broken, lest the whole order be destroyed,

Most of the populace is Guildless, though, and they must offer services to the guilds in order to be admitted - or just to survive. Many resent the guilds and some even long for the days before the Guildpact, but without the guilds the world would go back to chaos.


Your guild is The Boros Legion, and your mission is to keep the peace and bring troublemakers to judgment. You were probably invited to join after showing martial progress at a young age. You are still being tested before being made a permanent member.

Most of the legion is comprised of humans, goblins, viashino (lizard-people) and minotaurs, but others can join too. The leaders of your guild are avenging angels with fiery blades; you hardly see them, but they inspire you with ideals of justice and vengeance.

In theory, you have to follow the byzantine laws of Ravnica, but in practice you can do harm with relative impunity as long as you follow your orders and don't disrupt official guild business (either Boros or otherwise).


[It is possible that people from other guilds will accompany a Boros band for various reasons, such as providing healing or technology, but I'm assuming most of the PCs to be Boros. Most classes will do just fine, with a few exceptions such as bards and druids. Alternatively, you can let the PCs start without a guild and acquire one during play. Also, I do not expected players that are not familiar with Ravnica to memorize all the guilds at first; three guilds, plus the knowledge of a missing one, will be enough for LMoP].

Background

In Ravnica, mining is the job of the sadistic Cult of Rakdos, one of the most dangerous guilds around. In their underground domains, they do as they wish, but they give plenty of gold to the other guilds in return. Still, there are plenty of ancient mines that the cult haven't found yet - the Wave Echo Cave is one of them. In theory, any mines should be given to the Rakdos, but in practice there are plenty of greedy, foolhardy opportunists that would try to take the gold for themselves.

This is what happened here. An ancient mine was found in Phandalin by Rockseeker, a goblin explorer. Soon enough, all criminal gangs in the area started being suspicious and started looking for a way to get their cut.

The thing is, Phandalin is basically a gigantic slum, filled with ruins and partly covered by overgrown forests. Worse, the Gruul clans are very active in the area. The Gruul clans were once responsible for the forest, but singe the growth or Ravnica has destroyed most great forest in the planets, the Gruul are now homeless, marginalized and angry. Swindled out of their share in the Guildpact, now the Gruul threaten civilization from within. Even then, their numbers never seem to dwindle, maybe because any guildless can potentially join the Gruul, although the weak are brutalized by the strong.


Chaotic, angry and prepared for war, the Gruul are in many ways the savage counterpart to the Boros. Like the Boros, they have humans, goblins, viashino and minotaur in their ranks, but also trolls, ogres, centaurs, elves and other creatures that are either martial or aligned with nature.

There is no strict hierarchy among the Gruul; many criminal gangs fancy themselves part of the guild, but they fight each other almost as often as they cooperate.

Let the players know that they can arrest any Gruul that comis a crime and can destroy them in self-defense, but merely being a Gruul is no crime, although many Boros hate them. Some Grull might be informants, friends or even family to the PCs.

Part 1 - Goblin arrows

The players are charged with investigating the disappearance of Sildar Hallwinter, a Boros officer that was investigating a supposed criminal gang in Phandalin (in my campaign, Sildar was involved with the hiding of the mine). They have an informer in Phandalin that could help. As they meet this informer, he will say he must meet the PCs in a more private place. If the players are smart or suspicious enough, they will realize that this is an ambush; the informant has been compromised.

Part 2 - Phandalin

Phandalin causes mixed reactions to the Boros; they might be appalled by the poverty and lawlessness of the people, but the simple fact that the place is so filled with natural life could cause some admiration. While interacting with people in the city, it will soon become obvious that not not all guildless are alike, and even among the Gruul there are very different people.

The factions of Phandalin are mostly substituted by guilds in my version, but you can certainly have smaller groups that are not directly tied to any of the major guilds. If your PCs are Boros, they will probably not pledge allegiance to any competing faction, but they can - and should - cooperate with other guilds to advance the goals of the Boros or their own - make clear that this is part of normal life in Ravnica.

Part 3 - The Spider's Web

Not much to add here. The green dragon is a giant worm (or "Wurm") in Ravnica instead; a creature worshiped by some of the Gruul as a symbol of primal power and chaos unleashed upon civilization. The owl-bear might be a symbol of corrupted nature gone wild, too - like a giant boar out of Princess Mononoke. Or say it is a giant bear - and that the PCs had never seen a bear before. It adds to the strangeness of the setting.


Part 4 - Wave Echo Cave

The story behind WEC is that is was sealed a thousand years ago because it was overrun by the undead and many other foul creatures - specially one particular being (the spectator) that is an envoy from the dangerous, forgotten gods from before the Guildpact. The Black Spider is interested not only in the gold, but in the ghost-stones that kept the undead active for all this time. He wants to study them and use them to help building his own undead army.

The wraith and the spectator have a pact of their own, so they cant destroy each other. They will try to enlist the PCs for their cause, promising many rewards. The spectator will claim to be a herald of ancient gods that were hidden from the people of Ravnica by the corrupted guilds.

The Black Spider, in reality, is the psychic vampire Szadek, head of the secret tenth guild. In the original Guildpact, the tenth guild was charged with secretly challenging the power of the other guilds, a fact that only the ones who signed the pact know. The other guilds are forbidden to let the secret out.

He will not fight to the death; instead, he tries to flee (even before the fight ends) or surrender (promptly reminding the PCs they shouldn't attack a surpreender foe).


What comes next?

Giving the mines to the despised Rakdos will be an issue in itself - many Boros might agree with Sildar and try to take some of the gold for themselves. If the PCs arrest Szadek, the Boros will have a problem on their hands, since his existence being known would break the Guildpact. He might find a way to escape (in which case the Boros will eventually give the PCs job of assassinating him), or maybe he will be quietly executed.

Even if Szadek dies, there are still plenty of things to do in Ravnica, based on MtG lore, novels, etc. 


Here are some ideas:

- The PCs are assigned to look for one of the Ten Most Wanted of Ravnica, or maybe they are just looking for the reward.
- The angels that rule the Boros disappear, leaving a power vacuum.
- The ghost-stones will be used by other guild as a weapon to try and exterminate the Gruul, creating a ghost-town in Phandalin.
- A creature created by the Simic combine escapes and hides within Golgari territory.
- A power struggle within a guild makes conspirators search for allies in other guilds.
- Two guilds associate in order to gain supreme power.
- The guildless revolt against the guilds. Some Boros want to massacre them, some understand the anger, some want to leave the legion.
- The Guildpact is eventually broken. This opens Ravnica up to visitor form other planes.
- The ancient gods, no longer held back by the Guildpact, attack Ravnica. They look like somethign out of a Lovecraft story.
- The last dragon, Niv-Mizzet, finds a megadungeon under the Senate: the Implicit Maze. It contains the power to re-establishing the Guildpact, but all guilds must cooperate (even though not all members are willing).

(all art belongs to Wizards of the Coast)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Lost Mines of Ravnica, II - Phandelver Resolved

Read part 1 first.

Let us continue to fix what we can from LMoP, by setting it into Ravnica or doing something else.

I won't stick too closely to Gus' article this time, but instead I'll try to describe my own campaign and some of the solutions that I've adopted, which is probably more useful to the reader.

Problem #2 - The silly names (and problem #1 continued)

I have to agree with Gus on this one, the names are very bad. There is little I can add to his post; in my adventure I indeed shortened some of the names, and my PCs couldn't remember "Sildar", let alone "Sildar Hallwinter".

One interesting thing is that I actually used "The Black Spider" (TBS) instead of "Nezznar the Black Spider", because his name was meaningful in-universe; in my version of LMoP, TBS was really the psychic vampire Szadek in disguise (whose guild symbol is a black/blue spider). Yes, in theory a guy as secretive as Szadek shouldn't go by "The Black Spider", but the goal here is to put an image in the PCs head, and use the lack of a proper name as a source of mystery. This was a happy coincidence; of course you could call him "Red Wolf" or something in a different setting.

The tenth guild is only a legend...
In short: give some meanings to the names, or make them shorter and easier. Also, take this idea further: give meanings to everything else. We'll get there by the end of the post.

Problem #3 - Goblins (also, ogres, bugbears, humans, and other monsters)

A goblin ambush, goblin canon fodder, goblins that attack on sight... It has always been done before. The way LMoP treats goblins seems to encourage treating them as little monsters or obstacles, not humanoids.

I don't have a problem with goblins "per se", so I kept them in the game. I don't even have a problem with goblins as canon fodder, but it seems like a poor use for them, specially because LMoP gives you some opportunities for negotiation.

My solution? More goblins.

Canon fodder? More like canon makers!
Goblins are a part of the PCs guild. Goblins are some of the best engineers in the setting. They are not only the aggressors, but often victims of bigger creatures such as humans and minotaurs (unfortunately, the MtG website for Ravnica describes goblins as "test subjects" instead of engineers, etc; that is not how I interpret the cards and novels). Also, since there are no dwarves in Ravnica, they are all goblins now. Hopefully, when the PCs sees a goblin, "kill that pest before it attacks us" is not the first thing that comes to mind.

(Incidentally, the party had a kobold in it; I couldn't convince the player to use a re-skinned goblin instead, and I put player choice over setting details most of the times, but I think this fact made it easier for them to deal with goblins).

As for the goblin ambush, there is no caravan and no road. Instead, the ambush is a social one; someone tries to lure the PCs into the the ambush, but they can avoid it if they are smart enough to be suspicious of what is going on.

Which also makes the first encounter of the module less likely to result in a total party kill.

Also, later on the adventure the PCs had to collaborate with a goblin to find what was wrong with their own guild. Some of the PCs superiors were quick to tell them that they were the true heroes and everyone else was canon foder, but these were the bad guys, and the PCs could only find this out by talking to some goblins.

I applied the same reasoning for most of the monsters in the module, and in the end most of the humanoid enemies (minotaurs, ogres) were either present in the PCs guild or often victims of the some guild's power.

These are the good guys... or are they?
For some of the other monsters, I re-skinned them to Ravnica too. The green dragon became a great worm worshiped by the Gruul, which conveniently exist in Ravnica. Owlbears are replaced by tentacled Simic aberrations gone wild. The Beholder-like creature became a thrall to the Lovecraftian Eldrazi that might end up destroying Ravnica.

I kept some monsters as they are, but told the players their charachters had never seem something like that before. This worked well for the doppelganger, but not quite for the zombies.

Problem #4 - Phandalin, factions and the lack of forests

The town of Phandalin offers various factions, storylines and side-quests. As Gus notices, some of them are quite boring. Ravnica automatically solves this problem with the guilds: they have plenty of conflicting objetives an many shades of grey, so that any player could conceivably make deals with any guilds for various reasons.

One problem of using Ravnica for LMoP is that there are not many wilderness areas in Ravnica, since it is supposed to be one single mega-city. Still, I figured, there must be plenty of uninhabited ruins, slums, big parks, etc.

Everything that looked like wilderness, thus, became Gruul (the wild, barbarian guild) territory.

Conveniently, that made the wilderness not only a source of danger, but also a source of ambiguity: it reminded the players that civilization had destroyed most of the forest and the "chaotic" Gruul clan were one of the few guilds that actually cared about that.


Entering Gruul territory...
Problem #5 - Not enough fantasy

In the end, the lack of "weird" fantasy in the model can be solved by adding weirdness to everything that feels too cliched for you. Some of it is re-skinning, some of it is turning all assumptions on their heads.

Let each encounter tell something about how your setting is different from generic fantasy, by giving every question about it a slightly unexpected answer. The monsters above are one example, but there are many others. The mine has to be kept secret not only because of the gold, but because otherwise the Rakdos (the demon guild) would have the right to claim it, as they are responsible for the underground. The mine are not valuable because of its gold, but because it is filled with radioactive rocks that keeps ghost imprisoned (also a thing in Ravnica). And so on.

Why bother?

At this point, you might be asking yourself why I went through all this trouble instead of just getting an adventure best suited to my tastes.

There are a couple of answers for that. First, I enjoy writing adventures, but I don't care much for creating maps and statblocks. The "plot", if you can call it that, is what entices me. Also, there are no published Ravnica adventures.

But, also, because LMoP is a great adventure. Yes, vanilla is not my favorite flavor, but I like everything else about this adventure. The encounters work well, the traps are fun, there are great opportunities for creative problem solving, and, all in all, it is  a great introduction to 5e, which was exactly what I was looking for at the time.

So, it is worth playing, and it is certainly worth saving if it is not exactly suited to your tastes.

Next: enough with this problems, let us give some solutions already.

(all art belongs to Wizards of the Coast)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Plane Shift: Innistrad review - Re-skinning classic horror

WotC has release the second iteration of the "Plane Shift" series this week. You can get it here. Their first effort was Zendikar - you can see my review here.

I found Plane Shift: Innistrad to be way more interesting than Zendikar. Zendikar, as I wrote earlier, had a very lackluster presentation of a potentially awesome setting. Innistrad, in many ways, is the opposite: it looks like a very traditional gothic setting in the outside, but the PDF does a great job of highlighting what is special about it, and giving you things you can use in your game.

Most of all, it is a lesson in the noble art of re-skinning, which is probably my favorite aspect of it. From cover to cover, the PDF gives you tips and hints on converting classes, races, settings and adventures ("Curse of Strahd") from your classic D&D to Innistrad.


This is a great way of showing people that you can basically get any adventure or campaign and insert it into the type of setting that you prefer, avoiding "vanilla" fantasy if you want it, or even dialing things back from the weirder aspects of fantasy if that is not your thing. Take a look of my re-skinning of Lost Mines of Phandelver to the MtG world of Ravnica and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Another awesome aspect of Innsitrad is the monster variations. This is an underused idea in D&D that make monsters infinitely more interesting. 5e's Monster Manual has a few interesting ideas, and even LMoP does this to some extent. My own bestiary (if I ever write it) is created around this idea. The gist of it is that you get a familiar creature and add a twist to it, completely changing the encounters. For example, werewolves are all the same in the MM, but if you add one of Innistrad's traits to it, the fight will look completely different:


The fact that you can use traits such as this to reflect some aspect of the setting ("Vildin werewolves are particularly bloodthirsty", etc) or to investigate aspects of the setting to plan for combat makes things even better.

There is lots of useful "game" stuff in this PDF. A few new creatures and creatures traits, a flavorful new background (inquisitor), some flavorless human variants (oh, well...), new rules for madness and corruption, etc.

The art is great as always.


Since most of the setting details can be found online, as the PDF itself points out, all this re-skinning seems to be a good use for Plane Shift books. The alternative - using this short PDFs as summaries of the MtG settings - seems to be a bad idea, specially for Innistrad, since most of it is homage to classic horror, with some cool variations but little that is really unique.

There is little to be said about the setting; basically, it has werewolves, vampires, angels, demons, etc. Mostly Ravenloft, some MtG lore, some Diablo, some Lovecraft, all Gothic fantasy. It doesn't describe many interesting factions or NPCs, Good and Evil are clearly present but the shades of gray come from the fact Evil has affect pretty much everyone.

Innistrad has at least one interesting twist on Gothic horror, and although it might sound that adding Lovecraft to Ravenloft (or to anything, these days) is not the most innovative thing in the world, I really like how Innistrad implements it; basically, you got your Ravenloft / Hammer horror world with vampires, werewolves and all, where the church and peasants with pitchforks fight the evil powers... until Emrakul (basically Cthulhu and the like) invades the world and starts driving everyone, including the angels, crazy.

This seems like a perfect fit for Curse of Strahd, which takes characters to level 10 - after they are finished with the campaign, add Emrakul to the mix for some high-level threat to Ravenloft's very existence.


In short, Plane Shift: Innistrad is a great resource for D&D horror. It is not my favorite MtG setting, nor is it "weird" enough for some peoples' tastes, but is is a great improvement over the Zendikar PDF and, basically, almost the best I would expect from a 40-page conversion of a MtG setting to D&D.

WotC seems to have found its way with Plane Shift, and I'm looking forward for the next ones.

All art and text copyright by Wizards of the Coast LLC, used under fair use doctrine, for purposes of criticism only.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Single-digit Monsters

I already wrote some stuff about single-digit weapons (although I'm thinking of making them even simpler) and single-digit characters.

Now, let us talk about single-digit monsters, i.e., those monsters that are describe by little more than their HD. I already wrote about this here, and now I'll take it a little further.

Take a look at that last link, if you will; it extrapolates quotes from Gygax and rules in the RC to find out a monsters' BAB, damage, AC and saves, using nothing but their HD.

But what if you want monsters to have skills? Does the dragon have a better chance of noticing you sneaking around than a dog or lion? Can it sneak on you, somehow?


There are a few solutions to that.

The easiest one - and probably the best if you want something simple and straightforward - is ignoring the problem. You already have a rule for heroes sneaking around, you don't need another rule for monsters finding them.

Another good solution is the one used in The Black Hack. Monsters with more HD are better overall. This fits with the whole meaning of levels and HD. Still, giving the 20 HD Tyrannosaurus a +20 bonus to sneak around sounds a bit strange; in this case, I guess you would use the previous idea.

Fifth edition mostly uses a formula based on CR; so though monsters, again, are better overall, although a little less so. 4e takes a similar approach IIRC, while adding its own interesting ideas on bear lore.

3.x edition gives monsters skill bonuses, instead. This just complicates things. The Triceratops from the SRD seem to have "Listen +13, Spot +12". Not only it makes me wonder what would one accomplish with this little +13/+12 difference, but also it makes the Triceratops a better guard than a dog for some reason. Although I'm sure that there is a rule somewhere that says bigger enemies have a penalty finding you - what is the point of giving them a bonus and them a penalty then?

If the rule accomplishes nothing interesting, I would prefer not having it in the first place.

This is not a criticism of 3.x D&D; the RC is one of my favorite versions of D&D and has a lot of redundancy, IMO. For example, why do all monsters need an "save as" trait if, most of the time, they just save as a Fighter with the same HD or something very close to it? Also, do we really need to have movement listed twice for each monster, with the second number being the first one divided by three?


So, if we rule out not having a rule, having a bonus based on HD, and adding more details to the monsters, what is left?

Well, when you think of it, there aren't that many types of monsters. There are the big, though ones, of course, and then the sneaky ones, the quick ones, the magic ones... and the special ones, I guess.

This means we could have a few monster classes, somewhat similar to character classes; not to make monsters more complicated, but to make them simpler.

Dare I say fourth edition got the right idea about this?

Just divide monsters in a few classes, and somewhat equivalent - or even identical - to character classes.

- Arcanist: BAB = HD/3, AC bonus = HD/4, Saves and spells as MU HD.
- Assassin: Damage = HD/2, AC bonus  = HD/3, Saves, sneak and back-stab as Thief HD.
- Brute: BAB = HD, Damage = HD, AC = 10+HD/2, Saves as Fighter HD.
...and so on.

A dungeon room thus could be described like that:

"In the middle of the room, there are two Red Ogres (Brute 7) discussing what to with their three prisoners (the previous group of adventures; Fighter 4, Thief 3 and Cleric 5)..."

Some people might prefer to have a complete stat-block, with the Charisma and skills of each guard dog calculated beforehand. If that is the case, there is plenty of monster manuals that do something similar.

Still, it is nice to have some abbreviations to write adventures, settings and even describe monsters on those times when things like "Listen +13, Spot +12" has no relevance for the thing you're trying to describe.
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