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

Monday, February 24, 2020

Darkness in in 5e D&D - torches, stealth and encounter distance (quick fix)

Fifth edition D&D lacks clear, explicit rules about these subjects.

I wrote a couple of posts about them already: here and here.

But these are long. Here is the TL;DR version:

- Torches are conspicuous (like lanterns, candles, etc.). They can be seem from a mile away in the dark. Even in dim light, they'll probably be quickly noticed unless there are brighter lights around, Which means, basically, that you cannot sneak around while carrying your own sources of light, and you can NEVER surprise someone in these circumstances - unless you opposition is asleep, blind (blindsight), etc.

- Large groups are noisy. When making stealth checks, do not make it a "group ability check". Each PC rolls separately. If the thief succeeds and the paladin fails, the opposition only sees the paladin at first. Which might be a good opportunity for the thief.

- If no one is sneaking or carrying torches, encounter distance is defined by darkvision (usually 60 feet). If both parties have darkvision 60 feet, the encounter begins at a distance of 60 feet. If you randomly encounter a monster with better darkvision than you, it sees you first. It decides whether to approach or not... or to attack from a distance. With a good perception check, you might hear a noise, take cover, etc.

Special circumstances may change this - if there is a door or other obstacle, for example, both parties could hear one another though the door.

- Inside narrow dungeons, encounters happen in corners. If one side is carrying a torch, you might still see the light before turning the corner, but it would make things less obvious.

- Unless you avoid this on purpose, if someone in your group has a torch, the whole group will be spotted easily in the dark.

Intelligent monsters that have darkvision may use torches anyway, unless they are expecting an attack by enemies that do not have darkvision. This is a bit more complicated. Darkvision does not ignore the darkness, it makes it milder (like "dim light" - which causes disadvantage in perception checks). In addition, you cannot see colors in darkness, only shades of gray.

It seems creatures with darkvision would prefer live in dim light if possible - they keep their edge against diurnal creatures and can see well enough. However, most sources of light in the game create bright light in a small radius and dim light in a bigger radius - potentially forcing goblins, for example, to live partially in bright light.


- Monsters with keen senses may have different rules. If you use the rules as strictly written, a goblin should fight a wolf in the dark if given a choice. However, wolves have keen hearing and smell, and goblins have bows. A goblin village threatened by wolves might prefer to surround itself with torches if the night is dark, to see the wolves approaching (without disadvantage) and take them down from a distance.

If the goblin village is threatened by giant bats (with blindsight), they would DEFINITELY use torches.

However, a goblin village surrounded by aggressive HUMANS would never use torches, for similar reasons - humans rely on sight MORE than goblins, and would have a hard time approaching without being noticed.

Most of this is common sense, but easy to forget when you're playing the game and looking for actual rules.

In addition, all this stuff might hinder your fun, specially if the entire group suffers because one single PC doesn't have darkvision. If that is the case, decide what is best for you. Many groups hand-wave the whole notion of light and darkness... but using it right can lead to awesome situations.

If you want to support this blog, check out my books! Most are compatible with 5e.

Friday, February 21, 2020


So here are my two newest books: Dark Fantasy Magic Items and Dark Fantasy Settings.

They are on sale for US$ 0.95 and 50 cents!


These are collection of tables and short essays to inspire the creation of dark fantasy settings and magic items. As always, the focus is on dark fantasy tropes: flawed heroes, terrible villains, corrupting magic, ominous ruins and damned wastelands.

Here are some examples from each book.


What is missing?
Gods. They died, left, became corrupted, etc. (see the “Dark Fantasy Religion” book for more ideas)
Water. In this deserted world, human life is cheap and water is expensive.
Food. Everyone are starving, and the number of cannibals is growing.
Sun. The sun is dying. It might have turned red already.
Light. It is always night, and torches are scarce.
Heat. This winter is harsh and lasts for decades. The whole world is covered in snow.
Civilization. Civilization has fallen, and barbarians live amongst the ruins.
Technology. The primitive humankind cannot tell the devices of the ancients from magic.
Sight. The whole world is surrounded by fog. Hard to see, easy to get lost.
Magic. The slow death of magic will bring doom upon the world.
Metals. Metals are scarce. Wood, bone and obsidian are used in its place.
Memory. Everyone seems to be forgetful, and the old ways are falling into oblivion.
Empathy. It is every man and woman for themselves now, and the devil take the hindmost.
Order. Nobody is in charge, and everything is permitted.
Transport. There might be peace somewhere, but no ways to get there.
Sanity. Everyone is crazy, but each in their own way.
Stability. Everything changes rapidly. Cities move around. Buildings grow and collapse like trees.
Souls. Most common people are born with no soul, although this isn’t always obvious.
Exit. No one can leave The Great City. Beyond the walls is hell, or worse.
Hope. Everything is going downhill, and nobody cares.

Magic items:

Deep and dark like the night sky. You cannot see the stars move, but they do.
Looks as if it was made of contained fire, without heat.
A sea of desperate faces float around with open mouths, making no sound.
Its parts seem to flow slightly within, like water.
Luminescent. It glows in the dark but provides no light for you.
It contains one or more eyes that occasionally seem to blink.
Made to resemble flowers and plants, with a sweet, slightly narcotic smell.
Reflective, like a perfect mirror.
Ultrablack – darker than your pupils, and makes the light around them a bit weaker.
Beautifully prismatic, like a cross between a rainbow and the aurora borealis.
Old bloodstains that can never be cleaned.
Incredibly fancy. Decorated with precious stones or metals.
Resembles (or contains the image of) an animal, demon, monster, child, etc.
Has small pulsating protuberances that resemble cists.
Made of living, flayed flesh, or human skin. Might bleed if damaged. / Made of bones.
Smooth, squishy and wet, resembling octopus’ skin. / Semi-transparent, like hardened glass or crystals.
Covered in scales of a dragon or great lizard. / Engraved with glowing runes.
Decorated with large feathers of extinct birds. / Perfectly polished metal.
Rubbery and flexible, but still very resistant. / Radiant, like a beam of light or “laser sword”.
Covered in the strangely colored fur of an unknown beast. / All bent and twisted.

I think the series is now complete! I'm really happy on how things turned out. And I still have other stuff up my sleeve...  Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sword of Destiny (book review)

Sword of destiny is the second book from "the Witcher" series, which rose to worldwide fame mostly because of the videogames and, now, the TV series.

This book was actually published in Poland BEFORE The Last Wish, the "first" book in the series. However, the events described in The Last Wish happened before, and it also was printed before in english IIRC, so Sword of destiny is usually classified as book 2 in the series.

These two books are collections of interconnected short stories, not novels, with the main "saga" beginning in book three.

If you read my review from the first book, or watched the TV series, there is not much to add here. If you liked those, you will probably like this. The series drew a lot from this book.

Sword of destiny is like The Last Wish, but even more so: the flaws are more glaring, but the overall quality of te writing is not much different from the "first" book. Dark humor, clever twists, decent dialogue, etc.

There are LOTS of appearances from Jaskier and Yennefer in this book, among other fortuitous encounters that strained my credulity to its limits. Important characters bump into each other at crossroads, random villages, etc. "Destiny" seems to be the culprit in some cases, but it feels exaggerated sometimes.

The focus on relationships frankly makes me question why we should call this "dark fantasy" in the first place. Yes, there are some amoral characters and prejudice against the nearly-extinct elves, and institutions are unreliable (aren't they always?), but not much more "dark stuff" than that. Lots of happy endings (or at least not terrible), for example, unlike G.R.R. Martin or Moorcock. The dark parts in this book concern mostly Geralt himself and how the process of becoming a Witcher is dangerous and taxing.

And Geralt is again, an idealistic character, seemingly out of place in this world - much more honest and reliable than Elric or Conan, and deeply in love with Yennefer, a woman that apparently isn't sure if she loves him back. Or something like that. If you came looking for gritty, gloomy fantasy, you might roll eyes at some points in the story.

The focus on love and relationships (even impossible love) makes this stuff almost like some kind of "romantic" fantasy (I use quotation marks because romantic fantasy is actually a whole different genre).

But, ultimately, it is mostly "postmodern" fantasy, poking at the tropes of the "traditional" fantasy of Tolkien and others and often subverting them, reflecting on society itself and the nature of destiny, etc. 

It is not tragic or alien stuff, but has clear modern sensibilities (even the characters often think in modern terms...). It resembles the "pulp" classics like Howard more than the epic narratives of Tolkien or Moorcock, or even the more "magical" works of Dunsany (which I love) and Eddison (which I can hardly read, to be honest).

At least in these first two books, there is a quality of alienness and awe that seems lacking - if that is what you're looking for in fantasy novels.

However, the stories are interesting and well-written enough that, frankly, got me hooked. The pace is sometimes slow, but never boring, and the "short story" structure make pages go by fast. The action scenes are good, the jokes are often funny... And the characters manage to be compelling - Jaskier is a worthy companion instead of comic relief, and Geralt pass through hard times and mundane problems, making him more relatable.

And, once again, this book is great to mine for ideas for RPGs.

So, in short... I'm a bit on the fence on this one. It is a good book, but not one of the greats, at least not so far. But then again it is the first book the author wrote, and it show signs of becoming something bigger. So, if you like the "first" book or the show, I'd recommend this one. I'll probably read the next one to see how the series progresses. 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

RPG and design, I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia

I love playing around with RPG design, and I think part os this aspect of our hobby is criminally underrated. However, since I'm not a specialist in design, I often feel I lack the vocabulary to properly express my thoughts. This series is an attempt to order these thoughts.

(BTW, I also feel this deficiency is not only mine, but an aspect of the hobby itself; I read a lot about RPGs but seldom see these things being discussed in depth, or at least not using a common vocabulary. For example, terms like "narrativism" or "dissociated mechanics" are few and controversial. HOWEVER, if you know a place where I can find such discussions, let me know in the comments!).

First, we must separate a few different topics of discussion:

- Game design.
- Book design.
- Page design.
- Table design.
- Etc.

Even though one can use the word "design" for all these topics, there are some obvious differences.

For example: in RPG context, game design usually refers to something immaterial, that is independent of the book itself. Rules, for example. A weapon that deals 1d6+3 damage, but 2d6+3 on a critical hit is a game design choice.

However, there are material aspects to RPG design. The most obvious ones are the book's visuals: fonts, margins, colors, art, etc.

The most common RPGs books have interesting unique aspects that are not common in other books, mostly because, in addition to being "books" (in the sense of "a thing that you read through") they are teaching manuals (like school books, etc.) and reference books (like encyclopedias).

Here are some dictionary definitions, FWIW:

Manual: a book that gives you practical instructions on how to do something or how to use something, such as a machine:

Encyclopedia: a book or set of books containing many articles arranged in alphabetical order that deal either with the whole of human knowledge or with a particular part of it.

Maybe a better term would be "reference book", a book intended to be consulted for information on specific matters rather than read from beginning to end (source).

This is another topic that seems ignored in our hobby: we often use the same books for BOTH functions. But our children's books are not like encyclopedias; they teach things in a linear fashion.

If you get the 5e PHB, for example, you can see that the usual pattern is:

- This is what "race" means, how to use it. ("manual")
- List of races. ("reference book")
- This is what "class" means, how to use it. ("manual")
- List of classes. ("reference book")
- etc.

Another thing to consider is that some books are designed to be referenced at the table. While I usually avoid checking rules from the PHB/DMG during the game, it is obvious that the monster manuals are very often used in this way.

This means that these books must give you the information you need QUICKLY; a concern most encyclopedias and reference books don't need!

In this sense, wasting your time (with page-flipping is bad design); which is why most monster manuals will prefer lots of blank space to making you turn the page while describing a monster, for example.

Let me give you another example of the things I'm talking about:

Darkvision is described multiple times in the 5e PHB, often with identical words (especially while describing races). These would indicate that the designer's chose to treat it as a piece of information to be referenced, not taught.

However, in the "arcane eye" spell, darkvision isn't described. Which in theory would indicate that you need to check other section of the book for the explanation.

The distinction is strange. I would assume you do not need references for your race - you only have one race, you choose race only once, so eventually you'd memorize all that your race does - but many characters have multiple spells (sometimes dozens), and pick new spells every level, etc.

In addition, darkvision is repeated multiple times (for reference), but not discussed extensively (for reflection) - leaving lots of room for mistakes, doubts and errata (for example, the book never discusses if creatures with darkvision prefer to use torches, in order to see colors, or prefer to dwell in the darkness to keep a permanent advantage against other creatures).

In practice, it doesn't bother me - I have darkvision more or less memorized at this point - but it makes me feel as if the designers of 5e have not considered these issues.

Well, this "Manual x Encyclopedia" became larger than I had intended.

There are LOTS of topics to cover in these series... Information presentation, user interface design user/experience design, word count, size and format, drop die tables, analog "technologies" in RPGs, multipurpose mechanics, efficiency/elegance, information waste (on die rolls, etc.), information compression, wasted time on dice rolls, granularity, and so on... will try to tackle them next.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The three-strikes rule for FAST COMBAT - or NPCs, mass combat, etc.

While running Curse of Strahd, I had a problem: the PCs would often ally with NPCs to fight multiple monsters at once.

Now, as a DM, to roll dice for both sides of a conflict feels ridiculous and boring, even more so if some of the NPCs are average-level spell-casters, with spells and actions to choose from. And I can only imagine how tiresome it would be for the players to watch the DM rolling for a fight that doesn't involve them directly.

Of course, you could let your players control the NPCs on their side - which generally I recommend. But, TBH, the players are having a hard time with the number of options they already have, and this wouldn't help.

And I didn't want to handwave it, either. It was important to me if the NPC would survive the battle, and it was interesting to see if they would help the PCs or require help themselves.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution.

I call this the three-strikes rule. Works for lots of things.

In 5e, there are two things that encouraged me to use it.

First, death saving throws - they use a "three strikes" methods already.

Second, how damage and HP work in 5e. For many monsters, an attack deals about one third of a monster's HP in damage (I think I read this here; it isn't exact, but it works). This means that, in average... three hits, and you're out.

So, the solution is pretty simple: when a fight breaks, put the allied NPCs against inimical NPCs with comparable power, and roll a d20. Treat the results similarly to a death saving throw: three failures and the NPC is down, three successes and he is triumphant (and can help the PCs).

[If you want to be fair, a success should happen on 11 or more, but the difference is small]

If an NPC has a few failures but survives, he lost one third of his HP for each failure, and so on.

And if it is really important to save the NPC, well, the PCs can try - when the NPC is down, he starts rolling actual death saving throws.

This is scalable. If a paladin is fighting three goblins (assuming both sides are similar in power), each success means he killed one goblin. You could even use it for mass combat between two forces of similar power level. With a small list of modifiers (+2 for high ground, +4 if your force is twice the size of the other, -2 for each failure you already have, etc.), this is pretty much all you need for huge battles.

It also works for fragile NPCs that do not fight. They probably can not "win", but three failures means they're down. If one NPC is "guarding" another (which happened in my campaign), I might treat the two as a single entity and let the "bodyguard" fall first.

This method has a few advantages:

* You can roll a single die for both sides (success for one side means failure to the other). Inf act, I ask the players to roll for their allies.
* You can abstract all powers, wounds, attacks, etc. in a single roll.

It has a few difficulties, too.

For example, things get a bit complicated if the PCs team up with NPCs against a single powerful NPC. In this case, since you've got only one inimical NPC to manage, you're probably better off defaulting to the original system. And comparing the power of two different sides is not always easy.

But, overall, I find it better than playing each move by the book.

All these elements should be incorporated in the "narrative" of course. This assures the the NPCs power level becomes a bit more explicit. E.g., "when you find the fallen body of your comrade, you notice that there are twenty dead ORCS at his feet", and so on.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

100 Magic Weapons + some thoughts on random tables

Here is my new book:

It is... well, exactly what it says on the tin. You can get it here.

Here are some examples you can use whether you get the book or not (roll 1d12):

  1. Sword of Bloodlust. This magic sword does not communicate, but moans obscenely whenever it slays a creature. It screams in pleasure if the victim is humanoid. Its blade is thin, sharp and sinuous.
  2. Flail of Judgement. This heavy spiked flail deals radiant damage against evil creatures, but will explode in your hands if turned against the innocent, leaving the target unharmed.
  3. Spider Arrows. These arrows have spider engraved in their tips. When you hit your target, the spiders become alive, burrowing out and causing additional damage.
  4. Whip of Disfigurement. This spiked whip leaves nasty scars in its victims. These scars cannot be healed by regeneration or healing and last for at least one month, barring some powerful magic.
  5. Sickle of Reaping. If you slay a living creature with this rusty, dented sickle, its blood will become food for the earth, making nearby plants grow faster, stronger… and stranger. They may grow exquisite flowers that are useful for creating alchemical potions.
  6. Greatclub of Ice-breaking. This massive club with icy shards turns things to ice before breaking them. It deals cold damage (massive damage to inanimate objects such as iron, leather, wood, etc.). It is extremely cold and cannot be held without protection for more than one minute without causing damage to you.
  7. Spear of Imprisonment. A creature slain by this ebony spear has its soul trapped within, in a grey plane of loneliness. If the spear is broken, all the souls are freed.
  8. Sword of Hellfire. This massive ebony sword shines as if it fire and lava burned within its blade, but it creates no light around it. It reeks of sulfur and leaves nasty burns (fire damage). A slain enemy boils from the inside until its eyes pop out.
  9. Axe of Genocide. This twisted double-bitted axe deals additional damage against a specific type of creature. You become angry and murderous when this type of creature is nearby.
10.  Sword of Mercilessness. When this sharp, bright sword is unsheathed, you gain additional courage and vigor (e.g., one temporary HP per level). If you stop fighting before all enemies are slain or defeated (but not merely surrendered), the blade will break in a thousand shards, hurting you in the process.
11.     Daggers of exotic dancing. These two daggers with obscenely-shaped handles seem to fight by themselves when wielded in a pair. If you miss an attack with the left hand, you can immediately make a “free” attack with the right hand. If you roll a natural 1, they cut you (half damage). In any case, it feels good.
  1. Sword of Plane-cutting. This thin but heavy sword, which glows in colors that resemble the aurora borealis, can cut open a portal to a random plane out of thin air (once a day). In addition, a critical hit deals necrotic damage as parts of the target seem to become nothingness when cut.
Anyway, I wrote this book while considering the following question.

Most books on my Dark Fantasy line have tables that are terse and a bit vague. For example, my dark fantasy characters could give an NPC like this:

Background: barbarian
Skill: thievery
Fighting style: bow
Armor: chain
Equipment style: Spiked
Flaw: lust
Motivation: Pride (family)


As you can see, this isn't a finished character. The results require some rationalizing, maybe even changing. A flamboyant barbarian with chain armor and spikes? Not the first thing I'd think of. However, I find that making sense of this stuff is FUN.

On the other hand, if you need an NPC on the fly, you might not have time to roll all these dice. What's worse, you might think I'm leaving half the work for you. The finished work would look like this:

Odo is a barbarian. He looks thin, tall, and has strong muscles. He is stealthy and fights with a bow that matches his height. He wears chain armor and spike pauldrons. While travelling through cilivilezd land to womanize (his favorite hobby), he acquired a flamboyant look, dying his long hairs and beard a bright blue, and wearing multiple precious rings. He fights for the honor of his family, although his family forgot about him years ago, when he left his clan. One day he hopes to come back rich and famous.

As you can see, this entry is a lot more detailed and ready to use. It is also a bit more interesting... It is the kind of thing I adopted in this new book. 

The downside is that, while you can make a million different characters with Dark Fantasy Characters, you "only" get 100 magic weapons in the new book, but they are all ready to use.

Well, I tried both things, and I think I'll probably continue doing both.

In any case, I'm curious to know: which method do you prefer? Terse and varied? Detailed and ready to use? Or something in between? Any good examples of either method you can think of?

Friday, January 10, 2020

Tossing 2 cents to "The Witcher"

The Witcher is the new popular fantasy series from Netflix. Here is my 2c: if you play D&D, you should at least try it. It has good (sometimes very good) acting, good (sometimes great) production values, and it is FULL of cool ideas and plots you can use for your games.

Want more detail? Here we go.

The first season uses a lot of material from the first book, which I reviewed here. In short, it is a decent "Conan in Middle Earth", with elements of sword and sorcery in an epic setting (but read my review before reading on). There are a few too many modern ("Poughkeepsie") elements, which spoils the "fantasy" feel a bit more than they did in Game of Thrones (I hate comparing it to GoT since the stories are completely different, but as TV series they have a similar audience).

There are two F words that are thrown around liberally, and the second one is "Fate", so there is a nice contrast here: on one hand, the Witcher is gritty and cynical (legends are false, institutions are unreliable, kings are immoral, etc.), but on the other hand the characters are bound by the laws of destiny.

Also, for the dark fantasy part... Well, the world of The Witcher is dark. There are prejudices, oppression, lies, and monsters (human or otherwise). However, the witcher himself is pretty much a decent guy when compared to Conan or Elric, for example. So, not much moral ambiguity there. Still, some of the other characters bring enough shades of gray to the palette.

This seasons mixes episodic tales with no obvious connections (Conan) to an underlining epic narrative (Tolkien). And... it works. Kinda. The show seems to always be a couple of steps from being great. 

The first few episodes are confusing, and NOT because of the parallel narratives. Some scenes are just under-explained (seemingly reeling on information that is to be found in the books, in the first episode). Other times, the tone is a bit off, lacking the proper gravitas or exaggerating it and becoming a bit cringey ("the time of blood and thunder is coming yadda yadda" is repeated with deep voices a few times). We have some moments of Harry Potter-style wizard classes, and some moments of pure soap opera latter on (lots of "true love" talking in this dark fantasy...). 

Fortunately, the ending of the season, while a bit drawn out (especially in the last episode), explains most loose threads in a satisfying manner (the penultimate episode was great), and redeems lots of things that seemed unnecessary at first. In fact, by the end the show sold me on the idea of "Fate" in the series, something I thought would be hard to do.

There are a couple of things I'd like to highlight.

There is lots of deconstructionism of fantasy tropes - knights, monsters, and dragons are not necessarily what you think they are. And it works. The "postmodern" discussion of "false narratives" in episode 2 is very well done. If you thought "Toss a coin to your Witcher" has silly lyrics about putting elves on shelves, you'll soon realize it is meant to sound farcical. The humor also works well.

Another thing is about Henry Cavill's performance as the main character, Geralt of Rivia. Everyone seems to agree he looks and plays the part of tough guy with great success (and great biceps). However, there is more to it than that. His face is always portraying annoyance, mild anger, and, perhaps most of all, fatalism, like he is the only guy who can see things are (obviously) going south soon. Witchers are supposed to feel no emotion (although that, too, might be a lie - how could we know?), and Geralt as a character is obviously smarter and more cynical than the rest, but also a benevolent character with a strict moral code. Because of that, Cavill's acting, with few facial expressions and fewer words, fits perfectly. I didn't think I would be convinced by a Conan-like character... but I was.

The show, however, is far form perfect. Like I said, a few changes to the plot and dialogue would make things a lot better. The tone is too light at times, and there are scenes that feel a bit like "vanilla" fantasy, with wizards are artillery and "healers" that are just doctors with pointy ears. Some characters seem to get gravely wounded/endangered, just to be saved by plot armor. There are awesome ideas that are left underdeveloped. 

Like the book, the show seems to lack a certain depth - I hope we see this depth in future seasons, although I'm not sure how the show will avoid a dramatic "hero saves the world" plot as it moves on.

In short, I like this show and I'll certainly continue watching when second season comes. It is a lot less impressive that GoT's first seasons and a lot better than the latter seasons. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a cool fantasy show or good ideas for your D&D games. It MIGHT be one of the best D&D-like series we ever get.
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