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:

Grappler
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:

Brawny
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.

Source.
* 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!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers - Early Release

Disclaimer: when the author asked in a forum for a review of his "Dark Souls and Kingdom Death inspired game", I got curious (since I'm writing a dark fantasy RPG myself, which I call Days of the Damned) and offered to write one. The game is currently PWIW, so he didn't send me a review copy.

Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers (NmotDD) is a dark fantasy RPG written and illustrated by James Vail. It is a admittedly work in progress - it was update at least once since I've checked - so it might be a bit unfair to review it like it is complete. Still, I can only review the book as it is now, so I'll tell you where it feels unfinished, even though you should keep in mind that this is partially by design.

You can find the games' website here, or buy it in DTRPG.

Be aware that the book contains "mature" themes, which I'll describe below.


The book

The whole book is illustrated by the author in a style that is very similar to the cover - dark B&W art with some digital aspects. I found it pleasing and very appropriate to the subject. Basically, if you liked the cover, you'll find this to be a good looking book.

The layout is chaotic - the book changes spacing, number of columns, and alignment for no apparent reason in different chapters. It doesn't interfere with readability, but it looks bad. Other than that, the book has a good table of contents and is sufficiently well organized.

The setting

Remember my last review? Where I mentioned Alpha Blue was more funny than shocking, and not really gory? Well, NmotDD is quite the opposite: it is dark, bleak, and not much humor - which seems to be the idea. I like this treatment; while I enjoy humor in some games, a few mainstream RPGs seem to add irony to everything for no good reason. Being dead serious creates a nice change of pace.

The first section of the book (appropriated called "Fragmented Lore") is a list of small pieces of fluff that contain children sacrifices, pregnancy horror, torture, slavery, sexual violence, gore, and so on. The writing is not bad - it does a good job of highlighting some aspects of the setting (for example, it goes full gonzo with multiple planes and strange technology while still keeping a serious tone) - and the pieces are short enough that they don't become boring, but it does seem gratuitous to show this stuff all at once.

The setting is further explained in Chapter 8. "This is a bleak world of greyscale desolation" sums it up quite well. The world is shaped by slumbering alchemists/architects that can alter reality with their twisted dark dreams and are in constant war with one another. Killing them releases a dark energy that makes pulls pieces of other realities and makes things worse, which seems like an interesting source of complications but might make a fight against them a bit pointless.

There is an adventure in the end that really resembles Dark Souls, where the players start naked in a labyrinth and must find a way out though (too) many puzzles and adversaries. Curiously enough, this is in many ways a "fun-house" adventure, in which things attack you for no apparent reason (well, other than the fact that you're traversing a world of surreal horror, obviously), the doors have riddles written in them, etc. As the adventure ends, the characters must face the outside world... and find ways to survive in it.

The setting maintains a good balance between classics like Dark Sun or Ravenloft and something really extreme like Black Sun Deathcrawl, where everything is doomed and everyone is going to die regardless of your efforts. It actually fits the bleakness of the Dark Souls universe without being unplayable or too depressing, and it scores a few originality point for relying on psychology and surrealism instead of the stuff we usually see in most horror RPGs (Gothic, Tolkien, Lovecraft, religion, etc.). It is a fine background for dark, weird adventures.


The system

The system is quite simple: roll one or more d10s, pick the highest, and add your skill rank (1 to 5) to the total. 10 or more means a complete success, with partial success and disasters relying on your Stress level (which raises with various efforts and diminishes with rest and relaxation). Skills are created by the player, with a clever mechanic: you don't raise skills, but get more specific skills that are higher than the broader ones. A rank 5 skills would be extremely specific.

Characters also have Doom Points, "the character’s unseen death clock". You have a minimum of 10 doom points and (basically) must roll under this score with a d100 whenever you risk death... which happens often.

Combat follows a similar pattern, but it adds too much detail and some strange characteristics. Players can choose which body part to attack (although the effect is apparently the same) but NPCs roll randomly, which seems like a huge disadvantage for them. They also can hit the hand instead of the arm, for example, but the hand, unlike the arm, has no separate injuries, so it isn't really clear how this works.

Character advancement is messy. You spend XP to gain OR lose skills and "psychic anomalies", which are double-edged qualities (unlike the beneficial "aberrant traits" that you can take at character creation in exchange for some permanent wounds if you choose to be an aberration). I cannot say I appreciate this system, although I can see the point; the game is more about danger and despair than character optimization.

The system has "modern" sensibilities; mechanics are "unified" and most rules are intended to deliver an specific experience: seeing your doom points increase until you die. Nothing is easy here: you must find food and water everyday, build your own weapons and shelter, deal with permanent injuries and hemorrhage, explore an unknown and uncaring universe, track encumbrance, take stress to light fires, etc. And things get harder as you go.

These craft/explore/survive mechanics are the coolest part of the book, in my opinion. Although a bit complex and fiddly for my tastes, they seem to create very interesting challenges if you take them seriously, in a way that reminds me of the popular web-based game A Dark Room. This is stuff you don't often see in modern RPGs.

Tables, Magick, and GM advice

In addition to system and setting, the book is filled with tables and lists for creating characters, places, cultures, monsters, equipment, etc. These are also quite good, and you can use most of them for your dark fantasy games even if you are playing a different game. Specially worth of mention is the creature creation part; I cannot resist giving you an example:

Form: Serpentine 
Movement: Swim/Burrow 
Flesh: Slimy
Aberration: Wings 
Head: Ragged Teeth
Damage Delivery: Constrict
Optional Special Ability: Undead/skeletal: Vital body parts are no longer vital. Can't be killed, must be destroyed.

Cool stuff, right? Or try the weird objects, where you can get things such as a Vomiting Tree made of mud, with eyes and electrical surges. I feel compelled to mention my own book contains lots of tables that are similar to these (here is one small example), so I might be naturally inclined to like this kind of stuff, but I think some of these charts are really good.

The Magick chapter, while seemingly novel and flavorful, has two pages and seems half-baked - or completely free-form. I hope it gets expanded in the future while maintaining some of the simplicity of the games' skill system.

The GM advice is sensible and solid. All the good stuff is here: listen to your players, roll only when needed, etc. It also has some useful advice that is specific to this particular game.

In conclusion

Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers is, at this point, an interesting promise. It doesn't seem quite finished or, honestly, entirely playable right now, but what we have is intriguing enough that it come become a very interesting game in the future. Since you can download the game from free (or pay what you want), it is worth checking out if you're interested in indie dark fantasy games at all.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Does D&D require miniatures? (3e versus 4e versus 5e)

This is another internet discussion that I've decide to turn into a post (here is the last one). Since it has come up again and again, it may interest other people.

Case in point: does D&D require miniatures?

Well, in practice, you already know the answer: NO, it doesn't. After all, it is your game, and you can play it any way you want to. It's been that way from the beginning; supposedly, Gygax himself didn't use minis, but Arneson did. It is all up to you. Heck, I have even played without dice at one time or another. On the other hand, I cannot honestly say that D&D is MEANT to be played without dice. What about minis?

Personally, I love miniatures and, even though I don't often use them in my games, I think they are quite fun when I do. Unfortunately, 4e (among other editions) got so much flak for being heavily grid-based when it was released that you can hardly talk about the subject without being accused of edition-warring.

Hopefully, the reader will know where I'm coming from. I enjoy analyzing different versions of D&D but also finding stuff from every edition to use in my games (and yes, that certainly includes 4e).

This is what a cone REALLY looks like! Source.
I say that because last time I linked to this post where I said (albeit passingly): "Remember, in 4e you moved "X squares" per round and miniatures where mandatory, RAW", I was immediately accused of taking a swing at 4e for no reason, because 4e explicitly says miniatures are optional (unlike 3e, for example). Other people said that 5e ALSO requires miniatures because everything is divided in 5-foot segments (which, supposedly, is the exact same thing as squares, albeit with a different unit) so pointing this difference between 4e and 5e was undoubtedly a sign of 4e-hate.

Go figure.

In any case, I've decided to check. Here it goes, straight from the horse's mouth:

  • The 3.5 PHB does mention minis and grids among the things "you need to play".
  • The 4e PHB, on the other hand, explicitly says minis and grids are useful, but not necessary.
  • The 5e PHB says lists "playing on a grid", with "miniatures or other tokens", is a variant (i.e, an optional rule).

Yup, that is all folks, now we can all go home.

HOWEVER...

In my opinion, this is a case of "show, don't tell". The 4e PHB TELLS you minis aren't needed, but what does it show? The first mention of miniatures says (emphasis mine in all quotations but the "position is everything" expression, below):

"While the D&D game uses dice and miniatures, the action takes place in your imagination" 

Then we get to page 9 and indeed miniatures are indeed only "useful", but:

"Each player needs a miniature to represent his or her character, and the DM needs minis for monsters";
"Combat in D&D plays out on a grid of 1-inch squares".

In seems that it could go either way... until we get to the combat chapter:

When a combat encounter starts, it’s time to turn your attention to the battle grid. The combat rules assume that you use D&D Dungeon Tiles, a poster map, a gridded white board, or an erasable, gridded mat to show the area where a battle takes place. The rules also assume that you use D&D Miniatures to represent the adventurers and the enemies they face.
A combat encounter can be played without such visual representations, but there are good reasons to use them.
* Position is everything. With a battle grid, you can easily determine whether your character can see a monster, whether the monster has cover, and whether you flank the monster.
[...]

Source
That is not all. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and 4e is full of pictures of minis and grids. Every explanation about combat (flanking, line of sight, blast, burst, etc.) is tied to the grid in ways that could hardly make sense without it. See the definition of wall, for one:

Wall: A wall fills a specified number of contiguous squares within range, starting from an origin square. Each square of the wall must share a side—not just a corner—with at least one other square of the wall, but a square can share no more than two sides with other squares in the wall (this limitation does not apply when stacking squares on top of each other). You can shape the wall however you like within those limitations. A solid wall, such as a wall of ice, cannot be created in occupied squares.

5e, on the other hand, gives you precious little tools to play around with a grid. You have 5-foot increments to make it easier, but these would work with hexes, rulers, or anything else. Flanking is optional. Pictures of minis and grids can be found in the DMG, but they are side by side with pictures of hexes and rules for adjudicating areas of effect without minis.

The designers of 5e made clear that miniatures are optional, not only by saying they are, but specially by not assuming minis and grids while describing combat. Show, don't tell. You can argue that they haven't succeeded (well, I think they have, but IMMV), but you can hardly say the book assumes miniatures are required, specially when comparing it to 4e and Pathfinder.

In short, while it is certainly possible to play 4e without minis, the fact that many people assume 4e uses miniatures is not a coincidence.

But what about 3e?

I cannot pretend to be an expert on 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder. It has been a while since I've played and, to be honest, I thought D&D was needlessly complicated at the time (and I was playing GURPS! Honestly!).

But - 3.5e clearly say minis are mandatory. Not only that, the combat examples are explicitly modeled around a grid, with plenty of top-down pictures of minis. How come so many people were displeased with 4e for requiring minis at the time?

Source.
I am not quite sure. I would surely appreciate some input from 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder players about the subject! But let me offer you a hunch.

I think 3e, like 5e, was designed to let you decide if you want to use minis or not, but while 5e makes minis optional, 3e makes NOT using then an optional rule.

Don't take my word for it; see what Monte Cook has to say about the subject:

However, I've certainly gamed a lot more in my life without miniatures than with them. It was one of my goals in designing 3rd Edition to make it playable without miniatures.
However, I've seen many people say that it's not possible. Even, apparently, the people working on the new revision of D&D. 

So 3.5/Pathfinder is probably more aimed at grids than 3.0. Again, I'm really no expert. Still, there seems to be some important differences between 3e and 4e.

Look at the Pathfinder rules for minis and grids:

You can count diagonally across a square, but remember that every second diagonal counts as 2 squares of distance. If the far edge of a square is within the spell’s area, anything within that square is within the spell’s area. If the spell’s area only touches the near edge of a square, however, anything within that square is unaffected by the spell.

How does a circle looks in a Pathfinder grid? According to this SRD, it looks like this:

Or this:


Yeah, okay, these aren't prefect circles... But they are clearly trying to fit the concept of a circle in a square grid. Many people disliked that; one could even say they were quite literally trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. But this made sense for many players - myself included. The fiction indicated a circle - the grid was just an imperfect  tool to portray that.

4e does things in a different way: the grid comes first. Moving across a square field diagonally takes the same time as crossing it from one side to another. A fireball has the shape of a square... or maybe even a CUBE. Here is an interesting post about 4e movement, etc., with lots of cool tricks you can use on a grid. And here is how it illustrates the 4e fireball:

Doesn't look like a circle at all, but it is easier to calculate and faster to draw.

In short, using a grid in 4e is simpler than using one in 3e. But using hexes or grid-less combat probably makes more sense in 3e, and 5e is probably better suited if you're not using minis at all. Remember, though, that you might like any of these editions for completely different reason that have NOTHING to do with minis and grids!

This is not that different from the "tripping gelatinous cubes" question. It is a matter of focus. It is also not black and white, but distinct shades of gray. 3e is focused on grids, 4e is even more, and 5e a lot less.

It is easy to say every aspect of the game is optional, but the assumptions aren't quite the same, and pretending that they are is really not helpful when trying to find the perfect game for your group. Compare 13th Ages's "Combat is dynamic and fluid, so miniatures can’t really represent where a character ‘really is" to 4e's "Position is everything: With a battle grid, you can easily determine whether your character can see a monster, whether the monster has cover, and whether you flank the monster". There is a clear difference.

Some games are made to be played one way or another; how you play them is up to you, but that doesn't change the nature of the rules.

As always, this is a matter of taste. "Always use miniatures" and "never use miniatures" are both valid options, but "use miniatures sometimes" is also a cool choice if that is what you're looking for (I know that I am).

To be honest, I also like hexes, grid-less combat with minis (Warhammer style!) and theater of the mind! Everything goes in my games; it all depends on the situation, really.

Or try this! It works really well!
What about you?  Do you play 3e or 4e without minis? Do you think there is a difference at all? Or do you prefer playing out your combat in a different way? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review: Alpha Blue

Disclaimer: after reading (and reviewing) Liberation of the Demon Slayer, and learning that the author (Venger As'Nas Satanis) was looking for reviews of his work, I asked him for a review copy (PDF) of one of his games, and he sent me Alpha Blue... so that is how I ended with a space-sex-comedy RPG review in this blog.


Let's make some things clear...

Let me save you some time before I start the review: if you dislike dirty jokes, vulgar language, sexual references, comedy RPGs or products that are mostly aimed at a specific niche (mainly, but not exclusively, heterosexual "dudes" that were born around 1970-1980 and will understand most references), this game is probably not for you.

In fact, if you prefer not to read about this stuff, you might want to skip the review; I usually avoid profanity and keep things PG-13 around here (IMO), but that might prove difficult for this product.

With that said, Alpha Blue is not particularly explicit or gory; it is not really "shocking" to most people (your mileage may vary, of course; it does contain one or two references to sexual assault, and at least one mention of necrophilia and bestiality in a random table), because it never takes itself too seriously.

"Shock for shock's sake" is not really the point of the module - everything seems aimed for maximum fun, instead, although the humor might not hit the spot 100% of the time. I've seen a lot worse in terms of sex and violence in RPGs, even some pretty mainstream ones.

This is mostly rated-R stuff; something on the level of Barbarella, the Heavy Metal flicks (or the Metal Hurlant Chronicles TV-series, maybe even the comics), Kung Fury or American Pie. Yes, it does contain some references for "unconventional" sex acts, but so do some of, say, Kevin Smith's movies.

If this sounds interesting to you, read on.



What is Alpha Blue? And what is it good for?

Alpha Blue is, mostly, a space brothel. Well, it is also some other stuff. Basic, a independent space station that roams around offering not only sex (by specialized working girls) but also drugs, weapons gambling and other amenities. This book contains a setting and a system geared towards space-sex-comedy gaming, with lots of random tables.

Alpha Blue is a comedy RPG, and for a specific type of comedy, one you would find in Spaceballs and sex comedies from the 70's and 80's. I had never heard of The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue, a porn movie from 1980 that seems to be the main inspiration; in any case, the absurdity of porno plotlines seems to be more important than their explicitness. Interestingly enough, Alpha Blue hints at some deeper "philosophical questions" in the campaign advice, but, like in those movies, philosophy is not really the focus.

This means Alpha Blue plays to a very restricted audience; sci-fi RPGs are small when compared to fantasy ones, and comedy RPGs are even rarer. Sex comedy sci-fi RPGs? That is a first for me.

Nevertheless, I can see some "mainstream" uses for Alpha Blue. Mostly, it can be used for running a raunchy Paranoia campaign or a space-DCC sexy funnel (that sounds strange...). In fact, Paranoia seem like a perfect fit, since Alpha Blue is ruled by an insane computer with severe mood swings, and PCs are pretty easy to create... and replace.

It is also fair to say that you can use Alpha Blues without the sexy bits to generate a gonzo space-comedy game. While that would make about half the book unusable, the remaining half is certainly worthwhile.

The book

Alpha Blue is a looker. The cover, art and typography are all high quality and, most important, establish the mood that the author is apparently shooting for. Everything looks good if not always impressive. The PDF has 114 B&W pages, including 4 white pages for notes. The maps are specially nice, but unfortunately not very useful, since they are schematics with no references to locations, function, etc., as you can see below.

The organization is a lot better than Liberation of the Demon Slayer; with a decent table of contents and few self-explanatory chapters referencing the system, characters, setting, adventure seeds, GM advice, etc. It is still a somewhat "chaotic" book, and the author goes full "stream of consciousness" from time to time and follows no apparent order within some sections, but overall is a well-organized PDF and very easy to use.

The system

Alpha Blue contains its own RPG system. It is very simple doesn't feel quite complete (the author includes some conversion notes to OSR stuff, which seem good enough too), but it works surprisingly well. Basically, you roll one or more d6s and use only the best result, ranging from "No, and..." (a critical failure) on a 1 to "Yes, and..." (a critical success) on a 6.

I really like this choice, to be honest. You can always use another system if you want more detail, but Alpha Blue, unlike many RPG books, focus only on what is important to the genre and wastes no time in useless details.

What DOES Alpha Blue detail? Everything that is relevant to the game: occupations, mutations, aliens, sexual fantasies (women are enticing to most men and women in the book, with "men" being a fetish), fashion, and so on. It does so through a series of random table, which seems like a good choice for this type of game.

Rolling a character is really tempting, so let's try:

Name: Dask Jorana.
Career: Pirate. 
Wanted Man? You've been careful and law enforcement is ignorant of your plans… for now.
Mutation: Ice touch: freezing temperatures transferred by physical contact.
Prior experiences: The first time you visited an alien planet ... You stowed away on a mercenary starship ... Sadly, you were shoved into a pool of molten acid lava. Banzai, buckaroo! [33% chance of death]
Fashion: Orange sunburst leather sexy space pajamas.
Weapon: Warp Hammer.
Fetish: Exhibitionism.

...And so on. As you can see, creating a colorful character is quick and easy, which is a good thing since you can die on chargen. And you're not really safe after chargen, either.

The setting

Alpha Blue describes both the space station and the universe surrounding it. As far as settings go, Alpha Blue is quite complete: warring factions with different goals, multiple motives for interacting with the ship, interesting NPCs, treasure, intrigue, etc.

It has many, many references to classic sci-fi, old movies, current mainstream media, hard rock songs, Venger's other books, and so on, which is not a bad thing provided you can get at least a few of those references.

It is not all about amusing the reader, though. Alpha Blue does seem to strike a good balance between usability and humor.

In conclusion

Alpha blue is good looking, well organized, well written and packs plenty of interesting content. On the other hand, it is certainly not for everybody. If the premise interests you, I would recommend checking it out.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Margin of success and crits in D&D 5e

Forget about combat for a second; this will be about critical success and failure when rolling ability checks and saving throws (if you want to read what I think about crits in combat, try this post). Specially, it complements my last post in a way.

Paga 242 of the DMG has some interesting rules about the subject (emphasis mine):

DEGREES OF FAILURE
Sometimes a failed ability check has different consequences depending on the degree of failure. For example, a character who fails to disarm a trapped chest might accidentally spring the trap if the check fails by 5 or more, whereas a lesser failure means that the trap wasn't triggered during the botched disarm attempt. [...]

CRITICAL SUCCESS OR FAILURE
Rolling a 20 or a 1 on an ability check or a saving throw doesn't normally have any special effect. However, you can choose to take such an exceptional roll into account when adjudicating the outcome. [...] For example, rolling a 1 on a failed attempt to pick a lock might break the thieves' tools being used [...].

As you can see, this rules are very free-form and a bit odd. Both rules deal with the same subject, but it isn't clear how they interact with each other. Maybe a natural 1 is worse than failing by 5 or more, which is strange since someone can be unable to fail by 5 or more (if your skill is high enough and the DC low enough) and still roll a natural 1. Or maybe they are just different things. Trying to open a trapped chest? Well, you can break your thieves' tools, spring the trap, both, or none.

Also, there seems to be no "degrees of success" rule, just "degrees of failure", which seems a tad unfair (well, unless you see this section as a way of giving a "second chance" after a failure, which might be the point). Of course we can apply a similar reasoning to both situations... but that causes another strange effect.

See, now MOST rolls (55% to be exact) are either greater successes or greater failures. "Ordinary" results become the exception. If you need to roll 14 or more to succeed, anything lower than 10 is a greater failure and anything over 18 is a great success.

The way I see it, most result should be ordinary, with a few criticals now and then. Now only because it makes sense, but also because coming up with "special" successes and failures get old fast... and they're not so special if they come up every time.

Fumbles should be rare
My easy fix: an exceptional success or failure only comes up if you beat or miss the DC by 10 or more. Yes, this means that if you're good enough you cannot fumble, and if you're bad enough you cannot crit - but if you want this possibility, you can still use natural 1s and 20s in this way (or even "confirm criticals" if you want; I hate this mechanic for combat, but it works fine for skills).

Simpler, faster, easier to calculate, makes more sense.

It also fixes my problem with the medusa of the last post - a miss by 10 or more means you fail AND must save again immediately. So there is still a chance of immediate petrification, but it will be rare and mostly reserved for weaker character.

Same thing for skill contests - succeed by 10 or more and you get an immediate roll "for free" against your opponent, and vice-versa (if you're rolling against yourself, get a "free shot" to get another success that doesn't count as a failure if you roll badly). Works for grappling too.

There is plenty of other ways to play around with this. For example, it might make rolls that are too easy or automatic successes have some meaning - of course you'll succeed, now you're rolling to see how awesome you look while doing it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The three-strikes rule - grappling, dying, skill contests and medusae

The three-strikes rule means: fail three times, and you're dead. Or at least out of the game.

By the way, I'll use 5e D&D as a starting point, but you can apply it to most RPGs, really. I've seem something similar in various games (specially in 4e D&D, but Mutants & Masterminds and Dungeon Grappling also come to mind) and I've been playing the idea of creating a similar method for 5e for a while, even before I wrote this article in September 2016 (which I'll quote extensively and without quotation marks in this one). The idea of a "rule of three" appears again and again on this blog for reasons I cannot fathom (I once tried a "rule of four" for encumbrance only to discover a rule of three would work better in every possible way). And as it often happens, my own RPG, Days of the Damned, also uses something similar.

As you all know, in 5e, if you fail three death saving throws, you're dead. Not that I love this rule as it is written - in fact, I prefer my own version (or something even harsher) -  but the idea behind it has a number of interesting uses, specially if failing three times can cause you different problems instead of just death - say, petrification, immobilization, unconsciousness, and so on.

Here is how it goes.

Something bad happens and you make a saving throw. If it happens again, you roll once again, but the more you fail, the worse it gets. Fail three times and the game is over.

Fail your saving throw once, and you suffer some minor adversity. Maybe you suffer the “grappled” condition, get knocked prone, pushed 5 feet away, disarmed, dismounted, momentarily blinded, etc. You can recover as easily as getting up from being prone. This means most conditions inflicted upon the target (blinded, frightened, etc.) should go away with little to no effort by the beginning of the target’s next turn (or the end, if it’s something that ONLY affects the target in its own turn).

Examples: sand gets in your eyes, you fall, get stunned for a moment, slowed, etc.

Fail your saving throw twice, and you suffer some major adversity. Maybe a worse condition (Restrained, for example), something that causes you increasing damage over time, or a more extreme version of a minor adversity (falling 20 feet away, disarmed and prone). "Disadvantage for every check" is a nice way to put it. The difference is that this adversity sticks until you do something about it, which means not only spending an entire action but also succeeding in a roll of some kind. If this causes damage instead of conditions, it would take away about half your HP.

Examples: you're caught in a giant spider's web, poisoned, on fire, etc.

Fail your saving throw three times, and you're defeated. Petrified, unconscious, Incapacitated, pinned, helpless, asleep, 0 HP, etc.

As you can see, this is just a three-tiered classification of conditions, with infinite uses. Here are some examples:

Grappling - again, Dungeon Grappling , mentioned above, got you covered. If you want something simpler, try using the progression suggested above with the Grappled / Restrained / Stunned conditions. You can use ability checks instead of saving throws, exactly like the PHB recommends.

Skill contests - this "rolling three times" thing is ideal for skill contests because... probabilities. Ignore conditions, just roll the dice for both sides to see who gets three successes first. Just rolling 1d20 doesn't work; but this method, combined with some suggestions from the near future (i.e., next post), will make the wizard with a +5 bonus from Intelligence beat the stupid fighter in chess more than 90% of the time - like the fighter does when he gets into a fist fight against a puny scholar!

You can use the same method for chases and other contests that might take more than a moment. In fact, it doesn't have to be a contest - the same "three successes before three failures" you use for death saving throws will work here, too.


Medusae - for a good implementation of this rule, take a look at 4e's medusa. First, you get slowed, then immobilized, then petrified. 5e´s medusa is similar, but the progression is quicker, which is a bad thing IMO - one bad roll and the character is immediately petrified (even a level 10 PC may have 45% chance to be immediately petrified, for example). Fortunately, it only works within 30 feet.

The main purpose of the thee-strikes rule is to avoid such "save or suck" situations in which a bad roll can destroy the character without giving him any choice. If a PC fails the first save, well, he can always chance tactics or run away - or fight to the bitter end, on purpose, not by accident!

But there are another reasons - rolling three times is a lot more reliable than rolling once, which is why we don't usually let one single roll end most combats. Of course, the "save or die" mechanic has its fans, but this might be a reasonable alternative if you want to give you players less than 5% chance of immediate death.

But what if you still want SOME chance of immediate death? Stay tuned...

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Tripping Oozes in D&D (3e versus 4e versus 5e)

A few days ago, someone asked what was the difference between 4e and 5e in an internet forum.

I tried to explain that I liked 5e over 4e because 4e felt too "dissociated" for my style of play, for the lack of a better term. Although I didn't remember the exact mechanics, I felt like 4e (unlike 5e) was a game you could trip a gelatinous cube to make it fall prone. Probably not very helpful, I know.

Fortunately, another user was kind enough  to unearth the exact quote in both 3.5e's and 4e's FAQs:

3.5e FAQ

Things that don’t need limbs for locomotion can’t be tripped. You can’t trip a snake, a beholder, or a gelatinous cube. You won’t find this in the rules, but then it really doesn’t need to be in there—the rules can leave some things to the DM’s common sense.

4e FAQ

Can a gelatinous cube be knocked prone? In situations like this, DMs are encouraged to change the flavor of what is happening without changing the actual rules governing the situation. For example, the ooze could be so disoriented by the blow that it suffers the same disadvantages as if it had been knocked prone until it spends a move action to stand up effectively shaking off the condition.

(Here is the source he mentioned, BTW)

Those little snippets, for some reason, encapsulate the main philosophical difference between 3e and 4e for me. It is no coincidence that the first snippet encourages the DM to use common sense while the second advises against changing the actual rules. This is NOT to say 4e doesn't use common sense, but to highlight the differences between the two approaches.

Art by Jean-Francois Beaulieu - source
I like to play D&D the first way: when the players face a challenge, they describe their actions, and then we find the appropriate mechanic to portray that, using common sense.

Example:
DM: There is a gelatinous cube in the middle of the room!
Player: I hurl a spear at it!
DM: Roll 1d20+BAB against AC 25!
Player: I hit! 15 damage! 
DM: Your spear hits, but barely hurts the creature....

4e, like some other modern RPGs, does things in a different way: when you face a challenge, you find the appropriate mechanic to deal with it, and then you describe the actions in the fictional world that portray the mechanic being used.

Example:
DM: There is a gelatinous cube in the middle of the room!
Player: I use my "tripping attack" power"!
DM: Roll 1d20+BAB against AC 25!
Player: I hit! The cube is knocked prone!
DM: The gelatinous cube is stunned from your attack, so it suffers effects similar to the prone mechanic until it gets the opportunity to shake it off.

The difference is not so much the use of language or even mentioning the name of the power, but the ORDER in which things happen (mechanics then fiction). In 4e, you often deal with challenges using specific game mechanics. You can use the equivalent of "trip attack" on a beholder because there are mechanics for it; if the fiction doesn't allow the beholder to fall prone, you change the fiction.

Most traditional RPGs tend do the opposite: if the fiction doesn't allow the beholder to fall prone, you don't get to use the mechanics for falling prone in the first place. Fiction forces you to change the mechanic.

Of course, things are not black and white. EVERY RPG might include some "mechanics take precedence over fiction" bits. In every edition of D&D, for example, you can have a situation like "Critical hit! You hit him in the middle of the face with your spear! You cause... uh... 5 HP of damage". Which might mean you shouldn't describe the results of a hit until resolving ALL the mechanics (including damage, inspiration, etc) but I digress...

In any case, there are clearly distinguishable shades of gray. Dungeon World, for example, explicitly advises the players against mentioning mechanics when describing heir actions - ever tried to play 4e without mentioning which power you're using?

Nobody is saying you cannot forbid your 4e players from using their tripping attacks against a gelatinous cube, or allow it in 3e. You're the DM, do what you want, as long as everybody is in the same page. But what these FAQs show is that the games are designed around certain mindsets, which can make them more favorable to one method of play over another.

There is no "better or worse", obviously. This goes without saying but I'll say it anyway. Every edition has its fans and followers, every method can be useful for some people in some situations. There is a good point in saying that fighter and rogues will be frustrated if their powers don't work against a large percentage of the enemies they face (no tripping oozes, no sneak attack on undead, etc).

But what about 5e? Well, you definitely cannot trip oozes in 5e, since they are immune to the "prone" condition. That question is, are you unable to trip them because it wouldn't make much sense, or because the mechanics say you can't? Which one comes first? Can you trip a snake, for example? As usual, I'll say that I think 5e is a middle of the road edition, so opinions will vary.

My own opinion - since I haven't found a similar FAQ entry for 5e -  is that you should err in the side of common sense over mechanics. The whole concept of "natural language" (wether you like it or not) leads to this conclusion - 5e seems to prefer changing the rules to match the fiction than the other way around. But it makes sense that some people will think otherwise ("the snake has no immunity against being prone, so I'll trip it!"), and the fact that 5e uses explicit mechanics instead of common sense in this matter supports that theory.

The best way to avoid such discussions in your table is adopting your own FAQ so people know where you stand. Who knows, maybe one day "I allow tripping oozes in my table" becomes an easy shortcut to explain your favorite play-style!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Single-digit Monsters for 5e D&D (Quick monster creation)

The 5e DM's Guide has a section for "quick monster stats" (page 274). I don't use it often, but, for the purposes of this post, I will assume it works as intended. The guidelines in the DMG are good, but I think something simpler might be useful.

As you might guess, I prefer Single-digit Monsters to charts. I also like simple math formulas, as long as they are easy to use and remember (there are few number you have to remember here, other than the number 3). 

How would that work in 5e? 

The DM's Guide gives you the numbers, but not the formula. Fortunately, it is not hard to find a few patterns. The results are very, very close to the actual table, but if your monster doesn't match this exact numbers, remember that the DMG tells you not to worry about this a bazillion times.

So hee is a generic stat block, and some explanations to go with it.

The Generic Stat Block (CR 1-20)

AC: 13 + CR/3* (maximum 19)
Save DC: 13 + CR/3.
HP: 15 x (CR+4)
Attack bonus / skills: 3 + CR/3**.
Damage: 1d10 + 1d10*CR (for melee attacks).
# attacks: 1 + CR/6 (total damage is unaffected).
*Always round down.
** Alternatively, 4 + CR/3 if CR>3.

Click HERE for the PDF.
Explaining the stat block

AC, Attack bonus, STs, Good skills and Save DCs: magic number THREE

Start with +3 to attack bonus, skills, saves, etc., and 13 to AC and Save DCs.

Add one third of CR on top of that (round DOWN). Maximum AC is 19.

If you want to be really faithful to the DMG's table, you should add +1 attack bonus for CRs greater than 3 ("adjusted" column).

The same number you use for attack bonuses can be used for everything the creature should be good at; some skills, a couple of saving throws, etc. You can use a Fortitude / Reflex / Will mindset for that if you want, or just use common sense,

The table below is for comparison only; the whole idea is that you shouldn't need a table in the first place.










AC/Save DC*Attack Bonus, skills**, etc

CR5eFormula5eFormulaAdjusted

< 11313333

11313333

21313333

31314444

41414545

51514645

61515656

71515656

81615756

91616767

101716767

111716867

121717878

131817878

141817878

151818989

1618181089

1719181089

18191910910

19191910910

20191910910

212020111011

222020111011

232020111011

242121121112

252121121112

262121121112

272222131213

282222131213

292222131213

302323141314








*Maximum AC is 19. Otherwise, the difference between AC/DC is negligible.
** 5e has no formula for skills.

Weak skills (CR/5)

In 5e, a powerful PCs and monsters might have NO  bonuses when dealing with their weak spots. A level 20 Fighter might have a +0 bonus to Intelligence saves or Nature checks, for example. On the other hand, as the number of class features, ability scores improvements and feats increase, the character has a greater chance of having SOME way of dealing with these dangers.

There are no easy solution for this. Of course, weak skills and saves should be weaker than strong skills and saves. Dividing the CR by FIVE seems to put thing in the right ballpark for me, but eyeballing it might be just as good.

Damage output: the rule of SIX, and playing around with d10s

As you can see in the DMG's table, from CR 1 to 20 monster's get +6 damage per CR. Starting damage is also close to 6. Average damage, therefore, is close to 6+(6xCR).

This makes it easy to play around with dice. You can start with 1d10 plus 1d10 times CR. 1d12 would work too, but 1d10 gives me more wiggle room. Then you change the size of the dice for special attacks.

For example, let us say we have start with a CR 5 monster - 6d10 damage per round. If the attack affects two or three nearby targets at once, use 6d6 instead. A ranged attack might cause 6d6 damage, and so on. Use the 6d12 for a special attack such as a breath weapon that affects multiple characters and causes half damage on a successful save, but has another built-in limitation, such as a 5-6 recharge or 3 uses per day.

Give monsters a number of extra attacks equal to their CR divided by SIX, round down, without adding more damage. For example, a CR 12 monster causes 13d10 damage divide in three different attacks; maybe two 4d10 claws and one 5d10 bite, etc.


Monster HP

Monsters HP is close enough to 15 times (CR+4) that you can also play with this numbers. If the monster has various resistances and immunities, for example, you can reduce its HP to 10x(CR+4). The same applies for high ACs, invisibility, teleportation, and so on. 

Beyond CR 20: another rule of three

For CRs greater than 20, each increase in CR TRIPLES the extra damage and HP. Instead of +6 damage and +15 HP, monsters get something close to +18 damage and +45 HP. But, at this point, it might be easier to just check the table. Also, it is a bit unlikely that one will create a CR 30 monster on the fly...

For CRs lower than one, there is no exact formula, but you can just multiply 120 HP and 16 damage for the CR (i.e,. CR 1/8 has 15 HP and causes 2 points of damage per round) to find something roughly compatible.

Click HERE for the PDF.
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