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

- William Blake

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: The Gods Have Spoken (5E)

Disclaimer: the publisher has sent me a review copy of the book (in PDF format).

The Gods Have Spoken is a 5th edition supplement with 28 new deities and everything that comes with it: multiple character options (specially for clerics and paladins), holy (and unholy) locations, factions, new monsters, magic items, and a few 13th Age-inspired house rules.

The book

The appearance of this book is puzzling, with a curious mix of good and bad stuff. Most of the art, for example, is very well done (similar to the cover) - but some pieces are repeated two or three (!) time throughout the book, sometimes in adjacent pages (!!). Since the books uses good quality B&W and stock art, I see no reason for this.

The same thing happens with the layout. The overall quality is very good: the PDF is fully bookmarked, with a decent index, table of contents, glossary, and multiple side-notes, but also with lots of empty space. The page borders are not particularly beautiful nor do they have anything to do with the subject of the book , but each chapter is color-coded, which is nice and useful.

In short, it looks like professional work left unfinished. Well, you can judge for yourself:

The setting

First of all, while the book doesn't described a complete setting (since this is not the subject), it does imply a fairly high-fantasy setting with dhampirs, gnomes, and probably some steampunk. It fits 5e assumed setting well.

The book describes 28 deities divided in three different pantheons: the Thirsty Gods (of Egyptian flavor among other things), the Old Gods (Celtic, Norse, Slavic, etc.) and the Bright Gods (who might be based on eastern philosophies, although I cannot say for sure).

The deities are all creative and unusual; you never really feel that a deity is just Thor or Bahamut with a different name. The way the pantheons are described is very organic and flavorful: religions change, influence one another, create superstitions and schisms, guide different sorts of behaviors, etc. All of these aspects are described within the book. This is both useful and inspiring, even if you want to use it to create your own religions.

The holy and unholy places of each pantheon are intirguing, with plenty of ideas about encounters, scenes, and adventure seeds.

Then we get the factions. Again, they are diverse and flavorful: not only sects, but artisan guilds, secret anarchist cults, musician warriors, preservers of the faith, etc. The mechanics involving these factions are an important part of the book and will be discussed in the next topic.

The book also has half a dozen monsters (a dozen if you count variations) and a few NPC allies. Fluff-wise, the monsters are very cool, with mythological roots tied to the exploits of the main deiteis. Mechanically speaking, they have a few twists that I'll discuss in the next section.

Finally we have a few magic items and a whole system to generate holy weapons. This part is short but looks extremely useful, even if you don't plan to use any of the deities in the book.

The system

The character options contained within the book are standard 5e: cleric domains, druid circles, paladin oaths, feats, and three backgrounds, one for each religion (well, actually, the three are variations of the acolyte background - and a bit of needless repetition there). A few warlock pacts would be a nice addition. Everything seems fitting and balanced, with a few exceptions. For example, you get some of this:

"You are proficient in survival if not already. As well, you double your proficiency bonus for all survival checks."

This is obviously more useful to someone who doesn't have the proficient already. Compare this to the feats in the Unearthed Arcana: Feats for Skills from Wizards of the Coast:

"You gain proficiency in the Acrobatics skill. If you are already proficient in the skill, you add double your proficiency bonus to checks you make with it."

I'm not sure this is on purpose, because some feats might be too weak without this "free expertise" (Reknarite Knight, for example).

Flavor-wise, the options are very good and fit well with the philosophies of the respective deities. Overall, they are good additions if you're looking for more religious character options.

The book also has an entire faction system, with suggestions on when and how the factions interact with the individual PCs, how characters get favors, information, potions, enmity, etc. This seems to te heavily inspired by 13th Age (it seems the book has an earlier 13th Age "sibling"), but is much more detailed than the 13th Age SRD in this aspect.

If you want to have formalized rules about factions, these will certainly be useful - I am tempted to use this myself for 5e, even if I was never convinced by 13th Age's "Icons". This is another part of the book that you can use even without the deities.

You can also get "allies" with this system, with various functions: some will heal the party, others will hinder enemies, and so on. The "damage sponge" is a peculiar type of NPC who will draw heat from enemies.; the "red shirts" of the setting. The concept of having someone to die for the PCs doesn't seem particularly heroic (for the PCs) or believable, but I can see how it might be useful. Unfortunately, their stat-blocks are strange; a third-tier damage sponge has +12 to hit (which is probably WAY better than the PCs they follow). So, yeah, they will basically look more competent than the PCs and then die first in battle. I'm not sure the players will appreciate.

Monsters also have a few unique features inspired by 13th Age: they get special attack if they roll a "natural" 16 or more on the dice, or if the result is even, etc. Another feature of 13th age I didn't particularly like for PCs, but makes sense for monsters.

In conclusion

The Gods Have Spoken aims to offer more options for PCs and also flesh out the "Religion" chapter of a full setting, and it does both competently. But the book is much more than that. Specially, the faction system has lots of cool rules that might prove useful to any 5e game (or any RPG at all, if you think about it). It is also a good way to test a few ideas of the 13th Age RPG within a 5e framework.

On the other hand, the  unfinished look of the layout and a few inconsistencies with the mechanics detract from the rest of the work, and the price ($17.45 as I write this) might be a bit exaggerated for the page count with this amount of white space.

Overall, I feel the book deserves a bit of extra work to become really good, as it shows great promise; however, it has plenty of interesting stuff already, specially if you want more options to play with factions, religions and deities in your 5e games.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The double challenge - quick difficulty adjustment (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. Use them wisely!

D&D 5e has few guidelines on fixing a Difficulty Classes (DCs). Basically, it boils down to this:

Task DifficultyDC
Very easy5
Very hard25
Nearly impossible30
The idea is that you just eyeball it. Which is good enough, I guess, but it can lead to some incoherence if the GM pulls numbers from thin air while disregarding (or forgetting) past rulings.

The other problem is that many rolls in 5e are contests (opposed rolls) - they rely on your foe's stats and rolls, not on a fixed DC. The simple answer is advantage/disadvantage - but what if I want to add some degrees of EPIC craziness? Say, for example, I have disadvantage if my enemy is in a "Hard" situation - what if I'm on a "Nearly impossible" situation?

It seems to me that, if the DC is that different between "Hard" and  "Nearly impossible", there should also be some distinction when you're NOT using DCs.

Well, you can always adopt a +10 modifier instead of ad/disad for extreme circumstances. There is at least one good supplement - Dungeon Grappling - that does that.

There is no easy answer to all situations, but I use a simple rule that works for many circumstances, provided the challenge can be objectively "measured" somehow - in feet, pounds, number of creatures, minutes, etc.

It goes like this: you can double the effect of a roll by rolling two dice, triple it by rolling three dice, quadruple it by rolling four dice, etc. So, a "double challenge" would require two dice, and so on.

Let us say, for example, that you want to grapple or push four goblins at once with your shield. The GM thinks your idea is both plausible (you have Strength 18 and are proficient in Athletics) and cool, so she allows it - although she thinks pushing four goblins should be harder than pushing two or three.

Just roll four dice and pick the worst - if you succeed, all four goblins are affected.

Likewise, a Warlock could use Dark Delirium against three creatures instead of one - just roll three dice for their saving throws, and if the highest one succeeds, all three make their saves.

Or if you want to use a paladin's Abjure Enemy within 120 feet instead of 60 feet, to stop a skeleton. Technically it should be impossible, but why not allow it - specially for for a high level paladin against low level foes? Just roll two dice and pick the worst (since you doubled the distance).

This is not only for dealing with multiple foes. As you can see, you can double distances, do things three times faster, etc.

This assumes, of course, you must roll to hit and have both a chance of success and a chance of failure (no matter how minimal). However, you can also use this idea with powers or situations that require NO die roll - just assume a natural 1 is a critical failure, a natural 2 is a failure, and everything else succeeds.

This adds a lot of flexibility to the whole system. Say, if you have a power that can automatically provide food for six people every day, what happens if you're travelling with a dozen people? Or if you're in the a dry land with little food? Just roll a couple of dice and you're good to go.

I know, I know, creating a "dice pool" with disadvantages is verboten in 5e - but modifiers also are, as a general rule. In any case, if you prefer modifiers and dislike dice pools, just use the guidelines here. Or DOUBLE the number to get the modifier: -4 for two creatures, -6 for tripling the distance, -8 for acting four times faster, etc.

What is the point?

I added this rule to my RPG (Days of the Damned) to quickly adjust DCs in various circumstances. In 5e, I think it is useful for another reason: it allows high level characters to be more flexible and impressive against low level foes.

Because of bounded accuracy and the action economy, some PCs - specially Fighters, for example - have few options when fighting multiple weak creatures at once (and vice-versa - some high level creatures can be outclassed by a group of low level PCs).

This is deliberate, from what I understand about 5e's design goals - but not to everyone's tastes.

I, for one, think that there should be a greater gap between, say, levels 6 and 16. While I appreciate 5e's more "grounded" heroes, high level characters (specially fighters, barbarians etc.) feel a bit underwhelming.

In short, I like what 5e did - I just think they went too far.

A 12th level barbarian (according to the PHB, someone that deals with threats to whole regions or continents!) should have an easy time against a dozen of goblins archers, and not be completely unable to move if four kobolds ever manage to grapple him! I don't think it is too much to ask - at 12th level, a wizard can cast Mass Suggestion against a dozen foes, and even the fighter will survive a 100 feet fall with no serious injuries... So why not kick a few goblins away in a single round?

This little rule, by itself, is not enough to make high level characters more "epic", but it might be a good start.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Planet Asterion

Here is a few very loose ideas for an unfinished campaign setting. I wrote this a while ago and, to be honest, doesn't feel like an ideal RPG setting, but I thought I'd share anyway. Who knows, it might be the post of an "Unfinished Worlds" series. Unless I get lost in the way...

Planet Asterion

Planet Asterion is an endless maze. It might be a real planet, but then again it might be something else. Nobody has found the way out, and the exit is probably a myth. Common people waste no time with such thoughts.

Most corridors are 10 feet wide. There are wider clearings along the way, but big ones are rare.

The maze might have been created by someone, but most of it was not "built" in any meaningful way. Instead, the maze-like patterns force themselves on reality. Which means:

- Plants will grow into endless maze formations, always connected to one another - loose parts will die out. Most of the maze is made of living or decaying wood. The most common flora on Planet Asterion is made of short (about ten feet), dark red trees, with flat trunks that can go on for miles, no trunks and often covered by a dark leaf wall. These plants seem to take most of their sustenance from the ground, rather than the sun. Their life cycle is no longer than a few weeks, which causes the maze to change constantly. They can be hacked with an axe in a couple of hours, but unless the roots are destroyed they will regenerate within a week. They bear bitter fruit - but it might save you from starving.

- Erosion will cause rocks to become natural mazes. These walls are a lot harder to break, and often taller than plant mazes, but more stable. A stone clearing is valuable territory, since you can build a house in it.

- Animals will build their structures in the same way. Exotic beaver creatures infest the planet, and they are often building walls out of plant materials, re-purposed ruins or random trash. People assume they are intelligent, as they are certainly able to communicate through gesture, but they aren't really interested in other creatures.

There are different kinds of maze - or different parts of the same maze - too. The maze itself is very hard to navigate, but the different parts of it have specific characteristics that can make people know what to expect. Walls made of living flesh or bone are usually bad omens.

And then, there is Old Town. The labyrinth made os bricks and stone, with hidden doors, dangerous traps and crazy inhabitants that speak in riddles. Well, at least the mist cannot reach you in there. Nobody knows who or what built such thing, or for what purpose. Unlike the rest of the world, this is a mystery that actually makes people a bit curious.

Oceans exist, but no wood seems adequate to make a boat. Mountains can be useful in finding directions. The sun and stars are a bit less reliable.

The Oblivion & the mist

People in the maze seem to be forgetful, to say the least, but very adapted to the planet they are in.

The nature of the universe is a non-issue. Everybody know they live in a maze world, and nobody cares except a few demented philosophers. 

Where do you come from? Nobody cares. You assume you had a father and a mother at some point, but, unless they are with you at this very moment, chances are you don't remember how you got separated. No use in brooding over it now.

Languages? Well, everybody speaks Common, because of course they would. They know a language from their past, that they don't really use unless they happen to find a long-lost relative.

You might also know a third language, one that only you can speak. You have tried to find someone else to talk to, but it has been fruitless.

I might have something to do with the mist that comes at random intervals, stealing people's memories without notice. Recent memories remain, and you don't forget the times you spent with people that are currently around you, but much is lost anyway.

Even the things that you thought to be parts of yourself.

People and civilization

There are all kinds of intelligent creatures in the maze, although they are seldom taller than normal humans. Rhinoceros people, noseless aliens, and intelligent quadrupeds are all common, but not much similar to each other and not particularly likely to band together unless they are a family. Most intelligent creatures have humanoid shape, and people don't really notice the differences.

It is hard to be prejudiced -you can often tell someone's strength by the size of their muscles, but having pointy ears doesn't make one more likely to see in the dark.

Genetics work differently in there. It seems like all kinds of creatures can produce children, who only looks vaguely similar to their parents half the time. Children cannot be conceived without love, even if love may also be forgotten in a few minutes.

There is no significant civilizations. There are small tribes and parties wandering around, loose families, and so on. but one can hardly build a city in such environment. Large gatherings of people will cause starvation and death, since the fruits are scarce.

Intelligence creatures have tried to build ample structures. It's no use. Plants will creep through the floor. The ground will fracture. Eventually, it will become part off the maze. Legends tell of the Suspended City, which the plants cannot reach, and of the Mad King who built the ever-changing Golden Maze palace that is undisturbed by the pattern, but then he got lost inside, never to be seen again.

Repeated attempts at building cities have managed to leave lots of ruins - strange, forgotten, warped ruins, that most people avoid.

With no social tissue, it can be hard to know how to treat people. Everybody can talk to each other, but resources are scarce are everybody is hungry.

Fortunately, some truths seem to be self-evident to most intelligent creatures. Killing, stealing and lying are wrong (although people will do it anyway). Adding a brick to the Old Town maze or traversing it brings good luck, provided you survive, while eating the beaver-creatures brings bad luck. All this stuff is obvious.

Intelligent beings meeting you for the first time will treat you like they rolled on a Moldvay reaction table. Unfortunately, not all creatures that look like people are actually people.

What Evil lurks

There are no great, land-based monsters in Planet Asterion; the maze cannot support them. Birds are common, pterodactyls a bit less so, and dragons are the stuff of legend. Most menacing creatures within the maze look like tigers or wolves - seeing one turn the corner is a terrifying experience.

Even small, burrowing creatures have a difficult time avoiding the maze. Snakes cannot go through walls, except ion the greener areas. Monkey-like beings that can climb and jump fare somewhat better.

The greatest danger to the people are the violently insane. They act in unpredictable ways, and often attack on sight. Their eyes are hollow and most are unable to communicate. Nobody knows where they come from - but everybody assumes there is no possibility that someone could turn insane. Those people are just too different from us, although they look the same - they must be of a different, completely unrelated, species.

"Common" people call them Minotaurs. Their brains - not their heads - are like those of violent beasts.

What do we do?

The setting seemed a bit too nihilist and random to me. An endless maze does not look like fun role-playing (turn right, walk 30 feet, turn left, walk 50 feet, which way are you going now?), unless abstracted or used with a decent "oracle" of random encounters.

With that said, adventures in the maze wouldn't be different than most adventures - start with a rumor, explore a unknown location, interact with complete strangers, etc. - but would contain a lot more random elements and no overarching "goal" or "endgame".

Hoarding gold would be useless, but looking for food and knowledge might be enough to motivate PCs. Or not. It is an odd idea, and probably half-baked.

Strangely enough, the concept felt a lot shallower in my read, but writing everything down made it a bit more interesting for me. Let me know what you think.

Things that might have inspired this

My earliest experiences with dungeons (specially "fun-house dungeons" I guess), Labyrinth (the movie), The Citadel of Chaos, Jorge Luis Borges ("The House of Asterion", "The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths"), H. P. Lovecraft ("In the Walls of Eryx") and later the Hellraiser movies and Italo Calvino.
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