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, October 28, 2017

Why Starfinder didn't fix Pathfinder (first impressions)

A few random thoughts on Starfinder. Take this with a grain of salt; I'm am no expert in ANY of the two systems. Here is a good comparison, BTW.

Of course, if you like Pathfinder, maybe there is nothing to be "fixed" at all. This is not my case.

But I do LIKE some stuff about Pathfinder. There are too many numbers, but they are in the right ballpark for my tastes (i.e., I like a 7th level fighter with +12 "to-hit" and 50 HP, for example; high level characters feel more "epic" than 5e when compared to low level ones). And there are SO MANY OPTIONS! You can find thousands of feats, classes, races, spells, monsters, etc. in the internet.

Unfortunately, I find PF too complicated, and what is worse, needlessly so - some of the complexity serves no real purpose. I.e., you have many options to adjust your NUMBERS rather than give you a new ARCHETYPE. A few examples: feats that give you a +1 or +2 bonus (which shouldn't exist) in one specific thing; an extensive list of skills; different tables for BAB and saving throws for each single class.

But this stuff shouldn't be that hard to fix, right? Just get rid of all the meaningless feats, skills, etc., and keep the good stuff.

That is what I thought Starfinder would do. Admittedly, I do not play PF and made no effort on learning about SF until a few days ago, when I started talking about it in forums and reading the SRD (I haven't bough the book).

Well, the COVER is certainly cool!
What caught my attention is that I found out SF has lots of good ideas.

Iterative "+12/+7/+2" are gone; skills are reduced to a manageable number; feats are also fewer; and the action economy is a bit simpler, with a reduced numbers of attacks of opportunity, for example. The awful "confirming crits" rule is gone, as well as concepts such as "flat footed AC".

Themes, "subclasses" and simplified ability score generation make character creation a lot easier while still giving you plenty of options.

Overall, SF reads a bit like a mixture of 3.5e, Saga edition, 4e and 5e, which is good.

But I feel that while SF has made some important changes, it avoided going the "extra mile" - maybe for fear of alienating PF fans - and kept a lot of things for tradition's sake. We still get lots of weak "you get a +1 bonus" feats (TBH I don't even think +1 bonuses should exist), detailed modifiers, pointless prerequisites (believe me, the wizard with +4 BAB will NOT break the game by taking a combat feat), etc.

It also ADDED some new mechanics, stats, etc., to the game... So the overall level of complexity remains almost unchanged. For example, now we have Resolve and Stamina in addition to HP... They seem to work very well (Resolve seem like a worthy addition), allowing for quick recovery after a fight and fixing the "5 minutes workday" problem. On the other hand, Stamina is so similar to HP that a simpler fix might work without the need of one additional stat. And now the sum of HP and Stamina is so high that damage is boosted as well. The result of this arms race being that we are routinely dealing with things like 75 HP + 17 Sta - 23 damage = 69 HP... at level 7, in addition to having multiple features to improve your damage.

This is one of the many things Starfinder seems to ALMOST make right. Let us see...

* Saving throws are improved (the soldier class gets better saves, for example, which is good), but they could have taken the extra step and unified all, like Saga Edition (and why the heck is the soldier bad at "dodge returning fire", while the mechanic is good at it...).

* Magic is curtailed, not fixed; they just avoid spells beyond level 6.

* Skills are fewer, but the skill system is still convoluted: you have skill ranks per level, class skills, skill focus, skill synergy, skill expertise... Call me crazy, but a concept such as "you're good with these skills" could be created ONE single mechanic.

I cannot resist giving you one example: "In addition, when you roll your expertise die, you can add 2d8 rather than 1d8+4 to the result of your skill check." Did you really need a rule that adds HALF A POINT, on average, to your skill check?

A but simpler than PF but then again... - Source.
In short, "when in doubt, keep things as they are" is not a bad way of dealing with things if you want to keep your fanbase, but it might get in your way if you're looking for new customers.

This is focused on the MECHANICS, of course. I don't have much to say about the FLAVOR, other than seeing features like "Plasma Immolation", "Mindkiller" and "Explode Head" makes me want to play this game, maybe in a WH40k setting.

Overall, I LIKE what Starfinder does. It has plenty of good ideas, and is a bit simpler than PF while giving you innumerable options for customizing your character. For me, it feels like a lost opportunity to make PF a simpler game - which would necessarily include slaying some holy cows, and wasn't a top priority it seems (maybe they NEEDED to sell a book with 500+ pages to justify the effort) - but if you're a Pathfinder fan looking for a (somewhat) simpler game, I think you might enjoy checking it out.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Dark Souls Weapons in D&D 5e (and some random thoughts)

Dark Souls has some amazing, flavorful weapons, but it is hard to choose the right one, since it depends so much of your "build".

D&D 5e is way simpler in that aspect: if you're a halfling, you wouldn't want to use heavy weapons in most circumstances, which is pretty intuitive. Of course, 5e is far from balanced: for example, there is no reason to use a trident over a spear, RAW. Unless you find a magic trident, of course.

Dark Souls also has one interesting aspect that is lacking in D&D: although some weapons are better for high Strength characters while other favor high Dexterity characters, there is little reason to have both high Strength AND high Dexterity... Which makes little sense in the real world, as most martial arts obviously use both. Not that Dark Souls is particularly "realistic" in that regard, mind you.

Another cool thing that 5e is missing is scaling weapons. Sure, they aren't as necessary as in 4e, but it can be fun to see a PC carry a sword for several levels and discover new aspects from time to time. On the other hand, merely going from +2 to +3 is a bit bland and feels a bit unearned. 

Combine these two problems creates an interesting solution: weapons that scale with abilities.

I can see at least a few advantages to such idea:

- Make abilities more useful, less "dump stats".
- As a consequence, it presentes an alternative to feats if you aren't using them (a fighter with GWF gains a significant boost, for example). 
- Warriors gain benefits form being both strong AND dexterous, like in real life.
- "Unlocking" new aspects of the weapon is cool and feels earned.
- The PCs gain a deeper bond with weapons that they have for a long time, and feel more special for using them ("most fighters cannot wield the power of the demon-sword"!).
- It also allows PCs to find weapons they cannot wield, giving them a sense of progression when they do.
- It makes spellcasters using weapons a bit more viable in some cases (sorceres and warlocks come to mind).
- You can use interesting "combos", boosting one ability with potions or spells to make better use of your weapons.
- You can use it to create some types of weapons 5e is missing (the main gauche, oversized weapons, the str-based longbow, the finesse great-sword or spear, etc.). Although this is probably left to a different post...

Let us try some examples.

BTW, most of these weapons should be at least very rare and require attunement.

Arstor's Spear

This spear has the finesse trait. If both your Strength and your Dexterity are 13 or greater, you gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic weapon. The bonus is raised to +2 of both are 15 or greater, and +3 if both are 17 or greater. Whenever you slay a creature with this weapon, you gain temporary hit points equal to the damage you dealt to it.

Notes: if you think the requirements are too high, try some variant such as the sum of Strength and Dexterity, or the sum of one of those ability scores with the modifier of the second ability. In fact, I'm somewhat tempted to remake the whole combat system based on this idea.

Black Knight Greatsword

This massive greatsword weights 18 pounds and requires Strength 15 to use effectively. It's base damage is 2d8. You gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic weapon. This bonus is raised to +2 if your your Strength is 17 or greater, and +3 if  are 19 or greater.

When you hit a demon with this weapon, the dragon takes an extra 1d6 damage of the weapon’s type. This extra damage is 2d6 if your your Strength is 17 or greater, and 3d6 if  are 19 or greater.

Notes: "double dipping" on Strength might look overpowered, but remember, this is a magic weapon, and if you're enforcing encumbrance it has at least one balancing factor. Besides, huge weapons are cool.

Channeler's Trident

This trident has the finesse trait. While attuned, you can use your Intelligence ability instead of Strength for the attack and damage rolls of melee attacks using that weapon, and the weapon's damage die becomes a d8. You gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic weapon if your Dexterity is 13 or greater.

Notes: yeah, it's basically Shillelagh with a twist. For the Dark Souls fans: yes, I would DEFINITELY add a "little dance" special power to boost your allies.

Okay, now let us see one example I got from Braggadouchio, on Reddit  (source):

Lifehunt Scythe
Weapon (Scythe), rare (requires

You gain a +2 bonus to attack and damage rolls
made with this magic weapon. In addition, while you
are attuned to this weapon, when you hit a target, you
can force the target to make a Constitution saving 
throw equal to 8 + your Proficiency bonus + your 
Charisma modifier. On a failed save, the target's 
maximum hit points are reduced by the amount of 
damage you dealt with your attack.
Once you use this feature 3 times, you cannot use it
again until you finish a short or long rest.

Notes: I'm not the author, follow the link above for more cool stuff. One interesting aspect here is that you can use you Charisma not to attack or damage, but to make the saving throws harder. Anyone can use this, but a Charisma character does it better.

Other ideas and variations:

In  Dark Souls, you can use special materials and monster parts to upgrade your weapons. It is a good alternative to weapons that scale with level.

Likewise, saying "you cannot use the troll's cool hammer because it requires Strength 17" is way better than saying "you cannot use the troll's cool hammer because it can only be used by trolls".

Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom have enough uses already; you don't need too many weapons that scale with them.

Magic weapons can give you proficiency even if you're not proficient, provided you have "Intelligence 15", for example. It's cool to have a wizard that can use no swords other than his special sword.

It might be a good idea to add a new weapon trait such as "Secondary ability: Intelligence", meaning you could add half your Intelligence to damage. Probably too fiddly...

Dark Souls weapons may break or lose some power if you use them for too long; breakage in D&D might make things too fiddly, but some "short rest" or "long rest" powers might do the trick.

Encumbrance is an important aspect of Dark Souls; huge, heavy weapons would be a cool addition to D&D, SPECIALLY if you give a little boost to unencumbered characters. SAy, +1 AC if you're carrying less than half your encumbrance.

In conclusion...

"Dark Souls style" weapons can add some variety and complexity to your D&D games. This stuff is really easy to do; you can just pick the weapons you like in some DArk Souls wiki

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

My four favorite (meta)settings

I've written a few settings, modified more than a few. When I start a new campaign, I ask my friends in what setting they want to plan, unless I have some specif idea in mind. These are the four options I usually give them; they include all my favorite settings and most settings I can think of (Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Yrth, Tékumel, etc). You'll see there is plenty of overlap, but I like to keep these four separate - it helps my keeping the tone consistent and might point you to the kinds of settings you want to read about in this blog.

Adryon - Vanilla twist fantasy

Adryon was my first effort at creating my own world, full of fantastic races, different languages, exotic kingdoms, weird magic, portals and lots of cliches. Only after writing 300 pages I realized there are other more famous and well developed kitchen-sink settings such as the Forgotten Realms and Golarion out there, and they are not even my favorite type of setting. But Adryon, like these settings, has some hidden gems, and became my go-to setting for "vanilla fantasy" with a twist.

One thing I avoid is firearms; I like to keep technology limited and prefer a sword and sorcery vibe over renaissance and faux medievalism (although knights and inquisitor can often be found) .

Characters: the usual suspects, maybe a bit twisted, plus cat-folk, lizard-folk, elephant-folk and some others.

Locations: distant realms, barbarian wastelands, villages, cities and castles.

Inspirations: classic D&D setting and appendix N stuff (specially Howard, Liber and Moorcock, but also Tolkien), Old World (WFRP), Golarion.

In this blog: the empire of the dead; tag Adryon.

Days of the Damned - Dark Videogame World

I love "gothic videogames" since I was a child. Their settings, monsters and traps are better fitted for RPG than gothic novels and most horror movies (although mangas such as Berserk an Claymore are also big influences). Dark Souls is the most important inspiration in recent years. The idea is to put the PCs heroes in dark, desolate worlds where every institution is unreliable, there is no central government to keep things stable (also, no law and no boundaries) and the monsters are bigger and nastier than anything you will find in other settings. The gods are absent or unreliable, non-humans are rare and usually evil (although monsters of all kinds - even Hammer horror - are everywhere), and magic is corrupting. Nights are long and days are foggy and gray.

My (unpublished) Days of the Damned RPG focuses on this genre (here is a comparison with D&D e 13th Age mechanics). Although there are some good RPGs with similar themes out there (Dragon Age, SotDL, WFRPG), my own writing focuses on human PCs and avoids playing for laughs or embracing nihilism. The overall feel is of decadence and chaos, instead of post-apocalyptic badassery and rebirth.

Characters: human (or near human) eager to fight terrible monsters with limited resources. Don't get attached.

Locations: giant ruins, near-empty villages, haunted forests.

Inspirations: Dark Souls, Castlevania, Ghouls 'n Ghosts, The Witcher (haven't read the books), Berserk, and to a minor extent Bloodborne, Dragon Age, Skyrim, Ravenloft, Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Also, if you're looking for gothic RPG stuff, you can find awesome ideas in Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque.

In this blog1000 Lawful Deities; tag: Days of the Damned.

Ecumenopolis - High fantasy Multiplane Teradungeon

Other type of setting I enjoy is the "super high fantasy", where heroes deal with multiple planes of existence, mega-cities with endless dungeons, and magic so powerful and advanced that it can become indistinguishable from high tech.

Society is very urbanized and as complex as our own; warring factions are bound by byzantine laws enforced by sorcery; and the (very strange) gods will often meddle in the affairs of the City. Civilization is booming; it could reach singularity or destroy itself any day, although it has lasted for hundreds of years. Magical creatures and items are commonplace, but "traditional" fantasy are almost verboten: no orcs, dwarves, or traditional elves. Ravnica is my main inspiration here, but I there is plenty of other stuff I can find no better place for, such as Planescape and China Miéville.

D&D 5e seems to be a perfect fit; characters become extremely powerful and might even shape reality but are still susceptible of being brought down by a powerful gang of thugs.

Characters: anything goes, except the usual stuff!

Locations: mazes, enormous buildings, endless cities, back alleys, courtrooms and arenas.

Inspirations: Ravnica, Talislanta, Ptolus, Star Wars, Planescape, China Miéville.

In this blog: my "Lost Mines of Ravnica" series; and Planet Asterion has a similar vibe in some (but definitely not all) aspects. tag: Ecumenopolis.

Beneath the Bloody Sun - Post-apoc Survival Savagery

My own version of Dark Sun, with lots of Tékumel, Clark Ashton Smith and french comic book artists. Mother Nature was made barren and the world itself hates life. Now, the post-apocalyptic wastelands are ruled by city-states inspired by ancient history. Life is cheap and every resource - metal, magic, water - is scarce. Instead of horses and lions, you get feathered dinosaurs, giant worms and insectoid-people. There is radiation, teleportation, and lasers from ancient times  - but even the simplest technologies are indistinguishable from magic to the people of this primitive planet.

Characters: mostly humans but also other mutant and alien types.

Locations: great cities surrounded by walls, ziggurats, endless wastes of scorching sun.

Inspirations: see the complete list here, plus Talislanta, GURPS Fantasy II, etc. Tags: bloody sun.

Other settings

These are not the only settings I like, but only my favorites. I seldom write about settings that use honor and reputation as central themes, but I certainly enjoy using them (Pendragon, Westeros, L5R, etc.). I always wanted to play a nautical campaign, going from one exotic island to another, but never managed to to it. These are all fantasy settings, obviously - there is plenty of other stuff to use for horror, sci-fi, and so on.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Called shots (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 has no need of "called shots", but I like them anyway. 5e has no explicit universal mechanics for attacking an arm or leg instead of the torso or head; it is assumed that you're doing your best to wear down your foes with each attack. Some features, feats, spells etc., might have more specific goals, but this will only help certain characters.

If you want concrete and universal mechanics for EVERY character, the solution is quite easy.

Assume everyone can do everything - some PCs just do it better. This is heavily implied in 5e IMO. For example, anyone can trip, shove or disarm; the Battle Master just does it BETTER (same goes for the Sharpshooter and many other feats, as you'll see).

If you get the list of maneuvers from the Battle Master, you have a good guide of things that might be possible to anyone. Just tone them down to keep the Battle Master special. Some things to keep in mind: nothing should be free, and most maneuvers will be sub-optimal unless you're using them in the right circumstances. The idea is not chopping everyone's legs so you can win quickly, but chopping the Wendigo's leg so it cannot run away!

Which means: get rewarded for cleverness and awesomeness, not for system mastery and number-crunching.

If nothing is free, what is the cost? Maybe a bonus action, a reaction, half damage, disadvantage*, or  a combination of those.

* The caveat with disadvantage is that it can be abused; if you're not using multiple advantages, try a -5 penalty instead.

Quick example: attack the arm. Let us say your goal is disarming your enemy and ALSO causing damage. This maneuver should be worse than a Battle Master's Disarming Attack but ALSO no better than the optional disarming rule in the DMG (or else, why you you use that rule?).

One option: attack, and if you hit you deal half damage, AND the target must make a Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check against your roll* or be disarmed.

*(You might use your "save DC" instead: 8 + proficiency bonus + ability modifier. This ensures the target has a good chance of resisting even if the attacker rolls well, which balances things. Of course, opposed rolls make things easier...  and if you roll a natural 20 it is cool to see your manuever succeed!)

Same thing goes for attacking the legs, or feet. Do some damage and trip your foe.

What about head shots? Well, it depends.

If you just want more damage, use the Sharpshooter feat as a guideline: someone without the feat can take -5 to the attack and +5 to damage. Do not extrapolate from there, because it quickly becomes a math exercise. This should only be used in very specific circumstances; otherwise, just assume you're doing your best to deal the most damage. As a general rule, I would advise against allowing it.

Stunning or knocking out you enemy is better. Let's take the monk's Stunning Strike as an example. No "half damage" here, it wouldn't make much sense when attacking the head. Just roll with disadvantage, and if you hit the target makes a Constitution saving throw against your save DC to avoid getting stunned until the beginning of your next round (not the end, or it would be almost as powerful as a 5th level monk spending ki!). Knockout is an alternative to decapitation (see below).

Optional caveat: the target suffers NO effects if the original damage caused (before halving, etc.) is less than 20% of its HP. This is meant to avoid disarming a Fire Giant with 2 points of damage (you would need 17 damage, which is not that easy for most characters).

Optional addition: if the original damage caused is equal to HP, you get the D! Which means dismember, disembowel or decapitate, with no save (not even death saves!). It only works if all the damage comes in a single turn. This is cool to use against minions, but not useful against big bosses. So you can diminish the damage needed to chop off smaller appendices: maybe 10% HP is all that is needed to cut one of the beholder's eyestalks. A hand might be twice as frail as an arm. The hydra has its own rules, of course.

Anyway, here is the complete system in one single table. You can extrapolate other maneuvers from there.

To avoid effect...
The D!
Half damage.
Half damage.
-5 to hit
Stunned (1 round).
Constitution save.
-5 to hit
+5 damage

EDIT: on a second thought, it would be nice to have a middle tier of damage (broken arm, exhaustion, etc.) Anda maybe a 1/4 HP, 1/2HP and 3/4 HP progression. And a formula dividing HP by the number os appendices. And... Oh well, back to the drawing board! 
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