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, September 18, 2021

Should monsters "know what they're doing"?

I haven't read much of The monsters now what they're doing, but I like what I've seen. 

It seems to be a collection of "combat tactics" at a first glance (i.e., how the monsters should behave in combat for optimal party-killing), but on a second glance it's actually a lot better than that: it contains relevant reflections about whether the monsters should fight (and continue fighting) in the first place:
When a corpse flower is seriously wounded (reduced to 50 hp or fewer), its self-preservation impulse kicks in to tell it that it’s not going to survive just by digesting its corpse collection. Lacking the Intelligence to Disengage, it Dashes away in whichever direction it senses the fewest enemies in.

(Bone knight)
Their Charisma is high enough that an encounter will probably involve some measure of parley, and maybe only parley—they understand, after all, that it’s better to get what you want without fighting if you can—but their social skill proficiencies are in Intimidation and Deception, so we’re not talking about good-faith negotiation here. Instead, this combination suggests to me that they’re about trying to get their opponents to capitulate, through a combination of outright bullying and more subtle manipulation. Any rhetorical maneuver an abuser might use is right up the bone knight’s alley: direct and indirect threats; negative reinforcement; false accusations; gaslighting; DARVO; demonstrations of explosive anger and sudden, unpredictable violence; dividing enemies by singling out individuals among them for particular blame; and so on.
I feel that this kind of reflection is even more valuable that "monster tactics", because it's more scarce in the "official" D&D 5e books. If anything, I'd like to see more of this kind of material instead of monster strategy and tactics.

Which is why I've added a chapter on "Roleplaying Monsters" in my Teratogenicon book, including all the stuff that I find lacking in 5e: reactions, morale, encounter distance, etc. Here is a bit:
Each monster has its own capacities, knowledge and
goals. Most monsters know nothing about the characters
and their powers, even if the GM does. Do not fall into the
trap of assuming the monster will always come to the right
conclusions. “The old guy with a staff is probably a sorcerer”
should be an uncommon line of thought – instead, he is
most likely someone that needs a walking aid, at least until
he casts a spell. A huge fighter with a sword, on the other
hand, is clearly someone you should watch.
Once the player characters start fighting and using their
abilities, some things will become obvious, and monsters
will react accordingly. Still, most monsters will not be able
to see the whole picture at once. One easy way to dealing
with this is assuming most monsters will attack whoever
hurt them most (individually, not as a group) since their last
turn, unless they have an obvious reason to do otherwise.
A good leader or tactician can change everything – he
can order the other monsters to work as a group, making
the best choices for their side even if he needs to sacrifice
a soldier or two. A good plan will make monsters ten
times more dangerous, at least until it is derailed. A careful
study of the PCs tactics will give the monsters an edge
(and vice-versa). 
In short, play monsters not as pawns, but as individuals.
Intelligent, experienced monsters will fight intelligently,
bestial monsters will fight instinctively, and stupid monsters
will often make dumb mistakes.
I've heard people say that there is no real "balance" in any D&D fight - if there was, the monsters would win about half the time! That's a fair criticism. "Balance" is a bit of a misnomer if the monsters are punching bags, meant to die in order to spend the PC's resources.

On the other hand, it might be worth remebering that monsters aren't traps. Their have their own issues. 

Why should every monster be waiting behind the door to kill the PCs? Why should they picks fights with someone more powerful (or even less powerful) that often? Should ma lion be an expert on fighting PCs... or hunting deer? Why should monsters be "fresh" for every fight? If PCs - who are, more or less, rational beings - get into half a dozen fights before dinner, how often would chaotic evil creatures fight each other? Why is it so rare to find wounded (or malformed), starved or cowardly creatures in published modules?

Then there is personality, society, diet, habitat, etc... D&D 5e is not particularly concerned about these issues, as we've seen. This makes monsters feel a bit one-dimensional unless you choose to do a "deep dive" like "The monsters now what they're doing" does.

Anyway, this makes me think that maybe monsters should sometimes choose suboptimal tactics. Maybe they are dumb, feral, os just desperate. They do not know that this is their last fight - why should they use every resource they have against the PCs? 

But this is a heavy burden to place over the shoulder of the GM. You cannot consider whether each monster has eaten or fought that day, or whether he is scared enough after a couple of wounds to keep fighting. 

That's why having specific procedures in place is very helpful. In addition to reaction, morale, and rolling randomly for HD before a fight, assigning random tactics and attacks is also an interesting idea. It is something that 13th Age and Low Fantasy Gaming do: "if the dragon rolls a 19, it uses breath weapon", etc. This is also helpful to overcome the urge to adjust the monster tactics to the convenience of the game (for example, making monsters fight more efficiently if the fight feels too easy, or, covnersely, "pulling punches" when you want to "save" the PCs).

Well, I guess this is something to consider for my next book - a collection of monsters inspired by Brazilian folklore. The first one has long claws, cloven hooves, the head of an anteater and subsides on small kittens and human brains. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Krevborna is the deal of the day!

Krevborna: A Gothic Blood Opera* is the deal of the day on DTRPG.

If you like Ravenloft. Bloodborne, or gothic horror and dark fantasy in general you must check this one out. If you follow this blog, this is right up your alley.

The author is Jack Shear, from Tales of Grotesque and Dungeonesque. He writes both OSR and 5e D&D stuff, and this book will work for any system.

I've played an AWESOME Krevborna campaign with him years ago, BEFORE the book, and he was kind enough to mention my name in page 2. Unfortunately, we lost touch after the demise of G+.

Anyway, I bought the final product and I love how it turned out! It is interesting, evocative and useful.

In short, this one is highly recommended!

Here is the blurb:

The blood moon rises above the haunted lands of Krevborna! Once a country of picturesque villages, deep forests, and sublime mountain ranges, Krevborna is now a land of Gothic ruins preyed upon by fiends, ravening beasts, and the unquiet dead. Shadows triumphantly lengthen across Krevborna; the great powers of darkness work to usher in the dread dominion of an everlasting empire of night.

Krevborna: A Gothic Blood Opera is a system-neutral campaign setting for Gothic Fantasy adventures inspired by BloodborneCastlevania, and Penny Dreadful. The book includes:

  • Art by Becky Munich and Michael Gibbons. Setting map by Michael Gibbons.
  • Details on nine locations in the setting: the corrupt city of Chancel, the Lovecraftian town of Creedhall, the witch-town of Hemlock, vampire haunted Lamashtu, the seaside horrors of Piskaro, the underworld of the Grail Tombs, the foreboding Nachtmahr Mountains, the eerie Silent Forest, and the forbidden town of Veil.
  • Information on the people of Krevborna and their folklore.
  • Ideas for genre-appropriate characters and the dark secrets that damn them.
  • Thirty-four otherworldly entities to use as patrons for the faithful and the pact-bound.
  • Eight factions and twelve NPCs to involve your players in intrigue.
  • Advice and tools for running a fantasy RPG influenced by Gothic literature.
  • Tools for use in game, such as copious adventure seeds, a bestiary of foes, random tables, and a comprehensive adventure generator that gives you the basis of a scenario with little prep.
  • A full index and a separate index of the book's random tables.
  • A design that prioritizes ease of use and speed of play. All "lore" entries are easy to scan, and make use of bullet points to draw your attention to the important bits so you can get on with your game.

 *These are all Affiliate links - by using them, you're helping to support this blog!

5e quick fix: classes

 My minimalist 5e project is going very slowly. It always seems that I have to choose between sticking close to 5e or going full minimalist. Anyway, I'm unsure about that one. I think I might release something anyway, just so people can play with that as they wish.

If you want to take a look or comment on it, I'll often be talking about it here in the blog, but I've also started a thread in the GitP forum. Feel free to participate!

With that said... 

5e is a decent enough game. Probably my second-favorite version of D&D. I get the feeling that the "fixes" it needs are minimal. So, instead of writing a minimalist version of 5e, maybe I should just use 5e with house rules? Or, as I call them, "quick fixes"? We'll see. I'm currently playing Shadow of the Demon Lord and I like it. But D&D still has something enticing for me.

Anyway, here are some small fixes, for example, that I'd add to existing classes. 


- Indomitable - when you re-roll, you have advantage.

- Improved crit also adds your prof bonus to crits.

- Expertise to athletics or acrobatics.

- Remarkable Athlete also applies to damage.


Divine Sense used at will.


Frenzy: costs one HD instead of exhaustion.


Colossus Slayer: the extra damage is according to the target's HD (for example, giants would take an extra 1d10 or 1d12; 1d20 for gargantuan creatures. Colossus slayer indeed!)


- Ki is equal to level + wis.


- Uses sorcery points exclusively. (TBH I want all spellcasters to do that, but that's another story...)


Any other quick fixes you would use for 5e?

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Better Intelligence/Charisma (5e quick fix)

I find Intelligence and Charisma to be of limited use for non-spellcasters (unlike Wisdom, which is very useful for defense). This optional rule gives them more value (notice, however, that there is another quick fix for that).

If you have a positive Intelligence modifier that doesn't grant you extra spells, you can pick one additional language, tool or weapon proficiency for each +1. If you have a positive Charisma modifier that doesn't grant you extra spells, you can pick one additional language, tool or weapon proficiency for each +1. For example, if your modifier is +2 you can get two extra languages, etc.  You can trade three languages (etc.) for one new skill.

(You could do the same for Wisdom, but, again, Wisdom saves are already very useful and the Perception skill is nearly ubiquitous. Also, in RP-heavy campaign you could have additional contacts based on Charisma, but that's is not such a "quick" fix since it involves more tinkering).

Now every one gets a new reason to have better Intelligence and Charisma, without making spell-casters more powerful than they already are - although some multi-classes might benefit a bit.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Dark Fantasy Basic: elves, dwarves, halflings and half-orcs

Dark Fantasy Basic is an homage to Moldvay's basic, but that's not all; it is also the game I play when I want something close to basic D&D (or DCC, OSE, etc.) with the modern trappings I love (some character customization, identical XP tables, a d20 roll for everything, etc.).

In addition, it is a "version" of old school D&D with dark fantasy features: dangerous magic, ambiguous deities, etc. I wrote an entire series on other aspects of dark fantasy: religion, settings, random monsters, etc.

Now, what DFB dos not include are humanoid "races" such as elves, dwarves and halflings. They are not a great fit for dark fantasy IMO (especially orcs, they scream "Tolkien" to me), but I kinda regret not adding them in the first place - if only to give people who like them more options.

However, they are very easy to add or convert. 

In DFB, you basically get to choose some of your skills, abilities and feats. Just make some of them mandatory, others exclusive (Infravision, small) and you're ready to go. things such as noticing hidden things and hearing noises are all part of "perception". The "small" feat is partly copied from the OSE SRD

Give away limitations as your setting dictates ("cannot cast cleric spells", etc.). Let them trade feats as appropriate (Resilient for Fortitude, etc.). Give everyone a free language and you're good to go.

From the D&D 1e PHB.

So, anyway, here you go:

Requirements: Minimum INT 9
Feats: Dark vision.
Skills: must have at least one of Perception, Nature, Combat or Spellcasting.

Requirements: Minimum CON 9
Feats: Dark vision, Resilience.
Skills: must have at least one of Perception or Combat.

Requirements: Minimum CON 9, minimum DEX 9
Feats: Small (Halflings can use all types of armour, but it must be tailored to their small size. Similarly, they can use any weapon appropriate to their stature (as determined by the referee). They cannot use longbows or two-handed swords. Due to their small size, halflings gain a +2 bonus to Armour Class when attacked by large opponents (greater than human-sized/ They have advantage in stealth checks)., Resilience.
Skills: must have at least one of Thievery, Perception or Combat.

Requirements: Minimum STR 9
Feats: Dark vision, Fortitude.
Skills: must have at least one of Perception, Combat or Thievery.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Old-School Essentials is the deal of the day!

Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome* is the deal of the day on DTRPG. 

It is the most popular clone of my favorite version of D&D (B/X) right now; it looks really good and has great reviews.

Here is the blurb:

The essential old-school game of fantastic adventure, monsters, and magic!

A Complete Game All in One Book

  • This book contains everything a referee needs: the complete game rules, full guidelines for creating and running adventures, 7 fantastic character classes, full equipment lists, over 100 classic spells, over 200 fearsome monsters, and over 150 wondrous magic items.
  • Simple rules let imagination and fast-paced action take the spotlight.
  • Clear, modern presentation makes the game easy to learn and quick to reference.
  • Compatible with decades of classic adventures and supplements.

Classic Fantasy or Advanced Fantasy?

Old-School Essentials comes in two flavours: Classic Fantasy (based on the 1981 Basic/Expert rules) and Advanced Fantasy (the same game, massively expanded with content inspired by the 1970s Advanced 1st Edition rules).
Want more options? You may prefer the Advanced Fantasy Player's Tome and Referee's Tome.

Deluxe Print Edition

A deluxe, sewn-binding hardcover edition of this book is available from the Necrotic Gnome publisher website. The game is also available in the form of a boxed set of 5 modular books.

Note that there is no print-on-demand edition of this book!

Free Basic Rules

A fully illustrated, 56-page sample of the basic rules of the game required by players is available here:

  • The full introduction and character creation rules.
  • The four core human classes: cleric, fighter, magic-user, thief.
  • Full lists of adventuring equipment, weapons, and armour.
  • The rules for dungeon adventures, encounters, and combat.
  • The full rules for spell casting and the complete set of 1st level spells.

*These are all Affiliate links - by using them, you're helping to support this blog!

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Easy worldbuilding with Pareto, Price, fractals and bell curves

This ended up very random and "rambly"... hope you can find some practical use for it!

Things such as the Pareto distribution, Price's Law, the Matthew principle and bell curves seem to have a strong effect on nature; in other words, you can find it not only in sociology, economics, etc., but also in trees, mountains, and so on. I won't spend much time explaining things (google them if you must); let's start playing and building right away!

(These numbers are not exact and I'm not great at math anyway - I just enjoy playing with it, so take this with a grain of salt, and feel free to correct me when I'm wrong).

BTW, if you need a few random tables for your world-building, check Dark Fantasy Places - you can get it for free.


Take a piece of land; this map is a good example. 

Half is low altitude (green), half is high altitude (brown, white). If you take the high altitude part, you'll see that about half of it is even higher (the white part compared to the brown part). You can extend this as much as you want. Half the white part is going to be highest than the other half, etc.

The "halves" are distinguishable but not perfect. There are "pockets" of high altitude in the low altitude areas and vice-versa. When you create your map, think of the yin-yang symbol.

Now let's think of adventurers. say that 50% of 1st level adventurers perish before getting to 2nd level, same for 3rd, and so on. If you start with about one million (1048576) adventurers, you end up with...

Level 1 1048576
Level 2 524288
Level 3 262144
Level 4 131072
Level 5 65536
Level 6 32768
Level 7 16384
Level 8 8192
Level 9 4096
Level 10 2048
Level 11 1024
Level 12 512
Level 13 256
Level 14 128
Level 15 64
Level 16 32
Level 17 16
Level 18 8
Level 19 4
Level 20 2

Even if your world has one million of adventurers all over, maybe it has only a couple of 20th level characters.

However, your world might have a lethality greater or smaller than 50% for each adventurer level. Undoubtedly, some will cut their losses before level 20 - or maybe die due to disease or accidents.

What about the rest of the population? Again, it depends. being an adventurer takes some effort and skill. There are people that might be too young, too old, too frail or too coward to adventure. Others might be decent doctors, scribes, priests, etc., having no need to adventure (they might have some levels anyway). If we say one out of fifty people are leveled adventures, it might take a population of one hundred million to create a 20th level adventurer. 

If anyone considerably above average is an adventurer (maybe 15% of the population; seems like a good approximation) 15 million people might be enough. So maybe there is only one 20th-level character in medieval France.

BTW, demographics are similar. One huge city, a few big cities, a lot of small cities and lots and lots of hamlets. Maybe half the land cannot be occupied due to weather etc., so you have a few nomad tribes at most.

Power and wealth might follow a similar distribution. There is only an emperor, and a few kings, but there are many nobles, and even more knights; the majority of the population, however, are commoners, serfs, etc. Apply the yin-yang here too: there are a few knights and commoners that are disproportionately influential. Do not mess with the king of beggars!

Now think of names. Every time a new NPC appears, you want to give it an unique name. However, when world-building, consider that names might also follow a Pareto distribution or something similar. So, about 80% of folks will share the 20% most common names (example: almost 30 percent of Americans have a given name that appears in the top 100 list).

You are unlikely to have hundreds of NPCs, but a repetition or two might add some verisimilitude to the setting.

One third, golden ration

You might use thirds instead. It might be less symmetrical, more organic. Or maybe choose something closer to the golden ratio (which means, about 38%). This isn't exact science after all.

So, two thirds of the world in water. One third of the land is high altitude, and one third of that is high mountains. One third of these mountains are REALLY tall, etc.

Building from the top down

One quick way to build your setting is choosing a piece of land (maybe a duchy or even small nation; but you might start with a single city) and just naming the highest peak, the most powerful aristocrat, the best fighter, the most powerful wizard, the biggest monster, etc. The highest peak is probably surrounded by mountains, and the most powerful noble is surrounded by lesser ones.

The biggest city might have a few medium cities around; the biggest city in the world will probably be found in a densely populated area.

Ten easy steps (top down)

Someone MUST have compiled this before me, but anyway...

1. Separate earth from water.
2. Place the highest mountains in the map; create mountain ranges around them. You can add a few islands along the same line.
3. Rivers flow from the mountains to the sea. They do not cross, bifurcate, or go up in altitude.
4. Place cities near the seas and the shores. Dry rivers might have ruins.
5. Roads/trails connect the biggest cities.
6. Mountains create deserts by stopping the moist currents that come from the seas.
7. The poles are cold, tropics are hot. Think of jungles as tropical forests. Deserts can be hot or cold, etc.
8. Forest, jungles and swamps require rivers. Lakes need rivers to feed AND drain.
9. Extreme changes are rare (you don't usually go from forest to desert in a mile; add some savannah between them, same goes for altitude - but not always).
10. Spicy things up if you want to - a lonely mountain, an unexplainable forest in the middle of the  barren wasteland, a big isolated city-state somewhere.

Here is something I've made in 5 minutes using paint. Looks horrible but I hope you get the idea.

Building from the bottom up (bell curves and regression to the mean)

If you start small, what happens if the PCs go beyond the borders of your map? Well, you can use a 3d6 table.


3--3Extremely low

4-5-2A lot lower

6-8-1A bit lower

9-120Same as the one before (or average)

13-15+1A bit higher

16-17+2A lot higher

18++3Extremely high

This answers questions such as "what is the altitude of the next hex", or "how densely populated is the next hex", what is the humidity, vegetation, temperature, etc.

The "modifier" part is something you'll add to your NEXT roll. You can compare it to the average or to the previous hex.

For example, you're in an elevated plain ("a bit higher" than average on that nation), you roll with a +1 bonus to see how high is the next hex when compared to the average. Or how rainy is the next day. Etc. Mountains and rainy days will tend to clump together.

But if you want to compare it to the previous hex, that works too. There is still a regression to the mean, but it takes longer. You could be in a "extremely high" mountain and find out that in the next hex there is a mountain that is even higher!

Likewise, if the new hex is close to three or four hexes that are already know, you can give it a modifier to reflect the likelihood of things staying the same; or just roll unmodified 3d6 and, if the result is between 9 and 12, this hex is the same as the ones that surround it.

So, start big or start small?

I'd say start small, but keep a very low resolution world map if you want to

Which basically means knowing where you starting village or duchy is in relation to the North, the equator and the sea. You can also describe what lies to each cardinal direction with a single word or sentence ("the sea lies to the east, a friendly kingdom to the south, bands of dangerous raiders and mountains to the north, and a big forest to the east").

At the same time, keep a more detailed map of 10 to 50 miles around the PCs. The rule is: the closer they are, the more they know. What the PCs know should fit less than one page. If they don't live near the nation's capital, even their king should be described in a line or two at most (unless the Pcs have a history with him etc.).

And then see where it takes you. Maybe you want to run a jungle campaign next, and you can look at your low-res map to see where a jungle would fit. Maybe the PCs want to explore a big city - where would it fit? and so on.

Special stuff

We are creating a map that looks "realistic". by itself, this is a bit boring. Add random, memorable features to it - maybe at least on e memorable feature per important location. Here are some examples adapted from Dark Fantasy Places:

- A village might be: Suspended over water, Dug up in rocks, or Built amidst ancient ruins.
- A group might have No concept of privacy, Casual cannibalism or an Universal vow of silence.
- Non-traditional government types include The winners (or losers) of the annual lottery, A genetically-altered ethnic minority or Whoever can survive the local deities’ ordeal.
- Mythical Ruins might be recognizable for their Non-Euclidian angles, Impossibly tall buildings, or Levitating structures.
- The wilderness in this are is known for being Covered in prismatic fungus, Devoid of fauna, or Littered with bones.

Further reading and useful tools