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

- William Blake

Monday, June 21, 2021

Shadow of the Demon Lord, session 0 - first impressions

So, I've started my Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign.

Session zero was just talking and building characters. Generating PCs is really fast. You don't have many options; choose your ancestry, roll some dice, and you're mostly done. You start at level 0, so you have no class.

There are six ancestries in the main book: Humans, Changelings, Clockworks, Dwarfs (yes, dwarfs), Goblins and Orcs. It is an odd listing; not very original but not entirely classic. If you're keeping dwarves (yes I call then dwarves) and orcs I'd change changelings (ha!) for elves. But you can get elves in other book... so that's fine I guess.

Humans and clockworks are diverse enough, but dwarves, orcs, changelings and goblins are very similar in all but appearance (all orcs are strong, dumb and ugly, all goblins agile, etc.). Dwarves at least get to pick a favored enemy, which is cool. I might add one attribute point to each ancestry if I were to create new characters, so you'd have some variation between characters of the same ancestry.

Overall, the ancestries feel very Tolkien-ish (or some dark vanilla twist). I'm not crazy about it, but it works well.

Each ancestry gets its own tables. They provide some variation in appearance and background. Then you have professions, personality traits, wealth and "interesting things".

These tables are good, but incredibly uneven. You can end up with a "servant", "A pair of boots that grants you 1 boon on rolls to sneak or a gray cloak that grants you 1 boon on rolls to hide", "a can of beets", "a pungent stench" or a "bizarre fetish".

Also, if you roll 18 on the wealth table (3d6), you start with "a personal servant, a guard, and three horses with saddles".

Yeah, you've guessed - I just made everybody start with "getting by" wealth and let them choose their own "interesting thing", but gave myself veto powers on the worst cases.

Overall... I really like it so far. I might have made some different choices, but the straightforward ancestry, with small pieces of customization seem to strike a good balance between simplicity and options.

The randomness is limited to fringe traits. Your PC might be better or worse, but he or she will never be unplayable, since attributes are mostly unaffected by your rolls.

I could see something similar working very well for 5e or OSR games (well, I have my own solutions).  But let's keep the design stuff aside - for now, I'm playing the game as written.

I'll let you know how it goes!

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

The individualism of modern D&D

I wrote a post about the origins of alignment a long time ago. It is one of my favorite posts in this blog. I thought I'd make it into a series, discussing alignment through all editions, etc., but nothing really occurred to me.

Now that D&D is trying to get rid of alignment (in the most recent books), I'd like to briefly go back to the topic. This post is not only about alignment, but it plays an important part.

In that post, I've mentioned that the move of alignments from "factions" to "individual behavior/philosophy" is part of a natural process as D&D moved from wargame (focused on armies) to RPG (focused on individual characters). 

Well, the move is nearly complete. Now even monsters aren't good or evil; tigers and demons must be judged on an individual basis.

But alignment is not the only change. If you compared early D&D to modern D&D, you'll see the "social" aspects were more important. You had hirelings, morale (i.e., if your team runs, you run), reaction rolls, and so on. Now, it is all about the single character. He might have a pet or sidekick, but he is always the star of the show (or ONE of they stars, like in the Avengers movies; although "solo play" becomes incresingly popular, and big tables more rare).

You can see it in monster statblocks too; in AD&D 2e, for example, you had information on diet, habitats, social organization; the number of monsters you'd find in an encounter or lair were also important. Now that is lost. The number encountered will be randomly determined, maybe level appropriate.

The "exploration" side of the game is also a bit weakened. Instead of, for example, finding a magic weapon by chance and carrying it around, you are specialized in certain weapons, so your character traits defines what weapons you'll carry.

Character complexity has grown exponentially. PCs now have feats, bonds, flaws; they are carefully built instead of randomly rolled. Deliberate character creation and development became an important part of the game.

Now we have have races, subraces, custom lineages, etc. (in addition to classes, subclasses, multiclasses). In some of the earlier versions, non-human PCs had level limits, since humans were the majority and they were the exception. Now, humans are only one - and maybe the most homogenous, since there is no "custom human" IIRC - of many different lineages.

(A recent example: Drizzt Do'Urden was once an outcast, a good-alingned rebel from an evil culture of "Dökkálfar", and now apparently part of a majority of good drow).

And, of course, the nonhumans become stranger and stranger - now you can play as a snake-man, undead, cyborg, and so on. The old limitations make no sense now - a dwarf can be a wizard, an elf can be a cleric, and so on.

 Like in 13th Age, each PC is unique.

It is not about humans exploring a strange world anymore - is about a group of strange people exploring, well... themselves? Or, most likely, they are exploring a world that has more internal coherence than the party. [For example, when playing Curse of Strahd, I've noticed that the PCs were some of the strangest being  around; the rest of the setting is what you'd expected from a "gothic horror valley".]

The importance of the party is also downplayed. To mention some games I enjoy, modern D&D is more like Skyrim or Dark Souls than Darkest Dungeon. While in DD only the fate of the party matters, in the other games you have to build a single character and try again and again until you succeed.

In the wargame period, characters would take one "hit" and they'd be dead, unless they were heroes or superheroes. I think it was Arneson who noticed people would get attached to their characters, and then hit point were made. I'm thinking that the next step is simply making PCs immortal - you can change your character when you get tired of it, and he/she only dies with the player's permission.

Well, is this good or bad?

The answer, obviously, is neither. It boils down to a matter of taste. You do not have to choose one way or another; you can play with these things. For example:
If you find alignment too restrictive, we could go the opposite way - adopt one or multiple "mien" from Troika* (e.g., Hungry, Confused,  Protective, Greedy, Conniving), one or multiple goals from Teratogenicon, or let behavior be described by any appropriate expression (chaotic, lawful, greedy, hungry, indifferent, territorial, aggressive, shy, etc.). Of course, each individual creature might be different - but having some way to start the process is useful.
The same goes for hit points and lethality. Do you want unique, carefully built PCs? Maybe you they shouldn't die in the first session. Do you prefer high lethality? Maybe players should be able to create new PCs quickly.

It is not about black and white, either. There are shades of gray. The extremes (for example, "nobody ever dies" and "at least one PC dies every session") are less popular than moderate versions.

I've played Ravnica campaigns in which I wanted the PCs to be strange; we had a great time. I certainly enjoy the weird creatures of Dark Sun and Tékumel. In Curse of Strahd, the strange PCs felt out of place, but I've found some alternatives). 

Now I'm starting a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign (the sale is still on!). The game is fairly lethal, so I'm happy that character creation is really quick and starting PCs are really simple. I really like character customization to happen gradually, and Shadow of the Demon Lord is great at that (it has way more customization than some old school games, for example, but not as much in the beggining of the game like 5e).

Just try some different play-styles and see what suits you best!

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Sunday, June 06, 2021

Postapocalyptic Disney

I've watched glimpses of Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon this weekend. This is not a full review, I've watched barely fifteen minutes in total. From what I've read, it is not as cool as Moana, although it is reminiscent of it (I think it is the same studio or something). Anyway, the kids liked it.

But the world-building is somewhat interesting. No, really. Extinct dragons, ravaged lands, floating markets, warring nations (The Last Airbender-style) endless people being petrified by a mysterious plague, sword-whips, and mounts that are a combination of pill bugs and dogs (while other nations ride giant tigers). Reminds me not only of Frozen and Moana but also of Dark Sun and The Three-Body Problem. Anyway, go watch the trailer and you'll see what I mean.

(BTW, I haven't watched The Last Airbender is any version. I'd guess it has more interesting ideas and a better plot, but I couldn't tell).

Disney's specialty is gathering great public domain stories - starting with Brothers Grimm etc. but now encompassing folklore from all over the world - bowdlerizing all of it, adding some cool stuff, and then defending "their" IP with tooth and claw. In addition to some allegations about the filming of Mulan that I won't discuss here - since I have limited knowledge about this - but it certainly turned me off from the movie and cast a grim shadow over the whole enterprise.

So, as a company, Disney is pretty similar to Smaug defending "his" treasure. Which might be realted to the reason Tolkien never allowed a Disney version of his books. But I digress.

The nice part about all of this is the "adding some cool stuff". They have some great and decent writers, and they come up with good ideas, even when it is all bowdlerized and infantilized for mass consumption (of course, they also have GREAT movies, mostly form Pixar, in addition to marvelous animation).

And, somehow, the worst movies seem to have the best ideas. Moana has a great pacing and story - Campbellian to the core - but it doesn't inspire me to actually add stuff to my games. Frozen, on the other hand, has a pretty interesting villain (Elsa), despite not being a great movie (the sequel is even worse from what I've seem). Rapunzel is also mediocre and gave me some ideas about magic flowers and so on.

I have no idea why is that.

I think what I'm trying to say is... getting classic stuff from folklore, then adding new elements to it, and adding a dark twist on top can be the fodder for great ideas. We've seem it in The Witcher, for example, and also in Fables. I've been tempted to writing my own version of a "dark fairytale" setting for a while (this in only one example; I wrote a few short stories about a shoemaker who enslaves elves, about  a a hunter and a little girl (both with their own beasts inside), and about a prince who wants to cut a mermaid in half for... reasons. Of course, you'd have to be extremely careful to avoid using actual Disney stuff, but since most of the material is PD anyway, shouldn't be hard to circumvent their lawyers (who probably have bigger stuff to take care of).

Anyway, this is all I've got for today. I hope you have a great week!

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Shadow of the Demon Lord sale

Shadow of the Demon Lord (SotDL)* is one of my favorite "versions" of D&D. I have it in both PDF and print - it is one of the few non-D&D, non-GURPS books I have in print. It is, in many ways, more interesting than D&D 5e.

It does many things we have been discussing here in terms of "minimalist D&D": most things are just contested rolls. If you have Str 17 (+7) and your target has Agility 15 (+15), for example, you just have to roll 1d20+7 and beat 15 (barring armor, etc.).

Another thing I enjoy are boons/banes - SotDL's version of advantage/disadvantage. Add a d6 to your d20 roll if you have one boon. If you have three boons, you roll 3d6, but only add the highest. This keeps both simplicity and "bounded accuracy".

The coolest thing about the system is that it keeps some simplicity while giving you LOADS of character options, but they are organized in a way to make choices limited according to your level.

The only thing the system is missing is a SRD, I guess, so we could easily edit and share our house rules. Schwalb does offer some possibility of publishing 3rd party stuff, IIRC.

Of course, I also enjoy the "dark fantasy" aspect of the game. It is in many way a darker, leaner version of D&D, with lots of humor and gore - something in the vein of Warhammer.

The random tables are also fantastic.

In short, if you like my stuff, you'll probably like this one too.

I'll probably write a longer review someday... For now, I'll just mention that apparently all Shadow of the Demon Lord books are on sale through June. The sale includes other titles, such as PunkApocalyptic.

Now, while I have acquired a lot of SotDL modules, I haven't actually read many, so I'll hold the recommendations for now... but I'll let you know as soon as I have something else to recommend.

EDIT: I am starting to get into Tales of the Demon Lord and I'd like to say... I like what I see so far. I think I'll actually run this campaign very soon! Stay tuned for more updates...

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Monday, May 31, 2021

Fortitude/Reflex/Will in D&D 5e: another quick fix

D&D 5e saving throws has pros and cons; overall, I like it, but I think it could be a bit better. I wrote a post about that in 2015.

It just occurred to me that there's a simpler and better solution to do Fortitude/Reflex/Will in D&D 5e.

Here is how it goes: Fortitude is the average of your Strength and Constitution. Round up. Reflex the average of Int and Dex, and Will the average of Wis and Cha.

BTW, use Reflex for initiative if you want to. And Fortitude for concentration checks. Now spellcasters have some use for strength, and fighters some use for Intelligence. Nice, right?

In addition now, everyone is proficient in every save. Features that add proficiency (monk etc.) now give a +2 bonus intead. Or something.

This way, we have just cut the number of saving throws by half, removed one class distinction, gave Intelligence and Charisma a bigger role, increased STs in high levels (a worthy fix IMO) and made odd ability scores a bit more useful in some circumstances.

Not bad for a quick fix!

Saturday, May 29, 2021

LAST DAYS of the D&D Settings Sale (DTRPG) - 3rd-party and OSR picks

The D&D setting sale is nearly finished. I talked about "official" D&D picks here. Now let's take a look at 3rd party and OSR stuff.

The Midgard Worldbook for 5th Edition and PFRPG is my main interest here, as it is published by Kobold Press, which makes some of my favorite 3rd-party monster books, Tome of Beasts and Creature Codex.

Yugman's Guide to Ghelspad Collected Volume (5e OGL) is a collection of player options for the Scarred Lands setting. I've read about the setting and the premise is very interesting... I think I'd prefer the setting book first, but if you want more player options for 5e, Yugman's might be worth the look.

There is some OSR stuff in the sale. Midlands Low Magic Sandbox is a setting for one of my favorite OSR games, Low Fantasy Gaming. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is a great AD&D sword & sorcery clone - this is the second edition, there is a third edition on the way. Another OSR settings that caught my attention are The Midderlands and the Wormskin zines.

Missed the sale? No problem!

Unfortunately, apparently none of my books were included in the sale. So here is a 50% discount for my Dark Fantasy Settings. I think it is only appropriate! It is good for a week.

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Ø2\\‘3|| is out. [Yes you've read it right]

Ø2\\‘3||, the new book by Jens  Durke* (The Disoriented Ranger) is out (at a discounted price as I write this).

While I do not fully understand the name choice, I've read the book in an earlier version (and gave Jens my impressions), so I cannot write an unbiased review (I also consider myself "internet friends" with Jens), but I think this is an interesting RPG - one of a kind, really. Maybe you could see it as the 2021 version of Paranoia - once we were afraid once war, treason and constant vigilance, now we are threatened by social media, AI, infantilization, fake news and, well, constant vigilance.

It also reminds me of Misspent Youth* or Cyberpunk* somewhat. But these are just references - Ø2\\‘3|| has its own things going on.

The writing is good, and it paints a very grim picture of the future. Here is the blurb:

Welcome to a very dark world ...

This game is designed with the DM in mind instead of the next product to sell. You buy this, you’ll have all the content you’ll ever need to play this game for a very long time. We will offer supplements in the near future, of course, but what you get here is as complete as we could make it.

The setting is Europe in the year 2081, unified under one totalitarian party called The Family. The United States of Europe (USE, for short) are a playground for all the bad ideas this century has already come up with (and some of the classics from the last 100 years). Citizens are rated by an arbitrary and mean Social Status system, puberty blockers are mandatory for all but the Elites. All of this is shrouded through a huge media ruse: reality is hidden behind a fully augmented and gamified layer, maintained by an AI implanted at birth and controlled by The Family. Citizens never grow up, just grow older and if they aren't high in social status, they are bled and used for everything they have, most of the time without even realizing it. That veil is lifted for some, and with that comes resistance (or opportunity).

It’s a game that assumes players are open to exploring all kinds of ideas and willing to put some thought into the stories they tell and experienced DMs who want to explore a system that challenges them as well. It is also a satire of a dystopian future that may not yet fall upon us …

You will find in this fully illustrated tome:

  • a completely free-form character generation that lets players create exactly what they want

  • a character advancement that emerges in-game with play and for each character individually

  • an original game engine that creates a base narrative for a DM to manifest their campaign on

  • a unique cinematic combat system that mixes tactical gaming with storytelling freedom

  • a point based economy that can empower players but will also strengthen the DM response

  • tools to create a complete and dynamic dystopian sandbox for your players to explore

  • 5 years worth of writing, researching, designing and play-testing

Reading it may depress or elate you, playing it will make you laugh and discuss. Or, as a friend of the game put so eloquently:

Start this game engine, it produces satire!

If all that sounds as if it could be for you, you should give this a shot.

All the work was put into making this the best book it can be, not a pdf. This is dead tree only.

I'd recommend you check this one out especially if you like:

- Tragic/satiric views of our possible futures.
- Very dark humor.
- Games such as "Paranoia" and "We happy few".
- Books like 1984, Brave New World, and The Futurological Congress, or anything by PKD.
- Black Mirror.
- Amazingly creepy art.
- A new, unique system (Jens writes about OSR stuff, but this is very much a modern system).