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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Welcome to the Negaworld - A review of Black Sun Deathcrawl

You are the cursed - remnants of life in a universe of decay. 
Cannibalistic parasites, you suck a meager existence from the corpse of a long-dead reality.
Once you had nations, races, goals.
Now you are one, united at last in the unending struggle for survival in a reality that abhors you.
Once you had love and happiness and light
Now there is only the crawl
- Black Sun Deathcrawl

Black Sun Deathcrawl is a setting for DCC RPG, written by James MacGeorge. You can get it here. It is also probably the most bleak, depressing, and desperate setting ever written in the OSR, maybe for RPGs in general.

And it's awesome.

In BSD, you play The Cursed - the last survivors of a dying (dead?) world. The Black Sun ascended and basically killed everything. The only (temporary) respite can be found by digging deep into the ground, but the unholy light of this sun will creep in there too after a while, along with the unrelenting monsters. As The Cursed dig, they unknowingly weaken the structure of the planet. bringing the end closer.

There is no hope, no purpose, no end game. The only way out for the characters is losing all hope and committing suicide - even death is temporary and only makes you worse.

There is no dark humor to soften the blow, too. The tone is dead serious. The art (basically Gustave Dore's illustrations for Dante's Inferno) and layout (with big, black letter and ominous sentences) really manage to reinforce the themes.

Although the setting is very reminiscent of Dark Souls in many aspects (the dialogue with the avatar of a dead god could have been pulled from any of the games), while other remind me of The Isle of the Torturers or other somber tales by Clark Ashton Smith, the hopeless tone is more like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, mentioned in the books appendix, or The Day After, The Dying of the Light, etc.

Amazingly, the author has succeeded in creating an actual short adventure in this bleak setting. It is very railroady, as it should be, because characters have little options in this world. While the characters are digging for their lives, they find an underground dwarven city yet untouched by the Black Sun. The curse follows the characters and [SPOILERS] eventually destroys everything [/SPOILERS].

Sounds fun, right?

To be honest, I am not sure I would ever play or run an adventure in such setting with my regular group, but I enjoyed reading it. This is what I would call "RPG poetry" in its finest form. Not something most people would actually use as written, but it might be mined for ideas and certainly makes you stuck to your seat. Or make you reevaluate your life if you're in a somber mood (no, just kidding... but it is quite depressing).

The choice of DCC (or any other "old school" minded game) is perfect for this game. Using some "modern" or custom engine to move "hope tokens", "character arcs" or something similar would detract from the experience and make the point harder to see. Destroying familiar things such as hit points and character classes is way more hurtful. The tweaks to the system - hope instead of luck, the player-vs-player method of hurting other characters to survive, etc - also enhance the experience.

We have seem plenty of cool negadungeons (basically, dungeons with no treasure, experience, or anything positive for the characters) already, most written for Lamentations of the Flame Princess really. BSD is the first Negaworld I have seen in RPGs. It's depressing, it's pointless, it's well-written and it's the most creative thing I have read in RPGs in a while.

In summary: go read it. You will not regret it.

Or maybe you will. But only because it might ruin your mood.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mad Sun, Part I - Inspirations

I am a fan of post-apocalyptic settings, specially Dark Sun. Watching Mad Max: Fury Road made me want to revisit it, so I made a list with 50 things I would like to find in a fantasy desert wasteland. Since then, I have been meaning to expand on it.

So, here is the idea: creating my own scorched fantasy wasteland, mixing Dark Sun with different doses of its influences and some of my own favorites. I am leaning towards a more sci-fi version of the setting, but without guns, laser, automobiles or space ships. When I am finished, I might put everything together into a short PDF so you can use it as you will (with some notes on adapting it to old school games and 5e, with alternate classes, rules, etc, if there is enough interest).

This post is about the stuff I'll use for inspiration; I listed things that might have influenced Dark Sun itself to some degree to a couple of new things that I think would fit well. This is not a literary analysis of Dark Sun, but a list of cool things that might be useful for my fantasy post-apocalyptic campaign. If you like this list, you might like the rest of the series. Here we go.


1. Dark Sun and Mad Max are the main reasons I'm writing this. Always been a fan of both, and Fury Road, of course, was one of the best action flicks in recent memory, with lots of gameable material - warlords, preservers, warboys, etc. Most Dark Sun books are still available to buy in PDF, and you can always turn to the Dark Sun Wiki for easy access to information.

2. Tékumel by M. A. R. Barker is, in many ways, Dark Sun "avant la lettre". Empire of the Petal Throne was published, in 1975, in the same year as Greyhawk and Blackmoor, using non-european mythologies to create an unique and very detailed setting. Hot weather, iron scarcity, strange beasts and bizarre races were played using D&D rules decades before anyone ever heard of a Thri-kreen. The best introduction to Tékumel, according to a recent post by James Maliszewski on G+, is Empire of the Petal Throne, available here.


3. The Zothique Cycle, or anything else by Clark Ashton Smith is an important influence in early D&D and pivotal to the "Dying Earth" sub-genre in which Dark Sun takes place. Necromancers and their undead legions, cultists and evil gods, all wither under a dying sun. You can find the whole series online here. A great summary of each short story can be found here. Other than Zothique, you can find inspiration in tales such as The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, which reads like a D&D adventure, and The Abominations of Yondo, which takes place in a desert full of bizarre monsters and starts like this:

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world's rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orblike mountains which rise from its wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells.

4. Frank Herbert's Dune is another favorite. With noble families vying for power, political intrigue, psychic abilities, teleportation and giant Sandworms instead of dragons, I think one could use even more inspiration from Herbert to create something that would be at the same time more novel and more palatable to audiences accustomed to Game of Thrones and House of Cards.

5. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom is another obvious inspiration. Taking place in the red deserts of Mars, with six-limbed monsters that have been already been included in some version of D&D or other (such as the white apes and banths) and humanoid "races" that would feel at home in Dark Sun or Carcosa (see below), Burroughs' stories of planetary romance make a great fit for D&D adventures, specially the more "epic" ones, with idealistic heroes saving damsels in distress. While the notion of damsels in distress is antiquated, there is plenty of awesome in Burroughs that you can use. See this snippet from wikipedia, for example:

Upon reaching 1,000 years of age almost all Martians undertake a pilgrimage on the River Iss, expecting to find a valley of mystical paradise; what they find is in fact a deathtrap, populated by ferocious creatures and overseen by a race of cruel, cannibal priests known as Therns, who perpetuate the Martian religion through a network of spies across the planet.

His works are in the public domain in the U.S. and can be found here.


6. Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa deserves mention as a recent effort to create an interesting D&D wasteland, using Lovecraftian horrors instead of aliens or dragons, which is a great idea. Magic is evil, civilizations is ruled by "village states", races are separated by color (although with less interesting detail than Barsoom), and there are ruins of old, maleficent civilizations all around. Zak S has suggested using it a template for a new Dark Sun here. Although he doesn't sound like a fan of the original box setting in this post, the idea makes sense.

7. Brom is, of course, the quintessential Dark Sun artist, who created much of the look and feel of the setting, but you can look for inspiration in other artists, too. Here is a couple of ideas.
Richard Corben's comic book DEN is mentioned as an influence to Dark Sun by Steve Winter, according to Wikipedia - it looks somewhat like Barsoom with lots of nudity. Besides doing an adaptation of The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, Corben apparently created the first graphic novel, Bloodstar, a Robert E. Howard adaptation that depicts the heroes fighting lovecraftian monsters in a post-apocalyptic land.
I am a fan of Moebius desert landscapes and weird vistas myself, and Moebius drawings for Dune can inspire a different vision from the more familiar one from David Lynch.


8. The Fallout videogame series is too good to pass. Although the retofuturistic vibe has little to do with Dark Sun, the series has lots of useful ideas that could easily be adapted to such setting - most of them related to radiation, mutation, factions and hidden vaults, besides using a sandbox structure that is ideal to my favorite style of play.

9. Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. Since they have been mentioned a few times already, I feel they deserve an entry. Lovecraft you can use for monsters and gods, and Howard for the Sword&Sorcery vibe. As you know, Conan is often fighting monsters from the Cthulhu Mythos.

10. And, why not, Tatooine, from Star Wars. That's what people have been talking about these days, right? Sarlaacs, sand raiders, banthas, shady taverns and powerful hermits with mind-controlling powers would all fit the bill.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Single Digit Weapons

In the original D&D (the boxed set from 1974), all weapons caused 1d6 damage. Variable weapon damage (with d4s, d8s, etc) was introduced by Greyhawk and has been widely adopted since then, not only by all editions of D&D since, but also by different systems such as Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds. Nowadays, most RPGs differentiate weapons by the damage they cause, even when there are few mechanical differences otherwise.

Using the same damage for all weapons might work fine, but there are some caveats. If only cost and weight vary by weapon, adventures would always use the cheapest, lightest weapon they can find, which is a bit odd. But the same will happen in other systems where weapons have a single variable that is more important than others. For example, when cost becomes unimportant in B/X, everybody will use the weapon with the greater damage, unless weapons you use other traits for weapons, such as reach, speed, handedness, proficiency, effectiveness against armor and shield, etc.

To account for this, AD&D has a complex weapon system involving lots of special rules, exceptions and tables – a system which was completely abandoned not only in subsequent editions but also ignored by many AD&D players at the time and even disowned by Gary Gygax himself (“Actually, yes, as I wanted to remove some things from the AD&D rules--weapon speed factors, weapon vs. armor” - http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com.br/2009/02/ad-second-edition.html)

To be honest, I love the idea of weapons with different weight, damage, speed, reach, etc. While I dislike the fact that this often comes at the cost of simplicity, dread using tables to find the numbers I need, and I can see the argument for D&D combat being too abstract to worry about such things, I enjoy this little differences anyway. And detail should be where your heart is, after all.

In my own game (Days of the Damned), I tried to keep weapons diverse but simple. They might have many different traits (damage bonus, speed, weight and cost, etc.), but they are often the same number, so you don’t need to check attack tables or long lists of traits for your weapon.

The system below is an adaptation to OD&D and BD&D, using only the d6, as the original game intended. The same system can be adapted to different systems that use the a similar rationale for weapons, such as Savage Worlds.

First, divide the weapons by Size:

Tiny (-2) weapons are small, concealable weapons such as daggers, saps, etc.
Medium (0) weapons are the default “medium”, one-handed weapons.
Great (+2) weapons are two-handed weapons such as dopplehanders, great-axes, and so on.

Obviously, medium weapons deal 1d6 damage, tiny weapons 1d6-2 (minimum 1), and great weapons 1d6+2. But that’s not all they do - this numbers are also used for all other purposes, depending if the size and weight of the weapon will help or hinder you.

Here are some examples:

Speed: Bigger weapons get +2 initiative bonus (because of reach) until the wielder is hit for the first time; after that, smaller weapons get the bonus (because they are lighter and faster). In confined spaces, smaller weapons always get a +2 bonus, and great weapons a -2 penalty. This assumes initiative means something in your game; if this isn’t the case, apply the bonus to hit, instead, or use some formula to control reach (attacks from second rank, opportunity attacks, etc.).

Backstab and grapple: Likewise, while grappling or attacking by surprise, all weapons deal 1d6 damage, but smaller weapons get a bonus to hit, while bigger weapons get a penalty. The same happens if you’re trying to conceal or smuggle a weapon.

Big creatures: Great weapons get a damage bonus against big creatures, tiny weapons get a penalty. I would limit this to +1/-1; you still wouldn’t want to hit a dragon with your knife.

Critical hits: If you use any rule for critical hits, they should add 1d6 instead of double damage, so that even a knife can be deadly sometimes, especially with a well-placed blow.

Armor: this is a little trickier. If you want “weapon vs. armor” to matter, there are multiple ways you can go about it. For example, you can divide armors in three groups: light/unarmored, medium/shield and heavy. Depending on the weapon, it gets a +1 bonus to hit light/unarmored and -1 penalty to hit heavy armor, or vice versa. Some weapons, like maces, may get a +1 penalty to hit medium/shield, instead, while other have no bonuses or penalties at all or have only bonuses (see below).

Price and weight: In general, bigger weapons are heavier and more expensive (Days of the Damned uses 2 kilos for medium weapons, 4 kilos for great weapons, and half a kilo for tiny weapons, price $10 per kilo), but a little bit better overall.

Other distinctions, good or bad, can be added on top of that, or you can remove the ones you don’t like – just try to keep some balance between heavier and lighter weapons. The important thing is that not all players need to use these rules, even if some of them do. If a player is looking for something simple, 1d6 damage and no bonuses or penalties will do.

Besides, you don’t have to use all traits in your game – just choose some traits that make big weapons better in some circumstances and worse in others. I would still give a small edge to big weapons because they are heavier and more expensive.

I usually let players add two traits to any weapon: reach, thrown, double damage on a charge, parry, grapple, shield-breaker, improvised, bonus against armor, etc. Extra damage is +1 per trait (maximum 1d6+3), other traits are usually +2 (maximum +4). A pike (great weapon) could have damage 1d6+2, Reach +4 (and thus -4 in tight spaces) and charge, for example. If you do the same, players who want simple weapons can pick a 1d6+2 medium sword (with no other bonuses or penalties), a 1d6 medium spear that can be thrown and attack form the second rank, or a 1d6 medium mace that ignores shields and can be thrown. This is what it looks like:

Spear (0): reach, charge.
Sword (0): 1d6+1 damage, parry.
Great maul (+2): 1d6+3 damage, +1 against medium/shield or heavier.

You can add a few negative traits too (expensive, heavy, etc.) to create more combinations, although one might be careful to avoid abuse (and headaches).

You notice there are no 1d6+1 or 1d6-1 weapons. You can use this numbers for bucklers, main gauches and other weapons that can be used with the offhand (1d6-1) and as bastard swords and heavy spears that can be used with one or two hands (size +1, but causes only 1d6 damage if used with one hands).

In any case, you should avoid adding multiple modifiers to the same things. Use one modifier for initiative, one modifier for damage, one for attack rolls, etc. I also ignore differences in reach unless they are greater than +1. So, no reach bonus for the great sword against the bastard sword. This makes things a lot simpler.

But what about the other dice? Here is where it gets interesting: use them for magical weapons. An 1d8 sword will feel more “magical” if you physically pick a different dice than everybody else is using, even though the effect is mathematically similar to 1d6+1 (you still might add a bonus to BAB when using a magical sword, but you don't have to). What about an 1d8 sword, 1d10 versus undead? This feels really cool, especially if the improved damage extends to crits (which I do). You can use your d7s if you want something a bit more exotic, of course. And you can keep the "common" modifiers on top of it (a magical dagger deals 1d8-2 damage, for example).

Friday, October 09, 2015

D&D Unleashed, part III: Ditch the Prerequisites (on prestige classes)

In part I, I talked about wizards using swords and thieves turning undead. In part 2, I suggested you ignore limits to abilities. Today, it seems like a good time to talk about ability prerequisites and prestige classes.

Using abilities to limit character options is not a new idea. Supplement I required Charisma 17 for paladins, Supplement II had impossible standards for monks, and so on. The reasoning seems to be that some of those classes are “elite” classes, somewhat above the mundane ones, which is why you don’t get to play with them unless you get very lucky... or cheat.

This has made a lot of people very angry and, from D&D 3e on, has been widely regarded as a bad move¹. Paladins and monks are cool, at least to some people, and now you can play them from level one, without getting lucky on character creation.

I know some people prefer rolling 3d6 in order and getting whatever class your abilities will allow – maybe thinking the “modern” method isn’t old school enough. I could argue that even Holmes (not an epitome of “new school”) says you should be able to choose whatever class you like despite what your abilities may suggest.

In any case, I reckon this is a matter of taste. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll probably guess that creating obstacles to stop the players from getting the characters they want isn’t my cup of tea.

The reason I got back to this subject now is that, apparently, prestige classes are coming for 5e.

Take a look at the first sentence in the article: “Many of the character concepts that were once prestige classes or paragon paths in earlier editions of D&D are now options available to 1st-level characters”.

Choosing your class early on (source). 
This is, in my opinion, one of the strong suits of fifth edition, and a evolution over past editions. So why change it?

It is hard to ignore the circular nature of this stuff. First, you come up with “super classes”, somewhat rare, like monks and paladins, that require special prerequisites to play. Then, they get popular, and people want to play then from level one. A new edition comes, and now you can! But wait, there is a new “prestige class”, like the arcane fighter or what-have-you, that you cannot play if you don’t fulfill certain criteria. In 3e, luck has been somewhat replaced by “character build planning”, so instead of rolling well you must plan your character from level one to become a “super class” on level 7 (guess I miss level titles… but I digress).

Then fifth edition comes along²! If you want an arcane fighter, just pick the fighter class, and sooner or later – usually sooner! – you’ll have just the character you want! Archetypes and paragon paths instead of prestige classes! What a cool idea!

But wait! Now they came up with a new, special class, which you can add to any starting class… provided you meet the prerequisites. See the pattern?

There are two problems with prerequisites.

The first one is that they often add complexity for no purpose at all, with “balance” sometimes thrown in as a misguided excuse. I’m not saying that balance is a bad thing, just that prestige classes are not a good way to enforce it.

Take the d20 SRD, for example: did someone really think the game would break if you allow an assassin that isn’t a specialist in hiding and moving silently? Or an arcane archer with a bad attack bonus? On the contrary; most of the times, such suboptimal character builds wouldn’t harm anyone but the characters themselves. Feats often suffer from the same problems, but that deserves a different post.

Same thing happened with the 5e rune scribe, which requires intelligence, dexterity and proficiency in arcana, making it a class fit for wizards but not really for sorcerers, or to DEX fighters but not for STR fighters. But, again, why? Would a dwarf rune scribe with medium armor be any more powerful than any other character?

The second problem is even worse: prerequisites prevent you from using lots of interesting character concepts and dramatic situations.

I can’t build my a Dwarven Runepriest with a war hammer and armor, an archetype that could appeal to anyone who enjoys Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and some who don’t. The prerequisites effectively make this build unworkable.

But that’s not all (well, it is, for now, because that is the only prestige class for 5e).

Take a look at the d20 version of A Game of Thrones. It has prerequisites for commanders, knights, members of the Kingsguard and rangers of the Night's Watch³. It makes sense; these should be elite warriors or, at least, they should at least be competent with a sword. But when you enforce prerequisites, you end up excluding many interesting characters: the quixotic knight, the smart but clumsy commander, the incompetent ranger, the boy that got lucky and now faces impossible expectations, and so on.

Worse, you lose valuable plot devices. Nepotism, favoritism, tradition, despair, bribery, deceit, manipulation: all reasonable explanations for someone to be in a certain “elite” group even when they don’t “belong” there. In fact, the decadence of such groups is a recurring theme in the original books by George R. R. Martin.

Even “story” prerequisites are too restrictive. Why not allow for multiple character stories? For example, to be in the King’s Honor Guard you must be chosen by him, and he usually chooses the best warriors... But not always. One of them defeated a legendary knight in a tournament, one is just overrated. One is silent and loyal, and one is the king’s secret lover.

To sum it up: what the title says. Ditch the prerequisites. Use them as suggestions if you want, or use story prerequisites as inspiration.

Just don’t let them limit your game.

Note: I am quite sure I read about a similar idea (characters should be able to suck at their jobs) in Grognardia, a long time ago, but I cannot find it. If you can, let me know!

¹ To paraphrase the great Douglas Adams.
² And fourth, to a certain extent, although fifth is the subject of this post.
³ Granted, the prerequisites are quite modest.