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, May 27, 2017

Of opposed rolls (and fixing 5e saving throws)

In my never-ending search of efficient (or elegant) mechanics for D&D, I keep going back to opposed rolls. Although this mechanic is very common in many RPGs (Shadow of the Demon Lord, my own Days of the Damned), it often feels a bit underused in my favorite forms of D&D (TSR/OSR and 5e).

In short, opposed rolls means just rolling for both sides and making the best roll the winner. You don't even need to roll for both; you can give a roll of 10 for one side and roll for the other, if you're using a d20, for example.

But, basically, any roll in which the possibility of success relies on both you skills and your opponents' skill can be thought of as an opposed rolls. Which is very common today, but NOT usually the case with old school D&D. Saving throws, moving silently, hear noise, etc., were often used without any regard for the opposition's capabilities. Traditionally, there is no "contest" between move silently and hear noise, for example; these abilities are "self referential", relying solely on the character attempting them.

There are some opposed rolls in old school D&D, but they are often disguised and made complicated for no apparent reason. For example, giving the thief a 5% penalty to pick pocket for each level of the victim beyond level 5 is identical to just adding +1 per level on a d20 roll after level 5. Turn Undead is also a opposed roll between the cleric's level and the undead's HD.

The lesson here, I think, is that because D&D is a "class & level" game, opposed rolls should always take level into consideration. Used in this way, opposed rolls reinforce the "class and level" aspect of the game in a way that "rolling under ability score" does not.

Anyway, I like the mechanic and I'm using it use it extensively in my rewrite of B/X.

And I'd say that  opposed rolls solve a number of issues.

For example, it makes it easier to steal from low-level chumps, and harder to save against a powerful wizard's spell, and it allows me to play with no "charts" for thieves' skills and Turn Undead.

Of course, the old school method has a few advantages. For example, you can have more dramatic high-level spells that circumvent HP if everyone has a better chance of resisting them despite you level.

Modern D&D uses of opposed rolls often as a default mechanic; but I think 5e could be improved by applying some of these ideas to saving throws.

One of my main gripes with 5e is saving throws.

Unlike all other editions of D&D, it is possible (and likely) that some of the saving throws will not improve at all during a character's career.

A 20th level wizard can easily survive a fall from 100 feet, but he is no better than a first level wizard at dealing with hunger (curiously enough, being proficient in Constitution saves will help you against dehydration, but not starvation).

Which makes absolutely no sense in my humble opinion.

But to save AGAINST a spell cast by a 20th level wizard is going to be considerably harder for a 20th level fighter if she is not proficient in the right saves.

This is the exact opposite of old school D&D, where saves always get better regardless of the level of the attacker.


You see, hit points, however you define them, are often used to measure resilience; and, since all high level characters have more HP, they should ALWAYS have better saving throws.

This is probably where 3e wizards went wrong, by the way: saving throws didn't scale fast enough, making hit points a terrible path to defeating a foe in high levels. A low level bard has no chance at taking a down a 150 HP Fighter... but a mind affecting spell will allow the fighter to be easily avoided. The iconic Fireball becomes useless with time.

As you can see, 5e uses a similar method, that is made even worse in some aspects, since some saving throws don't scale at all.

If you like characters to have better saves as they level up, just give everybody proficiency in all saves, and "expertise" (double proficiency) in two saves.

And ditch the whole idea of "save DC = 8 + ability modifier + proficiency bonus". Save DC is like passive perception DC: 10 + ability + bonus... like every other opposed roll.

BTW, I think D&D next started this way, but they changed it for some reason. Well, I'm breaking it again! But if you can see the reasoning behind this, let me know in the comments.

So, in conclusion... I am not sure I have a great conclusion for this one. Opposed rolls are extremely useful, but can also be misused. Character level is the main measure of competency in D&D, so most rolls should take that in consideration - for all parties involved.

In any case, this is what I'm using for my B/X house rules. Spell saving throws? Roll higher than the wizard, and you're saved. Grappling? Just roll attack and see if your foe can roll higher than you. Sneaking around? Roll your stealth against your opponents' perception.

But, in the end, this is a matter of taste and degree; no right or wrong here, choose whatever you find more fun.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Quick Guide to the OSR Extravaganza

DTRPG is holding an "OSR sale" with three different - and very interesting - bundles.

Here are a few quick notes about them.

First, it bears mentioning that if you ALREADY have some of the books in the sale, you get a discount for those, which is very cool. So "I got that already" is a not a good reason to pass on those; on the contrary.

Second, it seems that now old School D&D is officially part of the OSR... Funny, right? It is like classical Greek originals became a part of the Italian renaissance. Or, as James Raggi said on G+, it means "we won". Well, with all these books easily available I guess we did win... something. But let us talk about the sale.

Anyway, if you know this stuff already, you probably don't need my humble opinion. But if you want to buy something and you don't know what, this is what I think (BTW, I had to look some of it up; DTRPG has plenty of detailed information on each title, courtesy of Shannon Appelcline).



Known World Megabundle (BECMI) - Great system, classic setting

I like the RC over AD&D, so this is the best system in the bundle IMO. Although each gazetteer adds more rules (some are repeated in the RC), I find the core book to be a well-polished version of D&D, balancing detail and ease of use. B/X is still my favorite, but the RC adds plenty of useful detail and has an implicit 2d6 GM mechanic that inspired me to write some posts in this blog.

The Gazetteers are hit-and-miss, AFAIK; I don't know most of them, but most seem reminiscent of a "faux medieval" feel, although there is plenty of "weird" mixed in. If you want stuff to drop on your standard D&D campaign (assuming you're using weird medieval settings such as Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, etc.), it might be very useful.



AD&D Core Megabundle (1e) - Rules, monsters, more rules and more monsters!

I'm definitely not the greatest fan of the AD&D's PHB. Feels overly complicated when compared to my favorite version (B/X) and there are plenty of things that made no sense to me (such as the way the bard class works). The Survival Guides also seem too complicated for my tastes (one or two pages are often enough for me).

But I DO like reading many parts of the DMG. More books should teach GMs how bell curves work! And this bundle includes the original Monster Manuals, including the Fiend Folio (1e). I am a fan of Russ Nicholson's art (among other greats), and the monsters (create by Ian Livingstone and Charles Stross, among many others) include many classics such as the hook horror, the shadow demon and the death knight - and the weird/"planar" githzerai, githyanki and slaad, that went on to become quite important in Planescape.



Planescape Megabundle (2e) - The plain, the planar, and more monsters

2e (the system) is very different from Planescape (the setting).

2e seems to lack an unique, distinctive mark; it is an update AD&D and not necessarily better, although it does include some aspects that I like (such as better organization and its own skill system, unlike the 1e PHB; also, I DO think THAC0 is basically a good idea). The removal of assassins, demons and devils to make D&D more family-friendly after the satanic panic didn't help much.

Planescape, on the other hand, is very idiosyncratic. It has an unique flavor of cosmic high fantasy with many fans but little use in "standard" D&D campaigns. Also, it has a particular jargon (it often uses "in universe" slang) that can be aggravating at times. Tony DiTerlizzi's art is amazing, of course, but Planescape's visual identity bores me sometimes.

Now, if you like plane-hopping high fantasy - and I do - Planescape has innumerable cool factions, characters and ideas that you can use with settings such as Ravnica or, maybe, Ptolus.

And I MUST mention the Monstrous Manual, my favorite monster book. It might be nostalgia, it might be the size (384 pages according to DTRPG), or probably the colorful illustrations (DiTerlizzi has some awesome ones here too). It strikes a great balance between stat-blocks and interesting information (although the stats do include plenty of useless stuff).

Other stuff on sale

Plenty of good stuff 15% off too. Might was well take the chance if there is something in particular you've thinking of buying. The Bat in the Attic sale seems like a good deal too.

In conclusion... what should you buy?

To be honest, I'll probably buy the three bundles. There is too much good stuff to pass. But if I had to choose, I'd take Know World, then Planescape, then AD&D, in that order.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Fixing the Charisma problem

Charisma as a dump stat? No way! I'm talking old school D&D here - Charisma is TOO powerful, if anything.

But let's start from the beginning...

Yes, I'm still rewriting Moldvay Basic, one page at a time (and I hope you like that because there will be a few extra posts in the same vein before I finish...).

One things that retro-clones often do when rewriting Moldvay is "unifying" the Charisma 18 to +3 instead of +2 to get it in line with Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, etc. 

This is usually a bad idea, because Charisma is too important in Basic.

If you have a +3 bonus to add to reaction tables, you will seldom, if ever, encounter a hostile monster (less than 3% chance), and almost ALL your offers will be accepted by hirelings (well, you can always offer them LESS money to get a chance of failure, which is a good idea). But, basically, a +3 bonus wrecks the typical 2d6 table (below). In fact, even a +1 bonus to a 2d6 table can often destroy some interesting possibilites. Immediate attack can be fun from time to time!





RollResult

2Immediate attack

3-5Hostile

6-8Uncertain, confused

9-11No attack, monster leaves

12Enthusiastic friendship




Not to mention retainers, or the fact that while some abilities may seem useless for some classes, Charisma can be useful for everybody. Always nice to have a few more fighters by your side!

But I kinda like "unified" stuff lately, and even big ability bonuses - as long as it works. How to fix this?


My current solution to this is that PC modifiers apply ONLY to d20 stuff (with the exception of weapon damage): attacks, AC, saving throws, etc. This allows me to use bigger modifiers (up to +5 for Strength 20, for example) while still leaving chance for failure (I'm currently using d20 skills).

2d6 tables are DM's tools: they define NPC reaction, weather, etc., but suffer no influence from PCs' stats.

What PCs can do is use their own actions (roleplaying) and (d20) skills to improve the results of the DM's roll. Thus, a Paladin with Charisma 18 (+3) and Persuasion +5 rolls 1d20, with a +8 bonus and a DC of 15 (for example), to turn a hostile creature uncertain, or to make and uncertain retainer accept an offer.

A similar check allows a warlord to rally the troops after they fail a morale check (I make retainers check morale once per combat, unlike Moldvay).

This is a nice way to use 2d6 tables in 5e without changing the system; use them as DM's tools.

(d)20 Reasons to start at level 3

Well, not that you should start on level 3. It's your game, do what you want. But 3rd level should be the norm in my opinion. 1st level is good for rookie PCs, character funnels, learning the game or practicing detachment from your character. In most old school editions, simply surviving a dungeon in level one should be viewed as a challenge, not something assumed as ordinary. Sure, everyone should face that challenge - just don't get attached or write a backstory until you get to 3.

Want to start on level 1? Okay, but make it level ONE: 3d6 in order, no special abilities, and keep a blank character sheet just in case. No half measures. You either die a victim or survive long enough to become an hero. And then die.

Want to start with a competent character? Start at level 3.



Well, anyway, it works for me. Here is why.

1. 1st level are victims. They are likely to die if they fight a couple of house cats or fall from a tree.
2. Everybody wants to be a hero. But what if we don't? If first level characters are heroes, we cannot play weaker characters because they barely exist.
3. Normal humans (Moldvay) have 1d4 HP. A blacksmith may have 4 HP and a young child, 1. They still fight like 1st level Fighters, and half a dozen children may kill the fighter in a couple rounds if they attack first.
4. HP inflation. Every gets one HD per level, right? But almost EVERY VERSION of D&D has some different rule why this shouldn't apply to level 1. Maximum HP at level 1, double hit dice at the beginning, starting HP equal to Constitution score, etc. Well, why not start on level 3 instead!
5. 1st level characters become too complex when you want them to be heroes. Take 5e, for example: you start with a background, two or three features from race or class, maybe a feat if you're a human, etc. Where do we go if we want to start simpler?
6. 5e wants you to get to level 3 soon, that is why so little XP is needed in the beginning. Well, if that is the case, why not let 1st level cahrachters be simpler so you make choices later on?
7. In fact, 5e DOES leave some choices to level 3. You cannot choose to be an assassin or thief until level 3, for example. So if you want to start as a thief, start on level 3.
8. Dark Sun did it. Or something like that, I think... And Dark Sun is awesome.
9. Gygax did it. 'Nuff said.
10. You cannot have meaningful single-digit characters and fractional skill unless you start on level 3.
11. If everyone starts on level 1 the Deprived Class loses its meaning.
12. I was reading the 5e Volo's guide the other day... An apprentice wizard has 2d8 HP. And he is a first level spell-caster. So your wizard is not even an apprentice on level 1.
13. Have you written a background? If you took the time to write one, maybe you should have a few extra HP so you don't die in the first round of combat.
14. Start on level 3 and now you level 10 character is only three or four times tougher, instead of ten times. Everything makes more sense, not only falling damage and the amount of arrows you can take before dying.
15. Most "modern" methods of rolling abilities (4d6 drop lowest, etc.) create heroic, strong, competent cahrachters... with about half a dozen HP. How come?
16. Granularity. If most heroes are level three, you can have a level 2 squire, a level 1 peasant, and a level 0 child, for example. A veteran would be level 4 instead of level 1. You could face a few - A FEW - goblins or kobolds at the beginning of the campaign and survive to tell the tale.
17. Arneson suggests HP are meant preserve characters because people get attached to them. If I must spend more than 10 minutes creating a character, he should have a few extra HP and probably some skill to go with it.
18. Also, first level characters were meant for Chainmail. Once we zoom in on the PCs instead of looking at the battlefield, more HP is obviously useful.
19. A first level wizard in Basic may have the same amount of HP as a young child if the GM isn't using optional rules. First level thieves are really bad at skills. First level clerics don't even have cleric spells.
20. In fact, the Basic fighter doesn't even get an attack bonus until level 4. Maybe we should start on level 4 instead? Nah, that is obviously too much!

Yes, some of them emphasize or contradict the others. This is "roll 1d20" table, not "read my arguments carefully and make an informed decision"!

Next post: why you should start at level 0 and why level 1 characters are for self-entitled weaklings! Or something.

(note: I had to republish this to make LinkWithin work as intended; hope it does the trick).

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Languages, alignment or otherwise

Still analyzing and rewriting Moldvay basic. No new page today, sorry. Just some random thoughts about language in Basic D&D.

B13 has a list of languages that is not specially interesting - you've got languages for elves, dwarves, lizard men, etc. It makes sense that every creature would have their own language; in fact, if D&D-world is anything like the real world, each species might have thousands of languages that are mostly incomprehensible to speakers of other languages. This is not particularly useful when running a game. so we get a "common" language that 20% of people speak, thus avoiding to deal with language barriers all the time (still too often, probably), while at the same time having a few extra languages that can give you an edge in one interaction or another.

Works fine, I guess, but I haven't got much to contribute, so there is no point in writing my version of this part of  B13. Unless I use it as a world-building tool - if lizard people speak "Low Snake-speech" instead of "lizard men language", or if dwarves and elves share a common language,  it tells you something about the history of the world.

Modern D&D does something like that, while reducing the number of languages and alphabets to more manageable levels - maybe goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears all speak the same language, for example. Again, works well, but feels a bit artificial and it's not something I feel particularly interested in.

Now, alignment language. It certainly has its fans, but it has plenty of haters and has been mostly abandoned in modern D&D, as it makes little sense unless you see alignment as factions. The main inspiration for the concept is probably Black Speech.

Another problem with alignment languages is that, in theory, it could be used to identify anyone's alignment in seconds, making some interesting interactions impossible.

It is not hard to make SOME sense of alignment language; it might be like Latin for the catholic church, a secret language shared among members of the same team, a gift from the gods to their followers (which fits the idea that you forget it if you change alignment), body language that reveals a character's true attitude, etc. But any people prefer to avoid the concept altogether.

My attempt to make languages interesting include giving each language a special "power" or twist, without going too far into etymology, culture and world-building, and avoiding the most obvious pitfalls. Here are some examples:


Darkspeak: the spoken/written language of demons and the mightiest inhabitants of the Abyss. Only chaotic characters can learn it without a significant risk of going mad, and even them will avoid using it unless they are also demons.

Bastard tongue: the gutural, often unpleasant spoken language of goblins, orcs, minor demons and beings that associate with chaos.

Devani: the spoken/written language of Elysium. Learning this language for any character that isn't lawful is like looking directly into the sun, and many will not survive the experience. Every mortal uses this language with reverence and awe and avoid speaking it out loud - even if they can understand it when it comes form the mouth of an angel.

Prisca: the spoken/written language of the fallen Empire, specially common in religious (lawful) texts and legal documents.

Fae: the spoken (sung) language of fairies and the spirits of the wild. Anyone can learn it, but characters that are not Neutral are suffer greater risk of being charmed by sylvan spirits if they understand their words.

Vulgi: the widespread spoken/written language used by different peoples of the realm, specially travelers and merchants, that allow people from different places to talk to each other.

Thieves’ Cant: the secret language spoken by many criminals and beggars. It can be discretely inserted in regular conversation to pass hidden messages along.

Rún: the written language of magic-user’s spells. Anyone can learn to read it phonetically, but speaking the words out loud is very dangerous for people that are not versed in magic.

Trail signs: the symbolic language of rangers, druids and wilderness explorers marked on trees and stones to identify dangers, pathways, etc. People from different backgrounds often use similar signs, but even when they don't the variations are quickly memorized by the ones that are familiar with the language.

Dialect: each people, tribe, region, etc. has its own dialect. There are thousands of them, but there is a good chance that nearby dialects are similar enough to allow free communication. The more the distance, the smaller the chance of being understood.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

One Page Hacks: Equipment (B12)

Still rewriting Moldvay Basic, one page at a time.

Okay, that was harder than I expected. Moldvay's page B12 is a succinct table of equipment prices. It should be easy to streamline this. But I wanted to have all information in the same page: damage, price, weight, etc. I also added some house rules for weapons.

Not all the original weapons are included, but I've added a few of my own.

I used the silver standard instead of the traditional gold.

Click HERE for the PDF.
I really like the final result, but it is not much simpler than Moldvay's. It includes a lot more information (some of it essential, such as a distinction between fresh food and preserved food (which isn't clear in the original text) , and it uses my simplified "rule of three" encumbrance system (check the link above).

My favorite part is "unifying" the price and weight of most items under "light tools". It might seem strange that all costs and weight the same, but you'll see none of the examples are really absurd. I will probably use this section in my 5e games from now on, too. I'm not a fan of tracking money except for the expensive stuff, and I certainly dislike browsing through a book to find the price (or weight) of a certain item.

In any case, let me here your opinion after you check the PDF (click the link above).

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

One Page Hacks: Character classes and skills (B8)

I'm still trying to rewrite Moldvay Basic, page by page.

Rewriting page B8 was a lot more challenging than I thought. I wanted to add a functional skill system, to B/X, and thought "streamlining" all skills would make it short. Well, not quite.

B8 has a LOT of good ideas in a single page (as it often happens in this book) - specially considering it has a lot of white space.

For example:

A simple rule about trying again, under "open locks" (here are some thought on the matter).

Rules for critical failures, under "pick pockets" (here are some thought on the matter).

Rules for allowing the GM to roll in secret, under "move silently" and "hide in shadows". Not my cup of tea but might be useful, so I've included it.


From these simple rules, it is possible to extrapolate a complete system, including all the stuff that is NOT on Basic but I still use in my games.

Everything is a skill now, including Combat, Turn Undead, Backstabbing, Spell-casting... Each class has its own special skill. No races here; I'll add them somewhere else.

I've had a hard time with the Thief, because it seemed he should have stealth, athletics, back-stab, perception... Ultimately I just used Thievery for everything and removed Athletics from his "mandatory" skills (he'll have Perception and Combat as secondary skills), so the only way you can have a thief-acrobat or mountebank is through some kind of feat or background.

Skills are d20+ability+skill versus DC (usually 15). I.e., it uses the same difficulty as 5e.

The coolest thing? The numbers make sense! They are not exactly like Basic, of course, but I've decide to give the thief a boost, which I think is adequate. But the percentages and progression are not that far from the original.

And you can still use one of my five or six skill systems for B/X if you don't like this one... I have posts for 1d6, 2d6, xd6, 1d20 and 1d30 skills, just look around.

Fighters, on the other hand, have nothing but combat as a mandatory skill (notice his BAB is way stronger than in Basic), so you can create rangers, thugs and paladins through skills and feats.

The XP table is unified.

Anyway, here is my version of B8.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Harder stealth (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. One day I'll put then all in a good looking PDF and the whole will be SMALLER than the sum of the parts - that is how small they are! Use them wisely!

So, you're a ninja.

Somebody has to sneak past the town guards to steal the Jarl's scepter while he is away.

That should be easy. You check the DC, you stealth bonus... Yeah, you only fail if you roll 3 or less. Okay, you're probably not getting caught. But what if you do? Then the Jarl would find all about your ninja clan hiding at the woods!

You need to improve your chances. But how?

Wait - you have a whole clan of ninjas with you! You don't need to do the task alone! You can call your fellow ninjas - they all have a stealth bonus that are similar to yours - and you can ALL sneak past the guards at the same time!

Picture the scene - three hundred ninjas sneaking past the town's gates at night! What are the odds somebody will see any them?

Well, if you're using group checks (PHB 175), the odds are infinitesimally small.

To make a group ability check, everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds.

If you have a 15% chance of failure as a single ninja, ten ninjas have less than 2% chance of failing, and if you have a hundred ninjas you can safely add a dozen of untrained peasants to your group and you still have no chance of failing. You can add people that are worse than you (provided they have more than 50% chance of success) and still improve your chances.

It makes no sense.

Granted, this is not a 5e fix: 5e doesn't say you should use group checks for stealth. But many people seem to use this rule for sneaking around, which might be a bad idea.

I like group checks. They are fast, easy and cool. But they are obviously not a great fit for situations where having more people will actually hinder your chances.

And group checks can cause the opposite problem for incompetent PCs. If a group of people is lost in the woods and they must find a way out but each individual has less than 50% chance of succeeding, a group of a hundred has basically no chance of ever finding the way out and will all starve to death.

The idea of rolling stealth "as a group" is pretty bad in combat too. It is nice to have the thief being able to stab the Minotaur in the back while the creature only notices the loud paladin walking around in plate armor. Even better, the paladin may talk to the Minotaur and distract it while the rogue snakes around unnoticed. But in other circumstances, group checks might be useful - trying to infiltrate a place without leaving traces, for example.

If you want to use group checks for such situations, here is a quick fix (first part is from the 5e SRD, second part is my suggestion, adapted from Days of the Damned).

You'll never see them coming!
Group Checks (5e SRD)

When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish something as a group, the GM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren't.

To make a group ability check, everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds.


Otherwise, the group fails.

Group checks don't come up very often, and they're most useful when all the characters succeed or fail as a group. For example, when adventurers are navigating a swamp, the GM might call for a group Wisdom (Survival) check to see if the characters can avoid the quicksand, sinkholes, and other natural hazards of the environment. If at least half the group succeeds, the successful characters are able to guide their companions out of danger. Otherwise, the group stumbles into one of these hazards.

(my suggestion)

Sometimes, the fact that multiple people are attempting the same task at the same time may worsen their chances. The most common example is moving silently as a group, or trying to speak at the same time in a debate. In this case, the GM will add +1 to the roll for each character attempting the task. If there are three characters are attempting a DC 15 stealth check, for example, the DC is raised to 18.

Conversely,  if the situation is such that the task is made easier by the number of characters involved, the GM may subtract 1 from the DC for each member of the party.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Unearthed Arcana: Feats for Skill - Grappler and expertise have been fixed!

The new Unearthed Arcana is out, with feats for skills. Slowly but surely, WotC has been fixing the obvious holes in 5e's skill system. Now everybody has access to expertise (which, really, should've been a thing in the PHB), for example. This is cool for a number of reasons.

First, now anyone can specialize in a given skill, making a multitude of new character concepts possible. Second, with new feats come new possibilities - specially for fighters, that get more feats than anybody else, but not much else in some cases (the Champion, for example).

Combine these two and you get... The Grappling Fighter!

 I just googled "D&D grappling"... Thanks, Douglas!
See, the grappler feat in the PHB is a trap even for grapplers:

Grappler
The hands-down most disappointing entry in the PHB, Grappler is the ultimate trap ability. Its first ability is a worse version of the shove-to-prone combat option grapplers already have. Why invest in a feat for advantage when you can do it with basic combat actions? The second ability is what earns Grappler its green status. A restrained target suffers from disadvantage to all Dexterity saving throws, which works nicely with grapplers who use Dexterity-based spell damage. Or grapplers who have allies using that magic. This is a niche way to grapple but a fun one, so I leave it out there as an option for grapplers looking for new ways to enjoy the combat style. As for the last bullet point, it's a leftover of an earlier edition. As the PHB Errata clarifies, " Ignore the third benefit; it refers to a nonexistent rule". All told, this is the feat that should have made us tick and instead it's one of the first you'll ignore.

Now, look at this new feat from UA:

Brawny
You become stronger, gaining the following benefits:
• Increase your Strength score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
• You gain proficiency in the Athletics skill. If you are already proficient in the skill, you add double your proficiency bonus to checks you make with it.
• You count as if you were one size larger for the purpose of determining your carrying capacity.

This is an awesome feat to every Fighter - nah, to most "warrior" classes, including Barbarians, Paladins, etc. - and it is only a half feat", i.e., you also get +1 to Strength.

With decent strength, double proficiency, and increased carrying capacity, you will be able to grapple most monsters (unless they are more than one size larger than you) with ease and drag them around freely. This is no joke - you can reliably take down a death knight, most demons and young dragons!

Grappling might still be a bit limited - you can find some options here and here - but it just got a lot stronger.

There are lots of other interesting feats there. The medicine skill finally gets some use, you get a new version of the Help Other action, you get to intimidate foes during combat, and so on. Maybe I am not the greatest fan of feats - the bloat went to far in some former editions IMO - but some of these are really good.

I know, I know, many will say there is nothing broken in D&D 5e. But I'm really glad they are fixing it!

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

A quick note on minimalist/maximalism (give me the awesome already!)

I just read a great post about the subject, and felt let chiming in, albeit briefly. This is not a response or comment to the original post, but some reflections inspired by it. It is also a little rant-y, so reader beware.

The problem with maximalist settings, in my view, is an excess of boring stuff. I admit I loved detail when I was younger - it made the worlds feel real. Nowadays, I just don't have the time for that. I literally have more free RPGs in my HD than I can read in the next 10 years, not to mention the hundreds I payed for.

What is boring? Once again, Joseph Manola has successfully explained it: it is the predictable ("exactly what you would expect") and the irrelevant ("the headman of this village is tall and old and cheerful").

Now, this isn't a problem with campaign setting and modules only, but it affects monster manuals, player books and whole rules systems (it might even be a problem with a sizable part of modern literature, but I won't go into that here).

Take the three monster manuals I'm reading right now: Teratic Tome, Fire on the Velvet Horizon and Volo's Guide. While the first two aim to give you the awesome in every page (even at the risk of missing the mark), Volo's alternates freely between being awesome/useful (the new monsters and races, for example) and boring me to tears. For example, Gnolls are evil because their god is evil. Giants are artists, warriors or gluttons depending on their gods. and the hierarchy between goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears are determined by each one's gods. When I got to the "Orcs: the Godsworn" section, I put the book away and haven't pick it up since.

Or consider the infinite number of retroclones/neoclones: I really like reading this stuff, but why do I have to read 80-pages of d20 copypasta before I get to that one cool idea that makes your retro-clone different from the rest? Give me the awesome already!

For me, a 20-page PDF is ten times more useful than a 200-page PDF if 90% of it is filled with the obvious, and 50 flexible spells are better than 500 spells I won't read. 10 monsters I've never heard of? I'll take that over 50 orcs any day of the week. Please do not describe what a Minotaur (or - God forbid! - a human) looks like. I already know!

Sure, there is room for stuff such as Low Fantasy Gaming, which puts a S&S twist on the familiar stuff it presents, or thematic retro-clones like Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, but unless your work is very unique, we probably don't need another retro-clone by this point.

I am aware that many people think RPGs are meant to be referenced, not read. There is a place for this stuff, too; but honestly, if your game requires me to open it upo multiple times during play, I'm probably not te target audience. Give me something cool to read, and the chances I use it rise exponentially.


This is why I like Titan, by the way. This might be nostalgia talking, but everything seemed to be focused on adventure and fun, and it frequently departed from the obvious. Orcs are evil, which might sound dated, but not because they worship evil gods. In fact...

As you encounter servants of some of the gods of Good on
your travels, you may begin to wonder why so many 'evil'
races worship them! Surely, you would say, foul creatures
like Orcs would not wish to worship a god like Galana (who
they know as the Lady of Corn and pray to for good harvests
in the few areas where they still bother to grow crops), and
in return Galana would not bestow her favours upon servants
of Evil and Chaos, even if they were also farmers? This is part
of the very nature of Goodness, it seems: the powers of Good
are such that they can forgive the creatures of Evil enough to
grant them their blessing when they need it.

Creatures such as the Life-Stealers, who worship Sukh, are
considered servants of Evil because they live by violence and
killing, which they seem to do in the name of their god. In
such matters, religion breaks down a little, it must be said,
and priests have argued with one another for centuries over
such points. In the case of Sukh, it is generally agreed that
Life-Stealers kill their victims only because that is the way
they are. Certainly, no one seems to argue much when
humans slaughter Orcs or Goblins, though most servants of
Good would agree that killing is – at least in principle –always
an act of Evil.

When I was a teenager, I wrote a "kitchen sink" setting with all the stuff I wanted to have in a D&Dish world. I took a completionist approach to it: everything had to make sense and have a detailed explanation, down to the percentage of people that spoke a given language in a given country. I eventually gave up on it because this kind of detail became uninteresting even to my players.

Recently, I tried rewriting it, with two rules in mind: everything must be either awesome or short. Which, in my opinion, is the cure for predictable and irrelevant. Yes, you need some irrelevant stuff to make sense of a setting ("the king is called Damocles the Third..."), but if you make it short you leave the spotlight to the cool stuff - and save everyone's time.

There is a lot more to be said on the matter, but making this too long would miss the point, right? So, rant over. See you soon!

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Specific backgrounds (5e quick fix)

5e quick fixes are exactly what they say on the tin. Small house rules to fix problems you probably don't have. One day I'll put then all in a good looking PDF and the whole will be SMALLER than the sum of the parts - that is how small they are! Use them wisely!

Does it bother you that the wizard in the party knows more about religion than your cleric? Or that the forester/outlander barbarian knows so little about nature and survival, even though he can easily find hidden sources of water in the hot savanna after being raised in snowy mountains in the neverending cold of the frozen North?

Do you think Acolyte and Outlander are boring backgrounds? Would you prefer to be a Former Cultist of the Great Old Ones or a Savage Barbarian of the Icy Peaks?

Do traditional backgrounds leave you cold? Do you prefer your characters to be special snowflakes? Are you reading this after all these puns?

If the answer is yes for any of those questions, try this.

A samurai background is easier to do than a samurai class (art: copyright WotC)
From now on, all backgrounds must be specific. No "Acolyte", but "Former Cultist of the Great Old Ones", etc. You still get the same skills and tools, but now you also get advantage (or expertise, if you prefer) when dealing with your specific background. You're proficient in religion - which applies to all religions - but when you roll to see if you know something obscure about your own religion, you roll with advantage.

This is not new, of course; compare the Uthgardt tribe member from Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide with the PHB's Outlander and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Also, since the PHB doesn't mention it explicitly, let me suggest that you use these backgrounds as sources of advantage. For example, let the Acolyte of the GOO (or Sorcerer, for that matter) get advantage not only in his religion rolls, but also when trying to intimidate the superstitious. Give the Outlander advantage when persuading other tribes that share a similar culture. And so on. Don't get too crazy, though: them sorcerer does NOT get advantage in all her intimidation rolls because he can cast a cantrip.

By the way, that is also how backgrounds work in my Days of the Damned game, as I mentioned it in this post about 13th Age. Click the link for other examples and a discussion of some pitfalls this technique may cause.

Want a downside to go with it? Your background feature also become specific, if it isn't already. So the GM may rule that your Outlander character must roll the dice to find food in the savanna. He rolls with advantage, of course, since the feature is still included in the background. If you think this is too harsh, let the Outlander use the feature as written after a few successes in the savanna. Same idea can be applied to a pirate's reputation; let her make some intimation rolls at least until she gets a reputation in her new home.

Many backgrounds are already quite specific, so no need to change those. And, of course, don't make the players roll for stuff that should be obvious! Of course the Acolyte of Cthulhu knows it waits dreaming in R'lyeh!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

12 Things I Wish I Would Had Known Before Running My First Game

Okay, I'm jumping on the bandwagon. The awesome posts that inspired me are here, here and here. I'll certainly repeat something that has been said before in these links, but I might disagree a bit too.

* Your PC is only cool if he is cool during play, not because he has an amazing backstory. Likewise, your NPCs are only cool if they do cool stuff during play. Your adventure is only good if it provides good times to people playing it.

* The story does not have to be cool or make sense to anyone other than the people playing the game. Like in real life, you go on adventures to have experiences, not to tell stories after the fact.

* Different people like different things, including mechanics. Some people will never spend inspiration or that last potion of healing, no matter what you do. Some people want to pick fights, some people want interaction, some people want to play ninjas. If it suits them, that is okay.

Find the best system for you and your players. Eventually, this will be the system you have created yourself.

* That puzzle (or conspiracy) you built for your players is not as obvious as you think. The players are not in your head.

* Everybody will forget most of the details after a couple of days. If you want long arches and complicated plots with various adventures, that is fine, but don't expect you player to remember every NPC they meet, unless they are recurring. Also, if something happens to the PCs - specially if they are wronged - they are more likely to remember.

Source.
* Every important person, thing or location should have ONE obvious distinction. Not grey hair, but a mohawk. Not a scar, but a distinct lack of nose. Not grey houses, but impossibly tall spires. Think "caricatures".

* Do not plan the story in advance and do not keep safeguards against derailing. No fudging dice, no saving the players from bad luck or bad choices. You're robbing them of some amazing experiences. Failing is part of the game.

Few fights should be to the death. People are more likely to surrender than to fight to the bitter end, and few animals will take a beating if they can escape.

* Common sense trumps the rules. But if the rules defy common sense all the time, you should be looking for a different set of rules. This is about rules as physics, not story - people defy common sense all the time!

* Let the dice push you out of your comfort zone. Your PCs all failed their saving throws - now what? Your important NPC was killed before he could start his plan - what happens now? If you rely on common sense to decide probabilities without using the dice, everything will become predictable.

* Everyone said that already, but expect the unexpected from your players. Do not assume they will be nice to a baby in the crib when they are invading a castle.

There is a story to the last one, of course, but I'll leave it to another post. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

5e quick fix: Flanking and Facing

5e quick fixes are exactly what they say on the tin. Small house rules to fix D&D problems you probably don't have. One day I'll put then all in a good looking PDF and the whole will be SMALLER than the sum of the parts - that is how small they are! Use them wisely!

I like the idea of flanking. But giving away so many advantages at once sounds unbalanced (bounded accuracy makes it even worse - now your 5th level fighter has no chance against a bunch of kobolds). Also, if I to mess around with those cool flanking rules, I would still be playing 4e, right? To be honest, I don't even use a grid.

I also like the idea of facing. It just makes sense to me. But it is all a bit too fiddly. Also, if I wanted those nifty facing rules, I would still be playing 3e, right?

Who am I fooling, I don't even use miniatures in most of my games...

But - wait! What if flanking IS facing?

Wayne Reynolds, Copyright Paizo.
Try this:

If a character gets surrounded by two or more assailants, the assailants can divide themselves in two groups in order to flank/back-stab the character. The character chooses which group to face. The other group has advantage when attacking the character. The number of assailants that can attack a creature at once is limited by their size, position (no backstabbing people who have their backs to a wall), and the length of their weapons.

No need for minis, grids, "drawing diagonal lines" or more than one paragraph, really. Giving advantage to only half the attackers makes things a lot more balanced, and letting the victim choose is even better. And flanking becomes a bit more interesting because it now involves some tactical choice: do you give advantage to the big boss or all his annoying minions?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Wendigo

Just finished reading The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood. I can't exactly remember why I downloaded it, but I'm glad I did. This is awesome stuff. There is little point in reviewing a short, public domain book that is over a century old. Just go read this thing.

Or scroll down for the monster already!

But if you want my opinion, Blackwood succeeds in creating a marvelous atmosphere out of the somewhat predictable plot (well, it is predictable nowadays) of  four hunters entering the uncivilized lands in search of moose but finding... something else.

Blackwood's prose compares favorably to Lovecraft's, in my opinion, and although this monster is less alien and incomprehensible than the Mythos' deities, the author nevertheless manages to put an exotic spin on it, using the Wendigo as the representation of men's natural impulse to go back tot he wilderness, which gets called out by a character:

"The legend is picturesque enough," observed the doctor after one of the longer pauses, speaking to break it rather than because he had anything to say, "for the Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction."[...]"for the Voice, they say, resembles all the minor sounds of the Bush—wind, falling water, cries of the animals, and so forth. And, once the victim hears that—he's off for good, of course! His most vulnerable points, moreover, are said to be the feet and the eyes; the feet, you see, for the lust of wandering, and the eyes for the lust of beauty. The poor beggar goes at such a dreadful speed that he bleeds beneath the eyes, and his feet burn."

But the monster is not only a metaphor, as the hunters will soon find out, although it never becomes one hundred percent "real", either, even as characters disappear or fly through the sky. Witnesses are unreliable (it is no coincidence that the main victim is described in the first chapter as  "deeply susceptible [....] to that singular spell which the wilderness lays upon certain lonely natures"), smells are faint, mutation is quickly covered by a blanket, traces disappear in the snow, a doctor mentions suspects of collective hallucinations, etc. The monster is never fully seem or described.

The Wendigo stays in a dark  zone between reality and wilderness-induced madness, between prehistoric beast and forgotten superstition:

Something that had survived somehow the advance of humanity had emerged terrifically, betraying a scale of life still monstrous and immature. He envisaged it rather as a glimpse into prehistoric ages, when superstitions, gigantic and uncouth, still oppressed the hearts of men; when the forces of nature were still untamed, the Powers that may have haunted a primeval universe not yet withdrawn. To this day he thinks of what he termed years later in a sermon "savage and formidable Potencies lurking behind the souls of men, not evil perhaps in themselves, yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists.

The Wendigo of this story is not a threat to the body, but to the mind and soul. Which is why I think this cover (by Matt Fox) is better than most depictions of the Wendigo that you can find online, as it shows the monster as something more than a dangerous beast:


In short, if you like Lovecraft, chances are you'll love this story; it certainly feels like a precursor of the monster as an unimaginable horror that cannot be fully understood by the human mind without risking insanity. But don't take my word for it:

Less intense than Mr. Machen in delineating the extremes of stark fear, yet infinitely more closely wedded to the idea of an unreal world constantly pressing upon ours, is the inspired and prolific Algernon Blackwood, amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age. Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision. Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere; and can evoke what amounts almost to a story from a simple fragment of humourless psychological description. Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination.
[...]
Another amazingly potent though less artistically finished tale is “The Wendigo”, where we are confronted by horrible evidences of a vast forest daemon about which North Woods lumbermen whisper at evening. The manner in which certain footprints tell certain unbelievable things is really a marked triumph in craftsmanship.
- H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

Frank Victoria-  source.
If you came here looking for a 5e D&D monster, here are some ideas.

We will call it "Wendigo, Blackwood", because, frankly, its too good to pass, but you can call it "Wendigo, Burning Feet" if you prefer (and you can keep the "traditional" Wendigo in your world too). There is no need for stats - you can find some online easily, or come up with your own. What this story has to offer is a different view on the Wendigo, one that doesn't rely on cannibalism and the taboos that surround it (if you want to read about cannibalism and devouring spirits, try this awesome post), but on guerrilla tactics and "the call of the wild", that may have powers such as this:

Call of the Wild. The Wendigo is more enticing than scary. It lures lost travelers not to eat them, but to transform them in companions. A victim that sees the Wendigo up close (100 feet) or feels its curious scent must make a Wisdom saving throw or be charmed, following the Wendigo wherever he goes.

Burning feet. The Wendigo is increasingly fast for its size (speed 80 feet), and not only on the ground - it can jump or fly through great distances (fly speed 40 feet). Victims that fall under its spell gain the same ability, although it hurts their feet so much that they constantly cry and complain about the pain. These agonizing cries will cause fear to everyone nearby (unless they save against fear), discouraging allies to go looking for the victim.

The creature's strategy is enticing a single victim and running away, which can cause obvious problems to the party. Once the victim follows the Wendigo beyond sight, it enters a battle of will against the call of the wild. Use the three strikes rule, with a new save every day. The victim has advantage if its allies manage to tie him down or remind him of the upsides of going back home, but people who come in contact with such a cursed person must also make a saving throw with advantage.

Every successful save allows the victim to spend a day running back for his allies (the Wendigo will not follow at this point), while every failed save (including the first one) causes 1d3 levels of exhaustion (one level with a successful Constitution save), but without affecting speed. The process is not over until the victim manages to break free and go back to normal (three success), becomes a Wendigo (three failures), or dies of exhaustion.

By this point you must have realized that having a cursed victim in your camp is almost as bad as facing the creature itself!

By the way, the Wendigo will only fight in some rare circumstances (cornered, attacked in its lair, unable to move, incapable of enticing anyone in the party, etc.). It is big, strong, and has several immunities and resistances (cold, fire, necrotic, charm, etc). The most effective way of fighting it might be hacking it to pieces, for a change. Good luck with that!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers - Early Release

Disclaimer: when the author asked in a forum for a review of his "Dark Souls and Kingdom Death inspired game", I got curious (since I'm writing a dark fantasy RPG myself, which I call Days of the Damned) and offered to write one. The game is currently PWIW, so he didn't send me a review copy.

Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers (NmotDD) is a dark fantasy RPG written and illustrated by James Vail. It is a admittedly work in progress - it was update at least once since I've checked - so it might be a bit unfair to review it like it is complete. Still, I can only review the book as it is now, so I'll tell you where it feels unfinished, even though you should keep in mind that this is partially by design.

You can find the games' website here, or buy it in DTRPG.

Be aware that the book contains "mature" themes, which I'll describe below.


The book

The whole book is illustrated by the author in a style that is very similar to the cover - dark B&W art with some digital aspects. I found it pleasing and very appropriate to the subject. Basically, if you liked the cover, you'll find this to be a good looking book.

The layout is chaotic - the book changes spacing, number of columns, and alignment for no apparent reason in different chapters. It doesn't interfere with readability, but it looks bad. Other than that, the book has a good table of contents and is sufficiently well organized.

The setting

Remember my last review? Where I mentioned Alpha Blue was more funny than shocking, and not really gory? Well, NmotDD is quite the opposite: it is dark, bleak, and not much humor - which seems to be the idea. I like this treatment; while I enjoy humor in some games, a few mainstream RPGs seem to add irony to everything for no good reason. Being dead serious creates a nice change of pace.

The first section of the book (appropriated called "Fragmented Lore") is a list of small pieces of fluff that contain children sacrifices, pregnancy horror, torture, slavery, sexual violence, gore, and so on. The writing is not bad - it does a good job of highlighting some aspects of the setting (for example, it goes full gonzo with multiple planes and strange technology while still keeping a serious tone) - and the pieces are short enough that they don't become boring, but it does seem gratuitous to show this stuff all at once.

The setting is further explained in Chapter 8. "This is a bleak world of greyscale desolation" sums it up quite well. The world is shaped by slumbering alchemists/architects that can alter reality with their twisted dark dreams and are in constant war with one another. Killing them releases a dark energy that makes pulls pieces of other realities and makes things worse, which seems like an interesting source of complications but might make a fight against them a bit pointless.

There is an adventure in the end that really resembles Dark Souls, where the players start naked in a labyrinth and must find a way out though (too) many puzzles and adversaries. Curiously enough, this is in many ways a "fun-house" adventure, in which things attack you for no apparent reason (well, other than the fact that you're traversing a world of surreal horror, obviously), the doors have riddles written in them, etc. As the adventure ends, the characters must face the outside world... and find ways to survive in it.

The setting maintains a good balance between classics like Dark Sun or Ravenloft and something really extreme like Black Sun Deathcrawl, where everything is doomed and everyone is going to die regardless of your efforts. It actually fits the bleakness of the Dark Souls universe without being unplayable or too depressing, and it scores a few originality point for relying on psychology and surrealism instead of the stuff we usually see in most horror RPGs (Gothic, Tolkien, Lovecraft, religion, etc.). It is a fine background for dark, weird adventures.


The system

The system is quite simple: roll one or more d10s, pick the highest, and add your skill rank (1 to 5) to the total. 10 or more means a complete success, with partial success and disasters relying on your Stress level (which raises with various efforts and diminishes with rest and relaxation). Skills are created by the player, with a clever mechanic: you don't raise skills, but get more specific skills that are higher than the broader ones. A rank 5 skills would be extremely specific.

Characters also have Doom Points, "the character’s unseen death clock". You have a minimum of 10 doom points and (basically) must roll under this score with a d100 whenever you risk death... which happens often.

Combat follows a similar pattern, but it adds too much detail and some strange characteristics. Players can choose which body part to attack (although the effect is apparently the same) but NPCs roll randomly, which seems like a huge disadvantage for them. They also can hit the hand instead of the arm, for example, but the hand, unlike the arm, has no separate injuries, so it isn't really clear how this works.

Character advancement is messy. You spend XP to gain OR lose skills and "psychic anomalies", which are double-edged qualities (unlike the beneficial "aberrant traits" that you can take at character creation in exchange for some permanent wounds if you choose to be an aberration). I cannot say I appreciate this system, although I can see the point; the game is more about danger and despair than character optimization.

The system has "modern" sensibilities; mechanics are "unified" and most rules are intended to deliver an specific experience: seeing your doom points increase until you die. Nothing is easy here: you must find food and water everyday, build your own weapons and shelter, deal with permanent injuries and hemorrhage, explore an unknown and uncaring universe, track encumbrance, take stress to light fires, etc. And things get harder as you go.

These craft/explore/survive mechanics are the coolest part of the book, in my opinion. Although a bit complex and fiddly for my tastes, they seem to create very interesting challenges if you take them seriously, in a way that reminds me of the popular web-based game A Dark Room. This is stuff you don't often see in modern RPGs.

Tables, Magick, and GM advice

In addition to system and setting, the book is filled with tables and lists for creating characters, places, cultures, monsters, equipment, etc. These are also quite good, and you can use most of them for your dark fantasy games even if you are playing a different game. Specially worth of mention is the creature creation part; I cannot resist giving you an example:

Form: Serpentine 
Movement: Swim/Burrow 
Flesh: Slimy
Aberration: Wings 
Head: Ragged Teeth
Damage Delivery: Constrict
Optional Special Ability: Undead/skeletal: Vital body parts are no longer vital. Can't be killed, must be destroyed.

Cool stuff, right? Or try the weird objects, where you can get things such as a Vomiting Tree made of mud, with eyes and electrical surges. I feel compelled to mention my own book contains lots of tables that are similar to these (here is one small example), so I might be naturally inclined to like this kind of stuff, but I think some of these charts are really good.

The Magick chapter, while seemingly novel and flavorful, has two pages and seems half-baked - or completely free-form. I hope it gets expanded in the future while maintaining some of the simplicity of the games' skill system.

The GM advice is sensible and solid. All the good stuff is here: listen to your players, roll only when needed, etc. It also has some useful advice that is specific to this particular game.

In conclusion

Nightmares of the Dead Dreamers is, at this point, an interesting promise. It doesn't seem quite finished or, honestly, entirely playable right now, but what we have is intriguing enough that it come become a very interesting game in the future. Since you can download the game from free (or pay what you want), it is worth checking out if you're interested in indie dark fantasy games at all.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Does D&D require miniatures? (3e versus 4e versus 5e)

This is another internet discussion that I've decide to turn into a post (here is the last one). Since it has come up again and again, it may interest other people.

Case in point: does D&D require miniatures?

Well, in practice, you already know the answer: NO, it doesn't. After all, it is your game, and you can play it any way you want to. It's been that way from the beginning; supposedly, Gygax himself didn't use minis, but Arneson did. It is all up to you. Heck, I have even played without dice at one time or another. On the other hand, I cannot honestly say that D&D is MEANT to be played without dice. What about minis?

Personally, I love miniatures and, even though I don't often use them in my games, I think they are quite fun when I do. Unfortunately, 4e (among other editions) got so much flak for being heavily grid-based when it was released that you can hardly talk about the subject without being accused of edition-warring.

Hopefully, the reader will know where I'm coming from. I enjoy analyzing different versions of D&D but also finding stuff from every edition to use in my games (and yes, that certainly includes 4e).

This is what a cone REALLY looks like! Source.
I say that because last time I linked to this post where I said (albeit passingly): "Remember, in 4e you moved "X squares" per round and miniatures where mandatory, RAW", I was immediately accused of taking a swing at 4e for no reason, because 4e explicitly says miniatures are optional (unlike 3e, for example). Other people said that 5e ALSO requires miniatures because everything is divided in 5-foot segments (which, supposedly, is the exact same thing as squares, albeit with a different unit) so pointing this difference between 4e and 5e was undoubtedly a sign of 4e-hate.

Go figure.

In any case, I've decided to check. Here it goes, straight from the horse's mouth:

  • The 3.5 PHB does mention minis and grids among the things "you need to play".
  • The 4e PHB, on the other hand, explicitly says minis and grids are useful, but not necessary.
  • The 5e PHB says lists "playing on a grid", with "miniatures or other tokens", is a variant (i.e, an optional rule).

Yup, that is all folks, now we can all go home.

HOWEVER...

In my opinion, this is a case of "show, don't tell". The 4e PHB TELLS you minis aren't needed, but what does it show? The first mention of miniatures says (emphasis mine in all quotations but the "position is everything" expression, below):

"While the D&D game uses dice and miniatures, the action takes place in your imagination" 

Then we get to page 9 and indeed miniatures are indeed only "useful", but:

"Each player needs a miniature to represent his or her character, and the DM needs minis for monsters";
"Combat in D&D plays out on a grid of 1-inch squares".

In seems that it could go either way... until we get to the combat chapter:

When a combat encounter starts, it’s time to turn your attention to the battle grid. The combat rules assume that you use D&D Dungeon Tiles, a poster map, a gridded white board, or an erasable, gridded mat to show the area where a battle takes place. The rules also assume that you use D&D Miniatures to represent the adventurers and the enemies they face.
A combat encounter can be played without such visual representations, but there are good reasons to use them.
* Position is everything. With a battle grid, you can easily determine whether your character can see a monster, whether the monster has cover, and whether you flank the monster.
[...]

Source
That is not all. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and 4e is full of pictures of minis and grids. Every explanation about combat (flanking, line of sight, blast, burst, etc.) is tied to the grid in ways that could hardly make sense without it. See the definition of wall, for one:

Wall: A wall fills a specified number of contiguous squares within range, starting from an origin square. Each square of the wall must share a side—not just a corner—with at least one other square of the wall, but a square can share no more than two sides with other squares in the wall (this limitation does not apply when stacking squares on top of each other). You can shape the wall however you like within those limitations. A solid wall, such as a wall of ice, cannot be created in occupied squares.

5e, on the other hand, gives you precious little tools to play around with a grid. You have 5-foot increments to make it easier, but these would work with hexes, rulers, or anything else. Flanking is optional. Pictures of minis and grids can be found in the DMG, but they are side by side with pictures of hexes and rules for adjudicating areas of effect without minis.

The designers of 5e made clear that miniatures are optional, not only by saying they are, but specially by not assuming minis and grids while describing combat. Show, don't tell. You can argue that they haven't succeeded (well, I think they have, but IMMV), but you can hardly say the book assumes miniatures are required, specially when comparing it to 4e and Pathfinder.

In short, while it is certainly possible to play 4e without minis, the fact that many people assume 4e uses miniatures is not a coincidence.

But what about 3e?

I cannot pretend to be an expert on 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder. It has been a while since I've played and, to be honest, I thought D&D was needlessly complicated at the time (and I was playing GURPS! Honestly!).

But - 3.5e clearly say minis are mandatory. Not only that, the combat examples are explicitly modeled around a grid, with plenty of top-down pictures of minis. How come so many people were displeased with 4e for requiring minis at the time?

Source.
I am not quite sure. I would surely appreciate some input from 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder players about the subject! But let me offer you a hunch.

I think 3e, like 5e, was designed to let you decide if you want to use minis or not, but while 5e makes minis optional, 3e makes NOT using then an optional rule.

Don't take my word for it; see what Monte Cook has to say about the subject:

However, I've certainly gamed a lot more in my life without miniatures than with them. It was one of my goals in designing 3rd Edition to make it playable without miniatures.
However, I've seen many people say that it's not possible. Even, apparently, the people working on the new revision of D&D. 

So 3.5/Pathfinder is probably more aimed at grids than 3.0. Again, I'm really no expert. Still, there seems to be some important differences between 3e and 4e.

Look at the Pathfinder rules for minis and grids:

You can count diagonally across a square, but remember that every second diagonal counts as 2 squares of distance. If the far edge of a square is within the spell’s area, anything within that square is within the spell’s area. If the spell’s area only touches the near edge of a square, however, anything within that square is unaffected by the spell.

How does a circle looks in a Pathfinder grid? According to this SRD, it looks like this:

Or this:


Yeah, okay, these aren't prefect circles... But they are clearly trying to fit the concept of a circle in a square grid. Many people disliked that; one could even say they were quite literally trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. But this made sense for many players - myself included. The fiction indicated a circle - the grid was just an imperfect  tool to portray that.

4e does things in a different way: the grid comes first. Moving across a square field diagonally takes the same time as crossing it from one side to another. A fireball has the shape of a square... or maybe even a CUBE. Here is an interesting post about 4e movement, etc., with lots of cool tricks you can use on a grid. And here is how it illustrates the 4e fireball:

Doesn't look like a circle at all, but it is easier to calculate and faster to draw.

In short, using a grid in 4e is simpler than using one in 3e. But using hexes or grid-less combat probably makes more sense in 3e, and 5e is probably better suited if you're not using minis at all. Remember, though, that you might like any of these editions for completely different reason that have NOTHING to do with minis and grids!

This is not that different from the "tripping gelatinous cubes" question. It is a matter of focus. It is also not black and white, but distinct shades of gray. 3e is focused on grids, 4e is even more, and 5e a lot less.

It is easy to say every aspect of the game is optional, but the assumptions aren't quite the same, and pretending that they are is really not helpful when trying to find the perfect game for your group. Compare 13th Ages's "Combat is dynamic and fluid, so miniatures can’t really represent where a character ‘really is" to 4e's "Position is everything: With a battle grid, you can easily determine whether your character can see a monster, whether the monster has cover, and whether you flank the monster". There is a clear difference.

Some games are made to be played one way or another; how you play them is up to you, but that doesn't change the nature of the rules.

As always, this is a matter of taste. "Always use miniatures" and "never use miniatures" are both valid options, but "use miniatures sometimes" is also a cool choice if that is what you're looking for (I know that I am).

To be honest, I also like hexes, grid-less combat with minis (Warhammer style!) and theater of the mind! Everything goes in my games; it all depends on the situation, really.

Or try this! It works really well!
What about you?  Do you play 3e or 4e without minis? Do you think there is a difference at all? Or do you prefer playing out your combat in a different way? Let me know in the comments!
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