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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review: Alpha Blue

Disclaimer: after reading (and reviewing) Liberation of the Demon Slayer*, and learning that the author (Venger As'Nas Satanis) was looking for reviews of his work, I asked him for a review copy (PDF) of one of his games, and he sent me Alpha Blue*... so that is how I ended with a space-sex-comedy RPG review in this blog.

Let's make some things clear...

Let me save you some time before I start the review: if you dislike dirty jokes, vulgar language, sexual references, comedy RPGs or products that are mostly aimed at a specific niche (mainly, but not exclusively, heterosexual "dudes" that were born around 1970-1980 and will understand most references), this game is probably not for you.

In fact, if you prefer not to read about this stuff, you might want to skip the review; I usually avoid profanity and keep things PG-13 around here (IMO), but that might prove difficult for this product.

With that said, Alpha Blue is not particularly explicit or gory; it is not really "shocking" to most people (your mileage may vary, of course; it does contain one or two references to sexual assault, and at least one mention of necrophilia and bestiality in a random table), because it never takes itself too seriously.

"Shock for shock's sake" is not really the point of the module - everything seems aimed for maximum fun, instead, although the humor might not hit the spot 100% of the time. I've seen a lot worse in terms of sex and violence in RPGs, even some pretty mainstream ones.

This is mostly rated-R stuff; something on the level of Barbarella, the Heavy Metal flicks (or the Metal Hurlant Chronicles TV-series, maybe even the comics), Kung Fury or American Pie. Yes, it does contain some references for "unconventional" sex acts, but so do some of, say, Kevin Smith's movies.

If this sounds interesting to you, read on.

What is Alpha Blue? And what is it good for?

Alpha Blue is, mostly, a space brothel. Well, it is also some other stuff. Basic, a independent space station that roams around offering not only sex (by specialized working girls) but also drugs, weapons gambling and other amenities. This book contains a setting and a system geared towards space-sex-comedy gaming, with lots of random tables.

Alpha Blue is a comedy RPG, and for a specific type of comedy, one you would find in Spaceballs and sex comedies from the 70's and 80's. I had never heard of The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue, a porn movie from 1980 that seems to be the main inspiration; in any case, the absurdity of porno plotlines seems to be more important than their explicitness. Interestingly enough, Alpha Blue hints at some deeper "philosophical questions" in the campaign advice, but, like in those movies, philosophy is not really the focus.

This means Alpha Blue plays to a very restricted audience; sci-fi RPGs are small when compared to fantasy ones, and comedy RPGs are even rarer. Sex comedy sci-fi RPGs? That is a first for me.

Nevertheless, I can see some "mainstream" uses for Alpha Blue. Mostly, it can be used for running a raunchy Paranoia campaign or a space-DCC sexy funnel (that sounds strange...). In fact, Paranoia seem like a perfect fit, since Alpha Blue is ruled by an insane computer with severe mood swings, and PCs are pretty easy to create... and replace.

It is also fair to say that you can use Alpha Blues without the sexy bits to generate a gonzo space-comedy game. While that would make about half the book unusable, the remaining half is certainly worthwhile.

The book

Alpha Blue is a looker. The cover, art and typography are all high quality and, most important, establish the mood that the author is apparently shooting for. Everything looks good if not always impressive. The PDF has 114 B&W pages, including 4 white pages for notes. The maps are specially nice, but unfortunately not very useful, since they are schematics with no references to locations, function, etc., as you can see below.

The organization is a lot better than Liberation of the Demon Slayer; with a decent table of contents and few self-explanatory chapters referencing the system, characters, setting, adventure seeds, GM advice, etc. It is still a somewhat "chaotic" book, and the author goes full "stream of consciousness" from time to time and follows no apparent order within some sections, but overall is a well-organized PDF and very easy to use.

The system

Alpha Blue contains its own RPG system. It is very simple doesn't feel quite complete (the author includes some conversion notes to OSR stuff, which seem good enough too), but it works surprisingly well. Basically, you roll one or more d6s and use only the best result, ranging from "No, and..." (a critical failure) on a 1 to "Yes, and..." (a critical success) on a 6.

I really like this choice, to be honest. You can always use another system if you want more detail, but Alpha Blue, unlike many RPG books, focus only on what is important to the genre and wastes no time in useless details.

What DOES Alpha Blue detail? Everything that is relevant to the game: occupations, mutations, aliens, sexual fantasies (women are enticing to most men and women in the book, with "men" being a fetish), fashion, and so on. It does so through a series of random table, which seems like a good choice for this type of game.

Rolling a character is really tempting, so let's try:

Name: Dask Jorana.
Career: Pirate. 
Wanted Man? You've been careful and law enforcement is ignorant of your plans… for now.
Mutation: Ice touch: freezing temperatures transferred by physical contact.
Prior experiences: The first time you visited an alien planet ... You stowed away on a mercenary starship ... Sadly, you were shoved into a pool of molten acid lava. Banzai, buckaroo! [33% chance of death]
Fashion: Orange sunburst leather sexy space pajamas.
Weapon: Warp Hammer.
Fetish: Exhibitionism.

...And so on. As you can see, creating a colorful character is quick and easy, which is a good thing since you can die on chargen. And you're not really safe after chargen, either.

The setting

Alpha Blue describes both the space station and the universe surrounding it. As far as settings go, Alpha Blue is quite complete: warring factions with different goals, multiple motives for interacting with the ship, interesting NPCs, treasure, intrigue, etc.

It has many, many references to classic sci-fi, old movies, current mainstream media, hard rock songs, Venger's other books, and so on, which is not a bad thing provided you can get at least a few of those references.

It is not all about amusing the reader, though. Alpha Blue does seem to strike a good balance between usability and humor.

In conclusion

Alpha blue is good looking, well organized, well written and packs plenty of interesting content. On the other hand, it is certainly not for everybody. If the premise interests you, I would recommend checking it out.

* By purchasing stuff through affiliate links you're helping to support this blog.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Margin of success and crits in D&D 5e

Forget about combat for a second; this will be about critical success and failure when rolling ability checks and saving throws (if you want to read what I think about crits in combat, try this post). Specially, it complements my last post in a way.

Paga 242 of the DMG has some interesting rules about the subject (emphasis mine):

Sometimes a failed ability check has different consequences depending on the degree of failure. For example, a character who fails to disarm a trapped chest might accidentally spring the trap if the check fails by 5 or more, whereas a lesser failure means that the trap wasn't triggered during the botched disarm attempt. [...]

Rolling a 20 or a 1 on an ability check or a saving throw doesn't normally have any special effect. However, you can choose to take such an exceptional roll into account when adjudicating the outcome. [...] For example, rolling a 1 on a failed attempt to pick a lock might break the thieves' tools being used [...].

As you can see, this rules are very free-form and a bit odd. Both rules deal with the same subject, but it isn't clear how they interact with each other. Maybe a natural 1 is worse than failing by 5 or more, which is strange since someone can be unable to fail by 5 or more (if your skill is high enough and the DC low enough) and still roll a natural 1. Or maybe they are just different things. Trying to open a trapped chest? Well, you can break your thieves' tools, spring the trap, both, or none.

Also, there seems to be no "degrees of success" rule, just "degrees of failure", which seems a tad unfair (well, unless you see this section as a way of giving a "second chance" after a failure, which might be the point). Of course we can apply a similar reasoning to both situations... but that causes another strange effect.

See, now MOST rolls (55% to be exact) are either greater successes or greater failures. "Ordinary" results become the exception. If you need to roll 14 or more to succeed, anything lower than 10 is a greater failure and anything over 18 is a great success.

The way I see it, most result should be ordinary, with a few criticals now and then. Now only because it makes sense, but also because coming up with "special" successes and failures get old fast... and they're not so special if they come up every time.

Fumbles should be rare
My easy fix: an exceptional success or failure only comes up if you beat or miss the DC by 10 or more. Yes, this means that if you're good enough you cannot fumble, and if you're bad enough you cannot crit - but if you want this possibility, you can still use natural 1s and 20s in this way (or even "confirm criticals" if you want; I hate this mechanic for combat, but it works fine for skills).

Simpler, faster, easier to calculate, makes more sense.

It also fixes my problem with the medusa of the last post - a miss by 10 or more means you fail AND must save again immediately. So there is still a chance of immediate petrification, but it will be rare and mostly reserved for weaker character.

Same thing for skill contests - succeed by 10 or more and you get an immediate roll "for free" against your opponent, and vice-versa (if you're rolling against yourself, get a "free shot" to get another success that doesn't count as a failure if you roll badly). Works for grappling too.

There is plenty of other ways to play around with this. For example, it might make rolls that are too easy or automatic successes have some meaning - of course you'll succeed, now you're rolling to see how awesome you look while doing it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The three-strikes rule - grappling, dying, skill contests and medusae

The three-strikes rule means: fail three times, and you're dead. Or at least out of the game.

By the way, I'll use 5e D&D as a starting point, but you can apply it to most RPGs, really. I've seem something similar in various games (specially in 4e D&D, but Mutants & Masterminds and Dungeon Grappling also come to mind) and I've been playing the idea of creating a similar method for 5e for a while, even before I wrote this article in September 2016 (which I'll quote extensively and without quotation marks in this one). The idea of a "rule of three" appears again and again on this blog for reasons I cannot fathom (I once tried a "rule of four" for encumbrance only to discover a rule of three would work better in every possible way). And as it often happens, my own RPG, Days of the Damned, also uses something similar.

As you all know, in 5e, if you fail three death saving throws, you're dead. Not that I love this rule as it is written - in fact, I prefer my own version (or something even harsher) -  but the idea behind it has a number of interesting uses, specially if failing three times can cause you different problems instead of just death - say, petrification, immobilization, unconsciousness, and so on.

Here is how it goes.

Something bad happens and you make a saving throw. If it happens again, you roll once again, but the more you fail, the worse it gets. Fail three times and the game is over.

Fail your saving throw once, and you suffer some minor adversity. Maybe you suffer the “grappled” condition, get knocked prone, pushed 5 feet away, disarmed, dismounted, momentarily blinded, etc. You can recover as easily as getting up from being prone. This means most conditions inflicted upon the target (blinded, frightened, etc.) should go away with little to no effort by the beginning of the target’s next turn (or the end, if it’s something that ONLY affects the target in its own turn).

Examples: sand gets in your eyes, you fall, get stunned for a moment, slowed, etc.

Fail your saving throw twice, and you suffer some major adversity. Maybe a worse condition (Restrained, for example), something that causes you increasing damage over time, or a more extreme version of a minor adversity (falling 20 feet away, disarmed and prone). "Disadvantage for every check" is a nice way to put it. The difference is that this adversity sticks until you do something about it, which means not only spending an entire action but also succeeding in a roll of some kind. If this causes damage instead of conditions, it would take away about half your HP.

Examples: you're caught in a giant spider's web, poisoned, on fire, etc.

Fail your saving throw three times, and you're defeated. Petrified, unconscious, Incapacitated, pinned, helpless, asleep, 0 HP, etc.

As you can see, this is just a three-tiered classification of conditions, with infinite uses. Here are some examples:

Grappling - again, Dungeon Grappling , mentioned above, got you covered. If you want something simpler, try using the progression suggested above with the Grappled / Restrained / Stunned conditions. You can use ability checks instead of saving throws, exactly like the PHB recommends.

Skill contests - this "rolling three times" thing is ideal for skill contests because... probabilities. Ignore conditions, just roll the dice for both sides to see who gets three successes first. Just rolling 1d20 doesn't work; but this method, combined with some suggestions from the near future (i.e., next post), will make the wizard with a +5 bonus from Intelligence beat the stupid fighter in chess more than 90% of the time - like the fighter does when he gets into a fist fight against a puny scholar!

You can use the same method for chases and other contests that might take more than a moment. In fact, it doesn't have to be a contest - the same "three successes before three failures" you use for death saving throws will work here, too.

Medusae - for a good implementation of this rule, take a look at 4e's medusa. First, you get slowed, then immobilized, then petrified. 5e´s medusa is similar, but the progression is quicker, which is a bad thing IMO - one bad roll and the character is immediately petrified (even a level 10 PC may have 45% chance to be immediately petrified, for example). Fortunately, it only works within 30 feet.

The main purpose of the thee-strikes rule is to avoid such "save or suck" situations in which a bad roll can destroy the character without giving him any choice. If a PC fails the first save, well, he can always chance tactics or run away - or fight to the bitter end, on purpose, not by accident!

But there are another reasons - rolling three times is a lot more reliable than rolling once, which is why we don't usually let one single roll end most combats. Of course, the "save or die" mechanic has its fans, but this might be a reasonable alternative if you want to give you players less than 5% chance of immediate death.

But what if you still want SOME chance of immediate death? Stay tuned...

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Tripping Oozes in D&D (3e versus 4e versus 5e)

A few days ago, someone asked what was the difference between 4e and 5e in an internet forum.

I tried to explain that I liked 5e over 4e because 4e felt too "dissociated" for my style of play, for the lack of a better term. Although I didn't remember the exact mechanics, I felt like 4e (unlike 5e) was a game you could trip a gelatinous cube to make it fall prone. Probably not very helpful, I know.

Fortunately, another user was kind enough  to unearth the exact quote in both 3.5e's and 4e's FAQs:

3.5e FAQ

Things that don’t need limbs for locomotion can’t be tripped. You can’t trip a snake, a beholder, or a gelatinous cube. You won’t find this in the rules, but then it really doesn’t need to be in there—the rules can leave some things to the DM’s common sense.

4e FAQ

Can a gelatinous cube be knocked prone? In situations like this, DMs are encouraged to change the flavor of what is happening without changing the actual rules governing the situation. For example, the ooze could be so disoriented by the blow that it suffers the same disadvantages as if it had been knocked prone until it spends a move action to stand up effectively shaking off the condition.

(Here is the source he mentioned, BTW)

Those little snippets, for some reason, encapsulate the main philosophical difference between 3e and 4e for me. It is no coincidence that the first snippet encourages the DM to use common sense while the second advises against changing the actual rules. This is NOT to say 4e doesn't use common sense, but to highlight the differences between the two approaches.

Art by Jean-Francois Beaulieu - source
I like to play D&D the first way: when the players face a challenge, they describe their actions, and then we find the appropriate mechanic to portray that, using common sense.

DM: There is a gelatinous cube in the middle of the room!
Player: I hurl a spear at it!
DM: Roll 1d20+BAB against AC 25!
Player: I hit! 15 damage! 
DM: Your spear hits, but barely hurts the creature....

4e, like some other modern RPGs, does things in a different way: when you face a challenge, you find the appropriate mechanic to deal with it, and then you describe the actions in the fictional world that portray the mechanic being used.

DM: There is a gelatinous cube in the middle of the room!
Player: I use my "tripping attack" power"!
DM: Roll 1d20+BAB against AC 25!
Player: I hit! The cube is knocked prone!
DM: The gelatinous cube is stunned from your attack, so it suffers effects similar to the prone mechanic until it gets the opportunity to shake it off.

The difference is not so much the use of language or even mentioning the name of the power, but the ORDER in which things happen (mechanics then fiction). In 4e, you often deal with challenges using specific game mechanics. You can use the equivalent of "trip attack" on a beholder because there are mechanics for it; if the fiction doesn't allow the beholder to fall prone, you change the fiction.

Most traditional RPGs tend do the opposite: if the fiction doesn't allow the beholder to fall prone, you don't get to use the mechanics for falling prone in the first place. Fiction forces you to change the mechanic.

Of course, things are not black and white. EVERY RPG might include some "mechanics take precedence over fiction" bits. In every edition of D&D, for example, you can have a situation like "Critical hit! You hit him in the middle of the face with your spear! You cause... uh... 5 HP of damage". Which might mean you shouldn't describe the results of a hit until resolving ALL the mechanics (including damage, inspiration, etc) but I digress...

In any case, there are clearly distinguishable shades of gray. Dungeon World, for example, explicitly advises the players against mentioning mechanics when describing heir actions - ever tried to play 4e without mentioning which power you're using?

Nobody is saying you cannot forbid your 4e players from using their tripping attacks against a gelatinous cube, or allow it in 3e. You're the DM, do what you want, as long as everybody is in the same page. But what these FAQs show is that the games are designed around certain mindsets, which can make them more favorable to one method of play over another.

There is no "better or worse", obviously. This goes without saying but I'll say it anyway. Every edition has its fans and followers, every method can be useful for some people in some situations. There is a good point in saying that fighter and rogues will be frustrated if their powers don't work against a large percentage of the enemies they face (no tripping oozes, no sneak attack on undead, etc).

But what about 5e? Well, you definitely cannot trip oozes in 5e, since they are immune to the "prone" condition. That question is, are you unable to trip them because it wouldn't make much sense, or because the mechanics say you can't? Which one comes first? Can you trip a snake, for example? As usual, I'll say that I think 5e is a middle of the road edition, so opinions will vary.

My own opinion - since I haven't found a similar FAQ entry for 5e -  is that you should err in the side of common sense over mechanics. The whole concept of "natural language" (wether you like it or not) leads to this conclusion - 5e seems to prefer changing the rules to match the fiction than the other way around. But it makes sense that some people will think otherwise ("the snake has no immunity against being prone, so I'll trip it!"), and the fact that 5e uses explicit mechanics instead of common sense in this matter supports that theory.

The best way to avoid such discussions in your table is adopting your own FAQ so people know where you stand. Who knows, maybe one day "I allow tripping oozes in my table" becomes an easy shortcut to explain your favorite play-style!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Single-digit Monsters for 5e D&D (Quick monster creation)

The 5e DM's Guide has a section for "quick monster stats" (page 274). I don't use it often, but, for the purposes of this post, I will assume it works as intended. The guidelines in the DMG are good, but I think something simpler might be useful.

As you might guess, I prefer Single-digit Monsters to charts. I also like simple math formulas, as long as they are easy to use and remember (there are few number you have to remember here, other than the number 3). 

How would that work in 5e? 

The DM's Guide gives you the numbers, but not the formula. Fortunately, it is not hard to find a few patterns. The results are very, very close to the actual table, but if your monster doesn't match this exact numbers, remember that the DMG tells you not to worry about this a bazillion times.

So here is a generic stat block, and some explanations to go with it.

The Generic Stat Block (CR 1-20)

AC: 13 + CR/3* (maximum 19)
Save DC: 13 + CR/3.
HP: 15 x (CR+4)
Attack bonus / skills: 3 + CR/3**.
Damage: 1d10 + 1d10*CR (for melee attacks).
# attacks: 1 + CR/6 (total damage is unaffected).
*Always round down.
** Alternatively, 4 + CR/3 if CR>3.

Click HERE for the PDF.
Explaining the stat block

AC, Attack bonus, STs, Good skills and Save DCs: magic number THREE

Start with +3 to attack bonus, skills, saves, etc., and 13 to AC and Save DCs.

Add one third of CR on top of that (round DOWN). Maximum AC is 19.

If you want to be really faithful to the DMG's table, you should add +1 attack bonus for CRs greater than 3 ("adjusted" column).

The same number you use for attack bonuses can be used for everything the creature should be good at; some skills, a couple of saving throws, etc. You can use a Fortitude / Reflex / Will mindset for that if you want, or just use common sense,

The table below is for comparison only; the whole idea is that you shouldn't need a table in the first place.

AC/Save DC*Attack Bonus, skills**, etc


< 11313333































*Maximum AC is 19. Otherwise, the difference between AC/DC is negligible.
** 5e has no formula for skills.

Weak skills (CR/5)

In 5e, a powerful PCs and monsters might have NO  bonuses when dealing with their weak spots. A level 20 Fighter might have a +0 bonus to Intelligence saves or Nature checks, for example. On the other hand, as the number of class features, ability scores improvements and feats increase, the character has a greater chance of having SOME way of dealing with these dangers.

There are no easy solution for this. Of course, weak skills and saves should be weaker than strong skills and saves. Dividing the CR by FIVE seems to put thing in the right ballpark for me, but eyeballing it might be just as good.

Damage output: the rule of SIX, and playing around with d10s

As you can see in the DMG's table, from CR 1 to 20 monster's get +6 damage per CR. Starting damage is also close to 6. Average damage, therefore, is close to 6+(6xCR).

This makes it easy to play around with dice. You can start with 1d10 plus 1d10 times CR. 1d12 would work too, but 1d10 gives me more wiggle room. Then you change the size of the dice for special attacks.

For example, let us say we have start with a CR 5 monster - 6d10 damage per round. If the attack affects two or three nearby targets at once, use 6d6 instead. A ranged attack might cause 6d6 damage, and so on. Use the 6d12 for a special attack such as a breath weapon that affects multiple characters and causes half damage on a successful save, but has another built-in limitation, such as a 5-6 recharge or 3 uses per day.

Give monsters a number of extra attacks equal to their CR divided by SIX, round down, without adding more damage. For example, a CR 12 monster causes 13d10 damage divide in three different attacks; maybe two 4d10 claws and one 5d10 bite, etc.

Monster HP

Monsters HP is close enough to 15 times (CR+4) that you can also play with this numbers. If the monster has various resistances and immunities, for example, you can reduce its HP to 10x(CR+4). The same applies for high ACs, invisibility, teleportation, and so on. 

Beyond CR 20: another rule of three

For CRs greater than 20, each increase in CR TRIPLES the extra damage and HP. Instead of +6 damage and +15 HP, monsters get something close to +18 damage and +45 HP. But, at this point, it might be easier to just check the table. Also, it is a bit unlikely that one will create a CR 30 monster on the fly...

For CRs lower than one, there is no exact formula, but you can just multiply 120 HP and 16 damage for the CR (i.e,. CR 1/8 has 15 HP and causes 2 points of damage per round) to find something roughly compatible.

Click HERE for the PDF (generic monsters).

UPDATE 2022: Check my book Teratogenicon for updated numbers, 5e and OSR stats, and many ideas to create your own monsters!

Friday, February 03, 2017

I dreamt of a d30 (more skills...)

More writing about D&D and skills? In this blog? I bet you didn't see that comingdid ya?

Anyway, I really woke up thinking about the d30 for some reason. It dawned on me that it might be a perfect replacement for thieves' skills tables. If you like the d30, that is. Granularity, ease of use, weirdness, OSR cred, and B/X compatibility, all rolled into one! Quite literally, too...

Here is how you do it: roll a d30 under ability plus level. A level 8 thief with DEX 14 must roll 22 or less in the d30 to succeed in most skills. Hear noise uses Wisdom (IMHO).

Check this out (assuming a thief with Wisdom 10, Dexterity 13 - sounds reasonable?):

Thief Level BX Hear Noise d30 roll under (10+L) BX Open Locks d30 roll under (13+L)

1 33.33% 36.66% 15.00% 46.66%

2 33.33% 39.99% 20.00% 49.99%

3 50.00% 43.33% 25.00% 53.33%

4 50.00% 46.66% 30.00% 56.66%

5 50.00% 50.00% 35.00% 59.99%

6 50.00% 53.33% 45.00% 63.33%

7 66.66% 56.66% 55.00% 66.66%

8 66.66% 60.00% 65.00% 69.99%

9 66.66% 63.33% 75.00% 73.33%

10 66.66% 66.66% 85.00% 76.66%

11 83.33% 70.00% 95.00% 79.99%

12 83.33% 73.33% 96.00% 83.33%

13 83.33% 76.66% 97.00% 86.66%

14 83.33% 80.00% 99.00% 89.99%

This assumes you're using 3d6 in order to generate abilities. If you're using a 4d6 drop lowest, for example, a thief would probably have higher stats for Dexterity and Wisdom, making things even better. Otherwise, chances at high levels aren't that great... unless you give away more ability points as PCs level up, as I do.

Not that you need another skill system, but what can I say? I just love this stuff.