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, 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 creatures (or vice-versa), the creatures 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 creatures that can attack a character 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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