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

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 retrospective (blogging, publishing and gaming)

It is that time of the year. 2020 is nearly over. It was not the cyberpunk we might have expected (not talking about the videogame, although it might also apply), but maybe some other kind of dystopia. Certainly not the double crit I was hoping for... unless the villains were rolling the dice.

Anyway, I'll focus on blogging, publishing and gaming... because this is what this blog is about.

Blogging

I maintained a decent pace, and I'll finish the year with around 69 posts (wink wink), making 2020 the most productive year in this blog.

I wrote about RPG theory, OSR stuff, Curse of Strahd, 5e house-rules, combat and minimalist D&D. So, I think I did manage to give the readers what they wanted. I'll do the same next year - see below!

Gaming

I finished my Curse of Strahd campaign and started running Tomb of Annihilation online. It's going slow. One PC has fallen and that might have caused some loss of interest. The campaign itself is good but flawed, as it often happens with "official" modules.

My version of D&D 5e is now so house-ruled and minimalist I can barely call it 5e anymore. 

I want to publish the entire thing but I'm not 100% sure how to do that - as a collection of house rules? As an entire system based on the SRD? We shall see.

I might play other games in 2021. Maybe some one-shots, maybe with someone else as the GM...

Playing online might be less enjoyable, but it is very practical. 

Publishing

Some of my 2020 goals were accomplished, some were not. 

The most important thing I published is the Teratogenicon. I really like how it turned out. It is what I wanted it to be - my favorite monster generator.

Also published my first adventure, The Wretched Hive. If you're looking for a short, low-level OSR adventure, check it out! I might add 5e conversion notes down the line, if there is interest.

My most ambitious projects - a Dark Fantasy Cyclopedia and a Minimalist 5e - went nowhere. Mainly because I'm not sure how to separate the two... or if I should separate them at all. Also, see "gaming", above.

What's next?

I'll make a post about my projects for 2021 very soon, and, as always, I'll ask for your suggestions.

Final thoughts for 2020

Here is a classic by Larry Elmore. Like many people, I absolutely love this picture:


A group of adventurers is showing off a slain dragon. They look happy (even if some are still concerned), and you can barely notice the small amount of rusted armor, torn clothes, bruises and scars. I cannot help but to ask myself if the helmet in the ground belongs to one of them... or a fallen fellow.

Their feat seems relatively small. There are certainly bigger dragons out there.

But they have succeeded. They've got the treasure and (what's even better) the XP. More important than all... they fought. And they survived.

More challenges will come... but they will be better prepared to face them.

Anyway.

I hope you have a great 2021!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Chaos Factory EVERYTHING - Christmas sale!

If you bought any of my books, you might receive a similar e-mail through DTRPG - unless you have disabled the option. We e-mail vey rarely, and only to tell you about relevant news and sales - see below.

And if you want to help me out (other than buying my products, of course), all I want for Christmas is that you give some five star reviews to your favorite products from Chaos Factory!

BTW, I'll soon make a post asking what YOU want from this blog in 2021. Stay tuned!

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I'm dropping by to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! A great 2021 to all!

This is our second e-mail - ever! As we promised, our emails will be rare - no more than once a trimester. If you want to hear from us more often, follow Chaos Factory Books on Facebook!

In addition, we are making a holiday sale: the bundle with all RPGs we ever wrote has now 55% discount on top of individual discounts.

That's 12 PDFs for $14.99

Here is our entire "Christmas tree"; click the link below to get to the sale and see what each PDF is about!


As always, if you already have something on the list, the price is even lower.  We will keep this price until the beginning of 2021.

Our plans for 2021 so far is a print version of Teratogenicon (with a discount for previous purchases) and more dark fantasy, OSR and 5e content. You can keep updated by checking our Facebook page or my blog.

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Merry Christmas and Happy holidays to all!

I'm not sure this is my last post on 2020 in this blog, so I'm wishing you a great 2021 in advance!

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Bows are nearly useless (unless you're an expert)

"If you want to train a longbowman, start with his grandfather"
- King Edward III... allegedly.

D&D and D&D-like games treat bows as weak guns - probably more dangerous than daggers but not much better than a rapier.

Have you ever tried using a bow? I tried some modern (not professional) ones... probably easier to use than medieval bows. Let me tell you, shooting someone that is 80 feet away would be hard if you're not an expert (and I'm certainly no expert). That's the "minimum" range of a short bow in 5e - meaning that anyone proficient with simple weapons can use them without disadvantage. The "maximum" range of the short bow is 320 feet - with disadvantage (which would make you hit, say, 42% of the time instead of 65% of the time).

Consider seeing a bowman from 230 feet away (Olympic distance). How likely are you to simply move away from the incoming arrow?

Now, try swinging a bat at a punching bag. Or sticking a dagger-like object into a tree (please be careful... you'll might break your knife or hurt yourself). Even a child with a sharp knife is dangerous. A bow? Not so much. But the short bow deals 1d6 damage, the dagger 1d4.

Also... how many times can I stab while you shoot an arrow?

Bows also require strength... in real life, not in D&D.



Of course, there are people who can do amazing things with a bow. Just look at Olympic athletes, or even hunters... But they require extensive training. But in 5e, a shot bow is a simple weapon... while a short sword is a "martial" weapon, supposedly requiring more training.

D&D is not real life, of course. But even in a gaming perspective, bows seem to have an unfair advantage in 5e... they have better reach, nearly the same damage, and the best feats and fighting styles.

I know bows are useful in war... But that's an entirely different game. You are shooting at an army, not a specific foe. Arrows are good when you have LOTS of bowmen ("so many arrows that blot out the sun").

D&D fighting is mostly about small duels... not much more than half a dozen in each side. The way bows work might derive from the fact that D&D was originally a war game. Curiously enough, I think most games have kept the same reasoning since the. In GURPS, for example, the bow is an "average" skill like swords... although penalties due to distance are harsher IIRC).

There are good points to be made against this - bows have been used all over for hunting and wars, thousands of years. King Edward's archers beat heavily armored knights in Crécy... some bows can pierce heavy armor (although I think a baseball bat would do better on a one-on-one fight). Maybe big monsters - like dragons and giants - are easier to hit with arrows.

In addition, there are SOME limitations to archery in D&D - mainly, the fact that you have disadvantage if you're shooting with someone within 5 feet of you (another good point - maybe archery is so easy in D&D because you are not so worried about parrying, dodging, etc.).

And, when in doubt, I defer to the rule of cool... since everyone seems to like Legolas and Robin Hood, D&D 5e is good as it is.

Anyway...

In my current minimalist D&D game, missile and thrown weapons lose a single point of damage. So, if a short sword deal 1d6, a short bow would deal 1d4. Likewise, a thrown dagger deals less damage than getting stabbed (maybe 1d4-1).

In addition, damage is always determined by Strength. You use either Str or Dex to hit with a melee weapon (your choice), only Dex to hit with ranged weapons, and only Str gives a bonus to damage (more thoughts about this here and here) .

It is not a huge issue, but I like it this way, and it's been working well so far.

Friday, December 04, 2020

"Common law" versus "Civil law" in game design

This post is not about legal systems, but an (imperfect?) analogy about game design. Let's have some definitions for this purpose (source):

Civil law systems have their origin in the Roman legal tradition.  Civil systems vary widely, both in procedure and substantive law, so conducting research on a particular nation's civil law system should include looking at that nation's specific system of law, but they do have some trademark characteristics.  Nations with civil law systems have comprehensive, frequently updated legal codes.  Most importantly, case law is a secondary source in these jurisdictions. France and Germany are two examples of countries with a civil law system.

Common law systems, while they often have statutes, rely more on precedent, judicial decisions that have already been made. Common law systems are adversarial, rather than investigatory, with the judge moderating between two opposing parties.  The legal system in the United States is a common law system (with the exception of Louisiana, which has a mix of civil and common law).


The idea of civil law is basically "think of how the law should apply in abstract, pass a law and then enforce it". In game design, this would be thinking of a cool feat, comparing it to existing feats, and adding it to your game before play-testing it.


Common law would be the opposite approach: play the game until you reach an impasse. Resolve the impasse. If the problem arises again, you already have an answer, which might be enough or might be superseded.



There is also this:


Customary law systems are based on patterns of behavior (or customs) that have come to be accepted as legal requirements or rules of conduct within a particular country.  The laws of customary legal systems [...] are often dispensed by elders, passed down through generations. [...] Oftentimes, customary law practices can be found in mixed legal system jurisdictions, where they've combined with civil or common law.


In RPG-land, these are the rules we used because they were always like this. Falling damage ("d6 per 10 feet") is a good example. It is not particularly realistic or deliberate, and it's basically unchanged from OD&D to 5th edition because nobody cared to change it.

One could say "corporate" D&D is civil law (created by designers for users) while indie/OSR games are civil law (created by users for users). "Grognards" would prefer customary laws (created by Gygax for the good of humanity). I jest, I jest. 

In reality, everything is a mix of all systems. Many OSR writers use old rules without question, and WotC often use feedback from actual players before publishing a new class or feat.

But the "civil law" mentality in corporate D&D might explain why some 5e homebrewers, unlike, say, OSR authors, seem so cautious about changing the fundaments of the system; they do not seem themselves as legislators, only judges.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people dedicated to create innumerable rules and classes... that their players don't need. They are deep in theory-crafting and balancing, but not really into playing D&D. Here are two pieces of advice: first, do not fix what is not broken, unless you really think you can make the game cooler. Second, nobody wants your house rules... or do they?

This mentality also shows in official modules (and also some unofficial ones). Some books seem like they were written to be consumed, while others are obviously written to be played. 

Curse of Strahd, one of my favorite 5e books, is a good example; it feels somewhat "customary" ("we must do that because it is in the original module") and somewhat "civil law" ("this will certainly look cool in the book"), but not "common law" at all ("this didn't work in practice, let1's try something else"). I get the same feeling with the "infernal machines" in Avernus (this LOOKS really cool doesn't it?).

Here is a more specific example: you come up with a rule that requires rolling a lot of dice. You make some calculations and find out that this means +0.7 damage in average, exactly right for your purposes. This is "civil law". If you are playing the game and realized adding half a dozen dice rolls per round for a 0.7 is a hassle, this is "common law".

Again, this is rough generalization. There is plenty of "civil law" mentality even in indie systems - i.e., the idea that the game designer knows the table's problems better than the GM. And, to be honest - sometimes they do. They might have spent more time thinking about this stuff, at least as far as their own games are concerned. However, they do not know what you and your friends enjoy... or hate.

My own books always START with the "common law" approach (i.e., I want to write books I already NEED), but add some "civil law" as I write, because I want the whole thing to be a coherent whole.

Anyway. Play the game long enough, and you'll find that it becomes harder and harder to play with rules that are not your own and not specifically suited for your table.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

SlaughterGrid (OSR adventure - Mini Review)

SlaughterGrid (affiliate link*) is "a strange and gruesome" OSR dungeon by Rafael Chandler. It also contains a small hexcrawl and 32 new monsters... all in 48 pages. It's written for OSRIC (but would work for any OSR game etc.).

Rafael is one of my favorite OSR writers, and this module is indeed "strange and gruesome" like the rest of his writings. 

The cover says "a meat grinder for level 2 characters" which is... kinda true, I guess. I don't see how a 2nd level PC could have any hope of surviving this (although you can get resurrected inside the dungeon), but if they survive it wouldn't be a meat grinder.


The book starts with a (semi-random) explanation for the SlaughterGrids, titanic automatons created ages ago for war. The automatons have fallen and the dungeon is their insides - the levels are called uterus, bowels, and belly, and have the format of internal organs (but walls of stone, etc.).

There are also some house rules and some notes about the dungeon - all interesting stuff (a "resurrection machine" of sorts, gold-smelling monsters, etc.). This resurrection machine is perhaps the strangest and most curious part of the module, but it creates some unanswered questions (if everyone resurrects, why are there so many corpses, etc.).

The hexcrawl is well done, full of interesting encounters. A page on the Golden Citadel would enhance the module immensely, but it is already packed with stuff so I can't complain.

The dungeon itself is good, although it has too many monsters (goblins, kobold, gnolls, oozes) and traps and too few empty spaces. Overall, it feels a lot more "underground nightmare" than "Gygaxian naturalism"

You might occasionally roll your eyes at a monster made of genitals or piles of dung (or other gory, violent, maybe puerile details), but boredom is rarer here than in most modules (even "official" ones).

One last note: the structure of the writing is nearly perfect for this kind of module. The descriptions are terse and inspiring, showing exactly what you need to know and nothing else. It wastes no time on boring details, but it sometimes leaves things vague. This is a good example:

Everything you need to know in a few lines... unfortunately, there are no other references to "carcass creeper" in the book (it is an OSRIC version of the carrion crawler, it seems; had to look it up). But you get the idea.

If you're writing an adventure module, you should at least learn how to write like this. Start with the bare minimum and ONLY add words where it's awesome or necessary.

Anyway, an interesting module, worth checking out.

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

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Tasha (and D&D 5e?) is for experts... and beginners. Is 5e OSRish anymore?

Tasha's Cauldron of Everything is the latest D&B 5e book.

I'm probably skipping this one. And maybe a few more. Here is why.

Hint: is not the reprinting of material I already have (like the Artificer class, which I kinda like).

By the way, this is a bit of a rant. You've been warned...


Tasha's is mostly a book of players options, from what I've seen. And some new DM toys - magic items, group patrons, etc.

But does anyone NEED more character options?

Well, certainly. WotC is selling well, and 5e is popular. 

But how? There are more than 30 subclasses in the PHB, more than a dozen races and subraces*, and other customization options (feats, spells, items, fighting styles, backgrounds, etc.). My players haven't tried nearly half of that, nor are they willing to change class and race at every game. Books like Xanathar's and Volo's expand their options significantly, and, to be honest, I let them use whatever race they find on the internet with some adaptations.

(* If you're not familiar with 5e, it is worth mentioning that decent class/race combinations are a lot more numerable nowadays - which I like).

In fact, I have the opposite problem - the amount of choice feels overwhelming for me as a DM, and the players get lost.

Well, more choice is always good. But to require more choice at this point you'd have to be some kind of expert 5e player, haven played dozens of campaigns so far, to at have at least TRIED some of these options for half a dozen levels. None of my players have... nor have I.

The alternative would be someone deep into character optimization and theory-crafting... People who have fun creating mechanically cool characters. And that's is fine, but not our cup of tea. It is also not role-playing. Role-playing begins when the game starts.

On the other hand... Tasha contains some REALLY basic-level stuff. Things like "what is session zero", "you can actually TALK to monsters before killing them", or "you know, if your elf character was raised by dwarves, you could give him proficiency with battleaxes instead of longswords (two nearly identical weapons, BTW)". I'm paraphrasing here, of course.

Do you notice something strange?

How can people play through dozens of campaigns without knowing what a "session zero" is... or realizing they can make their own rules and create their own stuff? It is in the DMG, after all!

When 5e was released, I thought it had a decent amount of crunch... too much for my taste, but not enough to overwhelm me. I got excited with the idea of having an "OSR inspired" D&D being the most popular RPG around!

But mainstream D&D seems to be going in a strange direction... where people are familiar with dozens of "official" builds but are shy to change the rules. Where everyone knows who Volo is, but the idea of a pointcrawl is a complete mystery, hexcrawls are misunderstood, and lots of railroading is acceptable. Where beholders are common but the ideas on spells are still catching up to DCC RPG.

I'm not sure how to put that... but 5e has become too "official". It feels like it is written for people who only know and play D&D 5e and nothing else. Something very specialized... maybe comparable to a cofee-afficionado that loves Strabucks but tries nothing else. Or a good boxer calling himself a MMA fighter with no grappling training. Bear in mind that the boxer could beat some actual MMA fighters. But I'm getting lost in the analogy...

There is enough 5e homebrew stuff online for me to know 5e players can be very creative, BTW. Maybe it is a matter of focus. Should we focus on creating new spells, or making magic more interesting? And so on.

And I know this sounds like a criticism of 5e, but it is not. D&D 5e is one of my favorite RPGs EVER. Certainly in the top 10. 

Maybe it is just this book that is not for me.

Or maybe it is me - I like lighter systems, rulings over rules, "minimalism", etc. Perhaps I'm a minority among 5e players. I... I have more books than time by this point. Maybe that's just my age speaking.

On the other hand... maybe I should have seen this coming, as many people might have noticed before me.

Anyway, I'm not giving up on 5e yet.

I would buy a new campaign (maybe Icewind Dale...), but please, make it easier to run and less railroad-y. I am tired of having to go to The Alexandrian or to the DM's Guild to fix things.

By the way, that's is WHY I still play a lot of 5e: I know that if I find something I disliked, it is very easy to find someone who "fixed" it online, usually for free. It is just the amount of information I have to deal with that is overwhelming.

Oh, and apparently they fixed the beastmaster ranger. Yay!

Post scriptum (29/11/2020). Someone reminded me that "player's options" books are not that common in 5e, and this is the first one we have since Xanathar's in 2017. Fair enough. If you like creating new characters, I'm happy for you. Maybe it's just my playstyle that is different. 
I'm just saying - if you don't read Moldvay's Basic, Rules Cyclopedia, DCC, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Pendragon, Call of Cthulhu... you don't know what you're missing. These are some of the best RPGs ever, and if you like RPGs chances are you'll have a great time.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Curse of Strahd Guide, IV - Hitting Strahd in the allies (Strahd is the land; the land is Strahd)

Here is another quick idea for Curse of Strahd (and here is part III if you haven't read it).

The book's "proposed plot"* seems to be: you go around the valley looking for info, items and allies, maybe trying to save Ireena, until you get enough XP to kill Strahd. 

(*I'll write an entire post on the subject next)

In my campaign, the (slightly murderhobos) PCs became paranoid (not entirely unreasonable), managed to save Ireena and find the sun blade, but the rest of the items were in the castle and, according to the cards, they got NO allies (which obviously made them more paranoid). 

They seemed no reason to explore the valley further or to "make things right". They wanted to face Strahd immediately (before completing 30% of the module). Which is okay. They'd fight Strahd and be killed or, with some luck, run away.

But "you don't have enough XP to fight Strahd" sounds like a bad reason not to face him - even after the PCs are beaten. Here is a different idea.



Strahd is the land; the land is Strahd; his power is intrinsically tied to the actual lands of Barovia. He rules the valley because he is powerful, but this is a two-way street: his power also comes from the fact that he has allies all over.

Curse of Strahd has about a dozen relevant locations, each tied to Strahd in some way. Three of four locations are NOT directly under Strahd's influence, but there is some kind of struggle going on, which could make things take a turn for the worse. Maybe Strahd only NEEDS half a dozen sites to be ruled by pure evil, while the rest can be left in the hand of petty tyrants, independent monsters or the insane.

Most of these sites can be "redeemed" somehow, and the way is often obvious: save Ireena, topple a tyrant, help an angel, destroy an evil tree, protect a church, kill the leader of the werewolves, reestablish wine production, replace a dragon's skull, etc.

[This also serves as a decent explanation on why most of the "good" NPCs will NOT act as allies to the PCs; they must protect their sites from being lost entirely].

Now, the reason the PCs must "save" these locations is not to get XP or out of the goodness of their hearts, but to weaken their powerful foe.

[The specifics are up to you - I find Strahd a bit weak anyway, so each of his "sites" could give him a small boost unless "redeemed"].

This also gives the campaign a certain rhythm: after a couple of sites have been "turned", the vampire will send some allies to find out what's going on. 

Four or five, the PCs might invited to the Castle for questioning, intimidation or even neutralization. 

Six or seven sites conquered means the PCs are a real, immediate threat: now they've got Strahd's full attention. A whole faction (werewolves or druids) might attack the PCs directly. On the other hand, any resistance against Strahd will back the PCs.

Strahd will do everything to lure the PCs to the Castle (terrorizing civilians, kidnapping innocent victims, 'hitting and running", etc.) - the only place he can be destroyed, but also where he is more powerful now that his grasp on the land is weakened.

Of course, now there are TIME LIMITS to consider. Wandering around foolishly will not do, and the PCs might consider attacking with partial information and only some of the items.

The final showdown becomes inevitable - again, not because the XP is right or because they have a magic sword, but because the moment has arrived.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Dead in the Woods

- The trees... they look like...

- Yes, my boy. They were people once. Or so it is said.

- How did this happen?

- Who knows? Maybe dryads, or some curse. Maybe they did this to themselves.

- The skin feels... frail. Chalkier than bark, maybe. But soft underneath.

- Careful! You don't want to hurt them.

- Hurt them?

- They may come back to life one day. A broken branch may turn into a missing finger. Or worse.

- But how is it possible? They are bent.... distorted. How can this become human again?

- Some of them have been here for a long time. Their roots are deeper, their branches longer. They became comfortable. With the sun on their leaves and water on their feet, who could blame them? But some might still be human beneath that. If there is enough humanity left inside, they might shed the bark and walk free again. Or horribly mangled... but still alive. Just be careful with those who look too human.

- Why?


- You see... there is not much food in these woods. Some stories say people were lost here, starved... turning thinner and thinner, trying to eat their own clothes... their limbs becoming willowy... their feet dragging in the mud, until the are unable to move, their fingers reaching for the sun in supplication... Under these conditions, finding sustenance in the earth might have been a blessing... or at least a relief. Eventually, they would forgot their former lives, with roots so deep and trunks so thick they could never move again. But before that... they could still move... at least a little.. and still be hungry... for flesh. Our flesh.

- Light protect us! What a terrible fate!

The old man shrugged.

- Could be worse.

- Worse? How can it be?

The old man fell silent again, taking a deep drag from his pipe. He scratched an old, brown wound is his arm. He looked between the tress, searching for any sign of the sun. There was none, just endless tress, but his dark eyes seemed lost in the distance anyway.

- It might always go the other way. If we got lost, and ran out of food... we might be tempted to carve the trees. Insides the trunks... you can eat it... they say. And the wood is good for a fire, in the coldest nights. But as the fire burns... and the dark red sap boils... you can hear them. You can hear them screaming... And then... you can feel them... inside you... forever.

There was one more question to ask, but the young man said nothing.

They walked away, leaving the trees behind, the wind whispering as they went.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

How thick is your armor (5e D&D)?

Here is something I've found out: 

If your Dexterity is greater than your Armor Class, you are wearing "lighter" armor. If your Dexterity is smaller than your Armor Class, you are wearing "heavier" armor.

Sounds quite obvious, but it took me a while. 

Now, here is an explanation, and why this is useful.


I have often considered playing around with armor in my 5e D&D games. For example, having certain weapons work better against certain types of armor, and so on.

It is not easy to do, however. AC 15 can mean that someone is really agile, or that he or she is wearing chain armor. Likewise, when a monster has AC 15 (natural armor) it could be anything - from the tiny stirge (AC 14) to the large troll (AC 15).

Certainly the troll's skin is thicker than the stirge's?

Having a specific type of armor (leather armor, plate armor) indicated is a bit better, although you'd have to create specific rules for each kind of armor (there are twelve, plus shield), or memorize in which categories each armor fits (light/medium/heavy) or reverse-engineer the monster's AC to find out how heavy the armor is*. 

* Notice that someone with Dex 18 might have AC 16 using light, medium or heavy armor - although in this case you might assume the armor to be light. Curiously enough, one of the main downsides of heavy armor (and some kinds of medium armor) is giving you disadvantage to stealth - but, again, you'd have to memorize them to to know if a monster has disadvantage.

But if we use the formula indicated above, things get a lot easier. Now it is obvious that the stirge's natural armor is lighter than the troll's, and the Tarrasque's carapaces in a lot heavier than both. 

With this formula, we can create easy house rules, such as "slashing weapons deal more damage on a critical hit against light armor". This is just a start.

It doesn't solve all our problems - there are still a few outliers, and some instances where Dexterity is equal to AC (but not enough to create a "medium armor" category by itself), oozes might be a problem, etc. But it is simple and efficient... which is all I need right now.

Images: copyright Wizards of the Coast AFAICT.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

10 OSR Lessons from Darkest Dungeon (part II)

Here is part I.

Here are a few more OSR lessons I learned (or at least remembered) from playing Darkest Dungeon.


1 - Frail characters, strong archetypes. In old school games, there is a tendency to have slightly weaker characters. Character death is a little more common and resurrection, a little rarer. It is not a good idea to get too attached to your character. In Darkest Dungeon, the game is automatically saved, so when you lose a character (or even the entire group) there is no way to save them. You simply recruit new heroes and return to the dungeon.

Although the characters are fragile, their classes (warrior, sorcerer, cleric, etc.) represent strong archetypes. The classes establish not only the powers but also the roles of the characters in the game (protecting allies, destroying enemies from a distance, healing wounds, etc.).

2 - Simplicity. Since you change characters from time to time, generating new characters should be simple. Unlike modern games, a new character has few "powers" and is often generated randomly.

In Darkest Dungeon, you simply recruit the character that is available, without choosing anything about him. In old school games, you can (sometimes) make a few choices, but it is common for characters to be randomly generated, or to be found and hired as retainers or hirelings before becoming player characters.

In D&D 5th edition, on the contrary, creating a new character takes some time and several choices. In addition, a first level character already starts with three or more "special powers".

3 - Teamwork (and positioning). With fragile, simple and somewhat limited characters, teamwork becomes even more important. No character is capable of doing everything on its own. The strength of the group is not a simple sum of its parts, but relies on the synergy induced by the appropriate combination of skills.

In Old School games, it is useful for each player to understand their role within the group - although the roles are not entirely rigid.

Another interesting characteristic of DD is that physical positioning is important: some classes fight on the front line, others on the rear or even on the second row. In Old School games, this is a little more emphasized - in some old school games, spears, for example, could attack from the second row, and bows were useless in hand-to-hand combat.


4 - You are what you do. As we have seen, the characters are, at first, simple archetypes. Your past matters little. Even your personality is not yet fully defined when the game starts. Only through the game does the character gain more characteristics and nuance.

This is a lesson that old school games taught me some time ago: developing characters through play is often more fun than creating complex backgrounds that almsot no one will read.

5 - A living, enticing world. In Darkest Dungeon, like in OS RPGs, the internal story of each character is not as relevant as the setting itself. Although characters will grow and create their own narratives, the main goal (or at least one of them) is to explore the world they inhabit. A world that "grows" with the characters, and that will be there even after they are gone.

The idea is that the characters leave their mark on the setting, and from this interaction the "story" emerges.

How do I apply this to my games?

I am currently running a Tomb of Annihilation campaign. It is a very lethal 5e campaign (with a "meat grinder mode"). To stay true to this premise, I am using my "minimalist D&D" rules to give the game an old school style - something I have been trying to do for some time.

In this system I'm using, the characters are generated with few scrolls (something like Dark Fantasy Characters), start without powers and almost without backstories. Each player controls two characters and, when necessary, can replace one of them. In addition, each attempt to explore Chult is an expedition that requires some planning about encumbrance, rations, etc. There are always several expeditions available for players to choose from - in a structure very similar to DD.

It is working quite well. Let's see how far this goes. In the meantime, I keep devising new ways to bring these DD (and other old school games) lessons to D&D 5th edition.

Monday, November 02, 2020

10 OSR Lessons from Darkest Dungeon (part I)

Darkest Dungeon is a fun and addictive PC (and video-) game. It seems strongly inspired by OSR-style RPGs (or at least has similar influences). Playing Darkest Dungeon (DD) reminded me of several interesting principles for my own OSR games. 

Of course, the interesting thing about this game is not only the mechanics, but the Gothic atmosphere and the amazing visuals, which go very well with the "dark fantasy" motif. If you want that "feel" in your games, you can try my "Dark Fantasy" line

Anyway, here are some "lessons" that occurred to me when playing DD.


1 - Expeditions. Many modern RPGs are organized through sessions, adventures, campaigns, "milestones", etc. Some even use terms such as scene, episode and season, or divide events into minutes, hours and days. Darkest Dungeon, like some old school modules, is divided into expeditions.

The structure of the expedition is as follows. You start at your "headquarter", the village - a somewhat safe place, where you can buy weapons and supplies, recruit helpers, rest, etc. Then you set out to explore a "dungeon" - a dangerous place, where the possibilities for resting or obtaining useful resources are limited. Finally, IF you survive, you return to the city with some treasures and perhaps a few missing members in your group.

Most 5e D&D campaigns do not make this structure very explicit, but the two I played most recently could certainly benefit from this perspective. Try applying this "expedition" mechanic to Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, and you will see some interesting results. 

2 - Resource management and encumbrance. Managing the resources that will be carried into the expedition becomes a essential part of the game. Your carrying capacity is limited, you need to bring torches to avoid being surprised by monsters in the dark, enough food to keep you from starving, etc.. In addition, you need to bring shovels, antidotes, bandages and other useful tools. But carrying too many things limits your ability to carry treasure (and, in old school games, also slows you down). 

This aspect of the game is all but lost in modern games like D&D 5e, in which encumbrance is too generous and gold is too light.


3 - Time limits. Gary Gygax famously said that "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" in page 37 of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide

A similar idea applies here. Although there is no explicit "ticking clock", the longer you stay in the "dungeon", the more stress you accumulate and the more food and torches you spend - increasing your chances of dying alone in the dark or going crazy. That means: time, along with torches and food, is a scarce resource that must be managed.

In fact, the stress meter from DD is an EXTREMLEY useful and versatile tool. Although this is not common in old school RPGs, it fits this "limited time" concept very well. I think it deserves a post of its own (on how to integrate this into your RPG games). Stay tuned!

BTW, the problem with stress in DD that it causes some significant amount of stress in real life, lol. Not an easy game!


4 - Mundane items. As you can see, mundane items (torches, rations, shovels) are very important. It is not about accumulating powerful magic items, but managing ordinary objects. 

In "old school" games, which have much broader possibilities than video games, ordinary items (such as a rope, shovel or 10-foot pole) can always be used in many creative ways to overcome obstacles, although consumable items (torches and rations) lose some of their importance when the characters reach the highest levels

5 - Underground Nightmares x Gygaxian Naturalism

Since the beginning of RPGs, dungeons have been built in two different (and somewhat antagonistic) structures. 

In the first, the dungeon is a dreamlike and almost inexplicable place, containing dragons bigger than the tunnels would allow and creatures that have no obvious ways to feed themselves - as if they came from a nightmare. In the second structure, the dungeon was created for a reason, and the creatures that live there are part of a (somewhat) coherent ecosystem ("Gygaxian naturalism").

In DD, the dungeons fit into the first model, but the game makes some concessions to the second, with aquatic creatures in the most flooded environments and mushroom-men living in the caverns. 

The lesson here is that even in the unexplainable environments of a nightmare, having some thread of rationality is useful in giving players some chance to prepare themselves adequately to face the challenges that lie ahead. If there was no predictability, a huge part of the "preparation of resources" phase would be lost, since there is no way to choose the best tools if there is no clue as to what is to come.

Well, I think this is enough for today. I'll have the second part soon - explaining some characteristics of the characters in DD and OSR games.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The BEST damage type in D&D 5e

There are 13 damage types in D&D 5e (source):
Acid. The corrosive spray of a black dragon’s breath and the dissolving enzymes secreted by a black pudding deal acid damage.
Bludgeoning. Blunt force attacks—hammers, falling, constriction, and the like—deal bludgeoning damage.
Cold. The infernal chill radiating from an ice devil’s spear and the frigid blast of a white dragon’s breath deal cold damage.
Fire. Red dragons breathe fire, and many spells conjure flames to deal fire damage.
Force. Force is pure magical energy focused into a damaging form. Most effects that deal force damage are spells, including magic missile and spiritual weapon.
Lightning. A lightning bolt spell and a blue dragon’s breath deal lightning damage.
Necrotic. Necrotic damage, dealt by certain undead and a spell such as chill touch, withers matter and even the soul.
Piercing. Puncturing and impaling attacks, including spears and monsters’ bites,
deal piercing damage.
Poison. Venomous stings and the toxic gas of a green dragon’s breath deal poison damage.
Psychic. Mental abilities such as a mind flayer’s psionic blast deal psychic damage.
Radiant. Radiant damage, dealt by a cleric’s flame strike spell or an angel’s smiting weapon, sears the flesh like fire and overloads the spirit with power.
Slashing. Swords, axes, and monsters’ claws deal slashing damage.
Thunder. A concussive burst of sound, such as the effect of the thunderwave spell, deals thunder damage.
The main difference between them is...
Some creatures and objects are exceedingly difficult or unusually easy to hurt with certain types of damage.
If a creature or an object has resistance to a damage type, damage of that type is halved against it.
If a creature or an object has vulnerability to a damage type, damage of that type is doubled against it.
Bludgeoning damage, for example, is good against skeletons, as they are vulnerable to this type of damage. Fire elementals are IMMUNE to fire and poison damage, so they take NO damage at all from these sources.

Gabriel Anhaia (from the Facebook community D&D 5E - RPG BRASIL) made an interesting compilation of various monster resistances are vulnerabilities across multiple books. I just added color and a subjective "grade" (from 0 to 10) to each damage type (click to enlarge):


This is all quite arbitrary and somewhat incomplete, but is it useful as a visualization tool.

Bear in mind that resistances, immunities and vulnerabilities are not common, which means they seldom apply. So, while 5 points of force damage are better than 5 points of poison damage, 6 points of poison damage may be better most of the time.

What is the best damage type? Probably the force, since no creature has resistance against it. Radiant and thunder are also very good.

What is the worst damage type? Certainly the poisonous. There is a lot of resistant creatures and even more that are completely immune. 

What is the best type of weapon damage? Between slashing, piercing and bludgeoning, the latter is slightly better. 

Note that "magic damage" is not a separate type of damage, but another classification, parallel to these 13 types. The damage of a magic weapon can be slashing, piercing and bludgeoning, something else (the Sunblade causes radiant damage, for example) or a combination (the Flame tongue causes slashing or piercing damage, plus fire damage).

Likewise, fire damage can come from a fire or a fireball, etc.

In addition, while resistance to slashing, piercing and bludgeoning damage from nonmagical weapons is somewhat common (as seem on the table), resistance to theses damages is very rare when they are caused by magical weapons. I would imagine magical weapons are almost on par with radiant and thunder.

What is this good for? Choosing your spells, features, etc... or creating your own!

Additional reading:

Monday, October 26, 2020

Railroads (and some sandboxes)

The action of playing RPG consists, mainly, of making relevant decisions through your character.

This definition is important, as you will see below.

RPG adventure modules (and campaigns) can have several types of structure, two of which are mentioned more often: the railroad and the sandbox.

(Until the end of this article, I will argue that these words describe MOMENTS in the adventure, not adventures)

A "railroad style" adventure is one in which the characters never leave the pre-defined tracks in the adventure. That is, the plot goes from A, to B, to C, to D, regardless of what the characters do.

So you could already say that "railroads are not role-playing games". After all, players don't make relevant choices. It may be a theater, the narration of a story (sometimes shared), it may even be a way of TEACHING RPG, but it is not RPG, strictly speaking.


Sandbox is something akin to the sandboxes play in. Inside this "box", the characters can do whatever they want, in the order they want. The actions of the PCs will have their own consequences, and these consequences will form the adventure (or "story"). It is also called "open world". 

This is very common in current electronic role-playing games like Skyrim, The Witcher, etc. (compare with the first Mario Bros., where the option was to go forward or die - and the fun was not making good choices, but playing with agility and precision).


Often, the two terms are considered antonyms, but I agree with Justin Alexander when he says that it is not exactly that. Anyway, I'm not discuss this now. I will focus on the railroad as a problem to be studied (and maybe solved), and leave the sandbox for a future post. 

These two structures resemble physical structures, but are actually abstract ideas. A dungeon with four rooms arranged in a straight line is very reminiscent of a railway's structure, while a map appears to indicate a sandbox. But this is not always true. 

The railroad is defined by the lack of relevant choices on the part of the players. 

Let's say, for example, what adventure says that he has to face a dragon burned in village E. They can go to villages D, F or G, but in none of them there are useful weapons, allies or clues against the dragon, and and the dragon attacks the PCs after five days regardless of what they do. 

Another example: the PCs arrive in a room with 4 doors (A, B, C and D). In one of them, there is the villain. In the other three, there are some treasures. But no matter which door the players choose, the villain will always be behind the first door they open (to ensure that players do not run away with the treasure without facing the main villain).


So the railroad can happen, basically, in two cases:

1) Because there is no choice (for example, there is only one door) or;
2) Because the choice does not matter (there are several ports to choose from, but the result is the same).

Note that determining the outcome of the players' choice just by rolling a die does not necessarily solve this problem. For example, if you're going to roll 1d6 to find out if the villain is behind the door, the player's choice didn't matter either (unless, for example, they know there is such a risk, and can limit the number of doors they open, etc.).

[Notice that this situation is EXTREMELY COMMON in many modules, even those which wouldn't commonly be considered "railroads"; players must choose one of two or three doors without any information.]

But what if you rolled the die BEFORE they opened the door? Although it looks different, for players the result is often the same as if you roll AFTER they open the door. And even if you chose any room to place the villain when designing the dungeon ... sometimes the result is unchanged. 

How to explain this?

In this case, the players DO NOT HAVE ANY INFORMATION that allows them to make a decision. Their decisions end up being random. But there is a very significant difference there: if the villain is already defined BEFORE they open the door, players can SEEK that information. They can, for example, put their ears to the door and try to listen, or knock on the door and hide. These are RELEVANT CHOICES.

But what if the villain is silent, waiting for the PCs, and there is NO way to get that information? Then, we are back to where we started.

But then... is EVERYTHING a railroad? An unexpected surprise for the PCs is enough to ruin the module? Well, no. That's what I want to demonstrate: railroad is a MOMENT that happens in all adventures: that situation in which the players' choices do not exist, do not matter, or are made randomly. 

Some adventures are railroading ALL THE TIME. In others, we have only a few points and events like that, but a lot is determined by the actions of the PCs. The adventures that give a little space for relevant choices deserve to be criticized for being too "railroad-y".

But much worse than that are the adventures that try to FORCE the railroad, inventing bizarre ways to make the actions of the PCS irrelevant. 

For example, saying that the villain cannot be faced before the last part of the adventure so as not to spoil the ending. Or saying that if the PCs do not accept the king's mission to kill the ogre, he will send the royal guards to beat them up ("Say, your IMBECILE highness, why don't you send the royal guard to kill the ogre instead?). 

It is common for novice GMs not to remember to give players many options. No problem. As players and GMs learn, they will realize that RPG is a game of infinite possibilities. What really should be avoided is this second case: forcing the railroad when players have already invented other interesting options. 

Justin says "Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome". 

This definition is incredibly useful; it is what I call a "forced" railroad. Fortunately, this is much rarer today... But it still happens, even in D&D 5e campaigns, as we will see.

--- 
Further reading: 

The post below is the main inspiration behind mine. In fact, this is not muich more than a summary I've felt like writing. I've found the idea of a "forced" railroad is useful to explain to new gamemasters what they shouldn't do, since I've modules described as "railroads" more often than GMs.

I think I've never wrote my definition of RPGs, but that post has some ideas.

I do mention "meaningful choice" here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

DTRPG's Halloween gold run - free stuff!


Almost all of my own products are 25% off due to the sale, since I write mostly dark fantasy stuff.

Dark Fantasy Basic and Dark Fantasy Characters are close to getting a gold badge! Can we make it until Halloween?

Well, just in case, here are some coupons with bigger discounts for the readers of this blog. They are good until Halloween!

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse.php?discount=91ccc8a4d3

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse.php?discount=97a265c93f

Dark Fantasy Places is still free.

In addition, you can get free stuff on the site by clicking on the pumpkins, hats, ghosts, bats, etc. Just click all the menus to find icons such as these:


I found some good stuff already: Xas Irkalla, Stranger Stuff (TinyD6) and some things I didn't know.

Have fun looking for them. I'll post a list of all I can find here before the sale ends!

Try these pages, for a start:

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/index.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/halloween.php?&filters=0_0_0_0_0_45295
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse.php?filters=0_0_200_0_0&src=fid200
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/wishlist.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/my_library.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/address_book.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/account_contact_options.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/account_newsletters.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/account_history.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/about.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/newsletter_current.php
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/reviews.php

If you've found anything cool, let me know in the comments!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Curse of Strahd Guide - Part III - Minimum resources

The third part in the series (here is part II) would originally be a rant about how curse of Strahd is somewhat incomplete and badly organized, and that you need additional resources (and not jut the book) to run it without a headache.

However there's already a huge trove of fan-produced stuff for the campaign online, for free. Because of that I have little to add, other than a few links and comments. 

In fact, there is so much good material out there that's what I thought it would be more useful to do the opposite: tell you the bare minimum additional resources you need to run this campaign. Because there's so much decent stuff online bet you could run this company forever, but I'm guessing this is not your goal.

Some of the essential stuff you need is in the official DM's screen. Now, I don't use or recommend using DM screens, but that's the subject for another post. The material contained in this screen, however, is very useful to have in hand. One might even guess that some of this was left out of the book on purpose... But they wouldn't do that, right? I mean, you can find some of this stuff in the book, but it is badly organized. See this rant if you want to know what I mean. 

Anyway... Let's take a look at this. 

Source.

It contains: 

* Lists of random encounters for Barovia and for the Castle, with page numbers.
* A few maps of the castle. 
* A map of Barovia. 
* A list os locations in Barovia, in alphabetical order, with page numbers

Half of the screen is useful whenever you are traveling outdoors through Barovia, from one settlement to another - which means, almost always. The other half it's only useful when you're within the castle- which means, in a small aprt of the campaign.

Other than that, you need a good player map. There is no reason the characters wouldn't know the geography of the valley after talking to a few people, so there's no reason to hide the map from them (although you could certainly rip the edges of the map to make some locations  more mysterious). 

There's a map in the book, of course, but it is big and unwieldy. It is also too beautiful and detailed - doesn't look like a map you'd find in Barovia -  and in divided in hexes, which is not useful (see below).

Here's a better one (if you know the author, please give him credits in the comments): 
https://mists-of-shadow-moor.obsidianportal.com/items/barovia-region

The last thing you need is a guide to the distances in Barovia, so you don't have to count hexes. The map of Barovia makes the campaign look like an hex-crawl, but there is no reason to look at it this way. The characters will not be exploring unknown locations (like they would on a hex-crawl), but the only traveling through roads and trails, and going to cities, castles, ruins, etc. 

This should be organized as a point-crawl, but apparently they were not familiar with the concept. Going "off road" is possible but not expected and should carry explicit consequences.

You can find this in many forms, even a detailed spreadsheet, but the most useful would be some kind of map with the distances written down. Here's one example, although the distances are off I (they should be one third of that). However, you can play with the distances as you want. 

Here's my suggestion (click here for the full map): 


Each marking represents one hour of travel, AND one check for random encounters (yes, I tweaked things a bit). Of course, you could also number and describe in advance each of these places... But this is not necessary. 

Why do distances matter? Because you should never be out at night in Barovia. But that's the subject for another post.

But anyway, this is enough to get you started:
  • Two good maps - one for players, the other for the DM. Notice that the map can include the next two bullet points.
  • An alphabetical index of locations, with page numbers (or write them down in the map).
  • A guide for distances in Barovia.
  • A copy of the list of encounters; add a copy of pages 29-33 (encounters) to avoid flipping back and forth.
If this is not enough... well, the sky is the limit. Here is that trove of resources I mentioned earlier:

If this is useful, let me know in the comments!