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, January 25, 2020

RPG and design, I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia

RPG and design series so far:

I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia
II - Crunch x Fluff
III - Crunch IS Fluff (excavators can't jump!)
IV - Theme, Mechanics, and Narrative
V - Incongruous and dissociated mechanics
VI - Unproductive fluff (and crunch)

I love playing around with RPG design, and I think part os this aspect of our hobby is criminally underrated. However, since I'm not a specialist in design, I often feel I lack the vocabulary to properly express my thoughts. This series is an attempt to order these thoughts.

(BTW, I also feel this deficiency is not only mine, but an aspect of the hobby itself; I read a lot about RPGs but seldom see these things being discussed in depth, or at least not using a common vocabulary. For example, terms like "narrativism" or "dissociated mechanics" are few and controversial. HOWEVER, if you know a place where I can find such discussions, let me know in the comments!).

First, we must separate a few different topics of discussion:

- Game design.
- Book design.
- Page design.
- Table design.
- Etc.

Even though one can use the word "design" for all these topics, there are some obvious differences.

For example: in RPG context, game design usually refers to something immaterial, that is independent of the book itself. Rules, for example. A weapon that deals 1d6+3 damage, but 2d6+3 on a critical hit is a game design choice.

However, there are material aspects to RPG design. The most obvious ones are the book's visuals: fonts, margins, colors, art, etc.

The most common RPGs books have interesting unique aspects that are not common in other books, mostly because, in addition to being "books" (in the sense of "a thing that you read through") they are teaching manuals (like school books, etc.) and reference books (like encyclopedias).

Here are some dictionary definitions, FWIW:

Manual: a book that gives you practical instructions on how to do something or how to use something, such as a machine:

Encyclopedia: a book or set of books containing many articles arranged in alphabetical order that deal either with the whole of human knowledge or with a particular part of it.

Maybe a better term would be "reference book", a book intended to be consulted for information on specific matters rather than read from beginning to end (source).

This is another topic that seems ignored in our hobby: we often use the same books for BOTH functions. But our children's books are not like encyclopedias; they teach things in a linear fashion.

If you get the 5e PHB, for example, you can see that the usual pattern is:

- This is what "race" means, how to use it. ("manual")
- List of races. ("reference book")
- This is what "class" means, how to use it. ("manual")
- List of classes. ("reference book")
- etc.

Another thing to consider is that some books are designed to be referenced at the table. While I usually avoid checking rules from the PHB/DMG during the game, it is obvious that the monster manuals are very often used in this way.

This means that these books must give you the information you need QUICKLY; a concern most encyclopedias and reference books don't need!

In this sense, wasting your time (with page-flipping is bad design); which is why most monster manuals will prefer lots of blank space to making you turn the page while describing a monster, for example.

Let me give you another example of the things I'm talking about:

Darkvision is described multiple times in the 5e PHB, often with identical words (especially while describing races). These would indicate that the designer's chose to treat it as a piece of information to be referenced, not taught.

However, in the "arcane eye" spell, darkvision isn't described. Which in theory would indicate that you need to check other section of the book for the explanation.

The distinction is strange. I would assume you do not need references for your race - you only have one race, you choose race only once, so eventually you'd memorize all that your race does - but many characters have multiple spells (sometimes dozens), and pick new spells every level, etc.

In addition, darkvision is repeated multiple times (for reference), but not discussed extensively (for reflection) - leaving lots of room for mistakes, doubts and errata (for example, the book never discusses if creatures with darkvision prefer to use torches, in order to see colors, or prefer to dwell in the darkness to keep a permanent advantage against other creatures).

In practice, it doesn't bother me - I have darkvision more or less memorized at this point - but it makes me feel as if the designers of 5e have not considered these issues.

Well, this "Manual x Encyclopedia" became larger than I had intended.

There are LOTS of topics to cover in these series... Information presentation, user interface design user/experience design, word count, size and format, drop die tables, analog "technologies" in RPGs, multipurpose mechanics, efficiency/elegance, information waste (on die rolls, etc.), information compression, wasted time on dice rolls, granularity, and so on... will try to tackle them next.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The three-strikes rule for FAST COMBAT - or NPCs, mass combat, etc.

While running Curse of Strahd, I had a problem: the PCs would often ally with NPCs to fight multiple monsters at once.

Now, as a DM, to roll dice for both sides of a conflict feels ridiculous and boring, even more so if some of the NPCs are average-level spell-casters, with spells and actions to choose from. And I can only imagine how tiresome it would be for the players to watch the DM rolling for a fight that doesn't involve them directly.

Of course, you could let your players control the NPCs on their side - which generally I recommend. But, TBH, the players are having a hard time with the number of options they already have, and this wouldn't help.

And I didn't want to handwave it, either. It was important to me if the NPC would survive the battle, and it was interesting to see if they would help the PCs or require help themselves.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution.

I call this the three-strikes rule. Works for lots of things.

In 5e, there are two things that encouraged me to use it.

First, death saving throws - they use a "three strikes" methods already.

Second, how damage and HP work in 5e. For many monsters, an attack deals about one third of a monster's HP in damage (I think I read this here; it isn't exact, but it works). This means that, in average... three hits, and you're out.

So, the solution is pretty simple: when a fight breaks, put the allied NPCs against inimical NPCs with comparable power (i.e, similar CCR), and roll a d20. Treat the results similarly to a death saving throw: three failures and the NPC is down, three successes and he is triumphant (and can help the PCs).

[If you want to be fair, a success should happen on 11 or more, but the difference is small]

If an NPC has a few failures but survives, he lost one third of his HP for each failure, and so on.

And if it is really important to save the NPC, well, the PCs can try - when the NPC is down, he starts rolling actual death saving throws.

This is scalable. If a paladin is fighting three goblins (assuming both sides are similar in power), each success means he killed one goblin. You could even use it for mass combat between two forces of similar power level. With a small list of modifiers (+2 for high ground, +4 if your force is twice the size of the other, -2 for each failure you already have, etc.), this is pretty much all you need for huge battles.

It also works for fragile NPCs that do not fight. They probably can not "win", but three failures means they're down. If one NPC is "guarding" another (which happened in my campaign), I might treat the two as a single entity and let the "bodyguard" fall first.

This method has a few advantages:

* You can roll a single die for both sides (success for one side means failure to the other). Inf act, I ask the players to roll for their allies.
* You can abstract all powers, wounds, attacks, etc. in a single roll.

It has a few difficulties, too.

For example, things get a bit complicated if the PCs team up with NPCs against a single powerful NPC. In this case, since you've got only one inimical NPC to manage, you're probably better off defaulting to the original system. And comparing the power of two different sides is not always easy.

But, overall, I find it better than playing each move by the book.

All these elements should be incorporated in the "narrative" of course. This assures the the NPCs power level becomes a bit more explicit. E.g., "when you find the fallen body of your comrade, you notice that there are twenty dead ORCS at his feet", and so on.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

100 Magic Weapons + some thoughts on random tables

Here is my new book:

It is... well, exactly what it says on the tin. You can get it here.

Here are some examples you can use whether you get the book or not (roll 1d12):

  1. Sword of Bloodlust. This magic sword does not communicate, but moans obscenely whenever it slays a creature. It screams in pleasure if the victim is humanoid. Its blade is thin, sharp and sinuous.
  2. Flail of Judgement. This heavy spiked flail deals radiant damage against evil creatures, but will explode in your hands if turned against the innocent, leaving the target unharmed.
  3. Spider Arrows. These arrows have spider engraved in their tips. When you hit your target, the spiders become alive, burrowing out and causing additional damage.
  4. Whip of Disfigurement. This spiked whip leaves nasty scars in its victims. These scars cannot be healed by regeneration or healing and last for at least one month, barring some powerful magic.
  5. Sickle of Reaping. If you slay a living creature with this rusty, dented sickle, its blood will become food for the earth, making nearby plants grow faster, stronger… and stranger. They may grow exquisite flowers that are useful for creating alchemical potions.
  6. Greatclub of Ice-breaking. This massive club with icy shards turns things to ice before breaking them. It deals cold damage (massive damage to inanimate objects such as iron, leather, wood, etc.). It is extremely cold and cannot be held without protection for more than one minute without causing damage to you.
  7. Spear of Imprisonment. A creature slain by this ebony spear has its soul trapped within, in a grey plane of loneliness. If the spear is broken, all the souls are freed.
  8. Sword of Hellfire. This massive ebony sword shines as if it fire and lava burned within its blade, but it creates no light around it. It reeks of sulfur and leaves nasty burns (fire damage). A slain enemy boils from the inside until its eyes pop out.
  9. Axe of Genocide. This twisted double-bitted axe deals additional damage against a specific type of creature. You become angry and murderous when this type of creature is nearby.
10.  Sword of Mercilessness. When this sharp, bright sword is unsheathed, you gain additional courage and vigor (e.g., one temporary HP per level). If you stop fighting before all enemies are slain or defeated (but not merely surrendered), the blade will break in a thousand shards, hurting you in the process.
11.     Daggers of exotic dancing. These two daggers with obscenely-shaped handles seem to fight by themselves when wielded in a pair. If you miss an attack with the left hand, you can immediately make a “free” attack with the right hand. If you roll a natural 1, they cut you (half damage). In any case, it feels good.
  1. Sword of Plane-cutting. This thin but heavy sword, which glows in colors that resemble the aurora borealis, can cut open a portal to a random plane out of thin air (once a day). In addition, a critical hit deals necrotic damage as parts of the target seem to become nothingness when cut.
Anyway, I wrote this book while considering the following question.

Most books on my Dark Fantasy line have tables that are terse and a bit vague. For example, my dark fantasy characters could give an NPC like this:

Background: barbarian
Skill: thievery
Fighting style: bow
Armor: chain
Equipment style: Spiked
Flaw: lust
Motivation: Pride (family)


As you can see, this isn't a finished character. The results require some rationalizing, maybe even changing. A flamboyant barbarian with chain armor and spikes? Not the first thing I'd think of. However, I find that making sense of this stuff is FUN.

On the other hand, if you need an NPC on the fly, you might not have time to roll all these dice. What's worse, you might think I'm leaving half the work for you. The finished work would look like this:

Odo is a barbarian. He looks thin, tall, and has strong muscles. He is stealthy and fights with a bow that matches his height. He wears chain armor and spike pauldrons. While travelling through cilivilezd land to womanize (his favorite hobby), he acquired a flamboyant look, dying his long hairs and beard a bright blue, and wearing multiple precious rings. He fights for the honor of his family, although his family forgot about him years ago, when he left his clan. One day he hopes to come back rich and famous.

As you can see, this entry is a lot more detailed and ready to use. It is also a bit more interesting... It is the kind of thing I adopted in this new book. 

The downside is that, while you can make a million different characters with Dark Fantasy Characters, you "only" get 100 magic weapons in the new book, but they are all ready to use.

Well, I tried both things, and I think I'll probably continue doing both.

In any case, I'm curious to know: which method do you prefer? Terse and varied? Detailed and ready to use? Or something in between? Any good examples of either method you can think of?

Friday, January 10, 2020

Tossing 2 cents to "The Witcher"

The Witcher is the new popular fantasy series from Netflix. Here is my 2c: if you play D&D, you should at least try it. It has good (sometimes very good) acting, good (sometimes great) production values, and it is FULL of cool ideas and plots you can use for your games.

Want more detail? Here we go.

The first season uses a lot of material from the first book, which I reviewed here. In short, it is a decent "Conan in Middle Earth", with elements of sword and sorcery in an epic setting (but read my review before reading on). There are a few too many modern ("Poughkeepsie") elements, which spoils the "fantasy" feel a bit more than they did in Game of Thrones (I hate comparing it to GoT since the stories are completely different, but as TV series they have a similar audience).

There are two F words that are thrown around liberally, and the second one is "Fate", so there is a nice contrast here: on one hand, the Witcher is gritty and cynical (legends are false, institutions are unreliable, kings are immoral, etc.), but on the other hand the characters are bound by the laws of destiny.

Also, for the dark fantasy part... Well, the world of The Witcher is dark. There are prejudices, oppression, lies, and monsters (human or otherwise). However, the witcher himself is pretty much a decent guy when compared to Conan or Elric, for example. So, not much moral ambiguity there. Still, some of the other characters bring enough shades of gray to the palette.

This seasons mixes episodic tales with no obvious connections (Conan) to an underlining epic narrative (Tolkien). And... it works. Kinda. The show seems to always be a couple of steps from being great. 

The first few episodes are confusing, and NOT because of the parallel narratives. Some scenes are just under-explained (seemingly reeling on information that is to be found in the books, in the first episode). Other times, the tone is a bit off, lacking the proper gravitas or exaggerating it and becoming a bit cringey ("the time of blood and thunder is coming yadda yadda" is repeated with deep voices a few times). We have some moments of Harry Potter-style wizard classes, and some moments of pure soap opera latter on (lots of "true love" talking in this dark fantasy...). 

Fortunately, the ending of the season, while a bit drawn out (especially in the last episode), explains most loose threads in a satisfying manner (the penultimate episode was great), and redeems lots of things that seemed unnecessary at first. In fact, by the end the show sold me on the idea of "Fate" in the series, something I thought would be hard to do.

There are a couple of things I'd like to highlight.

There is lots of deconstructionism of fantasy tropes - knights, monsters, and dragons are not necessarily what you think they are. And it works. The "postmodern" discussion of "false narratives" in episode 2 is very well done. If you thought "Toss a coin to your Witcher" has silly lyrics about putting elves on shelves, you'll soon realize it is meant to sound farcical. The humor also works well.

Another thing is about Henry Cavill's performance as the main character, Geralt of Rivia. Everyone seems to agree he looks and plays the part of tough guy with great success (and great biceps). However, there is more to it than that. His face is always portraying annoyance, mild anger, and, perhaps most of all, fatalism, like he is the only guy who can see things are (obviously) going south soon. Witchers are supposed to feel no emotion (although that, too, might be a lie - how could we know?), and Geralt as a character is obviously smarter and more cynical than the rest, but also a benevolent character with a strict moral code. Because of that, Cavill's acting, with few facial expressions and fewer words, fits perfectly. I didn't think I would be convinced by a Conan-like character... but I was.

The show, however, is far form perfect. Like I said, a few changes to the plot and dialogue would make things a lot better. The tone is too light at times, and there are scenes that feel a bit like "vanilla" fantasy, with wizards are artillery and "healers" that are just doctors with pointy ears. Some characters seem to get gravely wounded/endangered, just to be saved by plot armor. There are awesome ideas that are left underdeveloped. 

Like the book, the show seems to lack a certain depth - I hope we see this depth in future seasons, although I'm not sure how the show will avoid a dramatic "hero saves the world" plot as it moves on.

In short, I like this show and I'll certainly continue watching when second season comes. It is a lot less impressive that GoT's first seasons and a lot better than the latter seasons. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a cool fantasy show or good ideas for your D&D games. It MIGHT be one of the best D&D-like series we ever get.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The tarrasque is now a weakling [5e]

You know the tarrasque, right? D&Ds famous version of the Godzilla? Or something like that.

The legendary tarrasque, for there is fortunately only one known to exist, is the most dreaded monster native to the Prime Material plane.

The text is from the Monstrous Manual (2e). The one in the 5e MM is similar, although a bit less flavorful:

The legendary tarrasque is possibly the most dreaded monster of the Material Plane. It is widely believed that only one of these creatures exists, though no one can predict where and when it will strike.

The text is not the only thing that is weaker.

Of course, the tarrasque is still impressive in 5e. 676 HP, immunity to non-magical weapons, legendary resistance and legendary actions, challenge 30... But it pales in comparison to older editions.

I'll use 2e as an example because I like the Monstrous Manual, but it is basically the same as 1e. In 3e, the tarrasque is still VERY strong, maybe even more than 2e.

For example:

[2e] The mere sight of the tarrasque causes creatures with less than 3 levels or Hit Dice to be paralyzed with fright (no saving throw) until it is out of their vision. Creatures of 3 or more levels or Hit Dice flee in panic, although those of 7 or more levels or Hit Dice that manage to succeed with a saving throw vs. paralyzation are not affected (though they often still decide to run away).
[5e] Frightful Presence: Each creature of the tarrasque’s choice within 120 feet of it and aware of it must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1 minute. A creature can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, with disadvantage if the tarrasque is within line of sight, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a creature’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the creature is immune to the tarrasque’s Frightful Presence for the next 24 hours.

As you can see, creatures with less than 7 HD had NO CHANCE against the tarrasque's MERE SIGHT... Now, 2 out of 10 peasants will be immune to its fear from 24 hours, and the rest will recover quickly...

[2e] a savage bite (5d10 points of damage plus acts as a sword of sharpness, severing a limb on a natural attack roll of 18 or better)
[5e] Swallow: The tarrasque makes one bite attack against a Large or smaller creature it is grappling. If the attack hits, the target takes the bite’s damage, the target is swallowed, and the grapple ends. While swallowed, the creature is blinded and restrained, it has total cover against attacks and other effects outside the tarrasque, and it takes 56 (16d6) acid damage at the start of each of the tarrasque’s turns. If the tarrasque takes 60 damage or more on a single turn from a creature inside it, the tarrasque must succeed on a DC 20 Constitution saving throw at the end of that turn or regurgitate all swallowed creatures, which fall prone in a space within 10 feet of the tarrasque. If the tarrasque dies, a swallowed creature is no longer restrained by it and can escape from the corpse by using 30 feet of movement, exiting prone.

Eh... 5e is good enough, but has lots of extra words and a bit less flavor.

Anyway, there are a few things that bother me about the 5e tarrasque... for example, it seems like a decent number of archers with +1 bows and the Sharpshooter feat could take down "possibly the most dreaded monster of the Material Plane". They just have to keep the distance.

I blame bounded accuracy...

But anyway, the thing I miss the most is this:

[2e] ... it regenerates lost hit points at a rate of 1 hit point per round... Slaying of the tarrasque is said to be possible only if the monster is reduced to -30 or fewer hit points and a wish is then used. Otherwise, even the slightest piece of the tarrasque can regenerate and restore the monster completely. Legend says that a great treasure can be extracted from the tarrasque’s carapace. The upper portion, treated with acid and then heated in a furnace, is thought to yield gems (10d10 diamonds of 1,000 gp base value each). The underbelly material, mixed with the creature’s blood and adamantite, is said to produce a metal that can be forged by master dwarven blacksmiths into 1d4 shields of +5 enchantment.

The tarrasque lost its regeneration in 4e.

Anyway, this spawned the concept of "The city built around the tarrasque", the best thing that came out of RPGNet as far as I can remember.

The concept has been expanded further in reddit, etc.:


So basically you the a city built around an imprisoned tarrasque*, using its regenerating parts for all kinds of stuff.

(*Or, as I prefer it, the semi-dead, hallucinating carcass of the tarrasque).

So many good ideas spawned from this awesome concept.

Imagine the Tarrasque buried under a castle ... Maybe not everyone knows it is there, except some cultist, butchers... The city has small eathquakes from time to time, the nobles have discreet mutations, there are too many trolls in the area etc.

And PCs enter the picture without knowing what's going on. They may be invited to some of the nobility's peculiar banquets, where they serve the traditional meat dishes... Maybe they can take part in the invasion of this evil city (perhaps an expanding empire that has suddenly become too big to rule), unaware of the tarrasque's presence.

Picture the PCs discovering the monster AFTER they have defeated the city. How can they they maintain the shackles after the gaolers and butchers are gone?

Or maybe the other way around - the characters are hired to defend a city that will be attacked by bandits and savages (who, supposedly, covet the riches within).

[BTW, I wrote a one page adventure with a similar premise a while ago, maybe you can use it as inspiration].

In short, the saddest thing about the 5e tarrasque is not its diminished power, but the fact that it became a bit blander, and ignored one of the best monster stories created by D&D famdom.

As always... I really like 5e, but old school D&D is hard to beat.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

2020 is here, what do YOU need?

Happy new years folks!

Welcome to the year of the double-crit!

If you've been reading this blog, you might have seem my last post, with my plans and ideas for 2020.

In this post, I'm looking for suggestions.

(And if you already commented on that post, thank you! I am writing this down!)

Why, do you ask? Well, I enjoy writing, but I also enjoy being read. It's way better than writing for myself. I enjoy the feedback, the exchange of ideas, etc.

There are some things that I have to write, and I'll write them regardless of readers. Others are stuff I'm interested in, but there are so many possibilities heard that I'd rather focus on whatever people want to read about.

Of course, there is also lots of stuff that I am just not interested in. I am probably not the guy to create new spells for 5e, for example. Now, if you want a new spell system...

Anyways, here are the questions I wanted to ask you. What do YOU prefer? What do YOU want to read about? I'll keep my eye on this post for the entire year of 2020, so drop by in any moment to leave a comment.

Here are some dichotomies to think about... and choose from, if you will.

Blogging x Publishing

I'll do both, but I'm curious: are the readers of this blog interested in the stuff I publish? Do you like to see some of the ideas discussed here in an organized, finished manner? Or do you prefer the back and forth of brainstorming, discussing ideas, etc.? Maybe both?

Blogging is a lot easier than publishing. The advantage of publishing is that I can finally finish stuff... make choices an compromises instead of just coming up with ideas. And present my ideas in a condensed and polished manner for me and others to use. Harder than blogging, yes - but, I think, more useful in many ways.

There is another issue... Since we lost G+, I don't entirely thrust this anymore. Blogger could be gone tomorrow, and backing everything pu is a hassle. Now, about my books, I have backups up in multiple places... they aren't going anywhere.

OSR x 5e

Nowadays, I play only D&D and derivatives. My favorite editions are Basic (B/X, RC) and 5e. There are some similarities, but not always. Like many, I want a version of 5e that is closer to Basic. Something simpler, less convoluted. 

Dark Fantasy Basic does something like that, but it is more OSR than 5e, and has some 3.5x thrown in.

Are you interested in OSR stuff? 5e stuff? Or a mix of both?

Print x PDF

I have never published anything in print, and I have no experience with that. Some people have been asking me for print versions.

Even if you are not interested in my stuff, I'd like to know if you prefer print books or PDFs.

Art x Writing

Most of my small PDFs are pretty plain: a good cover and no interior art. Easy to print and to use, which suits me. 

Now, "big" books are a different matter. Without art, they become big wall of texts, and this is tiresome to the eyes. DFB has lots of (public domain) art because I wanted it to look a certain way. I'm sure I could do something similar with layout, etc., but again, I'm not an artist.

Manual of Arms has SOME art, providing illustration for new weapons (saber, falchion, etc.).

I could introduce more art to my small books, but I'm not sure how useful this is (and this means extra work, of course). What do you think?

Crunch x Fluff

I discuss mechanics quite a lot in this blog. Analyzing existing systems, creating house rules, etc. Its been quite a while since I gave you monsters, settings, etc. Here are a few examples: 1, 2, 3, 4. Would you like to see more of that? Or an adventure (based on this)?

In any case, I'll keep publishing random tables to generate monsters, settings, adventures, etc.

There are other types of content that I do not usually post... Do you like reviews? Posts about actual games I've run, like these two? Non-RPG book reviews like these three posts? Let me know!

One last thing: Curse of Strahd

I am in the final stages of running Curse of Strahd. I have a LOT to say about this module. However, this would only interest people that also want to run it - I assume the number is small. If you're interested in this, let me know!


This is what I've got for now. One of the most difficult things about writing is getting feedback - so I'll appreciate any feedback you can throw my way. Of course, if you enjoy reading my stuff, here is a good chance of tilting me towards stuff you're interested in. Thank you! 

I hope you have an awesome 2020!