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

Monday, March 30, 2020

RPG and design, III - Crunch IS Fluff (excavators can't jump!)

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)

Now that we've talked about crunch x fluff, it's time to consider one of the essential characteristics of RPGs. Maybe the most important one.

I'll explain that with a little tale...

Once upon a time, there was this young child who got a big book of mazes as a gift.

It was fun!

Here is one example:

But the kid had a hard time solving some mazes.

And some solutions were... well, unorthodox:

The kid didn't hesitate to take these unexpected paths. The explanation came immediately and naturally: "I think the penguin needs to make a small jump here... and here... and a big jump here".

There were no similar thoughts when solving puzzle #1. After all, excavators can't jump!

And this difference between puzzles #1 and #2 is what defines RPGs.

An adult would look at both puzzles and realize that the "fluff" is unimportant when solving the puzzle. Penguins and excavators are just a "coat of paint" over the actual game: find a path that doesn't crosses walls (or jumps over holes). The adult might even protest: "the solution given above is not even thinking outside of the box, it is downright breaking the rules of the game".

And, if you are an adult solving these kinds of puzzles, you'd be right.

However, RPGs are the opposite: if your character finds a hole in the dungeon, he can (try to) jump over it, even if there is no "jumping" skill in the game.

In a role-playing game, a chasm is never exactly like a wall.

In other words:

What defines role-playing games is that the fluff is always important to the crunch, and vice-versa.

Compare it to chess, for example.

What if you role-play your bishop as he jumps the enemy's queen, loudly denouncing her sins in the name of Pelor? Is it a role-playing game now?

No, because the fluff has no effect on the crunch.

That is also why some people used to say 4e is "not D&D"*: sometimes, the crunch is ortogonal to the fluff and vice-versa, which is a bit antithetical to RPGsTripping oozes isn't a given for most RPGs.

(*I do think D&D 4e is both D&D and an RPG, of course, but I dislike some of the ideas that 4e adopts, as the ones explained just above).

Coincidentally or not (probably not), the name we chose for our hobby exemplifies this idea.

Role-playing games require BOTH role-playing AND games IN COORDINATION.

Let's go back to the chess example, above; it is not a RPG because, even if you're doing both "at the same time", the are disconnected; one doesn't affect the other.

Likewise, if you gather a group of theater actors to make improvisation, it isn't a RPG because there is no game.

It is also easy to see that there is a strong link between "role-playing" and fluff, and also between "game" and crunch.

Of course, you could create a "role-playing game" that has nothing to do with traditional RPGs. For example, if no one can use the word "yes" (or lose 10 points) in this theather-improv-thing, it becomes a game. But that is not what I'm talking about here.

Traditional RPGs have other distinguishing characteristics. For example, having a GM distinguished form the players - the GM will take care of most of the "game" to give players more space to "role-play" (GMs will do RP and fluff too, of course). Or using dice. But there are RPGs without GMs or dice, and these are still RPGs.

Most traditional RPGs involve playing from the perspective of your character, instead of using your perspective as a player ("I know it would benefit our goals, but my character wouldn't do that!").

Notice that you can spend HOURS role-playing without reference to the mechanics. However, the mechanics are always ready; if negotiations fail and you must punch your adversary, you know exactly what kind of dice to roll. Again, these things don't have to be simultaneous, only coordinated.

It is hard to pin down exactly what separates traditional RPGs from live-action "murder mystery dinners", for example... And these are somewhat similar to LARPs. One important thing is probably that RPGs have specific mechanics to help you decide what a a character can or can't do. Level 3 fighter, Strength 15, Agility 12... Improv theater has nothing like that.

Well, enough for this post. Let me know what you think in the comments.

My next subject is probably some fluff-crunch failures or page layout and "form x function".

Thursday, March 26, 2020

RPG and design, II - Crunch x Fluff

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)

In my latest post about RPG design, I mentioned two functions for RPG books: "Manual" and "Encyclopedia".

One comment in that post mentioned an interesting blog post from Grindstonë Games with more accurate jargon: procedure information x reference information.

Procedure type info is basically the rules. The crunch [reference information is also crunch IMO; see below]. The rules might be a single unified mechanic or a million little different subsystems hobbled together. The rules might be light and let the DM wing it, or they might be comprehensive hoping to cover all of the more likely scenarios to prevent rules lawyers from dominating the game. They might be wedded to the Overview [see below] or they might be easily adapted to any world or situation.

Reference type info is the pile of entries that actually dominate most RPG. The monsters, the spells, and magic items and treasure are the best examples. You can continue to add more spells, and more monsters, to the game without fundamentally changing anything. If the GM doesn't like the additional spells they just don't appear and no harm done. Character classes and character races might fit into this category

In addition, it mentioned "overview information":

Overview is basically setting information and those bits of creative writing that occasionally introduce a section hoping to give it color. Setting may be separate from the rules (example D&D with its one set of rules and thousands of settings) or it may be built into the DNA of the game (example Stormbringer and Harnmaster). The choice of bonding a system to the setting can provide a richer experience but it could also hold that system back if folks think the setting is weird or would rather create their own (see RuneQuest and Glorantha). Adventure modules fit into this  category as well.

Now, I am not sure how this last piece of jargon is actually used in "the Darwin Information Typing Architecture" mentioned in the post. However, while the terms "procedure" and reference" are intuitive, "overview" is not as intuitive for me.

I think this part of RPGs - "creative writing", "color" - is what I'd call inspiration or fluff. From wikipedia:

Fluff: The setting and ambiance of a game, as distinct from the rules/mechanics*, particularly in reference to written descriptive material.

[* i.e., "crunch"; both procedures and references are crunch, IMO.]

There are chunks of pure inspirational material, or big piles of fluff. Good examples are the pieces of comic books and short stories that were inserted in many RPGs in the 90s, or a couple of quotes for "The Wire" (!) and other sources that you can find in games such as Dungeon World.

They are not as usual now. The reasons, for me, are quite obvious; while they are good for introducing readers to a new setting, they usually get in the way of procedures and references; read once, and take valuable space afterwards. Certain books, however, specially those written "in universe ("Volo's Guide...", etc.) are full of fluff.

Of course, there are also small pieces of fluff ALL OVER every product. A paragraph or two, or even a couple of lines. For example, the fact that a certain type of skeleton has a few arrows through its head, for example, or that its bones glow with a sickly purple radiance. Most "cosmetic" stuff is fluff.

In 5e, monster "crunch" is contained within a yellow box (lower left):

Or look at this 4e power; it is all crunch, except for the italicized part (fluff):

These distinctions are not always that obvious, but they are immensely useful.

Notice that you can change the fluff infinitely without affecting the crunch (the "weapon of divine..." could be a divine attack, a tactical move, a savage blow that inspires nearby allies, etc.*). However, the fluff must have some relation to the crunch, as we'll explain in a later post (this is a fundamental part of RPGs, often misunderstood).

(*Of course, that would require changing the "divine" keyword; in 4e, this part is crunch)

One last thing: unlike stated above, I wouldn't say that "adventure modules fit into this category [overview] as well".

Adventure modules may contain all three types of information. They are mostly reference (new trap, monsters, rooms, maps, etc.) + fluff, but can contain some additional pieces of procedure, although this is more uncommon. "Tomb of Annihilation" for 5e, for example, contain the "meat grinder mode"; a new (or merely alternative) procedure for death and dying.

There is a LOT more to talk about these issues, but that's enough for one post.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Magic item CREATION in D&D 5e

As far as I can tell, D&D 5e has no clear guidelines on how to create magic items "numbers"; +2 damage, additional 1d10 against undead, save DC 17, etc.

Not that you need many magic items - the DMG already has plenty of them and good "flavor" tables to generate more (appearance, purpose, etc.). 

In fact, I think the opposite is true: you could have fewer items and more tables to generate them. But some people prefer to have items ready for use... I discussed this issue here.

Anyway, I added item creation rules for two of my books: 100 Magic Weapons (Dark Fantasy) and Dark Fantasy Magic Items. The latter is better for creating items (it is also more recent), while the former has 100 weapons that are more or less ready to use.

Here is what Dark Fantasy Magic Items has to say on the matter of magic item mechanics (with some updating):

It is up to you to decide the statistics of each item. However, if you need to come up with something on the fly, you can roll 1d100 and use the table below. These statistics work for both contemporary games and Dark Fantasy Basic. You can roll once in each column if you want more variety (except rarity; you should choose that on your own [...see one example below].

Bonus. This bonus applies to attack rolls, damage, armor class, etc.

Damage. The damage a “destruction” item causes.

Maximum spell level. If an item replicates a spell, this is the maximum spell level allowed.

Saving throws. If some kind of damage allows a saving throw, augment the damage from d6s to d10s (or d8s if the saving throw only halves damage). The difficulty for all saving throws is suggested in the table below.

Score/checks. If an item allows a saving throw, this is the saving throw difficulty check. If an item changes one ability score to a fixed number, use this number. If a cursed item tries to control you mind, the saving throw also uses this number, etc.

Limitations. Items with powerful effects often have built-in limitations. Some are specific, functioning only in certain circumstances (for example, only against green dragons, not all dragons). Some require a person with certain alignment or class to use, or even certain deeds (“before the sword trusts you, you must slay an evil undead”).

Some items can be used only once or a few times a day (with the exception of protection, destruction, and movement). Others can be used once every hundred years (for example, an item that permanently changes your traits), or are destroyed after a single use. Some have expendable “charges” that are replenished at dawn, dusk… or when the item is bathed in human blood, slays a monster, etc.

The details are up to the GM.

Other details. Fill the rest of the details as appropriate for you game. All weapons should require attunement, except the ones that are consumable or very simple (for example, a sword that does nothing except a +1 to +3 bonus to attack and damage).

Max spell level
Very Rare

* I DO know that a +4 bonus is not usual in 5e; the way I see it, a +4 weapon would be legendary without needing any other features. A "lazy" weapon (you can certainly think of something cooler!), but not absurd.

Now let's combine this with something from 100 Magic Weapons:

Godslayer Axe. This black, long axe with a sinuous blade emits a faint dark aura, making lights around it a bit weaker. It deals force damage to celestials and fiends, and massive damage to archdaemons, archangels, deities, etc. Some legends say the axe itself will become a deity after slaying a certain number of powerful foes.

Let's roll 1d100, and we get... 57. So, this is a rare item that deals additional 2d6 damage against celestials, etc., and 4d6 against archangels, etc. Unimpressive? Roll 1d100 again to give it a bonus... 98! This makes it an extraordinary (very rare, or maybe "upgrade" it to legendary) +3 weapon.

Notice that "items with powerful effects often have built-in limitations". There is a built-in limitation already (it might become a deity), but if you want to limit it further, give it an alignment: maybe it only works against chaotic creatures and must be used by lawful PCs, or vice-versa. the DMG already has decent tables for that.

The result will look like this:


Godslayer Axe
Weapon (battleaxe or greataxe), very rare (requires attunement by a lawful character)

You gain a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic weapon.

This black, long axe with a sinuous blade emits a faint dark aura, making lights around it a bit weaker. It deals additional 2d6 force damage to celestials and fiends, or 4d6 damage to archdaemons, archangels, deities, etc. Some legends say the axe itself will become a deity after slaying a certain number of powerful foes.

Now I wonder... what if I combine these tables with the ones in the SRD? I could probably generate endless magic items with a few rolls. 

We will see... 


As I've said above, this is adapted from my books Dark Fantasy Magic Items and 100 Magic Weapons (Dark Fantasy). You can find it by clicking on the link above.

If you like this, you'll find more stuff like this on my Dark Fantasy line.

It is also a great way to support this blog!

Hope you enjoy it! Thanks!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

List of (currently) free RPGs (quarantine!)

A lot of awesome games were made free or PWIW during these difficult times. I decided to contribute with Dark Fantasy Places.

Here is a list of games that is currently free or PWIW, collected from social media. 

Feel free to remind me of other games that were made free or PWIW recently in the comment section. I will update when I can.

My sincere gratitude for everyone participating!



















Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Alchemist class

This month's topic in the RPG blog carnival is alchemy, and I thought I'd write about the alchemist class.

No version of D&D included this class in the core rule-books (IIRC), but there is an official version for 5e (in the Eberron book) and innumerable other versions out there (notably on Pathfinder).

However, I have never tried one in my games. The Eberron version looks decent enough (eh...) but seems to be more about balance than fun and explosions.

Here is how I'd go about creating an alchemist class, especially for OSR games.

"Balancing" an alchemist class seems difficult. The reason is that an alchemist could, at a first glance, give his potions away to his companions - unlike a wizard, for example, who can cast spells to help his companions but not give them the power of casting spells in his place.

In theory, an alchemist (and his group) could carry LOTS of potions and do unimaginable damage.

However, it seems to me that there is an easy (and fun) way to fix this.

For example, let's imagine we have a 5th level wizard that can cast a 5d6 fireball once a day.

How would a 5th level alchemist compare?

If he could prepare a 5d6 "fire potion" (something like a grenade) every day, he could in theory spend a month creating those and then conquer an entire dungeon by himself - or with a small group of henchmen.

The alchemist must then be limited somehow. Here is how:

A) Each potion has a duration, which varies according to the alchemist's level. It is hard to keep them for too long.

B) Each potion has a potency, which varies according to the alchemist's level. A high-level alchemist can create a powerful potion that weights only a couple of pounds.

C) Each potion has a chance of going wrong, which varies according to the alchemist's level.

D) Each potion has weight and cost, obviously, which limits the alchemist but only slightly (eventually, all PCs get lots of gold and henchmen). Some potions require special ingredients that cannot be easily bought; the hearth of a dragon, etc.

E) Potions are somewhat fragile, unless you're using special (heavy, costly) containers.

F) Potions are unstable. Now you see where I'm going with this, right?


Consider that the potion can go wrong (C), and not only during production, but also during use.
So, anyone can light a potion, but the alchemist does it better.

What if you make a mistake when you're lighting a fire potion?

Remember that you were carrying lots of fire potions in your backpack?


Of course, the same thing can happen if you're carrying these potions and get hit by a fireball. Better make the saving throw!

Same goes other potions:

Healing potions: Maybe you can produce enough to heal an entire village - but if you give 10 healing potions to the same person, you'll get diminishing returns very soon.

Oil of sharpness: makes swords very sharp... but will ruin them if used repeatedly. Unless the sword is magical etc. Which means you can benefit your adventurer friends, but not an entire arm of peasants.

Philter of love: after the love wears off, only hatred remains!

And so on.

Of course, you can use the idea to take the alchemist class to another direction. Maybe anyone can brew and drink potions, but the alchemist is great at resisting the side-effects - like the Witcher [of course, you could go for something more mundane - maybe the alchemist wears protective gear all the time, like the plague doctor from dark dungeons, pictured above].

In this case, the alchemist is no longer a careful scientist that spends lots of time in a lab.

Instead, he becomes some kind of mutant creature filled with magical steroids.

Sounds a lot more fun... wouldn't you agree?


Since we're on the subject, I have a few ideas on how to generate magic items - including potions - in my book Dark Fantasy Magic Items. You can find it by clicking on the link above.

If you like this, you'll find more stuff like this on my Dark Fantasy line.

It is also a great way to support this blog!

Hope you enjoy it! Thanks!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The beauty of Magic Points (MP)

There are innumerable magic systems out there. The "Vancian" spell slots might be the most famous one among people who play RPGs, but for anyone who has never played D&D, it will almost always sounds like something novel and a bit bizarre.

One popular alternative in videogames is magic points (MP), spell points, mana points, etc.. This is not so common in fiction, for a number of reasons*. One reasons is that this method seems to logical, too "quantifiable", too... videogamey, I guess.

I once thought MP to be too "rational", too... However, I've come to realize there are also many benefits to this approach.

Let us mention a few. You COULD use some of this with spell slots or random casting, but MP just makes it a lot easier easier.

1. Less notes/charts. MP requires less bookkeeping when compared to Vancian magic, and less "chart checking" when compared to random results.

2. Better than HP. You could always use hit points (HP) instead of MP, but that brings other issues. First, if you can heal HP using magic, this could bring you infinite HP. In addition, all wizard would require lots of HP to function... which goes against the archetype.

3. Divisibility and party composition. If a fighter recovers half HP overnight, or 10% of HP in an hour, etc., how many spell slots does a wizard recover? Unless the answer is "all", it becomes complicated. MP could recover at the same rate as HP, making all members in te party recover their resources at the same time.

4. Short rest/long rest. Even if you want to keep a distinction between these two, MP makes things easier. Maybe wizards recover more MP overnight, but sorcerers recover more MP during a short rest.

5. Fueling MP. You can fuel your MP through various means - provided your know the rituals. Prayer, meditation, trance, study, ritual sacrifice... the possibilities are endless, and a great way of distinguishing spellcasting classes WITHOUT needing a different system for each.

6. Sacrificing MP. Sacrificing your MP FOREVER is a great way to cause permanent effects upon the world. Maybe it is even the only way of creating magic items, etc.

7. Temporary MP. On the other hand, being in the right place or time (the stars are right!) might give you temporary MP. Failing to use MP will bring your MP level slowly back to its usual rate.

8. Meta-magic. MP is great for meta-magic. For example, spend 2 additional MP and double the distance of the spell. Spend 10 additional MP and multiply the duration for 10 (or 1000, depending on your system, etc.)

9. Combining with other systems. You can always combine MP with other systems - maybe you must sacrifice some HP permanently to get MP, for example, or make a roll to see if your spell causes unintended side-effects or, if your roll is good enough, costs you no MP at all.

[EDIT]. 10. Mana potions! Potions, stones, ley lines... several items that could give you extra MP in an easier way than spell slots. Additionally, magic items can store MP for their own spells. It is only appropriate to include this, since this month's topic in the RPG blog carnival is alchemy!

Since I often play D&D-like games, if I were to use such a system, I would like to make it compatible to existing spells. 5e already has rules for this, but I'd try something even simpler... Maybe something like that:

- You get your Intelligence modifier + level in MP.
- A 3rd-level spell requires 3 MP, etc.
- You cannot use more than half your MP at once, or you risk catastrophe.

The exact amount of MP may vary... Probably add a few MP when you reach levels 5, 11 and 17, etc.

* Well, the most common explanation in fiction might be "it is magic, we don't have to explain it". Sometimes this is due to bad writing, but sometimes the authors just want to make magic mysterious.


While we are on the subject, I have a book called Dark Fantasy Magic. It contains shorts essays and many tables that deal with magic, wizards, spells, etc. You can find it by clicking on the link above.

If you like this, you'll find more stuff like this on my Dark Fantasy line.

It is also a great way to support this blog!

Hope you enjoy it! Thanks!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Review: Cha'alt

Disclaimer: the author (Venger As'Nas Satanis) sent me a review copy (PDF) of this book, after asking me if I was interested in reviewing it. We occasionally interact on social media.

Cha'alt* is the latest setting book by Venger Satanis. Mostly a megadungeon ("the black pyramid") and its surroundings - the land, settlements, factions, NPCs, etc.

If you ever read something by Venger, deciding whether to buy Cha'alt or not is easy. This is Venger to the umpteenth potency. It's gonzo, tongue-in-cheek, full of weirdness and pop culture references. It is both inspiring and confusing. If you like his stuff, you will like this; if you dislike it, this one is unlikely to change your opinion (for the most part).

If you haven't - or is still on the fence - read on.

The contents

The book has 218 pages. It starts with an overview, followed by couple of dungeons, then "the Gamma Incel Cantina", the Black Pyramid megadungeon, and an Appendix (see "mechanics", below).

This book is uneven. So uneven, in fact, that it is sometimes uneven in its unevenness - which means, some parts are more consistent than others. Let's dissect it a little...

The looks - and layout

This book looks impressive. It is full of good artwork, some of it awesome. It is all over the place: realistic, cartoony, photo-shopped pictures of real people, etc. The maps are clear, colorful and just plain COOL - better than most stuff I find in current D&D. The overall quality is above average.

Likewise, the layout is good - but full of ocasional strange choices, and lots of white space (sometimes filled by quotes, exotic markings, blood-spatters and so on). Overall, it looks good, even though it could be condensed a lot.

There are lots of good choices - using color-coding for groups of NPCs or to mark the sections in the black pyramid, for example - but also baffling ones - like adding information that applies to the entire setting inside a chapter that describes a particular location (the fact that "approximately 10% of humanoids in Cha'alt have psionic abilities" is mentioned in "Inside the Frozen Violet Demon-Worm", for example.)

Despite these reservations, the visuals are really striking.


The first chapter, Overview, tells you the basics about Cha'alt: history, geography, factions, monsters, etc. This part of the book is both strong and mostly consistent. It contains the exact amount of information to provide inspiration without exhaustion - by avoiding boring, useless information.

It is about 25 pages long, and would make an interesting setting book by itself - heavily based on post-apocalyptic fiction such as Dune (lots of Dune) , Dark Sun, Carcosa, etc., plus Lovecraft and others. As you can see in the link, this are sources that work very well together, in my opinion. But Venger also sci-fi, TV commercials, comedy movies, current issues (fracking, etc.) and lots of puns in the mix, which... takes the material to another direction.

Cha'alt is currently a post-apocaliptyc world, with advanced technology like lasers and nukes... but unevenly distributed. The fact that "recently, the spice rush has brought hundreds of starships looking to plunder the planet's riches" adds an interesting twist to it - it seems that the PCs can easily realize that the universe is doing fine, it is only the planet that is doomed. Even though the invaders are aggressive slavers, it make me wonder if most inhabitants would prefer to ally with the enemy rather than fight to protect this wasted planet.

The chapter includes "The Exotic Races of Cha'alt"... which aren't really that exotic, just elves of various colors. A strange and somewhat disappointing choice, considering the weirdness of the material, but not hard to fix.

The Cantina

The "Gamma Incel Cantina" is a tavern/strip club with 69 patrons. They are divided in groups, but the groups' objectives are not always clear. I'm not sure how to use this. I would imagine that most people don't go into taverns (or strip clubs) to socialize with strangers. If you want to socialize, well, some NPCs are described as "single", "bi-sexual" or "flower vagina with sensitive petals"... anyway, if you want to make an Alpha Blue crossover, this is a good place to start.

This sections is 15 pages long an has some relevant information about the setting which should probably be included in the "overview" section.

The Dungeons

The book has two small dungeons - 15 to 20 pages. They do a decent job of mixing a more traditional outlook with some of Venger's brand of weirdness. Good introductions to the setting.

The main part of the book is The Black Pyramid - about 120 pages, describing a megadungeon with 111 rooms. And when you get to the black pyramid... all the bets are off.

First, there are rumors, encounters, strange phenomena that may happen if you leave the pyramid or come back, etc. The contents are weird (in a good way), but the structure is pretty traditional. Likewise, the structure of the pyramid is strange - maybe inspired by Cube - but cool and easy to grasp. The overview of the pyramid, like the overview of the setting, is useful and inspiring.

Now, the rooms are random, REALLY random. The pyramid contains orcs, a pizzeria, a village, aliens, a podcast recording session, a couple of dragons, clowns, anthropomorphic fruits, a tiki bar, a game show, a clone of Rob Schneider... with more "traditional" stuff like cultists, robots, tentacled aberrations, great old ones, etc. Time works in strange ways, but space is often entirely ignored (the rooms are divided in squares... but there is no scale or coherence).

The relationship between the factions is also defined by a random table.

In short, the dungeon is chaotic, strange, and full of color and flavor. The rooms are separated in sections of different colors, and some rooms have obvious connections to others in the same section, but many rooms would fit any place, apparently - maybe you could have a d100 tables with all the rooms. A small section describing each "color" would help a lot - if there is a meaning to the whole thing.

But is there? Here is what the book says:

"Eventually, the PCs will see patterns linking one thing to another. [...] That's normal for
human beings. We try to make sense of seemingly random stuff as if the world were made up of clues. If the players or their characters see a connection, go with it.  [...] Obviously, many connections are intentional. [...] Even the pyramid denizens are split into factions about the nature of things within their devil-stone home. Some believe there's no bigger picture, it's all just randomized nonsense. [...]"

Make of that what you will.


Once again, it goes from "very good" from "baffling". Cha'alt is mostly OSR-compatible; the stat-blocks are good-looking and easy to grasp. Most monsters have cool mechanics and powers instead of just HD and HP.

It seems obvious that the monsters were created with care (all the numbers seem to be in the right ballpark to me). On the other hand, the sheer amount of "save or die" powers and traps makes me believe "balance" was not a big priority here.

(BTW: sometimes there is no save. Enter an empty room, say a password out loud or you're disintegrated. End of story).

It might be a good fit for a DCC character "funnel". Start with 20 PCs. A lot of them will die. Do not get attached.

The book includes an Appendix for "Crimson Dragon Slayer d20", a simples OSR system that looks neat - with only classes and levels, but NO need for abilities (there is a new, improved version for free). It ALSO contains a 1d100 table to generate abilities for PCs and NPCs, for no clear reason.

I'm probably nitpicking here - this table is 3 pages long and easily ignored, and might be useful if your system actually uses abilities.

In conclusion...

Cha'alt is not easy to explain. Is it original? Yes. Is it derivative? Yes. Good ideas? Yes. Silly puns and obscure references? Yes. Philosophy and politics? Yes. Meta-linguistics? Yes. A pizza-delivery corvette inside the pyramid? Also yes. Is the author himself presented as one NPC (or two...) inside the setting? You bet!

Is it average, then? Definitely not.

It is easy to say "you will either love or hate it", or that "it is full of good ideas but you'll have to find them among the nonsense". But I am not even sure that applies. The whole black pyramid is so extravagant that I'm tempted to use it EXACTLY as written in order to experience the whole thing. Most dungeon rooms would be out of place in other dungeons, but the setting and main ideas are very good and ready to use.

It is almost as if there is two books in there - one of them weird and well-written, and other (the rooms inside the pyramid) just completely random, experimental and crazy.

Toning the whole thing down and organizing it more would make the book ten times more useful for me... but it might be missing the whole point. There are lot of neat dungeons out there, but there is nothing quite like Cha'alt as far as I can remember. Like it or not, Cha'alt is quite unique.

In short: get Cha'alt if you're looking for something gonzo, random, novel and fun, with great looks and lots of unexpected twists. Avoid it if you want something balanced, sensible or predictable. If you are unfamiliar with Venger, this is a good place to start.

If you are interested in Cha'alt, get it here*.

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Friday, March 06, 2020

Quick, RANDOM, and BALANCED abilities for 5e D&D

This idea is adapted to fifth edition from Dark Fantasy Characters; I also wrote about this before

However, this time the table is simpler, faster and perfectly "legal" in 5e - it means you could achieve the same results from the standard "point buy" system. 

Here is how it works: roll 1d20 three times, using the table below. Each roll defines two ability scores.

Ability scores
15, 8
8, 15
14, 9
9, 14
13, 12
12, 13
15, 8
8, 15
12, 12*
12, 12*
11, 13*
13, 11*
9, 14*
14, 9*
8, 14**
14, 8**
13, 10**
10, 13**
12, 11**
11, 12**

One suggestion: the first roll defines Strength and Intelligence. The second, Wisdom and Dexterity. And the third for Constitution and Charisma. 

This creates strongly archetypal characters, but not necessarily optimal for 5e - specially if you want a specific class, such as Monk or Eldritch Knight. It also creates some odd results from time to time. Because of that, it should be OK to swap some abilities around or even assign them at will.

After getting six scores, can raise one ability score for each asterisk you got. Raising an ability score from 13 to 14 or from 14 to 15 takes two asterisks. You cannot start beyond 15 at this point (although races, feats, etc., might allow you to do so). 

If you want to give a player some incentive to use random rolls instead of point-buy, just give him an extra asterisk or two.

Example: if you roll 3, 17, and 5, you'd get Strength 14, Intelligence 9, Wisdom 13, Dexterity 10, Constitution 13 and Charisma 12, plus one asterisk (allowing you to raise Int, Dex or Cha by one point). A decent fighter, probably some kind of leader.


If you like this post, you might enjoy Dark Fantasy Characters.

It contains a collection of tables to inspire the creation of characters.

It includes tables meant for player characters, non player characters, or (frequently) both.

The focus is on dark fantasy tropes: flawed heroes, terrible villains, corrupting magic, ominous ruins and damned wastelands.

This is system-less book, to be used with any game of your choice (except for one table, which is similar to the one in this post, but with some additional suggestions for "epic" or "gritty" games, and so on).