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, 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&D 5e book.

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

Hint: it is not the reprinting of material I already own (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.

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

But does anyone NEED more character options?


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 expanded 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 haven'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.