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, June 21, 2021

Shadow of the Demon Lord, session 0 - first impressions

So, I've started my Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign.

Session zero was just talking and building characters. Generating PCs is really fast. You don't have many options; choose your ancestry, roll some dice, and you're mostly done. You start at level 0, so you have no class.

There are six ancestries in the main book: Humans, Changelings, Clockworks, Dwarfs (yes, dwarfs), Goblins and Orcs. It is an odd listing; not very original but not entirely classic. If you're keeping dwarves (yes I call then dwarves) and orcs I'd change changelings (ha!) for elves. But you can get elves in other book... so that's fine I guess.

Humans and clockworks are diverse enough, but dwarves, orcs, changelings and goblins are very similar in all but appearance (all orcs are strong, dumb and ugly, all goblins agile, etc.). Dwarves at least get to pick a favored enemy, which is cool. I might add one attribute point to each ancestry if I were to create new characters, so you'd have some variation between characters of the same ancestry.

Overall, the ancestries feel very Tolkien-ish (or some dark vanilla twist). I'm not crazy about it, but it works well.

Each ancestry gets its own tables. They provide some variation in appearance and background. Then you have professions, personality traits, wealth and "interesting things".

These tables are good, but incredibly uneven. You can end up with a "servant", "A pair of boots that grants you 1 boon on rolls to sneak or a gray cloak that grants you 1 boon on rolls to hide", "a can of beets", "a pungent stench" or a "bizarre fetish".

Also, if you roll 18 on the wealth table (3d6), you start with "a personal servant, a guard, and three horses with saddles".

Yeah, you've guessed - I just made everybody start with "getting by" wealth and let them choose their own "interesting thing", but gave myself veto powers on the worst cases.

Overall... I really like it so far. I might have made some different choices, but the straightforward ancestry, with small pieces of customization seem to strike a good balance between simplicity and options.

The randomness is limited to fringe traits. Your PC might be better or worse, but he or she will never be unplayable, since attributes are mostly unaffected by your rolls.

I could see something similar working very well for 5e or OSR games (well, I have my own solutions).  But let's keep the design stuff aside - for now, I'm playing the game as written.

I'll let you know how it goes!

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Saturday, June 12, 2021

The individualism of modern D&D

I wrote a post about the origins of alignment a long time ago. It is one of my favorite posts in this blog. I thought I'd make it into a series, discussing alignment through all editions, etc., but nothing really occurred to me.

Now that D&D is trying to get rid of alignment (in the most recent books), I'd like to briefly go back to the topic. This post is not only about alignment, but it plays an important part.

In that post, I've mentioned that the move of alignments from "factions" to "individual behavior/philosophy" is part of a natural process as D&D moved from wargame (focused on armies) to RPG (focused on individual characters). 

Well, the move is nearly complete. Now even monsters aren't good or evil; tigers and demons must be judged on an individual basis.

But alignment is not the only change. If you compared early D&D to modern D&D, you'll see the "social" aspects were more important. You had hirelings, morale (i.e., if your team runs, you run), reaction rolls, and so on. Now, it is all about the single character. He might have a pet or sidekick, but he is always the star of the show (or ONE of they stars, like in the Avengers movies; although "solo play" becomes incresingly popular, and big tables more rare).

You can see it in monster statblocks too; in AD&D 2e, for example, you had information on diet, habitats, social organization; the number of monsters you'd find in an encounter or lair were also important. Now that is lost. The number encountered will be randomly determined, maybe level appropriate.

The "exploration" side of the game is also a bit weakened. Instead of, for example, finding a magic weapon by chance and carrying it around, you are specialized in certain weapons, so your character traits defines what weapons you'll carry.

Character complexity has grown exponentially. PCs now have feats, bonds, flaws; they are carefully built instead of randomly rolled. Deliberate character creation and development became an important part of the game.

Now we have have races, subraces, custom lineages, etc. (in addition to classes, subclasses, multiclasses). In some of the earlier versions, non-human PCs had level limits, since humans were the majority and they were the exception. Now, humans are only one - and maybe the most homogenous, since there is no "custom human" IIRC - of many different lineages.

(A recent example: Drizzt Do'Urden was once an outcast, a good-alingned rebel from an evil culture of "Dökkálfar", and now apparently part of a majority of good drow).

And, of course, the nonhumans become stranger and stranger - now you can play as a snake-man, undead, cyborg, and so on. The old limitations make no sense now - a dwarf can be a wizard, an elf can be a cleric, and so on.

 Like in 13th Age, each PC is unique.

It is not about humans exploring a strange world anymore - is about a group of strange people exploring, well... themselves? Or, most likely, they are exploring a world that has more internal coherence than the party. [For example, when playing Curse of Strahd, I've noticed that the PCs were some of the strangest being  around; the rest of the setting is what you'd expected from a "gothic horror valley".]

The importance of the party is also downplayed. To mention some games I enjoy, modern D&D is more like Skyrim or Dark Souls than Darkest Dungeon. While in DD only the fate of the party matters, in the other games you have to build a single character and try again and again until you succeed.

In the wargame period, characters would take one "hit" and they'd be dead, unless they were heroes or superheroes. I think it was Arneson who noticed people would get attached to their characters, and then hit point were made. I'm thinking that the next step is simply making PCs immortal - you can change your character when you get tired of it, and he/she only dies with the player's permission.

Well, is this good or bad?

The answer, obviously, is neither. It boils down to a matter of taste. You do not have to choose one way or another; you can play with these things. For example:
If you find alignment too restrictive, we could go the opposite way - adopt one or multiple "mien" from Troika* (e.g., Hungry, Confused,  Protective, Greedy, Conniving), one or multiple goals from Teratogenicon, or let behavior be described by any appropriate expression (chaotic, lawful, greedy, hungry, indifferent, territorial, aggressive, shy, etc.). Of course, each individual creature might be different - but having some way to start the process is useful.
The same goes for hit points and lethality. Do you want unique, carefully built PCs? Maybe you they shouldn't die in the first session. Do you prefer high lethality? Maybe players should be able to create new PCs quickly.

It is not about black and white, either. There are shades of gray. The extremes (for example, "nobody ever dies" and "at least one PC dies every session") are less popular than moderate versions.

I've played Ravnica campaigns in which I wanted the PCs to be strange; we had a great time. I certainly enjoy the weird creatures of Dark Sun and Tékumel. In Curse of Strahd, the strange PCs felt out of place, but I've found some alternatives). 

Now I'm starting a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign (the sale is still on!). The game is fairly lethal, so I'm happy that character creation is really quick and starting PCs are really simple. I really like character customization to happen gradually, and Shadow of the Demon Lord is great at that (it has way more customization than some old school games, for example, but not as much in the beggining of the game like 5e).

Just try some different play-styles and see what suits you best!

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Sunday, June 06, 2021

Postapocalyptic Disney

I've watched glimpses of Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon this weekend. This is not a full review, I've watched barely fifteen minutes in total. From what I've read, it is not as cool as Moana, although it is reminiscent of it (I think it is the same studio or something). Anyway, the kids liked it.

But the world-building is somewhat interesting. No, really. Extinct dragons, ravaged lands, floating markets, warring nations (The Last Airbender-style) endless people being petrified by a mysterious plague, sword-whips, and mounts that are a combination of pill bugs and dogs (while other nations ride giant tigers). Reminds me not only of Frozen and Moana but also of Dark Sun and The Three-Body Problem. Anyway, go watch the trailer and you'll see what I mean.

(BTW, I haven't watched The Last Airbender is any version. I'd guess it has more interesting ideas and a better plot, but I couldn't tell).

Disney's specialty is gathering great public domain stories - starting with Brothers Grimm etc. but now encompassing folklore from all over the world - bowdlerizing all of it, adding some cool stuff, and then defending "their" IP with tooth and claw. In addition to some allegations about the filming of Mulan that I won't discuss here - since I have limited knowledge about this - but it certainly turned me off from the movie and cast a grim shadow over the whole enterprise.

So, as a company, Disney is pretty similar to Smaug defending "his" treasure. Which might be realted to the reason Tolkien never allowed a Disney version of his books. But I digress.

The nice part about all of this is the "adding some cool stuff". They have some great and decent writers, and they come up with good ideas, even when it is all bowdlerized and infantilized for mass consumption (of course, they also have GREAT movies, mostly form Pixar, in addition to marvelous animation).

And, somehow, the worst movies seem to have the best ideas. Moana has a great pacing and story - Campbellian to the core - but it doesn't inspire me to actually add stuff to my games. Frozen, on the other hand, has a pretty interesting villain (Elsa), despite not being a great movie (the sequel is even worse from what I've seem). Rapunzel is also mediocre and gave me some ideas about magic flowers and so on.

I have no idea why is that.

I think what I'm trying to say is... getting classic stuff from folklore, then adding new elements to it, and adding a dark twist on top can be the fodder for great ideas. We've seem it in The Witcher, for example, and also in Fables. I've been tempted to writing my own version of a "dark fairytale" setting for a while (this in only one example; I wrote a few short stories about a shoemaker who enslaves elves, about  a a hunter and a little girl (both with their own beasts inside), and about a prince who wants to cut a mermaid in half for... reasons. Of course, you'd have to be extremely careful to avoid using actual Disney stuff, but since most of the material is PD anyway, shouldn't be hard to circumvent their lawyers (who probably have bigger stuff to take care of).

Anyway, this is all I've got for today. I hope you have a great week!

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Shadow of the Demon Lord sale

Shadow of the Demon Lord (SotDL)* is one of my favorite "versions" of D&D. I have it in both PDF and print - it is one of the few non-D&D, non-GURPS books I have in print. It is, in many ways, more interesting than D&D 5e.

It does many things we have been discussing here in terms of "minimalist D&D": most things are just contested rolls. If you have Str 17 (+7) and your target has Agility 15 (+15), for example, you just have to roll 1d20+7 and beat 15 (barring armor, etc.).

Another thing I enjoy are boons/banes - SotDL's version of advantage/disadvantage. Add a d6 to your d20 roll if you have one boon. If you have three boons, you roll 3d6, but only add the highest. This keeps both simplicity and "bounded accuracy".

The coolest thing about the system is that it keeps some simplicity while giving you LOADS of character options, but they are organized in a way to make choices limited according to your level.

The only thing the system is missing is a SRD, I guess, so we could easily edit and share our house rules. Schwalb does offer some possibility of publishing 3rd party stuff, IIRC.

Of course, I also enjoy the "dark fantasy" aspect of the game. It is in many way a darker, leaner version of D&D, with lots of humor and gore - something in the vein of Warhammer.

The random tables are also fantastic.

In short, if you like my stuff, you'll probably like this one too.

I'll probably write a longer review someday... For now, I'll just mention that apparently all Shadow of the Demon Lord books are on sale through June. The sale includes other titles, such as PunkApocalyptic.

Now, while I have acquired a lot of SotDL modules, I haven't actually read many, so I'll hold the recommendations for now... but I'll let you know as soon as I have something else to recommend.

EDIT: I am starting to get into Tales of the Demon Lord and I'd like to say... I like what I see so far. I think I'll actually run this campaign very soon! Stay tuned for more updates...

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Monday, May 31, 2021

Fortitude/Reflex/Will in D&D 5e: another quick fix

D&D 5e saving throws has pros and cons; overall, I like it, but I think it could be a bit better. I wrote a post about that in 2015.

It just occurred to me that there's a simpler and better solution to do Fortitude/Reflex/Will in D&D 5e.

Here is how it goes: Fortitude is the average of your Strength and Constitution. Round up. Reflex the average of Int and Dex, and Will the average of Wis and Cha.

BTW, use Reflex for initiative if you want to. And Fortitude for concentration checks. Now spellcasters have some use for strength, and fighters some use for Intelligence. Nice, right?

In addition now, everyone is proficient in every save. Features that add proficiency (monk etc.) now give a +2 bonus intead. Or something.

This way, we have just cut the number of saving throws by half, removed one class distinction, gave Intelligence and Charisma a bigger role, increased STs in high levels (a worthy fix IMO) and made odd ability scores a bit more useful in some circumstances.

Not bad for a quick fix!

Saturday, May 29, 2021

LAST DAYS of the D&D Settings Sale (DTRPG) - 3rd-party and OSR picks

The D&D setting sale is nearly finished. I talked about "official" D&D picks here. Now let's take a look at 3rd party and OSR stuff.

The Midgard Worldbook for 5th Edition and PFRPG is my main interest here, as it is published by Kobold Press, which makes some of my favorite 3rd-party monster books, Tome of Beasts and Creature Codex.

Yugman's Guide to Ghelspad Collected Volume (5e OGL) is a collection of player options for the Scarred Lands setting. I've read about the setting and the premise is very interesting... I think I'd prefer the setting book first, but if you want more player options for 5e, Yugman's might be worth the look.

There is some OSR stuff in the sale. Midlands Low Magic Sandbox is a setting for one of my favorite OSR games, Low Fantasy Gaming. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is a great AD&D sword & sorcery clone - this is the second edition, there is a third edition on the way. Another OSR settings that caught my attention are The Midderlands and the Wormskin zines.

Missed the sale? No problem!

Unfortunately, apparently none of my books were included in the sale. So here is a 50% discount for my Dark Fantasy Settings. I think it is only appropriate! It is good for a week.

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Ø2\\‘3|| is out. [Yes you've read it right]

Ø2\\‘3||, the new book by Jens  Durke* (The Disoriented Ranger) is out (at a discounted price as I write this).

While I do not fully understand the name choice, I've read the book in an earlier version (and gave Jens my impressions), so I cannot write an unbiased review (I also consider myself "internet friends" with Jens), but I think this is an interesting RPG - one of a kind, really. Maybe you could see it as the 2021 version of Paranoia - once we were afraid once war, treason and constant vigilance, now we are threatened by social media, AI, infantilization, fake news and, well, constant vigilance.

It also reminds me of Misspent Youth* or Cyberpunk* somewhat. But these are just references - Ø2\\‘3|| has its own things going on.

The writing is good, and it paints a very grim picture of the future. Here is the blurb:

Welcome to a very dark world ...

This game is designed with the DM in mind instead of the next product to sell. You buy this, you’ll have all the content you’ll ever need to play this game for a very long time. We will offer supplements in the near future, of course, but what you get here is as complete as we could make it.

The setting is Europe in the year 2081, unified under one totalitarian party called The Family. The United States of Europe (USE, for short) are a playground for all the bad ideas this century has already come up with (and some of the classics from the last 100 years). Citizens are rated by an arbitrary and mean Social Status system, puberty blockers are mandatory for all but the Elites. All of this is shrouded through a huge media ruse: reality is hidden behind a fully augmented and gamified layer, maintained by an AI implanted at birth and controlled by The Family. Citizens never grow up, just grow older and if they aren't high in social status, they are bled and used for everything they have, most of the time without even realizing it. That veil is lifted for some, and with that comes resistance (or opportunity).

It’s a game that assumes players are open to exploring all kinds of ideas and willing to put some thought into the stories they tell and experienced DMs who want to explore a system that challenges them as well. It is also a satire of a dystopian future that may not yet fall upon us …

You will find in this fully illustrated tome:

  • a completely free-form character generation that lets players create exactly what they want

  • a character advancement that emerges in-game with play and for each character individually

  • an original game engine that creates a base narrative for a DM to manifest their campaign on

  • a unique cinematic combat system that mixes tactical gaming with storytelling freedom

  • a point based economy that can empower players but will also strengthen the DM response

  • tools to create a complete and dynamic dystopian sandbox for your players to explore

  • 5 years worth of writing, researching, designing and play-testing

Reading it may depress or elate you, playing it will make you laugh and discuss. Or, as a friend of the game put so eloquently:

Start this game engine, it produces satire!

If all that sounds as if it could be for you, you should give this a shot.

All the work was put into making this the best book it can be, not a pdf. This is dead tree only.

I'd recommend you check this one out especially if you like:

- Tragic/satiric views of our possible futures.
- Very dark humor.
- Games such as "Paranoia" and "We happy few".
- Books like 1984, Brave New World, and The Futurological Congress, or anything by PKD.
- Black Mirror.
- Amazingly creepy art.
- A new, unique system (Jens writes about OSR stuff, but this is very much a modern system).

Monday, May 24, 2021

Minimalist D&D XI - the three classes

I'll probably give up on re-writing the whole system; there are just too many spells to consider. I'll just have a version  to introduce new players into the game, with a few DM tips, and I might use it for my own games (since I don't like spell slots, etc.). As always, I think I'll make most of these things optional. Except, maybe, for spell points.

Without further ado, using 5e rules with some changes defined in this "Minimalist D&D" series, here are my three classes:

Copyright WotC

HD: 1d10 per warrior level.
You get an extra attack at levels 5th, 11th and 17th.
You get +1 to hit, damage, and AC. With your favorite weapon type (swords, maces, spears, polearms, unarmed, grappling, etc.), you get +2 to hit instead.
With every new level after the first, you can learn a cool battle maneuver (probably with a bonus action or reaction) or power (rage, an improved second wind, re-roll a saving throw, making an extra attack, tripling the damage of a crit, etc. - each one costs one HD), or raise one ability score.

HD: 1d8 per expert level.
Starting at 5th level, when an attacker that you can see hits you with an attack, you can use your reaction to halve the attack’s damage against you. At level 11th, you add 1d6 when rolling any skills. When you reach 17th level, you can take two turns during the first round of any combat. You take your first turn at your normal initiative and your second turn at your initiative minus 10. You can’t use this feature when you are surprised.
Choose one broad skill (observation, nature, arcana, craft, etc.) - you have advantage while performing this skill. You can spend one hit die to give yourself advantage in other skills.
You add 1d6 times half your level (round up) to your sneak attacks.
With every new level, you can choose a cool move you can make with a with a bonus action or reaction - hide, help, disengage, give yourself advantage in your next attack, etc., or some cool power (usually related to movement, hiding, or spell) you can use by spending HD, or raise one ability score.

HD: 1d6 per spellcaster level.
Spells/cantrips: start with three, add one per level. Pick a spell list from one of the existing classes, and you must use the same
Free spell: you can cast one spell per day without using any spell points or HD.
Spell points: you have one spell point, plus one per level. They refresh at the same time and at the same rate as HD. It costs one SP or HD per spell level to cast a spell (smite and turn undead are now spells, BTW).
Spell levels: the maximum level you can cast is equal to half your level (round up).
Feats/ability score raises? Maybe a few on even levels. Yo'ure already getting plenty of power on odd levels.

No saving throws (you probably roll against the target's abilities). No skills (only skill sets the expert can get). No fighting styles. No weapon or armor restrictions (if you can pay for it and carry it, go for it). We are ditching EVERYTHING but abilities and a few features.

And that's about it. Let me know if anything seems unbalanced.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Minimalist D&D X: Spell-points

I've talked about this idea before. What if, instead of trying to manage multiple separate resources (spells slots, rages per day, spell casting without spells slots per short rest, etc.), you had ONE single resource to record?

Well, let's put it in practice. We will start with spell points (SP); this method has multiple advantages.

But first let's see what we have:

I must confess I have a hard time keeping track of each slot. The fact that we need a table turns me off, but that's traditional. "Signature Spells" add another layer of complexity by requiring two SEPARATE "pools". 

I wish we could have something simpler.

Well, the warlock is a bit simpler, right? Kinda. Fewer spells, but more options (patrons, pacts, invocations...). 

Maybe the sorcerer? Not quite. She has spell slots AND spell points. And you can convert one to the other. You need a table for that.


The alternative rules for spell points in the DMG are barely an improvement over spell slots. It gives spellcasters more flexibility with no cost:

Is there a pattern (other than max spell level)? I fail to see it. The numbers are all over.

Maybe we should start with the sorcerer, since she ALREADY has spell points (or "sorcery points"). IMO, it would be cooler, easier, and more distinctive if she ONLY had those. Let's see:

So, let's see what we can do with that.

Instead of slots, we get sorcery points. We could just add the spell point totals to the existing sorcery points, but I'd prefer a more "aesthetically satisfying" table. Here is my suggestion: start with 5 spell points, add 5 per even level, and 10 per odd level, until level 10.

Starting on level 11, you get a single spell point per level. In addition to that, you get to cast a 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th spell ONCE PER DAY in the appropriate levels (11, 13, 15, and 17) without spending spell points (plus an extra 6th level spell on 19th and 7th level on 20th). Here you go:

It is a small nerf in the high levels but a fair cost for the flexibility, IMO. It still needs some fine tuning (and maybe some way of dealing with "loose" spell points), but I really like the result.

I haven't eliminated spell slots, exactly, but cut them by half, which makes me pleased.

But let's take it one step further... 

What if we simplified the system even more, making spells cost one SP per level? So, a 3rd level spell costs 3 SP. 

Now we cut the number of SP per sorcerer level to something more manageable; maybe two SP per level.

[I'm this close to giving them one SP per level and let them use HD for the rest (while other classes use HD for rages, second wind, etc.), but that's a subject for another post].

So, for example, you've got a 11th level sorcerer with 22 SP (plus one "free" 6th level spell), meaning he can cast fireball 7 times. This is fewer than he would have in the DMG system (about 11), but also fewer than the PHB system (8 spells of 3rd level or higher, not counting the 6th level spell).

My main concern here is that this might make MUs too weak, but I'd give them a small short rest boost to compensate.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

D&D Settings Sale (DTRPG) - My (official) D&D picks

The best "official D&D" deals are listed in the sale page:

I'll analyze the 3rd party stuff in another post. Two of them looks good, and the other... not so much (let's see if you can guess which is which!). But I haven't read them. 

Dark Sun, of course, is my favorite D&D setting. The Dark Sun Boxed Set (2e) is also on sale, for the same price. I have this one in print (POD - you can get a physical hardcover copy of the original for $23.99) and PDF and really like it. I'd pick the 2e version if I had to choose (although I might end up with both). The 4e version is also very good - I don't really play 4e, but when we did, we used this book, and liked it.

I also played plenty of Dragonlance in 4e... it is a strange setting, with lots of vanilla but also weird twists (like scarce metal, different magic, etc.). I cannot compare this 3.5e version with others, but it is probably the one I'd pick.

Planescape is another classic setting that you can get in PDF or print.

I might pick me some Ravenloft too, although I'm not sure wbout which one. I was looking for the 2e version, Domains of Dread, but I've heard that the 3.0 version (by Swords & Sorcery Studios/Arthaus/White Wolf) is even better. I'm unsure about the new 5e Ravenloft book, but I'm a big fan of Ravenloft (you already know that if you're following this blog...). There is also Realm of Terror (2e), the first boxed set for the Ravenloft campaign setting. Tim Brannan recommended this one to me. Maybe I should start with the original... Do you have any favorites? Let me know in the comments!

There are other settings on sale, including the 5e Wayfinder's Guide to Eberron and many others. I haven't read this one, but the Eberron stuff I did read was interesting.

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Friday, May 14, 2021

Improvisation and randomness may lead to railroading; a pre-written story will save you

NOTE: Blogger deleted this (for bogus reasons) the first time I've posted, so I posted again with small changes. I managed to recover the comments (see below) and draft, but decided to keep this one.

This counter-intuitive, I know, but hear me out. 

We usually say that's having a prewritten story is bad form, and that you should play to find out what happens next, with input from your players and improvisation from the GM. I have advised this very thing. 

However, THE OPPOSITE is also true in one sense: a prewritten story (with beginning and end) of what happens if the PCs don't intervene is very useful.

To understand this, we have to define railroading. I wrote a post about that, but you could say that the railroad is defined by the lack of relevant choices on the part of the players. I've said:
So the railroad can happen, basically, in two cases:
Because there is no choice (for example, there is only one door) or;2) Because the choice does not matter (there are several doors to choose from, but the result is the same; or: the antagonist confronts the PCs on act three no matter what they do).
Now, if you read that post, you've seem a couple of examples where randomness takes away from player choice. If they have three doors to choose from (say, one made of wood, other iron, and other paper), but they lead to three randomly defined different rooms, the choice doesn't matter.

Well, if the players have NO CLUE and NO WAY OF FINDING ONE, their choice is random anyway, so the distinction doesn't really matter. But if they can choose to look for clues, it is better to have a these things written in advance than making them random. 

This sounds simple enough; let's talk about improvisation. 

Of course you need improvisation to run a game. After all you never know what the players will choose next.

However, relying only on improvisation is dangerous: in such circumstances, it is hard to be sure that you're not making the choices void. 

Let me give you one example. Let's say you have a cool monster (a green troll) that you want to introduce to your game. Instead of putting him in the sewers, the swamp, or under the bridge, you keep him in your pocket (or the back of your head) to use when necessary. Now, the players go to the swamp and - bam! Here is the opportunity to use your troll! But what if they go to explore the sewers instead? Well, another opportunity! The troll is the sewers!

(I think this is what Courtney Campbell calls "the quantum ogre". This link will lead to other links and eventually I find out that all this stuff has been thoroughly discussed a decade ago. Sigh. But read on).

Posted by u/MrHarakiri - source.

Now, compare this with a pre-written story or script.
There is a troll hiding under a nearby bridge. He kills the elderly witch that lives near the village. Villagers become suspicious but no one really cares about her. A week later, some sheep disappear, but the owner is a rich merchant that no one likes, so no one helps. In the following week, the troll kidnaps som children. Some brave villagers go to the rescue. Many people die, but the troll is wounded and runs away, leaving the children behind, and the village completely ruined. The end.
When the PCs enter the scene (say, looking for the witch), the story is already written (or at least outlined); as they find things out, they will create their own competing story. Or don't - they may just leave, and the story will play out as written. As you can see, the important part is that the outcome is not written in stone. Unless, maybe, if the players decide to do nothing; in that case, it might be BETTER to have the outcome written in stone so the PCs can suffer the consequences of their choice (of avoiding the problem).

BTW, I added a few prewritten endings to my own module, the Wretched Hive, before thinking about all this stuff. So here is another example from my book:
If both the Queen and Malavor are still alive, the hive expands. In 2d4 weeks, the number of demons and bee-soldiers is doubled, and the hive’s defenses are reinforced. In another 1d6 weeks, Malavor manages to mutate himself into a bee-demon, half-insane, but with full control of the bee-people. The bloated and sick avatar dies after a while, but this no longer affects the bee-soldiers, that can now be cloned in the underground. Three months after the characters left, Malavor unleashes his army against the nearest village.
In short: 

Again, we go back to Justin Alexander's definition: "Railroads happen when the GM negates a player’s choice in order to enforce a preconceived outcome".

A preconceived story is USEFUL, but a preconceived OUTCOME is bad, UNLESS it happens precisely because of the player's choices. In fact, I would say that having a preconceived story is very useful for any adventure. Just remember that the story relies on the fact that the PCs do nothing; if they do something about it, the outcome will probably change.

The term "story" has become some kind of curse word in OSR circles, and for good reason - a  story with a preconceived, unchangeable outcome is anathema to role-playing. However, once you learn this, you can safely write a story for your players to contend with - with the certainty that, most of the times, they will derail the whole thing to create an unexpected outcome.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Needless complexity is gatekeeping + justify every rule

I watched an interesting video from Nerdarchy a while ago. The tile is "D&D Ability Scores: Why are We Still Doing it This Way". While the discussion on ability scores is not new, I think they nailed the true issue:

Needless complexity is gatekeeping.

I'm paraphrasing here but they basically ask: 

Are these things the true gatekeepers of D&D? Or: in order to play D&D, do you need to learn all these rules that matter very little or nothing? We are just making math with extra steps at this point... 

Anyway, here is the video:

And I completely agree with this idea. Every little rule that is included in the (300+ pages) PHB and doesn't have a clear function is a small obstacle to new players. And every player that I've brought from other editions (or other RPGs) to 5e had a harder time then they should, IMO. The rules often got in the way of the game.

But this is not only for new players. I've been playing 5e for a few years, and D&D for more than three decades. The fact that there are so many rules in 5e often turns me off from playing the game, even though I really like the system as a whole.

Believe ir or not, I'm playing GURPS at the moment and the basis of the system feel somewhat simpler. Probably because each character has a smaller number of special powers (still, too many skills).

don't get me wrong - 5e is decent enough. SOME features are ridiculous, but MOSTLY it is a good system. I just wish they had gone a couple of extra steps: cut repetition, make races a bit simpler and more flexible, a smaller list of spell that you can cast at any level, and remove some features that are only there to give you +1.33 damage (or some other ridiculous amount) per attack.

By the way, I started listening to a new podcast, The GM's Guide, yesterday. Only one episode so far ("Designing Your Own RPG System"), but I really like it. He says something to the effect of "you need to justify every rule you have" - which is exactly what we're saying here.

But, in the end, it's just a matter of taste. I love Moldvay's Basic, for example, but I wanted to add more stuff, so I wrote Dark Fantasy Basic. I think 5e is too complex, but the melee weapons are too simple - so I wrote a couple of PDFs to enhance it. In the end, I'm not without blame...

The solution? I'm not sure. It might be having a lean spine (maybe the "basic" version of 5e but something like Moldvay's Basic might be even better), and building other things (feats, extra spells, subclasses, etc.) ON TOP of it, according to your taste. Character creation at first level should probably be easier - add complexity as you go.

But I guess there is no perfect solution. The best I can do is choose what works best for me.

Friday, May 07, 2021

On YouTube...?

Would you/do you watch YouTube videos about D&D and RPGs?

Which ones and what are your favorite subjects?

Is there something you would like to see?

I am considering starting a channel, but it is just a pipe dream at this moment. The content would be similar to my blog: some OSR, some 5e, other RPGs, a lot of discussion on mechanics, minimalism, weapons, tips, books, etc. Maybe some reviews. Not actual play, not much lore.

I'm not sure if video would be better than text or not. Is that something that interests you? Do you prefer audio or video to text? Or maybe both?

Or do you prefer other platforms? I shouldn't really trust YT after what happened to G+, but to be honest it is the media I use the most (other than podcasts).

BTW... podcasts would be an interesting alternative. But I don't know the first thing on how to make them. So YT might actually be easier.

One last thing: I'm not a native speaker. And I'd rather use images than my face on the video. Would any of that turn you off from listening to me? (I won't be offended, I'm genuinely curious).

Thank you!

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Monster statblocks - how good is AD&D?

In my latest post about this subject, we've analyzed some OSR statblocks. Now let's look at AD&D.

As I've said before, I'm not the greatest fan of playing AD&D, but I have a deep respect for it, and I'm often amazed at the number of things AD&D (and OD&D, etc.) did first and got right, despite any flaws.

Monster statblocks might be one of those things - we shall see.

I bought a few AD&D monster manuals from DTRPG, through print-on-demand. The original Monster Manual* and the Fiend Folio*, for example, look fantastic. My favorite, however, is the 2e Monstrous Manual*; it is an amazing book, both in looks (full color, with lots of amazing art by Tony Diterlizzi and others) and content, being more comprehensive (more than 600 monsters!) and detailed than the others. The print qaulity in these books is great.

If you want to get the best D&D monster book you can find, the Monstrous Manual is very hard to beat. It might be nostalgia, who knows - but this is still my favorite monster manual ever (despite having few demons and devils, using instead names such as Tanar’ri and Baatezu).

The only downside is that these books are only available with soft cover (except for the 1e MM). I'll recommend all of them regardless, and I'll probably buy a new Monstrous Manual if hardcover is available someday.

Anyway, let's see some statblocks.

This is from the original MM: 

And this is from the monstrous manual:

Let's break this down. 

AC, attacks, damage, HD, movement, size, etc., are combat stats and they are present in every edition of D&D (for the most part). Nothing special here (although you could certainly reduce the size without losing information). Notice we do not get an attack description in the stat-block. I assume claw/claw/bite, but it would be useful to have.

Special attacks, special defenses, magic resistance and psionic ability are useful IF they exist... which is often not the case, as you can see. So, just a big waste of time and space in most cases, but essential in others. There is a simple way to solve this, as we will see...

Treasure type is important in AD&D, since you get most of your XP though treasure... but otherwise I don't think this is specially important, except as a social aspect (see below).

Then we have the "ecology/society" part: frequency, number appearing, % in lair, intelligence (described in words, not numbers - but numbers would suffice) and alignment. This is the part which tells us how the monster fits in the world; are they scattered tribes, unique individuals, or huge civilizations? Are they friendly or aggressive, do they wander around, are they smart, brave, etc.?

The monstrous manual adds A LOT of  ecology/society to the stat-block: climate, organization, activity cycle and diet. This is good, but it might be too much - I'd rather separate habits and diet by monster type, like I did in Teratogenicon, although this is limited - you have animals, giants and dragons in all types of terrains, after all. But it works well enough for demons, celestials, elementals, undead, etc.

This ecology/society aspect is extremely important - if somewhat setting specific. Why did it dwindle in modern D&D? My best guess is that the original MM is meant as a tool for the GMs to create their own adventures - but modern D&D assumes you'll run a published modules, so you'll know exactly how many goblins you'll find and what treasure they have.

Now, in Candlekeep Mysteries, the latest 5e book, even alignment disappears. We could argue about alignment forever, and I'll agree it is a very limited tool, but a tool nonetheless. And now we have almost nothing in the stats about how a monster relates to other creatures (except for languages) and the enviroment. You have to make it up or rely on published adventures. 

If you find alignment too restrictive, we could go the opposite way - adopt one or multiple "mien" from Troika* (e.g., Hungry, Confused,  Protective), one or multiple goals from Teratogenicon, or let behavior be described by any appropriate expression (chaotic, lawful, greedy, hungry, indifferent, territorial, aggressive, shy, etc.). Of course, each individual creature might be different - but having some way to start the process is useful.

I digress. We were talking about AD&D. And my answer to "how good is AD&D" is "very good", but can use some improvement". So here is a proposed format for AD&D-like monster blocks; simpler, smaller, and maybe easier to use.

(uncommon large monstrosity)
Ecology: neutral (feral), semi-intelligent, pride of 2d6, 25% in lair (temperate hills/mountains), treasure C/S.
Move: 12 (fly 30)
Attack (13): claw (1d4x2) and bite (2d8).
Defenses: AC 3, 7 HD, ML 11.

(very rare medium undead)
Ecology: Chaotic evil, exceptional Int., solitary, 70% in lair (any), treasure D.
Move: 15.
Attack (13): 1d8 chill touch, wail (3”, save versus magic or die).
Defenses: AC13, 7 HD, +1 or better weapon to hit, 50% MR.

This... is not a HUGE improvement, I guess, but it is something. It does separate attacks and defense (and you can add special attacks, special defenses, psionics and magic resistance there).

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

Monday, May 03, 2021

Low Fantasy Gaming Deluxe Edition - Deal of the day!

One of my favorite OSR games, Low Fantasy Gaming*, is DTRPG's deal of the day. I wrote a review of the original version a few years ago; this version (which I haven't read) is expanded with more art (with a full color version!), more content (including a lot more classes), etc.

You can't go wrong with this one. It really nails the S&S feel, and has great additions o OSR games in general (my favorites are combat exploits, dangerous magic, and monster special abilities on a natural 19, but I also like the Luck attribute and all the random tables).

Here is the blurb:
Low Fantasy Gaming is a tabletop RPG built for gritty adventures in low or moderate magic settings. It has simple rules, dangerous combat, flexible PC customisation, and mysterious, unpredictable magic. Designed for short, episodic adventures in sandbox worlds, LFG provides the mechanics and tables needed for easy GM improvisation. It’s a heady mix of the best old school, modern, and new game design, wrapped around a familiar d20 core.

And here is another thing I truly appreciate:

Open Game Content: 99% of LFG text is "Open Game Content" under the Open Game Licence. Want to make your own adventures or expansions for LFG and sell them? Go right ahead!

Every game should do that!

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

Sunday, May 02, 2021

More 5e Rogue weirdness: bonus actions and movement

 As we've noticed before, there are three meta-classes in 5e; you can call them warriors, experts and spell-casters. The rogue is the only expert (and maybe the bard is a "half-expert"); everyone else is defined by their attacks or spells.

What do experts do? Anything else. And how do they do it? With bonus actions.


This is, plus sneak attack (which relates to this) and expertise, what defines rogues:
Cunning Action 
Starting at 2nd level, your quick thinking and agility allow you to move and act quickly. You can take a bonus action on each of your turns in combat. This action can be used only to take the Dash, Disengage, or Hide action.
Rogue subclasses have even more options. This is from the Rogue: Inquisitive from Xanathar's Guide to Everything: 
Eye for Detail 
Starting at 3rd level, you can use a bonus action to make a Wisdom (Perception) check to spot a hidden creature or object or to make an Intelligence (Investigation) check to uncover or decipher clues.
Insightful Fighting
At 3rd level, you gain the ability to decipher an opponent’s tactics and develop a counter to them. As a bonus action, you make a Wisdom (Insight) check against a creature you can see that isn’t incapacitated, contested by the target’s Charisma (Deception) check. If you succeed, you can use your Sneak Attack against that target even if you don't have advantage on the attack roll, but not if you have disadvantage on it.
This benefit lasts for 1 minute or until you successfully use this feature against a different target.
And this is from the Swashbuckler (also from Xanathar's): 
Rakish Audacity 
Starting at 3rd level, your confidence propels you into battle. You can give yourself a bonus to your initiative rolls equal to your Charisma modifier. You also gain an additional way to use your Sneak Attack; you don't need advantage on the attack roll to use your Sneak Attack against a creature if you are within 5 feet of it, no other creatures are within 5 feet of you, and you don't have disadvantage on the attack roll. All the other rules for Sneak Attack still apply to you.
Okay, this last one doesn't require a bonus action, but gives you another way to get sneak attack.

Tasha's guide decided to cut the middleman: use you bonus action and don't move, and you get advantage (and thus sneak attack). For ALL rogues:
Steady Aim
3rd-level rogue feature 
As a bonus action, you give yourself advantage on your next attack roll on the current turn. You can use this bonus action only if you haven’t moved during this turn, and after you use the bonus action, your speed is 0 until the end of the current turn.
So, the rogue is a mobile character than does a lot of stuff quickly. This stuff - aim, hide, decipher an opponent’s tactics - are usually means to get an sneak attack in. Or you can trade some mobility for better attacks.

Some actions require skill checks... which is fine, because the rogue is good at using skills (expertise).

Anyway, it is interesting to see how the rogue works in 5e. I like it. There are some ways to write a more minimalist version (just trade your bonus action for sneak attack already!) but I'm not sure that this is necessary.

Also, I could see other classes (especially warriors) being able to aim or decipher an opponent’s tactics. Maybe this is something that should be accessible to anyone. But that's enough for today.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Information overload: organizing > creating

I have about 3,500 RPG products in my computer (and maybe 50 physical RPG books). Even if I disregard stock art, images, and duplicates, I must have more than a couple of thousand of RPG books in total. Most of them were free or on sale, but I probably spent too much on them, since I will never read - let alone use - more than 1% of those.

In fact, even if I played only good games I can get for free - BFRPG, OSE, etc. - I'd still have more stuff than I could ever read. You could say OSR games make this worse - since much of the text ends up being copied and pasted from the SRD, so you end up with lots of redundancy. Well, I doubt having ten different systems to resolve tasks such as breaking down a door is any better.

This is why I still write some reviews in this blog, even if they don't seem to be particularly popular. Finding a great product can be almost as valuable as writing one.

In short... creating RPGs is nice. But so is finding and classifying them, so you can choose what to read; revisiting old games, so you don't have to reinvent the wheel every few years; discarding games that are bad (and saying it in public!) so we don't waste our time; and so on. Another great idea: getting a game and telling people what is unique/special about it, since most of every game will be repeating something written in the seventies anyway.


Anyway, I have written a few books regardless. Mostly because I couldn't find the books that were perfectly suited for my tastes (although books such as Moldvay's Basic*, the Rules Cyclopedia, and Shadow of the Demon Lord*, among others, get close). Some RPGs I've read were so good that I felt like I had nothing to add - and I gave up on a few projects because of that (which is why I find so difficult to write my own DMG, for example). Some projects I almost gave up until I could find why they had to be written. And I tried to be terse in ALL my books. Believe me, writing a 60-page book can be harder than writing 100 pages and leaving everything in, regardless of quality.

(BTW, if you do reviews and are interested in my stuff... let me know!)

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Making something coherent, and better than existing products (at least in SOME aspect), is a lot harder.

The same problem I have across books, I see within existing books as well - which is even worse, since I have to swim through redundant information even after I pick the book I want to read. For example, how 5e repeats the definition of "extra attacks", "darkvision", and "fighting styles" multiple times across the same book, or how 90% of the monsters from de 2e MM had three lines describing "Special Defenses: Nil" and "Magic Resistance: Nil" (more about that here).

I would like writers should do the same with the rules: index stuff so we can find it. Organize it with a good ToC, Index, cross-references, different colors or symbols, roughly one idea per page, etc. Avoid repetition so we can save time. Cut useless things from your games - "inutilia truncat"! This is the reasoning behind Minimalism, Elegance and Multipurpose Mechanics . Make sure you're not just reinventing (or repeating) something that Gygax, Arneson or others already solved decades ago - unless, of course, you have a reason for that.

And, by all means, tell us what is unique about your game from the start!

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise (OSR RPG review)

Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise* is a sequel to Cha'alt, an OSR with "weird" and "gonzo" settings turned to eleven (this thing is strange!). Here is part of the blurb:

Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise is a continuation of the Cha'alt campaign setting and dungeon extravaganza. Eldritch, gonzo, science-fantasy, post-apocalyptic awesomeness compatible with the original RPG all the way up to 5th edition.

In this book, I detail the city of A'agrybah, along with various adventuring locales - the largest being an offworlder high-tech facility called Elysium. Lots of gorgeous maps, random tables, NPCs, magic items, and monsters.

Why did I buy/read this? The author offered me a review copy (we interact very occasionally on social media). I reviewed some of his stuff in the past and I must confess I was curious. I like some weirdness in my games, and I find most modules I read a bit tame on that regard... while Cha'alt, like it or not, is seldom tame about anything.

I love this cover!

First, let's get a couple of things out of the way. This is very much in the same tone to the first book in the series, and chances are you'll like both, or neither. So, take a quick read at the first review if you want to know what the first book is about. The books CAN be used separately, but they complete each other nicely. This second one is in many ways more polished, interesting, and useful for non-Chaalt games than the first, but the first has the Black Pyramid, the setting's most important place.

If you are curious, it might be a good idea to get this one first. You can explore the setting a little, and if you like it get the first one to plan your expedition to the Black Pyramid.

A second thing I'll mention is that this is NOT exactly compatible "with the original RPG all the way up to 5th edition". It is an OSR game, with decent OSR stats, and that's about it, except for the appendixes (see below). Of course, adapting it to 5e is not hard if you ahve some experience with these systems.

It has some 5e-isms in layout, etc., which I didn't particularly enjoy; but if you like this aspect of 5e, you might like this. In fact, I think Cha'alt's approach to layout, changing colors from one section to another, is in some aspects more interesting than the average 5e book.

What is Cha'alt? 

As we've seem in the first review, Cha'alt is a deserted alien planet based on "post-apocalyptic fiction such as Dune (lots of Dune), Dark Sun, Carcosa, etc., plus Lovecraft and others". BTW, now we also have demons, which I might have missed the first time around. These are actual demons, that come from Hell to tempt your characters. In a setting that already has aliens, elves, cyborgs, spaceships, and lovecraftian monsters (not to mentions brothels, pizzas, communists, and "The Author" appearing as a NPC). We ALSO get "crimson space demons with horns, cloven hooves, and black eyes", but these come from space... so probably unrelated.

If this sounds like too much, this book is probably not for you. If you LIKE this level of weirdness, you'll hardly find it anywhere else. Cha'alt remains quite unique, as far as I can tell.

And some of the premises are really interesting. I like the idea of an expeditionary base exploiting a strange planet, and the factions that come out of it. Some want to protect the planet, others want to join the galactic federation, some want to go rogue, some want to get rich (despite the environmental price), some want to awaken the elder gods that can destroy everything... It has the features of a good setting: factions, a flexible social order, shades of gray, etc.

What does this book add to the first one? 

Quite a lot, actually.

It starts with a (random) collection of random tables, meant to generate NPCs, plots, and so on. The new races are more interesting than the ones in the first books, and I like the new NPCs and PC/NPC traits a bit better this time around. We have names, backgrounds, social class, and so on.

There are some random tables of "house rules" of sorts: tables for reactions, morale, loyalty, disguised attempts, a table to tell you if the PCs fall in love... I found those unnecessary (I'd assume you already have them from other games) and not particularly interesting. Then there are tables about drugs, diseases, visions... which are fitting.

Then, we get the setting parts: a city, some dungeons, locations, encounters, etc. I found this quite useful. The first time I've read Cha'alt I felt like I didn't know where to start, but this has plenty of small things you can use to fill your sessions before the players march to the black pyramid.

The whole thing is uneven like the first one. Great art, bad art, cool layout, interesting ideas, silly jokes, things that could be inserted into any RPG setting and things that have no place in any RPG book. Once or twice, while reading this book, I've manage to visualize a world in which all of those disparate elements could form a coherent, awesome whole. In my mind, it looked like something out of The Hyperion Cantos or Dying Earth. All things considered, I think this could become a great campaign, but I'm not sure it would be easy to run.

The Appendix includes "Crimson Dragon Slayer D20", "Cha'alt Ascended", and "OSR Like A Fucking Boss".The first is an updated version of the rules included in the first book. If you like my "minimalist D&D" posts, this in an interesting take. The second is a collection of feats. They are all over - some are good, some are useful, some make no sense, etc. The third is a collection of OSR advice that's quite sensible for the most part.

This is what I mean by "uneven". But most of the art is very good.

OVERVIEW (explanation here):

Useful? It should be obvious by this point that this book is very useful if you like your games weird and funny. Even if you do not want to play in such a strange setting, there are good random tables that you can use for other types of weird games - especially the NPC tables. These are really good.

Inspiring? Yes, in a strange way. It got me thinking of how to use these ideas in my own games, which is definitely a plus.

Bloated? Not really. It contains a lot, but not a lot of filler.

Tiresome? The book is not exactly tiresome, but it does make you roll your eyes in some passages. If you dislike crude humor, puns, sarcasm, etc., this is not the book for you. Overall, I think it has enough interesting stuff to keep you engaged.

Clear? Mostly. The book contains a good Table of Contents and a good Index, which I really appreciate. It is not particularly well organized, and some entries are not in the Table of Contents for some reason ("NPC traits" is in the "Pandorum" chapter... or... are there chapters? anyway...). The map is simple, good-looking and effective.

In short: If you want to read something strange, funny, and unpredictable, you might like this one. If you liked the first one, you'll certainly like this.

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

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Why is Clark Ashton Smith missing from the appendix N? And more...

In my last post I've mentioned that one of the reasons I find the 1e DMG so relevant is that "even the Appendixes generated entire books about them. The Appendix N is the most famous one..."

Here is the Appendix N, BTW. From the first DMG:

Inspiration for all the fantasy work I have done stems directly from the love my father showed when I was a tad, for he spent many hours telling me stories he made up as he went along, tales of cloaked old men who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerors [sic] and dauntless swordsmen.

Then too, countless hundreds of comic books went down, and the long-gone EC ones certainly had their effect. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies were a big influence. In fact, all of us tend to get ample helpings of fantasy when we are very young from fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang. This often leads to reading books of mythology, paging through bestiaries, and consultation of compilations of the myths of various lands and peoples.

Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy, being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950.

The following authors were of particular inspiration to me. In some cases I cite specific works, in others, I simply recommend all of their fantasy writing to you. From such sources, as well as any other imaginative writing or screenplay, you will be able to pluck kernels from which will grow the fruits of exciting campaigns. Good reading!
Brackett, Leigh
Brown, Frederic
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Pellucidar" series; Mars series; Venus series
Carter, Lin: "World's End" series
de Camp & Pratt: "Harold Shea" series; THE CARNELIAN CUBE
Derleth, August
Dunsany, Lord
Farmer, P. J.: "The World of the Tiers" series; et al
Fox, Gardner: "Kothar" series; "Kyrik" series; et al
Howard, R. E.: "Conan" series
Lanier, Sterling: HIERO'S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz: "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" series; et al
Lovecraft, H. P.
Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" series (esp. the first three books)
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J.: editor of SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III
Pratt, Fletcher: BLUE STAR; et al
Saberhagen, Fred: CHANGELING EARTH; et al
Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; "Ring trilogy"
Weinbaum, Stanley
Wellman, Manley Wade
Williamson, Jack
Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" series; et al
The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, R. E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H. P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you.
- E. Gary Gygax, 1979, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 224
Well, why not Clark Ashton Smith? He was one of the "three greats" of Weird Tales magazine (with HPL and REH), and his writing, to me, fits D&D so perfectly... maybe even more than REH and HPL... it is weird, dark, funny, full of supernatural beings and strange places. He writes of desperate adventures in dying worlds, losing life and limb while facing terrible monsters.

He is also, as far as i can tell, a huge influence on Vance - which was probably Gygax's favorite author.

And I can't help thinking the "geas" spell cames from "The Seven Geases", but I bet you could find many other examples (a Reddit user commented that the shadow monster comes from "The Double Shadow"). The Castle Amber module is explicitly based on Smith's Averoigne. It was written by Tom Moldvay (who DID include CAS in the Basic's version of the Appendix N).

Well, I love Clark Ashton Smith, so this got me really curious. I always thought this was an oversight from Gygax.

But I am obviously not the only one asking that question...

Interviewer: We have a couple more questions from the chat, folks are asking about Clark Ashton Smith what you think of Clark Ashton Smith and what you think about why he may or may not have been listed in the appendix N?

Kask: Clark Ashton Smith was one of Gary's favorites. I have read a couple though, on Gary's recommendation, I got to say that was so many years ago that if I … if I… if I saw the title I could… but there are not any that stand out in my head right away.

I have an excuse for that […] I'm probably a problem reader, in that I read so much and I mean I read it at least a novel a week […] I'm a voracious reader and most of its residing back there in.. huh… deeper memory than RAM.


Interviewer: And do you feel like Clark Ashton Smith’s exclusion from the appendix N was intentional or was more of an oversight?

Kask: As I recall, and again I got a beg […] the ignorance of age and disuse, his writing was somewhat ponderous.

Interviewer: That's very fair.

First thing I've got to say is that this is well wroth listening. It provides some interesting insight on the choice of authors in the appendix N. Apparently, some were excluded for being too "ponderous", risqué, not family-friendly, or hard to read/understand (which is why we have only 20th century authors). Gor is mentioned as a book series that couldn't have been included for having too much sex, which makes me assume Kask and Gygax were familiar with it (IIRC, Gor was a big influence on Arneson).

The idea, apparently, was listing books that were easy to find and read so people could "get" what D&D was about. These were books people would be familiar with, that children could read without upsetting their parents, etc.

Anyway, before this interview, I had come across some bit and pieces.

First, in Dragonsfoot: I don't know who the authors of the comments are except the one in the middle (Allan Grohe):
Gary was never a fan of CAS. I find it hard to imagine Gary just never happened to read CAS (considering all the stuff Gary DID read), so maybe Gary just honestly disliked CAS or even found CAS distasteful.
That said, there were plenty other authors Gary read and enjoyed who did not make it into Appendix N — E.R. Eddison springs to mind — simply because he didn’t consider them particularly influential on D&D.
IIRC, Rob introduced CAS to Gary, and Gary enjoyed him, but not as much as other authors from Appendix N: CAS may have been too literary in tone and flavor, perhaps? Rob's answering Qs over on DF again, so it's a good time to ask him about that history
Anyway, he may not have been as big a CAS fan as Rob is, but he certainly did not dislike him. Gary was never timid about expressing his opinions with me; if he didn't like CAS, these things would not have made their way into the ms.
"Rob" is Rob Kuntz, one of the earliest members of TSR. Unfortunately, I didn't find a direct answer from him, only this:
Clark Ashton Smith: My favorite fantasy/weird author. The Emperor of Dreams as he was self-styled (re: The Hashish Eater)
If there was ever an author that existed during that period who could have ensorcelled words better than he for both prose and poetry, I am not aware of them.
"Connect to" D&D is rather vague phrase, Rossik. I reject the Appendix N list in AD&D as being other than a Recommended Reading list by EGG and not as what influenced major aspects of D&D. His 1911 set of Encyclopedia Britannica, which I read quite often, were more influential in that regard. As far as inspirational matter, that's a bird of a different colored plumage. For me it's all of the Mythos/Weird authors, and I place as most high on that list and right alongside Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith. Derleth fits in; and so does Robert Bloch. Then one can march down the Arkham House backlist and start pegging the rest. Manly Wade Wellman is the overlapping WT author from the first to second wave in that magazine, and quite honestly a great writer of the weird and supernatural in his own right and sorely overlooked until recently.

Robilar, Vanquisher of Dragons
So, not much clarification about Gygax here... but interesting stuff nonetheless.

There is also this episode of Sanctum Secorum, with Ernie Gygax, where he mentions the Appendix N as just a list of books Gary had on his shelf - and Clark Ashton Smith was not one. He does mention Gor as a book series that have been omitted on purpose.

What to think of that? Well, Tim Kask makes a good case for the choices in the Appendix N being very deliberate. He would know, since he helped Gygax in writing AD&D. It makes sense that Eddison would be excluded for his incredibly demanding prose (much more than CAS). It's difficult to say whether Gygax liked CAS or not... but I would think a mere dislike is not the reason for the exclusion.

EDIT: two people commented on social media that Gygax didn't like CAS, whilethers .sy he hadn't read CAS by 79. I'm looking for sources so I can add them here.

Why do I care? I have no idea. It is just a curiosity I have, am happy to have learned a bit more about the appendix N, and maybe other people would find this useful

BTW, you can find Clark Ashton Smith's stories for free, online. Now go read them and tell me what you think! You can start with The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, one of my favorites, or The Beast of Averoigne, The Tale of Satampra Zeiros, The Empire of the Necromancers, The Isle of the Torturers, The Abominations of Yondo and so on. Each of them is both great fun and perfect inspiraiton for your D&D games.

If you haven't read those... you can thank me later! ;)