I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

One MILLION things... in one SINGLE table!

(I might have talked about this before, and I'm considering the idea again, so I apologize in advance for repeating myself).

And this is one example of PC would could get using the tables in the book (I did actually roll this):

[Format #1]
Background: barbarian
Skill: thievery
Fighting style: bow
Armor: chain
Equipment style: Spiked
Flaw: lust
Motivation: Pride (family)

As you can imagine, you could generate millions of characters with a few die rolls (I use a 3d10 die drop table, include in the book; you can see the table here). 

You'd have to make sense of all this information to create a coherent whole. For example:

[Format #2]
Odo is a barbarian. He looks thin, tall, with strong muscles. He is stealthy and fights with a bow that matches his height. He wears leather armor and spiked pauldrons. While travelling through civilized lands to womanize (his favorite hobby), he acquired a flamboyant look, dying his long hairs and beard a bright blue, and wearing multiple precious rings. He fights for the honor of his family, although his family forgot about him years ago, when he left the clan. One day he hopes to come back rich and famous to prove everyone he is worthy.

Format #2 is a lot more useful if you need a quick NPC on the fly. But, of course, now you'd have at most twenty or thirty characters per page, instead of millions.

Now, there is a way to do both at the same time. You could create a d100 table with 100 different NPCs, all of them ready for play. 100 is a good number; it is unlikely you'll use more than that in a single campaign. But if you roll three times in this d100 table, combining appearance, skills, and flaws, you already have one million possible results (100 x 100 x 100).

Come to think of it, you could build an entire game (or at least the GM's guide) around that premise.

I'm not sure, however, people would enjoy this hybrid format; some would prefer format #1 for creating their own NPCs (you could certainly create a different Odo with the same results), while others might feel that if they have to "combine" three entries using format two, they'd be doing all the work anyway.

I'm curious to know your opinion. What do you think? Do you prefer to have ready-to-use NPCs (and magic items, plots, monsters, etc.), a few random tables, or some intermediate format? 

Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Maze Rats (Deal of the Day)

Maze Rats*, by Ben Milton (Knave, Questing Beast) is the Deal of the Day on DTRPG.

I really like this one - it is truly a lesson in minimalist D&D. The tables are awesome, the layout is wonderful. It has only 13 pages, but no space wasted. Check the previews to see what I mean.

Here is the blurb:

Maze Rats is an RPG and sandbox toolkit for old-school-style adventuring. It contains a single, compact page of rules, a one-page character creation guide, a hand-drawn character sheet, and eight pages of 36-item random tables, rollable with two six-sided dice. Each page contains 9-12 tables, covering spell generation, monster generation, NPCs, treasures, cities, wildernesses, and dungeons. If you run (or have always wanted to run) open sandbox adventures, Maze Rats offers everything you need in a compact, easily-referenced format. Also included is two pages of advice for preparing and running open-world games in the OSR style.

The game system itself is 2d6 based. Character are extremely quick to generate, making it great for convention games, one-shots, or introducing new players. The game is highly lethal, and assumes a style of play where caution is essential to long-term survival. It is technically classless, but the leveling options allow players to specialize in fighting, thievery or wizardry or some mixture of the three. Magic is simple and chaotic, with new randomly-generated spells filling the magic-user's head each night. Everything about the game is designed to be as clean, fast, and intuitive as possible, while driving players towards creative solutions rather than brute force (though brute force is always an option).

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Saturday, June 26, 2021

Fantasy "races" - stereotypes vs. cosplay

A quick thought (maybe continued form here; maybe only vaguely related).

Fantasy "races" are usually different creatures: elves, dwarves, dragon-people, cyborgs, mantis-men, etc. You can have half-elves, etc., but these cases are in the minority. So "races" is not the most adequate term.


On one extreme, you can treat these creatures as stereotypes: all dwarves have big personalities, carry axes, speak with a Scottish accent, etc. At best, you treat them as archetypes instead (the gold-loving dwarf representing human greed, ec.). At worst, you fall into fantasy clichés.

On the other extreme, every dwarf is an unique individual with no distinguishing traits. You don't even get a Constitution bonus, because your dwarf PC might be frail, smart and really fast. This is basically cosplay; different species are like different hairstyles, clothes, or tattoos. 

Most people prefer something between the extremes, of course.

Mechanically speaking, I prefer the modern "any one can be anything" over "you choose a race OR a class" of my beloved B/X, or the "certain combinations not allowed" of older D&D. The B/X version, however, has the advantage of quick character creation (see Shadow of the Demon Lord for another interesting take).


I still like different creatures having different habits and mindsets, in some settings. They still have their own physiology. They are different from humans - a different species.

When dealing with different creatures, some stereotypes would be justifiable. "See those guys with horns, big claws, and sharp teeth? Yeah, they tend to be aggressive". Sure, if a player really wants to play a vegetarian shark-woman, I don't see a problem; she is just different to most creatures of the same kind. But the "kind" means something.

(I can also see some settings where elves are agnostic and cannot be clerics; or maybe the Goddes of Healing is bigoted against them.)

Do not judge a book by its cover. He is a really nice guy.

It all depends on the setting - but even is cosmopolitan Ravnica, creatures have certain tendencies. And there is something interesting about a character fighting his own natural (or cultural) tendency towards evil - think of Hellboy or Drizzt (or, better yet, Elric). 

Of course, this can be reminiscent of real world problems. In the first Ravnica novel, IIRC, the protagonist attacks a minotaur for no reason; in the first Elric novel, human pirates feel justified in killing and pillaging Melniboné since melniboneans are so evil. if you want to AVOID this kind of stuff, treating humanoid species as cosplay is a good idea.

Should entire species (or cultures) of intelligent creatures be evil? In certain settings, this would make sense. Think of fallen angels, cloned storm troopers, or orcs that were magically created to serve a great evil. In Volo's Guide, for example, some creature are evil because they were created by evil deities, or worship evil deities. In any case, there will certainly be exceptions.

My book Teratogenicon discusses this "group x individual" question in some length. Here is a small bit for fun: 
Nevertheless, the idea of “savage, entirely evil races” is seem as ridiculous propaganda by many humanoids. The Laestrygonian philosophers, for example, laugh at the notion that a black widow spider is “evil” for consuming its mate or that a wolf is “immoral” when it kills an innocent child. The fact that the Laestrygonian themselves enjoy eating both spiders and children should not influence our perception of their philosophy, which is based on purely logical grounds.
Anyway, this is all theory. My friends LIKE playing odd-looking PCs as cosplay, so I'm okay with that for most settings. Allegiances and hostility between creatures is like rooting for the same (or opposing) football teams. Unless some player want to play a character with relevant ties to its group - which I also find interesting.

Anyway, in the best literature, different creatures (or peoples - Cimmerians, Melniboneans, etc.) are neither stereotypes nor merely cosmetic. Like Elric, Conan, Frodo and Fafhrd, they are both individuals and part of a distinguishable group - which is reflect on their actions and stories.

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.

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". I just made everybody start with "getting by" wealth and let them choose their own "interesting thing" - and it went fine.

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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