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

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Dark Fantasy Basic: elves, dwarves, halflings and half-orcs

Dark Fantasy Basic is an homage to Moldvay's basic, but that's not all; it is also the game I play when I want something close to basic D&D (or DCC, OSE, etc.) with the modern trappings I love (some character customization, identical XP tables, a d20 roll for everything, etc.).

In addition, it is a "version" of old school D&D with dark fantasy features: dangerous magic, ambiguous deities, etc. I wrote an entire series on other aspects of dark fantasy: religion, settings, random monsters, etc.

Now, what DFB dos not include are humanoid "races" such as elves, dwarves and halflings. They are not a great fit for dark fantasy IMO (especially orcs, they scream "Tolkien" to me), but I kinda regret not adding them in the first place - if only to give people who like them more options.

However, they are very easy to add or convert. 

In DFB, you basically get to choose some of your skills, abilities and feats. Just make some of them mandatory, others exclusive (Infravision, small) and you're ready to go. things such as noticing hidden things and hearing noises are all part of "perception". The "small" feat is partly copied from the OSE SRD

Give away limitations as your setting dictates ("cannot cast cleric spells", etc.). Let them trade feats as appropriate (Resilient for Fortitude, etc.). Give everyone a free language and you're good to go.

From the D&D 1e PHB.

So, anyway, here you go:

Requirements: Minimum INT 9
Feats: Dark vision.
Skills: must have at least one of Perception, Nature, or Spellcasting.

Requirements: Minimum CON 9
Feats: Dark vision, Resilience.
Skills: must have Perception.

Requirements: Minimum CON 9, minimum DEX 9
Feats: Small (Halflings can use all types of armour, but it must be tailored to their small size. Similarly, they can use any weapon appropriate to their stature (as determined by the referee). They cannot use longbows or two-handed swords. Due to their small size, halflings gain a +2 bonus to Armour Class when attacked by large opponents (greater than human-sized/ They have advantage in stealth checks)., Resilience.
Skills: must have at least one of Thievery or Perception.

Requirements: Minimum STR 9
Feats: Dark vision, Fortitude.
Skills: must have at least one of Thievery or Perception.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Easy worldbuilding with Pareto, Price, fractals and bell curves

This ended up very random and "rambly"... hope you can find some practical use for it!

Things such as the Pareto distribution, Price's Law, the Matthew principle and bell curves seem to have a strong effect on nature; in other words, you can find it not only in sociology, economics, etc., but also in trees, mountains, and so on. I won't spend much time explaining things (google them if you must); let's start playing and building right away!

(These numbers are not exact and I'm not great at math anyway - I just enjoy playing with it, so take this with a grain of salt, and feel free to correct me when I'm wrong).

BTW, if you need a few random tables for your world-building, check Dark Fantasy Places - you can get it for free.


Take a piece of land; this map is a good example. 

Half is low altitude (green), half is high altitude (brown, white). If you take the high altitude part, you'll see that about half of it is even higher (the white part compared to the brown part). You can extend this as much as you want. Half the white part is going to be highest than the other half, etc.

The "halves" are distinguishable but not perfect. There are "pockets" of high altitude in the low altitude areas and vice-versa. When you create your map, think of the yin-yang symbol.

Now let's think of adventurers. say that 50% of 1st level adventurers perish before getting to 2nd level, same for 3rd, and so on. If you start with about one million (1048576) adventurers, you end up with...

Level 1 1048576
Level 2 524288
Level 3 262144
Level 4 131072
Level 5 65536
Level 6 32768
Level 7 16384
Level 8 8192
Level 9 4096
Level 10 2048
Level 11 1024
Level 12 512
Level 13 256
Level 14 128
Level 15 64
Level 16 32
Level 17 16
Level 18 8
Level 19 4
Level 20 2

Even if your world has one million of adventurers all over, maybe it has only a couple of 20th level characters.

However, your world might have a lethality greater or smaller than 50% for each adventurer level. Undoubtedly, some will cut their losses before level 20 - or maybe die due to disease or accidents.

What about the rest of the population? Again, it depends. being an adventurer takes some effort and skill. There are people that might be too young, too old, too frail or too coward to adventure. Others might be decent doctors, scribes, priests, etc., having no need to adventure (they might have some levels anyway). If we say one out of fifty people are leveled adventures, it might take a population of one hundred million to create a 20th level adventurer. 

If anyone considerably above average is an adventurer (maybe 15% of the population; seems like a good approximation) 15 million people might be enough. So maybe there is only one 20th-level character in medieval France.

BTW, demographics are similar. One huge city, a few big cities, a lot of small cities and lots and lots of hamlets. Maybe half the land cannot be occupied due to weather etc., so you have a few nomad tribes at most.

Power and wealth might follow a similar distribution. There is only an emperor, and a few kings, but there are many nobles, and even more knights; the majority of the population, however, are commoners, serfs, etc. Apply the yin-yang here too: there are a few knights and commoners that are disproportionately influential. Do not mess with the king of beggars!

Now think of names. Every time a new NPC appears, you want to give it an unique name. However, when world-building, consider that names might also follow a Pareto distribution or something similar. So, about 80% of folks will share the 20% most common names (example: almost 30 percent of Americans have a given name that appears in the top 100 list).

You are unlikely to have hundreds of NPCs, but a repetition or two might add some verisimilitude to the setting.

One third, golden ration

You might use thirds instead. It might be less symmetrical, more organic. Or maybe choose something closer to the golden ratio (which means, about 38%). This isn't exact science after all.

So, two thirds of the world in water. One third of the land is high altitude, and one third of that is high mountains. One third of these mountains are REALLY tall, etc.

Building from the top down

One quick way to build your setting is choosing a piece of land (maybe a duchy or even small nation; but you might start with a single city) and just naming the highest peak, the most powerful aristocrat, the best fighter, the most powerful wizard, the biggest monster, etc. The highest peak is probably surrounded by mountains, and the most powerful noble is surrounded by lesser ones.

The biggest city might have a few medium cities around; the biggest city in the world will probably be found in a densely populated area.

Ten easy steps (top down)

Someone MUST have compiled this before me, but anyway...

1. Separate earth from water.
2. Place the highest mountains in the map; create mountain ranges around them. You can add a few islands along the same line.
3. Rivers flow from the mountains to the sea. They do not cross, bifurcate, or go up in altitude.
4. Place cities near the seas and the shores. Dry rivers might have ruins.
5. Roads/trails connect the biggest cities.
6. Mountains create deserts by stopping the moist currents that come from the seas.
7. The poles are cold, tropics are hot. Think of jungles as tropical forests. Deserts can be hot or cold, etc.
8. Forest, jungles and swamps require rivers. Lakes need rivers to feed AND drain.
9. Extreme changes are rare (you don't usually go from forest to desert in a mile; add some savannah between them, same goes for altitude - but not always).
10. Spicy things up if you want to - a lonely mountain, an unexplainable forest in the middle of the  barren wasteland, a big isolated city-state somewhere.

Here is something I've made in 5 minutes using paint. Looks horrible but I hope you get the idea.

Building from the bottom up (bell curves and regression to the mean)

If you start small, what happens if the PCs go beyond the borders of your map? Well, you can use a 3d6 table.


3--3Extremely low

4-5-2A lot lower

6-8-1A bit lower

9-120Same as the one before (or average)

13-15+1A bit higher

16-17+2A lot higher

18++3Extremely high

This answers questions such as "what is the altitude of the next hex", or "how densely populated is the next hex", what is the humidity, vegetation, temperature, etc.

The "modifier" part is something you'll add to your NEXT roll. You can compare it to the average or to the previous hex.

For example, you're in an elevated plain ("a bit higher" than average on that nation), you roll with a +1 bonus to see how high is the next hex when compared to the average. Or how rainy is the next day. Etc. Mountains and rainy days will tend to clump together.

But if you want to compare it to the previous hex, that works too. There is still a regression to the mean, but it takes longer. You could be in a "extremely high" mountain and find out that in the next hex there is a mountain that is even higher!

Likewise, if the new hex is close to three or four hexes that are already know, you can give it a modifier to reflect the likelihood of things staying the same; or just roll unmodified 3d6 and, if the result is between 9 and 12, this hex is the same as the ones that surround it.

So, start big or start small?

I'd say start small, but keep a very low resolution world map if you want to

Which basically means knowing where you starting village or duchy is in relation to the North, the equator and the sea. You can also describe what lies to each cardinal direction with a single word or sentence ("the sea lies to the east, a friendly kingdom to the south, bands of dangerous raiders and mountains to the north, and a big forest to the east").

At the same time, keep a more detailed map of 10 to 50 miles around the PCs. The rule is: the closer they are, the more they know. What the PCs know should fit less than one page. If they don't live near the nation's capital, even their king should be described in a line or two at most (unless the Pcs have a history with him etc.).

And then see where it takes you. Maybe you want to run a jungle campaign next, and you can look at your low-res map to see where a jungle would fit. Maybe the PCs want to explore a big city - where would it fit? and so on.

Special stuff

We are creating a map that looks "realistic". by itself, this is a bit boring. Add random, memorable features to it - maybe at least on e memorable feature per important location. Here are some examples adapted from Dark Fantasy Places:

- A village might be: Suspended over water, Dug up in rocks, or Built amidst ancient ruins.
- A group might have No concept of privacy, Casual cannibalism or an Universal vow of silence.
- Non-traditional government types include The winners (or losers) of the annual lottery, A genetically-altered ethnic minority or Whoever can survive the local deities’ ordeal.
- Mythical Ruins might be recognizable for their Non-Euclidian angles, Impossibly tall buildings, or Levitating structures.
- The wilderness in this are is known for being Covered in prismatic fungus, Devoid of fauna, or Littered with bones.

Further reading and useful tools

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Postapocalyptic Strahd

A long while ago, I've adapted Lost Mines of Phandelver to the Ravnica setting (before it was an official 5e setting). I really like this module, and I really like the Ravnica setting. It was a good fit and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Was other modules - and settings - could generate something similar?

Well, Curse of Strahd has a decent structure, despite its bad organization. And I've spent so much time reading and running it that I know it quite well by now.

The gothic feel of CoS is nearly perfect. It nails all the appropriate tropes. But what if...

Well, my favorite D&D setting is Dark Sun. Now, think of Barovia as a desolate valley, where resources are scarce, and a handful of small villages survive in walled cities despite the violence outside of the walls.

All fear the local Warlord...

...who controls the main source of water from his castle...

...and has an army of "ghoul" cultists...

...and a bunch of captive brides.

Of course, there are other tribes (or biker gangs?) in the valley. They call themselves "nomads", "werewolves", "savages", "blood brothers", and so on. 

Most tribes bow to the Warlord, except for the mysterious Raven clan.

There are also those weird witches... Well, that's what the folks call them, although elsewhere they'd be called "psychics". There are universally feared and respected.

Of course, it's hard to run CoS without magic.

Fortunately, I like my Dark Sun in a "kitchen sink" setting that includes mutants, wizards, psionicists, demons, and maybe aliens. I might avoid guns but I'd still have forgotten technology.

So, Dark Sun, plus Mad Max, Talislanta, Carcosa... you know the drill.

Sounds crazy enough... it might even work!

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Best of Under $5 Sale (DTRPG) and some kind words

 DTRPG has another big sale going on - the Best of Under $5 Sale


It includes almost all of my books - and when you buy my books you can always buy an entire bundle later on if you like them.

If you're curious, here are some kind words I've read today, from Chuck Thorin (They Might Be Gazebos!):
Now, I haven’t purchased every single title but there’s a group that I have purchased many of and that’s the Dark Fantasy supplements. These are short, low-cost, system-neutral PDF’s. I’ve grabbed up Dark Fantasy Settings, Dark Fantasy Places, Dark Fantasy Religion, and Dark Fantasy Magic. Each one contains a whole series of random tables for a GM to use as inspiration for creating a Dark Fantasy or even a Weird Fantasy campaign or adventure. For me personally, these are the best kind of supplements. They don’t spell everything out for a GM but inspire to bring in whatever weird thing they want. And as I said, they could used for just plain old inspiration. Each PDF is only about 12 pages. Long enough to cover the subject but not overly detailed. These PDF’s give you just what need to get the job done.
Some of his books are also on sale, BTW!

Fifth Edition deals

If you're into 5e stuff, you might enjoy Manual of Arms:Weapons and Armor & Shields.

Other than my own stuff, I'd recommend The Chapel on the Cliffs,  one of the best 5e adventures I ever ran.

Ancestry & Culture has an interesting take on 5e races, making it more meaningful than Tasha's but not as strict as the usual rules.

If you like minimalist 5e, Into the Unknown is a slightly simplified version of 5e with some Basic (Moldvay) in the mix. I really like some of the solutions adopted there.

OSR deals

Take a look at Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells or maybe some Oldskull stuff (I own a bunch of Oldskull books and they are really comprehensive).

Well, there are more than 40,000 titles to choose from. I'll add more as I find them. And if you have some suggestions (even if you're the author!) feel free to leave a comment!

These are all Affiliate links - by using them, you're helping to support this blog!

Saturday, August 07, 2021

Minimalist D&D XIV - Overlapping abilities (and Mental Defense)

There has always been some conceptual overlap between Intelligence and Wisdom. In the beginning, that was irrelevant. Intelligence was for magic-users, Wisdom for clerics, and other than that, they didn't do much anyway. 

Things have changed. In modern D&D, you will hardly make any check that does not include one ability score in some way. Saving throws, initiative, attacks, damage... all rely on your abilities to some extent. In old school D&D, class and level were more important. In 5e, it is about 50-50.

And the overlap has increased, too. Now you can cast spells with Intelligence, Wisdom and even Charisma. You can use your Strength to boost your AC with heavy armor, or you Dexterity with light armor. Some classes get to add Wisdom or Constitution to AC when not wearing armor (maybe Charisma too; I don't recall, but it would be fitting). Some weapons allow you choose between Strength and Dexterity for attack rolls AND damage. When escaping from a grapple, you can choose between Strength (athletics) and Dexterity (acrobatics), making both abilities AND skills overlap.

So many abilities become dubious and redundant. You can use a rapier with either Dex or Str, but if you have BOTH it doesn't really matter, because you're only using one. Likewise, if you're wearing heavy armor, your Dex doesn't matter -  which makes little sense.

This is not a huge problem in itself. It can lead, however, to discussions ("but I should be able to use my Wisdom here!") or dump stats (if I can choose what I want, I'll always choose the same ability).

To avoid that, I'd prefer to have some overlap - especially when the PC is "attacking" - but some limits - especially when the PC is "defending" (more about that here). I'd also like all abilities to be useful for all characters, so having both Dex and Str (or Wis and Int) would be useful. 

Here was how I'd do it.

Art by Rick Troula - source.

When you attack, you can use either Str or Dex (your choice). If the attack is ranged, however, you can only use Dex. And, regardless of the type of attack, you only add Str to damage. So, you need decent Str to shoot a longbow, as it should be.

Dexterity always affect your AC - but the amount of armor you can carry is determined by Str and maybe Con (it makes sense you need constitution to wear armor or carry heavy stuff for long periods). You might have noticed that AC is now an amalgam of Dex, Str and Con.

Magic uses a similar reasoning. It's up to you whether to use Int, Wis or Cha to cast spells. However, you do not choose how to defend from spells...

This part a bit trickier. The difference between a saving throw that uses Str, Dex or Con is more or less obvious. For Int, Wis and Cha, the separation is not so easy. Usually, Wisdom is the most common one - but conceptually, I could see a fighter or mage with low Wisdom and high mental fortitude, either because of courage (say, Charisma) or smarts (Intelligence).

I'm thinking that using a single "Mental Defense" trait would solve a lot of problems. An average of Int, Wis and Cha would be good enough. 13th Age already does something similar. I might call it "Mental Class" - an analogous to AC.

I dislike the idea of adding a trait to D&D; my minimalist version should be subtracting most of the time. But this addition would simplify the game, and mirror AC very well - being an amalgam of Int, Wis and Cha. It solves the problems of dump-stats - since now every ability is important, at least for defense - and avoids confusion about which saving throw to apply.

Monday, August 02, 2021

Minimalist D&D XIII - skill use, proficiency all the time, or no proficiency at all

As you might know, I'm trying to reduce the number of skills in 5e; skills are one of my least favorite parts of the game.

One thing I dislike is how some skills are practically useless while others are ubiquitous. The user Merudo has compiled a couple of lists that illustrate this point:
I've searched through the adventure Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and counted the number of times that a given skill is used in an ability check.

Here are my results:

  • Athletics: 48
  • Acrobatics: 6
  • Sleight of Hand: 3
  • Stealth: 9
  • Arcana: 6
  • Investigation: 15
  • History: 3
  • Nature: 3
  • Religion: 4
  • Animal Handling: 3
  • Insight: 10
  • Medicine: 0
  • Perception: 56
  • Survival: 3
  • Deception: 9
  • Intimidation: 16
  • Performance: 1
  • Persuasion: 22

So the main skills are Perception (56), Athletics (48), Persuasion (22), Intimidation (16), and Investigation (15).

Note that some of these skills will actually show up more often than listed in the book, simply because the checks are a result of player actions. That's especially the case for social skills, Stealth, and Sleigh of Hand.


I've searched through the adventure Tomb of Annihilation and counted the number of times that a given skill is used in an ability check.

Here are my results:

  • Athletics: 51
  • Acrobatics: 14
  • Sleight of Hand: 1
  • Stealth: 10, plus extra opportunities if moving at slow pace
  • Arcana: 5
  • Investigation: 10
  • History: 4
  • Nature: 2 + recognize 8 plants/animals
  • Religion: 6
  • Animal Handling: 4 + dinosaur race
  • Insight: 2
  • Medicine: 4
  • Perception: 96
  • Survival: 13 + navigation checks
  • Deception: 8
  • Intimidation: 3
  • Performance: 1
  • Persuasion: 11
My initial idea was consolidating the skills in a few skill sets, but I'm this close to just giving everyone proficiency in everything

I'm half convinced it won't break the game, and it will make things a lot easier. I didn't like this in 4e - a high-level wizard going from +0 to +15 in athletics felt like too much - but +2 to +6? Well, why not, Gandalf can jump over that chasm after all.

That level 20th fighter? Yes, he DOES know a thing or two about arcana. He cannot cast spells, but he has seem plenty of sorcerers, spells, monsters and magic weapons.

And, of course, every adventurer becomes better at saving throws.

Robson Michel - source.

So, giving everyone proficiency would take care of that. If you need a specialist, he would get expertise instead.

On the other hand, I also considered ditching proficiency entirely in favor of ability scores.

If I do that, I'd still want saves and "skills" to raise with time. Maybe I should go the 4e route and just give +1 to everything at level 5, 11 and 17. A level 20 wizard with Strength 11 to 13 sounds ok to me, an even Conan shows above average intelligence as he progresses.