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

Thursday, December 30, 2021

I WANT it to attack me! Defenders, marking, and cover (5e quick fix)

Merry Christmas folks! And Happy New Year!

Just a quick fix I've been using lately.

When I have too many foes against the PCs (or too few) and I don't know which PCs get attacked, I've been letting the PCs choose when they could reasonably do so - by declaring they are trying to protect another PC or taking the front, etc. If there are more NPCs than PCs, usually everyone gets attacked, and the ones who choose to be in the frontline get attacked more often.

This alleviates some of the burden of running multiple NPCs in combat.

Intelligent NPCs that have motives to do otherwise can choose to attack the flank or rear instead.

If you play with miniatures, this is even easier to do; but I play mostly theater of the mind. Many RPGs tried to solve this issue: Dungeon World even has a specific "defend" move. The One Ringlet's you choose a  forward, defensive, open, or rearward stance - which gives you a bonus/penalty both to attack AND defend. D&D 4e had its "marking" etc. D&D 5e has some optional marking rules too, but I think you could even use the "core" rules to put yourself between an attacker and a victim. Other than that, there are "opportunity attacks" to insure foes do not walk pass the fighter to get to the wizard with impunity.

This feels organic to me - the bravest fighters will be attacked first, as it should be. It is also fictionally appropriate.

Mechanically, there are other ways to deal with that - make the attacker roll two dice, the highest one attacks the defender, the lowest one the defended. The interesting bit is that the defender is putting himself in significant danger. The downside is that it makes the defender EASIER to hit when the attacker is trying to get to someone else!

Maybe a better solution would be mixing the two - the defender serves as cover and, if the attack "hits the cover" (missing by 2 points, for example), then he makes another attack against the defender. Its the same rule I'd use for "shooting in the mêlée" - you can hit an ally by accident! Notice that even if you "hit cover" the defender might be unscathed - maybe because it was a glancing blow, or maybe the hit was absorbed by armor.

Mechanically, it feels perfect - hitting the intended target is harder, but the chance you'll hit SOMEONE is a bit higher.

(BTW, would we use half cover [+2] or three quarters[+5]? Maybe +5 when you're intentionally being the cover, +2 when unintentional. It opens interesting ). 

Additional reading:

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Brazilian monster sketches (Rick Troula)

So, here is my next project: a collection of Brazilian monsters for 5e (might do an OSR version if there is enough interest). These first project is focused on folklore, urban legend, and maybe some prehistoric animals. We hope to have it finished late next year. I will keep you informed. 

I might write a few original monsters with Brazilian flavor later on (unfortunately someone already invented a macawbear, lol) or maybe even an hex-crawl... 

As always, any feedback is useful!

We are at the first stages, but I hope I can share a few monsters soon... Some of these are surprisingly dark, others are very weird, but all look like fun to have at your table. We've got killer anteaters, flayed tapirs, demonic sows, alligator witches, fire-breathing goats, giant sloths, burning anacondas covered in eyes... cool stuff!

The finished book will be full color.  We've got some great artists working on this project - the art below is from Rick Troula. Take a look - and follow my blog, Rick, Pedro, Thay, and Iago on Instagram! For now... let's look at some sketches!

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Black Company (dark fantasy book review)

I've read quite a few books in 2021, but almost no sci-fi or fantasy. So I asked some recommendations from MeWe, and my friend Jens from The Disoriented Ranger (check his blog!) recommend me this one. Well, I'm all about dark fantasy, and I share many tastes with Jens, so here we go!

From Wikipedia:
The Black Company, released in May 1984, is the first novel in Glen Cook's ongoing series, The Black Company. The book combines elements of epic fantasy and dark fantasy as it describes the dealings of an elite mercenary unit – the Black Company – with the Lady, ruler of the Northern Empire.
BTW, while I'd usually avoid an "ongoing series", I get the impression that the first trilogy completes some kind of cycle. And the first book can be enjoyed by itself, even if you don't read the rest.

I've found the book fun, but not especially well-written. My copy claims the book is a mix of Tolkien and Bernard Cornwell (somewhat like George RR Martin, I guess) but these three authors are far superior. This might be an unfair comparison, since they are some of the greats. This is somewhat comparable to the first few Witcher books, but so far I think I enjoyed the Witcher a bit more.

The book is told in-character from a "military" point of view. Cook spent time in the army, and it shows. The narrative purposely resembles the account of a modern soldier.

The characters are a little shallow, the action and war scenes a bit rushed and confusing, and the plot twists relatively predictable. Monsters are few and not particularly interesting. The villains are very reminiscent of Sauron and the Nâzgul (with added intrigue and betrayals, which is cool)... The twist, here, is that the Black Company is fighting on their side!

On the other hand, the book is easy and pleasant to read. I couldn't put it down and ended it in a few days, unlike many more recent fantasy series.

If you want to mine the book for RPG ideas (and there was a Black Company RPG published in 2004), you'll find some useful stuff here. The "mercenary company" structure seems perfect for adventuring. It has all the upsides of a military campaign with a bit more freedom, side quests and sketchy characters.

In short: 
Interesting book, but I wouldn't add this to my favorites, at least in this first iteration. I plan to read the second one to see where this goes!

Post Scriptum:
Just found out that Gygax recommended this book!
In Dragon magazine issue 96 (April 1985), Gary Gygax wrote this about The Black Company which is what inspired me to seek it out originally. Anyone else read this way back then?

"A good “game” book If you haven’t read The Black Company by Glen Cook (Tor Books, Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1984), then you are missing a good book which relates closely to the AD&D® game. I can’t swear that the author plays FRP games, let alone any of TSR’s offerings, but somehow he has captured the essence of them, regardless. The Black Company reads as if it were a literary adaptation of actual adventuring, as it were, in a swords & sorcery milieu akin to that of a proper AD&D game campaign. The style of writing is neither heroic nor swashbuckling. There is none of Robert E. Howard in the book. It is a dark work. Nevertheless, it is one fine bit of fantasy authorship. I recommend it to all role-playing game enthusiasts for many reasons, not the least of which is that it will assist in proper fantasy role-playing. For $2.95 this book will provide both reading enjoyment and much support for your RPG activity. It is one you shouldn’t miss."

Friday, December 10, 2021

Table tools, booklets, and Into the Unknown

Into the Unknown is a remarkable game. It basically boils down the most relevant parts of 5e into small booklets (Characters, Playing the Game, Magic, Monsters, etc.) and gives it an OSR feel, close to Moldvay's Basic. It is a very abridged version, and the only reason I can see to choose 5e over ItU is if you like lots of options (for races, characters, classes, etc.). 

ItU goes to level 10 instead of 20; I don't see it as a big downside, since these are my favorite levels (and good enough to run most existing campaigns). I'm considering doing the same for my "minimalist 5e".

(As an aside, ItU is 5e-compatible with OSR flavor; my Dark Fantasy Basic is OSR-compatible with some 5e flavor. You can use ItU to run 5e campaigns and DFB to run OSR campaigns, for example).

Anyway, this is not a review. It is the booklets I want to talk about here. I've written a few booklets on different topics myself, but my "ultimate" goal is to one day publish a beautiful, full color, thick, hardcover book with a complete system - including PCs, monsters and DM tips. My inspiration is the Rules Cyclopedia, probably my favorite D&D book.

I imagine this would look good on my shelves... however - and that's the point I'm trying to make - it might not be the best tool for running the game on the table.

The traditional D&D format - PHB + MM + DMG is cool too. But when running a 5e game, I have a few issues with page-flipping. First, we could use a couple of PHB, at least, if everyone is creating PCs at once. Finding classes and subclasses is easy - picking spells takes a bit longer, and finding them during a game a bit more (just write down the page numbers). Wouldn't it be nice if we had a separate book of spells?

During the game, I feel these big books get a bit unwieldy. I do appreciate having hundreds of monsters, but I'll rarely use more than a dozen in a session - usually two or three. Going from level 1 to 20 is cool... but as I've said, most my campaigns end around 10, and almost none go past 15. Makes me wonder if levels 11-20 should be in a separate "epic" PHB.

The DMG is another thing. It is full of tables and tools to use at the table... and also advice on how to create your own planets and pantheons, something you probably won't read during a game. Maybe we should pair magic items with other items and not with DM advice?

In short: these books are not optimized to use in the table. Fortunately, we have various tools that are.

- Characters sheets are an obvious way to reference information. I do think that 5e PCs have so much information that it is hard to keep it all there, unless you memorize most of the powers - or go through the book to find them. Copying things with pencils feel disorganized and ugly - but also "liberating" since you can add house rules, exceptions, etc.
- Playbooks in the vein of Dungeon World. A pre-written character sheet for each class, including all the options you can take. Making a feat choice is just ticking a box.
- Cards are great for monsters, items, etc.
- Online tools: this is probably where all this is going. D&D has its own, but when I need to look something up at the table it is usually faster to just google it. In addition, character builders are very useful.
DM Screens are something I usually avoid because I object to the idea of hiding my rolls. However, they can be a very useful compilation of tables and rules.

I find that booklets might be one interesting way to have books that are easy to use on the table. ItU was apparently made with this in mind:

 The game is divided into five digest-sized booklets, optimized for use at the gametable:

  • Book 1: Characters holds all you need to quickly create a new character (52 pages)
  • Book 2: Playing the Game has all the essential rules for players to get going (28 pages)
  • Book 3: Magic is strictly for those players whose characters are spellcasters (54 pages)
  • Book 4: Running the Game has everything a Game Master needs for running old-school games (85 pages)
  • Book 5: Monsters holds a selection of ready-to-use critters, complete with morale scores and treasure types (65 pages)
These are all laid out and edited to be as quick to scan and find what you are looking for at the table as possible- no more getting bogged down by looking things up in play!
I like this idea. Notice that the GM book is the biggest one - and you can get it out of the way when you're playing.

There is probably something to be said about how cheap the books are (you can get the whole thing in print for 25 bucks). If you're actually going to use them a lot, this is specially important. Fancy, expense books are often made to be admired in a slower pace (again, I have nothing against them - I love beautiful books, especially with lots of monsters... even if they go mostly unused).

You could could even further. For example, big campaigns would be a lot easier to run with booklets - as WotC realized in the "deluxe" version of Curse of Strahd. No more page flipping between the table of encounters, the encounters themselves and then the monster stats.

I'd like to see that trend continue.

In short...

Big, expensive books are cool and attractive, both to old players and new. But if you are actually going to run these games, you might look into other tools.

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