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

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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  1. I share the same sentiment. Small books make using them more manageable. I myself plan to make minimalistic system but still dividing "books" into one shorter for players and longer for GM.

  2. Wow! That's very nice, cause i love simple and concise games. That's my try on then: