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

Saturday, February 26, 2022

My favorite D&D (and OSR) likes and dislikes - what are yours?

If I were to choose a "pound for pound champion" of D&D, it would be Moldvay's Basic* -  the best ratio of great content per page. On the other hand, my "single book" champion  would be the Rules Cyclopedia* - greatest amount of cool stuff in one single book.

Both books are remarkable because of that, IMO; other D&D books would get more extensive with time. Redundant stuff was added and some important content was nearly lost with time (reactions, morale, hirelings, etc.). 

However, when I started writing my list of likes and dislikes I realized how extensive the latter is. And these are not details - they are fundamental things about my favorite games. I am still a bit unsure about how to explain this - maybe my "likes" have a bigger weight than my dislikes here. Or maybe "dislikes" are just easier to list - if I were to list my 5e dislikes, for examples, I'd include "too many skills, too many spells, too much repetition and redundancy", but when I write about old school positives I just say "simplicity".

The funny thing is that all my "dislikes" have been fixed in 3e, 4e, and 5e, but I still find that B/X and the RC are better (although early 5e is almost there IMO). Maybe it is just because I find adding half a dozen things to a game is easier than subtracting dozens of things between hundreds.

Pound for pound champion!

Anyway, here we go. I'll use B/X as an example because it is my favorite.

- Simplicity, usability, conciseness, lack of clutter.
- Focus on reaction, morale, hirelings.
- Easy to house-rule.
- Monsters are easy to run.

- Race-as-class.
- Different XP tables for each class (including different XP limits), which makes XP useless for some characters for  a big chunk of the game (unless multi-classing etc.)
- Byzantine XP math, including ability bonuses and dividing the XP by your level or something.
- Attacks and saving throws tables.
- Thief skills using d6 and d100 (also, d100 in increments of 5% instead of d20)

- Domain building - I like it as long as you actually use it, which I haven't seem in my games.
- Descending AC.
- Vancian magic.
- Lack of "streamlined mechanics".
- Lack of generalized skills for non-thieves.

My preferences have not been changed even after playing multiple versions of D&D. I even wrote my own take on B/X (Dark Fantasy Basic), changing everything I dislike.

I do realize this is a matter of taste. However, most of the I've mentioned as "dislikes", I also find to be:

- Arbitrary (see the cleric post for an example).
- Justifiable if we don't use them ("sure, Halflings stop at 120,000 XP, but we never play high-level campaigns anyway") or use optional rules.
- Only make sense in the wargaming context (if you had a "XP budget" to build your troops, for example).
- Relics of Arneson/Gygax's original campaigns that do not make sense in 99% of our campaigns.

If you'd like to discuss this, I am curious to hear your opinion about:

- What are your likes/dislikes and, if different from mine, why do you like/dislike this.
- Are there any important likes/dislikes that I'm missing?

* Affiliate links - by using this, you're helping to support this blog!

Friday, February 18, 2022

Dark Fantasy Characters is GOLD!

Dark Fantasy Characters, my small PDF about generating PCs and NPCs for your dark fantasy games, has reached gold on DTRPG. It is my second ever PDF to get the gold (the first being Dark Fantasy Basic).

To commemorate this, I'm cutting the price by half. Only 0.99 until the end of February!

My sincere thanks to everyone who helped me get here, including all the readers of this blog. 

If you like my books, make sure you allow DTRPG to send you my e-mails - I never spam, don't use it often (I usually say "not more than three or four times a year", but in practice I've probably sent half a dozen e-mails in as many years) and mostly just sent discount for my new books from time to time.

As always, all feedback is welcome!

DFC has an OSR feel but it is basically system-less. Most of the tables are like this:

You can see another example here.

Here is the blurb:


Dark Fantasy Characters is a collection of tables to inspire the creation of characters. It includes tables meant for player characters, non player characters, or (frequently) both. You can also use this book to generate characters for stories, comic books, etc. 

The focus is on dark fantasy tropes: flawed heroes, terrible villains, corrupting magic, ominous ruins and damned wastelands.

This is system-less book, to be used with any game of your choice (except for one table). It is especially suited for medieval dark fantasy games, such as my own (Dark Fantasy Basic). 

It includes tables such as:

Names: 100 names plus 20 surnames and particles.

Ability scores: Generate six ability scores by rolling 3d20.

Backgrounds & specialties: More than 80 options to flesh out your charachters.

Dark Secrets, Flaws: Two different tables to give a dark twist to your PCs and NPCs.

Grievous sins: Reserved for the worst of villains!

Monday, February 14, 2022

"Three pillars" as distances and 3P monsters

The three pillars of D&D are exploration, social interaction, and combat (there is also character development but that's another issue). Here is an UA that shows you how to give XP for each pillar (a decent idea IMO), and a quote from that document: 
Back when we were designing fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, we talked about the game’s three pillars: exploration, social interaction, and combat. By thinking about social interaction and exploration as foundational aspects of D&D, we made sure we were always looking beyond combat when designing the game. Fighting easily draws the most attention in terms of rules and game balance, but the other two elements are just as important in making each game session exciting and unique.
In old school D&D, most XP came from gold; gold came from exploration; social interaction and combat were ways to get to the gold. Avoiding social interaction (through stealth) or combat (through interaction, also stealth, etc.) were valid methods. Getting XP through combat was riskier.

Since "XP for killing monsters" became the norm, D&D has been accused of being "only about combat", for obvious reasons (interaction and avoidance get discouraged if you must fight to earn XP). But XP is not the only issue. 

Combat has been somewhat improved in modern D&D, but social mechanics such as reaction rolls have been downplayed. Morale and retreat - two ways getting away from combat - also have been partly forgotten. Exploration become a bit less obvious, with rules for finding traps and hidden doors, for example, being more variable and opaque (i.e., the players do not necessarily know difficult is finding a secret door). Likewise, hexcrawls and navigation ("overland travel") have been a bit de-emphasized or relegated to supplements.

Anyway, back to monsters and combat.

One things that occurred me is seeing the three pillars as distances (or phases)

Exploration tells you where, when and how you will find the monster. These includes habitats, cycles, number of monsters found (also devalued in modern stat-blocks), etc.

Interaction tells you how the monster reacts to other creatures. Is it friendly, aggressive, curious, territorial, etc. What are its goals? How does it look? What about alignment? If the creature wants food, for example, it might be easy to distract or placate.

Combat is the last phase - how does the creature acts when attacked or cornered, etc. Adding a paragraph on tactics would be immensely useful for Dungeon Masters. Instead of going through the entire stat-block, game masters would instantly know what spell or attack to pick when the fight starts. In addition, here we should discuss morale and courage (is the creature willing to fight to the death? Not often), reminding the DM to avoid running every monsters like a Spartan at Thermopylae.

Now, if monsters were organized in these three topics (i.e., "three pillar monsters"), I feel they'd be easier to use. You might skip the exploration bit if running a published adventure, for example, and even the interaction bit if the adventure contains information such as "a hungry owlbear is hiding in this cave and attacks any creature on sight".

On the other hand, if the PCs want to find a green dragon and don't know where to look, just go to the "exploration" part of the text. If the GM wants to write its own material with a certain monster, "exploration" is the first section to read. 

If a monster appears on a random encounter, go to "interaction" first, and so on.

That's all for today. I'll leave you with a couple of quick examples. In practice, I might separate stats/numbers from flavor text.

(large monstrosity)
* Exploration
Uncommon, found in temperate hills/mountains; pride of 2d6; 25% in lair, treasure C/S. Griffons are large creatures with the hindquarters of a lion, etc.
* Interaction
Neutral (feral), semi-intelligent, will attack creatures when hungry or defending lair. Some griffons can be tamed by..., etc.
* Combat:
Griffons prefer to fly by, attack, and fly away when possible. If a creature seems helpless and small enough to carry, they'll grab it and fly away to their nests, preferring mules and cattle to armed humanoids.
Move: 12 (fly 30)
Attack (13): claw (1d4x2) and bite (2d8).
Defenses: AC 3, 7 HD, ML 11.

(medium undead)
* Exploration: Very rare, found anywhere (usually haunted ruins), solitary, 70% in lair (any), treasure D
Groaning spirits are cursed humanoids etc...
* InteractionChaotic evil, exceptional Int..
Torments and attacks living creatures for sport. Might talk to victims and play games (lead to traps, etc.) before attacking. They do not remember details of their past lives but might hold a grudge against their killers, etc.
* Combat
The spirit starts a fight with a horrendous wail, and then proceeds to attack survivors with its chilling touch. It fights and pursues the living until it is destroyed, but is usually bound to a certain area (a house, corridor, etc.).
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.

Additional reading:

Support this blog! 
As you might know, Teratogenicon, my biggest book so far, is about generating random monsters, with goals, origins, and powers. And the art looks amazing - check the previews to see for yourself!

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames (quick review)

Kings of the Wyld is an epic/satire book about a famous "band" (as in "rock band") of middle-aged mercenaries that goes back into action, decades after their break, to save the daughter of their "band leader", who is inside a city under siege from a monstrous horde.

Bands are basically a comedy version (or parody) of D&D adventurers. Each band has its own pompous name, past success stories, and groupies. 

I've bought this book based on a recommendation and read it slowly, taking several months to finish. The pace starts and finishes strong, but it drags a bit in the middle. Even toughs the story goes on for too long, the books is very well written.

Sometimes the author doesn't seem to be able to decide between comedy and epic narrative. As a comedy, the book has several references to fantasy stories, bands and musicians from the real world, which made me smile but never laugh out loud. There are puns and jokes in every chapter, mostly good. If you need some familiarity with D&D and (classic) rock bands to "get" all the jokes.

As an epic, the book works relatively well, although it has a bit of exaggeration at the climax - which basically brings together all the monsters and heroes in the universe, which is still exciting - and it is immensely derivative of D&D, including orcs, owlbears and others for no apparent reason. The characters have sturdy plot armor, but the book manages to paint some dark corners and dramatic moments in this epic narrative. The book descriptions are quite cinematic and it looks like it would make a good movie. 

I almost feel like there is a missed opportunity of creating a great epic, although the comedy part is also enjoyable.

This is the first of a series of book but the ending is satisfying by itself. I might read other books by Eames to see where it goes. This is his first; an impressive debut.

In short: this is high-level vanilla/comic D&D. Witty, well written, and skillfully balancing parody and homage. The writing is better than the first Black Company but it is also more derivative. A bit reminiscent of Fritz Lieber but not as funny or evocative. Still, above average for fantasy books.

Is this relevant for RPGs?

Yes, obviously. The "band" organization seems like a great fit for D&D, and it is something I'd be willing to try in my games. It is in many ways superior to a group of "Witchers", since in the band formation each character class has its own niche and its own place in the spotlight.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Quick D&D/OSR thought: comparative rolls

Old school D&D uses few opposed rolls (with the exception of attack versus AC and damage versus HP). A spell saving throw, for example, requires the same roll if you're the target of a first-level elf or a 14th level magic-user. As I've noticed before:
But, basically, any roll in which the possibility of success relies on both your skill/power and your opponents' skill/power can be considered an opposed rolls. Which is very common today, but NOT usually the case with old school D&D. Saving throws, moving silently, hear noise, etc., were often used without any regard for the opposition's capabilities. Traditionally, there is no "contest" between move silently and hear noise, for example; these abilities are "self referential", relying solely on the character attempting them.

There are some opposed rolls in old school D&D, but they are often disguised and made complicated for no apparent reason. For example, giving the thief a 5% penalty to pick pocket for each level of the victim beyond level 5 is identical to just adding +1 per level on a d20 roll after level 5. Turn Undead is also a opposed roll between the cleric's level and the undead's HD.

The lesson here, I think, is that because D&D is a "class & level" game, opposed rolls should always take level into consideration. Used in this way, opposed rolls reinforce the "class and level" aspect of the game in a way that "rolling under ability score" does not.
Dispel magic is another good example. Some creatures work similarly (e.g., the phase spider, which I use as an example below, imposes a -4 penalty to poison save in the RC, unlike an "ordinary" giant spider).

This bothers me, since I happen to like opposed rolls. AND I enjoy aspects from both old school and contemporary D&D. So when I wrote Dark Fantasy Basic, I used opposed rolls, despite fearing it would make the game harder to use with OS/OSR modules.

I failed to see how to have both within the same system; either the roll is self-referential ("roll 12+ to save versus poison - any poison") or the difficulty is defined by your foe ("roll 12+ to resist giant spider poison, but you need 16+ if the spider is huge like Shelob the great"). 

And this changes the game fundamentally, since it affects the very essence of how saving throws work.

Maybe you already realized that I missed an obvious solution...

Size matters!

Here it is: use the old school method, but, as an optional rule, add the difference in HD to the roll.

Lets say you're a 3rd level fighter, and your poison save is 14. When facing a 2 HD snake, you get a +1 bonus, needing only 13 or more to succeed. But when facing a 8 HD phase spider, you get a -5 penalty.

If you're using target 20, this is even easier; just add your level to your roll and try to roll 20+, or , if using the optional rule, add TWICE your level to your roll and try to roll 20+monster HD.

Use this if you want high HD monsters and heroes to be significantly stronger against low-level creatures. Which I like; the 5e purple worm causing 3d6+9 damage plus 12d6 poison on a failed save seems more reasonable to me than 1d8 plus save versus death.

There are a few problems with this approach. It's too fiddly, and not strictly necessary; it requires one additional step; it makes the poison of a purple worm deadly 100% of the times against that 3rd level fighter (fighting a purple worms at level 3 is a bad idea anyway... and the same would happen in 5e); and we have to consider how to count PC's HD after level 9 (especially if you're going all the way to 36).

Also... I like how Dark Fantasy Basic turned out. 1d20+stat+skill, versus 1d20+HD, and that's it. Works well, and you could hardly make it simpler. Maybe I should do the opposite then: use the DFB method and leave the fixed target as an optional rule (say, roll 20+ to succeed against anything).

Anyway... its a start!

Recommended reading:

Friday, February 04, 2022

The strange clerics of original D&D (and B/X, OSR, etc.)

In the original D&D, the cleric is a very peculiar class. Not only thematically (see "additional reading", below), but mechanically too.

At a first glance, the cleric casts spells exactly as a magic-user or elf - only starting a level later than both, and having a lower cap (5th level spells) when compared to the magic-user (6th level).

Once you dig a bit deeper, however, you will realize the clerics are completely different from other casters – most importantly because they can choose any spell to memorize, not being limited by a grimoire. However, there are other relevant details.

First, the cleric’s spell progression is very peculiar when compared to the magic-user and the elf. For example, a level 6 cleric gets access to spells of level 3 and 4 simultaneously for no obvious reason. Compare this to the magic-user: despite requiring a lot more XP to level up, the MU does not have access to level 4 spells until level 7. 

And by level 7 (50,000 XP), the cleric can raise the dead! And, unlike the magic-user, he does so automatically, without needing to choose a spell to add to a grimoire.

From the OSE SRD:

This progression is in Moldvay's Basic (1981), identical to the one is OD&D. However, it is "fixed" for something more streamlined in both BECMI and AD&D.

Second, spell levels few almost arbitrary. Cure Light Wounds (healing 1d6+1 HP) is a 1st level spells, while Cure Serious Wounds (2d6+2 HP) is a fourth level spell. With a 5th level spell, you can raise the dead... or create lots of food.

Then there are deities, which will punish clerics that stray away from their path – or that cast reversed spells, making these kinds of spells a bit less versatile than they appear.

In practice, these things combine to make a more or less coherent whole. Spell levels are all over, but it does not really matter because the cleric can choose any spells every day. The cleric is very useful and versatile, but never a better fighter than the fighter, nor reaching the same destructive powers of a magic-user or elf.

However, there are some downsides. 

For example, the game allows clerics to research their own spells, but there seems to be no obvious parameters on how to do so, since their spells vary so much in power. It also makes creating new classes who have access to both spell lists a lot harder, for the same reason.

Likewise, turn undead uses a strange progression that ALMOST makes sense if you take into account the creature's HD, as OSE does:

As you can see, there is almost a very easy formula to be found ("roll 7+ or more to turn undead of the same HD as yours, 9+ if higher", etc.) that gets "broken" because of the addition of "HD 2*" monsters (which are ghouls, BTW; they seem to be important for some reason, giving the elf an special ability that looks almost pointless to me). OSE suggests adding higher HD monsters if desire; this is really easy to do if you follow a simple formula.

You might think that there is some unseen balance behind this reasoning. But this is not necessarily true. As someone else mentioned, in The Keep on the Borderlands - reviewed as "a good introduction to D&D" (source) - there are dozens of undead with amulets that prevent turning!

So, what can we do with this?

If you're playing B/X, OD&D, BECMI or OSE, you don't need to do anything, if you don't want to. In practice, as we've said, the cleric is not necessarily overpowered (especially if there are few undead in the campaign), and doesn't even heal that many HP (relying basically on CLW; which is good if you're healing 1d3 per day otherwise), despite being able to raise dead quite soon.

However, if you are writing your own house rules or OSR game and want to create a cleric more to your liking, you might consider:

- Streamlining spell progression and spell levels.
- Streamlining turn undead, especially if you don't need a column to accommodate ghouls.
- Giving more healing options if you want the cleric to be a healer.
- Change "raise dead" if you want it to be less common.

This is what I did in Dark Fantasy Basic (making the cleric a weaker spell-caster than the MU and making turn undead a skill) and what I'm working on for my next supplement (an "Alternate Magic" book for OSE - let me know in the comments if you like the idea!).

UPDATE: Alternate Magic is out, with an alternate cleric, ready to use!

Recommended reading: