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, June 24, 2022

Finding spells is better than choosing them

D&D is probably my favorite RPG nowadays - mostly in the OSR versions, but even 5e sometimes. But one of the things I dislike the most about it is picking spells: there is a HUGE number to choose from, and depending on the system you get to choose EVERY DAY which spells you'll prepare.

I have my own "fixes" to that - which I included in Alternate Magic.

But there is a "fix" I haven't tried much - is just forcing spellcasters to FIND their spells, in scrolls, grimoires, etc.

And it makes sense. Not only because it saves time, but because fighters must find their own magic, too - magic weapons, magic armor, and so on. Both modern and old school versions of D&D assume fighters will get those weapons, but not be able to CHOOSE a Flame Tongue or Vorpal Sword at level 10, for example.

Maybe you can BUY spells if other magic items are available for sale (although a functioning magical economy would encourage all casters to buy the "best" spells unless they are more expensive). Maybe you can ask a specific spell from your deity. Ideally, you'd go on a quest. I prefer to be agnostic about this. Maybe you can even choose a small number of spells. The important part is - do not assume you'll be able to choose new spell as you gain new levels.

This doesn't only make character creation and improvement infinitely faster and easier, but avoids any worry about "balancing" spells, and keeps magic mysterious and unpredictable. It will make wizards crave rare grimoires like fighters crave magic swords. Spellcasters are now shaped by their quests and experiences instead of an "optimal builds".

We probably should consider a roll for learning a spell (see AD&D 1e); some people are unable to learn some spells. I've seem it time and time again when playing D&D: the party defeats a wizard, and wants to learn his spells. It's great!

No two spellcasters are identical. Of course, casters will choose the best spells AVAILIABLE, but what is available will change from campaign to campaign.

(BTW, after you learn a spell, it should be HARD to forget it. Spells are living thingsDark Fantasy Basic has a system that will make spells invade your mind if you use scrolls too often).

Now you only need a spell list of generator. I like this one from Cairn if you want something free-form. There are generators for 5e. And if you're playing OSE, just roll a 1d6 to find spell level and 1d12 to choose a spell. Alternate Magic has 12 cleric spells and 12 magic-user spells, all of them very flexible; just roll 1d12 and flip a coin. And so on.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

D&D 5e fighting styles comparison: Tasha's Cauldron

This is a follow-up for my original post analyzing fighting styles from the PHB. I don't find much stuff in Tasha's Cauldron to interest me, but I like analyzing fighting styles, so here we go.

There is not much to say about these styles. They are mostly straightforward or open too many possibilities to analyze properly (for example, Blessed Warrior is good if you pick the right cantrips, but there are a lot of cantrips to choose from).

Some of them are "half feats" of some sort. For example, Blessed Warrior and Druidic Warrior are just weaker versions of Magic Initiate, and Superior Technique is a weaker Martial Adept. They allow you to change cantrips and techniques from time to time, which is nice.

This would be a good idea, IMO, if only to give more flexibility to "warrior" types - except that Tasha also introduces the Fighting Initiate feat, which only gives you one fighting style! This is baffling. And it is probably a horrible feat in most circumstances - except maybe for some Archery or Barbarian "build"

Oh well. Let's see what the new fighting styles are about.

Copyright WoTC.

Blessed Warrior (Paladin Only). Gives you a couple of cleric cantrips. This is a great choice if you have no cleric in your party, so you can get Guidance and Spare the Dying. Alternatively, you can get some ranged attack options (e.g. Toll the Dead from Xanathar's Guide to Everything).

A decent fighting style; I don't see why this must be limited to paladins, as I can easily imagine fighters, etc., being "blessed" without needing leveled spells - and having Guidance and Spare the Dying would be great for a "leader" archetype.

Blind Fighting. You have blindsight (10 feet), even when blinded etc., and can see invisible creatures unless they are hidden. Very flavorful, but very situational. Overall, I wouldn't recommended it.

Druidic Warrior (Ranger Only). Gives you a couple of druid cantrips. Exactly the same deal... Guidance still a good choice, maybe you can get Shillelagh or Magic Stone to get a magic weapon or ranged spell attack early on. But the Archery style is hard to beat.

Again, I can see a "green knight" or Paladin (Ancients) as a druidic warrior, so not sure why this would be restricted to rangers.

Interception. When a creature you can see hits a target that is within 5 feet of you with an attack, you can use your reaction to reduce the damage the target takes by 1d10 + your proficiency bonus (to a minimum of 0 damage). You must be wielding a shield or a simple or martial weapon to use this reaction.

This is comparable to the Protection fighting style. As I've said, "very flavorful, but has some heavy downsides".... "it uses your reaction - and at higher levels, monster damage is usually divided among several attacks, and this will only work against one. You also have to be within 5 feet of your ally - which limits its utility."

But this one has some nice scaling with proficiency, doesn't require a shield and you can (arguably) defend yourself with it.

Overall, not great, a bit better than protection IMO, but depends on who you're fighting. Disadvantage will usually cut your chances by half, so against strong enemies protection is better.

Superior Technique. You get a Battlemaster maneuver and a d6 superiority die. Well, this is good. Battlemaster maneuvers are nice and you can surely find something useful. A solid choice, even for Battlemasters - since their superiority die will arguably scale with level. Not that Battlemasters need the boost when compared to, say, champions or barbarians, but that's neither here nor there.

Thrown Weapon: Allows you to draw and throw a weapon as an attack, and thrown weapons deal +2 damage. This is a powerful style that makes "thrown weapons" builds viable. Get a few daggers or javelins and now you're deadly at a distance without needing Dex... Nice!

This is definitely a "cinematic" option - in real life, I'm willing to bet that a dagger held in hand is ten times more deadly than thrown dagger - but it fits the genre. You still need a decent number of weapons to avoid running out of ammo!

Notice that you can attack with a shortsword with one hand and throw a dagger with the other, for example, making it a viable way of "two weapon fighting".

Unarmed Fighting. Your unarmed strikes deal 1d6 + Str damage, or 1d8 if you don't have a shield  or weapon. And at start of your turn, you can deal 1d4 damage to a creature grappled by you. This is a great option, making unarmed attacks become a viable tactic, at least until magic weapons come into play. 

Notice that the 1d4 damage does not require a bonus action, making it useful even for monks, and folks that have the Tavern Brawler feat.


Some solid options in there. Not is stronger than say, Archery, but they are all pretty strong except for Blind Fighting. The feat is a bad idea, but other than that these are some good fighting styles. Thrown Weapon and Unarmed Fighting are good for specific builds.

And it is nice that warriors get some love, since we already have approximately a bazillion spells.

I have considered writing a new Manual of Arms with new fighting styles - so far, I have about 20, which is not enough for a book. Maybe if I add a few stances and feats... 

Well, let me know if you like the idea.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Teratogenicon: print costs and a discount coupon

A quick post on the subject before DTRPG updates printing costs. If you have the book already, you might skip this post - I will repeat myself...

The Teratogenicon is the most beautiful book I ever produced. Because of this, is the only book we've created with a print version in mind. I really like how it turned out, both in Standard and Premium color.

Now, print versions are not easy to make - I needed a professional artist for that (Rick Troula). And the margins are very small compared to PDFs, of course. I might do a post explaining that further for the people that ask for print versions of my books (I appreciate the interest, BTW).

But this is a book I think it is worth having in print.

Well, now, because of various reasons, DTRPG's printer, Lightning Source, will be increase the print prices. The change will happen on July 13.

And you can STILL get the PDF for a couple of bucks if you buy the print version. 

If you want to get the PDF only, here is a discount coupon. It is good until July 13.

So, if you don't have the book yet, consider getting it before July 13!

Both versions look awesome in print. The premium version looks sharper, brighter, with vivid shades of gray (see below). The paper feels glossier. The standard color is darker - both art and text - but the quality and resolution are mostly maintained.

We've decided to reject the B&W version, as the price difference is too small to justify a (slightly) lower quality (and some text/art visible through the back of the pages) for such a beautiful book. We've also decided that the book is too thin for hardcover, which would also make it more expensive.

As always, you can buy bundles of our digital products for a great price. 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Escape the Truman Show, escape the Matrix; the god-DM and free-willed NPCs

Another anti-railroading, anti-fudging rant. I have so many of these that I might write a compilation someday...


If you're unfamiliar with the movie:
Truman Burbank is the unsuspecting star of The Truman Show, a reality television program filmed 24/7 through thousands of hidden cameras and broadcast to a worldwide audience. Christof, the show's creator and executive producer, seeks to capture Truman's authentic emotions and give audiences a relatable everyman.

As Truman was selected from birth following an unwanted pregnancy, Christof claims that Truman came to be adopted not just by the show, but by the whole "world". Truman's hometown of Seahaven Island is a complete set built within an enormous dome, populated by crew members and actors who highlight the product placements that generate revenue for the show. The elaborate set allows Christof to control almost every aspect of Truman's life, including the weather.

To prevent Truman from discovering his false reality, Christof manufactures scenarios that dissuade Truman's desire for exploration, such as the "death" of his father in a sea storm to instill aquaphobia, and by constantly broadcasting and printing messages of the dangers of traveling and the virtues of staying home. However, Christof cannot predict all of Truman's actions.
It is one of those films from the late-nineties, like Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, eXistenZ, that questioned the nature of reality. How can we know if we are living in reality or some kind of simulation? We probably can't.

[Why was this theme so popular in the late nineties? I think we went through some kind of societal shift at that time. Now, the simulation is too obvious to even question. The world of internet and social media is bigger than the "real world". Money is kept in bytes, not gold. Narrative is more important them truth. Like cyberpunk, the late-nineties dystopia makes no more sense because it is now partially real. Makes me wonder if that is why the younger 5e players have a harder time understanding that railroading can be ad than old-school enthusiasts and grognards]. 

But that is beside the point.

The point is: nobody wants to live in a simulation. In all those stories, the "game masters" of the simulation think they know what their "subjects" want. Maybe controlled love and happiness; maybe (as in the Matrix) you need to add some misery to make things feel more real.

Doesn't matter. In every case, the hero wants to escape the simulation - even if reality is far worse.

But wait - games are the opposite, right? 

You are conscious and willing to go into a simulated world.

Well, not really. The best simulations are the ones that make you feel that it is real for a moment, even when you know it's not.

That's why the idea of campaigns with hundreds of players sound more enticing to me than writing hundreds of NPCs.

But even when you do write NPCs, you should give them free will. That what makes NPCs resemble actual people: they out their own interests over the "story". That is why I enjoy books and games where the "supporting cast" is interesting and active; Skyrim, The Witcher 3, Game of Thrones.

Even if you think the role of GM is akin to a god of the fictional world, you still give people free will. You can control the weather, earthquakes, you can send plagues, drought and famine, you can even make new people or kill existing ones, but you cannot rob characters of their free will.

Not even NPCs - you must at least guess what they would do.

By the way, if you fudge, it ceases to be a role-playing game - at least for a moment. There is no game if you fix the results. It can be fun, it can great, but not a game.

This is about RPGs, but it is also a deep philosophical idea. It is in religion, philosophy, ideology, politics. Immeasurable evil has been done in the name of "I know what's best for you" (or, wrose, "I know what's best for all"). This doesn't mean you're evil for fudging, of course (I don't think I'm evil myself, even tough I fudged more than once in the past, and I made mistakes that were far worse than that) - this is just something to think about.

When I hear people saying "but you have to fudge - otherwise, a bunch of goblins can cause a TPK by sheer luck, or the big bad can go down in a couple of rounds!", I think of the Truman Show.

Calm down, Christof. You think you know what is best for Truman, but you don't. 

Let Truman choose.


I still think that PC death is a problem, but fudging is a terrible solution.

Will write a post about that in the future.

Monday, June 06, 2022

Dark Fantasy Basic character sheet

Here is a link to my Dark Fantasy Basic character sheet.

If you've been waiting for a while, I want to say I'm sorry it took me so long.

While not as stunning as the work of actual artists (like the ones by Prosaiko and JV West), it is functional, works well for my games, and it has a "gothic" vibe that's adequate for DFB. 

I hope I can make an awesome sheet in some future version of DFB, but that's only a distant goal at this point.

You can get it here ("DFB sheet"). BTW, I'm making this a "public folder" with all my free stuff.

Let me know if you like it! 

I've added a .doc version so you can edit it as you want, or even adapt to your own house rules.

And, of course, if any actual artists want to do their own version, I'd love to see it!

Friday, June 03, 2022

Shadow of the Demon Lord - actual play review

I've been talking about Shadow of the Demon Lord for a while now. I was very impressed the first time I read it. But I wanted to get some actual experience with the system before writing a review. Well, now I ran an entire campaign (Tales of the Demon Lord, which I'll review next, adding some notes about how the system worked in practice) - a bit more than a dozen sessions, going all the way from level zero to ten.

Also, the book is almost 300 pages, so I'll focus in the most important bits to keep this interesting.

Shadow of the Demon Lord is a proud "grimdark" game. It's edgy, gory, funny, in a twisted sort of way. It is both homage and satire to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (or WFRP, which is a bit satirical by itself) and other gritty games. It aims for dark fantasy, and it succeeds. If you're not amused by spells such as "hateful defecation", you might roll your eyes a bit, but you can mostly play without the gory parts if you want to.

The system has an amazing amount of supplements - new ancestries, adventures, spells, alternate rules, etc. So, if you like it, endless expansions are available. Unfortunately, no SRD.

The writer, Robert J. Schwalb, is a famous game designer who wrote several great RPGs and participated in the development of 5e.

The looks
The book looks good but not great. I like the cover and most of the art - it is of good quality and fits the mood. However, the layout is a bit boring and reminiscent of D&D 4e, and the gray background is something I really dislike (looks dull on the screen, but decent in print). This is old as a "watermarked PDF", which I dislike, but the revised version I have form DTRPG seems to have no watermarks.

BTW, the book has extensive errata incorporated in the last digital (and POD) version, but not in the ones you can buy in amazon, for example.

The system
The book uses a traditional d20 system, with four main attributes and some derived ones. It simplifies attribute modifiers (i.e., Strength 13 means you roll with +3), difficulties (the difficulty for challenges is always 10, or the target's defense or attribute for attacks, etc.) and bonuses/penalties (which are mostly reduced to "boons" and "banes", each adding or subtracting 1d6 and canceling each other out; if you roll multiple d6, only the highest number applies).

For example, a strength challenge roll with three boons and one bane means you roll 1d20, add your strength modifier (say, +3), and add the highest of 2d6. If the result is 10 or more, you succeed.

This works very well in practice (and is very sound mathematically) but becomes cumbersome when you are counting multiple boons and banes. Most of the time "+7 with three boons" could be safely replaced by "+12" with no significant loss.

Chapter 1: Character Creation
The mechanics of character creation are awesome. Using a few random tables, you can quickly create an interesting character. The randomness generates some imbalances (i.e., some will be wealthy, handsome, with servants, guards and horses, while others will be destitute, disfigured and a little insane), which is easy to fix if you want to.

Starting characters do not have much room for customization, which I really like - these are level 0, very simple, with no special powers. They only pick ancestries: human, changeling, clockwork, dwarf, goblin or orc. Dwarfs, humans and orcs are more or less what you'd expected, which is a bit disappointing IMO, but overall they manage to make ancestries interesting.

Characters get professions instead of skills; having the relevant profession gives you a boon. I like this; it is similar to what I have used in Dark Fantasy Basic.

Chapter 2: Playing the Game
This chapter describe most of the system (see above). 

It has simple, good rules for Insanity and Corruption. While I like this, turns out insanity is quite easy to cure by clerics, and corruption generates a conundrum: it forces PCs to abstain from murder and theft or they quickly become demons (which die more often than non-corrupted humans and cannot be resuscitated). Does this mean thieves and murderers are rare and easy to identify in this setting? Or that Pcs are always the heroes even in a morally gray world? It is not easy to reconcile IMO, and in practice it forces the DM to make moral judgment on the PCs too often. Fortunately, Chapter 9: Running the Game offers some solutions (only truly evil acts cause corruption, while killing someone that "someone who probably deserves to die" is okay).

Combat is fast, gritty and deadly. Initiative rules are clever (PCs go first unless they take a "slow turn"), attacking is straightforward, and taking damage equal to your health gives you a 1-in-6 change of dying per turn. Other than that, it is more or less similar to D&D (especially 5e). There are rules for mounted combat, disarming, shoving, social conflicts, cover, etc.

Chapters 3-5: Paths
SotDL uses "paths" instead of classes. You pick one at level 1 (magician, priest, rogue or warrior), another one on level 3 (expert paths - there are 16 options), and a final one at level 7 (master path - 64 options!). There are 10 levels in total. each level gives you something from one of your paths or ancestries; sometimes, you also have to make choices within paths (choose a spell, weapon or profession, for example).

This system is one of the best parts of SotDL in my opinion. You have basically endless combinations, while keeping decisions more or less simple until level 7 - when you have a better grasp of the game. Not all features are equally interesting - many will just give you some boons or extra damage - but overall they are very good.

PCs go from zero to demi-gods at amazing speed (IIRC you are supposed to get one level per adventure, so you might play an entire campaign in about 10 sessions or a bit more). I'm okay with that, but my players felt it happens too fast. If I were to run a new campaign I might start at level 1 and go a bit slowly from then on.

Chapter 6: Equipment
This chapter is brief and uninteresting. Encumbrance is handwaved - it uses slots, but a ring weights as much as your clothes, and containers are measured in volume rather than weight. Armor isn't even mentioned, which is absurd.

The book contains rules on availability and hireling, which is nice. Weapons and armor are also mostly uninteresting. Guns are powerful but rare and slow. Melee weapons are distinguished mostly by damage and price. I dislike 5e weapons, but it is more fun than this. Maybe a personal preference.

And there is this rule that I found clever but my players found annoying:
Replacing Equipment
The game assumes you keep your gear in good repair, patching holes in your clothing, keeping your metal weapons oiled and sharpened, replenishing your stores of food and water with materials you forage during your travels, and recovering your ammunition. No matter how fastidious you are about keeping up with your goods, old items wear out and must be replaced.
When you choose an expert path or master path, your old gear that is not magical in nature wears out and must be replaced.

Chapter 7: Magic
SotDL hits most targets here: magic is straightforward, often dark, and varied. It uses a system similar to spell slots, a decision I can barely understand. Why copy the weakest parts of D&D? Again, probably a matter of taste. But overall the system is very good and fits the "grimdark" theme perfectly.

Chapter 8: A Land in Shadow
25 pages describing the setting. It is mostly what you'd expect from a dark fantasy setting. A bit reminiscent of WFRP but more grounded and low-fantasy. Overall, good but nothing particularly noteworthy, except the Demon Lord. I'll quote, because this part is essential to understand the game:
Using the Shadow
The Shadow of the Demon Lord is an optional element that
can greatly enhance the mood of foreboding and terror in
your game. It might loom over the entire campaign or be an
unstable effect that changes once, twice, or many times. It
can be the main crisis in your stories or a distant threat that
lurks in the background. For example, a campaign might
begin at the time of the orc uprising, which some believe
was sparked when the Shadow fell upon Drudge, now king
of the orcs. From there the Shadow moves on to the Great
Druid, who watches over the hidden Well of Life, leading to
a global pandemic. Toward the end of the campaign, it falls
over a demon prince that the group imprisoned and looses
it into the world.
If you want to use the Shadow in your game, you can roll
a d20 and consult the Shadow of the Demon Lord table to
randomly determine its effect. Alternatively, you can choose
a suitable effect or come up with one of your own, using
these examples to guide your design.
Next, you need to think of a reason for why the
Shadow behaves as it does. Does it fall randomly or does
it have a cause? For example, the “restless dead” effect
could happen when a powerful necromancer comes
under the Demon Lord’s influence, or the Shadow might
have fallen over the Underworld. When possible, tie the
Shadow to the group in some way. Perhaps its influence
corrupts a patron, or the characters’ actions somehow
triggered the event.
In short... it is a world in the brink of destruction.

Chapter 9: Running the Game
A chapter on GM advice. Fairly usual stuff except, again, for the Demon Lord - which is the most interesting part.
The Shadow of the Demon Lord is an optional element that
can greatly enhance the mood of foreboding and terror in
your game. It might loom over the entire campaign or be an
unstable effect that changes once, twice, or many times. It
can be the main crisis in your stories or a distant threat that
lurks in the background.
This section describes how to create an apocalyptic campaign, with world-shattering events: terrible plagues, one our of ten people turning to demons, the sun turning black, worldwide insanity, and so on. If you're into this type of campaign, this part is invaluable.

There are not magic items, but multiple tables on how to create your own. Great in theory, but in practice I felt it produce useless items too often.

Chapter 10: Bestiary
A decent collection of creatures. The usual suspects, plus a few flavorful additions. The art is scarcer than I'd like - some of the new monsters really deserved a picture. I'd like to see more demons - SotDL presents templates such as "Medium Demon" and "Large Demon"  rather than specific creatures. Good enough for most fantasy games, but since this is "shadow of the demon lord", I feel they could add more options.

Other than that, this chapter is quite complete and has several rule son how to customize creatures.

In conclusion...
This book has enough awesome stuff that I'd recommend anyone interested in d20 systems and dark fantasy in general to give it a look. The level of crunch is almost ideal for me, and the system almost perfect - the only caveat being that too many things are reduced to banes or boons, without much variation. 

This book is not exactly OSR but has a similar vibe.

Will I play this gain? Or, in other words - would I play this again rather than playing D&D? This is difficult to answer. I'd be curious to play more and experiment with more paths, maybe even add more ancestries. The system is definitely on par with D&D 5e in terms of quality, but is simpler (well, the first 10 levels of D&D are not bad either). It is a bit cumbersome to run at high levels with all the boons and banes, although my players liked this.

I am certainly glad I've tried this. But using it again would depend on which campaign to run. If I were to create my own campaign, I'd use my own system; otherwise, I'd try to use something close to the intended system. 

So, probably I won't be playing again soon (unless there is another good campaign after Tales of the Demon Lord), but I'll certainly keep reading and incorporating this stuff into my own games.

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