Saturday, August 31, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 31 Last

I was hoping to stick the landing, here, but this word just…well, again, there’s too much real estate to realistically cover and I am tired. So, in keeping with my brand-new, just-made-it-up tradition of re-writing the 11’s to better serve my needs, Here’s my answers the previous year’s questions for Day 31.

#RPGaDay 2018 31 Why did you take part in RPGaDay 2019

I caught wind of this at the end of last year, when it was far too late to participate, and I vowed to do it up for real next year. This year, in fact. I think I did!

#RPGaDay 2017 31 What do you anticipate for gaming in 2018 2020?

We will know that the industry is out of ideas when Toon gets reworked for “the world’s greatest fantasy role-playing game.” I think more and more people are going to bring their campaign worlds to life using the D&D OGL. That model is what will keep the interest high and also keep the money pool shallow. A perfect cottage industry.

#RPGaDay 2016 31 Best advice you were ever given for your game of choice?

If you don’t like the rule, don’t use it.  That freed me up to concentrate on the stuff that mattered to me.

#RPGaDay 2015 31 Favorite non-RPG thing to come out of RPGing

I love that game theory and game studies are now a real thing at colleges and people far smarter than myself are digging down into the underpinnings of this hobby. It’s fascinating stuff.

#RPGaDay 2014 31 Favorite RPG of all Time

My heart will always belong to Call of Cthulhu. The system is largely unchanged, the mechanics are simple and effective, and the rules reflect that world with just a couple of simple precepts. It’s the only game on the market, before or since, where character death is a fun, interesting and awesome thing because it’s built into the game world and stated up front. Despite its subject matter, it was a tonic during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s because no one ever flipped out when their investigator went mad or got slurped up by a monster. Everyone just laughed about it. Which is good, because it’s just a game.

But it’s a great game. My favorite.

Thanks for playing, everyone. We have some lovely parting gifts. Please sign the guest book on your way out. It would be great if you subscribed to this blog or bookmarked it, too. I'll put more stuff up soon. I promise.

Friday, August 30, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 30 Connection

Isn’t that why we’re all here? To make connections? I mean on the Internet. Not in real life, God, no. Meatspace is gross!

Only kidding. After all, what is tabletop gaming without the sights, the sounds, and the smells?

Again, only kidding. Mostly.

But I do want to point out that it’s not secret that gaming brings us together, over a shared activity, a shared vocabulary, a communal liminal space, written by committee on the fly, and managed through random arbitration. That’s gaming, in very clinical and not-sexy terms.

The magic of gaming is our ability to link up our neural networks to make that communal space. My narrative and your inner eye, bolstered by your fellow player’s comments, creates this amazing stage that you can see and also interact within. It’s a dream space, where you pull back to see yourself in the space, and then zoom back into your avatar’s head to speak words, engage opponents, and interact with other players.

There is nothing else like it. Video games can simulate that experience, but you are limited to what the development team decided a scorpion orc would look like. You don’t get any input into that. You also are limited by how you can interact with the monster and the world. If they don’t want you climbing the walls to get out, then you don’t climb the walls until after the big bad monster is dead. Talk about a railroad!

Our connections to the shared experience is a kind of alchemy, and I just now realized that the church people from the mid-1980s were right all along. It is a ritual, though not a satanic one. It’s this intentional mental space you put yourself into that allows the dungeon master to feed you input via visual and auditory stimulus, and you engage with that artificial reality as if it had gravity, mass, and weight.

I’m freaking myself out, here. We are the architects of the Matrix, every time we gather over Cheetos and Mountain Dew. And like Neo, our character sheets allow us to bend, and sometimes break, the Matrix for our own means. But none of that happens without our implicit and explicit connection to one another. 

Thursday, August 29, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 29 Evolve

Looking at the evolution of Dungeons & Dragons is pretty interesting. Forty years. Let’s be charitable and say there have been seven iterations of the game, with each successive edition being a zeitgeist of the times. That’s what makes fifth edition so interesting. Sure, in many ways, it’s everything that forth edition wasn’t, but in terms of tone and can-do attitude, it’s more like vintage D&D than any other edition. In this regard, we’ve kind of come full circle.

Likewise, the players have evolved with the game—sort of. I think that gamer larvae start out pretty much the same: “I kill it with my sword!” But thanks to the rich vocabulary that has developed to support role-playing as a cultural pastime, and the highest levels of engagement in the hobby to date, and also a proliferation of tutorials and op-ed YouTube channels and podcasts and all of it, gamer larvae grow into gamer butterflies much faster these days. Or they leave and go back to Grand Theft Auto. But most, I would venture to say, see the value and the appeal of true freedom in gaming. My groups all have. They love God of War, but they talk about their table adventures with the same fervent and reverent tone of voice.

I can’t think of any other game that has tried so hard to keep up with the times. There’s a reason why D&D rules the roost; they have put the sweat equity in. Let’s throw a little love out.

First Edition/BEX/AD&D
This was the awkward, wonky, uneven, crude and strange version of the game and you know what? I still love it. I think it more for nostalgic reasons these days, but there is some great stuff still in the original game system. And there are a lot of old school players who feel that way, because they keep re-re-re-reprinting their version of the game, over and over, changing flavor and updating artwork but keeping all of the charts and tables that seem so quaint in the modern age.

There is still a lot to like about the original game, no matter how tangled its origins. It gets the credit for being the first and it really could not have gone down any other way. The language for role-playing games hadn't been invented yet. The systems for keeping track of things, combat, experience points, even skills--none of it was there. Not until this. And as creaky as it seems, if you sit down with a few friends and start playing it, it'll all come rushing back on you, muscle memory, and you'll be transported again--maybe not to Grayhawk, but definitely back to 1982.

Old gamers, the grognards and the neckbeards, often grumble and kvetch about these kids today not knowing their roots, and my first thought is always, "Oh, you make sitting down with you lecturing them for four hours seem so bloody interesting, it's a mystery why they don't."  I get the seed of their frustration, and I sympathize with it, but I don't blame all of the new gamers. Au contraire, I welcome them. For one thing, they are way less grumpy than a lot of the guys my age, so, right there, I'm on board with the new blood. And if my group gets a taste of the "old school" style adventures and classic modules via 5th edition, they are way more appreciative of my age and experience because I'm not talking down to them. But I digress. We were throwing love, not shade.

Second Edition
Okay, well, we might as well get this out of the way: I felt about this the way most Millennials feel about fourth edition. I didn’t like any part of what happened in Second Edition. Well, except for the artwork. The artwork stepped up, way up, and has stayed great ever since. But I hated the Monster Manual three-ring binder. I hated To Hit Armor Class Zero. I hated the “neutering” of the monsters (no demons or devils—and while I never used them in my games, this was all part of the same campaign that wanted to censor Warner Brothers cartoons and other such nonsense).

By this time I had moved on to other games. We still played AD&D, just not second edition. I did this up until probably 1991 or 1992.  Second edition was for the youngsters, with the new math and all of the fancy artwork. What a weird line in the sand to draw, but hey, that's what your twenties are for, right? 

Third/Three Point Five Edition
While I wasn’t in it at this time, in hindsight, creating the Open Game License was the smartest thing they ever did. I know that because I was selling it to game and comic shops at this time, and it was like a whole new game. Now, did that kinda backfire on them, eventually? Yeah, it did. Players (and DMs) felt the “keeping up with the Joneses” vibe in that there was always a new book coming out with new feats and three spells and you just had to have it all. Might have been great for Wizards of the Coast's bottom line, but it looked like a cash grab to me (at the time).

There are still a number of people walking the earth that think D&D 3.5 is the superior form of the game, no take backs. I mean, where do you think Pathfinder came from, anyway? I did appreciate what 3.5 tried to do, which was fix stuff that was wrong with 2nd edition. Well, that and the very idea of giving the core game away for free and allowing all of these small companies to prop up and support your product line. I never took advantage of it, but I always thought it was a genius move.

Fourth Edition
The dreaded 4th ed. This is so taboo that we’re not even supposed to talk about it, especially if we liked 4th ed. It’s like how the Klingons aren’t supposed to talk about the smooth-headed versions from the original Star Trek series. They acknowledge it with their stony silence.

This was actually my re-introduction into D&D. I bought the Starter Box for my niece one Christmas and I ran a game for her and my brother, cold. It was a lot like my initial introduction to D&D in that I had to stop and stare at the rule book and try and decipher some of the changes while my two players rolled dice and drew elves on scratch paper.

It wasn’t my favorite, but I did like some of the things they tried to do. Stepping back from it, I do think that they were trying to mimic the feel of turn-based video games, and it was a great success, as a simulation of that. But I think maybe they forgot that they were, at their core, not video games. They were Dungeons and Fucking Dragons. They don’t copy everyone else, they let everyone else copy them. 

Fifth Edition
Here we are. The current version of the game; simplified and also expanded greatly with just a few interesting concepts. Gone is Thaco, and instead is the elegant armor class that we should have had all along—a target number. And speaking of “all along” the idea of advantage and disadvantage is so simple to grasp that it feels like it’s been there forever. I love the idea of conditions that are hung around character’s necks. Simplified skills are all folded into proficiencies now. And there aren’t a string of plusses you have to count up.

The esprit de corps of 3.5 is present, in the DM’s Guild, a marketplace for anyone to publish their additions to D&D for anyone to try. Most of these additions are inexpensive and some are even free. This means that there is support for the game on a daily basis, freeing the developers up to concentrate on big ticket items.

Looking back, it’s weird to me that character classes like the Barbarian—a class no one would dream of leaving out of the mix—was a class I remember being introduced in Unearthed Arcana as a new thing back in the mid-80’s. There’s a lot of seemingly vintage ideas that are back in, the biggest of which is the role-playing part of the game. If fourth edition went too far into skirmish and tactics, fifth edition is practically touchy-feely with all of the different ways you can make a character part of the overall story.

And I’m sorry, but the background system is kinda perfect. The idea that you get to walk onto the stage having already done something is just brilliant. It’s the thing that keeps your players from rolling up dead-eyed baby killers who burn down villages. It’s much easier to apply consequences to actions. It’s accessible and playable as a referee with just a few tables in your hand.

I really do think it’s the best version of the game we’ve ever seen. It embraces everything from the last forty years and takes the best parts of itself and leaves the rest. Few other game systems have the longevity to even try that as an experiment and the ones that do have the history haven’t tried to overhaul themselves more than once, maybe twice. I mean, the seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu is out, and while there are certainly more rules than ever, the basic game still looks almost identical to the one I first picked up in 1983.

I don’t know what the sixth edition of D&D will look like, or when if ever we’ll see it. I can’t fathom what that would be or why they would need to get away from what they have settled on here. I mean, there was almost a perfect storm of 5e hitting the marketplace, timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the game, and the outing of all the celebrities in geek culture who were “secretly” playing D&D. You couldn’t make that up.

It brought so many people back to the game, myself included, in a big way. And with few modifications, I was able to drop my old stuff into the new game and hit the ground running. Smart design, simple concepts, and a wide-open game license. It’s no wonder D&D is at the top of the food chain, the apex predator of role-playing games. And as of this writing, there is no meteor in sight to topple the old dinosaur’s reign anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 28 Love

What do you love about gaming?
I love the control and the instant story delivery system. I love taking what players do and spinning that into new developments for them to discover. I love the spontaneity of the table.

What do you love about D&D?
It’s an old shoe. It’s comfortable to wear, to move around in, and is still surprisingly durable and resilient.

What do you love about this challenge?
It’s forced me to hunker down and work on content. I’ve got three large homebrew projects that are hanging around, half finished, that I want to put up here, and possibly develop as a pdf for the DM’s Guild. This has been a good reminder to work to completion. I also love the engagement that has happened between me and the readers.

How do you handle love in-game?
I don’t unless the players want it. In that case, I always let them tell me what they are comfortable with. It’s the best way to not overstep. It’s only come up a few times before. I am a big believer in cutting away when the lights go out, too. No need to make things any weirder than they already are.

Do you love today’s writing prompt?
I’m not loving it, no.

Would you love to stop?
Please, Crom and Mitra, yes. Make it stop.

Monday, August 26, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 26 Idea

I recommend keeping a notebook with you as a DM at all times. You never know when something cool is going to come to you and you will need to write it down. I know you don’t think you do, but trust me, you do.

There’s all kinds of studies about the positive effects of journaling—writing something down by hand—as an aid to increasing your memory and also in making connections, linking ideas, and so forth. Keeping a journal is going to free you up to create.

I would suggest you look at the Bullet Journal as a system. Here’s a great starting place to learn all about it, and of course, there’s this book right here. But before you go buy a twenty five dollar German blank book and expensive colored pens and all of that stuff, stop for a minute and think about if you even want to go that route first.

This may have cost me 50 cents.
What I’m saying is this: start cheap. If you lose interest or come up with a better way to do something, then you’re not out a lot of cash. If you love it and want to do more, then you can easily upgrade. What follows is my cheapo way to set up a journal based on me doing it for a year and a half and finding it to be absolutely essential to my creative process where gaming is concerned. The bullet journal method is great because you can switch it up so that it makes sense for you. And that’s really what we’re doing here; we are making a map of your internal creative process.

Okay, all you need to get started is a notebook and a decent pen that writes reliably.

Your notebook needs to be something with a decent number of pages in it, at least 80. It can be a spiral notebook, a sketchbook, or whatever you like so long is it large enough for you to write comfortably in and ideally, inexpensive. At least for now. If you really like this, there are no limits to the amount of money you can spend on special notebooks, stationary, and other accouterments.  I like graph paper, and there are some inexpensive notebooks made of graph paper from the big box stores that cost all of 99 cents. If you want to split the difference, here is a notebook aimed at DMs doing this exact thing. It's nice because it's got a mix of lined, graph, and hex paper included. Pretty swanky.

You don’t have to have a pen. Just use what you most like to write with, as long as it works for you. You don’t want to have to scribble on a page for five minutes to get your cheap Bic to work every time you need to write something down. I like gel pens because they are reliable, but you do you. I got one of those four ink in one pen pens and I love it. They were my favorite as a kid and I like them even more now. 

Write in the middle, not the corner.
Step 1
Go through the entire book and number the pages. Make them easy to see and in the same place. You will need these numbers to make the system work.

A rookie mistake is to write in the corners, you know, like every book you've seen before in your life. But there is a reason not to do this that has to do with linking your pages together. So resist all of that conditioning and write in the middle of the margin.

Use both pages; you may need them.
Step 2
Open the notebook up to the first two-page spread. This is your index. Write the word “Index” across the top of one of the pages. If this is a notebook for your game and nothing else, you are done. 

In a regular bullet journal, you may want to create divisions for larger topics. It’s hard to know what you will need without doing anything first, so I would leave it alone for now. Just set the two pages aside as your index.

You can break up your index pages
into sections if you need to.

Step 3
For a gaming notebook, you are pretty much done. You might want to create a calendar page so you can mark important dates, like when school starts again, so you can make plans accordingly. But it’s not necessary, unless you are a calendar person. That said, let me add: if you are running multiple games, or your sessions change regularly, or you keep getting caught flat-footed and running by the seat of your pants because you forgot to work something up, then you really should look at the calendar module for bullet journaling. It's quick, easy, and useful. Trust me on this. 

Using the notebook
This is the thing—it doesn’t work unless you use it. So take it with you everywhere you go. If you get in the habit of always taking it with you, it will serve you well.

Whenever you have an idea, open up to the first blank page and start scribbling. If you need to draw a map, draw a map. Or make a to-do list. Whatever you need. If you have another idea later in the day, open to the first clean page and write away.

Now, either at the end of the day or the beginning of the next (or whenever you have a couple of minutes of down time), you will look at what you wrote down, flip back to your index, and note it there. Leave room for other topics and page numbers. I’d go every other line until you know what you will need. So, you’d make a note like this on your index:

City-State Notes, Pgs 4-6

Map of Main Sewer, pg 7

Magic Items, pg 8 (sword of chaos)

As new ideas occur to you, grab a blank page and write everything down. At the end of the day, index it. You will quickly see that your City-State notes are going to be spread out throughout the notebook. So, just go back to your entry and add page numbers, like this:

City-State Notes, Pgs 4-6, 18-20,

Map of Main Sewer, pg 7

Magic Items, pg 8 (sword of chaos) pg 12 (wand of trickery)

The index is what makes the notebook truly useful. You can find what you are looking for at a glance.

There’s an advanced trick you can do with your page numbers that will keep you from flipping back to the index. It’s a little more work, but not much. On the city-state pages, you will drop down to the page number and draw an arrow pointing forward and write down the next page number that deals with the same topic. If you’ve come from a page with the same topic, you’ll write an arrow pointing backwards and the page number you came from to get here. That way, if you’re paging through your notebook and you spy something that interests you, just glance down at the page number and it’ll tell you where the threads of the idea continue.

I know. Mind Blown, right?

With the index in place, you are not limited to just holding ideas and plots. You can use the book to track session notes, too. Open to the first blank page, date the page, and then go to town. Every new NPC, every extra side note, all of the great ideas you had mid-session, put them all down there. Afterwards, go back and index the page as above. You're already using the notebook for planning. Why not keep session notes with your plans? 

That's the point: anything you need for your game can go in the journal. It's all in one place, organized by your specific needs in the way that makes the best sense to you. It's like a road map of your brain. 

When you get to the end of your notebook, grab another one, make a new index, and keep going. If you want to pre-designate areas of your index for things you know you need a lot of room for, you can do that. Otherwise, it’s lather, rinse, and repeat.

Tips and Tricks
One of the things that confounds people new to the journaling process is the idea that they can only write down the good ideas. Well, how do you know if it’s a good idea until you write it down? Trust the process and put it all on the page, even (and maybe especially) the half-baked ideas or the tiny thoughts.

Doing it this way ensures that you capture what you were trying to articulate, and it also frees your mind up to think about something else. I’ve rewritten the same idea with only slight variations down in my journal three or four times. Each time, it cleared the decks for me to expand on the thought or simply move on to the next thing on my mind.

Because I’m that-guy, I’ve got a campaign notebook (separate from my journal) wherein I write down all of the finished ideas and usable content I come up with. Anything good from my notebook gets transferred over to the campaign notebook, which is much nicer and far less chaotic. Eventually my campaign notebook will get re-organized into a pdf document with a searchable index and a hyperlinked table of contents and oooooh, it’ll be so fancy. Until we get there, though, this system works like a charm.

Get in the habit of going back through your notebook every three to four weeks. You’ll be surprised what looking at these pages with fresh eyes will do. In some cases, I’ll see something I wrote down and forgot about and think, “that’s brilliant!” Other times, I’ll look over something I agonized over and realize it doesn’t work. But that might lead me to another, possibly better idea that will work instead. It’s all part of the process.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 25 Calamity

This is a war story.

My group was on the second level of a classic module. They had been slogging through it for some time and had just gotten out of a major trap and were pretty beat up. Half of the party wanted to go back to camp, and the other half wanted to stay and clear more rooms. This turned into a longer-than-normal table discussion.

One of my players (we’ll call him Cain) was built for action, not talk. He routinely zoned out if a discussion ran longer than a few minutes. Cain was a druid, but he was about as druidic as a goblin assassin, which he probably would have enjoyed playing.  He was in the “go back to camp” group. The other player (“Abel”) was a big, thick fighter and he wanted to clear more rooms. The four players were gridlocked at two and two.

While the rest of the group was yelling, Cain said to me, as quietly as he could, “I’ve got rope, right? Fifty feet?” We checked his character sheet and sure enough he had 50 feet of fine adventuring rope.

The party was on the second level, about 100’ high into the mountain tower. Their exit was an opening with a ledge on it and a straight drop down, or a careful spelunking with a Dex check at the end.

I naturally assumed that Cain was going to just start setting up the rope for everyone to descend. One of the party had a ring of feather fall, so he was fine. The others would have to solve this relatively minor logistical challenge.

As it was, I was trying to referee the discussion when Cain said to me, “I want to tie the rope around Abel’s leg.”

That got Abel’s attention. “What?”

Cain refused to look at him. There was a prank in progress. It was how they operated, this group. “Okay,” I said, “you need to make a Stealth roll, and you, Abel, get to make a perception check.”

They rolled. Cain rolled a 19. Abel rolled a 3.

That rope was now tied around Abel’s boot. “What now?”

Cain looked right at Abel and smiled. “I grab the other end and run for the opening and jump out.”

Abel said what we were all thinking. “Why?”

“I’m sick of talking about it. We’re leaving!” Cain looked at me and said, “I jump and take him with me.”

Howls erupted from the table. These guys were always doing stupid shit like this, but this was the first time that hit points were going to be lost. “Okay, fine, but we’re doing this in slow motion. First off, make a Strength save to yank this giant guy off of his feet.”

Cain rolled. “Sixteen!”


“Okay, Abel, you have been yanked off of your feet and you are sliding as fast as Cain is falling toward the opening and the ledge.”

“Can I grab the ledge?”

“You can try,” I said. “Make a Dex save.”

The d20 rattled into the tray. “2.”

“Okay, you can SEE the ledge as it zooms away from you, and now you are falling.”

The other players are now starting to laugh, mostly because they aren’t the ones about to take a bunch of falling damage.

Cain was not to be denied. “Can I pull Abel down faster?”

Abel said, “I throw my arms out, trying to grab anything I can.”

Sure, why not? “There’s a tree limb sticking out of the side of the rocks. Make a dex save.”

Dice rolled. “18!”

“Okay, you’ve got the limb, and you’re hanging on for dear life.” I turned to Cain and smiled. “Make a Strength save to keep hold of the rope, because you’ve just jerked to a stop about halfway down the cliff.”

Cain rolled. “15?”

“Yeah, you can keep hold. So, now…”

Cain interrupted. “I want to brace my legs and pull Abel off the limb.”


“Yes, really!”

“Okay, so, make a strength check. Abel, you, too.”

You can guess how it went down.

“Abel, you are falling straight down again,” I said.

“Am I closer to Cain now?”

“Yes, you are.”

“Can I catch up to him in the fall?”

“We’re in slow motion. Sure, why not? Make a Dex save.”

“Natural 20!”

Who am I to argue? “Okay, he’s within your grasp.”

“Wait, can I get out of…”

“No, you can’t. Abel, what do you want to do?”

“Are we close to the ground?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I want to position myself so that I’m on top of Cain.”

“And I want to be on top of Abel.”

Of course you do.  “Strength versus Strength. Go!”

Abel lost. Abel hit the ground first, and took enough damage to knock him out. Cain made a saving throw and took half damage from the relatively soft landing. The character with the feather fall ring floated down and threw the ring up to the last member of the group. Abel was healed, and Cain got punched, but they were all too busy laughing and telling me what an epic encounter that was.

It was like running a game for the Marx Brothers, but they loved it. And that effectively ended the session for the day. Oh, we did a little more, but we all knew nothing was going to come close to matching the intensity of the Tandem Slo-Mo Rope Fall.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 24 Triumph

These guys were prophets.
Man, that’s such a weird word. Triumph. It’s weird because when I hear it, I bring two things immediately to mind: a famous card trick invented by Dai Vernon (and one of my favorite tricks to perform) and conversely, my least-favorite Devo song “Triumph of the Will” from the album Duty Now for the Future.  I know I’m supposed to think about overcoming adversity, but I don’t.

So, trying to bore down on what I am supposed to be talking about, I came to this conclusion: D&D games aren’t about winning. They are about triumphing over the forces of darkness.

Maybe not all the time, but certainly when it comes to those big, long, multi-level campaigns with a giant bad guy and massive conclusions.

“Win” is a decisive term. It sounds final. It implies that the game is over.

“Triumph,” on the other hand, is still positive, but it’s more open-ended. It implies that the battle is over, but not the war. The forces of darkness have been beaten back, but only just. I usually envision the word "momentarily" in front of triumph.

In a campaign world with consequences that influence and drive games forward, having  your players triumph instead of win is essential if you want to maintain that verisimilitude of authenticity. The bad guys are banished, but never really destroyed. You can kill villains, as long as you want them to stay dead. The major forces that move the world always come back.

This is probably my personal life bleeding over right now. Sorry about that.

In my home-brew world, I like to have the events at the end of a major campaign spiral out and affect everything around, and then push those new developments forward ten, twenty, thirty years and see what it all looks like after that. The next game will be set in that approximate time period, as the new characters will be dealing with the consequences of the last set of characters. They triumphed, but the battle continues down the line.

Maybe we never really win in real life. It’s why we need games and movies and TV to win for us; we need something to make sense. 

Friday, August 23, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 23 Surprise

Oh, what the hell.  It's Friday.

I wasn't going to do this just yet, but hey...SURPRISE! It's an archetype from my own home-grown campaign setting for you to peruse and swipe if you like. My world has a lot of complicated old gods, and this particular thief archetype is an exploitation of that very fact. Click the link below to get it.

Thief Archetype: The Divine Archaeologist

This is a spell-casting thief, with an emphasis on utility spells, such as hiding, running, and transporting heavy objects. That's why the Divine Archaeologist also gets a second fourth level spell, and a fifth first level spell at Level 20, unlike the Arcane Trickster.

There is also an "Indiana Jones" component to the Divine Archaeologist; the clever fellow who has read up on the temples of the blood god and knows that every treasure room has a pressure plate right...there...or, maybe it was there...? I wanted the skills to reflect someone who learned a lot about ancient history, but little else. The notebook seemed like a good way to reflect that, with the added incentive of it being potentially stolen the night before a major temple raid.

My intention is to talk more about my campaign and the stuff I've done to 5th edition to accommodate my brilliant ideas and grandiose vision.

And Just for Grins, here's all of the other tidbits of homebrew and campaign stuff I've shared since the beginning of this 31 day challenge, in case you missed anything.

5e Background: Bureaucrat

5e Background: Exterminator

5e Background: Pilgrim


Alternate Critical Hit System for 5e

Noble House Random Generator

Thursday, August 22, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 22 Lost

So, this is fun: Conan and Valeria encountering a dinosaur-like creature in the classic “Red Nails:”

Through the thicket was thrust a head of nightmare and lunacy. Grinning jaws bared rows of dripping yellow tusks; above the yawning mouth wrinkled a saurian-like snout. Huge eyes, like those of a python a thousand times magnified, stared unwinkingly at the petrified humans clinging to the rock above it. Blood smeared the scaly, flabby lips and dripped from the huge mouth. The head, bigger than that of a crocodile, was further extended on a long scaled neck on which stood up rows of serrated spikes, and after it, crushing down the briars and saplings, waddled the body of a titan, a gigantic, barrel-bellied torso on absurdly short legs. The whitish belly almost raked the ground, while the serrated backbone rose higher than Conan could have reached on tiptoe. A long spiked tail, like that of a gargantuan scorpion, trailed out behind. "Back up the crag, quick!" snapped Conan, thrusting the girl behind him. "I don't think he can climb, but he can stand on his hind legs and reach us—"

So, it’s basically a dinosaur, right? And if you can’t quite see it that way, Barry Windsor-Smith sure could. Here’s a page from his critically-acclaimed comic book adaptation of “Red Nails.”

click to enlarge
I told you that to tell you this: whenever I see the world “Lost” I assume that we’re going to be talking about dinosaurs. It’s inevitable and a little strange, but Lost, to me, is one half of the term “Lost World,” which means, in literary terms, Dinosaurs!

I love dinosaurs. If you don’t have a favorite dinosaur, you need to leave. I am serious. Dinosaurs are Monster Kid 101. They are a part and parcel of fantasy and science fiction both and stories of dinosaurs (from Lost Worlds) interacting with the humans that stumble across them are part of a sub-genre that is literally over a hundred years old.

Dungeons & Dragons understood this, and dutifully included stats for the most classic dinosaurs in the AD&D Monster Manual.  Here’s a very classic-looking T-Rex from Diesel for TSR’s Monster cards from 1982 (think flash cards for AD&D monsters with only slightly better color artwork than the black and white masterpieces in the Monster Manual).

TSR also published a classic module (by Zeb Cook and Tom Moldvay, no less), called The Isle of Dread, and it’s a classic Lost World wilderness hex crawl adventure on a strange island full of dinosaurs and other exotic creatures right out of Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle by way of Ray Harryhausen.

Dinos in D&D. Boom. Done. Everything should be platinum. I should be happy, right? Right? Well I can't get happy. It's physically impossible for me to get happy.

Maybe it’s my weirdly Puritanical streak when it comes to high and low fantasy. If we’re talking knights and wizards, I think dragons, not dinosaurs. After all, the game is called Dungeons and Dragons, not Dungeons & Dinosaurs. Why, then, does it not bother me when we insert Dinosaurs into modern-day settings (Jurassic Park) or the wild west (The Valley of Gwangi) or the Pulp era (King Kong).

Two reasons come to mind. One is that those other examples above all make use of a Lost World, whether by natural accident or man-made engineering. Lost Worlds have dinos, and that’s all the explanation you need. Also, in every other instance listed above, Dinosaurs were the apex predator, the aberration, the monster in a monsterless world. This is not true in Dungeons and Dragons; it creates an ecology where you have to figure out why the dinos haven’t eaten all of the monsters or vice-versa. After all, aside from the treasure hoarding, a red dragon and a Tyrannosaurus Rex have more or less the same diet, the same habitat, the same mannerisms, and certainly the same pants-shitting size and scale to terrify players.

The T-Rex can’t fly, cast magic, or breathe fire. You know, so it’s like a dragon, only...not as cool. And dinosaurs should never be not cool. Ever. 

Tim Truman's cover art for The Isle of Dread reprint.
But…stay with me now…what if there were no dragons? If instead of dragons, your big bad was the T-Rex, that becomes your default for the “oh, shit” moment when you realize the necromancer you’re supposed to fight has a pet therapod.

I’m thinking of a heroic fantasy world, where sorcery is more uncommon, and the humanoids are out in full force. The monsters of the world have managed to tame the dinosaurs in this world to act as beasts of burden and war mounts. It’s Dinotopia, only with Goblins and Drow. Dwarves charging into battle on Triceratops. Orcs riding allosauruses. The Lizard folk use Pteranodons as winged mounts. Monster armies are bad enough, but when the monster armies have conscripted dinosaurs, they become the stuff of nightmares.

Humans have none of those advantages, but maybe they are more adept at psionic abilities, and they use massive dino-killing siege equipment, as well as clockwork automatons scavenged from the wreckage of the last great war. High magic has disappeared in the wake of the rise of chaos. One of the campaign goals may be to find the source and re-awaken it to jump-start the Age of Wonder. It would mean the death of the dinosaurs and bring magic (and dragons) back into the world.

But before that happens, you have twenty levels of characters periodically running afoul of a pissed-off Stegosaurus and running like hell to escape the spiked tail swinging in a deadly arc, smashing trees apart as it does.

I would play in that game. Hell, I may have to write it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 21 Vast

Here’s another term that probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but is too nebulous to adequately lock down into something meaningful, so I’m going to borrow from Day 11 and answer the previous year’s questions for Day 21.

#RPGaDay 2018 day 21: Which Dice Mechanic Speaks to You?

I have to give it to D&D 5e for Advantage and Disadvantage. It’s so easy, and so universal, and instantly translates to any part of the game. Plus, you get to roll two of the most exciting dice in the game. D20s are the Corvettes of your dice bag. Lots of people think it's d12s, but they are wrong. D12s are the Deloreans of the dice bag. What were we talking about?

#RPGaDay 2017 day 21: Which RPG does the most with the Least Words?

Godlike. It’s such a strong concept, stripped down to its essential components. Super Powers in war. No, make that, Super Soldiers in war. Yes. Your character gets one thing. It may not be impressive in the Marvel Universe, but in a world without super powers, the guy with toughened skin is godlike.  Bonus: you get to beat the shit out of Nazis. Never bad, always good.

#RPGaDay 2016 day 21: Funniest misinterpretation of a rule in your group?

No rules misinterpretation ever caused hilarity. We just acknowledged it and moved on. I did have a player that always mispronounced concepts he used. He always called “Bardic Inspiration” Bard-of-Inspiration and no amount of correcting would fix it. He could NOT say "bardic." Not exactly hilarious, but I’m trying my best, here, you guys.

#RPGaDay 2015 day 21: Favorite RPG setting

Pulps era. It’s so versatile. You can go dark and horrific, or slide into crimefighters and pulp heroes, or take the weird stuff out and do detective and film noir, or just mash it all up and have it bang into one another. 

#RPGaDay 2014 day 21: Favorite Licensed RPG

To this day, Call of Cthulhu remains a comfortable old friend. I know a lot about the early 20th century, more than most people, and that’s useful to know in a game set in the 1920s and 1930s (see above). And Cof C was the first game I came across with specific rules to handle the unique aspects of the game (sanity and the Cthulhu mythos). I haven’t played the game in years, but if I were handed the book this very instant, I’d be able to drop back into it with no lag whatsoever.  

There. A "VAST" array of interesting answers. How much you wanna bet I'm going to have to do this little trick at least once more before this is all over?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 20 Noble

One of my favorite Erol Otus characters.

As much as I love the Backgrounds system in D&D 5e, a few of the options are hit and miss for me. The most egregious misfire to me is the Noble. I can see why they wanted to include it in the Player’s Handbook but I think that as it is written, it tries to do too much in the limited framework it has and as a result, it doesn’t do enough.  In a section with soldiers, local heroes, and urchins, the extra lifting and gymnastics required to make the noble work without setting one player high above the others is a little outside the scope of new DMs.

My solution to this was to split the noble background up into three distinct categories.

The Dilettante -Someone who comes from wealth but isn’t interested in being wealthy, or at least, do not want to live their life according to their family's expectations. This is for role-players who want lots of family interaction as the filial obligations of their upbringing can potentially clash with their adventuring career. I was specifically looking for a way to create a D&D version of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and this pretty much covers it. 

The Disgraced Noble- I think this is the closest in function to what the PHB was trying to do with this background. The difference is mainly that this background really leans into it. It’s good for plotting and hooking players into the story, as there are plenty of options, secrets, and interesting bits to tease out. It should be noted that the Disgraced portion of the background can come from any  source; as simple as “you joined the bard college against the wishes of your family” to something like Athos, from The Three Musketeers. 

This background also works well for setting the kinds of political situations that were the bread and butter on Game of Thrones. Tyrian Lannister is a disgraced noble in the eyes of his father because he drinks and whores and plays the part of the imp. Jaime Lannister is a disgraced noble because he killed the king he swore to protect. 
Bill may very well kill me for using this.

The Knight Errant— for all of you paladins and cavaliers out there, here’s a background that is right up your alley, supporting action and combat, with plenty of things to do, and as silly (Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) or as serious (Robin Hood) as you want to make it.

Breaking them up along these lines makes the player choices more nuanced and also better supports most, if not all, character classes. The Warlock Dilettante, for example, might have stumbled into his patronage during one of his fantastic benders. The Warlock Disgraced Noble clearly brought shame upon his house by invoking dark magicks, and the Warlock Knight Errant is a monster-hunting tyrant-killing man of the people. All of them come from this noble class, but they actualize it in very different ways.

Anyway, that’s my fix for the Noble. I’d love to hear any feedback you may have on these backgrounds. Share your thoughts, people.

As a bonus--call it a "thank you," if you will, for all of the great responses and shares I've gotten from all of  you, I've included my Noble House Random Generator. It will build you a family history with just a few die rolls. You can grab free PDFs of the "Expanded Noble" backgrounds below:

Noble House Random Generator

Try these out and let me know what you think.

Monday, August 19, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 19 Scary

I love horror movies, horror stories, monsters, aliens and all that kind of thing. In Internet Parlance, I’m what is known as a “Monster Kid.” Make of that what you will.

It follows, then, that I would be an early and avid adopter of games like GURPS Horror, CHILL, and my first-love, go-to horror game, Call of Cthulhu.

My games were always well-attended and with good reason: I was a great Call of Cthulhu game master. I wrote many of my own C of C scenarios and they were always a hit. I tried to keep the eldritch vibe but I also wanted “traditional” scares; zombies are a great palette cleanser when you stare too long into the Abyss and the Abyss stares back.

The first scary encounter I ever used was, it turned out, my best one. I re-used it with different groups, and even ‘ported it over into other games. It never failed me. I am now going to release it into the wild for your edification and/or swipe file.

The Set Up
This needs to be under ground, either in a sewer, or a partially flooded dungeon, or both. You need some water for this. You also need some holding cells. The players are looking for someone who has disappeared and their quest has led them to here, where it’s clear that something sinister is going on.

They walk down the hallway, peering into the cells. Iron bar gate, and every cell is sunken. Water from somewhere has gotten into the cells and there is about a foot of brackish water that comes right to the top edge of the gate. It’s easy to spot, as long as someone asks. Anyone rushing in would make a Dex save to avoid tripping down the stone step and crashing into the stinky water on the floor. That would seem to be the gag and should be played that way, i.e. "Okay, now that you know there's water in the cells you can easily avoid falling in and you can even see the step leading down into the cells."

The Hook
In the first cell, there’s a skeleton, in chains, sitting in the water.

In the second cell, there’s another skeleton, half-slipped out of the chains, also in the water.

In the third cell, there’s a man in a brown tweed suit, in chains, and he’s hanging upside down, his head completely underwater, his legs and body struggling furiously, and there’s a mass of bubbles around him. He’s panicked…

It’s usually about now that someone screams “I run in and save him!”

What do you do? Do you pick the lock on the chains? Or do you want to pull his head up so he can breathe?

“That’s it! I pull his head up!”

The Reveal
The character grabs the man by the shoulders and lifts…and he’s got no head. The neck is a gaping wound, and even as you let go of the corpse, you realize what was bringing the body to life as a horde of rats swarm out from the neck, running all down your chest and your arms and your back and, well, make a sanity roll now.

Sometimes they end up with a phobia. They always pick “fear of rats.” The swarm does little to no damage. The rats hit the water and swim out of the room. The corpse is actually a few weeks old. It's not who they are looking for. But whoever took their friend also did this, so this missing person's case just got a lot more urgent. And now  you’ve set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 18 Plenty

I have plenty of dice. If I never bought dice again for the rest of my life, I’d never want for any more dice. In fact, I’m going to say something that I never thought I’d say: I have too many dice.

This is tantamount to heresy and is punishable by excommunication. I know this, and yet, I would have you hear me out, for this is not a situation of my own making. It’s not my fault. I am not weak.

It’s the dice maker’s fault. Aha! J’ACCUSE!

Allow me to elucidate: The industry standard for a set of dice looks something like this, right?

Seven dice. One of each polyhedral: d4, d6, d8, d10, %d10, d12, and d20.

You buy those dice and you think, “I’m set! Now I can finally play D&D, just like my favorite movie stars!”

Only, the first game you play, you quickly realize that you need 2 d20s, because, let’s face it’s easier to roll two dice and take the higher number than it is to roll one die twice. 

Two sets, then. Probably way more dice than you'll ever need. But whatever, NOW you can play the game!

What's that? Rolling up characters? With what? FOUR six-sided dice? Who do they think you are, anyway, a Rockefeller?  

Well, then, you need three—no, four d6 dice, because, you know, characters.

But the other dice? You can just borrow those. Cool. No problem.

Oh, you’re playing a wizard? With Magic Missile


Can everyone please pass their d4s to the new guy?
 See what I mean? So a new player doesn’t need just one set. They need two sets, minimum. That’ll get you maybe halfway there, which isn’t bad, but it’s not great, either.

You really need three—no, four sets of dice in order to cover the full range of what you can expect in a campaign that goes up to level five. That will get you character builder dice, plus enough spell damage dice for whatever you’re throwing, or extra feature dice like for bardic inspiration or battle maneuvers.

Unfortunately, you will end up with some dice you don’t need. Like this.

So, in conclusion, I have a lot of dice, but it’s not my fault.

If I were a dice manufacturer, I would over a set of dice that is designed specifically for actual D&D play, and I would advertise it as such. Here’s what it would look like:

3 d4
4 d6
2 d8
2 d10 + 1 %d
1 d12
2 d20

15 dice, total.

That’s a bare minimum number to ensure that you can cast anything, use all features, make characters, and roll with Advantage or Disadvantage.

Now, any veteran player knows that the above list is a good one, but it’s not comprehensive. Here’s the real and true numbers for seasoned campaigners:

5   d4
10 d6
4   d8
3   d10 + 1%d
2   d12
2   d20
=27 dice.

I know, it’s a lot more than 7 dice in that little acrylic box. And the numbers are weird, but you have to trust me, this is not unreasonable. I know a lot of people who keep a separate set of 4d6 dice just for character building.

To be totally fair, some dice manufacturers are making overtures already by including 2 d20s or 4 d6s (or both!) in their starting set. It’s a nice idea and for an introductory set, need not be super expensive. 

This is the set of dice that come with the new D&D Essentials box set. They are simple, well-made, easy to read, and functional for a starting player right out of the box. It’s not hard to do!

In conclusion, I think you’ll agree that none of this is my…what’s that? Those Kickstarter dice I just backed? Well, those are very different, aren’t they? It’s a whole other motif, and…wait, what are you doing? DICE JAIL!? That’s not for people! Wait! Stop! I’ll be good! I Prooooooooomiiiiiiiiise…

Saturday, August 17, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 17 One

 I really wanted to keep this civil and upbeat, but I’m afraid that with the challenge halfway over, the gloves have to come off. So, here we go:

Hey, Dice Makers…please put all of your special icons on the highest number of the die. Thank you.

These are cool dice that I never use! It's criminal!
I have needs. They involve Skull Dice. And what I really like to do is make little lists that run from least terrible to most terrible, and if that most terrible result happens to coincide with my skull on the d6, then that’s an awesome thing and it makes me happy.
Player: What happens now?
DM:       (rolls a d6, shakes his head, shows the die to the player with the skull facing up).
Player: (shakes fist at sky) Damn you, Gelatinous Cube!

I know, I know, it didn’t used to be this way. Some games made you roll low. Some games made you roll high. Two of my favorite games, D&D and V&V were exactly opposite in this regard and it always took us a round of concentration to switch over. And these were just two examples.

See? The skull is a GOOD thing!
Now it’s a different situation altogether. It’s safe to say that D&D is driving the market (well, maybe “lapping the competition” is more accurate, if not particularly sensitive). This is especially true if you include all of the spin-offs and one-offs and open gaming license games that work along the same principle: roll high to hit. I think that it’s safe to assume that, for now, at least, you can go ahead and put your skull right on the highest number face (or your sword, or your shield, or whatever little icon you’re pushing as a corporate symbol or brand) and we can all sleep better at night. All of our tables, if we so choose, will start at one for the suckiest result and 20 for the most unsucky result. Or, you know, whatever. One bad, twenty good.

Sorry. I know, it’s not helpful to your starting game. I blame the weekend. Yeah, that's it. Danged old weekend. 

I’ll be better tomorrow, I promise.

Bonus Comment: My Friends over at Black Oak Workshop do the right thing with their symbols. Recently they ran a Successful Kickstarter for some d20 Skull Dice (the Black Death d20) and they are on track to start delivering soon. Check out their fine line of dice and dice bags and add a little style to your table. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

RPGaDay 2019: 16 Dream

I use dreams a lot in my game, especially since now I have a sorcerer, a warlock, and a cleric in my group. It’s the best way to give my players an info-dump’s worth of information without grinding table play to a halt. The way I do it is simple: I make it a handout. Specifically, I write a letter.

Giving players something that’s folded up and printed out so that it looks fancy is like free topping day at the yogurt place. Yeah, it’s maybe not as good as gelato, but everyone changes their tune when the chocolate sprinkles come out, don’t they?

I have some skill at prose writing, so I always take this opportunity to put a little literature on what I want them to know. Mostly this is tied to the player and how he or she would process a block of information. But the nice things about making a dream a letter is that the player can keep it and refer back to it. No missing a clue because they took the wrong notes; the dream is the diary entry that stays with them forever. And my players certainly look back on old dreams to see if they have missed anything.

I also use a different tone with them, mostly in an effort to get and keep that player’s attention. This is fun for them and also fun for me. I write each dream up with a fun font, and use my meager photoshop skills to add artwork if necessary. These letters are delivered at the start of each session, and they read them before we get going, as I am setting up my screen, papers, etc.

Below are a few examples of dreams I have given to the players in my Eldritch Piracy game.

Each of these dreams or visions is very pointedly specific as to what needs to happen. There should not be a dream interpretation portion of the table play, unless you do something like this:

“That night, you all dream that you are flying, on your backs, whizzing along with the breeze stinging your face. But when you look up, you can’t see the sky, or the moon, or even the clouds. You’re not worried about that; merely curious. The last thing you remember is something shiny and metallic, glinting in the moonlight, and then…”

“You wake up. All of you are on an embankment on the side of one of the mountains, looking down at the keep.”

I did this in a game where the players were trying to run down who was stealing building supplies from the keep. Spoiler: It was a Copper dragon, who was actively opposed to expansion and was playing jokes on the soldiers to make them think the keep was haunted. When the players started to get too close, the dragon clocked them with a sleep spell and flew them up to the top of the embankment.

No one has yet figured out what happened that night. They all come charging down from the mountain, asking questions, looking for footprints, etc.

But my point is, that dream happens at the table because everyone is involved and it’s a group-wide event. For everyone else, their dreams are secret, and usually private. This keeps the plots interesting as well, since it helps them pick a direction to pursue and that will always lead to dramatic conflict where someone will have to make a difficult choice. And that's how you get to those epic moments that (hopefully) the players will remember for the rest of their gaming days. All you have to dream...

Zinequest 3 is upon us! Here Are Some Recommendations!

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