Thursday, 3 August 2017

Dragonlance was a Unique Sandbox

Dragonlance has a bad rep in some old school circles. For me, it has always been one of my favourite settings. It certainly has its flaws, but it had a brand of fantasy that mixed coming-of-age stories,  faerie tales,  romantic sagas and plain D&D in a way that spoke very viscerally to my sense of wonder and... well, fantasy. The novels helped create a sense of immersion and of an intertwined and living world with its own mysteries and concerns.

Not the Chronicles/Legends (or their spinoff railroads) mind, though I read and enjoyed them (they now figure prominently on my 'not sure I want to ruin childhood/teen memories by re-reading in my 30s' list). That story was too big really to be about anything other than the heroes it featured. It was never really what Dragonlance as a world was about for me. It was all the other ones, the small tales, that grabbed me and pulled me deeper into the setting.

And of course Tales of the Lance, the boxed set:
Some people hate the Elmore quality of this - I love it
As a kid, this set was my most treasured tome, to be poured over countless times and always returned to after exploring other things. For several years, there was one section I always ignored as uninteresting though: "Using the Adventure map and Talis".

I've blogged before on how the setting map in Tales of the Lance has loads of adventure potential. If you flip it over, you get a hex map of Solace and its surroundings:

What's the deal with the "story track" section? It was never explained anywhere.
Once I  actually paid attention to this section, I realised I had been ignoring the most gameable part of the book. I didn't have the concepts for it back then, but this section presented a wholly traditional sandbox, complete with terrain types, interesting locales (each entry with a mood, likely reaction, move cost, chance of getting lost and chance of events), index-cards for a variety of NPCs (also work for PCs for quick-start if needed) and the hex map above. Looking at this today, this was made by a seasoned sandboxer. It has all the info you want to run one well. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen any TSR product present such a well-structured and easy-to-run sandbox as this one!

It is not quite an 'old school' sandbox though, in that it has some unique features - The hex map is intended to be shared with the players at the table (it also doubles as a battlemap). And not only do they have a clear overview of the landscape, it also reveals the location of all the sites of interest and provides detailed maps of several of the sites!

It makes it very easy for beginners to get into this style of play - Take a look around the map, what looks cool? What would we like to explore next? It gives players a lot more to go on than a blank hex map they have to fill out themselves. Actually, it's a format I'd consider using myself.

It also makes a lot of sense, in-game, for the genre it wants to sandbox. This is not a game of exploration of an unknown borderland frontier for gold and glory. It's a game of coming-of-age exploration of the many adventure sites to be found in the vicinity of a backwater town, in the style of the excellent Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures OSR game. It is to be expected that the PCs would know what's on the map from growing up in the town and hearing the local folklore and legends about these places. This is not about exploring the unknown as much a it is exploring the history, folklore and mythic fabric of their home community. Sandbox-style.

It is certainly a different genre to old school D&D. But Dragonlance didn't just 'ruin everything' with railroad modules. Though hardly noticed (did anyone actually use this sandbox?), it gave a unique and very well executed take (ok,the talis cards were a bit weird) on how to use the sandbox format for completely different genres.

Besides the actual hexmap and sandbox chapter, the setting map littered with terse adventure sites, here's some more proof that the authors of Tales of the Lance very much intended their product to be used in an open-ended explorative sandbox format. Take a look at this section of the DM screen that came with the box:

Whoever made this, wanted to use it for sandbox gaming.
The back of the world book is a frigging random encounter chart and we also get to large maps which is just a bunch of adventure locations with no descriptions. Go crazy.

I always felt Dragonlance before the war was a great setting for gaming - If I were to run it today, I'd run it in that period, with a clearly stated premise that there was not going to be a War of the Lance on the horizon. No dragonarmies, no world in need of saving, no heroes of the lance. It is however, a world at the dawn of a new age. The rousing of the world from the cataclysm would be a more gradual one, and the conflicts erupting, though reflective of a wider dawning of a new age, more local in scope.

The year is 340 AC, the latest news in the town of Solace are gloomy as a ragtag band of local adventurers, including the local dwarven blacksmith, were all killed on their latest quest.

Clerics have begun to resurface in pockets across Ansalon, but they are far and few in between and far from everyone believe that the old gods have actually returned. A PC cleric would be rare and controversial, but hardly unique.

Dragons have been sighted across ansalon in recent years as well. Not enough to convince most people that they are anything other than stories from a former age. But sighted nevertheless. tales of obscure 'Draconians' are also emerging.

I'd run them through the local sandbox at low levels, then begin to introduce some more regional threats. An evil priest of takhisis has allegedly allied with a red dragon and occupied an old dwarven fortress and using it as a base for invasions into Abanasinia. This is what rams home that a new age is dawning and that both the gods and dragons are well and truly back. Play it by ear from there, steal various plot hooks from later developments, but make them more local.

Maybe I'd use Beyond the Wall to run it. But actually I've felt for a while that 5e was more suited to dragonlance than any other edition.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Update on "Into the Unknown" - Kickstarter Boxed Set looking likely

Quick intro: "Into the Unknown" is my hack of 5e to make it run more like B/X - Old school meets modern. Many simplified mechanics; Race-As-Class; reaction and morale rolls are back; spend-gold-for-xp combined with downtime activities; simple but central hexcrawl framework; terse and short writing - And fully compatible with 5e. Click the tags below for more.

The player booklets are basically finished. Works has stalled a bit as I am working hard on the GM booklets. This is turning out to be a lot harder than the player booklets, but I want it to be good - And this is really demanding the best of GM wisdom from me! We're still a couple a months away from completion, but I have the structure of the booklet and just about every chapter and section lined up, so things should be proceeding more smoothly from here.

There are other good news though. The player booklets look quite good, even just printing it with a regular printer. And I've been researching the cost of making a proper print run - in a boxed set! This looks much more affordable than I first assumed, as long as it is 50+ made. At first glance, production cost here in Denmark could be as low as the 30 usd range for six booklets and a box which is not what I expected. So I went ahead and made a box cover in anticipation of putting this on kickstarter:

Obvious Homage is obvious
So yeah, I think this is really happening. A target of 50 backers seems realistic - I won't run until I have all the actual material written and I enter the final edit-tweak'n'polish phase (I am thinking to use the kickstarter as playtest as well) and I have a firm price offer from a printer. Sometime in autumn?

I guess that means I should look at stretch goals and stuff? I've never done anything like this before. Comission someone to make a kewl character sheet? Comission art from Russ Nicholson and Larry Elmore?

I guess I will need to set up a company as well, to report taxes on this for and all. Jeez. I did not anticipate all this when I first started hacking this.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Against the Funnel of Game Balance - Old School Fun

Game Balance is a totally different kind of fun compared to old school fun. It's more a fun-nel really, that basically seeks to minimize the parts of the game that old schoolers find fun.

Gamers, generally speaking, roll dice because the element of randomness brings a level of excitement to the table. And they applaud creative thinking or player skill being able to make a crucial difference in a tight spot. Because it is fun. Because they are variables making the game more open-ended.

Game Balance is the opposite: It is the premise that so long as the party manages its resources properly, they will be guided through a scenario of progressively more difficult encounters, each of which they should be able to defeat in turn and still come out with positive hit points, for a total combat experience that should be neither too easy nor too hard. If the GM knowingly presented encounters too strong for the party, that is seen to be GMing in bad faith. If they are too easy, the GM is expected to make adjustments so that the players can stay within the happy medium of challenging encounters in the Game Balance Funnel.

In other words, you can expect to come out on top as long as you stick to the guidelines on both sides of the table. You can roll dice and come up with zany stratagems, but the game is rigged so that the outcome is meant to be a foregone conclusion regardless of these variables.

This concept of "game balance" became part of the gaming culture during the 3rd edition cycle and was enshrined into inviolate law in 4th edition.

In 3rd edition, the Game Balance funnel was not originally intended to be part of the game. It provided encounter guidelines mostly as an tool for eye-balling Total Party Kill encounters and enabling the GM to steer clear of this if he wanted to. The gaming culture however, quickly began to take the guidelines as a social contract and part of the game. When Wizards of the Coast released adventures that did not follow these guidelines rigorously, there was outcry. They quickly learned not to do that again. The guidelines had become law.

In 4th edition, this was taken to its ultimate conclusion. Though the various mechanical widgets players had to choose from were probably more plentiful than ever, 4th edition was so perfectly balanced that it was virtually impossible for the GM to "break the game" (ie, kill the player characters) as long as players and GM alike stuck to very clearly defined guidelines. As part of the this, players also could not break the game either - Each class was designed to be perfectly balanced against each other, giving every player a chance to shine equally. 4e is maybe the most balanced RPG ever made.

Why did game balance become such a hot item? How did it go from 'here's a guideline' to being the holiest principle in the design of the game? And why wasn't it a bigger deal before 3rd edition? Whilst some of it might well be the zeitgeist of the times, I'd argue that the design of other parts of 3rd edition, developed even further in 4e, inevitably lead to a design where Game Balance had to become law. In two areas mainly:

Character build - with 3rd edition, making a character became a mini-game itself. "Builds", tracking progression from 1st to 20th level, became a thing. The game itself encouraged this sort of fiddling with prestige classes that could be combined in multitudes of ways and whose requirements and optimal benefits required planning ahead many levels in advance. Feats likewise, often required planning chains of them many levels in advance The tone of the game itself shifted, with a greater emphasis on self-actualisation through the character you are building to become over time, than the adventures to be had.

Say Player A spends half a day building a character, plotting out how Lazariavilnus the gray elf rogue was going to become a Rogue 1/ Wizard 4/ Daggerspell Mage 10/ Unseen Seer 2/ Arcane Trickster 3 at level 20, meticulously planning assigned feats and skill ranks to get just the right synergies at level X and Y - And then Lazariavilnus dies in fire at 2nd level due to a random encounter with a dragon - Player A is probably going to be unhappy that the GM took away the character he had invested so much time in already - Especially when the GM actually had encounter guidelines that could have avoided this.

It is only natural really - Player A invested his time in ways the game encourages - Engaging in the mini-game of character building. What's the point of doing that if you have no assurances that your player is likely to survive to ever see it come to fruition? That Game Balance became expected by players is almost inevitable when you design a character creation mini-game with that kind of investment in it.

The other part of the game that lead to this is the increasingly binary nature of encounters in the game. Gone were reaction rolls - Which, though in spirit intended to let GM decide for himself, tend to just lead to more binary outcomes of "Fight or.... fight?". As were morale rolls - creatures were now much more likely to fight to the death. And even more crucially - encounters changed from primarily being obstacles in the path between the PCs and their goal (gold, which = XP) to being the goal itself (XP).
Besides the more variable outcomes of encounters in TSR editions of D&D, it also gave ways of attempting to by-pass encounters that were way out of their league, without necessarily compromising their quest for the goal of the game (XP).

Contrast this to 3rd and 4th edition, where the combat encounter was enshrined as the ONLY real way to gain XP and thus advance your character - If combat is presumed inevitable and something the players are supposed to seek out in order to advance in the game, it becomes more natural for players to expect that they should be able to survive it. Sure, the party could have just sneaked away from that dragon, but that's not what the game incentivizes. As part of this focus, it is only natural that combat was more developed, and took up more of the game time in a session, in 3e and even more so in 4e.

So game balance became the pillar to stand on for the increased focus on the mini-game of character building and the different more combat-focused player incentives offered in the game.

Looking to TSR games, and their OSR offsprings, we can see why game balance is mechanically less relevant there and simply not in the spirit of these games.

Character creation is quick. You can roll up a character in less than 15 minutes. Discover more about it in actual play if it makes through the first few sessions. In fact, we can see that character mortality was considered a feature of older games, not a bug. Quote +Frank Mentzer, author of the BECMI series of D&D:
"The point is so obvious that many folks miss it (emphatically including the designers and players of the current version):
D&D Characters Die Frequently.
If you and your players refuse to embrace this axiom, you fall prey to an invulnerability that renders all the dangers impotent. You simply reenact plots knowing that the hero always survives and wins ::yawn::. But in accepting it you spring headlong into a world of thrills 'n' chills where failure and death are ever-present possibilities, surmounted only by the now-classic D&D resolution: create another heroic wannabe and try to do better."
Secondly, Combat is more avoidable - reaction rolls tend to produce different outcomes. Morale rolls tend to shorten fights. And more importantly, players aren't given strong incentives to look for fights. The real prize is the gold on the other side of the encounter. Why fight a dragon when you can just sneak past it and try to loot its hoard by stealth? Especially if you have doubts that you would be able to survive it.

This last part is the clinch in terms of fun - The social contract of game balance means players are simply not supposed to consider if they are able to survive the encounter - the rewards of the game are triggered by engaging in and winning fights and we're supposed to be able to survive each encounter - There should be no choice needed for that random encounter with the dragon - The GM wouldn't put it there if we couldn't defeat it. The world the PCs inhabit is basically solipsistic. It exists only as a level-appropriate response to the PCs and their goals of character advancement.

In TSR D&D, fighting is more of a choice - And one you can opt out of without detracting from your primary aims. This also means the GM can put in encounters that the players could not hope to survive if they engaged it in combat. And from there, create a world that is more open-ended - A world which feels less like a solipsistic funnel towards the next combat encounter and more like a world that has its own life independent of the PCs; where combat is but one aspect of the game and whether to engage in it at all is a legitimate strategic decision that the game will not punish you for opting out of.  Where achievement is earned and not a foregone conclusion.

The good GM then, does not go out of his way to set challenges that he knows will not kill the characters. Rather, he lays out meaningful choices for the players; to choose whether to fight the challenge, or look for other solutions to accomplish their goal. And he leaves it to the players, not the GM, to estimate the "challenge rating" for encounters they come across.

The point of this article is not to argue that all those who play pathfinder and 4th edition today are having BadWrongFun. When I played 3.5, I went all in on character builds myself and enjoyed the experience of tinkering with it. It was a fun solo mini-game to engage in outside the group play. And lots of combat can be fun - up to a point.

The point is rather to illustrate that when modern players consider older games to be unbalanced - That this is a feature, not a bug. And that this was by design, not accidental.
That developments of game balance do not necessarily constitute an evolution of the game, but rather a horizontal shift in focus in terms of what the game wants to be.
That there is a different kind of satisfaction in discovering your character in play, as opposed to building it and plotting out its future well in advance. And that being less attached to your character is actually somewhat liberating. That accomplishing your goals without the compulsion towards combat can create a wholly different style of play. And that combat is genuinely exciting - Because you could very well die.

It's a different kind of fun to the fun-nel you've been used to.

My advice to 3e/4e players wanting to give the OSR experience a shot - Try dying. Come to the session with a folder of character sheets. It won't take more than an hour to create a good handful or more. Just have a basic idea of what that character is right now. And die a couple of times. Get it out of your system.

Around that point, you will start to have a good feeling for how to navigate a world of fantasy full of dangers and glories to be had, where the skeletons of adventurers who failed might actually be found in dungeons - And do your best. Doing so WILL affect the outcome. 

Monday, 26 June 2017

4th edition's implied setting is Old School as f*ck

4th edition really turned me off D&D, at least as far as keeping up with its current state goes. At the time, I was already souring on 3.5's existential crisis with wanting to be GURPS in a class and level based system with abstracted combat. GURPS I felt simply did that better and I was coming to realise older versions of the game did the D&D parts with class, levels and abstracted combat, better.

When 4e then came out, I read all the reviews and play examples to get a feel for the game and see if I wanted to tag along. Nothing new under the sun from me there - I was instantly turned off by the extremely gamist nature of it - A roleplaying game so standardised by rules, it had abandoned all pretence of players playing out the scene and using rules as an aid - Players were playing out the rules with the scene as a background prop. Combats taking forever. 9 page character sheets. Characters defined primarily by boardgamey tactical roles. The hours spent on the mini-game of charop taking almost as long as actual gaming sessions. As with all things, I am sure it's possible to use 4e differently than this, but I've seen nothing since to suggest 4e does not at heart encourage this style of gaming. The players I know who play 4e in fact play 4e not because these criticisms aren't true, but because they like this style of play (in addition to liking other styles of roleplaying as well). But I didn't - at all - So 4e got a pass from me as the edition where corporatist D&D finally went off the deep end and shed its legacy and connection with former editions to go off and be its own thing in the 21st century.

The flavour parts of the game didn't seem much better at first glance either. Dragonborn and Tieflings are core classes now? And what's an Eladrin? Ugrh. For me, D&D has always been about mundane heroes journeying into the wilds to encounter the Weird and fantastical. And through this touch of Chaos, become greater than they were, gradually breaching the gap between the world of men (or even risk becoming alienated from it) and the world of myth on the other side of the fence.

4th edition at a glance seemed to totally break down this dichotomy and bring the fantastical right into the hearths of the mundane households, letting fey rub elbows with demonic offspring and dragonchildren in your regular tavern. When there is no Otherness to the fantastical, no sense of the Unknown,  the sense of wonder evaporates. The fantastical becomes mundane. 4e looked to have jumped the shark on its fluff to me at first glance. To be expected from such a gamist edition I figured and went on my way.

It was only around the time of the D&D Next playtest that I, thanks peeking at the flamewars that were inevitably sparked by the changes of a new edition, was inspired to look a bit deeper. Not for the rules, mind you. I still would rather play just about any other version of D&D. But the fluff. The fluff was just downright.... inspired!

Set that one critique about mundane vs the weird to the side for now though (we'll revisit later), and the implied setting of 4th edition reveals itself to be imaginative, bold, absolutely dripping with adventure potential and above all - Old school as fuck.

4th edition's implied setting feels far more mythic than any of its predecessors. This often translates into "gaming disconnect" (Tolkien, Glorantha, Dragonlance) as it setting becomes more pre-occupied with its own stories and mythology than its gaming potential - For Nentir Vale though, making it more mythic actually makes it more gameable. Gone are the tolkienesque angelic-racist elves of 2e & 3rd edition. The eladrin realms of the feywild have that dreamy otherworldly "journey into faerie" feel that traces its legacy back to the folkloric tales of the middle ages.

This happened in 4e. I wasn't around to witness it, but it did.
4th edition may have ditched alignments - Yet they crafted a mythology that is absolutely about the eternal conflict between Law & Chaos - Giving us a setting with all the principles of Keep on the Borderlands knitted straight into the fabric of the setting (moreso, I would argue, than any D&D setting before it) . The only thing they didn't do was explicitly call out that this dichotomy was their guiding principle (because officially - no alignments.

I mean, their cosmology is basically like this: The Astral sea was boring, so now it's Spelljammer with planes instead of planets (fuck yeah). The astral dominions are basically where the entities of Law took residence - They are all platonic embodiments of various concepts.

The Elemental Chaos is the other side of the cosmos - And far more visceral and, well... "elemental".  The font of creation - Basically Limbo, always in flux, but with elements of various kinds floating around in pockets and realms. Still, you can take your spelljammer ship and ride the elemental waves here as well (unlike the para-elemental plane of Ooze that we fucked off with the rest of the great wheel).

And below that, the nasty side of Chaos - Entropy leading into oblivion. The Abyss sitting between existence and nothingness.

Oh, and just to be even more mythic on y'all, our Law/Chaos struggle mirrors the Olympians/Aesir vs Titans/Jotuns struggle.  So you can instinctively grog this because this story is already in your cultural consciousness. And giants sided with the titans primordials.  Giant losers are therefore cosmically inimical to Law, gods and mankind. Ergo, go fight the good fight, adventurers.

And the underdark? Back in the mythic time when gods and primordials fought over law and chaos openly, one god was cursed and thrown underground for eternal torture. All these caves and passages is him dragging his tortured corpse around underground, creating open spaces as he boroughs through.

And we get mirror planes, basically reflections of life/nature and death/shadow - Because not all world-walking is about cosmic power and opening portals to new realities. Sometimes, the farmer just stumbles into faerie by accident. So your low and mid-level characters can walk into the realms of myth as well. Remember my criticism about the barriers between the mundane and the Weird? Turns out they cranked it up once you look past the player races. 4e's implied setting hardcodes this dichotomy into the setting (and blends law/chaos into the division on top) (too metal, man) and then turns up the volume on the fantastical once you go into the Weird. It's like they drank from Odin's mead of poetry Gygax's mountain dew of Appendix N when creating the setting for 4e.

It's easy to grog and get into, thick in mythic flavour and basically IS D&D embodied and distilled into setting form.

And yet, for all the flavour, it doesn't get self-absorbed in its own history or style. There is something accessible and basic, almost saturday morning cartoon style, in the way it grabs you. "These are our memes and archetypes. You have met them elsewhere, even if you don't know it. So just plug and play."

Part of the reason it is so accessible is that it is intentionally sparse. There is tonnes of stuff simply left out, or barely hinted at. Because it was designed to be nothing more than the most basic of frameworks for DMs to fill in the blanks on and make their own worlds out of. I know, right? Old School as fuck.

In fact, the publication history of its implied setting is like some sort of tragic homage to another very old school setting. We get the bare bone outlines in the DMG - 24 pages of teasers (mostly about stuff like "what is a town", "fantasy worlds tend to have religions", "here are rules for weather") that open with "the world of D&D doesn't have a map - until you make one" (so fucking metal) and then talks about the higher level assumptions of the D&D world. Things like:

  • Civilization is scattered points of light amidst a vast wilderness full of monsters in which ancient and mysterious wonders are nestled
  • gods are distant
  • It's your world
and another 15 pages on Fallcrest and the Nentir Vale, a pocket sandbox area+home base in a forgotten corner of the implied setting. That's it.  Old. School. man.

This is Fallcrest, the homebase. Shadowdale can fuck off back to Tolkien's Shire.

From here, the rest of the implied setting is revealed in scraps and pieces in various modules and articles in dragon magazine. You know which setting I am talking about now, when I said it was a homage, right? Yeah, this is basically World of Greyhawk all over again. Only, this one is dripping with flavour already and has the law vs chaos angle built right into its mythology with direct access for adventuring potential.

Except for one, tragic, difference. Greyhawk got its boxed set to set the word on what the world is like, even if it is an open-ended, loose framework, word. 4e's implied setting, Nentir Vale, never got that far before they killed the line. The setting book was on display on amazon and all. But then D&D Next happened and what was probably D&D's most D&D-like setting ever fell off a cliff.

That setting book could have been its last old school hurrah. "here's your setting book. It leaves out most things for you to create, but now at least you finally have your setting map. You will never see another supplement for this setting again though. Create the rest yourself." But we never got even that.

There is no "canon", no well defined history (myths in fact are far more prevalent than history) or even list of countries. It will remain forever an individualistic hodge podge of scant notes in the DMG cobbled together with hints and tidbits from supplements and adventures, some scholarly attempts at making sense of it all from fans online and the vast majority of it left for DMs to fill out with their own imagination. Old School. as. fuck.

If I were to run a non-homebrew setting these days, I'd probably pick 4e's or the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. I'd have to find a way to make those dragonborn and tieflings palatable to my sensibilities somehow, but that ain't hard. Other than that, it's just straight up D&D.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The D&D endgame has always sucked (except for *that* edition)

In the grognard-sphere, you can find many examples of grognards decrying the loss of D&D's endgame.

As I am working on B/X-ing 5e for Into the Unknown,  a cursory look at end-game approach is also on the menu (though mostly for a later Companion supplement since the core will only go to 10th level).

I've never really played with domain and stronghold rules. I was certainly aware of them and of the fact that the game was supposed to move in that direction. I just didn't understand how non-wargamers would think they are anything but an exceptionally boring endgame.

"You have over countless sessions fought everything from orcs to dragons, progressed from saving villages to saving kingdoms. Now, as you move into high-level play, new destinies and high level rules appear. Forget about resource management of rations and arrows. That's for noobs! At high levels, you get to manage the resources of an entire keep! Track the cost of building a new wing of the stronghold. Retain reeves and chamberlains. Collect taxes. Explore the intricacies of domain resources and incomes. Hear the complaints of peasants and track the cost of holidays. Graduate from low-level hero to high-level administrator! Play the domain game."

If that was the kind of campaign I wanted to play, I'd have gone for Birthright from level 1. The domain game fading from D&D was a natural consequence of it having nothing to do with the kind of game you thought you'd be playing when playing D&D.

That doesn't mean it was replaced by anything better though. 3e seemed to just go with the assumption of "why should high level play be any different from low level play? Just add more hit dice!"  Ignoring for a moment how awful the execution of this was in 3e, this assumption is, in itself, not terrible, since this is, after all, the kind of game you are playing D&D for.

Freebooters of the Frontier embraces this conclusion by declaring a simple endgame condition: amass 10,000 silver pieces and you win the game. This is perhaps preferable to the 3e's approach of "just keep doing the same thing with ever increasing numbers and levels of complexity." If D&D is to have an endgame, it should be somehow different, or at least an evolution, of the basic "kill creatures and amass treasures to defeat the villain" model of D&D. And preferably one that doesn't hand me rules for pricing the cost of holidays in your barony.

5e is not much better. Basically, the only edition who seems to have gotten the right idea is 4th edition (drops truthbomb, runs away).

4th edition D&D introduces epic destinies. They come on board about 8-10 levels too late, but they play to a good assumption of high level. While low-level play is often reactive and about a party walking the land waiting for destiny to happen, high level play ought to be about crafting a destiny for yourself.  Epic destinies enable this deliberate approach towards building your character into something larger than life the way you want to be larger than life. Low-level D&D play is "choose your own adventure", high level play should be "choose your own destiny." and 4e is the only edition to really grog to that.

In terms of flavour, 4e often does it quite well, presenting a good load of destinies that are essentially about transitioning from mundane hero to genuine mythic paragon. From legendary generals or sovereigns, becoming an archmage or epic lorekeeper, to questing for demi-godhood, heimdall-esque defender of a cosmically significant place, or an entire people, becoming consort to a deity to emerging as an actual avatar of a deity, thieves who can steal actual concepts, to becoming a literal parable yourself.

A lot of this is very high level stuff of course (and oftentimes more a culmination of a path of estiny) and some might want some intermediate high level play, on the level of domain play, becoming a guildmaster or similar. That is sort of what the Paragon tier (levels 11-20) was supposed to accomplish for 4e, except the execution amounted to little less than "choose your next splash option".

But the point remains - In either case, high level play should be about crafting your destiny and the rules for high level play should be in support of this - Rather than assuming that the end game should revolve around one goal (domain play) or none at all (3e).

So basically, the high level endgame I would want to introduce for Into the Unknown has very little to do with B/X and its endgame (cosmic adventures, a la the Mentzer Immortals set, would probably come closest as a possible destiny to choose from). I don't think I want to take an old-school approach just for the sake of doing it old-school.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A critical examination of Hit Points

Oh, Hit points. Is there any other gaming concept as opaque and contentious over the ages? Maybe Armor Class,  but that is for another day.

What are hit points really? With monsters, it is simple enough to equate hit points to physical damage. But less so for people.

Originally, number of Hit dice = the number of hits before you go down. Simple and intuitive option. A normal 1 HD man goes down when struck by a sword. A troll, being of larger and more durable stature than a man, has six hit dice (ie, can take six sword hits before going down).

But then the iffy part: A 6th level fighter fighter is the equal of six men - Is his body as tough as a troll? What does his extra hit points represent?

The exact answer seems to vary over the years and as significantly - There doesn't seem to be a clear consensus in any point in time as to its exact status.

"Wounds + [x], from taking a hit" seems to be the the closest definition people can agree on at any given time. But even that is stretched by the time we get to 4th and 5th edition - The most grognardy of my own group has taken to calling them "hero points" ever since we switched to 5th edition, due to the high and frequent rate of daily healing and proliferation of non-magical instant recoveries ("Second Wind", "Song of Rest") and morale boosts of temporary hit points ("Rally", "Inspiring Leader", "Heroism") suggesting that the "Hit" and "wounding" part of hit points don't mean much until you hit 0.

Gary Gygax, in his usual sesquipedalian style, gave this answer in the 1st edition DMG, page 82:
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage - as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).
According to this then, Hit points = Physique + [skill, sixth sense, luck & divine protection(!)]. The problem is, EGG didn't really seem to grasp what hit points was supposed to be all that well, for there is no follow through on this definition in any of his rules.

One would presume, from reading the above, that the majority of a high level characters's hit points comes from the "immeasurable areas". But he still heals at a flat rate of 1 (or 1-3, depending on which early edition you use) hit point per day.

That 1st level fighter with 8 hit points who lost all but one of them in a fight is as good as new a week later. The 5th level fighter with 29 hit points who lost all but one of them in a fight needs 4 weeks to be as good as new. Where are the immeasurable parts reflected in the healing process?

EGG may have written flavor text to suggest otherwise, but his take on the actual rules for hit points place them squarely as "wound points". To which I would say to Gary, were he still alive:

Grognards, brace yourselves. I am now going to argue that the designers of the 4th and 5th edition understood the original concept of hit points much better than Gygax did. None of them have fully internalised the implications of hit points though.

Gygax, much like James Wyatt, Mike Mearls et al, was an interpreter of the concept. So let's go to the originator of the idea, Dave Arneson, and look at how he understood the concept of hit points.

Originally, hit points were fixed. The notion of gaining more as you levelled came about because the players at Arneson's table didn't mind that it took multiple hits to kill a troll, but they minded that it only took one hit to kill them. So, he came up with the idea that:

 "As the player progressed, he did not receive additional Hit Points, but rather he became harder to Hit."

He soon enough changed this to hit points growing with level, but it is interesting to note that this was the original conception it grew out of (and also that Arneson tinkered with the 'modern' notion of power level=harder to hit, yet in the end decided to use growing hit points to model this).

Here we see where Gygax derived his inspiration for his flavor text from at least, but phrased in a much sharper and succinct concept - It is really only the first hit die of a player character that represents the physical part of hit points.

It seems however, that, unlike Gygax, Arneson followed through on this idea more (it was his own idea, after all) and treated hit points more fluidly and situationally as a result, in the same way he, and subsequently D&D at large, made AC and saves fluid through various situational modifiers.

In the "Temple of the Frog" as presented in the Blackmoor supplement, Arneson has this encounter:
"The destruction of an egg area will cause all frogs to fight at double value for 2-12 melee rounds after which all will withdraw to the pond and submerge."
Good golly, y'all. Dave Arneson used temporary hit point mechanisms in print way back in 1975.

And this is where we see 4th and 5th edition internalise Arneson's original concept of hit points much better than Gygax did as they treat hit points as a far more fluid mechanic than than static 'wound point' approach of former editions.

A fighter can recuperate hit points in combat with a "second wind", a leader can inspire his allies with temporary hit points. Anyone can, effectively, "heal" themselves up entirely overnight. Hit points in these editions are basically the metaphysical heroic mass of the character. And seen as such, the resource management built around it makes a lot of sense.

Here we see a proper implementation of the fundamental sense of hit points: An abstracted engine, not for determining wounds as such, but for recording attritionally, your heroic capability and resources in combat.

The problem for both 4th and 5th edition is that in embracing this, they have essentially taken the notion of characters ever actually being wounded out of the game. Sure, like Gygax did with the "immeasurable areas" of hit points, they pay token homage to the notion of wounds in their flavor text. But the actual mechanic does not reflect taking any wounds until you hit 0 hit points (and even that is just brief unconsciousness - or death). Prior to death, there are no dramatic implications to being hit other than your daily resource management.

Interestingly, Arneson seems to be the only one of significance who properly internalised how the implications of hit points being a gameable and dramatic abstraction for being harder to hit meant that something more was needed to represent actual wounds. In the original "Men & Magic", we have the seed of it (which I suspect, but have no way of knowing, was Arneson's bit):
“Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee.”
This is a statement D&D in general has done very little with. But Arneson's Blackmoor does. It gives us our first hit location system, wherein hits variously give penalties to dexterity, reduced movement or even instant death. I don't want to give Arneson too much credit here - The system is abominably complicated, but the idea of it is sound - Something more than hit points is needed to track actual wounds.


Having played my fair share of games who did away with the 'unrealistic' bag-of-hit-point systems (a move which my younger self applauded back then), the unfortunate reality at the table of these more 'realistic' systems is that they just don't play out with the same intuitive and well-paced dramatic development as hit points. Landing more hits and taking points off your opponents metaphysical "still standing" score is just more fun and dramatic than a series "you hit, but the opponent parries" exchanges until someone actually hits with what is likely a fight ender.

I consider hit points as probably the most innovative and strongest feature in the history of D&D - It's a brilliant combat engine that strikes a lovely balance between being easy to track and the dramatic development of combat, tracked over more than just one encounter.

And yet, my opinion is that for more than 40 years, D&D has never really given us a damage system that properly integrates the implications of what hit points really mean.

5th edition probably comes the closest and gives us the best platform for addressing the gaps. The 5e DMG has a lingering wounds table. Throw in some hit point milestones for gaining levels of exhaustion on top and I think you have a good adjunct for tracking wounds and other effects alongside hit point that give dramatic consequences to combat whilst still being fairly simple.

For older editions, the fix is steeper, as the "hit point = wounds" mechanic is just so embedded. You'd need new healing rules, mechanics making use of hit points as a more fluid resource, etc. I don't think I'd want to go there.

But even in 5th edition, I'd like to see mechanics making more use of hit points as a fluid mechanism. "Temporary damage" from fear effects and low morale maybe? Critical hits giving temporary hit points to the attacker for a round or two. Stuff like that.

Either way, it goes to show, there is still room for growing the full implications of the original concepts of the game. Maybe 6th edition will finally take hit points and wounds to its natural conclusion?

Friday, 28 April 2017

B/X-inspired Monsters for 5e / Into the Unknown (followup)

Short follow to my previous post on this. I think I've arrived at a good format that strikes a decent middle ground between the simplicity of B/X and the long format of 5e.

Note the addition of Morale and numbers appearing. Those rules should never have become 'OSR'. No idea why they were cut from 3e nor why they didn't return for 5e. They are lifeblood of D&D encounters, imo, and certainly for B/X and are back for Into the Unknown.

On this note - What do grognards make of the numbers appearing stats in B/X? Do you use them as is? I've always felt they tended to be on the high side.


Thankfully, Labyrinth Lord's monster descriptions are open content (though I am shortening them), since the SRD has none - Another one to add to the credits. It's all formatted pretty tight now. Only thing left now (groan) is find the right monsters to cut, add descriptions for the remaining 180 critters and rewrite the overly verbose "natural language". The 5e writers just did not give a fuck about brevity.

For comparison, I tried to put the short writeups from the 5e Basic document for these four into one page as well. They are a bit longer, but actually they do a pretty decent job of condensing the information in a clear way, I think. It's the verbosity that's the main issue and prevents quick scanning of special abilities and attacks.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Setting Pitch - Dreams of a Fading Earth

Precis: Dying Earth + He-man & Thundarr + Science Fantasy + Mythago Wood with boundaries stripped + all your favourite myths and stories from any era.

In the far far future Earth, indeed the universe, is slowly dying. Man lives under a bloated red sun in the inherited ruins of former ages and the decadent nihilistic fatalism of the end times have set in long ago.

Time itself is like a torn rag and the planetary memories of decrepit Mother Earth have long bled into the world without rhyme or reason, as Mother Earth hazily dreams half-remembered myths and long forgotten truths from its youth into the world again.

The Fading Earth is chimerical, as if seen through a shamanistic dreamlike lens where truths and fiction are mixed without order, and reality often follows a more narrative than physical order.

Facsimiles of the Knights of the Round Table ride out of the mist in a crusade against the Old Ones stirring as the end of time approaches.

Archetypical elves stalk the dark woods (or peddle yellow lotus weed in the city, struggling with the existential crisis of a race resurrected out of time in a world where little matters anymore).

Atomic age science-fantasy wizards manipulate cosmic matrixes in their towers, Thor requires company to explore a titanic ancient generation starship arc, Mi-go conduct ancient star rituals and trolls sleep under bridges.

All myths are potentially right here. And all past events potentially here too. As dreams of a dying earth, they appear without rhyme and reason as caleidoscopic re-interpretations of the past.

For those who haven't read it, Mythago Wood is a fantasy novel from the 80s. It's about a guy who explores an old forest that acts as a kind of receptable for the racial consciousness and memory of mankind, storing archetypical jungian myths from now to way back to the ice age and incarnating them inside the woodland (robin hood, king Arthur, etc. but often not quite the memories we have of them today, although these also play a part).

I found it a very inspiring way to look at fantasy and thought "what if the earth has it's own storehouse consciousness where it remembers all the myths, stories and real events that sapients have been sufficiently conscious of over time?" And then fast forward to a Dying Earth setting where this Gaia consciousness has grown senile and, rather than just storing it, has started replaying its old memories, or facsimiles of them (it is senile after all), as actual incarnated and embodied places and people on earth, without regard for what was history, history embellished with myth or just plain fiction.

Post-apocalyptic fantasy future-earth with just about anything from earth history, myth and fiction you want in it. I think this could make for a fun setting for D&D. Some parts of the setting might be stable and 'ordinary' (or at least, ordinary by the standards of the future fantasy dying earth) - separated by vast stretches of mythland (and also dotted by pockets of mythlands) where the dreams of the Fading Earth have taken hold - where Alice in Wonderland Reimagined is as likely to show up as the historical figure of Casanova.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

B/X-inspired Monster book for 5e / Into the Unknown

I known I said that making the Magic Book was without a doubt the most editorially demanding of the set. But the monster's book is not far behind. Might be more demanding in the end.

I've done all the rough trimming and editing by now. Removing monsters that are obviously not a fit for B/X, removing those of unsuitable challenge ratings and trying my best to make the stat block simpler and take up less space.

this has trimmed my original 140 page draft down to 63 page working document (for comparison, magic went from 122 page draft to 39 pages). I want to get down to 50 pages or less, but the choices from here are harder ones.

I currently have 198 unique entries - Compared to the 186 entries found in B/X. It is not a like for like list of critters. And there is a few I will have to create on top of that (dwarf, elf, halflings and of course - Devil Swine).

Not to mention, most of these have no description in the SRD! They will have to be added on top (groan).

And cutting out monsters is hard. Monsters are cool. Almost all of the ones left speak to me.

Here are some examples of non-b/x monsters I have included in the working document so far:

  • Aboleths
  • Young dragons
  • Five demons
  • Five Devils
  • Hags
  • Rakshasa
  • Remorhaz
  • Sphinx

How do you leave these out? Maybe young dragons can go - There are there basically to have dragons to fight at lower levels. But there rest are just very cool and iconic to my mind.... (It's just weird B/X has no devils or demons).

Below is the table of contents so far for it, and two sample pages to give an idea of where I am at, in regards to the stat block format. I am sharing here mostly for feedback purposes - 5e is not as bad as 3e and 4e for monstrpously large stat blocks, but it is still quite removed from the simplicity of 2e and lower. I think I've come a long way towards condensing it, but there may well be more gains to be made here (ie, do stat blocks need a language entry?).

Thursday, 30 March 2017

5e Race-As-Class: Dwarf (Into the Unknown)

The Dwarf is up for review.

Full version at the bottom of page
The Dwarf in B/X is basically the fighter with better saves. I decided to let Extra Attack be a unique feature of the fighter in Into the Unknown. So the Dwarf is instead based around being a a good mook horde breaker (from 3rd level onwards) and otherwise being a reliable hard damage dealer against solitary foes, who can also take a good amount of punishment.

I've tried to focus on mechanics that doesn't require extra die rolls or new mechanics to learn (or if they do, ride on existing ones - two abilities look at the ignored die of advantage/disadvantage for their effect - And two other abilities involve invoking advantage and disadvantage for nice synergies).

Oh and I added favored enemy. Because it's well known that dwarves carry a mighty grudge against their enemies.

Overall, I am really happy with the result. I think it would be would to play (combining free shoves on advantage with opportunity attacks on prone foes has a definite cool factor when you are swinging a heavy mace or axe).

I've tried to balance it against the fighter and revised ranger. It may seem heavy loaded from levels 1-5, but that compares directly against second wind, action surge, extra attack and improved critical/battlemaster shenanigans. It strikes me as more or less on par. I would of course love to hear people's opinions - On balance, fun factor and all that.

In other news, I've decided to split Into the Unknown so the main rules set only goes to 1-10. Besides the good reasons in terms of accessibility and focus, it also makes the job of writing the GM's Handbook part actually doable. Once the Companion volume has been written, it will be simple enough to make a "complete" version collating the two. And since it's all "Pay What You Want", by then it will really be more a question of what presentation is preferred. It also made work on the dwarf a fair bit quicker. :-p. Elf is up next.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Splitting "Into the Unknown" into a B/X and later a Companion set

Throughout the proccess of developing Into the Unkown I've been resistant to the idea of splitting the rules set into staggered releases the way B/X and BECMI did. The 5e SRD has rules going all the way to level 20 for free, why impose limitations on what should be in ItU's ruleset when the material for higher is already there and just need some adaption and editing? If it's there, put it in.

One rules set to rule them or or staggered sets for different tiers of play?

I am getting close enough to the finishing line now that I did a projected page count, minus cover, toc and formalia (but including internal artwork), for the player booklets.

Book 1: Characters - 55 pages
Book 2: Playing the Game - 23 pages
Book 3: Magic - 72 pages

Spread out like this:
40 pages of intro and character creation
26 pages of rules
15 pages of equipment
69 pages of spell lists and spells

So basically 150 pages of player material. For comparison, the equivalent chapters in the player's handbook is 290 pages. But 150 pages is still a very high number to me. The equivalent player material across B/X is 55 pages.

So I've been giving some thought to letting the main rules set be "Basic and Expert rules", running up to 10th level (11th level is where 5e kicks off into superhero mode) and following up later with a "Companion" dedicated to high level play.

The page count doesn't really improve that much. Intro and character creation is reduced by 6-7 pages, spells reduced by 30 pages. Even if I do a trim of the equipment section, it's over 100 pages. But at least it's thereabouts.

More importantly, I think there are good reasons to split it up. In the OSR group on Google+, +Charlie Mason recently asked about the highest level people usually played to. Out of 160 votes, a whopping 79% capped at 11th level. In other words, a game covering levels 1-10 is a fully self-contained game for the vast majority of campaigns.

The more I've been thinking on this, the more I am realising that high level play really is a different beast to the regular game. And putting it all in the same volume doesn't do justice to that fact.

A 1-10 rules set is focused - dungeon and wilderness exploration. check. You might save the kingdom, but you're not a kingmaker just yet. Making the rules set focused is also one of those things that should make the game more accessible to dive into.

Above that, whether it is the domain game of older editions or just the high level adventuring of later editions, the tone and setting changes. A companion volume (which I'd also stack with various 'advanced' and optional rules for class building, etc) has a much better shot of properly addressing gameplay at levels 11+.

I'd love some opinion on this though. Maybe I am barking up the wrong tree?

In other news, as the player's section is getting closer to release, I reckon I will release two versions. The three booklets, optimised for table use and a singular "Player's Guide" for those who prefer to have it in one volume.

PS. To follow up on my save entry the other day - After much deliberation, I'm going with "all saves add proficiency bonus and attribute modifier". It's clean, the simplicity is to die for and the numbers make good sense. Thanks S&W.

5e spells complexity and verbosity vs B/X

Making the Magic book for Into the Unknown is without a doubt the most editorially demanding of the set. 5e magic is verbose and overly focused on spelling out everything. Re-arranging (I am sorting spells by level) and cutting superfluous stat blocks helps, even if it takes a lot of time.

For comparisons, here is the B/X presentation of two simple spells:

And here is the 5th edition presentation of two simple spells:
Here are two simple spells in Into the Unknown:
I am pretty happy that most 5e spells can have their stat block simplified to B/X standard of range/duration with mostly just a different approach to presentation (unless otherwise specified, casting a spell takes an action and requires verbal and somatic components - and I've eliminated material components without a cost).

The screenshots here aren't so bad as they are all simple. But there are just so many spells in 5e that are ridiculously detailed. Paring them down is a lot of work. And 5e's explicit language is getting to me. You don't have to tell me in every spell description that a spell effect lasts for the spell's duration and can be cast within range in every frigging spell. Going through a couple of hundred spells to remove all the superfluous verbosity is a lot of work. 

That said, I started with a 125 page document. Now down to 81 pages. The rules for magic have been pared down from six to three pages. Still a lot to go through. So far, I've been reticient to cut out spells, except a few that just don't fit. But something is going to have to give. 
B/X devotes 25 pages to spells (going up to 6th level spells). The 5e Player's handbook is 91 pages. I'd like to get at least below 70 somehow, without sacrificing too much.