Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Skills in D&D - And in RedNext (B/X-5e hack)

Skills is a problem. Always has been. It's a problem to have them and a problem not to have them. Back in the day, I considered myself a skill-aficionado. The thought that not having skills could be a well-considered feature of a system didn't really occur to me. These days, I am between two stools of appreciating the advantages to not having skills and still liking skills for the way it helps to distinguish and characterise characters.

And this is why I don't like 5e skills - they are too generic and basic. They don't actually say anything about the character. We have skills in my 5e group, but I can't see we've used them for much other than 'guess I can add +2 to that roll'. In other words, they might as well not be there.

With that in mind, my baseline is a slight modification of the OSR standard:
Anyone can more or less try anything.
For my 5e OSR document, I edited out all skill references to take as my baseline. Sort of. Actually, skills are sorted by attribute and holds examples of when they can be used. I just removed the skill part and used them as examples of what attribute to use when attempting all of these things. So that's the baseline. More or less. I think this quote over on therpgsite by +thedungeondelver  frames the scope of adventuring capability and skills, if they have a place:
"In a very off-screen manner. I asked Gary once about skill systems, did he look back when in late AD&D at other systems that had skills and think "I wish I'd put skills in AD&D" and his response was no, that he felt in a level/class game that your character before they became an adventurer should be basically competent at foraging, swimming, climbing a rope (not the same as a thief's Climb Walls skill - that's for sheer, unassisted climbing up nearly impossible smooth surfaces, etc.), riding a horse and so on. Additionally, the "secondary professions" could blossom out into opportunities for players (for example, we have in the Fri. night game a player of a dwarf who happens to also be a lapidary, so pricing gems is easy enough for the party)."
Besides making a good point that Class itself substitutes for skill (or at least, ought to indicate skill), I think this passage also provides a good definition of what the 1st level adventurer is capable of. +Arnold K  on The Goblin Punch put it succinctly for me:
"You can think of the base adventurer as Indiana Jones minus the Archeologist."
I think, in 5e (and RedNext), a good way of representing this is: All characters of level 1 or higher have proficiency (ie, receive their proficiency bonus) in more or less everything. You are just that good. So go ahead and try it. Proficiency Bonus is a measure of your overall bad-ass ability and improves as you level up.

Indy - A 1st level Rogue with the Scholar background in D&D
One exception: 
  • Combat and similar life-threatening attempts to do stuff
So you don't get a bonus to weapons or grappling etc unless your class specifies it (fighters however, are broadly proficient in combat - Meaning Fighters are the only ones who get their proficiency bonus to "try anything" in combat. From grappling to spear-impaling nutsacks or whatever).

There are two further aspects to this:
  • Tasks your character is even better at than just proficient.
  • Highly technical ('skilled') tasks
Tasks your character is even better at than just proficient is basically just determined by Class and Background (ie, much the same as Gygax intimated in the anecdote quoted above) and you get advantage on all such checks outside of combat and similar highly threatening situations
If you are a Forester Fighter, you have your proficiency bonus+attribute bonus and advantage on all non-threatened checks for stuff like tactics and appraising weapon quality (Fighter) and tracking in the woods and setting traps for game (forester). Anyone else is competent enough to try the same with bonus+attribute bonus but not with advantage. So your 'skill' (fighter/forester) packs a punch, even though anyone can try anything (and hope to succeed).

Highly technical ('skilled') tasks like weaponsmithing, lockpicking without a pick, climbing sheer walls without tools, hiding in plain sight or deciphering an ancient language that you can't really expect to be able to unless have actually studied this skill somewhat takes you one step down the "advantage" ladder. Ie, a rogue/burglar would be able to climb a sheer wall with a regular check. Everyone else would have disadvantage.

Doing it in a pressured threatening situation (like combat) would take you one step further down. Meaning only a skilled character like a rogue/burglar would be able to do it in combat at disadvantage. No one else would be able to do it.


I am wondering if maybe the 'advantage/disadvantage' scale should be switched to altering DCs for skilled/unskilled characters and attempts instead. It has the advantage of keeping mechanics that suggest 'you can't do this' out of sight of PCs.

There are still holes here. I'd like to give more opportunities for rounding out skill choices than just this (maybe something like 'skilled(advantage) in one personality trait - poor(disadvantage) in another trait') but not at the cost of KISS. And I am not sure how this interacts with rogues acquiring new skills and such. Class/ Background/Personality Trait are basically just skill focuses so maybe I just need to sit down and think on how to delineate a skill focus...


One thing that definitely needs to be addressed with all this is "when to roll". I think it is a good rule of thumb to say: 

If the player can reasonably describe how he accomplishes a task, he accomplishes it.

If the player is lazy and doesn't do that, he has to roll. You always roll in combat.

Any rolls made then would simply be to 'degree of success' if applicable.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Further thoughts on "B/X-5e" hack: RedNext

First of all, in reply to some of the comments on my previous entry as to whether 5e hacks can be considered old-school or not and why I will continue to bill my little pocket project as OSR in my own mind - I like Greyhawk Grognard's definition:

"We play the old games, and the games that feel like the old games."

'nuff said. On to other matters: I guess I am going ahead with this.

Yesterday, I took the 5e SRD, split it into six booklet documents. Then I stripped it of all the stuff that won't fit in with my "Redbox 5e" mix. Cosmology guff, classes beyond the four basic ones, all races save dwarf,elf, halfling, feats and skills.  3 for players:
  • Book 1: Characters (45 pages)
  • Book 2: Playing the game (29 pages)
  • Book 3: Magic (112 pages)
And another 3 for the DM:
  • Book 4: Running the Game (16 pages)
  • Book 5: Treasure (63 pages)
  • Book 6: Monsters (164 pages)
Something like this if ever actually printed. Great for the actual table.
It needs further stripping as the page count, especially for magic, treasure and monsters is still too high (to be fair, these aren't much rules - Just loads of material made freely available by WotC) I will need to go through the docs and see what is superfluous or can be rewritten to simpler language, although my impression so far is that the authors did a really good job of this already.

This will be my base for hacking from which I can then add my own mods. Mostly, I will be looking at the B/X series. 

The design goal overall is "Basic Set approach with 100% 5e Compatibility" (meaning you can take anything from full 5e and drop in, or have characters designed with full 5e at the same table, or characters designed with this hack at a full 5e table, with zero adjustment or conversion needed).

Here is what I am thinking I want to add into the mix so far:

(and as an optional sidebar rule - 'race AND class'). This will mean mixing 'human' race modifiers into the four human classes for simplicity, making a gish class for the elf and determining what kind of class exactly dwarves and halflings are beyond 'racial fighter' and 'racial rogue'.
I love race as class. Classes are archetypes for plug and play. So are races.
Level titles
It belongs - It's a great way of determining what to expect from each level.

Narratives is an open content sub-system made for the Primeval Thule 5e campaign setting. It replaces backgrounds, is a bit more expansive in defining the characters and adds a few bells and whistles at higher levels. Functionally, I suppose it is somewhere between 2e kits and 5e backgrounds.

I intend to use them to replace the stripped out classes (So 'Ranger', 'Paladin', Barbarian', 'Druid', 'Bard', 'Warlock', would all be Narratives instead of independent classes) - I think this should work fine. These extra classes are essentially just thematic variations of the four basic ones, so it makes sense to handle them with a system designed to bring out thematic variation with only a few bells and whistles baked in.

New Skills System
Although 5e should get kodus for simplifying the skill system, I don't think they pulled it off really. Except for Perception and Stealth, I find that skills aren't really being used much in our 5e game and when they are, it feels clunky. Their presence don't really say anything about the character using them - they are too generic for that.
What they did right what making skills essentially just a thin layer on top of attribute checks. Meaning they are easy to discard or replace with a different system. Thumbs up for modularity, 5e!

I like the three variants in the DMG though. The attribute one is a nice way of just dropping skills.
The two others are simple and fluid and seem to encourage 'what I can do really well' in a way that says something about the character rather than a 'what I can and can't do' list. I am thinking of making a mix of them:
"Narrative Proficiency" - Basically, whatever a player can reasonably argue that a character of his background and training ought to be able to do, he is proficient in. Rangers can do outdoorsy stuff, warriors can grapple, Warlocks know stuff about outer beings, etc.
I am thinking of adding a few extra skill elements to allow for personalising characters: A narrow version of the personality trait proficiency and/or "one thing I did growing up" that falls outside the class system. Keep it loose and essentially improvisational - Hooks to play with the character that gives some mechanical benefit.
Another problem with the skill system is that they don't give much oomph. A +2 bonus is not much to distinguish between a trained locksmith and someone totally new. Gaming Ronin had a take on skills that I might take some inspiration from:
Everyone gets their proficiency bonus for everything. Adventurers are overall badass and keep getting more badass. If you attempt something that you are deemed "proficient" in, you get advantage where others get none. If what is being attempted is something that would be considered difficult to impossible for someone unskilled (smithing a sword, recalling details about a long lost empire) you roll normally where 'unskilled' ones get disadvantage.
This may all be too much though. I am not decided on this yet.

New Healing System
Nice and simple, adds a little resource management aspect to healing. Works well at our table:
Once pr day, you may EITHER:
  • Spend one (and only one) hit die to heal during a Short or Long rest
  • Regain a hit die during a long rest.
If you choose to spend a hit die during a Long Rest, you roll with "advantage" on the healing die.

I don't always forget about healing spells. But when I do, I fire into melee.

Firing into melee
Because archers are cowards who need a bit of risk added.
If you make a ranged attack directed at an enemy target engaged with allies in melee, you roll with Disadvantage on your attack.
If you miss, the higher of the two rolls is used to attack other creatures within 5' of the target (starting with the one who is the most in the "line of fire" or roll a suitable die to determine randomly).  Keep in mind that the new target could also be another enemy(!).
When determining whether misses penetrate AC or not, leave out any proficiency, attribute or other bonuses and simply use what the die shows as the attack roll.

At the end of the day, this looks totally doable.

The tricky part from here really is making the racial classes and having a 'caster' subclass for fighter and rogue that Ranger/Paladin/Bard Narratives can choose to go down at 3rd level. Since that already exists, it should be simple enough to check that it will map nicely enough.

The other tricky part will be attribute generation method(s). Not really sure about that at all just yet.

Then decide on what else goes into the DM booklets of cool and useful stuff.

I should probably also examine the long/short rest mechanic and see what uses it and if I can trim stuff out. The mechanic may work, but it is one of those invisible balance checks that are bad because they are opaque. Getting rid of all those classes should go a long way towards addressing this though.

Then TRIM TRIM TRIM to get the bloody page count down.

Then decide on a cool name. My working title is "RedNext".

Am I missing anything here? 

Sunday, 11 September 2016

5e as the OSR engine of choice

So, recently I've been pondering the right D&D system. 

Since then, I've been leaning heavily towards 5th edition as the OSR engine of choice. Now, some of you may say "5th edition isn't OSR, man. It's got feats, and warlocks and dragonborn". And sure, it probably isn't. I am calling it the OSR engine of choice, because I delved into OSR games looking for a system designed on principles that the OSR champions: Simplicity, streamlined, easy to houserule, speed of play, limited amount of moving parts.

Now, full blown 5e doesn't exactly meet those requirements, but the free version, Basic D&D 5e, does. The four classic races only, The four classic classes only, no feats. Few modifiers, easy and simple maths, few assumptions on equipment. Lovely really.

Use one of the skill variants in the DMG for simpler and better skills and houserule in a stricter healing system and I'd say you have a lean, balanced and fast engine that can stand toe to toe with any OSR system.

And I have to say at this point: I was DEAD WRONG when I claimed "[5e] is so very tight and balanced - meaning every tinkering has a consequence".
5e IS balanced, compared to older games. But tight? No. I basically just projected my assumptions of modern games on to it. Unlike 4e and 3e, 5e is designed to be tinkered with - The DMG gives many variant rules and optional sub-systems. But these are just the tip of the iceberg for houseruling really. The big difference between 5e and other newer editions is that it holds a lot less expectations about how the game is supposed to be played and doesn't have as many interrelated moving parts. The basic chassis covers most of it and hardly needs tampering and whatever else you change, it is generally clear what will happen when you change it.

Classes as Class feature

The 5e Player's Handbook of course has a slew of classes beyond the 4 classic ones. And I like the idea of classes. to personalise a character. I just don't like all the moving parts it entails. It overdoes what it needs to do, to my mind.

The Backgrounds element of 5e covers a lot of the concepts previously handed with classes, kits and prestige classes (although maybe the Narratives from Primeval Thule does it even better) - but still, I'd like a teensy bit more. 2nd edition came the closest in representating the various new classes as sub groupings of the four basic ones, but didn't go nearly far enough. I think it can be done simply enough with 5e Basic though. Off the top of my head:

Fighting Man Class
Class Feature (chosen at 1st level): Paladin, Ranger, Barbarian, Fighter

Magic User Class
Class Feature (chosen at 1st level): Wizard, Warlock, Sorcerer

Rogue Class
Class Feature (chosen at 1st level): Thief-Acrobat, Assassin, Bard

Priest Class
Class Feature (chosen at 1st level): Cleric as is. Choose a religion.

The class features wouldn't be much - Enough that a Paladin should feel thematically different from a Ranger. But not so much that they become something other than a tacked on feature of the basic class: Fighter/Magic-User/Rogue. And should be simple enough that it is easy to invent new features for Cavaliers, Witches, etc.

For Fighting Men, borrowing the most defining bits from the existing classes, maybe something added at a few defining levels. Done.
For Magic Users, even simpler. It would mostly be a matter of how you acquire your spells (wizards study, sorcerers intuit, warlocks bargain) and spelling out the procs and cons of each approach. Maybe allow for a different spellcasting attribute based on feature.
Rogue is already more or less there - Just tweak arcane trickster into something a little closer to a 2nd ed bard and you're done.

Hell, throw in some race-as-classes for dwarves, elves and halflings (maybe with a sidebar for an optional "race AND class" rule) and a small section for "changing class features" and this has the makings of a great OSR rendition of 5e. Call it "Red Hack 5e" or something. Fully compatible with 5e, with all the flavour of basic d&d.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

*Adventures in Middle-Earth Player's Guide" is in my hands.mwuahahah

Just scanning the Overview Chapter so far and I am already seeing stuff to strip mine for my own game. dis gun be good.