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.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Jesus saves - the rest of you take full damage

Saving throws have always been quirky in D&D - The original categories were.... eccentric to say the least. Why is save vs wand different from save vs staff? Is petrification really widespread enough to get an explicit mention? And what is a death ray anyway? Finger of death? What else? That said, it was charming and that has its own sort of saving grace. It is a lot more menacing when the DM exclaims "save vs DEATH RAY" than "make a fortitude save".

3e did an admirable job of simplifying and clarifying saves. 3 instead of 5, keying it to dexterity, constitution and wisdom gives you an idea of how you are trying to save yourself, making saving throws a lot less disassociated. Good job allround.

The only recurring complaint against 3e saves were lacking the charm of older editions. Which, as complaints go, fall somewhere between obstinate and petulant.

For me, it is mildly aesthetically displeasing that there are 2 physical saves and only 1 mental save. But it works fine enough.

The biggest change, besides the simplification, is that saves now go from being a purely class+level based number to a class+level+ability modifier (lets ignore the manifold multiclass shenanigans).

This change has rarely been scrutinised (whether that idea ended up working or not in 3e sort of drowns in allround modifiers bloat), but it's a point I think is worth considering. What does it actually add to the game to also key saves to ability modifiers? It makes saves a lot more variable, making it harder for DMs to gauge what DCs to set. And in return we get... ?!?

A minor element of verisimilitude for an already largely disassociated mechanic. It seems to me something that got added because it seemed to make some sort of sense, but no one really considered whether it actually improved the game.

4e, ever the red-headed stepchild of the D&D family, made saves something totally different: Are you currently suffering a condition where "save ends"? roll 11 or higher to end it. That's all. Saves is basically just a static duration tracker. Interesting in its own sort of way, but too different for my considerations in this post.

Which is saves in 5e, and by extension Into the Unknown.

5e saves are most similar to 3e, but with the abstraction of "reflex, fortitude, will" shaved off, making it basically similar to an ability check. Proficiency bonus+ability modifier. Nice and simple. It's more of a level+ability than a class/level+ability thing now really, though class does determine which saves get proficiency bonus.

There are six saves now instead of three, one for each ability, which on the surface is fine, since the model is so simple it doesn't really add much complexity. The spells that target the three new saves (cha, str, int) are very few in number and have longer casting times or very survivable and shortlived effects. Re-tooling it to just have three saves would be very easy (STR/CON float to Fortitude, DEX/INT float to Reflex, WIS/CHA float to Will - This also gives a fairly even distribution, based on saves in the PHB and MM).

The tricky part about 5e saves is that 4 out of 6 saves aren't even level+ ability based. They are just your ability modifier and shall forever remain so. Bragbar the 20th level barbarian who dump-statted charisma is as susceptible to a magic jar spell as he was at 1st level. A 9th level spellcaster throws spells with a save DC of 17. Woe betide the fool with dumb stat and no proficiency in that save. Bragbar our 20th level barbarian with CHA 8 gets sucked into that gem 85% of the time that 9th level caster gets his spell off.

Spellcasters now have a plethora of dumb saves to target that their victims will almost always fail. This basically makes group buffs mandatory at higher levels.


So for Into the Unknown, I've been thinking to address this. I've got a couple of solutions.

A/ One is to give half proficiency bonus to all saves as standard. Bragbar now saves 25% of the time against the magic jar instead of 15%. It's a help and it's simple, but feels more like a band-aid on the issue. But maybe that is all that it needs.

B/ Another is, in vein of 2e and lower, to once again de-couple saves from ability scores. You add proficiency bonus to all your saves. If proficient, you double it. Bragbar saves against the magic jar 50% of the time. and 80% if he is proficient. Against a 20th level caster (DC 19), it's 40%/70% for Bragbar. Seems sound.
Aesthetically, it's a bit weird though to have six "ability saves", but ability modifiers don't add to it. This might have flown better with 3e's three, slightly more decoupled, saves.

C/ A third option is to give full proficiency to all saves, but only "proficient" saves can add ability modifiers (or cancel negative modifiers). It does make saves work a bit different from other combos of ability+proficiency,  but not terribly so. It makes saves a lot closer to Sword&Wizardry's singular save mechanic, but with some opportunity to differentiate.
Wizards and cleric get to add their CHA to the magic jar (it's a circle of necromancers now - Bragbar is just one target) if they have it. The majority save 50% of the time against it, bragbar dumbstatted cha though, so it's 45% for him. Aleena the cleric is gorgeous (CHA 14), so her chances are 60%. Sound.

D/ Same as above, but forgetting all about having proficiency in saves. When making a save, you just add proficiency bonus+ ability modifier. the end.


Right now I am leaning towards B/ + reducing number of saves to 3, 3e style, folding STR and CON saves into a Fortitude save, DEX/INT saves into a Reflex save and WIS/CHA saves into a Will save. Fighters double proficiency bonus for Fortitude saves, rogues for Reflex and wizards and clerics for Will saves. Low saves is still at proficiency bonus.

It makes saves even easier to keep track of than in B/X - For players sure, but most especially for DMs when estimating threat levels. The numbers seem to make sense and the right classes get the right saves.

The only downside is a small amount of conversion needed for using existing 5e material. But it's a pretty easy conversion to make. If not this, I am leaning towards D/, maybe float it to 3 saves, to avoid vastly favouring rogues, clerics and DEX-based fighters who have their primary stat in one of the most frequent category.

Input welcome.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

A more interesting weapons table for 5e

(tl:dr - Here is a table with more interesting weapon choices for 5e)

I really like the armor table for 5e. Good range of choice, not too short, not too long and there are just enough differences and overlaps that your choice of armor is meaningful and distinct. Simple and interesting.

The weapons table for 5ed is probably one of the least thought out and most poorly implemented mechanics in the Player's Handbook though.

Loads of redundancies (Why would I ever buy a mace when a quarterstaff does the same damage, is 20 times cheaper and can be used with 2 hands for even more damage?), Shortswords and scimitars being the same except vast price difference, longsword, warhammers and battleaxes all being the frigging same weapon, etc.

It seems to have been built around weighing different damage types as more valuable than others, no matter that the differences almost never come into play. Except it's inconsistent. A warhammer is bludgeoning, but pricier than a slashing battleaxe. Otherwise the same. A maul is bludgeoning but way cheaper than a slashing greatsword. Otherwise the same.

Whatever. There's a handful of weapons worth taking and loads that are pointless and a waste of space.

For Into the Unknown, I've done away with the three damage types for simplicity since the edge cases where they come into play are extremely rare and common sense applicable at any rate (yes your sword can slash and stab, no your rapier can not bludgeon. Yes, you can swing your spear like a staff).

With that done away with, the weapons table showed itself up for what it was - Just too awful to keep as it is. So I changed things up a little and tried to give each weapon choice a niche. It really didn't take much work.

There is one new weapon property:
<> This weapon has two properties that can not be used together. For example thrown<>versatile, can be used with two hands, but thrown only with one.
I think it's kinda self-explanatory. You can throw a spear, but not for 2-handed damage.

Spear earn their mettle as the most popular weapon of all time by being the only simple weapon that's versatile, can be thrown and gives 1d6/1d8 damage, making it the best damage dealer (alongside the greatclub) among simple weapons.

Long spears (new) are martial, swap thrown for reach but otherwise identical to spears and are the only reach weapons that can be wielded one-handed.

Long staves (new) are martial, not versatile, but have reach. and way cheaper than polearms who go one higher on the die, but are also heavy.

Swords are pricey, but there is good reason why they are so universal kings among weapons - They are all frigging finesse baby. That's why you pay a premium for them.

Shortswords lose the Light quality if you want finesse on top, but become simple weapons, making it the highest damage dealer among simple finesse weapons.

Longswords gain finesse to distinguish themselves from battleaxes and warhammers.  Greatswords they same vs battleaxes (who bumb to 2d6 whilst the cheaper and simpler maul goes down to 1d12).

I added broadsword to the list as well - they took rapiers entry who got bumped down to scimitar level - The point of scimitars and rapiers here is that they are the top dogs for dualwielding with finesse. Because come on, a broadsword is just better than a flimsy fencing weapon. If you want a better flimsy fencing weapon, call the broadsword 'edged rapier'.

Why do we like flails? They may be pricey with the chain to forge and balance, but they deal 2d4 instead of the 1d8 of the cheaper morningstar.

I folded Pike, Halberd and Flail into "Polearm" - Because they are all the frigging same anyway.

There is more, but the bottomline is that there is a point to choosing the different weapons from this table now. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

1-page rules summary of 5e / Into the Unknown (B/X-5e Hack)

Once you boil 5th edition of D&D down a bit, it is actually a very simple game. So much so that you can outline the basics of the whole and all the needed terms in one page. So I went ahead and did that for Into the Unknown, since the aim of this 5e hack is to make it as simple and easy to play as B/X was - But using the more streamlined and balanced engine of 5e.

Only real variances here from 5e are use of the term "magic-user" instead of wizard and "Proficiency area" instead of "Skills"

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Magic-User & Priest write-ups for "Into the Unknown" (B/X-5e hack)

I've already shared write-ups for the Halfling [Race-as-class]Fighter & Rogue classes and Book 2: Playing the Game for my B/X-inspired 5e hack, Into the Unknown. Without further ado, here are write-ups for the last two core classes.

Here, I am making use of the categorisation employed from OD&D all the way to 2nd edition - of later classes, such as druids, being sub-classes of the four main classes. Except, I've simplified the distinction even more and not even made them sub-classes but different class features.

So sorcerers, warlocks and wizards are all the same class. The magic-user class feature only shows up at 1st and 2nd lvl and basically just defines how a magic-user learns spells. I feel each feature is still very thematically distinct without needing to be separate classes.

With the priest class, I am stretching this a lot more - as druid/cleric as class feature shows up on a lot of levels and they could work just as well as separate classes.

Still, I think there is merit in doing it this way - it gives a good framework for designing new class features as a way of expanding the core classes (mystics and anti-clerics, for example. Psionicist should be simple enough to adapt from magic-user/sorcerer as well). Considering how difficult it is to build a class from scratch in 5e, having this simple framework to refer to is one of the big strengths of Into the Unknown for creating new class concept.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Ability modifiers: 5e vs B/X progression (+musing on power levels in 5e)

We reached 5th level in our D&D campaign last session. Wow, that is a significant step up in the power curve in 5e. 7th level ought to map well enough to the 'superhero' title of OD&D I reckon. We (two battlemasters and a paladin) went up against some 'Varl' that our DM estimated to be of medium difficulty. Curbstomped in the first round. He was faltering by the time my paladin was ready to roll 4d8+2d6+6 for smiting. Didn't even have time to make my extra attack for another 4d8+6 before I had chopped his head off. DM trying not to have his jaw drop at how easy that was for us.

We've had lots of fun at levels 1-4 though. Vulnerable at times, but not too vulnerable. We all had some nice moves and badass moments yet threats were tangible. 5th level feels like we're now consistently baddass. So that is probably my rule of thumb for 5e's implied setting. 1st/2nd - Trained and well above average person but nonetheless mundane. 3rd/4th level - Genuine hero. 5th level: Bruce Willis has walked into the room. Proper badass.

The Thing is totally a 5th level barbarian

The immense playability of levels 1-4 is probably the biggest thumbs up I can give to 5e. I'd be happy to play characters of this level any time. It feels challenging, suitably heroic at times, but not superheroic. Which is, to me, what any levelled character should feel. We've ignored the XP chart for a slower progression - I feel like 5e as written is a bit too much in a hurry to get characters out of the bottom levels. 3rd and 4th level in particular feels like a sweet spot that you could spend more time at than the XP chart suggests. 

Anyway, on to what I really wanted to talk about....


Someone asked in the comments recently why I wasn't using B/X modifiers instead of 5e's for Into the Unknown. It's compelling in some ways - It's lower numbers, which is good. But the B/X progression is also a bit arbitrary and doesn't play too well with other parts of 5e.

Over on Methods & Madness, Eric Diaz was musing on numbers and level of detail people can easily process a while back. This strikes a cord with me, especially as simplicity is a large part of the project of making Into the Unknown as a b/x-y 5e hack.

Having seven degrees of outcome or progression is just so neat (worst, worse, bad, neutral, good, better, best) - It's intuitive and easy to remember. 

But for me, it more significantly means that the numbers map to something you can immediately relate to in the world. For example, a STR progression could go like this:

0-2 -3 Weakest
3-5 -2 Weaker
6-8 -1 Weak
9-11 0 Medium
12-14 +1

15-17 +2

18-20 +3


A person with 13 in Strength instinctively has an idea of how strong he is in the imaginary world. He is "strong." and he gets a +1 to Strength rolls as a result. 

The fact that numbers can map to an in-world natural scale is to me a big deal towards making the game simple and easy to understand. It makes the numbers more than just numbers. 

I like it so much I am thinking of incorporating it Into the Unknown. Pros of it:
  • Giving numbers in-world meaning that is easy to understand
  • Lower numbers is generally good for an easy and simple approach
  • The scale of the 'bounded accuracy' is like a happy medium between 5e B/X.
    It also keeps the old-school standard of 18 being the human best, whilst honoring the 5e standard of 20 being the human best.
Some big cons though
  • Harder to calculate on the fly. 5e's "drop 10 and halve the rest" is pretty easy to calculate in your head. This uses a range of 3 per increment for ability modifiers - at that point, you'll want a table to look it up.
    Mitigator: Players will only need to do this when entering the modifier on their sheet.
  • Ability gains are a big part of levelling up in 5e. Tampering with this makes the progression assymetrical, encouraging math games to figure out how to best allocate your two point gain. Bad.
  • Reduced 5e compatability - This is the big one. It means that a regular 5e character won't be able to join an ItU table without recalculating his modifiers. It also means DMs will have to recalculate everytime they are using stock 5e material on NPCs and critter. Bad bad bad.
I don't know. It's a lovely idea, but hard to see how to bring into this game in an elegant manner.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Fantasy Map Review VII: Erce

For links to all instalments in this series, go here.

Final instalment in my review series of classical maps is my own - The Mythlands of Erce! The main large map is more or less finished by now.

It would seem a bit puerile to review what I like and don't like about my own map, so I am just going to talk a bit about what I am trying to do with it, the process and how I feel about the result.

One of the touches I am pretty happy with (and which really helped me figure out the proper scale of symbols as well) is that this is actually a hex map. Each mountain is a hex, woodlands border to hexes, albeit lazily, so do hills, etc. So this can actually be used a table, players can be told what hex they are in and see what can of primary terrain it has, calculate overland travel, etc (I didn't go for hexes for the seas because imo, sea travel is almost always a pointcrawl anyway).

I feel like I have to show a slightly different rendition to give a clearer idea of how the map divides:

Five different regions, each with it's own theme and outlook to run different types of campaigns (the savage marches being the primary one for old school exploration).

Besides the OSR sandbox area, I wanted a big ol' north at the top to give a sense of vast unexplored wilderness that man could not possibly hope to map or ever fully explore. I wanted a 'kingdoms' region, where players could visit 'that king', 'that queen' and maybe get themselves involved in some politics, or even win a throne, with the Old Lands being the kind of decadent southern S&S lands Conan might find himself in.
The final one, the Hinterlands, was more of an afterthought than the others. I wanted a buffer between the more medieval, knightly, hearthstone lands and the byzantian old lands. I also wanted some open-ended territory that was less empty than the eastern marches. Basically a 'dump other cool stuff here' region.

I made it in GIMP and pretty much learned everything about map-making in GIMP from this one map. Here are some of my early renditions in GIMP to show the learning curve:

Once you get into this and start appreciating different layer effects, colour schemes, etc it's amazing how time you can spend adjusting a map to get just the right 'feel' of a map. And don't even get me started on font choice! The gimp file has 40 layers and is 500 MB in size. The lovely thing about that is that I can re-spin the map for different purposes (such as the regional rendition above) so easily with that level of layering. And with the size of it (6000x4000 pixels), I can even just crop parts of it and relatively quickly blend them into full-sized regional or country maps. For example, like this:

Would be equally simple to hide features on it for player maps as well. It's not just a map - the gimp file is like a campaign tool.

I've played with less satured faded versions, more saturated, more 'realistically' looking. In the end, I settled with what I think is a nice blend between old painted look with a bit of depth and enough colour to give it some life when looking at it. This map has been years underway. I probably made my first hand drawn draft a decade ago. Looking at it now in what is basically its final version leaves me feeling pretty proud that a guy like me, who never had an artful bone in his body, was able to make that from scratch.

I can't wait to print it out in full size on proper paper.