Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Review: Ba5ic

On reddit, I was alerted to another 05R game, BA5IC, an OSR adaptation in 54 pages that was released in October and is PWYW. I shelled out the recommended 2 bucks and decided to have a look. I will do a basic review and also compare it a bit to Into the Unknown and 5TD.

tl;dr - A whiteboxed Epic 6 treatment of 5e that has some good stuff in it, but ends up looking a bit more like the author's heartbreaker than a fullfledged game.

Presentation & First Impressions:

Clocking in at 54 pages in letter format (23,000 words), this is another candidate that goes even slimmer than whitebox. The layout has generous whitespace on the outside, a bit too much for my liking considering the narrow space between columns and slightly cramped space between paragraphs. It is not so much worse than Into the Unknown in this regard though, but still a noticeable difference coming from 5TD's generous spacing on every page.
Still the layout is mostly neat, paragraphs mostly don't bleed on to new pages (or columns, even) and most of what you want to be able to see in a single pagespread, you do see. All in all, a nice and usable layout for the table.

With its slim volume, I first thought this was perhaps another whitebox treatment of 5e, but that doesn't seem quite right. Nor is it B/X. It strikes me more as something more akin to a mix between whitebox and Holmes Basic as an introductory game perhaps? This is underlined by how it goes only to 6th level. But in other areas, it clearly is more of a whitebox game, as we shall see in its monster treatment. More on this later.

The first two pages give us a very brief introduction and then a handy page of definition of terms. Then its off to chargen.

Rule stuff:

We get your usual three classic races+human, and only three very broadly defined classes - The adept (the spellcasting class), Warrior and Expert. Where Into the Unknown uses 1st level Class features and 5TD uses 3rd level archetypes to pay homage to the wealth of 5e classes weeded out, Ba5ic uses backgrounds. I like this a lot. It's probably my favourite way of 'kitting' the 3 or four base classes with the flavour of later classes, that I've seen so far.
After reading that, my head is toying with the idea of an 'unearthed arcana' class structure for Into the Unknown using this framework (though I think I'd take the feat currently baked into the class feature choice and assign it to the 'kit' background to give it this customisation choice a bit more oomph).

Spells are quite limited. Even though the game goes to 6th level, spells cap at 2nd level and there are only two of those (and six 1st level spells). A sidebar later on explains that this is to help the referee control what magic looks like in their world and that they should feel free to pull in whatever they like and want from 3rd party supplements. Although I wholly agree with the principle of it, I dislike the tendency towards making games requiring 3rd party support from the outset, also found in 5TD.

Unlike 5TD, Ba5ic is meant to be fully compatible with 5e. This is not true for the classes though and I am a bit confused with what the author is going for here. 1st level characters get an extra hit die, adepts recover all spell slots with a mere short rest. Opposite direction of the more old school take 5TD went with.

Experts seem to vastly outshine Warriors as they both have d8s for hit dice, both get extra attack at 6th level and the expert can do loads of extra actions as bonus actions, whilst the warrior gets +2 to hit and a second wind. All in all, class builds strike me as the most significant change from 5e. Without having seen them in play, I frankly find it hard to tell from reading how they work out at the table.

Anyway, a lot of the stuff that comes next is straight up 5e, such as equipment, weapons, adventure stuff like light, vision, movement, encumbrance, short & long rest, until we come to:

Encounters. Here we get an old school take on surprise, random encounters and time in the dungeon progressing in 10 minute sequences and 1 day in the wilderness. This feels a bit too brief and tacked on to me, but I am biased here given how ItU takes pain to try and make a timekeeping system that integrates long and short rests with resource management etc. into the dungeon/wilderness unit of time.

The combat system is as per 5e, with a few sections on movement, underwater combat and such taken out.

Monsters get an interesting 'whiteboxy' treatment, in that we get a list of stuff monsters in general can do and then tables of monster stats sorted by challenge rating, with no further description and a sidebar explaining that this leaves the referee free to come up with descriptions and so forth. I like it. This is the right kind of stimulant for old school creativity to insert into a 5e old schooler.

In a novel move, XP has simply been discarded and levels advancement is based on number of adventures completed. This feels more like a reflection of how people end up playing 5e when XP for killing monsters is (rightfully) discarded.

And here we also learn that the game actually caps at 6th level, making this an Epic 6 implementation of 5e. Curious, but interesting.

We get a basic treasure awarding mechanic, which is fine since the game doesn't use Gold=XP anyway and a small basic/dull garden variety list of magic items (sword +1, bag of holding etc from the SRD).

Then, in an unexpected homage to Holmes Basic, we get a sample hexcrawl wilderness and a sample dungeon, with nice encounter tables, each on a two page spread. I like this a lot.

Final Impressions:

This review maybe ends up harsher than I expected from the outset.
Despite being broadly compatible with 5e, this is something sufficiently different from 5e that it is worth making (*cough* dungeonesque *cough*). Yet, what is it? A whiteboxed epic 6 version of 5e that is somewhat old school, yet in other departments goes its own way in ways that are a bit... neither here nor there. This gives it more the character of a heartbreaker thrown together with nice format and layout than a game that really knows what it wants to be.

As with 5TD, though it impresses on the brevity, I feel the price of brevity is too costly. Though this is more of a standalone game than 5TD, it still feels a bit incomplete. Or perhaps moreso - lacking in focus.

If this were reworked into a proper introductory game that spends some more pages explaining what an old school game is and how to use this to learn the old school way, telling the reader more clearly what it wants to be and why it is the way it is (some of the sidebars do a good job of it, but I want more), maybe even going full Basic with "what is a roleplaying game" handsholding, this could be something really really good. As it is, it is... interesting, but in a way that makes me more excited about a potential new edition than the current one.

Get this if: You want a whiteboxed version of 5e with E6 baked in. Or want to check out the neat take on backgrounds.

Don't get this if: You don't want that. But really, it's PWYW so check it out. If you find anything of use, go back and pay the recommended 2 dollar tip.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Comparison: Five Torches Deep vs Into the Unknown

It's time for the.... Battle of the 05R games! Into the Unknown squares up against Five Torches Deep and we take a look at how these two games differ and what they have in common.

Introductory remarks:

As I summarised in the review post on 5TD, If Into the Unknown is a 5e adaptation that seeks to emulate the "non-advanced" B/X style of play, then 5TD is the 5e equivalent of S&W Whitebox, an even lighter retroclone than the famously brief B/X.

This difference is evident in word count. Into the Unknown clocks in at 133,000 words (B/X had 113,000). Significantly less than the 'Advanced' version of 5e it compares itself to (the 5e PHB & DMG together clock in at 410,000 words, add in the Monster Manual and it probably comes to around 600,000 words). 
Meanwhile 5TD has a mere 18,000 words (whitebox, for comparison, has 33,000).

So what do you get for the difference here? The most obvious are number of monsters and spells. 5TD has a one page spread with six monsters. ItU has a dedicated book of 64 digest-sized pages. ItU has a dedicated 54 page digest-sized spellbook. 5TD gets the job done in 4 pages. Monsters in particular is something you'd probably need 3rd party supplements for when running 5TD. Since both use gold for xp and morale, and ItU's monster book has both morale scores and treasure types for all monsters, the ItU monster book seems like a good fit for this.

Overall, 5TD seeks to be the slimmest possible version of an OSRed 5e geared towards wilderness exploration and dungeon crawl (limiting itself to 48 in letter format pages was a design goal for 5TD). Although this makes it somewhat inaccessible to those who are not already familiar with both 5e and OSR-style gaming and demands use of 3rd party material, it nonetheless succeeds at putting a body of rules ready for the table play in very accessible format and layout in just 48 pages.

In contrast, ItU seeks 'merely' to be a significantly lighter OSRed version of 5e geared towards wilderness exploration and dungeon crawl, but one that is still a full-fledged standalone game that should give game tables the same tools to run a campaign as B/X originally did (for comparison, my design goal was to keep book 1 at 50 digest sized pages or less. It came to 52 in the end as it would have been too much compromise to reach that goal).
So ItU has a more thorough treatment of what old school play is and how to run games and campaigns accordingly. Same as B/X it has rules sections on how to make a dungeon (and run a dungeon) and settlement (and running urban phases of play) and, oddly enough, is the only game I know of that has comprehensive chapters on how to design and run a hexcrawl. Despite the popularity of hexcrawls in the OSR-sphere, there aren't actually many rulesets that tell you how to do it.


5TD shares the same design vision as I went for with ItU in regard to layout: That the text should be optimised for easy scanning and use at the table. ItU splits the rules into 5 digest sized booklets, to help avoid too much fighting over who is using what book at the table. 5TD doesn't need that, as it is comparable in size to each of the booklets (except book 2).

In terms of the layout and design overall, I think %TD succeeds better at this. Its paragraphs are less cramped than I ended up having in Into the Unknown, easier to scan.
Below are some examples of roughly equivalent sections in first Into the Unknown and 5TD (note that ItU is digest sized and 5TD letter sized):

Introducing the core mechanic in ItU

Overview of combat actions in ItU

The Core Mechanic in 5TD - note the generous sidebar with example

Some basic mechanics in 5TD

Rule stuff:

This will be a dense overview of differences, but I hope it give you a detailed impression of how the two games approach their common task in different ways.

The Commonalities:

Both games are based on 5e and simplify the 5e chassis a great deal to achieve an old school style of play.

Both games  shave down the number of classes to a basic four and both implement a class choice to pay token homage to the variety of classes found in 'advanced' 5e (fx. Itu has a Class Feature choice at 1st level that let Magic-users choose between Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock, 5TD has an archetype choice at 3rd level that give Mages similarly named options).

Both games have ditched feats and the skills system in favour of an even looser and more broadly defined 'proficiency area/check' system.

Both games are explicitly designed to support wilderness and dungeon exploration and what they add of rules to the game are all geared towards this aim. Neither game shies away from using more modern mechanics to achieve this goal (for example, in tracking encumbrance.

Both have rules for henchmen.

Both games are geared towards procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. So they both have reaction rolls, morale rolls and so forth (more about some of these procedures below).

Both games have level progression tables closer to old school numbers (5TD approximating the Wizard xp progression, ItU based on the Thief progression table) and use gold=xp for awarding XP.
Both limit the available levels to 10 and 9 respectively.

The Differences:

5TD (incidentally, following white box on this) has race distinct from class and offers the classic three demi-humans.
ItU, following B/X, has race-as-class as an optional rule and offers the classic three demi-humans as class options.

ItU has full compatibility with 5e as a design goal. Thus the classes are designed to be fully balanced against characters designed with the 5e PHB and vice versa and basically the game uses similar math.
5TD departs from this to have classes be significantly lower powered than their 5e counterparts and more similar in this way to TSR-era D&D and ditches backgrounds. It also flattens the overall maths of the game even more than 5e.

Likewise for compatibility purposes, a lot of rules in ItU are taken straight from 5e, with the main difference to 5e being terser presentation and clarity of when to use the rules (fx. exhaustion, hiding, light & vision, traps, conditions and the combat rules).

In contrast, 5TD has its own simpler rules for traps, stealth, light and exhaustion.

In what is perhaps the biggest departure from 5e, 5TD radically simplifies the combat system. Gone are bonus actions, or having a suite of standardised actions to take, along with rules opportunity attacks, two-weapon fighting, unarmed combat, cover, being prone, creature size, initiative rolls, underwater/flying/mounted combat. In its place, we get a simpler range definition (close, ranged, far) and a declaration that if one side is wildly superior in combat, no rolls are needed. Less than 2 letter-sized pages all in all.

In contrast, ItU follows 5e but focuses on condensing and clarifying all the combat rules to a mere 12 digest sized pages with clearer layout and organisation for use at the table.
Its new contributions are on the GM side - A new framework for encouraging and adjucating improvised moves in combat and distinct rules for retreats (both orderly and not) and chases and a 2 page discussion on how GMs can make combats more exciting.

ItU retains and condenses the 5e rules for breaking items, poisons, traps. 5TD has its own corruption mechanic for dealing with poison, disease etc and has a very basic handwaving mechanic for traps.

5TD has a simple "gold captured = xp" mechanic (I read 'captured' here as returned to safe camp, as 5TD also has a mechanic for returning to safe camp).
ItU only awards XP for gold spent on non-enhancing stuff (so no XP for gold spent on new armor and such) and takes the 5e Downtime framework and expands it into a "how to spend your gold between sessions" framework.

Following B/X, ItU has a stronger focus on time-tracking in the dungeon and wilderness than 5TD. It departs from B/X with a modern take on time-tracking, by rolling resource-management and procedural encounter generation into the same mechanic and applying the same time-advancing mechanic to all phases of play (dungeon, wilderness & downtime), basically making wilderness and downtime more explicitly turn-based the same way dungeon exploration is in B/X.

On the other hand, 5TD puts more focus on the resource management aspect of the game, introducing new modern mechanics for supply and load, with rules for foraging, equipment damage, repair and crafting tying into this.

ItU adapts and expands the basic overland travel pace system of 5e into a fullblown hexcrawling system, tied into its time-tracking mechanic. 5TD uses its own basic overland travel system, with its own time-tracking system and a nice mechanic for returning to safe camp.

I mentioned both rules favour procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. Since 5e has very little of this, it is perhaps not surprising that the two games manner of implementing this differ.

Both have Morale - ItU morale lifted straight from B/X and its main contribution here is adding in morale scores to all creatures in the monster book.
5TD has a simple and elegant morale calculator based on wis mod+proficiency bonus+HD against a d20 roll.
Both have reaction rolls. ItU uses a modernised version of B/X reaction rolls, whilst 5TD has its own d20 mechanic.
On a personal note, I would never use a d20 for morale and reaction rolls as I'd want a bell curve for this to make it less swingy.

5TD has an excellent 4 page spread for creating new monsters on the fly and a sample of six pre-generated monsters.
Meanwhile ItU has 5 pages dedicated to procedural generation of new magic items and another five pages of pre-generated items.

Finally, ItU comes with 10 extra pages on how to make new tables, make rulings and houserule your game to suit your needs.

The last point I want to discuss is spellcasting. ItU simplies 5e spellcasting system a little bit and shortens the spell list somewhat (but not overly so) to a more manageable number, but its main contribution is making spell descriptions a lot shorter and terser, as opposed to the overly detailed boardgamey spell descriptions of 5e.

5TD, in its secondmost radical departure from 5e, has one page for arcane spells and another for divine spells. Five spells per spell level, each get two lines of description and that's it. The more I look at this, the more I like it. This is a proper open-ended magic system (the open-endedness is balanced against a spell failure mechanic).

Because let's face it - 5e spells are boring as fuck. They've solved the linear-fighter-quadratic-wizard problem by making spellcasting a wholly utilitarian boardgamely-constricted affair. That is to say, taking all the magic out of it.
Spellcasters in TSR era D&D had limited and more difficult opportunities for casting spells, but where the casting of spell could radically alter a given situation. In 5e, spells are easier to cast and can be used far more frequently. In contrast, spells are weighted more in the direction of influencing situations as opposed to radically altering them. This to me takes most of the flavour out of spellcasting in 5e.
And ItU more or less follows suit on this (I chose to do so in full knowledge of my own dissatisfaction with the system). Which is why I like that 5TD have gone towards a much more open-ended system that demands creativity from spellcasters. I'd also offer up Wonder & Wickedness as an alternative level-less spell system that I think could work well. In the future, I'd love to make an alternative spellbook for ItU (or several) that offers an OSR take on spellcasting for 5e, even moreso than what TSR D&D managed, which still has plenty of bland utilitarian spells (deliver us from Spider Climb and Magic Missile).

Final Impressions:

Although both systems get mentioned as candidates for those seeking lighter OSR versions of 5e, it should be clear from this comparison that their design goals and ways of implementing a fundamentally similar vision are quite different in scope and execution. Recommendation? Get both and take what you like from them. :)

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Review: Five Torches Deep

When I first learned of Five Torches Deep, it was seeing their kickstarter launch just as I was preparing to release Into the Unknown and I was wondering just how much overlap there was going to be between this 'O5R' game and my own.

After reading Robot Goblin's comparative review of both systems, I decided to pick up the pdf and do a review of it myself. I will of course be comparing it to Into the Unknown as well, but will leave that for a follow-up post. Without further ado, let's go:

tl;dr - a "whitebox" style adaption of 5e. Even slimmer than whitebox, it is missing essential parts for running a full game, but wins out with superb layout and usability at the game table.

Presentation & First Impressions:

Five Torches Deep (hereafter 5TD) is a 5e-inspired OSR system in a mere 49 pages. Despite its short page count, it doesn't skimp on rich full color art, makes generous use of whitespace, has large fonts and a dedication to small and easily scannable sections that makes it pleasurable and easy to read.

The pdf is an unconventional landscape letter format, which looks very nice on my desktop monitor. It also has "digital spreads" which look even better on my wide screen and a 15x26.6 inch version optimised for tablet use. Really nice touch. Of the 49 pages, 17 of them are full page art, or table of content, quick reference sheets of previously explained rules and character sheet. So the game itself (or, the digital version I am basing this review on) is a mere 32 letter pages in landscape letter format.

One way it achieves its extreme brevity is skimping in places. Its rule sections on reaction rolls could have used another paragraph or two. There's no magic items, only six monsters and no equipment list. Traps are glossed over. For a gold=XP system, the lack of any treasure tables stands out as well.

The major criticism I have of 5TD is that it is not a standalone game. It basically assumes you have already played 5e and requires use of 3rd party material since due to the lacks mentioned above.

Rule stuff:

Compared to 5e. we get four races (elf, dwarves, halflings, humans), four classes (warrior, thief, zealot, mage), xp=gold and a slower XP progression table. Morale and reaction rolls are back and everything is simplified and the math made even flatter. Old. School. As. Fuck.

5TD does not seek to be fully compatible with 5e. It uses old school ability modifiers and generally blends the 5e math with B/X math. It is quite transparent about this, to its credit.

You can customise the four basic classes a little bit with your choice of archetype at 3rd level, which basically substitute for the wealth of classes in 5e (archetypes for the zealot, for example, are cleric, druid and paladin). 

Starting HP is a bit lower than 5e. The good stuff you get as you level up is much more pared down compared to 5e (except warriors, the stars of the game, who get 3 attacks at 9th level).

Combined with old school ability modifiers, it makes characters more squishy than their 5e counterparts, especially at lower levels, which should suit most old schoolers just fine.

Some of the class choices strike me as a bit odd. Zealots are proficient in all armor. Druids in heavy plate is a thing. Thieves can use all weapons, but only light armor. Watch our for the greatsword-wielding rogue in leather armor. But thieves in this game are much like in OD&D - they shine mostly out of combat and have little to do with the skirmisher rogue from 5e. 
Overall, it is a class chassis that invites homebrewing on and I mean that as a compliment.

Skills are replaced with vaguely defined but terse and to the point proficient checks, much like proficiency areas in ItU but terser. Works as it should and makes me wish I had been more terse in implementing proficiency areas in ItU.

Its combat system is very pared down. There is an active action, movement and a quick action. That's it. Usable I suppose, but perhaps not very fun if you are not used to running imaginative and descriptive combats where the rules just resolve your described actions. Fine if you are an experienced old schooler, but I would have wished for a bit more hands-holding here.

Its spell section is among the briefest of any system anywhere, and is perhaps most comparable here to S&W Light. Basically a page spread for arcane casters and another for divine casters, with five spells per spell level and no more than two lines of description per spell. On one hand, this seems too little (it also gives guidelines for how to import spells from 5e). On the other, it is a tantalising invitation to the kind of whitebox style of play 5TD seems to go for - They describe the bare essentials of each spell and looking at them, I am inclined to think it is good enough for playing the game with a DM comfortable making rulings and letting wizards be inventive with the rest.

New rule stuff:

Paring down a game to make it lighter and faster is in itself a simple exercise and 5TD does well enough on this to achieve its aims. What is more interesting and says more about the kind of game it wants to be is the rules added to its slimmed down framework. And here there are some very interesting innovations:

As compensation for not having statted out monsters, it somehow manages to pack a monster creation system into its 32 pages which is excellent and worth the price of admission alone. I will be referencing this section in my own games going forwards.

5TD simplifies encumbrance (I especially like its elegant gradual loss of speed and wish I had thought of it myself). And from here 5TD further develops gives an interesting and modern take on a resource management focused game:

Intelligence determines your (re-)supply rate, with rules for foraging, durability and repairs adding into it. This sets a clear tone of an exploration game with well defined boundaries for resources and how to mantain and manage them.

Using INT in this way ties into the design goal of no dumb stats. CHA for example, determines how many magic items you can attune to and how many henchmen you can retain. All characters have a use for every ability score.

We get rules for returning from the dungeon to safe camp which is a lovely touch. Simple resilience/exhaustion mechanics and solid overland travel rules that builds 5TD further as an exploration game. There are also simple and elegant rules for renown, which is nice.

The running the game section gives some brief and decent advice for how to run adventures along with some helpful tables for getting things flowing. Alongside the monster generation tables, morale and reaction rolls being back

Final Impressions:

If Into the Unknown is a 5e adaptation that seeks to emulate the "non-advanced" B/X style of play, 5TD is the 5e equivalent of S&W Whitebox - Extremely pared down, too slim for newbies to just pick up and play, but a welcome basic platform for old school tables that don't want the rules to get in the way and are confident of adding what they need or like on top ad hoc. 

What it adds to this is an emphasis on using this slimmed down 'whitebox' version of 5e is a resource-management game of wilderness and dungeon exploration with an emphasis on procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. So overall, a very old school re-make of 5e.

The major criticism I have is that you can't run this game without having to supplement with stuff like monsters, equipment and treasure tables from other games. 

Which is a shame, as they strike me as very low hanging fruits for a game that could easily add a dozen pages without losing any of its slim lightweight character. The game is simply too pared down as a standalone game. A few comparisons on word count:
  • PHB & DMG 5e: 410,000
  • Into the Unknown: 133,000
  • B/X: 113,000 words
  • White Box S&W: 33,000
  • Five Torches Deep: 18,000
When your game is nearly half the word count of the game that is renowned for its brevity and lightness, I think a case can be made for being too lightweight. S&W Whitebox spends 15,000 words on having a basic equipment list, a generous monster list and good magic item selection. So basically the difference in length between the two systems.

Get this if: You're old school gamers who'd like to take 5e for a pared down light and fast old school whirl and are comfortable filling in the blanks yourself. Or if you would like to steal some nice modern mechanics for old school games. I am in the latter category, will definitely be stealing stuff from this and am happy with the $10 investment.

Don't get this if: You don't like old school games or are new to gaming.

Overall, a welcome addition to the O5R sphere. It is exciting to me that we are seeing old school spin-offs of 5e. I see a lot of old school bloggers who happily ran labyrinth lord or Sword&Wizardry, but are now running old school games with 5e. I'd love for them to start picking the 5e spin-offs like 5TD and Itu that are actually adapted for old school play.

next up - A more in depth (and possibly subjective) comparison between Into the Unknown and Five Torches Deep!