Monday, May 21, 2018

Back to B2

Lady-love wanted to play some D&D this weekend, something quick and dirty without much prep. So she rolled up a gnome wizard botanist/inventor and I dusted off good ol' B2: Keep on the Borderlands.

I don’t remember the last time I ran this module. It was absolutely back in the 20th century. Shock and surprise: it holds up really, really well. I considered giving it an early Iron Age feel but didn’t pull the trigger on that; might still, but might not, also.

The opportunities for RP are excellent. Our PC fell in with a certain visiting priest and his two acolytes; if you know the adventure you know the fellow I’m talking about. Plot-balls are already rolling nicely.

The adventure badly needs a set of player maps. Of course the first thing PCs with access to the sleep spell are going to do is capture some goblins and interrogate them. It could also benefit from some NPCs or NPC generators. But maybe not; I’ve got access to so many of the things they’re hardly necessary.

The bare-bones structure also creates minor issues. The Caves of Chaos are insanely close to the Keep; even with my saying the CoC crew plans to take over the Keep and move in, the distance is frightfully small. There are some questions about the diets of the monsters, where they came from, how the location calls out to them, but if you’re a halfway decent DM that’s just opportunities for world-building. Ditto with the lack of names and interior details.

All-in-all, I’m really happy with how it runs even after all these years. We’re using 5e and not having a hard time at all with the conversion. Once again I’m tempted to run an old-school game with Moldvay/Cook built on old published adventures. Maybe if we find a group after the upcoming move.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Down-time Ding!

I recently dropped GP-for-EXP in one of my 5e games. It works great until about level 5. At that point, on a 1-for-1 basis, it starts getting silly. 6th level requires 14,000 EXP. I was saying PCs get 1 EXP for each gold piece they spent, and they could spend it on anything they wished. Unfortunately, 14,000 gp is insane. That’s individual, not total, so if four players pooled that kind of cash (56,000 gp) they could buy two warships, five longships, 50 spyglasses, 140 warhorses, 280 elephants, 1,000 camels, or 746 hand crossbows. Which would be great if the PCs were trying to start the world’s biggest circus or bankroll a small war. But keep in mind that this is only going from 5th to 6th level. Each character going from 9th to 10th level would need to spend 64,000 EXP, so its more than each of the things listed above before they’d pool their money.

Now, it’s entirely possible to organize a game to work with these sorts of numbers. According to the DMG, 5th through 10th level play is described as “Heroes of the Realm” tier play, so you could totally have the PCs involved in political shenanigans that would warrant those sorts of expenses: outfitting mercenary forces to supplement their liege lord’s border defenses against a rampaging orc horde, for instance, or an expeditionary force to a distant and exotic locale. From 11th to 16th level (“Masters of the Realm”) the PCs could be funding their own colonies on the edge of the wilderness old-school style and paying the upkeep on their own personal armies. And that’s a fun way to play, and fit our expectations of the game back in ‘80s. So yes, I think 1 EXP earned for each gold piece spent can work. But it does require the campaign to scale up sharply as the PCs level up.

Unfortunately, the campaign in question was a far more intimate thing, dealing with the politicking of neighborhoods and guilds. Granted, this was in a massive city, and reading about the history of the Roman Republic (Amazon Associates link) has given me some ideas on how the gold could have been spent to further that sort of play. In fact, studying this more closely I’m now kinda jonesing to run a game with that sort of structure. But that’s not how things were set up for this particular campaign, or how we’ve been playing the game. So it’s gone off the rails and I now reward levels on a completely subjective basis.

So yeah: new ideas for a new campaign. What’s new, right? 😉 But alternatively, I’ve also been tinkering with an alternative leveling-up system that would keep things on the small and intimate side. This system would allow the PCs to level up whenever they wanted (and could afford) to take the time. It would work like this:

Whenever the players wanted to level up their PCs, the PCs would have to spend at least one week preparing for and then actively studying/praying/communing with totems/etc. They would need to spend their normal costs-of-living amounts (bottom of page 157 in the PHB) plus 20 gp per level they wished to attain (so 100 gp to go from 4th to 5th level) per week. At the end of that week the player would roll a d20. If they rolled 20 or higher, the character leveled up.
If this isn’t the first time they’d spent a week trying to gain this level, they get to add +1 to the roll. For each two contiguous weeks they spend, they add another +1 (so spending four weeks in a row to gain a level gets you +2 on the roll). They might also get additional bonuses for having a mentor who is at least the level they wish to attain, special materials or the like.

Players can attempt to level-up their characters anytime they have the cash and time to do so. However, they must be in a relatively safe and civilized place, somewhere where they are not actively adventuring or traveling. Small, short events don't interrupt this training (getting mugged, attending a ball, rescuing kittens from trees), but being forced to travel more than six miles in a single day or spend most of a day in life-or-death situations (that isn't the training) will ruin it. Also, each week must be seven contiguous days of studying; it can't be broken up. Once the have leveled up, they can’t do so again for at least twelve weeks.

This sort of scheme absolutely demands down-time. If you run the sort of campaign where it’s a cliffhanger every week and players hop from crises-to-crises, this ain’t the leveling-up system for you. However, if you love slice-of-life sort of play, where you can actually delve into what else is happening during that down time (politics at the cleric’s temple, rivalries with warlock’s patron’s other warlocks, etc.) you can have a lot of fun with this sort of thing. If you want to slow things down and enjoy the scenery more, this is probably a good fit for your campaign.

The big caveat here, however, is with the random rolling it’s entirely possible you’ll end up with characters spread across levels, with high-rollers two or three or more levels advanced from the unlucky. You can absolutely weight things for those who’ve rolled poorly by offering them resources to help out. It might also make sense to extend the length of time that has to pass between a successful leveling-up and the next attempt in order to slow down the lucky. Or you can dictate that a character automatically succeeds if another PC is at least two levels higher than them.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Visual Summary of Hesep

This looks like a fun idea. So here we go...

From my current weekly campaign, I'm picking the city-state of Hesep. It's location, where a major river meets the ocean, makes it analogous to New Orleans in the US and Rotterdam in western Europe. Further adding to its cachet as a trading city are permanently open portals to the Elemental Planes of Earth, Water, and Air. It did not exist before the Wizards' War, but sits on a spit of the Dry Land, terrain raised from the ocean floor during the Siege of Port Entldon. It is currently ruled by a council of nine archons; six are shaitan (aka dao), two are marids (one of whom lives in an undersea palace guarding the gate to Water) and one djinni (who lives in a floating citadel above the city guarding the portal to Air). It's a massive place, home to nearly a million living beings. So let's start with the pictures!


The majority of the citizens are humans, but they wield little political or economic power in the city. While skilled craftsmen and merchants can do quite well for themselves, they are shut out of any direct political power by the genie folk.





Most farmers are slaves working on massive genie-owned plantations and truck farms.

Most of the city's soldiers and guards (which also operate as a police force) are mamluks, slave-soldiers, most of whom are hobgoblins.


PRIEST of Abzu


PRIESTESS of Ahmayru


Proper shaitan ladies, of course, never appear in public unveiled.

I'm going to stop here for now because I've already spent too much time on this. More later!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Would you Play D&D with E.L. James?

Noisms pokes at the latest of the culture-war’s tempests-in-teapot moments which distract from the really cool things going on.

For instance, if we take at face value the numbers from WotC and believe that “8.6 million Americans have played D&D in the last twelve months” and that we can apply the 38% of people playing D&D are female, then that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.27 million American women played D&D in the last twelve months.

3.27 million.

Let that number sink in for a moment.

Even if the real number is half that, and its only 1.6 million, that’s still one-freakin’-point-six million. If you think that only one-in-six folks playing D&D are female, that’s still 1.43 million.

There are, today, literally millions of women playing D&D. Think that’s going to have an effect on the hobby moving forward?

Those of you who’ve read me for a while are probably rolling your eyes already. Yeah, yeah, I’m a broken record. And yes, “gaming fantasy” is now a thing that most folks are exposed to before they begin playing D&D. But as Noisms points out, there’s been nothing stopping you from having gender-fluid elves in D&D before now. Hell, it’s been a running gag in Order of the Stick for the last 15 years. On the flip side, there’s nothing stopping you from having gender-determinist elves now. But I’ve had bisexual elves in my games since ’91 largely due to the women I was playing with at the time being fans of Mercedes Lackey and Marion Zimmer Bradley. There’s nothing more important, or influential, than the expectations and interests of the people at your table right now. And the number of potential players for your games has exploded.

Think any of these women are among those who’ve read the Fifty Shades books (35 million copies sold in the US)? How about a little Pride and Prejudice or, maybe more apropos, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series?

How many of the folks you played with five years ago had read those books? How many of the folks you play with today have read them?

It doesn’t stop there; WotC also claims 40% of folks playing D&D are college age or younger. Working from our 8.6 million number gives us 3.44 million. Think they’ve read Harry Potter? How many of them saw the LotR movies before they read the books? How many of them have any idea who Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are? Hell, how many of them, of any gender, have any idea who Mercedes Lacky or Marion Zimmer Bradley are?

Want to do something really fun and cool? Play D&D with someone whose experience of fantasy is shaped more by JK Rowling and Peter Jackson than Tolkien and Moorcock. Find a DM who wants to build a campaign world that’s “a little bit Throne of Glass mixed with GoT and Evans’ Brimstone Angels novels.” In short, find someone whose expectations of fantasy are different from yours and let them influence your play and rediscover these games all over again.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Golden Age Goes to 11

On Tuesday, March 13th, at the GAMA Trade Show, WotC announced that D&D 6e won’t be coming out any time soon.

Ok, that was not an official announcement. What they officially said was that 2017 was the biggest year for D&D ever. That they sold more copies of the 5e PHB in 2017 than they did the year it came out. That Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was the fastest selling product (I believe the word was “product” and not “book”) in D&D history.

In short, they’ve no reason right now to invest in a new edition. Everything is coming up roses (or, at least, as close to roses as things get for the publisher of D&D).

They also mentioned that Hoard of the Dragon Queen has been printed seven times (or was that seven reprints?). Reprints can be a mark of how badly a publisher predicts the popularity of a book as much as its popularity, but seven seems pretty large regardless.

Some other numbers they tossed out: 38% of all D&D players identify as female. 40% of all D&D players are college age or younger.

I don’t trust those percentages because I’m pretty sure they come from those polls they link to on their web site, so it’s very much a not-scientific poll. That said, it doesn’t appear they need to retool the game to appeal to a broader audience.

They blame live-streaming games like Acquisitions Incorporated and people publishing videos of themselves playing on Twitch. (More numbers they tossed out: over half of new players were inspired to play the game because they saw a live-streamed game.) Again, not entirely sure I buy it, but I also don’t have a more likely suggestion. (It would mean that another piece of conventional wisdom, that there’s nothing more boring than watching other people play D&D, has just been gored to death by reality. So that’s amusing to me.)

Now, admittedly, the GAMA Trade Show is where manufacturers and distributers are wooing stores to carry their product. Everyone’s going to paint as rosy a picture as they can. But everyone’s talking the same thing. The folks at Gale Force Nine talk about how spell cards are flying off the shelf. Folks at Monte Cook Games talk about how sales for Numenera and No Thank You Evil are rising. Numenera is a 5 year old game. That’s ancient for an RPG. It should be deep into its shrinking long-tail assuming it has one. Instead, they’re doing everything they can to reassure everyone that Numenera Discovery and Destiny are not a new edition. In normal times, they’d be at the point in the lifecycle where a new edition would make a lot of sense, assuming they wanted to keep the IP alive. Outfits that haven’t published RPGs before, like Renegade Game Studios, are getting into the market. Renegade is mostly known for family-style games like Clank! and The Fox in the Forest. This year they’re releasing three RPGs: the second edition of Outbreak: Undead, the Stranger Things inspired Kids on Bikes, and the high-concept Overlight.

But it’s the attitudes and interests of the retailers that is really telling. One couple told me their store went from sometimes having a Wednesday RPG group to having at least one group nearly every night. I saw another get excited when he learned that Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle Earth was written for 5e. If it’s compatible with D&D 5e, he wants it in his store.

Are we about to kill another bit of long-held conventional wisdom: that the boom days of the late-‘70s and early-‘80s are never to return? I don’t think it’s going to be that good, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong. We keep talking about it being a Golden Age for RPGers. Maybe we’ll soon need to be talking about a Platinum Age?

Friday, March 09, 2018

10 More Things

I’ve done this before but I’m happy to do it again. Besides, that was a number of campaigns ago.

The new campaign is called Ravished and Conquered Kingdoms. (Yes, the acronym is totally on purpose.) The elevator speech is:

There was a golden age when the arcane arts rose to such heights that everyone enjoyed lives of ease and luxury, their every whim catered to by magical constructs and enslaved magical beings. When those arts were repurposed for internecine war, the world was warped and nature corrupted. Now, the safest places to live are pockets carved out of the madness by genie folk and demons. Mortals must bow to their new overlords or scratch out an impoverished existence under constant threat by the sequela of the Wizards’ War.
As per Mr. Chenier's request, here are 10 Random Facts (that make the Ravished and Conquered Kingdoms setting totally unique):

The Stone Worm: during the Wizads’ War, the Stone Worm was the most powerful and infamous of the siege beasts. It was a magically mutated purple worm over 15 miles long and a mile wide. It was able to swallow entire villages whole and devastate armies. Romantic legend says an enslaved medusa defeated the Stone Worm by petrifying it with her gaze, risking her life to save her lover.

Those wise in the anatomy of both medusae and purple worms doubt the veracity of the popular legend. What is beyond dispute is that the Stone Worm was, in fact, turned to stone. The petrified guts of the worm now serve as passages beneath the massive chain of mountains known as the Pillars of the Sky. A cabal of dao princes claim most of the Stone Worm as their domain and use an army of enslaved dwarves to mine gems and precious metals from the beast. They’ve carved an entire city out of the upper portion, now inhabited by humans and the ogres the dao use to control their slaves. The lower portions of the worm serve as a crossroads for underground races, and it’s not unusual to find duergar, svirfneblin, and drow merchants trading the riches of the deepest parts of the world for resources from the surface. The tunnels the worm was eating out have been expanded as well, allowing for passage beneath the Pillars to the jungle empire of Asurali beyond.

Asurali: this realm of thick jungles is ruled by rakshasas and populated by humans, orcs, and goblins. While the maharaja of the port city of Kanlas is thought to be the richest person in the world, he is not the most powerful rakshasa in Asurali; that distinction goes to the mysterious emperor of Asurali, Asurak. Asurak is said to be a nine-headed rakshasa who rules from a mysterious palace hidden deep in the jungles. Some claim Asurak doesn’t really exist and is instead used as a focus for the anger of the peoples abused by the tyrannical rule of the rakshasa.

Cults of Juiblex: the land now covered by the Fungal Forest was once fertile fields that were the breadbasket for the world. The massive fungus, smuts, and molds that make up the forest constantly fill the air with spores that have strange and sometimes lethal effects on those who breath them. The Fungal Forest hosts an ongoing war between the cults of Juiblex and the cults of Zuggtmoy. The cults of Juiblex currently have the upper hand thanks to two innovations. The first is a suit of living slime that coats the wearer entirely and does a far better job of protecting them against the spores than the bulky protective gear worn by most others. The Juiblex cultists also mastered a spell that allows them to implant deadly slimes and puddings inside their agents. Should those agents be found out or turn traitor, the implanted slime or pudding is released, quickly devouring the agent from the inside out.

Speedy Sebat: the ruling genie-folk often use flying ships to travel over the magically ravaged lands. Among the fastest is the airship Sebat. Unlike most airships, Sebat is actually a giant magnolia tree, its woven roots forming the hull of the teardrop-shaped ship. Sebat’s dryad is a concubine of the ship’s owner, the dao prince Rashdan ibn Qabis.

Inhuman Justice: Rashdan’s father, Qabis ibn Rachim, is one of the nine archons who rule Hesep, perhaps the largest city in the world. Qabis considers himself a philosopher prince and his bailiwick in the city’s government is justice. While humans make up most of the nearly one million living inhabitants of Hesep, they have almost no part to play in its justice system. The rule of law is enforced by an army of hobgoblin mamluks loyal to Qabis. Judgement is passed down by altered spectators, the hideous beholder-kin a dangerous vestige of the Wizards’ War repurposed for service as impartial and incorruptible judges. The spectator judges are overseen by an androsphinx who serves as chief justice for the city-state. Qabis himself does not act as a judge himself, but spends his time tweaking the system of justice he’s created, studying old scrolls of philosophy, and partaking in the domestic joys of his extensive harem.

There Used to be Two Moons: before the Wizards’ War, there was a larger, green moon sister to the silver moon that still remains. The Wizards’ War was nearly won by a woman who called herself Moonglory. Her nastiest secret was a spell that allowed her to break the enchantments that enslaved genies, demons, and other creatures to the wills of her enemies. She was frequently hailed as a champion of the oppressed (though others contend that reputation was not deserved and she only fostered it for her own self-serving ends). When it was discovered that much of Moonglory’s magic was powered by the green moon, a cabal of her enemies performed an unprecedented ritual to destroy it. Moonglory was slain shortly afterwards. Today, all that remains of the green moon is a band of emerald dust arching across the night sky. The world’s calendar counts from the day the green moon was destroyed, the current year being 182 After Moon (AM).

The Dry Land: Near the end of the Siege of Port Entldon, terrible magics were unleashed that boiled away part of the sea and lifted the seabed. The combined magics pushed the shoreline 42 miles away from the port, exposing vast tracts of the seabed to the open air and destroying the merfolk city of Triaina. It’s said the stench ended the siege as much as the sudden loss of the port city’s strategic importance. The commanders of both sides involved went to their graves blaming the other for the tragedy. The major terrain feature of the Dry Land is a maze of dead coral that had once been an extensive reef.

The Ravenous Furze:
This is a giant forest-hedge of brambles. Tunnels, both natural and shaped, are the only way through it. It’s said that the Furze hungers for the flesh and blood of living creatures. What is known is that the brambles are spreading in all directions at the rate of a foot a year.

Swordsfall: during the Wizards’ War, the city of Tumpult was bombarded by a rain of giant glass-steel swords. Most of those swords shattered on impact, seeding the land with glass-steel shards and making it impossible to cultivate. Some of those giant swords still tower over the ruins.

I Love You (in Chains): among genie-kind, marriage is a matter of politics, used to build alliances, cement treaties, and create bonds and lines of communication between the powerful elementals. Love has no place in marriage. If you love someone, you kidnap them and make them a concubine (or concubinus if the kidnapee is male) in your harem. Genie culture is full of ballads, plays, and poems celebrating famous couples who forged their relationship via the tradition of kidnapping. Some of the most famous involve cat-and-mouse games of mutual attraction, with both seeking to gain the upper hand over, and the enslavement of, the other.

The Incredibly Talented K Yani is Doing Maps for Me:
and not only do they look amazing, they've also been the source of all sorts of new coolness, including the above-mentioned Swordsfall.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Diversity in the Dungeon

Guess what’s back? Quantum ogres! Only the folks talking about them may not know that term. And hey, straight up, I understand the appeal. Well, ok, I understand the heartbreak of pouring your soul into a thing only to have the PCs bypass it.

What I don’t understand is the notion that railroads save the DM time. Sure, you only have to prep stuff that will actually show up in the game, instead of all the different possibilities. But look at all the work that has to go in to that prep:

  • You have to accurately guess what the players are going to want to do at game time, often days or weeks in advance.
  • You have to make sure it’s balanced to the abilities of the PCs and the players (and, again, often days or weeks in advance).
  • And it needs to be entertaining because if it falls flat, you’ve got no Plan B.

Conversely, if you give players actual choices, you take a lot of the stress out of DMing. For instance, let’s suppose the PCs need to cross a massive chasm deep in the Underdark. Their options might include:

  1. A bridge guarded by duergar raiders.
  2. The magically labyrinthine alleys and shops of the Goblin Market.
  3. A trolls’ tea-party on a flying carpet.

Right there we’ve got all three pillars of 5e D&D. If the PCs want to fight, they can attack the duergar. If they’re more in the mood for exploration, the Goblin Market’s got them covered. And, finally, tea-parties with trolls are available if the players are in more of a social mood.

Instead of trying to guess what the players are going to want to do on a particular day, I give them options. Instead of trying to balance the encounters, I let the players decide how much risk they’re willing to take on. And if the option they pick turns out to not be as fun as expected, they can always go back and try one of the other paths.

Most importantly, instead of being the players’ dancing monkey, we’re all involved in creating a good time together. The DM is not the sole point of failure at which the whole thing falls apart or succeeds. Everybody at the table is invited to lift some of that weight and be responsible for their own good time.