Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Meditating on Jack Chick

The news that Jack Chick has passed away has been making its rounds around the blogosphere. Reactions range from the vindictive to the conciliatory. Personally, I wasn’t aware of Chick’s work or his influence on the Satanist Scare and D&D until much later in life when (ironically) the Christian faith I had rejected in my youth drew me back to actually playing the very game Chick warned would destroy my soul.

Believe it or not, I have no animosity towards Chick. In another odd twist, I am actually grateful to him. Despite the fact that I disagree with him on many issues, without Chick and his ilk openly challenging D&D, we would not have the OGL, the OSR or Hasbro putting D&D on the shelves in bookstores so that another generation can fire up the imagination in a way that only pen and paper RPGs can.

In the small picture, the Satanist Scare but TSR on the ropes. In the bigger picture, it led to a series of events that culminated in the OGL so that the game can never be taken away from us ever again.

This leads me to the main point of this post: freedom of speech. Jack exercised his right to publish his nonsense and try to convince a bunch of people that D&D was bad. In turn, others (including myself) have used our free speech to defend the game and to promote it in its various forms. To this day, people are free to decide who is more persuasive and which set of ideas is going to make their life better. I call that a win for everybody.

Unfortunately, there are a growing number of people out there that think limiting speech is a good idea. More and more people believe that they shouldn’t have to listen to ideas that challenge their own world-view. Frighteningly, there are also more people willing to use their influence and power to make that happen and to coerce, bully and forcibly shut people up.

We live in a Golden Age of RPGs specifically because of the freedom of speech that allowed Chick to voice his beliefs. Those beliefs force those of us who play this game to answer his challenges, to know this game better and to make this game better. As a consequence, we are all better for it.

For all those who think that it is okay to bully, coerce and forcibly shut people up because you disagree with them, this is a world-view that would have robbed us all of the game we know and love today. It may very well have also forced D&D into the dustbin of history.

I pray that the lesson we learn from Chick, his life and his death is not that his version of Christianity was bad, but rather that freedom of speech and the ability to be challenged by ideas that disagree with our own has made the world a better place.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Towards an Arnesonian XP System Without the Gold

Anyone familiar with my musings on how to run a campaign is well aware of my long love-affair with Arneson’s rule of 1 gp of treasure spent = 1 xp. It is genius and it is the mechanical engine that makes a sandbox-style game purr. Handing over agency to a group of players is one of the true pleasures I have as a Referee because it guarantees an experience that I cannot get by writing short stories, novellas or novels: utter surprise. I had no idea stirge meat was a delicacy in the Lost Colonies until my players decided to ask a friendly monster NPC to cook one up. To this day, this fact and all of the various consequences that are derived from this fact are some of my favorite features of the Lost Colonies campaign world.

There is, however, one glaring weakness in Dave Arneson’s xp house rule: it assumes a gold-based economy in a post-apocalyptic world where treasure hunting is an inexpensive but lucrative (if dangerous) endeavor. It won’t work in the Third Imperium. Whereas there is a lost, ancient civilization, the locations of these ruins are often tightly controlled secrets or in places that are cost prohibitive to get to. In addition, the stuff that can be found is generally cultural and/or scientific, not monetary.

One of the reasons B/X is the one RPG I would choose if I could only ever play one RPG for the rest of my life is because it best expresses (and allows for) the madness of a sandbox campaign and players armed with the near-complete agency Arneson’s xp rule grants. One of the reasons I don’t regularly Referee games like Traveller, Call of Cthulhu and Champions is that these genres and systems lend themselves much less easily to the sandbox campaign (not that they can’t).

The discussion that followed my most recent rant about 5e and xp got me thinking about how it might be possible to marry the madness of Arneson’s xp rule and a sandbox campaign to another genres where Arneson’s assumptions about the world do not or cannot exist.

At the root of this whole issue is player agency. The way in which Arneson’s rule empowers players to advance exactly how they want to is a marvel to behold. The surprise factor and the world-building and world-altering factors are huge. Therefore, here is a stab in the dark at a framework upon which to build an experience system that could potentially give me the same kind of satisfaction in other games and genres that I get from Arneson + B/X:

There are six different methods of earning experience:

  1. Party Campaign Goal: This is a task the players set for themselves as a group. The expected time necessary to complete this task should be around the 2-5 session mark. For example: The party decides that it wants to figure out where the Tomb of Horrors is located. This would have a value of 2(x) for each character where x is an arbitrary number used consistently throughout this thought experiment.
  2. Player Campaign Goal: This is a task that the player sets for their character alone. Again, this is something they should expect to take 2-5 game sessions to complete. For example: The ranger decides that he wants to take out 20 orcs, while the Magic-user wants to visit the Great Library in the Capital City. Again, this would have a value of 2(x).
  3. Party Mission Goal: Similar to the Party Campaign Goal, but is something the party wants to accomplish over the course of a single session. For example: The party wants to get to the Village of Sages in order to find out the most likely place to find a map associated with the Tomb of Horrors. This would have a value of (x) for each character.
  4. Player Mission Goal: Similar to the Player Campaign Goal, but is something the player wants to accomplish over the course of a single session. For example: The Cleric wants to cast three utility spells that actually help the party. This would have a value of (x).
  5. Secret Player Goal: This is something to help me notch up the surprise factor for both players and referee. All of the above goals are assumed to be public knowledge so that everyone has a chance to negotiate with the other players to maximize their ability to gain experience. At the beginning of each session, the player’s also write down a goal their character has for the session that no one else is privy to, including the Referee. At the end of the session, these goals are revealed to the table and experience is granted for those who pull it off. This would have a value of (x).
  6. Referee Discretion/Secret Goal: This is also an attempt to up the surprise factor. The Referee could hand out (x) experience to players who showed exceptional bravery/cleverness/role-playing etc. and/or at the start of the session, the Referee could secretly write down a goal they hope the party accomplishes over the course of that session. This, too, would be worth (x) experience.

I think this would allow enough flexibility to just about any genre to pull off a sandbox campaign as well as offer enough structure to allow players to feel empowered on how their characters advance through the system and the campaign.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Toward an OId School 5e Monster Stat Block

My benchmark for a monster stat block is the 1ed Monster Manual because that is the stat block that I used for years in the formative youth of my RPG life. While too big for my (now curmudgeonly) taste, it does set a marvelous example for visual clarity and simplicity. In contrast to its modern counterparts, the 1ed MM stat block was perfectly happy to merely inform its user that there was a special attack (say, a breath weapon) at leave it that. The crunchy stuff was in the description. At a glance, I know all the essentials and am invited to investigate further for more details if I should so choose:
No. Appearing
Armor Class
Hit Dice
% in Lair
Treasure Type
No. of Attacks
Special Attacks
Special Defenses
Magic Resistance
One of the biggest headaches (literally) for me in 5e is the monster stat block. For some unknown reason, it isn’t possible to simply inform a user that there is a breath weapon. Instead, it must also be accompanied by every single bit of data about the breath weapon, as well as every other possible attack that monster is capable of. I am no longer allowed to get a handle on a monster at a glance. I am required to read all the details, because…stat block. It is visually muddy and crosses wires in my brain.

Therefore, if I am going to stay sane while DMing a 5e game I need a stat block I can understand at a glance. To that end (and inspired by the 1ed MM stat block) I would like to propose the following:
Hit Dice (with an average hp total in parenthesis)
Armor Class
Ave. Bonus (the average of all the ability score bonuses/penalties)
Attack Bonus (the total of the Proficiency Bonus, Str bonus and any special bonuses)
Advantages (including any listed skills)
Disadvantages (including any listed weaknesses)
Special Abilities (with no elaboration)
For all non-combat rolls, I use the Ave. Bonus (and can adjust that up or down depending upon how I want the monster to run). For all combat rolls, I use the Attack Bonus. If I need to understand a special ability, I can look in the description or just make it up as I go along (which I’d probably do anyway).

As an example, here is the 5e Goblin as represented by my old-fangled stat block:
Hit Dice: 2d6 (7)
Armor Class: 15
Ave. Bonus: 0
Attack Bonus: +4
Damage/Attack: 1d6+2
Advantages : Stealth
Disadvantages: none
Special Abilities: Nimble Escape
Alignment: Neutral Evil
Size: Small
Goblins usually wear leather armor and carry a shield. They are armed with scimitars and short bows. When using their Nimble Escape ability they can use a bonus action to either disengage or hide. Goblins are used to living underground and have dark vision 60ft.
This makes sense to me. I can riff of this info in seconds and I know how to run a group of goblins without having to give myself a headache.

Friday, October 21, 2016

What I Mean By 5e Lite

Yesterday, when I mentioned the idea of a 5e Lite, Michael Bugg enthusiastically agreed by pointing out the large about of fluff text that exists in the 5e core books. Whereas that would reduce the page count and give an editor an opportunity to make the rules clearer and more concise (meaning I might be willing to buy to them), this is not what I had in mind. My vision of 5e Lite is far more radical.

If we strip down each class to their fundamental core, what we find are Hit Dice and several categories that players are allowed to apply their character’s proficiency bonus to:

  • Armor
  • Weapons
  • Tools
  • Saving Throws
  • Skills
  • Spells and Spell-like Abilities

There are four types of hit dice (1d6, 1d8, 1d10 and 1d12). There are four types of Armor (light, medium, heavy and shield). There are four categories of weapons (a partial list of simple weapons, all simple weapons, simple weapons plus a partial list of martial weapons and all martial weapons). There are up to six Saving Throws (one for each ability score). There are any number of tools and skills. Spells and Spell-like Abilities can be categorized any way you like.

What we have here is a framework for a character build for just about any genre you want. Arbitrarily assign a number of build points that can be assigned to any of the above categories. For example, a Fighter might look like this:

  • HD: 3pts (d10)
  • Armor: 4pts (all armor)
  • Weapons: 4pts (all weapons)
  • Saving Throws: 2pts (Str & Con saves)
  • Tools: 0pts
  • Skills: 2pts (two skills)
  • Spells: 0pts

This build would cost 15 points.

Spells could be broken down to their mechanical core, as I have done with the spell list from 0e in my Ye Auld Skool Spell Creator. Each character build point could purchase the character an ability to use one of the 16 base spells. Each spell would have a basic DC in order to cast it (say 5 or 10 DC). Thus, characters should be able to auto-cast some of the simplest spells. As mechanics are added to these basic spells, the DC goes up by 5 for each mechanic. As the character goes up in level, it is possible to cast harder and more powerful spells. Due to the mechanical nature of this set-up, these “spells” can be dressed up any way the genre requires: mental powers, mutations, super powers, etc.

With this approach, 5e is transformed from the complicated mess it is now to a simple, streamlined system that can do just about anything you want it to without a lot of complications.

This is what I mean by 5e Lite.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

More 5e Thoughts (And a Gauntlet Thrown)

Over the course of the past several days, I have been trying to typeset a 5e Players Guide to the Lost Colonies in order to reflect some of the ideas I expressed in my last post as well as ideas that are campaign-specific. What a nightmare. I have gotten through what I hope is the messiest part, but I still have a lot of editing and re-organizing to do. This whole experience has cemented the idea that my major complaint about 5e has almost nothing to do with the system.

I will never spend a dime on the core books because they are a hot mess. Seriously, anyone out there who has played a 5e Paladin, you have my sympathy. I took me days to typeset and organize the paladin-as-cleric because, in order to understand the rules for some class features, you have to go to two or three different places in the class description to get a full picture. Even then, a lot of stuff needs several reads in order to interpret the rules.

Now, as an old-school grognard I don’t have any issues with rules that can be interpreted in multiple ways on principle, but 5e presents as such a complicated system that to have rules that are difficult to interpret is not something I appreciate, at least in context of trying to produce an ordered and understandable version of the paladin for my own campaign world.

On the flip side, this experience has demonstrated to me that 5e, at its core, is an extremely simple system. Simply put, it takes the bare bones of a typical d20 system (six ability scores, hit points, armor class, etc.) and strips it all down to the concepts of the Proficiency Bonus and the ideas of Advantage/Disadvantage.

The Proficiency Bonus is a very simple way of expressing that a character is good at something — anything from weapons, to skills, to tools, to saving throws. Advantage/Disadvantage is an extraordinarily elegant way to express bonuses and penalties for virtually any situation in the game.

5e then builds upon this very simple framework a baroque/gothic nightmare of complexity. Whereas I like the idea of using the paladin as a cleric and the warlock as a magic-user, I am less than thrilled about the sheer amount to rules necessary to pull this off. Swords & Wizardry Light (a complete game) will be four pages. That is less than the page count necessary to explain a single class in 5e.

At the heart of all this, however, is a system that I think will make the world of RPGs better. I don’t think I am the man to do it, but there is a 5e-Lite begging to shake off all the excess that WotC have piled onto this system. Indeed, I think the system is elegant enough to pull off just about any genre that you can throw at it.

Here is hoping that someone, someday picks up the gauntlet and produces a 5e-Lite that will make the process of tooling 5e into any genre we want easier than what I am putting myself through now.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

5e and The Lost Colonies

When the current party I am GMing created its characters, I had yet to get my hands on the core books and was operating solely with my reading of the Basic version of 5e. As such, I limited the choice of classes to the archetypal four found in Basic: Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard. This made my life easier and, as I explained to my players, all of the other classes are really just variations of those four classes.

Having now read the PH and getting a better handle on both the system and the classes I have come to a rather surprising conclusion: if I were to do it all over again, I would have limited the class choice to three, but not the three one might expect.

I say three, because when I first started the Lost Colonies campaign world so many years ago that is exactly the number of classes I allowed (plus the race-as-classes of B/X). I got rid of the thief and wanted to see what the game would feel like with only the three classes of 0e. It worked surprisingly well. When new classes were introduced, it happened organically because of events within the campaign.

I also intellectually like the conceptual and mechanical balance associated with the three classes: Fighters fight, magic-users use magic and clerics are something in between (which, in practice, leaned more towards fighting than magic). This balance, however, does not really exist between the three core classes in 5e. While fighters still fight, the differences between clerics and magic-users have been blurred so much that it is hard to tell the difference without seeing the mechanics behind the special effects.

Thus, the three classes I would use in 5e to emulate that 0e feel I was going for when I first began using the Lost Colonies are:

  • Fighter
  • Paladin (in the place of the cleric)
  • Warlock (in the place of the magic-user)

In the Lost Colonies, all clerics worship the same god. I don’t need different Domains to represent different pagan cults. The paladin better represents a monotheistic set-up. They also don’t get their spell-casting abilities until 2nd level, just like B/X and 0e. In addition, they have fighting skills like a fighter, but don’t have as broad a choice nor are as good at them in the long run as the fighter is.

The warlock is the best D&D representation of the idea that arcane magic is a dangerous thing. It also is the closest I have ever seen D&D get to one of my favorite magic systems — the Elric RPG where demons and elementals were bound into items in order to get magical effects and spells. In addition, this also is a really good analog for the idea that pagan clerics are really magic-users dressed up to look religious.

Obviously, the various patrons for PCs would have to be tweaked else the cleric (paladin) and magic-user (warlock) would not get along very well. My initial thoughts are these: The Summer Queen/Winter King (a variation of the Archfey patron), the Dragon Kings (ancient metallic dragons, which could be a variation on the Great Old One) or the Celestials (archangels, which could be a reverse variation on the Fiend). Since these arcane casters have cantrips and can be really good casters at first level, they are much better at casting than clerics (paladins) who get no cantrips. Thus, it better cements the cleric (paladin) as a tweener whose magic comes from a much different source than the magic of the magic-user (warlock).

For those who want to play a thief, I will provide a background called Thieves’ Guild which will provide all the skills and connections necessary to play one, while still being one of the three core classes. Ironically, this set-up probably does a better job of emulating Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser than any version of D&D ever did.

In the same vein, for those that want to play a barbarian, bard, druid, ranger or monk I will provide a background which will encompass all the skills and backstory necessary to play one.

BTW this is yet another reason I think the background mechanic for character creation is such a brilliant idea. I get to have a much simpler version of 5e by limiting it to three core classes and players can customize these three core classes to emulate all kinds of cool characters without hardly any mechanical shenanigans.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Meditating on 5e Character Creation

Surprisingly, one the things that I really like about 5e is its character creation. I would venture to guess that there really isn’t anything I don’t like about it. This takes me aback because I normally don’t like point builds nor skill systems, but 5e manages to do both in ways that make this old curmudgeon smile.

The characteristic point-buy system of 5e doesn’t really have to be a pure point buy system. The game provides a standard array of scores: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. This scratches the old-school itch in me that likes the challenge of “this is what you have to work with” that I get when I roll 3d6 in order. While it does provide quite a few bonuses in the balance, unless you specifically dump a +2 bonus on that ‘8’ you are going to have to deal with a penalty on one characteristic. I like this a whole lot better than any of the methods suggested in the 1e DMG to help inflate stats. It also has the advantage of being quick and easy.

The 5e skill system also doesn’t really present as a true skill system. This is in large part due to the relatively small number of skills and the broad manner in which they can be described. In other words, rather than telling players what they can’t do (ala traps that can only be disarmed by a Rogue in 3e), they allow players a means of describing unusual ways to tackle problems.

For example: if my character is having a hard time deciding whether or not the local noble is trying to pull the wool over his eyes but doesn’t have access to the skill Insight, I could argue that his expertise in History might give me a clue as to whether or not the details of the noble’s story jives with what my character knows about the history of the area. This encourages creativity and thinking outside the box rather than limiting roleplaying to roll-playing.

I love the fact that each character has starting equipment packages depending upon their class and background. This gets everybody off the ground running with an appropriate and well-rounded set of equipment that still leaves room for player choice.

The one part of 5e character creation that I think is truly great, though, is the Background system. With the use of 4 or 5 random tables rolls (gotta love those random tables!), players get to piece together an origin story and character motivation that makes their character unique right out of the gates without having to put a lot of effort into the creative process or having to rely upon mechanical bells and whistles. The fact that this background system is easily adaptable to virtually any DIY game-world is brilliant.

By the book, it was the background system of 5e that allowed me to give a bunch of young teenagers and their strange out-of-the-box ideas the characters they wanted to play without any real effort on my part. Thus far, this is my favorite part of the 5e rule set and is something I will happily graft onto all future campaigns I run from now on.

As an example of the wonderful variety this background system can produce, here is what the party of six characters look like in my current campaign:

  • A dwarven fighter who used to be a librarian and is now trusted by his clan with an ancient text that should never be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.
  • A half-elf fighter who used to be a medic in an army. Sick and tired of seeing his friends die, he cynically doesn’t want to make any more friends, but will never abandon them when he finally does.
  • A human cleric who wants nothing more than to help any in need despite the fact that she distrusts people and expects the worst of them.
  • A human wizard who is working on a scientific journal dedicated to the ecology, biology and sociology of dragons.
  • A human rogue whose specialty is forgery and multiple identities because she is a noble on the run whose family has all been assassinated.
  • An elven rogue who belongs to the Tinkers Guild. When she wasn’t allowed the funds to do research on automatons, she stole them from the Guild’s coffers. She is now off in the world trying to prove that her research can become a reality.

This stuff was produced by a couple of wild ideas and a bunch of random rolls. I have often lionized random tables and the wondrous things they can yield and this is yet another example of that goodness.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

I'm Back and Playing (and Ranting About) 5e

For those of you who don’t know, I have not been playing anything for a number of years now. My youngest was in and out of the hospital for about three years battling for her little life and we have been struggling to find what can only be called a new normal.

When things began to settle down, I found that the group that I had played with had moved on in life, as so often happens. Some began families and have to deal with the time realities that such an endeavor requires, some left town to go to school or back to school and one even went off to the military. Thus, I really haven’t done anything with this hobby let alone something worth blogging about.

Recently, however, my oldest got together with a bunch of her friends and asked me to be a GM for their group. The system of choice was D&D 5e. As a consequence, I got my hands on the core books for the first time. The Basic 5e .pdf release from a few years back did nothing to convince me that I should fork over $40 for a Players Handbook let alone $120 for all three core books.

As I wrote back then, when I took a hard look at the free .pdf release, there are things to like about the new system; however, all of them are things that can easily be grafted onto my (still) favorite version of the game: B/X and its clone Labyrinth Lord.

Now that I have had the core books in my hands and have had to use them at the table, I can with certainty proclaim that they most definitely are not worth $40 for a PH let alone $120 for all three core books. What surprises me, however, is that this declaration has less to do with the system itself, and more to do with the way the game is written, laid out and typeset.

These books are really hard to use. The visual style is chaotic, confusing and hard to read. The best of the bunch is the PH and its a nightmare. The page numbers are not only too small, but are a light color on top of another color. The index requires a magnifying glass. I have yet to really understand the logic of why the book is laid out and ordered the way that it is. For example: races aren’t alphabetical, but the classes are?

While I will admit that the DM Guide does have a bunch of useful information for a beginner, a good chunk of that advice runs counter to my own predilections. The only reason for me to own that book is the magic section and (especially since I own several versions of the game with their own better organized version of magic items) $40 is way too much.

Lastly, I despise the monster stat block. It is visually cluttered and overly complicated. For someone who has written and typeset modules, my least favorite part of the process is monster stat blocks. Swords & Wizardry has the best, and even then it is still a task. 5e requires all six characteristic scores and their bonuses!? Put that mess on top of all the ridiculous artsy crap that fills every single page of the MM and you have something that I would prefer to use as a fuel for a fire rather then something I have at the table. It gives me a headache just thinking about it.

So, yeah, the only book I’d be tempted to buy is the PH and only if I could find a deal that would put it in the $20 range. Even then, it would only be used as a reference so that I could typeset my own more table friendly version. Fortunately, I can do that legally now (and I may not even ever have to purchase a core book to do it!).

Systemically, I am going to do my best to play this particular campaign according to the book so that I can see how it plays, with one major exception: the XP rules. Just no. I can appreciate the faster progression at lower levels (especially given the fact that I am working with a group of young teenagers used to the instant gratification of cell phones, the internet and video games). What I can’t abide is that it is has everything to do with killing stuff (or accomplishing missions if you use the alternative options in the DMG) and nothing to do with gold for xp.

I cannot say enough about Dave Arneson’s 1 gp of treasure spent = 1 xp. It does such an incredible job of emulating a character investing in himself or herself. It also places almost all of the agency of how a character progresses through the game into the hands of the players.

For example: Lets pretend that there is a dragon with a requisite hoard living in close proximity to the PCs.

In 5e the only way to get experience points out of this reality is to kill the dragon unless the GM is kind enough to give you a mission associated with the dragon hoard. In other words, the only agency the players have is whether or not to risk going up against a dragon.

If one uses the Dave Arneson formula, the players are in almost complete control of how the existence of this dragon and its hoard will affect their advance in levels. They can kill the dragon, they can steal from the dragon, they can go on other adventures get enough treasure to do research about how to hide from or defeat or capture a dragon (which would mean getting experience points by spending that treasure), etc. Once they get whatever amount of treasure they want from that hoard, the players get to decide how that treasure is used to express how their character gets to the next level. They can go on a massive bar crawl, they can invest in cargo that will be traded for by merchants hired by the characters, they can begin building a house/temple/castle/bridge/bar/whatever, they can buy a fancy outfit to go visit the king, etc. How the character spends that treasure says a lot about who they are and that choice and agency is almost entirely in the hands of the player — not the game, not the system and not the GM.

So, using the training rules from 1e, I determined that the average price of advancing to the next level from 1st-9th level (when training is necessary) is approximately 36% of the total needed for that level. Thus, the one house rule I am using in this campaign is that players must spend a minimum amount of treasure equal to a third of the required xp to gain a level. In other words, if a 1st level character stole 300 gp from the aforementioned dragon hoard and spent it, they would gain a level. If that same 1st level character defeated a group of goblins worth 300xp, they would be stuck at 1st level until such time that they found 100gp and spent it.

I will grant that this has less player agency than I would like, but it is the only way I am going to be able to experience the 5e level progression while teaching these kids about player agency.

Now, despite all my curmudgeonly griping, I do think that 5e has a lot to offer the game and I look forward to seeing what works, what doesn’t and what modular bits and pieces I steal for my default Labyrinth Lord game.