Friday, December 30, 2016

Playing with Cosmology (5e and BX)

This past week I have been trying to watch the show The Magicians which is based on the Lev Grossman novel by the same name. If I had to describe it in a sentence, I would say that it is Harry Potter for adults. Unfortunately that isn’t high praise.

While the “ostracized student discovers he/she gets to attend a secret magic school” is a proven concept, The Magicians suffers from many of the giant plot holes Harry Potter does: if there is a giant bad guy who only one or more children/unexperienced magicians are “destined” to take out why the hell do you leave them on their own and keep them in the dark about their role and responsibility in the world!? In both cases, this lack of supervision and information leads the “protagonists” to actually making the situation much, much worse.

I have to admit, however, that as much as I despise the Harry Potter series, at least I don’t feel like I need to take several showers after seeing/reading it like I now feel like I do after trudging through several episodes of The Magicians. The reason is simple: whereas Harry Potter wraps its postmodernism in a fun children’s adventure, The Magicians wears it on its sleeve for everyone to see. This is its great weakness.

I have concurrently been reading The Great Good Thing by one of my favorite authors Andrew Klavan. He doesn’t much show up as an influence in my RPG hobby because his is the genre of crime thriller, but this book is a self-meditation on his journey from being a secular Jew to being baptized. It was an emotional roller coaster for me, because he and I had similar journeys. In it, he expressed an opinion that I found refreshing (if only because I finally found somebody who put into words something that I have been struggling to make cogent for years). Of the Marquis de Sade he says:
Here, at last … was an atheist whose outlook made complete logical sense to me from beginning to end. If there is no God, there is no morality. If there is no morality, the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are all in all and we should pillage, rape, and murder as we please. None of this milquetoast atheism that says, “Let’s all do what’s good for society.” Why should I do what’s good for society? What is society to me? None of the elaborate game-theory nonsense where we all benefit by mutual sacrifice and restraint. That only works until no one’s looking; then I’ll get away with what I can. If there is no God, there is no good, and sadistic pornography is scripture.
Several of the protagonists in The Magicians are hedonists and the story makes it very clear that the Christian God doesn’t exist, or if He does He is one of many and He does so for the express purpose of making magic available to the hedonists so they can go on pleasuring themselves and that to be left out of this great gift is to not live life at all.

It is revealed that the big bad guy (known as “The Beast”) is actually a pedophile trying to make his own magical murder/rape/torture world to allow him to explore his particular predilections to their fullest. In a world where God and morality exist, The Beast makes for a really creepy bad guy; however, in a world where God does not, what makes The Beast any better or worse than the hedonistic heroes? By what standard are the heroes right and The Beast wrong?

This got me thinking about a cosmology where magic is real and which institutions would support it and which ones would actively suppress it. I came to the surprising conclusion that the Church would have been to one safe haven for the magicians.

Hear me out: if magic is real, then it is part of creation. If it is part of creation then God, creator of all things, put it here for a purpose. If there is a purpose to magic given by God, then it must be a tool by which we can experience God and fulfill our role in salvation history by edging closer to the Image and Likeness of God that He endowed to us upon our creation. Thus, the church would be THE institution within which magic would be studied, taught and explored.

On the other hand, governments would see magic as a threat to power in the same way they see guns as a threat to power. Government would, of course, use magic to gain and maintain power in the same way they use guns; however, just as they do around the world with guns, magic would be largely illegal in the hands of the average citizen. This pits the Church against the State in a very compelling way (and not unlike the first three centuries of Christianity).

To put this all in context of D&D (especially 2e and beyond) it is the first time I have been able to envision a cosmology where Domains really work in a Christian context. If one were to envision a Christian University founded by monks in order to teach and study magic, there would be various “schools” within the university that would specialize in various types of magic: the Domains.

In such a cosmology, clerics become mages. My favorite curiosity of the retro-clone Delving Deeper starts to make sense:
At 2nd level a cleric acquires a spell book containing his 1st level spells and can thereafter cast a number of spells each day appropriate to his experience level.
This also opens up the possibility of having the Turn Undead ability of clerics being limited to one school and therefore making it possible for other special abilities to take its place. This mechanic is already in place in 5e, where the Channel Divinity ability can be used for different purposes depending on which domain the cleric belongs to.

In context of BX, this can be expressed by any number of special abilities. According to the ACKS Player's Companion, which reverse engineers the BX classes in order to be able to then build your own world-specific BX classes, a cleric can give up Turn Undead in order to get two custom powers at 1st level or more if they are delayed until higher levels. These might include the ability to use magic items only magic-users could use, using spell slots for extra melee damage or gaining access to appropriate spells from the magic-user spell lists.

Such a cosmology is radically different than the Christian Civilization vs. Demonic Wilderness that is the assumed structure of all of my campaigns and doesn’t seem to suggest a campaign where players exist on the fringes of Civilization making the Wilderness safe for everybody else. Rather, it suggests a campaign that takes place right at the center of civilization, in an urban environment where the conflict is not between Civilization and the Wilderness, but between two radically different visions of what Civilization ought to be.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christ is Born!

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Playing with Abstraction (5e and BX)

There is an interesting pattern that exists in the way 5e describes armor and the way that BX presents armor. 5e has three categories: Light, Medium and Heavy. BX has Leather, Chain and Plate. Although 5e does have variable Armor Classes to different types of armor within each category, I think it very useful to abstract armor in the way that 5e does for the purposes of hacking 5e ideas into BX.

If one replaces leather, chain and plate with Light, Medium and Heavy armor with the same corresponding AC, it frees players and referees to describe armor anyway that they want to. Traditional D&D (including BX) is largely driven by the martial traditions of medieval and renaissance Europe. Abstracting armor to the broad categories of 5e suddenly allows a very simple way for players to imagine their characters from radically different martial traditions. For example, in my own Lost Colonies campaign, Medium Armor is crafted from the scales of giant fish from the Endless River and Heavy Armor from the chitin of giant insects.

To a limited extent, 5e also suggests a similar abstraction with weapons in context of Monk weapons usable with the Martial Arts feature of that class. 5e doesn’t bother to list nunchaku or kama in their weapon list. Rather, they offer the following advice:
[Y]ou might use a club that is two lengths of wood connected by a short chain (called a nunchaku) or a sickle with a shorter, straighter blade (called a kama). Whatever name you use for a monk weapon, you can use the game statistics provided for the weapon in chapter 5.
In other words, use the stats for existing European martial weapons and re-imagine them as a weapon from another martial tradition.

This got me thinking about taking this abstraction to the level of the armor abstraction. In other words, have broad categories of weapons, which are modified by weapon properties in order to provide generic stats to describe whatever kind of weapon the player or referee wants.

5e provides three of these categories: simple weapons, martial weapons and the subclass in each of ranged weapons. Simple weapons can be categorized as weapons that can be made of wood and/or stone. For example: clubs, hand axes, daggers. Martial Weapons are those that require the use of metal. For example, swords, polearms and heavy crossbows.

Each category would then have a base cost, which would be modified by weapon properties. The least expensive simple weapon (the club) in BX costs 3 gp. The least expensive martial weapon (warhammer or short sword) costs 5 gp or 7 gp. The most expensive melee weapon is the two-handed sword at 15 gp. Bows range in price from 25 gp to 40 gp

From this one could abstract weapons in the following ways:

  • Base price of a simple weapon = 3 gp
  • Base price of a martial weapon = 6 gp
  • Each additional property = 3 gp for simple weapons and 6 gp for martial weapons.
  • Ranged weapons have a short range of 10 feet which is doubled for medium range and tripled for long range. Every 10 feet added to the short range costs an extra 5 gp. For example: a short bow has a short range of 50 feet in BX. That would be an extra 40 feet for (4 x 5 gp) 20 gp. Having no other properties and being a simple weapon a short bow would cost 23 gp, which is comparable to the 25 gp cost in BX.

This system creates a set of properties that describe abstract ideas about a weapon which then can be used to create any weapon that a player or referee desires to exist in their campaign world. Since all damage is based on class, this system doesn’t punish players for wanting an exotic (non-sword) weapon.

For example, there are weapons in my Lost Colonies campaign similar to the macahuitl from the Aztec martial tradition. It is a simple weapon, being made of wood and stone, and has the Versatile property being able to be wielded either one-handed or two-handed. Thus, it would cost 6 gp.

The only wrench in this abstraction is the sling. According to this system it would cost 18 gp (3 for being a simple weapon, 15 gp for having a base range of 40 feet). In BX they are the cheapest weapon at 2 gp. If one is willing to include training in the abstraction of a weapon’s cost (because using a military sling isn’t easy) than this still works overall.

In the end, I am willing to live with hiccups like the sling if it gives me the freedom to imagine all kinds of weapons and have a simple way to mechanically describe them and assign a monetary cost to them.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Playing with Weapon Properties (5e and BX)

For years, I have used universal damage dice at my table while playing BX or LL. This decision, however, is not a partisan one as I have explained here. In recent years, I have subscribed to a class-based version of the universal damage die where magic-users use d4, clerics & thieves use d6 and fighters use d8. Anyone who is really familiar with my musings, however, knows that I do have a soft spot for tactical choice in weapons used by PCs. Several times over the years, for example, I have tried (and failed) at making Weapon vs. AC tables where different weapons do better versus different types of armor.

During my musings on combining Holmes with Cook, I took a stab at attaching some tactical choices to weapon variable damage here and here. I have yet to use this particular system at the table, because the siren song of a universal damage die just works for me.

With its various weapon properties, however, 5e may just very well allow me to have my cake and eat it too. The categories in question are as follows:

  • Light weapons can be used in the off hand for two weapon fighting
  • Finesse weapons allow the DEX bonus in place of the STR bonus
  • Thrown weapons may used as either melee or missile weapons
  • Versatile weapons can be used as either a one-handed or two-handed weapons
  • Heavy weapons can’t be used by Small Creatures without disadvantage
  • Reach weapons have an extra 5 ft range
  • Two-Handed weapons require two hands, but do more damage

These properties can be adjusted to affect a class-based universal damage die in BX or LL:

  • Light = 2 attacks per round at half-die damage ea.
  • Thrown = base die damage
  • Two-Handed = next die up damage but automatically lose initiative
  • Versatile = use either as one handed (base damage) or two-handed (next die up damage but lose initiative)
  • Reach = base damage and automatically win initiative on round one, but automatically lose it on subsequent rounds.
  • Heavy = Dwarves and Halflings can’t use these weapons.

Thus, if a battleaxe were to be given the Versatile property as it is in 5e, then a magic-user would be able to do d4 damage normally or d6 damage as a two-handed weapon (and automatically lose initiative). A cleric or thief would do d6/d8 damage and a fighter would do d8/d10 damage.

A Light weapon, such as a dagger, would allow a magic user to attack twice in the same round doing 1d2 with each attack. A cleric or a thief would do 1d3 damage and a fighter d4. This property would only apply to melee combat. Thus, if a dagger were thrown, only one could be thrown in a round and would do d4/d6/d8 damage.

Bows would do normal damage (d4/d6/d8), slings would have the Versatile property and Crossbows would have the Two-Handed property.

Finesse weapons would work exactly like they do in 5e (allow DEX instead of STR if the player so chose).

Thus, there still exists a universal damage die based on class, but each class has a variety of tactical choices when it comes to the weapons they want to use. Given that no one weapon is universally better than every other weapon (as swords are in AD&D), this still allows players to use a wide variety of weapons without being punished for wanting something for purely aesthetic reasons.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Playing with Skills and Proficiencies (5e and BX)

Historically, I have never been a big fan of skill systems in RPGs because they tend to describe what a character cannot do rather than what they can. One of the reasons I don’t really mind the skill/proficiency system of 5e is that it really isn’t a skill system. Rather, it helps describe where a character comes from and the areas of expertise that they can bring to the table. Therefore, the system assumes that anyone can try to do anything, but if a character has a skill, they have a better chance at doing a particular thing. Personally, I would go further and say that, as long as a skill isn’t contested by another skill, the only limiting factors in whether or not a character with a relevant skill succeeds are time and money.

In other words, let’s pretend that a character has the skill Artisan. That means that whenever that character sets about creating something, they will succeed. The variables are how much time and money the character wants to put into the project. The less time and money, the lower the quality but the character will always produce the desired item.

For another example, a character with Pick Locks will always succeed in picking a non-magical lock; however, the more complex a lock, the more time it will take to pick. Therefore, one could simply label locks in a dungeon with the number of Wandering Monster checks associated with each. Someone with Pick Locks would be able to understand how long it would take (the number of checks necessary to endure to unlock the lock) and decide whether or not the effort is worth the risk.

I very much like this approach, especially when coupled with the Background system of 5e. It tells a player what their character is capable of doing rather than telling them what their character cannot do. As such, I think it worthy of hacking into BX.

The problem I have with the 5e system, however, is that it is rather unbalanced. INT, WIS and CHA have a disproportionate amount of skills associated with them and CON has no skills at all. BX is, in its own simple way, very elegant and hacking the skills as is from 5e seems a bit too clunky for my tastes. Besides which, there are some skills and tool proficiencies that are redundant (Performance and Musical Instrument, for example) and others that are already hardwired into BX (Perception). Thus, a little rethinking and reorganizing are called for.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ve arbitrarily decided that each ability score will have three skills associated with it. Some of these associations require a explanation:


  • Athletics (which also includes Acrobatics)
  • Intimidation (Intimidation happens because somebody has enough power to throw around. Normally, this power is pure physical strength. While a small, physically weak person can be intimidating, the power they have is political, economic, etc. In this context, that power would be expressed by experience level.)
  • Investigation (This is a bit of a stretch, but historically the folks who do investigation are fighter types: police, spy, soldier, etc.)


  • Pick Locks (aka Thieve’s Tools)
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Stealth (which encompasses both Hide is Shadows and Move Silently)


  • Survival (because actually being out in the wilderness is about staying healthy and stamina)
  • Nature (one of the ways 5e describes CON is “vital force” which could be described as something that clues us into the “vital forces” of other living things and the places where they live)
  • Animal Handling (another way the “vital force” can be expressed. In addition, it takes a lot of patience, aka stamina, to train an animal, especially a wild one)


  • Arcana (which includes parts of Religion)
  • History (which also includes parts of Religion)
  • Navigation


  • Insight
  • Medicine
  • Artisan (because beauty is understood better by that part of the human mind described by WIS than the ability to reason as represented by INT)


  • Deception (which includes Disguise, Forgery and Gaming)
  • Performance (which Musical Instruments)
  • Persuasion

Characters would end up with four skills: two from their Class and two from their Backgrounds. Right now, I am operating on the assumption that each of the three core classes will have Saving Throw proficiencies in two abilities so that all six are used uniquely by the three classes:

  • Clerics: WIS, CHA
  • Fighters: STR, CON
  • Magic-users: INT, DEX

This becomes important because the two class skills they can choose from are based on the Saving Throw proficiencies. This does have some interesting implications: your average magic-user is more likely to be the party “thief” and the cleric is more likely to be the party “bard” and the fighter to be the “ranger.”

Of course, these tenancies can be completely upturned by choosing a background that flavors the character in a completely different way. This is why I think the Background system of 5e is probably my favorite aspect of the entire game.

Also note: these categories are wide open enough that players can make the argument to accomplish all kinds of tasks with their skills. For example: a player could argue that they could try to track that war party of orcs with either Navigation or Nature. Again, this system is about encouraging players to do stuff, not about telling them what they can’t do.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Playing with Saving Throws (5e and BX)

Now that Jeff Rients has officially released Broodmother Skyfortress under the Lamentations of the Flame Princess ruleset, he is going through and comparing what he (somewhat jokingly) calls the Objectively Best Rules published by TSR (BX) and LotFP. The comparison that really interests me is that on Saving Throws. Like Jeff, I really like the 3e saving throw structure of Fortitude/Reflex/Will, at least on paper. Unfortunately, when applied to actual play it lacks that palpable joy/fear of hearing those wonderful words: “Make a save versus Death Ray!

Now that I have run a 5e campaign for quite a few sessions, I have been meditating on the various aspects of that system I would like to hack back onto the Objectively Best Rules published by TSR. One of the things that I like quite bigly about 5e is the expansion of the Fortitude/Reflex/Will saves to every ability score and the idea that characters get to apply a proficiency bonus to two of these saves. On paper, it takes the simplistic beauty of the 3e save system and makes it more glorious.

Of course, the 5e save system still has the same glaring weakness that the 3e version had: no Death Rays. Unlike 3e, however, there might very well be a fun way to alleviate the problem. Traditionally, D&D has five different categories of saving throws. That is one less than the number of ability scores. Thus, if we can separate out one category to two there will be six different categories of saves that can then be married to the six ability scores so that Death Rays can still wreck havoc at the gaming table.

This is why I find Jeff’s comparison of BX and LotFP saving throws so interesting. I decided to pull out all of the various older versions of D&D and their retro-clones to get a fuller picture of all the glorious ways players have had to make saving throws through the years:

  • 0e: Death Ray & Poison; All Wands including Polymorph and Paralyzation; Stone; Dragon Breath; Staves& Spells
  • Holmes: Spell or Magic Staff; Magic Wand; Death Ray or Poison; Turned to Stone; Dragon Breath
  • BX: Death Ray & Poison; Magic Wands; Paralysis or Turn to Stone; Dragon Breath; Rods, Staves or Spells
  • 1e AD&D: Paralysis, Poison or Death Magic; Petrification or Polymorph; Rod, Staff or Wand; Breath Weapon; Spell
  • LL: Breath Attacks; Poison or Death; Petrify or Paralyze; Wands; Spells or Spell-like Devices
  • ACKS: Petrification & Paralysis; Poison & Death; Blast & Breath; Staffs & Wands; Spells
  • Delving Deeper: Poison; Paralysis or Petrification; Wands or Rays; Breath Weapon; Spells
  • LotFP: Paralyze; Poison; Breath; Device; Magic
  • S&W: Paralysis; Poison; Fire; Spells; Wands; Staffs; Magic

I realize S&W systemically only has one Save, the categories listed are implied by the bonuses various classes and races get to that one saving throw for certain situations.

This is surprisingly diverse (even among the original TSR stuff!). Some of my favorites: Death Ray, Death Magic (as opposed to Spells or just pain Magic), Devices (as opposed to Staff, Wand, etc.), Blast (as a companion to Dragon Breath), Fire and Stone (which has a lot more flexibility than Petrification). It also seems that Polymorph was a whole lot more important in the Gygax editions than other ones. I also have to say that Dragon Breath just sounds cooler than Breath Weapon. I realize that the game has a lot of non-dragon creatures that breath nastiness, but “Breath Weapon” does conjure up visions of a Listerine ad.

So, onto the business at hand — assigning categories to ability scores:

  • Strength: Stone & Paralysis (because it just feels right to muscle through a ghoul’s touch)
  • Dexterity: Blast & Dragon Breath (because this is something that has to be dodged)
  • Constitution: Poison (because endurance seems to be the most appropriate way to tough through a spider bite)
  • Intelligence: Devices (because these things can be figured out logically, yes?)
  • Wisdom: Spells (because this is the traditional ability score for saves vs. spells as in BX)
  • Charisma: Death Magic, Death Ray & Death (because the root of the word charisma means gift, as in the gift of life given by God)

There you have it. Death Rays are back in business!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Gamer ADD: Monster Manual II Part 11

Stocking the "Dungeon"

As I did for my similar meditation on the Fiend Folio, I wanted to find a map of a dungeon to stock using the Wandering Monster Tables I produced using monsters from the MMII. As before, I went to the maps of Dyson Logos to see if anything there inspired. I did not find any "dungeon" that satisfied, mainly because the idea of a dungeon, in a traditional D&D sense, isn't really something that an MMII-based Basic D&D automatically assumes. Most of the monsters therein are outdoor creatures that wouldn't be found crawling through the corridors of a long-lost dwarven mine.

I did, however, find these two maps here and here. I fiddled with them in order to make an odd looking two story manor that one might find out in the wilderness of an MMII-based Basic D&D world:

As before, I used the table provided by Holmes that randomly determines which WMT (1st through 3rd) to use so that I could take advantage of all three WMTs I produced with MMII monsters. Here are the results with some initial thoughts in parenthesis:

Rooms 1-13 are Empty
Rooms 14-15 have Unguarded Treasure
Rooms 16-21 have Specials
Rooms 22-26 have Traps
Rooms 27-28 have Treasure guarded by Traps
Rooms with Monsters sans Treasure:
29. Gripple (a prisoner?)
30. Pedipalp (charmed as some kind of guard?)
31. Vulchling
32. Footpad
33. Seer
Rooms with Monsters guarding Treasure:
34. Animal Skeleton (a servant of the Seer?)
35. Footpad
36. Constrictor Snake
37. Veteran
38. Vulchling
39. Scorpion (a kind of watchdog for the Footpad in Room 35?)
40. Hargin Elemental (summoned to guard the Footpad/Vulchling gang's hoard?)

This has shaped up to be a hideout of a gang of Thieves that employs Vulchlings, human Fighters and a Magic-user. The leader seems to have figured out a way to train giant insects and they have a beef with the local fey.

And for those of you who want a version of the map I made for this post sans numbers here it is:

Friday, December 2, 2016

Meditating on Playing 5e

The group that I am currently playing 5e with have a number of short (90-120 min.) sessions under our belts, and I thought I should be take the time to reflect on actual game play:

Firstly, this game does well with short sessions. Combat is short enough that the players have had plenty of time to interact with NPCs and gather information to their heart’s content.

Secondly, (and quite surprisingly) the experience system hasn’t really shown itself to be an issue yet. The players have enjoyed roleplaying so much that they haven’t yet focused on charging through a bunch of monsters to gain levels yet. In fact, all of the PCs are still 1st level. Although I believe this to be an artifact of the way the players are choosing to play the game and not something systemic to 5e, it has still produced an old-school feel in terms of sessions-per-leveling-up.

Finally, when 5e was first announced, one of the stated goals of the design team was to create a game that would allow D&D players of every game-generation to sit at the table at the same time and play according to the rules with which they most enjoyed. At the time, I dismissed this as a clever bit of marketing to try and rope in as many customers as possible.

Upon reflection, I do believe that they have succeeded to a limited extent. My players approach the game with 5e expectations and I approach the game as if I am running a Labyrinth Lord campaign and the two really don’t get in each other’s way. If someone from my old campaign showed up and played one of their characters according to LL rules, I don’t think anyone would readily notice.

In all seriousness, I quickly gave up on trying to makes heads or tails of the 5e rulebooks because the layout, editing, and organization is crap. As such, beyond the first session, I realized that I could just use Swords & Wizardry stats for monsters (because of the AAC) and wing it. No one was the wiser.

As long as the players know what their powers are and the mechanics behind them, the game runs smoothly despite the fact that I run LL/S&W and they are playing 5e. The only time our expectations collide is when a PC hits 0 hp. This has happened twice. Once was actually my fault because I had forgotten to let the player know about the Fighter ability Second Wind which he could have used to avoid hitting 0 hp.

My usual expectation is that a PC dies. Their’s is that they have a chance to cheat death. This is the only place where negotiation is necessary and since these guys are newer to the game and since I played with a house rule “up to -10 hp is unconscious” for years before I experimented with 0 hp = death and loved it, I had no problem adjusting to the new (old) expectation.

As such, this campaign doesn’t feel like I am running 5e. It feels like I am running a typical LL/S&W game with a group of players that have PCs with a few more options at their fingertips than usual. I gotta say, that’s pretty cool.