Monday, September 23, 2019

Alignment Languages, the Scarlet Brotherhood, and Flutes

JB of B/X Blackrazor has been meditating how to go “Advanced” from his usual B/X D&Ding. As seems always necessary in such endeavors is the long, hard struggle with Alignment.

I myself have waxed poetic about the subject many, many times.

The thing that interested me about JB’s post has almost nothing to do with JB’s near abandonment of the system. D&D has several mechanics that depend upon Alignment and therefore one must deal with those mechanics on some level if any major changes are to be made with Alignment (like getting rid of it entirely). One such mechanic in AD&D is the much maligned Alignment Languages.

Back when I got into blogging, one of the bigger blogs was James Maliszewski’s Grognardia. At the time he was trying to wrestle with OD&D as written using the axiom that the rules were always right and therefore he needed to find a way to make them work. The results were often surprising and fun. It is a principle that I enjoy applying to various editions of the game for that very reason — I often come up with ideas that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

With that in mind, here is what Gygax has to say about Alignment Languages on pg. 24 of the DMG:
Alignment language is a handy game tool which is not unjustifiable in real terms. Thieves did employ a special cant. Secret organizations and societies did and do have certain recognition signs, signals, and recognition phrases — possibly special languages (of limited extent) as well. Consider also the medieval Catholic Church which used Latin as a common recognition and communication base to cut across national boundaries. In AD&D. alignment languages are the special set of signs, signals, gestures, and words which intelligent creatures use to inform other intelligent creatures of the same alignment of their fellowship and common ethos. Alignment languages are NEVER flaunted in public. They are not used as salutations or interrogatives if the speaker is uncertain of the alignment of those addressed. Furthermore, alignment languages are of limited vocabulary and deal with the ethos of the alignment in general, so lengthy discussion of varying subjects cannot be conducted in such tongues.

This largely harkens back to the 0e version of Alignment, where it was about which side of the larger conflict are you willing to fight with rather than a code of behavior. It also introduces the idea of secret(ive) societies that use various means of communication that those outside their clique cannot understand.

Which brings me to my favorite love/hate political entity within the Greyhawk campaign world. I love the idea of a bunch of racist monks working in secret to further their political agenda, but I hated the idea of there being a country on the map called The Scarlet Brotherhood. I always wished that they were a secretive society that were the real power behind several different throwns and were always looking out for a way to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of the rich and powerful.

Here is an organization that would definitely have something akin to an Alignment Language as Gygax describes. There is even an historical template on which to build this vision of both the Scarlet Brotherhood and Alignment Languages: the Fuke monks.

As I noted in my last post, many Shoguns took advantage of the Fuke monk’s anonymity and mobility to create spy networks. One simple way to identify oneself, in an Alignment Language kinda way, would be the music a monk would play on their flute.

This also suggests why characters lose the use of an Alignment Language once their alignment changes. Secret symbols and signs are in constant flux in order to keep them secret. Think about pitching symbols in baseball or sideline play signals in football. The form is almost always the same, but their meaning is in constant flux because other teams are constantly trying to steal signals. Once a character leaves and organization, they lose the ability to update the current meaning of the signals being given or to recognize if a signal is being given at all.

The exciting thing about the idea of Alignment Languages is the world-building implications: secret societies abound in a political climate that is cutthroat and in constant flux. That sounds like a really fun atmosphere to throw a bunch of Player Characters at.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Death by Flute

I just ran across the story of the Fuke sect of Buddhism in Japan. The sect showed up during the Shogunate period. They were characterized by baskets that covered their faces and bamboo flutes called shakuhachi. The flutes were used to practice breathing meditation and to gain attention as they begged for food.

While the image of a flute-playing monk with a basket over his head is interesting enough, the story gets better. Travel in Shogunate Japan was illegal. In order to gain permission to travel from place to place, they forged a bunch of documents demonstrating a long provenance of master flute players. Despite the fiction, the forgeries were accepted as authentic and the Fuke monks had official permission to wander the entire country.

The real reason that the forgeries were accepted, however, probably had more to do with spy craft than with how authentic the tales of great flautists seemed. No one questions a monk who covers their face with a basket because it was an earnest attempt to erase the individuality of the monk — a necessary step on the way to Nirvana. No one questions a shakuhachi with a larger than normal end on it because these had, again, religious significance and use.

A covered face and a bamboo instrument that can double as a mace makes for a perfect cover for a spy. So much so, that in the repertoire of shakuhachi music are things called Test Pieces. They were extremely difficult songs that various entities used to test whether or not a Fuke monk was a spy or not. If you can’t play the piece, you are probably a spy. Additionally, both the sect and the instrument were banned by the Meiji Restoration for fear that the remnants of the Shogunate could spy their way back into power.

Not only is this fascinating stuff, but it makes me want to actually play two of my least favorite classes: the bard and the assassin just so I can have a character sketch like this:

...and the satisfaction of taking out monsters with a flute.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Towards a Supers RPG

One of the most challenging things about doing a superhero game within the mechanical structure of D&D is the radically different assumptions about combat. Where D&D grew out of a medieval war game where the consequence of combat is death, the superhero genre rarely deals out death, just incapacitation.

5e spells suggest a way to mechanically differentiate what Champions calls Killing Attacks from Normal Attacks. The 5e spell Sacred Flame auto-hits but allows the target a saving throw to avoid damage. Fire Bolt requires a to-hit roll that determines whether or not the target takes damage. Since the latter is the normal D&D mechanic for determining death of a target, that will model the Killing Attack, and the auto-hit/saving throw will emulate the normal superhero combat mechanic.

This allows for an interesting mechanical smorgasbord in terms of attack and defense. Each attack power gets to specify which attribute is used for a saving throw:

  • Strength
  • Dexterity
  • Constitution
  • Intelligence
  • Wisdom
  • Charisma

It also gets to designated what type of damage it does:

  • Acid
  • Bludgeoning
  • Cold
  • Fire
  • Force
  • Lightning
  • Necrotic
  • Piercing
  • Poison
  • Psychic
  • Radiant
  • Slashing
  • Thunder

Defense would include Resistance to the various types of damage, Damage Reduction for various types of damage, and the good ‘ol Armor Class.

This leaves a huge (maybe even too big?) amount of space for players to come up with all kinds of weird ways to explain why a Lightning attack targets Charisma.

Alternatively, the type of damage could pre-determine what kind of saving throw is required:

Strength: Cold, Fire
Dexterity: Bludgeoning, Piercing, Slashing
Constitution: Acid, Poison
Intelligence: Lightning, Thunder
Wisdom: Force, Psychic
Charisma: Necrotic, Radiant

Note how the latter limits choices on how special effects function and how arguments can be made why one type of damage also belongs with another type of saving throw...which is why I hesitate even though it would make things "easier" mechanically.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

RPG Dreamin': Re-thinking 5e Skills

Have you ever had a dream where you are in a game shop and you find a really interesting game that you want to buy but then wake up and realize that the game actually doesn’t exist? I have.

Recently, I had this very vivd dream of seeing a stack of RPG supplements in the form of cheap comic books printed on newspaper quality stock. Each supplement promised invaluable information on how to add various cheesy 80s cartoon characters and worlds to the RPG experience: He-Man, Space Ghost, Thunder the Barbarian, etc. They cost two bucks each and I was really interested. When I found the actual ruleset, it was also a comic book, also two dollars, but someone had ripped pages out of it. Then I woke up.

In my half-awake haze of coming out of a dream state, it occurred to me that what I had dreamt about was not something all that new: Basic Roleplaying, Fudge, and GURPS have gone down this path for decades now. The big difference is that while the main rule-books of these three games are tomes of hundreds of pages, my dream envisioned a comic-book sized rulebook of maybe 32-64 pages. While I don’t think this is practical or even possible, I can’t help but think someone could get close.

Then my hazy brain started to have a conversation with itself that went along these lines:

You know, I just finished up a pretty good game that is under 64 pages…

Yeah, but that’s a fantasy RPG what about modern stuff like guns? Or superhero stuff?

Yeah, a lot of those 80s cartoons were riffs off of superhero concepts.

So, if this comic-book sized game could do superheroes, it could do exactly what you wanted in your dream, right?


So let’s see if the 5e SRD could do superheroes!

Yeah! This could work!

Back when I was playing RPGs with my high school buddies, those words, “This could work” were dreaded words. It meant that our party was about to push the limits of both our characters and the DMs ability to accommodate whatever outlandish idea we had come up with. It either broke the campaign or it was awesome.

So, in order to test these dangerous waters, I decided to start with my least favorite part of any universal system: skills. I dislike them because they are rules-heavy and tend to tell players what they cannot do rather than what they can. Unfortunately, they come with the territory with RPG settings like cyber-punk, space, and even superheroes.

Since I have had the idea of stripping down the SRD to its mechanical core, I remembered something rather interesting about Champions: it has a bunch of skills that are not tied to any ability. In other words, it doesn’t matter how smart, dumb, strong or weak you are, this skill is going to work or not work because of skill. While interesting, this still informs players that they can’t do stuff unless they have that skill on their character sheet. So, what if I took the spirit of this idea — skills are not tied to a specific ability score — and went the opposite direction. What if a player could use any ability score with a skill?

Here is the basic premise: Skills should be cinematic rather than mechanical. In other words, rather than having dice rolling being the primary reason why a character succeeds or not, have the player’s creativity be the primary mover in any given situation. Let me illustrate by taking a few skills from the SRD and applying non-traditional ability scores to them:


Strength: Use the angles of the ceiling to hang from an otherwise impossible place where no one would think to look.

Constitution: Hold really still in a small place until no one is looking.

Intelligence: Analyze the position of the surveillance cameras and/or guards to determine where all the blindspots are.

Wisdom: Read the guards and determine what kind of distraction would create the most confusion.

Charisma: Walk through like I’m supposed to be there.


Strength: Intimidate the librarian until she tells you the information you need.

Constitution: Find a place where people talk and hold-out until I overhear something important.

Dexterity: Climb that tree/lamp post/building that will get me the vantage point to figure out who is in that painting.

Wisdom: Who is the most likely person to know the information I need?

Charisma: Charm the information out of the professor over a coffee.

Not every situation is going to allow for every ability score to be used. I can’t think of a way Wisdom or Charisma could help to climb a sheer wall when running away from some monsters, for example. What I love about this idea, though, is that it gives players the freedom to try. What I also love about this idea is that it frees up the Referee to simply allow the PCs to succeed when they come up with good cinematic ways to use skills, or to levy what they see as reasonable DCs for ideas that are just outside the box.

I will also grant that some of the above descriptions better fit other skills; however, that is an exercise in telling players what they can't do, and that is exactly what I don't want a skill system to do.

Proficiency then, rather than being simply a bonus to a roll, is permission to be truly heroic in the ways that that skill gets used. Think Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day. There is no way anyone should be able to write a virus that crashes the alien’s computer system. Yet, he does and we go along for the ride because it is so much fun.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Gray Mouser and Ba5ic

If I were to pick a fantasy author whose work I love and have read avidly but had the least impact on the way I play D&D, that author would be Fritz Leiber. When I first discovered Appendix N in the 1e DMG, the first books I went out and got were Leiber’s stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. After reading them, I stopped looking to Appendix N for inspiration because Leiber demonstrated to me the serious limitations of D&D and I didn’t want to be further disappointed by anything else on that list.

I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have that literary hero that they want to emulate in D&D. For a lot of guys I grew up playing D&D with, that character was Drzzt Do’Urden. (Not so coincidentally, he is also the reason I don’t like using drow in any campaign I run). For me, that character has long been Leiber’s Gray Mouser. Unlike all the Drzzt fans, however, there was no easy way for me to play the Gray Mouser in D&D.

Sure, I could play an elven Magic-user Thief, or dual-class with a human or multi-class in some of the newer versions of the game…but none of those options would be the Gray Mouser from 1st level. Given the fact that most long-running campaigns I have ever taken part in end around 5-7th level, the effort to go dual- or multi-class never really appealed.

Thus, I had avoided all things Leiber in my D&Ding because it reminds me of what I can’t do. That is, until now.

In my opinion, the most important mechanical innovation that 5e has brought to the table is the Background. Not only does it offer up some interesting backstory to a character, but it expresses this story with some mechanics — a couple of proficiencies and a kind of perk that come with the territory. When I first read through the SRD to see how I would use it, my first impulse was to declare the that Rogue class is no longer mechanically necessary. All of the things a thief/rogue brings to the table can be handled through the Background mechanic.

In other words, I can finally play the Gray Mouser from 1st level on. Human Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock with a Criminal Background. Done. Finally.

The Background Mechanic doesn’t stop there, though. As I was editing down the 5e SRD to make Ba5ic, I came to realize that 5e doesn’t really understand what it has in the Background mechanic. I can completely understand why — the game is tied to classes that have existed since the 70s and it can’t really jettison those traditions. In redacting the SRD, however, I kept finding myself asking the question: What if we did?

This is why Ba5ic only has three classes: the Adept, Expert and Warrior. These are simply generic mechanical chassis upon which to place Backgrounds that result in truly literary characters: Sorcerers that can’t cast magic, for example.

In other words, the Background mechanic is a means of making D&D into a set of mechanics that can be used to create a plethora of concepts. The reason I could never play Gray Mouser was that D&D has always been about concepts that have mechanics to justify them. While that works and has done so for decades and (hopefully) decades more, I have always chaffed at the limitations that such frameworks operate under. While the concept might be really cool, I have usually found myself wanting a different concept that the mechanics can’t always handle.

Long-time readers of this blog will know that my go-to Supers RPG is Champions. Regardless of how many excellent Super RPGs have come out over the years (and there are many — V&V will always have a place in my heart), Champions just does it better. The reason is simple: it is a game of mechanics that invites you to dream up concepts to place upon those mechanics. Thus, instead of a Firebolt (which uses the same basic mechanic as a bunch of other offensive spells in D&D), Champions has Energy Blast, which is explicitly those mechanics, without the flavor text of “You hurl a mote of fire at a creature or object within range.” I am free to think of those mechanics as anything from a Fireboat to a flying rocket-propelled fist.

Used in the right way, Backgrounds could very well be a means by which to strip D&D of its concepts and leave only mechanics and an invitation to go wild with our imagination.

While I think Ba5ic falls short in this lofty vision, I think it is a step in that direction. I feel justified in saying this because my oldest decided to start her first D&D campaign as a DM with her friends. Knowing that she probably couldn’t get away with not doing 5e, she asked if she could borrow both my Essentials Rulebook and my (now rough draft) copy of Ba5ic. She pitched both to her friends and they chose Ba5ic because they felt they could have (and I quote) “weirder” characters.

Ba5ic should be generally available in printed format soon.