Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Zak vs Adrian Smith, Round Two

click to enlarge
A few months ago, I posted about doing an homage to an Adrian Smith illustration from one of the old Realms of Chaos books--and about how I fucked it up. 

This is my second attempt--I won't write anything about it today, you can decide for yourself what's working and what isn't.

Here's the (still completely superior) original:
Here's my first attempt:

Monday, January 23, 2017

Things You Can Do With Ram's Dungeon Mad-Libber

So Ram over at Total Party Kill has, in response to me just being like "Somebody should..." just went ahead and made the most useful random adventure widget since the Last Gasp Generators.

What Ram's new thing does is it takes any text you put in and replaces the word or phrase of your choice with random items off a random table of your choice. Now, making your own Abulafia generator already kinda does this, but Ram's generator allows you to do it in a more flexible, off the cuff way--and without making a public page that might step on copyright.

Here's an example:

Carcosa is one of the most useful hexcrawls out there--it's also notoriously repetitive--103 Spawn of Shub Niggurath, endless Villages led by Sorcerers or Fighters full of men distinguished only by the color of their mutant skin.

This formulaicness makes it perfect for this example: the ideal text for Ram's Dungeon Mad Libber is repetitive (so the randomiser will have lots of places to ply its trade) and long (so you'll get to see lots of stacked combinations that reveal lots of different ideas)--


1. Paste the base text into the top box.

2. Choose a word to replace with random options (I started with the ubiquitous Spawn of Shub-Niggurath)

3. Type in some alternate options in the lower box or paste in your favorite random table (or paste in a bunch of random tables, whatever).

Like so:
click to enlarge

Carcosa also has a ton of castles and citadels--another thing you can do is paste in random results with different levels of detail. So basically one result is just "castle" another is "city" but then I also added in a bunch of more complex castles taking from the Dungeon Dozen-the fan index is excellent for this kind of project.

...and then keep going with all the other repeated words:
Until soon you have a whole new book to read:

Village (Rampant perversity after nightfall, outsiders welcome) of 240 black-eyed witches  ruled by “the Servant of the Master,” a  quick-witted  6th-level  knight .

3 mutant red-haired women  hide in these hills, cast out by their fellow village (Barley fields must be soaked in sacrificial blood: every crime or misdemeanor carries death penalty)rs. One has bulbous, hypnotic eyes (save vs. paralyze or be stunned for 2–5 rounds), one can spit acid twice per day (2 dice damage), and one is semi- gelatinous (half damage from non-electromagnetic/ ele werewolvestal weapons).  They have no armor and wield crude clubs.  They are desperate and will attack any passersby.

A raiding force of 35 White witches  led by a chaotic 3rd-level sentient pig terrorizes stragglers and small villages (Ubiquitous witchery: hexes and charms fly about willy nilly) in the area.  Their masters rule the lands to the west.
Looking for another long and repetitive text, I seized on the Shady Dragon Inn--an old TSR book that's basically a list of NPCs. Each entry has stats and a short description--by replacing phrases you don't need with stuff from random tables, you can turn these random hirelings into complicated villains or heavy NPCs, hundreds at a time. For example in each description, it says the NPC "wears" something:

After doing this a few times with key phrases, and using "find and replace" and text mechanic to remove things like all the +2 swords, etc, you get dozens of entries like:

Nadia Svensdottir

 Telepathic and driven by a fear of the dead. Elf. Cleric of Tiamat (Red hand) a sword,  four javelins, and dagger.

Nadia is only 5'2" and 98 lbs. Her dark hair and merry brown eyes show little of the hard life she has spent. Her father, it is said, is the famous pirate Beorn Waverider. She fights for honor and nation: personality nullified by grim nationalistic fervor, demands of rigorous ethical code and extreme stoicisms. A scarlet bandana is her favorite headband. At , she has travelled most of the waters and lands around, and is well- known. She once fought and killed five bandits to protect her boyfriend, who is now dead.

I like how she turns out to be afraid of the ghosts of her pirate father and ex- . That's a whole plot suggesting itself right there.

You can do the same thing with any Monster Manual--take the Treasure Type stat and have the widget replace that with entries from a random treasure table, take a stat you don't care about (Psionics?) and tell the generator to replace that with any kind of detail that interests you, etc.
You can also use the mad-libber to make stuff from scratch. I started with 50 rooms with "Empty", and mixed it up with a list of generic descriptors:
Then once each room had a generic something in it, I went to work pasting in tables to replace each generic thing. Here's all the "treasure"s replaced with random elements from a list of treasures:
Aaaaand then monsters:

And then read through what you've got and season to taste:

1  In chest: Colony of live bats (chewed aperture in rear of chest).
2 Empty
3  Furious pirate captain w/squad of the vilest sea-dogs conducts brutal search for pick-pocket who slithered below with enchanted sextant, cutlasses drip with vital fluids of the last one to refuse questioning+ Invisible cages and explosive floor tiles triggered by delicate pots..
4  Empty
5  Green Bastards: bark-covered, extremely thorny war pawns of the Earth God dedicated to extermination of human nuisance, nurseries hidden in vast, aggressively expanding forest known as The Green Hell.
6  Sizable swarm of dungeon gnats forms into patterns that appear to be a repeating series of rune.
7  Ditto
8 Infested alarms and gravity reversing animated statues triggered by a forbidden scroll.+ Moldy snares triggered by steep stairs.
9  Packet of extremely old hard tack: now really quite hard indeed.
10  Giant spider with web+  Partially looted royal catacombs of the extinct prehumans, signs of necromantic tampering, access denied by massed skeleton warrior.
11  Empty
12 Carnivorous bats +Diseased swinging glaives and gravity reversing crushing walls triggered by a bound prisoner 
13  Empty
14  Blood trail leading to middle of wall (no secret door).
15  Sizable swarm of dungeon gnats forms into patterns that appear to be a repeating series of rune.
16 Floor: Hot to the touch, protective footwear required.
17  Human mercenary in skin tight action suit w/ rapier, dagger, armor-piercing specialist of the utmost skill, leads frail bald human in stained hospital gown w/power to detect gold at 120 feet.
18 Empty
19  Warrior with face melted by eldritch sorcery staggers to and fro senselessly, has no mouth but would love to warn adventurers of mind-bending dangers on level three + Floor: Covered in thick layer of a very fine white powder (instantly airborne).
20  Stunning snares and nauseating barbed nets triggered by tripwires.+  Drownesian elf.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The End of Thought Eater

These two essays are not by me--they are the final two essays in the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Contest.  The winner of this round reigns supreme for all time!

Here's the first one--if you like it best send an email saying only MASS in the subject heading to zakzsmith at hawtmayle dawt calm .

Mass Combat Belongs in the Monster Manual

D&D started as a hack on a war game, which is why OD&D depends  on, but does not provide, mass combat rules. The original game  included kingdom management rules and prices for castles and  armies. The first adventure module, in the Blackmoor  supplement, had rooms that contained hundreds of soldiers. You  were expected to break out TSR's Chainmail war game to use  these things. In fact, as you got higher and higher level,  Gygax expected that more and more of your time playing D&D  would actually be spent playing Chainmail. That's sort of like  if you went to a Scrabble tournament and they said, "Good news!  You guys are such good Scrabble players that now you get to  play Monopoly."

D&D went mainstream because audiences liked the fast,  immersive, co-op game of the imagination, and they didn't latch  onto (or even understand the references to) the slow, rules- bound, head-to-head, miniature-requiring war game. So, in later  editions, the Chainmail references were cut. Essentially, D&D's  intended end game, conquest and rulership, was removed. The  middle of the game, grinding for money, was extended, even  though there were now no castles and armies to spend the money  on. 

And this is a big loss for D&D. In any edition, high level D&D  is not a solid product. High level fights are swingy, monster variety is  sparse.  And, worse, with epic battles and kingdom-building  mostly offscreen, characters can't leave their mark on the game  world, except by saving it from ever more powerful dungeon  monsters. Players and DMs alike generally try to keep away from  war epics, because running big battles isn't something D&D  does. 

To fill the hole left by the removal of Chainmail and epic-fantasy play, TSR and WOTC churned out stand-alone battle  supplements every few years:

-OD&D introduced Swords & Spells, which was an updated  Chainmail with special rules for each of the D&D spells and  monsters. It technically allowed battling lone heroes against  10:1 (10 soldiers to a mini) figures, although it recommended  avoiding cross-scale combat as much as possible.

-Basic D&D included War Machine: a sort of spreadsheet where  you came up with a rating of each army and then rolled a  percentile die to decide the battle.

-1e and 2e both published an edition of Battle System. This was  another entry in the Chainmail/Swords & Spells tradition, but  it came in a box with cut-out-and-assemble peasant houses,  which was cool.

-3e had the Miniatures Handbook. Again, its mass combat rules  were along the lines of Chainmail, featuring typical war game  rules for formations, facing, morale, etc, using d20 mechanics. 

-5e has playtest mass-combat rules, which will presumably see  official publication some day. They're traditional wargame- style rules.

All of these games perpetuate the flaw that kept Chainmail from  catching on in the first place: in order to play them, you have  to stop playing D&D.

D&D is not a war game. All the design decisions that make a  good war game lead to a bad D&D game, and vice versa. 

-Because war games are played competitively, they must be  fair. D&D campaigns can only achieve longevity when they are  unfair in favor of the players. 

-Because war games are fair: war games must have complete rules. You can't make stuff up halfway through without  favoring one of the players. So you can only make a pontoon bridge if there are rules for it. D&D rules are incomplete by  design. There are no rules in any edition for making a pontoon  bridge, but if you can scrounge up some boats and lumber, the  DM will let you do it. 

-Because war games are complete: war games must have  detailed rules. A good war game models the rock-paper- scissors of archery, cavalry, and spearmen, and provides big  bonuses and penalties based on terrain, flanking, morale, fog  of war, high ground, and anything else that might conceivably  come up. D&D, on the other hand, features abstract combat rules  that look nothing like reality. Core D&D combat is a barebones  transaction of combatants trading swipes. More important than  realism is simplicity, because most of D&D is not in the combat engine but in the DM and player improvisation that happens at the same time. 

running an epic battle in D&D

D&D is great at handling small fights - say, five characters  fighting a few trolls. Why can't the same rules handle five  characters, the town guard, and a dragon fighting against a  skeleton army, a lich, and a dozen trolls?

What if the first edition Monster Manual had contained stat  blocks for a skeleton horde, a town watch, and so on? Think of  the stories we could have been telling all these years.

My alternate-history army stat blocks are pretty simplistic, but that's what I like about them. A requirement for war-game standards of rules completeness and detail has been holding back high-level play for years. A  D&D  combat is great because of all the rules that Gary Gygax didn't include. Let me talk about the war game rules I  think D&D can live without. 

Casualties. When half your archers are dead, you can  fire half as many arrows, right? Nah. Just as a D&D hero at 1  hp fights at full strength, A 100-soldier army, even at 1 hp,  is still a 100-soldier army. After the battle, hit point damage  can be translated into some ratio of dead, wounded, and fled,  at the DM's discretion.

Facing, frontage, formation. These rules appear in  nearly every war game. We need that level of detail like we  need the First Edition grapple rules. 

Figure scale. War games are not designed for varying  figure scales: every miniature on the battlefield needs to  represent, for instance, 20 soldiers. A war-game fight between a lone  hero and a 20:1 army unit is usually wonky or impossible. On the other  hand, if every army is treated as an individual D&D monster, a  tenth-level fighter can battle on fairly even terms with a  troop representing 10 first level fighters, which can in turn  battle a troll or a unit of 36 goblins. 

Time scale. Most war games have realistic but D&D- incompatible turns of ten minutes or more. I'm sticking with D&D combat rounds. If a massive war is over within a few six- second rounds, that's fine with me. 

If anything, D&D-style fights can be too fast. To make it more likely that everyone gets a turn, I've added a special  rule in my army stat blocks, capping attack damage so that no  army can score a one-hit KO. This favors the underdog (and the  underdog is usually the PCs). Still, this is a special  exception and I wouldn't be surprised if it were unnecessary.

Leadership bonuses. Many war games assign static bonuses to  troops based on the abilities of their commanders. In a war game, which doesn't allow for referee discretion, this is the best  you can do. But in D&D, if a player delivers a speech and leads a charge, or  comes up with a clever scheme, the DM can assign appropriate  bonuses. The more the players act creatively, the more vivid  the scene will be - just as in a standard D&D fight. 

Spell rules. We do NOT want a Swords and Spells-style gloss on every spell describing its  interaction with armies. Here are my abstractions: 
1) Damage  spells ignore area of effect. An 8d6 fireball does 8d6 damage. 
2) "Condition" spells are all-or-nothing. If a Bless spell can  target all the members of an army, it operates normally.  Otherwise, it fails. 

Morale, flanking, setting ambushes, charging, fighting withdrawal, high ground, and every special case I haven't already mentioned. First and and Second Edition have explicit morale rules. In other editions, morale failure is by DM fiat.  If the local morale rules (or lack thereof) are good enough for  10 goblins at level 1, they're good enough for 100 goblins at  level 10. The same principle, "use existing combat rules", applies for flanking (present in 3e and 4e), charging (present in every edition but 5e) and so on.

Here are the stat-block templates I've used for turning any  creature into an army of any size. I've done first and fifth  editions (my current favorites).

Here's the first one--if you like it best send an email saying only FOOL in the subject heading to zakzsmith at hawtmayle dawt calm 

A Fool in Lovecraft Country

There is no single story as important to roleplaying games as H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and there is no single paragraph as important as the opening paragraph of the tale: 

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This statement of theme is at the heart of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game (which reprints this story) and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian horror. You see this statement in rules that drive PCs insane for learning about the Mythos and in countless published scenarios and campaigns that make it clear that any victory won over a cult or a monster is but a brief respite. Clearly that passage has captured the imagination not just of readers but of game designers as well with its depiction of toxic knowledge and comforting ignorance, and those inspired designers have created many excellent works of roleplaying horror, and yet, though I love and play many of those games, Lovecraft’s horror is not my horror.

To understand his horror requires understanding a little about him. Lovecraft, although not religious, was, in his words (in a letter to Maurice Woe in 1918), “Very much interested in the relation I bear to the things about me — the time relation, the space relation, and the causative relation.” Lovecraft thought highly of man’s curiosity, of “the acute, persistent, unquenchable craving TO KNOW [capitalization his].” Lovecraft lays out the case for the modernist view that man can, eventually, know everything. Although I think this point of view is naive, I also find it admirable, and like Lovecraft, I too am “interested in the relation I bear to the things about me.”

However, a few years later in 1923, Lovecraft had soured. He had this to say about Einstein’s counter-intuitive advances in physics: “My cynicism and skepticism are increasing, and from an entirely new cause — the Einstein theory […] There are no values in all infinity — the least idea that there are is the supreme mockery of all.” Reason and science, the tools he used to make sense of the world, had destroyed his sense of the universe. Better to retreat to the “safety of a new dark age.”

That betrayal of faith in modernity was felt by many of Lovecraft’s era. In addition to the chaos of science, they could point to the futile brutality of war, to the inability of medicine to combat a pandemic, to the helplessness of the elite who failed to maintain world order, and to the clergy whose explanations sounded more and more hollow.

This disillusionment, this betrayal, as profound as it was for Lovecraft and others, is not something I shared with Lovecraft. I first read him as a middle school gamer in the early 1980s, and what I read was not existential horror, not to me. Of course some situations were frightening and he created a dark, moody, atmosphere with his writing. But I never wanted the “safety of a new dark age.”I had already grappled with faith, belief, and atheism, and I came around to atheism, and I was the happier for it. 

I had considered Pascal’s wager: If believing in God costs nothing, and if belief in God is a prerequisite for a good afterlife and disbelief automatically sends you to Hell, then why not simply believe? What Pascal hadn’t counted on is that there many variants of “belief in God” but there is only one Hell, and so I saw his wager as a con: Someone is sending you to Hell, so I refused his wager, and was content with at least philosophical peace of mind. Unlike Lovecraft, I found comfort in the absurd universe that could kill me at any moment: At least I wouldn’t suffer forever. 

I envy those people who can feel in a Lovecraftian game or story the fear that the author tried to inspire in his readers, but I do not play those games because I feel a delightful frisson of fear when I play. Although I love Call of Cthulhu (and Delta Green), I play those games because the characters are the most heroic characters I know. They are saving the world, opposing an impossible evil, and the players, at least, “know” that it is a fool’s errand: “Well, Nyarlathotep will just get the world next time and your characters will die or go insane, so why bother?” Of course Nyarlathotep or some other dark god will walk the Earth one day, but the Earth will be swallowed by the sun one day too, and, in the meantime, the heroes who saved the world have bought its inhabitants another few years. And if according to the Talmud, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” how can you count the good (imaginary, I know, but also a good to aspire to) done by the heroic investigators in Call of Cthulhu?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Blindheim > Bullywug + Cambion, Heavy

Still redoing the monster manual...


Page 35 of the 5th ed Monster Manual brings us to the bullywug, a boring petting-zoo-people reskinned goblin which should not exist. They should be replaced with the blindheim, from the old Fiend Folio. It's a frog guy and it looks at you and you go blind because they looked so fucked up.

They are a kind of Slaad--the gods of frogs--and come in all sizes and kinds--any sufficiently pious frog or toad (they aren't biologically distinct) can be transformed into a blindheim via acts of consequential service to their kind.

There is one good detail in the 5e bullywug entry. So they hang out with trained frogs, including giant ones--this isn't the good detail, this is a stupid thing that D&D always does but decent fiction writers and films almost never do where they lump together similarly-derived zoomorphic monsters in a way that would appeal to like a toy collector but in practice only ends up diluting the effectiveness of the archetypal images involved--the good part is that they use the giant toads' gullets to carry stuff, including people. I'm gonna have goblins do that.


The Cambion in classic demonology is like a changeling baby but with succubusses (which is more fun to say than succubi). Ever since at least the original Monster Manual 2 it has always grown up to be yet another generic horned devilperson that can do things like charm or poke you with a spear.


Their conception is according to at least one source weird:

1. Succubus fucks guy, gets cum.

2. Succubus gives cum to incubus.

3. Incubus puts cum in human woman.

Between steps 1 and 2 and steps 2 and 3 there are several intriguingly tasteless adventure hooks or hentai plotlines. The only interesting thing I found in research about it after it's born is that it's extremely heavy.


Cambions are not found as adults--as adults they either become full-on demons or grow into tieflings (so you can have PCs whose "parents" are succubusses which is fun). As an encounter, what you get is a gross child between 1 second and 5 years old--generally a punishment for excessive lustfulness.

The Cambion has a fuckton of hit points (82, like it says in the book) and good AC (19, like it says in the book) it bites for like d8+4 damage with its creepy teeth but its main gimmick is heaviness.

It gets heavier the longer it's in one place or in contact with a given creature, and cannot move except of its own volition.

The goes in for the kid-grapple (I would say it charms you into a hug, but I already used that for lava babies)  crawls onto you, begins to bite, and each round grows heavier--the first round it requires a strength save of 18 to stay upright, then 20, then 22 etc. All the while it exerts pressure on the floor equal to an attack with a strength equal to the save--shattering wooden planks, then stone tile, until it begins to be so heavy it will actually pull you into the ground, through all the dungeons of the earth, and down to hell to meet its parents.

Monday, January 2, 2017

5th Edition Skills vs Old School Skills

5th edition D&D's skill list has always struck me as a pretty good list of the kinds of things characters try to do outside of combat, but a lot of old schoolers glaze over at any kind of skill-based system and I'm not sure I blame them. When I switch to AD&D from 5e I barely notice any layer of depth missing.

So: how do 5e skills compare to how the same activities would be handled in an old school game?

Perception--Oh boy--first one's the hardest. This is a case of old school being more micromanaged than the current edition. There's Hear Noise which just covers thieves saying "Hey I'm gonna stop and listen carefully", Find/Remove Traps and several different (usually racial) abilities to notice specific things like dwarves have a chance to notice odd stonework in certain editions, etc and then LotFP's Search which is the Specialist (Thief's) active "Look around" ability. There may also be buried away in the originally Unearthed Arcana or 2e some stuff about druids or rangers or barbarians noticing specific stuff but checking would require getting out of bed, which I refuse to do right now.

Popular semi- and unofficial ways old school would handle other aspects of this are:

-The classic "careful examination" which means the player describes that they look at it or turn it over or whatever (some modules include a time limit like "If examined for at least 3 minutes you notice there's a Potion of Gaseous Form hidden in the carpet").

-Wisdom check as a passive perception check

-Some modules would point out special noticeables by being like "A magic-user will immediately notice an eldritch energy in the air". Which gets into the thorny thing about how basically every knowledge or lore skill could be lowkey considered a perception skill if you think about it. (PS in Call of Cthulhu like half the things on that sheet are kinds of perception skills, and in Night's Black Agents even more.)

So what's better? One explicit reason for Perception being a skill in 5e was so that rogues/thieves could have better chances of noticing stuff than clerics. That makes more sense to me than the straight Wisdom check at least in dungeons (clerics are only wise in a non-niche non-technical environment). The hodge-podge of "notices" is just that: a hodge podge, and are hard to DM in a passive situation because you're like "Uh...who has a bonus to sense sloping corridors? No reason..." which leads to these only being used actively.

In practice, I tend to use a passive perception check a lot because:

-I want to convey the layers of information between "It's a stone room" and "Oh, you look at the chandelier? Well you see..." Often this is useless information on purpose that just is some setting stuff because I want to cram in as much detail as possible ("The architecture appears to the paladin to be Late-Decadent-Albino-Dogman").

-If you're doing like overland travel for hours it isn't practical or nice to be a straw old school hardass and go "Aaaand what are you doing the next minute?" for every minute of a journey, but at the same time you want to be able to ambush-murder players while still giving them a chance of a subtle clue first. Passive perception is good for that.

...so having that as an official thing is good. Getting rid of thief Hear Noise doesn't really lose you much, but I like the race and class-based ones, like dwarves notice stonework, elves hear stuff because pointy ears, etc. it's probably easy to be like "Ok, Plover gets advantage to this one"--which does take some effort on the part of the GM but no more than remembering Halfling's get a 2 in 6 to notice pie or whatever so I'm gonna say 5e gets it right on this one.

Athletics--Strength-based feats of physical prowess. In games like Runequest and 3e this would break down into like Swimming and Jumping but at that point it's a detail fetish--this is mostly just stuff old school would handle as a strength check and I'm good with that.

The only reason it's a skill in 5e is technical: so that strength-centric classes get the proficiency bonus to doing strengthy stuff and so are as good at those things as other classes are at their things--ie so that when the druid is extra-wise when looking at a tree, the barbarian is using the same probability math when trying to arm-wrestle.

In other games being good at sports and being strong might be worth hair-splitting about, but in D&D you can be pretty sure that's basically why they took you along.

This skill is a strange outcome of trying to do everything on the same die and on the same scale--skill checks (modifier plus skill bonus, which goes up as you increase in level) typically involve bigger numbers than ability checks (modifier only, which only goes up when the whole ability score goes up--which is often enough in 5e), so for simplicity's sake it's a way to make ability checks into skill checks. In practice it kinda doesn't matter though--see Persuasion/Deception below for an example of how this plays out.

Handling some stuff with broad ability checks and some stuff with training-oriented skill checks (with better math) is only hard once you got a bajillion skills because then the DM has to remember what all the skills are. This is a problem in like Chill 2e. In D&D there's not so many skills so I don't see why they tried to make all the math the same.

The only exception to the pointlessness of Athletics is climbing: Goats, monkeys and thief-types are supposed to be able to climb stuff without being very strong (this is a major point of skill systems: to have people be good at specific parts of things they aren't broadly good at. Like you need to be able to make an idiot who knows a lot of Dr Who trivia.) Old School handles this as its own (usually thief) skill, which makes sense in the more archetypal world of those games, but it works in 5e if you always handle climbing under...

Acrobatics--Agility-based feats of physical prowess. Old school games would handle this with a dex check and--again--it's basically just here to give Dex-centric classes a proficiency bonus to the kinds of things their class does. Outside that technical reason, the only good reason for Acrobatics is it's a place to put climbing (dodging is handled with saving throws).

Sleight of Hand--Gary thought it mattered a lot that while you had a 3 in 10 chance of Picking Pockets, you only had a 2.5 in 10 chance of Opening Locks and a 2 in 10 chance of Removing Traps but he was the only person in RPGs ever to think that. As a long-time AD&D thief player I can definitively say the father of role-playing games was full of shit wrong because what you really have until like 7th level is a really good chance of dying if you try any of those things and many retroclones agree--Lotfp bundles these skills as Delicate Tasks or whatnot. Old School and 5e are almost identical on this score.

This also points to the other reason for skill systems at least in D&D--creating things that only well-trained people can do, but that also (unlike ability checks) you get better at as you level.

Stealth--The Artist Formerly Known As Move Silently and Hide In Shadows and another fine example of pointless Gygaxian 5% difference hairsplitting and another example where LotFP uses the same skill--this time calling it the same name--Stealth.

Arcana--This is the wizard's equivalent of Athletics--the skill they get to represent their smartness is especially wizardy smartness and just balances out the math so they are as good at their thing as the thief is at theirs. (Obviously skills like this also let you build PCs with off-class skillsets like a scholarly thief, an undeniable perk of newer games if you are into that.) In old school you'd just have this be an Int check only wizard-types could do, which....works fine.

History--Old school doesn't have this and as a guy who has literally hundreds of pages of stuff he wrote about his stupid D&D world I like it. It's a nice way to throw useful info and red herrings at my players. Can't think of a lot of reasons for it not to be something any character with a high Int could do, though.

LotFP has Architecture, which overlaps with this but is less useful if you're looking at a chalice and more useful if you're looking for hidden rooms, but then that pokes in on Search.

Some old modules handle this kind of thing as "PCs from Greendale have a chance to notice that..." which is pretty easy to implement.

Investigate--I hate this skill. 90% of the uses for it overlap with stuff I want to rig so the players can try to figure it out themselves ("The corpse looks like it was killed from behind by a bunch of needles and there's some pinholes in the wall, so..."). I have to work to find ways to not cheat players who got proficiency in this out of their 2 points worth of D&D and probably so does every other old-school-minded GM.

Arguably it is also trying to be for Intelligence what Athletics is for strength--the skill that balances out the math. It can fuck right off.

Nature--What rangers and druids have in common (and some barbarians). This is a good new skill because it covers things those classes should be able to do at a level better than someone else of equivalent Int. In Old School systems which have rangers and druids this is broken down into stuff like Identify Plants and whatnot which so far as I can see confers no important playable benefit. Good job 5e.

Religion--Looks at first like a math-balancing cleric equivalent of Athletics (for fighters) and Arcana (for wizards) but it isn't for two reasons.

First: a lot of the time this applies to other peoples' religions, like Iceblood Orcs of the Fuckwastes. So this is not just about how to be a priest but identifying a broad swath of the culture going on in your gameworld (presumably because it's heretical and needs to be annihilated).

Second: it's Intelligence-based and clerics are supposed to be good at Wisdom, so the idea here is that knowledge of scripture and holy lore (especially other peoples') are secondary skills for a cleric, which makes sense. A D&D cleric is not necessarily so much a scholar as an armed zealot.

Old school would typically handle this with an int check that only clerics could do, which loses a shade of subtlety, but maybe not enough to matter.

Animal handling--Arguably part of druid and ranger (and for horses, paladin) skillsets in AD&D 1e but basically new. This is my favorite 5e skill: it's something that comes up a lot (in and out of combat), it defines a medieval world, it makes sense for a variety of classes to have it (it's one of the fighter options because: horses and guard dogs), and ladies love it.

Insight--Telling if people are lying, mostly--plus other interpersonal details the GM might not want to trust to his or her acting ability. The most proximate ancestor is Call of Cthulhu's Psychology skill but old school you could handle this with a Wisdom check, and Wisdom without this is barely Wisdom.

Medicine--An odd one. Somebody smart pointed out that there are very few uses for this skill, rules-as-written. Old school has no skill here, although various Death and Dismemberment tables allow an Int check to help an injured PC in some cases. I put it on my 5e one to give it some more use.

But in the end, even if you rewrite the rule so magic healing doesn't do all it could do and more--do you need a niche for someone who is better at medicine than they are at general Int-oriented tasks? Might be a pointless skill.

Survival--The other thing rangers and druids (and some barbarians) are supposed to be good at, and which AD&D handles kind of scattershot in the abilities for those classes. It makes sense to bundle hunting, tracking, fishing, etc in one skill and it makes sense that a ranger can be wiser when hunting than they are about offering advice. I also like the idea that a druid who takes this skill is typically better at it than a ranger of the same level (better wisdom) because they just like disappear at camp-setting-up time and come back with a pile of dead warthogs like what?

This plus Nature would be identical to the LotFP specialist's Bushcraft though serving a slightly different purpose since there are no rangers or druids in that game.  Ok.

Performance--Old school would handle this as a dex or charisma check (could also see an argument for sleight of hand). It could be argued that if you do that you lose the ability to differentiate a trained musician from a gymnast holding a mandolin but I can't think of any reason any sane person would care in a D&D game. PS still fuck bards.

Intimidation--Surprisingly useful in that it often does what a reaction check does in old school. It is a little weird though because intimidation capacity seems more a function of charisma plus how big, scary or well-armed you look rather than charisma plus a special skill plus level. It's not a skill in old school, but would be derived on a case-by-case basis from those factors. And if it's a matter of looking more dangerous than you are then that seems like a species of Deception?

But then again there's that issue of Daredevil where DD is missing and the Human Torch (who can set things on fire by looking at them) has to take his place as urban vigilante and sucks at it because none of the lowlifes or hoods believe he'll light them up. So maybe Intimidation needs to be a skill. Convince me?

Persuasion--This is just straight up a skill that exists so charisma checks can use the same math as strength checks boosted by athletics etc. Old school would just use charisma. However...

Deception--Well there's charisma as clerics use it and charisma as thieves use it. Fair enough. Old school does not make this distinction at all, though it is meaningful.

Here's a weird result: if they didn't include Persuasion as a skill and just relied on Charisma, yet Deception was a skill, then that would mean that after a few levels you would always be better off lying to someone than telling the truth. At least in the abstract--realistically the GM would/should simply set the DC of convincing someone by lying higher than by telling the truth.
So altogether we've got:

1. Reorganized thief/rogue/specialist skills (Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, Stealth)--these are by most measures just more useful than their old school counterparts and there are less of them, so definitely a vote here for 5e solely on the grounds of simplifying life.

2. Reorganized ranger/druid/maybe barbarian skills (Nature, Survival)--as thief skills, these are a clear improvement because they're simpler than their old versions without losing depth.

3. Skills made necessary by the system math (Athletics, Arcana, Persuasion, Insight) You're not missing much by excluding these from old school play, except the ability to make your PC less archetypal on paper (cleric who is a witch hunter so knows a thing or two about Arcana, for instance)--but you knew that when you decided to roll old school.

4. Borderline, arguably useful depending on the campaign/rulings but could probably be absorbed into parent ability with no big loss (Performance could be assigned to dex or charisma the few times it comes up in a properly bardless campaign, Medicine, History and Religion can be Int).

5. Total abomination (Investigation)

6. Oddball thing I'm not sure should work like other skills do (Intimidation)

7. Genuinely clarifying or adding new level of detail to the game (Animal Handling, Deception, Perception)

My overall verdict is no matter how you slice it, old school games have some weird problems around noticing shit and 5e has players making a few more choices during character creation than they probably need to.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My Name Is God (I Hate You)

The real world has no genre. Stuff happens in whatever order for pinball reasons. Not so D&D.

I'm imagining a cleric or philosopher inside the game world who accurately discovers the broad metaphysical rules upon which events in their life (and the lives of their companions) are based. Not at the level of every digit of armor class, but the correct assumptions that would eventually lead those born after this little Leibniz to something like accurate-in-D&D science.

More difficult is figuring out the priority of these rules--which ones take precedence over others. I was myself surprised to find there was a priority and it was rigid.

When all gamed out, the philosopher's laws also function as a description of GMing style, and a guide to nervous players (I have no nervous players, but I can imagine them) about what to expect when they play.

I think it's probably a good idea for DMs to think about what their own world's rules would be from this POV, but I've been doing ok without it until last week so maybe not urgent?

Here they are:

1. Law of Negated Aesthetics--The Creator of All Things has certain images and events of which he does not approve and these can never occur. This is the only Law which overrides the Law of Consistency below--for example, no-one ever wears sandals, despite the fact the law of consistency suggests you might be able to make them, goblins may fill pig-carcasses with lighter-than-air gas and thereby float but there is no way to make a full-sized blimp for the creator does not approve of blimps (nor does he approve of, for another example, gunpowder--though sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter strangely usually do what they would otherwise outside a gunpowder-making context). It also overrides all other Laws. Note this Law is total--things can happen or can't. There is a never a situation (say, trying to jump a chasm and jumping a distance related to your strength) which can happen sometimes but other times is aesthetically negated. This and Law 7 are the most complex laws and detailing them completely would require knowledge of the tastes of the Creator to a level of detail perhaps even he is unaware of.

2. Law of Consistency--The rules by which the universe operates are consistent and do not change. This overrides the Law of Free Will and all other Laws below so, for instance, I cannot travel to a town that has been destroyed by a marauding skyfortress even if I choose to and want to on account of my free will.

3. Law of Free Will--I may do whatever I like within the bounds of my abilities. This overrides the Law of Plural Solutions and all other Laws below so, for instance: if I build a dungeon and lock my foe inside it, I can create a puzzle that can only be escaped with one key.

4. Law of Plural Solutions--Challenges will be solveable in more than one way. Also: the Creator is not omniscient and there may be solutions the Creator has not imagined. This overrides the Law of Challenge and all other Laws below so that if I imagine a solution to a challenge that the Creator has not imagined, the challenge may cease to be difficult.

5. Law of Challenge--Life will be characterized by difficult challenges in need of urgent solution. This Law overrides the Law of Variety and all other Laws below so that, for example, if fighting 5 goblins in a row (lack of variety) would present a challenge not provided by fighting 1, this event can occur.

6. Law of Variety--Situations and things encountered will tend to be various. This overrides the Law of Posited Aesthetics, so if I just saw a wolf running across the snow last week I am less likely to see one this week despite the creator's fondness for said wolves.

7. Law of Posited Aesthetics--The Creator Of All Things has certain images of which he is fond (wolves in snow, ruined towers, beautiful women, decapitation, etc). These things will tend to appear and the world is made entirely of things that resemble them unless it violates a higher law (it logically can and will never conflict with Law 1, however, as the Creator cannot simultaneously like and dislike the same image).

The laws (like most good science) predict answers to questions.

Let's say there's a beautiful desert and the wizard casts what's supposed to be a permanent frost spell on it. Will it stay there or will some agent remove the frost? Well: the only thing that supports the desert's existence is the Law of Posited Aesthetics (the creator likes the beautiful desert), which has less priority than the Law of Consistency, so the spell will work as normal, so long as the creator is cool with frost (ie not violating the Law of Negated Aesthetics)--and the creator is or it wouldn't have been possible to create frost in the first place.

Can I ride a rhino at first level? Well this would be cool (7th Law) but would remove a lot of challenges (3rd Law). Oh well.

The main problem for the philosopher is that Law # 1 covers so much unknown ground and is so powerful it can kibosh any other prediction. Though they can take comfort in knowing it does come into play relatively rarely.
Another thing the DM can do is run through the laws in reverse to write an adventure.

Posit a cool image (Crooked witch house)
Add variety (It's actually 10 variations on a kitchen inside)
Add challenge (The witch prepares contact poisons in the kitchens)
Make sure the challenges have multiple solutions (In addition to avoiding them, there are antidotes and recipes)
Make sure the players have choices they can make (Different kitchens are clearly laid out as containing more valuable recipes but also more dangerous poisons)
Make sure it all makes sense together (Check the area of the map that the witch house is in to make sure it makes sense as being there and either has plausible connections to what's around it or plausible reasons not to have them)
Make sure nothing gauche is implied (Maybe draw the witches so that nobody thinks they're wearing basic burlap or anything).

Monday, December 26, 2016

This Is Some Kind Of Milestone of Something

The mainstreaming of D&D continues: 5th edition is still selling like hotcakes, comedians-playing-D&D shows proliferate, properties like Skyrim and Game of Thrones and the Hobbit movies grab from it openly, and the boardgame explosion is dragging RPG properties behind.

On another front--I know DIY D&D was definitely making things weird and tryhard enough that it was possible to write the words She seems to be able to traverse any kind of theme and terrain and wield them together into an assemblage that dwells in the interstitial state between dreams and our darkest waking places, a kind of laughter derived from shock of the new. For fans of Lars von Trier, Anne Carson, Kobo Abe, and Amy Hempel in one part of an article while mentioning a Dungeons & Dragons book in another part of the same article.

I just didn't know the D&D in question would be ours.

Maze of the Blue Medusa made Vice's top 22 of 2016:

MotBM is a full-color dungeon game book designed to be played as a tabletop RPG. But, to me, it's a kind of encyclopedic novel you could spend forever just flipping open, staring, searching out the impossible combination to its labyrinthine lock.

Read the full piece here. EDIT: Somebody Reddited it here if you do Reddit.

Pretty neat--I always hoped people who knew fuck-all about the game would still be able to see the weird paraliterary part of our RPG books, it's cool to see my guess was right. Merry Christmas to us and hey buy one.