building the one page spelljammer rules: here are the complete rules!

November 20th, 2015 by paul

I'm writing one-page space rules for D&D. I've given myself some extra challenges: it must be all-editions; it must be lavishly illustrated; and it must allow procedural generation of solar systems and alien encounters.

So far I've detailed the space-travel rules and the alien races. Now it's time to go planetside: let's build some solar systems. Obviously, Spelljammer is a primary inspiration here, but I'm also drawing from Star Wars, John Carter of Mars, Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, and OD&D's dungeonbuilding advice.

Star color from Jack Vance: When PCs enter a dungeon room, they can get a lot of information right away (there's a treasure chest, there's a monster, there's a door). What do PCs learn when they enter a star system? I thought I'd use a star's color as an index of its potential value. From Krypton to Vance's Dying Earth stories to Dark Sun, red suns represent planets on the verge of extinction. By analogy, young blue stars might host virgin worlds and prehistoric creatures. This isn't good planetary science, but it's passable space opera.

Planetary conditions from Star Wars: Spelljammer has a conceit where every planet has an element type: water, fire, earth, and air planets. This is neat and very D&D, but I prefer the familiar Star Wars model: every planet has a prevailing terrain type, largely determined by its temperature. There are cold planets (Hoth), temperate planets (Coruscant), and hot planets (Tatooine), plus a few exotics like Bespin.

Treasure and monster placement from OD&D: In keeping with my "starmap as a dungeon" idea, I've used some of the monster/treasure placement guidelines from 0e/1e's random dungeon generation guidelines. Strategic Review #3 suggests that, for every 20 dungeon rooms, 12 are empty, 3 contain monsters and treasure, 2 contain monsters only, 1 room contains a "special", 1 a trick/trap, and one room has just treasure. I'll make my planetary defenses and rewards approximately match this pattern: about 12 out of 20 star systems will be barren, and there will be proportionally similar quantities of monster-, trap-, and treasure-laden planets. Monstrous inhabitants and hazards are determined by the color of the star and the Encounters rules, and treasure by planet type (one in six planets is a "treasure world").

"Extras" from Spelljammer: Spelljammer has seven page of star-system-building rules, of which the best part is the "extras" table, which assigns moons, rings, colonies, and other exotic trappings to planets. I'll add such a table.

Here's are my charts for star color, planet temperature, and moons.

Star Type: Star color dictates tech level. Roll d20.
1 Blue star. Primeval plants/beasts.
2 White star. Stone age tribes/exotic monsters.
3 Yellow star. Civilized planet. Technology supersedes D&D norm (for instance, laser swords, d10 damage). Powerful machine-aided magic. Fleets and armies.
4 Orange star. Declining world. Post-apocalyptic barbarism (like the PCs' home world). Monsters in ancient dungeons.
5-6 Red star. Dying planet, littered with forgotten dungeons.
7 Exotic system. Asteroid field, planar portal, black hole, supernova, nebula, double or triple star system. No planets.
8 Green, purple, or black star: Sentient star with sinister power (for instance, casts Suggestion 1/day on everyone in system, or implants visitors with slaad). Roll d6 on this chart for civilization level of inhabited planets.
9-19 Any color star (roll d6 for color only): only barren planets.
20 1d4 habitable planets: roll d6 for the star's color and d6 for each planet's civilization level (they don't have to match).

Planet type: roll d6
1 ice world: mix of tundra/ice/mountain.
2 temperate world: forest/plain/hill mix.
3 hot world: jungle/desert/mountain/lava mix.
4 extreme world: too hot/cold for unprotected visitors.
5 exotic world: gas giant; ring world; asteroids; artificial, hollow, or living planet; fungal forest; mercury sea.
6: Treasure world. Around a hot star: hot world. 1d10x100 of gems/minerals on landing site: mining finds 10x more. White star: same, but cold world. Yellow star: temperate world. High-tech analogues of magic items. Otherwise: hot world. 2x times normal treasure in forgotten dungeons.

Moon type: For main planet, and one barren planet, roll d12.
1-6: No moons.
7: Planetary ring.
8: d4 barren moons.
9: habitable moon: roll d6 on Star Color for tech level.
10: Colony/mine (roll d8+3 on Encounters for owner)
11-12: roll d8+2 twice on this table.

Here is the complete one-pager, ready for space adventure.


Here it is as a PDF.

building the one page spelljammer, part 2: monsters of the deep

November 11th, 2015 by paul

I sometimes run D&D as a planet-hopping space opera, so I need simple space travel rules. I believe that, in order to minimize page flipping, rules systems should fit on one page (with illustrations!). I've already started: I've come up with star mapping rules and space ship travel/combat rules, and I've barely covered the edges of a page!. The next most important question is this: what horrible monsters await you in the void between the stars?

When you're writing rules for D&D in space, you've got to at least consider what Spelljammer has to say. Spelljammer devotes many, many pages to the monsters, dangers, and PC races to be found in space. I want to condense that onto half a page max. I'll convert all that fluff into crunch by putting it into a random encounter chart. Along with each entry, I'll explain my game design thinking. The design notes are just for fun, and are not necessary for running the game. Oh, and I'll draw pictures of all the starships and space monsters on the chart. While I have the pen out, I'll make a Spelljammer-esque logo for "D&D In Space".


Encounters: Each day, and on entering a system or planet, roll d6. On a 6, there's an encounter.

To save room, I'll try to make the same table work for space encounters and encounters on the surface of a planet. I'd also like to have separate encounter probabilities for different types of planets. I'll make a single chart, with primitive-planet encounters towards the beginning of the chart, advanced in the middle, etc, and then use different dice expressions to generate different encounter types.

Roll d20 in space; 1d4 on a primitive planet; 1d6+3 on a civilized planet; 1d6+8 on a decadent planet; 1d4+14 on a dying planet.

That's all the rules. Read on for my suggested random encounter chart, and scroll to the end of the page to see the updated and illustrated one-pager.

d20 encounter chart

We'll start off with weather and natural disasters. Those can happen afloat or on land. On land they're a very common trope in prehistoric settings.

1 hazard. Planetary/space storm; volcano; earthquake; sunflare.

In Spelljammer, lizardfolk are a surprisingly big deal: despite their relatively low technology, they're one of the major starfaring races. I don't see them deserving all that attention, but generalized low-tech anthropomorphic beasties definitely merit 1/20th of the encounters table.

2 stone age beasts. Lizardfolk, etc.

Spelljammer has some good advice for creating alien monsters: use a Monster Manual stat block and change the monster's appearance. It also has some bad advice: alter trivial parts of the stat block. It suggests doubling or halving the number appearing; adding or subtracting 1 from the AC; and similar undetectable changes. Don't bother. No one is going to be like "Hey, if this monster's AC was one higher, I woulda said it was a Mind Flayer!" Just use the original stat block.

I'll also flog another one of my pet theories here: pokémon as our best representation of alien Lovecraftian terror.

3 monsters. Alien predators. Stats: choose a random monster. Appearance: combine parts of different monsters. In space, they might be stowaways on an abandoned barge or piloting a warship.

Spelljammer asserts that humans are the most common of the starfaring races. This is true in most sci-fi, but I prefer D&D to stick to its Princess of Mars/sword-and-planet roots, in which most dwellers among the stars are humanlike but not human.

Spot 4 on the encounter chart is a overlap area which may be rolled by either 1d4 (on planets more primitive than the D&D standard) or 1d6+3 (for "civilized" planets, i.e. those with higher-than-D&D technology.) Humanlike creatures should be common at both tech levels.

Note: In Spelljammer, there are dozens of pages devoted to the many human-built starships, which are usually shaped like bugs or fish. I'm not sure why this is, but it's an evocative detail worth preserving.

4 humanlike. Similar to humans in all but appearance (they have forehead ridges or fish heads or unicorn horns or they're bipedal rhinos). Roll d6: 1 good, 2-4 neutral, 5-6 evil. Depending on tech level, they live in tribes and fly barges, or rule shining cities and fly metal bug warships.

I feel that the galaxy needs a high-level humanoid race. Space-traveling PCs are likely high level, and can't be lording it over level-1 peons everywhere they go. I'm going to add a new humanlike race to the major races: "godling." They're the rich, mighty mortal descendants of the gods of a million prime material planes. They have the stats of humans of character level 8 to 15. I imagine that the various noble godling factions are always warring with each other, especially the scions of good and evil gods. I see them as irritatingly perfect: their heroes are mighty and noble, their villains dastardly, their alliances and treacheries cosmos-shattering, and even their peasants are clean and wise. Now to condense all that gushing into a short sentence:

5 godlings. Superhero descendants of the cosmos's million gods, godlings (8+ HD) swirl capes in space palaces, sail longships, and ride dragons.

Spelljammer makes up an advanced race of blue giants, the Arcane, who dispense the "spelljammer helms" that allow space travel. That's a useful role, but very specific to the Spelljammer setting. I want this one-pager to be more of a kit that plugs into the DM's own setting. If we broaden this category to include all highly-evolved elder races, we make tons of science-fiction stories possible, including like 80% of original Star Trek episodes.

6 elders. Any spiritually or technically advanced race that consorts with lesser mortals. They might trade, advise, or punish.

Mind flayers are one of the big-deal enemies in Spelljammer. This is good. Mind flayers have a sci-fi feel to them, like their appearance in the usual sword-and-sorcery setting is a kind of slumming. Spelljammer mind flayers pilot nautilus-like tentacled space ships.

7 mind flayer. They maintain a slave empire. Their warships catch opponents in tentacles and use Mind Blast.

Beholders are another big Spelljammer enemy: less of a slam dunk than mind flayers, but still solid. Their ships fire large-scale eye-stalk rays. Why not? Disintegration rays seem perfectly at home in a space opera setting. Spelljammer also spends a lot of words on the civil war between the various beholder factions. We don't have a lot of room here, but we can nod to that.

8 beholder. Their living warships fire eye-stalk rays at everything, including rival beholder factions.

Spot 9 on the encounter chart is another overlap, between 1d6+3 (civilized encounters) and 1d6+8 (decadent encounters). I think of decadent worlds as standard D&D worlds: filled with forgotten dungeons and relics of lost civilizations. D&D elves, who seem like they once had a more sophisticated culture, work in either spot.

Though I don't like a big human population among the stars, I kind of like the Spelljammer idea of a powerful elven armada. Besides, elves are so central to Spelljammer's product line that Spelljammer is often described as "elves in space." Elves stay. Spelljammer actually describes space elves as "effete," which seems kinda weird: I'd prefer to describe them as "1980s glam."

9 elves. Warships of the lawful elf navy pursue the sailing ships of the chaotic glam elf pirates.

The neogi, a race of evil wolf/spider/lampreys who sail slave galleys, are another Spelljammer original race. They're one of two 2nd-edition wolf-spider hybrid monsters, along with the "spyder fiend", a wolf/spider/tanar'ri. Perhaps both are inspired by the first-edition mention of "Miska the Wolf-Spider." Chances are you're not playing 2nd Edition and don't have neogi stats on hand. I'll just call these guys "wolf-spiders." Feel free to use the combat stats of any wolf or spider monster you happen to flip to.

10 wolf-spiders. Slaves work the furnaces in wolf-spider star triremes.

We've already said yes to elves in space; surely the other races should get occasional screen time too. After all, Spelljammer took the trouble to come up with lore and space ships for each. I'd like these races to be less common than elves, so I'll crunch them all into one encounter slot, throw away all of the lore, and make mention of each of their iconic space ships.

11 dwarves, halflings, humans, or gnomes. Dwarf flying citadels, human or halfling merchantmen, gnome steam galleys.

I'll include the "humanlike" entry again on the chart, because they're common, and so that they appear in random encounters on "decadent" planets.

12-14 humanlike. As 4. Their sailing ships are wooden cogs and caravels.

Now we head into dying planet encounters (1d4+14). These tend to be from Vancian worlds under red suns, or worlds that have completely fallen to forces of evil or decay.

The first entry is for undead. These encounters tend to be on, or above, nightmare Walking Dead or I Am Legend worlds where the living have been defeated by the dead. Each kind of undead lends its own horror to the proceedings.

15 undead. Remains of a fallen civilization. Ghoul reavers on galleys, ghostly war galleons, and wraiths phasing through ships.

Dragons are solid high-level encounters on alien planets, but they also make great space monsters. They're powerful enough to challenge ships. Therefore, I'm going to go against Spelljammer lore (which asserts that only its new species, "stellar dragon," can traverse the phlogiston) and assert that all dragons can fly unassisted in space, and that they search for treasure and lairs all across the universe just as they do in a standard D&D campaign world. I also think that a space setting is better than a standard D&D world as a home for metallic dragons. A gold dragon seems more plausible cavorting through planetary rings under the light of a binary star than it does lording over a few square miles in somebody's duchy.

16 dragon. A dragon is a match for a ship. 50% are metallic.

For fun, I'm throwing in a non-Spelljammer alien race, the "reptilian". Some real-world conspiracy nuts, perhaps inspired by the V miniseries, believe that reptilians are a real space-traveling species who live among us, and, in fact, hold key positions in the United States government. In D&D terms, reptilians can be treated as an exotic variant of doppelgangers, but instead of lone opportunists, they're all agents of a vast conspiracy.

17 reptilians. Shape-shifter lizards in silent longships infiltrate enemy crews.

To fill out the last of the "dying earth" encounters, we'll throw in monsters again. Because you can never have too many monsters.

18 monsters. As 3.

Spots 19 and 20 are space-only encounters. #19, "space creatures," is the listing for any of the D&D creatures which might be able to survive on their own in space. I've put in some of my own suggestions: I think herds of pegasi galloping through space would be a cool sight, and a herd of flumph, while less majestic, makes more sense in space than it does on a planet. Lurkers Above and other super-weird dungeon monsters might also make just as much sense in space as anywhere else.

19 space creatures. Harmless schools of space fish or flumph, lurkers above who threaten boats, or herds of astral pegasi.

For the last encounter spot, we'll go for the really big monsters, on the scale of Astral Dreadnoughts or larger. These are monsters at a scale that the PCs can't generally fight (although, who knows, they might have a Death Star-like vulnerable spot).

20 space leviathan. Living creatures larger than a ship, from peaceful space whales to moon-devouring inimical star spawn.

By now I've mostly filled up the one page I've allotted for D&D space travel rules. I have some room in the middle of the page to play with, and I still need rules on designing star systems, planets, and moons. I'll finish those up next week, and I'll present the finished one-page D&D space travel splatpage.

For now, here's the one-pager with space travel and random encounter rules:


building the 1 page spelljammer rules

November 2nd, 2015 by paul

My D&D campaign usually keeps its feet on the ground, but I like the idea that it might spontaneously find itself in space at any time. Here's how I imagine that going: "Oh no, the PCs went through the Star Portal! I'll break out my copy of Spelljammer. OH NO IT'S 200 PAGES! THIS BOOK IS TAKING TOO LONG TO READ! THE PCS HAVE ALREADY IMPLODED IN THE VACUUM"

So here's the plan: I'll start with the Spelljammer rules, simplifying wherever I can, and try to synthesize something more concise, like ONE PIECE OF PAPER. (I think most rules subsystems should fit on 1 piece of paper, with illustrations if possible.) My design musings follow (they're significantly longer than 1 page). At the end of the process I'll cook up a 1-page ruleset for D&D space exploration.

OK, first of all, the Spelljammer boxed set spends 7 pages explaining the concept of D&D in space. I think we can do that more economically. At the top of our page we'll write

D&D In Space


The next 35 pages are spent on explaining the physics of Spelljammer space. Here's the short, slightly mangled version: each star system is in a crystal sphere. What we perceive as stars are lights on the inside of the crystal sphere. Outside of the spheres is the phlogiston, a rainbow-colored gas which is difficult to traverse. Cosmic currents connect certain star systems with each other, making travel possible along certain narrow routes.

You know what that sounds like? Rooms, walls, and corridors. Space travel, in the Spelljammer model, is more like dungeon travel than wilderness travel. I like this: dungeon travel nicely limits PC choices, and, in a lot of ways, makes things easier for the DM. A starmap might use a lot of the mapping conventions of a dungeon map. In fact, it occurs to me that you could use any dungeon map as a starmap, with rooms representing solar systems, and corridors representing the twisting paths of cosmic currents.

On the other hand, while I like the travel-limiting implications of the crystal spheres/phlogiston model, I'm aware that the model itself is not for everybody. You might like it fine, or you might want to use a more traditional sci-fi model, where space looks like space, not the inside of a rainbow, and the stars you see are actually stars, not twinkly lights on the inside of a Dyson sphere. Or you might want your starships to sail on a literal astral sea. Basically, every DM is going to use their own cosmology. Rules must be flexible here.

So here are my space physics:

Space is a dungeon. Just as players venture blindly down dungeon hallways, they must chart astral routes (phlogiston currents between crystal spheres? solar winds? hyperspace lanes?) You can even use an existing dungeon map as your star chart, treating rooms as stars, rubble as asteroid fields, stairs as wormholes, etc.

Maybe you don't have a copy of the Temple of Elemental Evil on hand to act as your star map. In that case, I'll provide the simplest possible star-map generator:

Star systems are connected to 1d4 other systems.


The Spelljammer physics section also has a bunch of stuff about how Spelljammer ships work: apparently they have gravity planes, atmosphere bubbles, and different speeds within the crystal spheres and the phlogiston. This is all pseudoscience to explain Spelljammer's central conceit: D&D space travel works pretty much like D&D nautical travel. Let's skip the pseudoscience and keep the conceit.

D&D space travel works pretty much like D&D nautical travel. Translate space ships into equivalent sea ships (cog, warship, galley, etc).

What does it mean for space travel to be like nautical travel? Are we talking rocket ships or sailing ships? Cloth sails? Oars? Water?? Can you stand on deck and breathe the star wind, or will you implode in the vacuum? The answer to all these questions is "dunno, maybe!" It's up to the DM's cosmology. In mine, sailing ships are pushed through space by solar winds. Galleys aren't driven by literal oars, but by other labor-intensive or fuel-intensive methods of propulsion: stokers who shovel coal in steamships, for instance. The important distinction between sailing ships and galleys is that the latter are less dependent on the weather. I think that it's good to preserve these two ship categories.

Astral forces push sailing ships, while galleys are self-powered.

I'd also like the space travel rules to be consistent with existing ship travel speeds. Every D&D edition measures ship speed in miles. You should still be able to use all the data in a ship's stat block, even though the distance between stars might actually be billions of miles.

For every sea mile a ship can travel, it can move 1 "star mile".

Exactly how big is a star mile? Who cares?

I'd like to add a tiny bit of crunch here: what are the distances between stars, and thus, how long are space journeys? The Spelljammer book doesn't actually get into that, leaving large-scale mapping entirely up to the DM. My intuition is that traveling from planet to planet should be sort of like walking between nearby villages, and travel between stars is like journeying from town to town. Travelers should be able to reach their closest astral neighbor in a few days, and go from from outer planets to the sun in a few hours.

Systems are 1d20x10 star miles apart and 2d10 wide.


Spelljammer spends thirty pages on rules for space combat. (Space combat is remarkably similar to D&D naval combat.) All the usual suspects are here: ramming, boarding, ballistas, Greek fire, etc. In fact, Spelljammer has one of the best D&D naval rulesets! But, since it's so similar to standard naval combat, which is discussed in more or less detail in various D&D editions, I don't need to spend much room on it here. Personally, I'll be using my one-page naval rules.

Space ships use D&D ship combat rules.

D&D editions tend to have roughly the same types of ships, with a few name changes. In the interest of cross-edition compatibility, I'll list all the ship classes and their variant names.

Ship types: keelboat/barge, small galley/longship, large galley/trireme, merchant/sailing ship, warship.

OK, so far we've got a rough idea of how space ships travel and fight, how star systems are connected, and how to make a star map. And we've filled way less than a page.

steponeeI think it'd be cool if my space rules end up looking like one of those Copernican solar system diagrams. I've sketched out a sun in the middle: I'll fill that with rules about star systems. I've left room for planets orbiting the sun: I'll fill them with planetary rules. (What's on each planet? Who inhabits it?) And don't forget moons! And random space encounters!

That means that all the rules we've come up with so far - the general space-travel, combat, and starmap rules - should be tucked into "outer space" in the corners of the page. As you can see, they fit with plenty of room to spare.

Next time I'll get into random space encounters, and maybe draw pictures of some deep-space D&D monsters.

the cuteness rule

October 20th, 2015 by paul

In a Fourth-Edition-era podcast, one of the game developers complained about his character's lame Figurine of Wondrous Power, the "Pearl Sea Horse." The devs ribbed each other about how this magic item managed to get published. At the time, I thought, wow, this dev team needs more perspectives. I know plenty of players who would love that sea horse.

The Pearl Seahorse was one of the few cute elements that slipped into a very macho edition. The 4e designers avoided anything cute or whimsical as if they were afraid of D&D backsliding into My Little Pony - as if they wanted to make the statement that D&D was a grown-up, serious, spiky fantasy game. In doing so, 4e missed a cue from the most influential grown-up serious spiky fantasist of our time, George R R Martin, who literally started Game of Thrones by giving every character a puppy.

Brain stirrers

There's something about the fantasy of acquiring money: the desire is so strong, and the payoff is so sweet, that it's as if the smell of gold reaches straight into the brain, bypassing reason and decision making, to stir the grey matter to action. That's a major reason why the old school D&D treasure hunt is such a heady brew. Even in 5e, where you don't get XP for GP and there's virtually nothing to spend your money on, many players - myself included - rapaciously hunt down every silver piece they can find. For these players, all that's necessary for a game is for the DM to say "there's money in this hole in the ground" and step back. The players will make their own game.

For a smaller subset of players - again including myself - the desire for cute things is as hardwired as the desire for money. For a brief period while playing through the 3e Red Hand of Doom module, acquiring an intelligent giant owl mount became more important to me than saving Elsir Vale. In the game I'm DMing now, the party cleric will do anything for the safety and comfort of her oracular otters.

If you're a DM lucky enough to have one of these - let's call them "cuteness sensitive" - players in your group, you have a powerful tool at your disposal to increase everyone's investment in your campaign world. All you have to do is introduce an animal, a kid, a unicorn, or a pseudodragon - in any capacity - and step back. The cuteness-sensitive players will be sucked into the narrative and pull the rest of the players along with them. They'll make their own game. They'll come up with plans to befriend this creature, protect that creature from those potential dangers, and, in general, save you a lot of work. (I spent my most recent D&D session assassinating a Fever-Dreaming Marlinko NPC because we'd heard that her orphanage charity was insufficiently charitable.)

Don't think of this as a lever to manipulate players but as a spring that generates gameplay, like the players' desire for money and mayhem. And it's an underused spring, because of the cuteness-negative DMs who think that everyone would be ashamed to ride a seahorse.

the cuteness rule

Now that I've made a case for the cute in D&D, I have to add a warning. Movies generally abide by a narrative rule about what you're allowed to do to cute things. This rule carries over to D&D. I DMed one game where some players intended to cut off a cow's legs to jam it, still living, through a sewer tunnel. A cuteness-positive player objected with real anger and nearly attacked the other characters. Beneath the anger was a sense of betrayal that I, as the DM, could countenance such a should-be-impossibility. On their side, the cow-threateners were perfectly aware of the narrative rule, and were titillated by the idea of breaking it.

The Cuteness Rule is this: don't kill or torture innocent things onscreen. Don't demonstrate a villain's evil by having him kill a baby, or introduce a little lost pseudodragon so that you can have a monster jump out and eat it before the players' eyes. You might make the players mad, but it will be an immersion-breaking anger at the DM. If the players have no hand in the death, it's not the players staking something valuable, it's the DM using an emotional trick to bludgeon them.

So does everything cute get a free pass? No sir. You can slaughter all the adorable little NPCs you want under the following exceptions to the Cuteness Rule:

You can kill combatants. A player buys a war dog. Even if he says it's a sweater-wearing war dachshund with one ear flopped over, and even if he loves his pretend dog, it's a combatant and he's offering it up as stakes every time he takes it into battle.

You can put cute things at risk. If Cruella de Vil gets her hands on some puppies, she's going to try to turn them into coats.  Cuteness-positive players will make a lot of sacrifices to stop her, including storming her house, which is good because Cruella's house is probably a great, creepy dungeon worth exploring. The important thing is not that the puppies live, it's that the players had a chance to save them. Even if the players try their best and fail, that's the game rules killing the puppies, not some jerk of a DM.

You can kill a killer bunny. Players will happily slaughter anything, no matter how cute, if it does a heel turn first. Carbuncles, for instance, look adorable but turn out to be dicks. Don't overuse this trick or players will write off everything cute as a probable villain.

You can do whatever you want if you're that good. (moldy old spoilers ahead) Atticus shoots a dog, Sophie chooses a kid. George R R Martin kills puppies. If you think you're good enough of a storyteller to turn a dead owl familiar into an emotionally transcendant moment, then do whatever you want. Otherwise, stick to the Cuteness Rule.

(xposted from Thought Eater)

hardcore mode d&d

September 24th, 2015 by paul

My two-year-old daughter plays let's-pretend, but she also has a more immersed mode of roleplay where she says, for instance, "I'm really a rabbit. Not pretend!" It's her way of controlling the "immersion dial" of her game.

In D&D, adults control their "immersion dial" by adding the two mainstays of adult living: bookkeeping and fear. As Agent Smith says, "Human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world is a dream that your primitive cerebrum keeps trying to wake up from."

This misery-and-suffering dial needs a couple of settings. Most gamers require rules to make their fantasy worlds seem real, but some don't like their role-playing investment wasted by arbitrary character death. More jaded RPGers need increasing risk of death to reach the same imaginative high. From session to session I vary from one pole to another.

Here's a way to crank up the dial on a session-by-session basis: make a Hardcore Mode character.

Hardcore Mode on a post-it: You must follow 3 rules: one Hardcore character at a time, Decide before character generation, and Start at level 1. Your character may change DMs, campaigns, and editions at will.

One Hardcore character at a time. You can have as many casual D&D characters as you want, but you may only have one Hardcore character at a time: that's your "official" character until it is permanently retired (often because the character died and can't afford a Raise Dead). Once a Hardcore character is retired, it must never be played again.

Decide before character generation. You can't look at stat rolls of all 18s and decide "This is my hardcore character." You declare Hardcore Mode before character generation, and you live with whatever you get. However, the method of generation is up to you and the DM: 4d6 drop the lowest, 3d6 in order, point buy, DCC's multi-character funnel, whatever.

Start at level 1. No matter how bored you are with level 1 of D&D, or what level the other characters in the game are, a Hardcore Mode character must start at level 1 and earn their way through every level. If your 15th-level Hardcore character dies, you can either create a casual 15th-level character or try to survive as a Hardcore 1st-level character in a high-level campaign. The way that the character earns XP is up to the DM, of course: XP for monsters killed, XP for GP, "it's been a couple of sessions so you all level" are all fine.

Multiple DMs and editions are OK. You can import your Hardcore Mode character into the game of any DM who will allow it, jump willy-nilly from one campaign setting to another, and convert from any D&D edition to any other. You can rebuild the character according to local rules, but must start with your most recent six attribute scores and progress towards the next level (for instance, 1/3 of the way to level 5). Thus, a 1e character could be rebuilt in a 4e game, but must have the same Constitution: its HP would be recalculated by 4e rules. A character who leveled up to 4 in a 5e game would get a stat boost, which they would get to keep on return to an OD&D game. Possessions from another game may be temporarily re-interpreted or ignored by the local DM. Hardcore Mode doesn't imply any particular level of lethality or treasure stinginess.

Here's another fun option, but I won't hold you to it: when you say "let me tell you about my character" (and you will), you can only talk about your Hardcore Mode character. By the way, I consider my "hardcore" character to be Roger de Coverley, my 6th level OD&D thief from Mike Mornard's campaign.

5e bards’ missing songs

September 9th, 2015 by paul

5e bards might be the best bards ever. I love that they're full casters. I love their spell list, and their magical secrets ability that lets them learn spells from any other spell list. But they don't... play that much music.

bardHow much of the time is your bard actually strumming a lute? Bards get song of rest, which heals people up during rests. They get countercharm which disrupts mind-affecting spells. And that's pretty much it. Hardly worth naming your class "bard".

The problem with bardic music

I think 5e minimized bardic music because music is a somewhat unwieldy activity. You can't fight while playing a lute, walk while playing a cello, or talk while playing a pipe. If you want bards to play music during combat, they're incentivized to skip instruments altogether and specialize in humming. Alternatively, they can deliver 6 seconds of music or speech as a pre-battle buff, as in 3e's inspire courage or 5e's bardic inspiration. I don't find either of these alternatives particularly, uh, inspiring.

I think the fix for bardic music is to keep it out of combat. 5e bards are full casters with decent melee skills: they have plenty to do in combat. I picture adventuring bards putting away their delicate lutes before a fight, but noodling around practically the rest of the time: making burdens lighter, inspiring the discouraged, and making themselves welcome wherever they go.

I propose that the list of 2 bardic songs be expanded. The new songs, like song of rest and countercharm, will require no daily resources to activate: the only cost to playing one song is that you can't play another at the same time. I intend the bard songs to provide party buffs for 5e's "exploration" and "interaction" pillars, and I intend the bard to spend pretty much all day playing music.

When I can, I like to minimize the footprint of house rules. Instead of adding these songs as bardic class features, I'll make them treasures, to be learned from an ancient music book or won in a musical battle against a rival.

New bardic songs

Song rules: You can start or continue songs as an action; playing music requires an instrument, both hands, and your mouth; and you can switch songs at the beginning of your turn. A masterwork or magical instrument adds +1 to the save DC of your bard song effects.

Marching song: While listening to this song, friendly hearers have exhaustion penalties temporarily reduced by one level. (This is meant to represent the general morale benefits of bardic music: it lets people travel further under worse conditions. It might even stave off death - until the bard stops playing.)

Song that soothes the savage breast: Monsters that aren't already hostile make Wisdom saves vs the bard's save DC. Identical groups of monsters make one save. On a failure, the monsters are charmed. While charmed in this way, they ignore the party. If the party passes through without making a fuss, the monsters will only dimly remember the interlopers' presence. The charm ends if the party speaks to the monsters, lingers, gets too close, makes hostile acts, takes anything, or in any other way brings itself to the monsters' attention. (This is meant to address two of the classic bardic-music problems: a song of stealth is an oxymoron, and making extra noise inside a hostile dungeon is generally a bad idea. Rather than a stealth buff, this song is an alternative to stealth. It's meant to be less effective than a rogue's stealth, but more effective than a party's group stealth check.)

Song of accord: While the bard plays, allies (not including the bard) make all charisma skill/ability checks with advantage against listeners who can hear the song. This is a charm effect and is nullified by countersong. (The bard's charisma is plenty high already: this song is meant to encourage other characters to help out with interaction scenes. I also think it's cool if the bard's countersong class feature is of special use against other bards. Bardic duels are like public debates.)

Song of reputation (college of lore only): The bard glorifies or vilifies a person or organization. Listeners of the bard's choice make a Charisma save vs a charm effect. On a failure, the listeners' attitude towards the song's subject changes: friendly to indifferent or vice versa, or indifferent to hostile or vice versa. At the end of the hour, the audience makes a second save: on a second failure, the new attitude is permanent until changed by other circumstances: it can't be changed further in the same direction by other songs of reputation. (The fluff for the college of lore talks about using songs to make audience members question their loyalty to kings and priests, but there are no official mechanics that bear that out. It may seem alarming that this is a permanent effect, but a) it can only be used on listeners who are friendly to the bard, and b) this is what bards at for, right? Forget about their 9th level spells. A bard's primary purpose is propaganda.)

Song of courage (college of valor only): This song inspires heroics in its listeners. Listeners of the bard's choice make a charisma save against a charm effect (which they can fail voluntarily). On a failure, they gain advantage on saves vs fear and on morale checks for the rest of the day. Furthermore, during this time, they value heroism more than personal safety and act accordingly. The effect ends early if the subject fails a fear save or morale check or takes damage, or if the bard publicly shows cowardice. (The college of valor description talks about inspiring new generations of heroes, but, like the college of lore, doesn't provide mechanics for it. Hey, wouldn't this be a fun way to start a campaign? The first-level characters are all the people in the village who failed their saving throw vs song of courage and marched straight into the nearest dungeon.)

making a city more like a dungeon level

August 24th, 2015 by paul

The countries in my D&D campaign world are decaying collections of squabbling bandit nobles, not centralized nations like Louis XIV's France. My dungeons are mostly divided among separate groups, not well patrolled jails or fortresses like Louis XIV's Bastille. But for some reason, my cities tend to resemble Louis XIV's Paris - prone to the occasional rebellion or riot perhaps, but generally recognizing a single civic government, paying taxes, obeying watchmen, and trying to punish breakers of the peace in an orderly way. It's like, when it comes to city design, I didn't get the 4e points of light memo, and I certainly didn't pay attention to the OD&D city-based random monster charts.

What would it mean to redesign my cities to match the post-apocalyptic power-vacuum assumptions of the rest of the setting?

Warriors_007Pyxurz1) gangs and monsters rule neighborhoods. A typical dungeon level looks something like this: "The death cultists are in this part of the level, The Eye of Fear and Flame is in this room, the giants control this area, and these rooms and corridors are empty and patrolled by wandering monsters." Let's make cities look the same way. A gang, an elected official, a hereditary noble, and a monster might rule four neighborhoods in the same city, separated by a no-man's land inhabited by beggars, kobolds, and PCs. One consequence: it's important which city gate you enter. The north gate is held by a different power than the south gate.

2) there's safety in your neighborhood. Cities can't be infinitely dangerous: they contain thousands of citizens who survive year to year. If you pay taxes to your local gang or monster, you might live in relative safety. When PCs first stay in a neighborhood, they might be approached by a representative of the local gang leader and asked for some token of fealty: some shakedown money or the completion of a little task. More than anything, the local ruler just wants to make sure that the PCs are not going to be disruptive. Once the PCs have paid their dues, they can live in the neighborhood without further molestation - they might even be able to call in a favor.

3) rival neighborhoods are dangerous. In an orderly city, the pace of urban adventures is often up to the pcs: barring time pressure, they can usually go home and rest whenever they like. In a "street crawl", unless they're in their home neighborhood, they're basically dungeon crawling through The Warriors. If you're mapping a city, you could treat a neighborhood like a keyed dungeon room: it's a guaranteed encounter.

4) Random encounters take place in the no-man's land. Whenever the PCs travel from one neighborhood to another, they pass through contested territory. You could treat this no-man's land like an empty dungeon corridor: make a random encounter check (6 on a d6). Typical encounters: thugs or guards from one or the other of the neighborhoods; low-level gangs or monsters trying to carve out their own territory; starving or desperate people driven to violence; toll collectors from one side or the other.

5) alliances shift. How can a vampire openly rule a neighborhood in a human city? If her lair in the South Quarter is sufficiently impregnable, she can laugh at the threats of the General in the East Quarter. If the Bishop of Pelor, who rules the South Quarter, sends clerics to attack her, she might enlist the General's help: surely he wouldn't care to be surrounded by a puritanical theocracy to the north and south.

6) there are exceptions. There are some dungeons, like the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, in which all the monsters are of the same faction. There are others, like the Tomb of Horrors, with lots of traps and an absent or hidden bad guy. Similarly, some cities do bow to a centralized authority, and some have no real governance at all beyond some capricious magical punishments for rulebreakers.

OK, here is a tool for generating post-apocalyptic cities.

Each settlement is composed of some number of neighborhoods (1 for village, 1d4 for town, 1d6 for city, 1d10 for megacity)
For each neighborhood, roll on the ruler chart. The first ruler you roll is the most powerful, followed by the second, etc. if you want to know how any two neighborhood leaders get along, make a reaction roll (2d6, higher is friendlier).

Ruler chart: roll d10
1 remnant of the decaying order (knight, baron, duke, king, beaurocracy, rich landowner families)
2 duly elected officials (elder, sheriff, mayor, oligarchy, trade guild, independent neighborhood militia)
3 cleric (priest, bishop, cult leader, paladin, monastery)
4 rogue (thug, godfather, imposter, thieves guild)
5 wizard (archmage, necromancer, institute of learning or research, bard, elementalist whose magic alters neighborhood)
6 fighter (gang leader, general, warlord, humanoid tribe leader)
7 magical effect (prevents entering/leaving under certain conditions, zaps people who break certain arbitrary laws, is a giant game board, slowly transmogrifies inhabitants)
8 lawless slum (weak humanoid tribes, small human gangs, kenku, low level undead, fungus, oozes, diseased, exiles, multiple random monsters, rebel forces, battle ground between two neighborhoods)
9 boss monster who demands sacrifices (dragon, intelligent undead, mind flayer, lycanthrope, fiend, elemental, hag)
10 theme gang (all share a certain characteristic: costume, exotic weapon, race, age, bizarre slang, strange drug use, fearsome magical mutation, magic power)

Example: My city has (d6) 2 neighborhoods so I'll roll d10 twice: (2, elected officials and 1, old order). Reaction roll: 5 (slightly hostile). I'll say the most powerful faction, the elected officials, is a sort of neighborhood watch that arose from the city's vast slum. A young paladin, Sister Bridey, inspired gang leaders and merchants to unite and resist the abuses of the king. The weaker faction, the nobility, is afraid to venture out of the rich quarter. This state of affairs can't last long, as Bridey's rowdy allies are clamoring to loot and punish, and the nobles are looking for agents to kidnap or assassinate Bridey and fragment the slum alliance.

The problem with Tiamat

August 12th, 2015 by paul

Tiamat is a great villain with one major flaw, and that flaw is named Bahamut. What kind of threat is the queen of evil dragons if she is opposed by an equally powerful (or more powerful) king of good dragons?

I haven't played the 5e Dragon Queen adventure path: I hope it answers the question "if Tiamat gets free, why can't Bahamut clean up the mess?" I hope the answer is not "regrettably he is busy on an unspecified engagement" or "he could totally do it but he doesn't meddle in mortal affairs" or "let's hope no one brings it up."

The way I see it, Bahamut needs to be defanged, declawed, and de-breath-weaponed to allow Tiamat to shine as a campaign villain. Here are some ways to do it.

Bahamut is dead

Either just the other day or in the legendary past, Tiamat murdered Bahamut. This one is fun for PCs who worship Bahamut because they get the angsty nobility of championing a lost cause. Bahamut worshipers keep all their powers - he is no less divine for being dead - but his faction is powerless against Tiamat's hordes.

Bahamut is crippled

As above, but Tiamat, unable to kill Bahamut, cut off his wings or blinded him in some ritually irreparable way. This one is nice because Bahamut can still give aid to the PCs and can still match Tiamat in a melee, but isn't mobile enough to force a battle. Bahamut's best move might be to take the form of a human paladin (a blind or lame one - maybe he's Sir Isteval, that guy in all of WOTC's Sundering products) and rally mortal support.

Bahamut is imprisoned

As I understand it, Tiamat is at half-strength and looking for a way to break her shackles and assume her full power. Maybe the same is true of Bahamut. Maybe the siblings imprison each other, like worms of ouroboros biting each other's tails. If The PCs fail and Tiamat gets free, the world still has one slim chance: the PCs must brave Tiamat's draconic dungeon and un-shackle Bahamut.

Fief and business rules so simple that they REDUCE bookkeeping

August 4th, 2015 by paul

I talk about running a D&D business a lot because my players are always involved in some moneymaking scheme above and beyond the usual adventuring. I've tried the 5e rules on my group's pizza joints, designer tabards, and bishoprics, and I've cobbled several sets of business rules together, and I haven't really been happy with any of them. Either they're too profitable or not profitable enough, and they always add a layer of bookkeeping. I think I've got a solution that cuts the Gordian knot.

Business, fiefs, and other investments don't give you money, they pay your lifestyle expenses.

Post-it-note sized rules summary:

Investments (businesses, feifs, etc) pay for your lifestyle expenses. Cost is at the DM's discretion: 1000 gp and 1 month per 1 gp daily allowance is a good starting point. Optional: roll a monthly random encounter check. An encounter means a threat to your investment which might reduce or raise your income.

I like 5e's lifestyle expenses, although I don't recall making my players pay them that regularly. Doing the accounts is a little bookkeeping task that's fiddly enough that it often goes unremembered. What if owning a business (or feif or temple) is a way of buying your way out of this chore?

How much should it cost to invest in a business? As a rule of thumb, say that it will pay for itself in about three years (say 1000 days). That means that a shop that will pay you a modest lifestyle (1gp a day) costs around 1000 gp. A barony that will pay for a low-end aristocratic lifestyle (10gp) is worth 10,000 gp. Let's throw in a time cost too: a month of downtime per 1000 GP. That means that building a baronial castle will take about a year.

Adjust this ballpark price based on circumstance and player cleverness. A fief with a mouldering castle might be given free as treasure, but it might still take 50% of the normal downtime and cash to get it running. An ice-cream shop in Al-Qadim will be more profitable than one in Icewind Dale.

Upgrading a business is easy - pay 1000 gp and 1 month, more or less, to add 1 gp to your living expenses, or if you need 1000 gp in a hurry, do the reverse (no downtime required).

Every business has growing pains

Here's one bit of optional bookkeeping: every month, roll a random encounter check for the business/fief (17-20 on a d20, or 6 on a d6). An encounter means an event that requires the players' attention: bandits move into their fief, for instance. If the players don't deal with the situation, their daily income goes down by, say, 1 gp. If they deal with it adequately (kill the bandits) the problem goes away. If they deal with it cleverly (convince the bandits to join the militia) their living allowance goes up by the same amount.

I recognize that this monthly die roll reintroduces some of the complexity I removed. But it's less like bookkeeping and more like a source of adventure hooks.

play this fighting game i wrote

July 27th, 2015 by paul

I wrote a silly but totally playable fighting game. Play it!

Backstory: Last Sunday my wife and kid were out of town. I woke up from a dream where I had been playing a D&D-themed fighting game. I thought, I have nothing to do today. Can I code up that dream game in one day? By the end of the day I had a complete game with 13 opponents, but I had run out of time for art. Everyone was stick figures. Over the course of the next week I drew some sketchy opponents and balanced gameplay - plus I obviously spent tons of time on that awesome intro.

Longer backstory: in 2002 or 2003, on another lazy Sunday, I wrote a stupid flash game which I called Quest for the Crown. It was a one-joke game: the joke was that the intro and credits were very long and the gameplay was short (you just walked past some rocks and picked up the crown). Hilarious! However, due to a totally unintended bug, the game had a little depth.

If you finished the game and sat through the credits, you got the option to play again. The bug: on the second play through, I accidentally added a second keystroke listener without removing the first one, so when you pressed a directional arrow, you moved two squares instead of one. You can still get to the crown easily, but you have to bounce off a wall.

On the third play through, you move three squares when you press an arrow key, and so on. It becomes harder to get to the crown. But because of the random location of rock obstacles, you can bounce an increasingly convoluted path to the crown. Sometimes you have to jam two keys at once. Chance and accident made a game out of what I had meant as a non game.

There's a message for you: if you make something with rules, gameplay will emerge! Maybe not the gameplay you intended, but maybe something better.