How to play 5e D&D using GP = XP rules

June 14th, 2017

I’ve written before about how you can kind of use the old-school “1 GP = 1 XP” rules in D&D 5e. It works, if you squint.

I just wrapped up running a treasure-hunting campaign, where each gold piece of treasure gives the party 1 XP, and it turns out “it works if you squint” isn’t quite good enough for actual play. Also true about actual play: the more frequently you use a house rule, the simpler it gets. Here is the tautologically simple final version of my GP=XP rules.

Each monster’s “XP value” is actually its treasure value in GP

Turns out that trivial use of the symmetric property is all you need to preserve all of 5e’s baseline leveling assumptions, while giving characters approximately the expected amount of coin.

Here’s a fun advantage of this rule: each monster now has its treasure spelled out in the Monster Manual instead of in the DMG – for coins, anyway. I still flip through the DMG to roll magical treasure.

This system has another advantage over the stock treasure rules: coin hoards are now more finely graduated by Challenge Rating. In the standard 5e rules, every encounter from CR 0 to 4 has a treasure hoard of about the same value, around 400 GP; every encounter from CR 5 to 10 is worth about 4000 GP; etc. In my system, each 1/8-CR bandit has 25 gold, the bandit captain has 450 GP, etc.

There is a disadvantage, at least in theory: no variance. Every CR 1 monster has exactly 200 GP? Weird! At the beginning of my GP=XP experiment, I wrote up the following chart to randomize samey treasure. The chart was simple enough that I could memorize it.

Randomizing treasure: roll d6
1: No treasure
2: 1/2 normal treasure
3-4: Normal treasure
5: 1.5x times normal treasure
6: 2x normal treasure
Note: For unintelligent creatures, you could roll on this chart twice and take the lowest, and for greedy creatures like dragons, roll twice and take the highest.

You know what? In practice, I never needed this chart. I wrote it to solve a theoretical situation: “what if the players repeatedly fight encounters with the same XP total” – and that situation just never came up.

Does this rule match 5e’s implicit “wealth by level” assumptions? Pretty much yes, actually, except it’s a little stingier at high levels. But who cares, because there’s virtually nothing for sale to high-level characters anyway! But if you want to use these rules AND you’re playing at level 17 and above AND you think legendary magic items should be for sale, adjust their price so that they start at 20,000 GP instead of 50,000 GP. Everything else seems to work fine.

mass combat belongs in the monster manual

April 18th, 2017

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 two sets of playtest mass-combat rules, some iteration of which will presumably see official publication some day. The first playtest has traditional wargame-style rules, with frontage, etc. The second boils down every army to a single “battle rating”, in the Basic War Machine tradition.

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.

masscombatstatblock1swordsmen

masscombatstatblock5skeletons

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).

masscombatstatblock1template

masscombatstatblock5template

(crossposted/lightly edited from here)

Play Quest for the Crown 2!

April 1st, 2017

I have a game for you to play! It’s a brutalcore puzzler called Quest for the Crown 2.

You may feel like a real video game genius after beating the game for the first time, but stick around to the end of the credits! The “second quest” is harder, and don’t get me started on the “third quest!”

Yes, it’s an April First game! But like Google Ms. Pac Man, it’s kind of a real game, although a jokey one.

QFTC2 is an alpha web demo of a longer mobile game that I plan to release in a month or so.

Play the Quest for the Crown 2 Demo!

Repetitive battles in dnd

March 23rd, 2017

A lot of people will put up with level grinding in computer RPGs – that is, repetitive combat against identical enemies. Imagine how easy it would be to run a D&D game for a bunch of those people! “You meet another group of 8 goblins. Roll initiative!” Everybody cheers!

It doesn’t work that way. Repetitive D&D combat gets boring way faster than repetitive computer game combat.

There are a number of plausible explanations for this: D&D players have higher expectations; they want to pack lots of fun into a limited weekly time slot; the social contract of the game means that you can’t quit the game when you are bored.

My theory, though, is that repetitive D&D combat doesn’t work because of other people’s turns.

In a CRPG, there is basically no dead time waiting for the computer players to go. The opponents either act concurrently with the player or, in a turn-based game, act very quickly. That means the player is always playing. Mindless activity beats inactivity every time.

In D&D combat, you’re actually playing (taking your turn) for maybe 15% of the time (assuming 5 other players and a couple of monster turns). The other 85% of the time, you are watching theater. So the theater has to be good.

In D&D, taking a swipe at yet another goblin isn’t a peak experience, but it’s pleasant enough: maybe about as fun as level grinding in a CRPG. The problem is, watching other people mindlessly level-grind is no fun at all.

Given the theater-heavy nature of D&D combat, it needs to be either interesting or short.

OD&D combat, for instance, is short. A random encounter with goblins is often a routine hack and slash, but with low goblin hit points and morale, at least it’s over soon.

The D&D edition with the longest combats is probably Fourth Edition. It puts all its chips on interesting combat. Every single monster has a unique attack or trait. There’s lots of tactical movement. There are no rules for random encounters, so each individual goblin fight is artisanally placed by the DM. Monster groups are mixed. And monsters are only threatening within a very narrow level band, so after you’ve used up the novelty of the Goblin Tactics trait, you’ll never fight goblins again (with these characters).

Still, in any edition, fighting the same old goblins gets boring after a while, which is why every edition has a market for more monster manuals, and why every DM invents new traps, battle locations, and monster powers.

All of this novelty isn’t primarily for the active player. I bet that in a one-on-one D&D game (one player and one DM), repetitive goblin battles would go a lot farther. DM inventiveness keeps the inactive players engaged. They don’t have fun dice to roll or damage numbers to add up. They need something to think about (“Oh my god, why did the goblin explode? What will happen to Frank if he fails his saving throw? How far am I from the nearest goblin? should I run away on my turn?”) or some new theater to watch (The look on Frank’s face when he takes 16 damage from an exploding goblin).

Repeat fights

In WOTC-era D&D, with its long-form battles, there should be no repeat fights: that is, battles which are essentially identical to recent ones. It’s just too boring for the players. TSR-era D&D is more forgiving of repeat fights, though you probably still don’t want too many.

But what about when it makes story sense for the players to face identical enemies?

There’s a tension between a dull D&D “realism” – in a steading of hill giants, shouldn’t every encounter be against hill giants? – and an unpredictable menagerie with no internal logic. I’m not advocating for the latter. if you’re in the Spiderwood, you’re not immune to spider attacks just because you already faced one. But each spider attack can be a novel variation on the general theme of “spiders eat you.”

If your dungeon key or random-encounter table is heavy on identical monsters or patrols, you can jot down two or three twists to liven up repeat battles. Each such twist gives the players a new avenue for creativity, a new puzzle to solve. The players waiting for their turns will welcome the diversion.

As an example, here is a list of 20 goblin “random encounters” which I’d consider running, even after the players have used up the standard “vanilla goblins” encounter. None of these encounters are super bizarre or outre – they’re just tweaked enough to differentiate one encounters from another.

1 A bigger group of goblins than the PCs have yet faced

2 Goblins with unusual weapons: 2 goblins per pike! 6 goblins operate a ballista! Thrown bottles of poison gas! Bolas and nets! Lassos from above!

3 Elite goblin rangers that have been assigned the task of tracking and ambushing the pesky PCs

4 Goblins who are stationed near a trap, ready to spring it on intruders. (This encounter can be re-used once per unique trap)

5 Two different groups of goblins: opposing or neutral factions, or a group of reinforcements who will arrive after a couple of turns

6 goblins who have survived previous encounters with the PCs, and have prepared for the PCs’ tactics (Unarmed goblins with tower shields surround the fighter while others grapple and gag the wizard)

7 Goblins who don’t want to fight (they might be scared, or willing to change sides, or protecting wounded, or emissaries under a flag of truce, or children)

8 Goblins from a different tribe, reveling in the mayhem caused by the PCs and willing to help them. They might be a war party or captives

9 things which only appear to be goblins. They could be halflings in disguise, or decoy dummies, or nilbogs, or barghest

10 Goblins with obvious treasure (the players won’t mind that the battle is otherwise familiar!)

11 Goblins who run immediately

12 Goblins who are arguing with each other and can easily be ambushed

13 Goblins who can retreat to a place where they are difficult to reach (maybe a ledge, small hole, or armored vehicle)

14 mounted goblins (on worgs, carrion crawlers, giant bats)

15 A goblin with an interesting personality (a groveler who wants to work for the pcs, or an 18-intelligence Sherlock type who shouts astute deductions, or a Drizzt do’Goblin type, or an entertaining trash talker with lots of hit points)

16 one of the goblins is an illusionist

17 Goblins with hostages, destructible treasure, or something else that gives them bargaining leverage

18 grotesque goblinoid experiments created by the local goblin (or evil human) wizard: they have a super-strong third arm, or they’re a chained pack of leprous berserkers, or they are scorpion-goblin centaurs, or they explode for 4d6 damage when hit

19 sneaky goblins who follow stealthily from a distance, looking for a chance to loot treasure whenever the PCs are in battle with treasure guardians

20 Finally, the goblin boss and entourage! The boss actually uses his or her low-level magical treasure to the fullest: potion of fire breath, giant strength, growth, or invulnerability for flashy combat fX; poison or philtre of love to be slipped into a PC’s drink; cap of water breathing plus a nearby lake for a safe place to retreat; immovable rod to block doors, climb to inaccessible locations, and perform all sorts of skullduggery; decanter of water to drown the PCs; beads of force to trap PCs; a folding boat to terrorize the countryside with a summonable Viking longship!

encounters on the strangest sea

November 15th, 2016

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
–Emily Dickinson

I hate to tell you, readers, but we’re adrift on the Strangest Sea. While waiting for the thing with feathers to show up, I’ve put together an encounter guide for the Strangest Sea’s wonders and perils.

This d20 chart is not for regular nautical travel. It is for the seas beyond the sea, where reality begins to dissolve. It is intended for high level play. The Strangest Sea might be a distant ocean, or it might actually be in the Astral Plane or the Plane of Water.

Standard nautical encounters, with, like, normal sharks, might be possible on the Strangest Sea, but few such encounters are detailed here.

Roll d20:

1. Huge Exotic monster. Roll d8 for type: 1. Water dragons. (White dragon stats but made of water, like water weirds) 2. Kraken (or cthulhoid tentacle beast with same stats). 3. Submarine. 4. Wading or canoeing Brobdingnagian (use Empyrean stats). 5. Sea tunneler (purple worm stats, leaves glass-walled tunnels in the sea, can swallow one-masted ships) 6. falling star (lands like a fireball, then fights like a balor) 7. living whirlpool 8. The Elder Shark (presaged by the sea turning to blood. Tarrasque stats but submerges after one round of attacks)

2. Storm. Roll d8 for type: 1. lightning. 2. fire. 3. cold. 4. acid. 5. poison. 6. exotic storm like polymorph rain or teleport whirlpool. 7-8. conventional storm. Visible coming from a random direction so you can steer to avoid it. Energy storms are like normal storms but the ship and everyone on deck takes d10 elemental damage per hour. Exotic storms have weird bespoke effects up to the DM.

3. Ichor sea. Patch of poisonous water d20x10 miles wide. At the center is something monstrous and bleeding.

4. The Floating Land. A continent whose position cannot be mapped. Possibly it’s the Isle of Dread.

5. Sinister island. Ruled by a single badass monster (roc, cyclops, dragon, sphinx, etc) Roll d8. 1-4: normal island. 5: on turtle’s back. 6: Levitating. 7: Iceberg. 8: Coral.

6. Pirates! 50% chance of treasure map. Roll d8 for type: 1-2: common humanoid race. 3: githyanki. 4: Sahaguin. 5: Undead. 6: Eagle warriors (stats of harpies, look like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon). 7: Marids in musketeer hats. 8: Flip monster manual to random page.

7. Doomed city of Ys. Floating metropolis that is prophesied to sink when traitors open the water gates. The water equivalent of the City of Brass.

8. Sea of Mountainous Waves. Waves 20 miles across and 5 miles high. Smooth sailing up to the peak, followed by a terrifying whitewater plunge. Settlements surf in the crests of the waves, monsters wait in the troughs.

9. Mirror fog. Inside the fog, sea creatures fly and ghost ships sail upside down under the water, like reflections. 1 in 6 chance of accidentally sailing into the Realm of Death.

10. creature migration. These can be seen at a distance and might just be window dressing if the players stay away. Roll d12 for type: 1: pod of whales. 2: convoy of ships. 3: Herd of foam-footed horses or pegasi. 4: School of giant sky jellyfish. 5: Merfolk. 6: Cloud Giants on flying horses. 7: Balloon and airship fleet. 8: Huge glowing bubbles. 9: water elementals. 10: Herd of dragon turtles. 11-12: The thing with feathers. Following it will lead you to your destination, or to safety

11. Strange current. Zone of: (roll d8 for type). 1: Weightlessness: big floating water droplets hover over the sea, only metal has weight. 2: Forgetfulness. 3: Flammable objects burn harmlessly 4: Sinking (into emerald airy water) 5: Strong current that determines your course, roll again on this table for its destination 6: Sky: The sun and moon are abnormally close. 7: Boiling. 8: Exotic: Come up with something weird off the top of your head.

12. Maze. Roll d8 for type: 1: sargasso. 2: wind and currents. 3: coral. 4: shoals. 5: walls of fire. 6: cliffs. 7: watery caves under a mountain island. 8: floating strips of water roads like a freeway. In the center of the maze is a: (roll again on this table)

13. Golden sea. Archipelago in calm golden waters. Islands are filled with ruins, treasures, and dangers from a bygone age. Roll d10 for inhabitants: 1: stone age folk. 2: nightmare horrors. 3: unfamiliar humanlike race. 4: yuan-ti. 5: ghouls. 6: angels. 7: shedu. 8: couatl. 9: monks. 10: animated objects.

14. Strange-colored water. Water is drinkable and confers the benefits of a specific potion.

15. Rainbow. Ships can sail up it to a cloud giant dominion.

16. End of the world. At the end of the world may be: (roll d6) 1: a wall. 2: waterfall into space. 3: further travel possible into astral or another plane. 4: the solid blue bowl of the sky. 5: a blank realm where you can create new pieces of the world with your thoughts. 6: the strangest land

17. Increasing danger. A sea of increasingly extreme conditions, with a thematic and dangerous location at the center. Roll d6 for type: 1: cold. 2: heat. 3: storm. 4: beauty. 5: wreckage. 6: night.

18. The crystal sea. The water is so clear you can see the ocean floor and all the monsters and mer-cities below, and they can see you.

19. Terrain. The water changes into some other form of terrain but you can still sail over it. Encounters are by terrain type. Roll d6 for type: 1: desert. 2: lava. 3: stars. 4: inhabited land. 5: vast graveyard. 6: tower or cyclone that reaches to the sky.

20. Treasure! 75% chance of a guardian. Roll d6 for treasure type. 1: Island of gem-fruit trees. 2: golden ship. 3: pirate treasure. 4: giant pearl clams. 5: roc nest. 6: angel armory.

d&d is anti-medieval

November 2nd, 2016

You can be forgiven for thinking that OD&D is a medieval European fantasy game. After all, Gary Gygax himself says so. He describes the original D&D books as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval War Games” (on the cover) and “rules [for] designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign” (in the introduction). However, in the game itself, there’s precious little to suggest feudalism, Europe, chivalry, a post-imperial dark age, or even the existence of a monarchy at all. Apart from the technology suggested by the weapon list, it could just as well be a simulation of the professional meritocracy of Byzantium, or the city-state sovereignty of Barsoomian Mars. (There’s more explicit textual support in OD&D for Mars than there is for fantasy medieval Europe.) But neither of these strike the mark. OD&D’s cultural details suggest a society original to Gygax – nonsensical as a medieval fantasy, but coherent and striking as an American fantasy of empowerment and upward mobility. It’s an armor-clad repudiation of medieval feudalism, like Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.

It’s not feudal

The way you advance in a feudal society is to win glory in battle for your overlord. Then he grants you land, which is the main form of wealth. Unless you’re a peasant. Then you can never advance at all.

That’s not at all what happens in D&D. There is no overlord to grant you land. Land, instead of being a form of wealth, is completely free! (“At any time a player/character wishes he may select a portion of land (or a city lot) upon which to build his castle, tower, or whatever. The following illustrations are noted with the appropriate cost in Gold Pieces.”) The cost of building a structure is merely the a la carte cost of all its architectural elements. It costs nothing at all to acquire the land to build on, even inside a city.

Wealth in D&D is primarily in the form of coinage and jewels, not land and cattle, making the D&D economy more modern than medieval. Some have suggested that D&D takes place in a time of exploration and renaissance when coinage, and the middle class, is eclipsing the power of the nobility. I’ll go further. There is no sign that there is any nobility to eclipse, even a waning one.

If you build a castle in the “wilderness”, you have to clear the area of monsters for 20 miles around. You then gain control of a handful of villages within this area. You don’t have to compete against any other ruler or pay taxes to any overlord for these villages! This omission seems significant, since Gygax will always gleefully mention any relevant obstacle if it exists.

The people who live in villages are called either “villagers” or “inhabitants”, not “peasants,” “commoners” or “serfs.” They pay you taxes. If you piss off the villagers, the DM is encouraged to annoy you with “angry villagers”, “city watch”, “militia”, or “a Conan type.” Notable in its absence is any local form of knighthood, gentry, nobility, or ruling class to oppose you.

There are no knights

The word knight doesn’t even appear in OD&D. But there is one group of people who act distinctly knight-like. The wilderness contains castles, ruled by fighters, magic-users, or clerics. The fighters will challenge players to a joust (using Chainmail rules), taking the loser’s armor and offering hospitality to the winner. This has a sort of Arthurian chivalry to it, but Pendragon it is not. Gygax carefully avoids calling these folks “knights.” They’re fighting-men, with retainers (monstrous and human) and armies, looking very like the ones players can acquire. Furthermore, castle-owning fighting men are just as rare as castle-owning magic-users and clerics. The Outdoor Survival game board, which forms the default OD&D map, has a land area of 25,000 miles, half the size of England. There are about six castle-owning fighting-men in that area. In other words, castles of the wilderness aren’t dominated by an analogue of a knightly order, leavened by a few fantastic spellcasters. It looks, rather, as if they were built by a small handful of adventurers, appearing in roughly the class proportions of a typical adventuring party. (Fighters are, if anything, under-represented.)

There are no vassals

Let’s talk about how you gain followers. Gary says, “It is likely that players will be desirous of acquiring a regular entourage of various character types, monsters, and an army of some form.” In a truly medieval game, there’s a model for that: people swear themselves to your service in exchange for your protection. You raise an army by requiring service from peasants who live on your land. In other words, you gain vassals. D&D ignores this model, replacing it with one in which you pay retainers and specialists by the month. Loyalty is bought with a mixture of cash and charisma. You can hire armies, too, from Light Foot to Heavy Horsemen. (No knights.)

There are no kings

There’s no evidence of a monarchy. You never have to declare fealty to anyone. While you can create a barony, there is no way to level up and become a duke or King. There are no rules for controlling territory more than a day’s ride from your castle. In the hostile emptiness of OD&D’s wilderness, power doesn’t travel well.

The only mention of kings in the little brown books is in the descriptions of humanoid monsters, e.g. in a goblin lair “the ‘goblin king'” will be found. (Gygax quotes the term “goblin king”.) It seems unlikely that the term implies a crown, a system of divine right, inheritance laws, etc. Since a goblin king leads a single lair of 40-400 goblins, he’s probably just the local boss, just like the less evocatively named “leader/protector type” who rules every 30-300 orcs.

There is no lost empire

There certainly seems to be a power vacuum in the world of OD&D, ready for the player/characters to exploit. What used to fill that vacuum?

There’s no evidence for (or against) the idea that OD&D takes place in a dark age after a fallen Roman Empire analogue or during the death throes of a feudal kingdom. Sure, someone built those “huge ruined piles” under which lie the dungeons. But based on the treasures to be found there, the dungeon builders were part of a coinage economy just like the current one. There hasn’t even been significant inflation or deflation since the dungeons were built. The richest dungeon treasure hoard, on level 13 and deeper, averages out to about 10,000 GP in coin. That’s as much as a baron can earn from a year’s worth of taxes: not an insignificant sum to sock away in a dungeon, but not kingly or imperial either. This doesn’t suggest that dungeons are relics of a far richer past. It seems rather that things used to be like they are right now.

There are few European details

The monster descriptions of “men”, “elves”, and “dwarves” don’t suggest that the game is set in a European culture. The types of “men” are Bandits, Berserkers, Brigands, Dervishes, Nomads, Buccaneers, Pirates, Cave Men, and (perhaps) Mermen. Berserkers are a little Nordic in flavor, but are balanced out by Dervishes and Nomads from the “desert or steppes”.

The government suggested by the player’s “barony” is almost completely a-cultural. A player builds a stronghold, and then they can extort money from the surrounding people. This is the structure of every non-nomadic human society. The only European element is the technology level of your stronghold: it has merlons, barbicans, etc.

The D&D weapon list has a medieval feel to it, but partly that’s just because that’s what we’re expecting to find. In fact, it’s a sort of survey of (mostly) pre-gunpowder weapons. Most of the weapons and armor appear in ancient Europe and in Asia as well as in medieval Europe. Partial exceptions: Composite bows are mostly non-European, while longbows are associated with Europe. The halberd is basically a Renaissance weapon, and the two-handed sword appears in medieval Europe, India, and Japan, but not the ancient world. No one knows what “plate mail” is supposed to be.

If not medieval, what?

All over, the D&D rules seem to be explicitly eschewing a medieval, feudal model in favor of a cash-based economy, a nonexistent or powerless government, and a social-classless society in a sparsely inhabited, unforgiving world.

If the OD&D rules suggest any government at all, it is a meritocracy, or more precisely, a levelocracy. Creatures with more XP and hit dice rule lower-level ones, from settled barons and goblin kings to wandering bandits and nomads. This is not only non-medieval, it is anti-feudalistic and anti-aristocratic. Level requirements for baronies are at odds with the hereditary gloss added to D&D in nearly every subsequent setting.

OD&D also exhibits an obsession with money-gathering for its own sake that is suggestive of mercantilism or capitalism.

D&D is not “fantastic-medieval.” It’s not even “fantastic renaissance” or “fantastic-post-apocalyptic.” It’s “fantastic American history.”

How did Gygax set out to write a fantastic-medieval game and end up writing an American one?

OD&D is meant to be setting-free. The game’s referee is to create his or her own campaign, ranging in milieu from the “prehistoric to the imagined future” (with emphasis on the medieval, especially for beginners). In the later 1e Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax further explains, “There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European.”

But it is very difficult to write a document with no cultural assumptions at all. Gygax consciously excluded the trappings of a medieval society, and filled that vacuum with “real life” American details. Gygax wrote D&D in a country where, 100 years before, frontier land was considered free for the taking. (19th century propaganda depicted the land’s original Native American inhabitants as inimical savages, like orcs). At the same period, the success of America’s industrialist “robber barons” taught the country that birth and family weren’t the keys to American power; the American keys were self-reliance, ability, and the ruthless accumulation of money.

While it’s possible that D&D’s modern details slipped into the game unobserved,
Gygax may have been quite aware of his game’s implicit setting. After all, his original pre-publication Greyhawk campaign drew heavily from his own American experience. It took place on a United States map, with Greyhawk at Chicago, and Dyvers at Milwaukee. His buddy Don Kaye’s Greyhawk character, Murlynd, was a gunslinger from Boot Hill. I think it’s quite likely that Gygax intentionally gave his game a New World spin.

220px-gygax83greyhawkboxcoverIntentional or not, OD&D represents a milestone in American fantasy – and maybe the last un-muddled example of the genre it inspired. Most of D&D’s thousands of imitators, in game and fiction, preserve the game’s democratic bones (cash economy, guns for hire, rags to riches stories) while overlaying a medieval-European skin. The combination is not fortunate. Gygaxian levelocracy, where a villager can rise to become a baron or a “Conan type”, is fundamentally incompatible with the European fantasy typified by Lord of the Rings, in which no fellowship can alter the fact that Sam is by birth a servant, Frodo a gentleman, Strider a king, and Gandalf a wizard.

OD&D’s American strain of fantasy didn’t even last within TSR. In 1980, Gygax himself reworked the World of Greyhawk into what looks, from its cover, like a supplement about Arthurian Knights.

But it’s worth taking a step back from the medieval-fantasy cliches that overran later D&D publications, and playing the original, more coherent setting: A swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.

xposted here

i’m developing mobile games

October 17th, 2016

My buddy Maarten and I are starting a new venture: we’re making mobile games.

I’ve shared my little web games with you before, like Dungeon Robber and Quest for the Crown. Now we’re pretty close to finishing our first real game.

Paleo: Hunt and Gather is a turn based strategy game. It’s the survival game that takes place 100,000 years before, say, Civilization or Age of Empires, in a time in which rocks are the hot new technology. We’re looking for beta tester sign ups, so if “killing a wooly mammoth” is on your bucket list, sign up here.

Also: a mobile version of Dungeon Robber is on our list of upcoming projects. Keep an eye on our game development blog. I’ll cross post big announcements here.

Running a Dragon Chess Tournament

October 4th, 2016

Last year, I ran a Dragon Chess Tournament in my D&D 5e game, and it was a lot of fun. The event was a huge tournament that attracted people and powerful monsters from across the land to compete for fabulous treasures. I created an abstract system to simulate several days of play in the tournament, culminating in an epic final match. The rules I used are below:

Dragon Chess Tournament

Premise: A Dragon Chess Tournament is being hosted in the Crystal City, an ancient Metropolis of crystal spires whose best days are behind it. Hundreds of challengers have journeyed across the lands to compete for the grand prize, a mysterious and valuable treasure.

What is Dragon Chess?

Structure of Tournament:

  • 500 GP Entry Fee
  • 8 Rounds of Swiss Pairings
  • 1 Point for a Win
  • ½ Point for a Draw
  • Only players with greater than 6 points at the end of 8 rounds proceed to the Top 8 Finals.
  • Top 8 is single elimination (with the top players paired against the bottom players)

Prize Payout:

  • 5+ Points: Roll on Individual Challenge 11-16 (pg 136)
  • 5th-8th Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 0-4
  • 3rd and 4th Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 5-10
  • 2nd Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 11-16
  • 1st Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 17+

GamePlay:

Read the rest of this entry »

45 vampire weaknesses

September 28th, 2016

I’ve suggested before that the D&D vampire is too literal an adaptation of Dracula: sure, maybe Dracula’s animal form is a bat, but other vampires might turn into cats, frogs, or other creatures.

Gus at dungeon of signs suggests (among other vampire heresies) that vampire weaknesses should also be more varied than the monster manual suggests:

Likewise all [vampires] have a weakness to certain mundane things, though what exactly can harm their mortal form, or expel and extinguish their corrupted souls varies greatly: sunlight, salt, silver, cold iron, cats, living wood or blessed implements are all fairly common, though some [vampires] have contrived to have more obscure weaknesses.

I agree with this approach. I’ve made a d100 chart for vampire weaknesses.

I included the classic Bram Stoker weaknesses like garlic, plus a few dozen other common objects, creatures, and activities. The purpose of this chart is to turn vampires from a solve-once “puzzle species” into a series of “puzzle monsters,” each of which must be solved individually.

I want each vampire to be defeatable with a little investigation, so the weaknesses have to be advertised in some way. Many of the vampire weaknesses here are common items: a pale Old World noble might excite comment by recoiling from pepper or white clothes, which will be a good tell. Furthermore, every vampire is obsessed with its weakness. A vampire who fears songbirds might have an empty bird cage in its lair. One who hates lutes music might own a dozen unstrung lutes, or frequently proclaim its love of bardic music.

To populate the weakness table, I drew inspiration from the 5e trinkets table. It would be cool if some of that useless crap turned out to be a lifesaver against a vampire.

Vampire rules change: the Vampire Weakness trait is amended as follows. Sunlight hypersensitivity and stake to the heart are retained. Forbiddance and Harmed by running water are removed. Roll on the following chart to determine a new weakness. The sight/sound/smell of the weakness causes the vampire to act as if Turned. Furthermore, contact with the weakness (or being within 5 feet of the source of a sound or smell) does 20 acid damage and prevents shape change and regeneration until the end of the vampire’s next turn.

Note: this table can also be used for fairies, devils and other rules-bound creatures.

Vampire weaknesses: roll d100

1-2: Silver
3-4: Gold
5-6: Horseshoes
7-8: Needles
9-10: Mirrors
11-12: Clocks
13-14: Stained glass
15-16: Dolls
17-18: Feathers
19-20: Combs
21-22: Pearls
23-24: Oak wood
25-26: Bread
27-28: Garlic
29-30: Salt
31-32: Pepper
33-34: The inside of a house into which the vampire was not invited
35-36: The scent of flowers
37-38: Tobacco smoke
39-40: Green flame
41-42: Cooked meat
43-44: Wine
45-46: Milk
47-48: Running water
49-50: Any water
51-52: Fey creatures
53-54: Mummies and mummified things
55-56: Old people
57-58: Dirty people
59-60: White clothes
61-62: A children’s rhyme
63-64: Music from a specific musical instrument
65-66: Being mocked for a particular feature
67-68: An ancient language
69-70: Its own name, or the name of someone from its past
71-72: The face of its victims
73-74: Cats
75-76: Children
77-78: Bare feet
79-80: Songbirds
81-82: Roosters
83-84: Skulls
85-86: The queen of hearts, the red dragon, or another playing card
87-88: True love
89-90: Extracted teeth
91-100: Roll twice more on this table. If you roll the same result multiple times, the vampire is even more obsessed with this item, and contact damage increases by 20.

There are twelve storm giants

September 1st, 2016

One of the coolest things in the 1e Monster Manual is in the description of the Type V demon:

Each type VI demon has its own name. (Balor is a type VI demon of the
largest size.) Six are known to exist.

When you kill a type VI demon, you’re not just plucking a prize from the DM’s infinite monster grab bag. You are writing the history of the campaign world. That gives Balor and his five cousins a gravitas that justifies their good stats. (On the angelic side, according to the Monster Manual 2, “there are at least 24 solars.”)

As a DM, I’m inspired to think about and name the other five Type-V demons, and guess at their relationships with each other. Each demon can be written large in the campaign.

What other top-end monsters deserve this treatment? Ancient dragons, perhaps, but I get the feeling that they are so solitary that there’s always one more than anyone knows about, so there’s no point of keeping track.

Storm giants, though, merit further examination. They need to be fixed anyway. As a monster species, they have a problem that they sort of share a bailiwick with, and overshadow, cloud giants. Storm giants were a relatively late addition to OD&D: cloud giants were king in the original game, and storm giants were added in the Greyhawk supplement, maybe to keep up with player power inflation.

The other giants each rule over a particular terrain type. Storm giants are not purely sea giants and not purely cloud dwellers – neither fish nor fowl – but 90% of the time they share cloud giant terrain, breathing over their shoulders.

What if they’re not a superfluous giant species but the cloud giant royal family, somewhere between kings and gods? Like Balor and its ilk, we’ll fix the number of storm giants at some manageable number. Let’s say 12 to match the Olympian pantheon. Throw in some siblings and marriages, or just reskin some other family epic: the Greek gods, the Skywalkers, the Lannisters, or perhaps borrow from King Lear, the Shakespearean inspiration for Storm King’s Thunder.

As the aforementioned fictions suggest, a limited cast of related characters gives room for soap opera. A dash of soap opera gives emotional resonance to what could otherwise be merely sound and fury, signifying nothing. Fantasy is a good place for family drama writ large. And nothing is writ larger than the biggest of the giants.