Thursday, December 31, 2020

Maps, Conceptual VS. Technical

When I was a kid first learning to play Dungeons & Dragons out of the Mentzer boxed set, I didn't have much access to supporting materials. I lived out in the boondocks with the nearest city an hour's drive away. Going out to get magazines, let alone modules was pretty much out of the question. And I was the only kid in my school that wanted to play. (I learned from a friend in another town on the other side of the county that I saw three or four times a year.) 

My first exposure to D&D was this the two adventures out of the Red Box Player's handbook, which I played over and over dozens of times. I ran other interested kids through the second sample dungeon to learn the game as well.  And here's the thing about these adventures : the map is nonexistent for one and totally optional for another. There was no tactical play or positioning in either. Combat is totally abstract and Theater of the Mind. 

In effect my early experience of D&D played more like a Fighting Fantasy or Choose Your Own Adventure book... Which were my favorite pass times in those days. And that is how I ended up playing them with my would-be players (I ran numerous other kids through those adventures. The maps were next to useless) . 

The Dungeon Master's Rulebook included a sample group adventure... A follow up dungeon with a map and a pre-stocked 1st floor, but it relied on the new DM to stock the lower floor and plan the floors below it. Now, I mapped out a bunch of dungeons using the cool mapping tools they suggested... But as my play was totally Theater of the Mind, I found the precise details pretty unhelpful. 

The lackluster presentation of that adventure, and the randomness of the stocking method suggested (these days called the "Barrowmaze method" ) also suggested to me that pre-written adventures wouldn't have much to offer other than a map. Not being able to get them anyway, I just decided I would home-brew my own material and be done with it. 

The mix of TotM play, only having the Basic Set to work with, and total isolation from the rest of D&D culture meant that my formative years of play went swiftly towards a theatrical, low-prep, and rules-loose style of game. By the time I got a stable group together that wanted to play regularly, I found that a dungeon map could easily be replaced by a flowchart for 90% of my play needs. 

While my style of play became more technical as I graduated into Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, my use of maps was pretty scattershot at best.  What I needed was just a guide to the way the locations and encounters interconnect. And by the time I had moved into Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, I was working with players who actively disliked crawling through dungeons in favour of sweeping sea battles, adventures outdoors, and courtly intrigue. I stopped using maps altogether.

(During this time I was playing more RIFTS and Shadowrun than D&D, in general. ) 

So yeah... I basically play a game that could be called "... & Dragons" 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

On the Shape and Origins of New School Play

So, my last blog entry on how economics, not ideology is going to shape the future of Dungeons & Dragons led to a lot of thoughtful conversations, and people had tons of questions for me that warranted at least another article, so I wanted to dig a little deeper.

I intend here to be descriptive. And I will start with the caveat that New and Old-School gaming are not a binary position, but more of a spectrum.

I am personally comfortable running games for players of either stripe... Within limits. I have strong boundaries about using my game to work out someone else's issues and I don't tolerate Prima Donnas or characters that do not work with the group. I tend far more strongly towards the Old School

However, I do believe that right now there is a strong cultural shift towards the New-School, Frankly, Dungeons & Dragons does a piss-poor job of meeting the  goals on New-School players. They tend to get more satisfaction out of games built with story in mind, like FATE Core or Apocalypse World... If they are aware that these options exist. 

What Are We Talking About? 

New-School Gaming is a style of engagement in RPGs that leads to very different play. At its heart, it is about how you conceive of your character.

Old School

For most gamers before the recent boom, the Player-Characters were seen as playing pieces first. While more complex than a pawn in chess, it serves that same purpose first. It is the thing you manipulate to play the game. In this case it has a number of moving, interconnected parts, expressed as numbers, that are used to engage with subsystems in the game. That includes the subsystems of dramatic play-acting to resolve social encounters, and the subsystem of in-character decision making.

The Player Character in this conception is fungible; it can die and be replaced at a moment's notice. The game itself is structured to make keeping a piece in play difficult, and rewards players who solve problems creatively and play with skill by making the piece better over time. 

(This is an irony of early D&D: you gain levels and the statistical improvements that come with them when you prove you don't need them. ) 

Attachment to a PC is usually a result of playing it through several adventures successfully. The character's "story" emerges as you play, and character personality and quirks evolve during play as a way of playing with flair. 

New School

New School gamers instead see thir characters as a form of self-expression. They are investing a part of themselves into their character, either playing an idealized form of self, or a vessel for some sort of fantasy.,. They become deeply invested in and proprietary over their characters. 

The goal of a player of a New-School game isn't to play a game about burgling  lost treasure from monsters; it is to play out a story that let's them live out a fantasy of being a better version of themselves. 

Players in New-School groups can often seem to have a love affair with their player characters. They invest significant resources into custom character miniatures ($70 after shipping or paint), commissioned character portraits ($60 for a headshot, $100+ for full body art), home-designed character sheets ($15), and build advice (a few bucks), and in some cases custom character option material from the DM's Guild to let them build the exact character they want ($2-5).  all told, building a new character for a new school Dungeons & Dragons player with all of the fashionable accessories can run a player anywhere from $40 tip a few hundred.

Between the emotional and financial investment, it's no wonder they hold their characters to be sacrosanct. And are making significant demands on how Dungeons & Dragons works to accommodate their play style. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Critters are the Future of D&D

One of the most popular sports in the OSR recently has been speculating what Dungeons & Dragons 6th edition will look like. It's always an interesting exercise, but I often find that many of the OSR types miss a couple of key points when they're having their discussion. So, I'm going to make some suggestions about how 6th edition will look, but more importantly, I'm going to suggest that the people who will be the engines of D&D's change will be very different from what people expect.

I do not believe that the OSR leans particularly right, whatever my buddy Venger might say . It tends to be a very centrist movement  But, one thing remains true of it: most of the people in it remember the Satanic Panic pretty well. And Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal fandom used to come hand in hand. That means that almost every older member of the OSR knows full well that censorius members of the government and watchdog groups that claim to protect children from bad influences usually don't know what the fuck they're talking about. They tend to run on vapid, unexamined and dogmatic ideologies that they hardly understand. 

Given this experience, it's pretty understandable that the OSR is suspicious of Critical Race Theory Intersectionality, and Third Wave Feminism. They are often used as a bludgeon to justify things that they don't rationally justify, and anyone who actually has done some serious reading from the original progressive sources (like I have) realizes that the dominant voices in the discourse right now barely understand the ideology that they are touting. And that much of their vision of the world is deeply flawed. 

Accordingly, the OSR tends to have a lot of concern about the influence of woke scolds and crybullies especially from the twitterati on Dungeons & Dragons. And, the unfortunately homogenizing options presented in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything seems to confirm their worries. It's moving towards a D&D singularity where every character is essentially the same: a furry, battle-ready spellcaster that can do almost everything that has little or no flavor beyond the eight-page backstory that its players bring to the table. However, I think that speculating what sixth edition will look like based on "Tasha's Hideous Cauldron" and assuming it will be particularly woke misses the mark. It isn't the scolds that will shape the future of Dungeons & Dragons, it's the Critters.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Virtue of Being Stingy with Information

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay 

Fellow game developer and World of Weirth campaign member Haven Mirabella had an interesting question on Twitter the other day she wanted to push her players to join one or the other faction in her Pathfinder 2e campaign. Their choice will significantly shape whether they are working for the forces of good or evil. She wanted to know how she could help make sure the players made an informed choice.

She got a lot of solid advice on lines of letting the players sit down and talk to the leaders of factions, giving them time to collect gossip and fallow up on rumours, or going on short adventures for each faction you get a feel for what they would be doing working with them.

All in all, the Twitter peanut gallery gave lots of suggestions about how to give the players time and help them use that time to make their decision. I was a sole dissenting voice (though no less a part of the peanut gallery) . If anything, I argued, they should neither get time nor much information to make this decision. Instead, it was time to turn up the pressure.

To me, giving them all that time to make a decision will be what anyone would want in the perfect world. But, the whole point of a role playing game is to make the best you can in terrible situations with what you've got in a world that is very far from perfect. Why should learning about factions be any less perilous or improvisational than exploring a dungeon?

in fact, giving the player characters too much information chips away at their potential for drama and their agency. If they know Faction A is big on protecting poor farmers, while Faction B likes sacrificing the Virgin daughters of said farmers, the choice becomes far too easy. And it is very tempting to inject my preferences as to what my players should do by way of how I frame my information dump. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Quick and Dirty Campaign Primers

 I just started a new campaign after the Fizzle a couple of weeks ago.

I wanted to share my campaign planning process, and how it translates into a campaign primer: a document that tells your players enough to build a character that fits the scenario.


I am not interested in reading an 8 page backstories to characters, so it's only fair that I assume the PCs aren't interested in reading a novel's worth of setting lore. My goal is a short, punchy document that offers enough to get my players started. 

Choosing Your Tone 

Before I start any campaign planning proper, I want to make sure I have a sense of what kind of game I want to run. The tone of the campaign is the first stage to building everything else. 

Modern gaming culture is full of slang terms and concepts that can help you develop your idea. Ideas like "old school", "action-heavy", "gonzo", "grimdark", "noblebright" "cinematic", "story-driven", "RP-heavy", or "beer-and-pretzels" all have potential to help you shop around for campaign ideas. 

Another way to go about this is to make a list of the books, movies, games, or comics that you might like to draw on with the campaign. 

Whatever the case, your goal is to be able to articulate to your players what kind of experience that you would like to offer them. 

Setting Expectations

Your campaign primer should not take place of either a document with your house rules or a session 0. These are separate necessary steps that a Campaign primer simply can't replace. I often keep a short list of house rules in the Primer, but keeping them in a place where they are readily available for reference. 

The point of a Campaign Primer is to:

  1. Let the players know what style and tone of play you are looking for. 
  2. Where the PCs will begin the game. 
  3. The most important things all PCs need to know. 
  4. What they will need to know to make a character for the campaign. 
  5. Any options for characters not presented in the game's rulebook. 

You job here is to let the players know what they can expect if they choose to play in your campaign.

I often include a rough idea of what the players can expect their characters will be doing both at the beginning, and where I envision a campaign going barring PCs or the dice changing the game's arc. 

Setting the Stage

You don't need a lot to get a campaign going. A map of the area within a day's journey of the PCs' starting settlement.

A discussion of the local religion, economy, and culture in vague terms, but only insofar asif is important to make a PC.

Broad strokes of recent history that is specifically important to the first adventure, early adventure hooks, or oncoming campaign events. (For example, if there is going to be a war, you might want to include a little about the enemy nation and the bad blood between the nations.)

E about how magic, non-human, non-conforming characters, and religion generally fit it. But only to the point where you cover the likely bases for your players' styles.

Giving Constraints

As a default, nothing exists in a campaign world unless the DM says so. However, where you intend to deviate from the baseline game, it is important to let PCs know where their options have been limited. This is particularly true of classes and races, but also certain weapons and spells players tend to make their signatures. If fireball or cure wounds are not going to available in your game, it might be a good idea to say so up front both here, and in your house rules document.

Establishing Character Options

While writing up this document helps you organize your thoughts about the game world in general, for the players it is almost entirely for helping them build a character that fits into your vision well enough that it won't be jarring or a disappointment.

If there are custom classes, unique low-level spells, new races, or similar options, this is where you are going to give them. I like to give players a list of options for places or professions they might come from and offer the a minor ability, skill, or power connected to that part of the setting. This helps you build the world for the players. If the people of Thule are such masters of the cold that they all know how to summon a ray of frost, you have established a lot about the favor of the Thuleans.

Art and Maps

At some point in this process, you will want to give the players a map of that small area that you have thought through at least well enough to last you the first three adventures.

Beyond that, I try to add art that complements the ideas I have about the campaign. I put images of characters, monsters, and places that might fit into my campaign throughout the primer. This art can tell players who are astute observers a lot about how you envision the world that could take pages to otherwise make work.

I keep a Pinterest account where I collect galleries full of character, concept, and map art to use for purposes like ths.


I have shared my most recent campaign primer as a PDF below. This document covers everything a player would know to build a character in either an OSR game, or in ICRPG (the system for which it is intended) as an example.

Because I am publishing this one, the original art I used was removed and replaced with art that has a Creative Commons license. It is not quite as effective as the pirate art I was using... but I still feel that it catches a lot of the essence.

Take a Look!

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Alchemy for B/X Games

"Cauldron" by MysticArts on Pixabay

Last article, I shared an excerpt from my home-brew system Ær: An Adventure Game of Dragon-Riding and Aerial Heroics detailing the Pacts and Blades-inspired Pact Magic system that I created for it. In this article I will be sharing the Alchemy system made for the same campaign. 

I have always liked Alchemist protagonists , although most of the ones I enjoyed appear in books like The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk (very topical these days) Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garçia Marquez and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Perhaps arguably Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (especially the original 1918 Ed. ) They were hardly Appendix-N adventure story hero material. More the subject of fantasy medical dramas.

When Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition offered the option to buy a selection of cool alchemical items, I siezed on it and built a custom class based on the Expert NPC class with some bonus feats, access to the black powder items from the DMG, and weak spellcasting that ran as a sometimes-present Cohort all the way into Epic Levels.

When Pathfinder introduced an Alchemist class in their Advanced Player's Guide,  I was both thrilled and disappointed. Like my experimental class it could chuck bombs, and brew potions, but at best had a limited relationship with the alchemical items, and a slightly less-muddled version the not-spellcasting of Eberron's Artificer class.

The more recent Pathfinder 2e makes a much more sensible Alchemist: a character that makes a selection of bombs, potions, and gadgets to solve problems. However the class is so complex that it took me forever to get a feel for it. The PF2e manual is painfully opaque to me, overall, though. It is as if someone studied my information-processing schema and wrote something specifically designed to scramble my Brain.

With PF2e and my ow older designs as a guide, I've built my own Alchemist class that serves as a healer and support character, much like a Cleric.  However, it is a character that requires careful resource management and planning, and has an arsenal of options to create tactical advantages, rather than being a strong combatant. I am hoping that this design will encourage a lot of creativity from players.

Read it here! 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Pact Magic for B/X Games

Image by Squarefrog from Pixabay

Back in the summer I reviewed the game Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy by Lucas Rolim. I instantly fell in love with it simple mechanics. Lucas was kind enough to set me up with his first major source book for the game, Salamandur Household as well. (Now we play games together on Thursday nights.) His idea for a magic system involves making bargains with spirits to get a flexible but constrained set of magical abilities is inspired. And, something I have wanted to integrate into my own campaigns ever since.

(It doesn't hurt that it reminds me of my favorite video game, Secret of Mana.) 

Lucas and I both are being GMmed by Stephen Smith over at Stephen's Hobby Blog. His World of Weirth campaign setting is so out of the ordinary for Dungeons & Dragons, that Stephen has been slowly hacking together rule sets and concepts to build his own unique and custom AD&D-based RPG. It was thinking about how I wanted to integrate Lucas's magic system and how Stephen had essentially built himself his own retroclone to suit his exact me that inspired me to build one of my own.

My setting specific retroclone, Ær: An Adventure Game of Dragon Riding and Aerial Heroics, focuses on being knightly adventurers serving a chain of magical floating islands by riding wyverns on important missions. I believe that even low-level characters ought to have an opportunity to do something awesome and world shaking. Discovering a lost island from dragonback certainly fits that bill to my mind.

I created Ær from two particular influences. The first was the Dragonriders of Pern, a favourite fantasy world of mine for a very long time. The other was the kingdom of Floating Ar in the Mystara resetting. Particularly how it appears in the Poor Wizard's Almanac & Book of Facts; A kingdom that was once part of a powerful empire of magicians now left on its own to solve its own problems.

I also like to liberally season it with Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar, which is a favourite of my wife and a couple of my other players. Namely, I wanted to play with the idea of powerful psychic bond being a characteristic of the heroes.

From this witches' brew of ideas, I built my own BX setting. I wanted it to play fast and light, and so my Thief character borrows a lot of its skills from Lamentations of The Flame Princess. I use advantage and disadvantage rather than complex numerical modifiers. I tried to make almost everything built on roll under ability checks, rather than D20 system roles. I used a low amount of fixed hit points, item slots, ascending AC, numerical alignment, and a few of my own hacks.

The big requirements for me was a magic system inspired by Pacts and Blades, an advanced aerial combat system, and a well-developed system of alchemy that replaces divine magic for healers.

The alternative magic system and Witch class can be used in tandem with traditional  B/X Magic-Users. They have very different powers and restrictions, but have roughly equivalent powers. Pact magic is available to all characters on the lowest level, but at the cost of the characters being beholden to the spirits granting the power.

It should be relatively portable to any other B/X by substituting Wits with Intelligence and Bond with Wisdom and choosing either to set the Bond limit.

Read it here. 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Fizzle

"House of Cards" by Indenture is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

About 2 months ago I started a new campaign. I was ambitious, I created a fairly open called Ær. The concept was that the player characters are agents of a kingdom built on a chain of floating islands. I borrowed much of the geography and basic concepts from the kingdom of Floating Ar in Mystara after the cataclysm in the Wrath of the Immortals and then mutated it until it was functionally unrecognizable.

The players are a group of young people who have won a lottery and been given a chance to psychically bond with wyvern (think Dragon Riders of Pern). Those that make the bond become members of a knightly order dedicated to furthering the kingdom's needs. They fight the terrible floating pterosaurs that prey on the region, explore a mainland overrun by lovecraftian horrors, chart the islands that their homeland passes over, and run diplomatic envoys to known kingdoms that were not overrun by the eldritch things.

While I started the campaign using index card RPG for 2E, I was inspired by Stephen Smith to build a custom B/X game for it. This included creating a class of ace dragon riders as an option, replacing clerics with alchemists that were talented surgeons, and importing the pact magic system from Lucas Rolim's Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy RPG to give me a magic system consistent with the idea of someone who forms psychic bonds. Clerics exotic and foreign type of magician unavailable for play, and Magic-Users as members of the ruling elite were not permitted to bond with Wyverns (That's work for people who are expendable.)