GM Tunnel Vision

Do you have any blindspots as a GM? I do. I’ve talked in the past on my difficult in setting up a satisfying adventure. Even hooks in sandbox campaigns, I’m terrible at that stuff. It’s not that I don’t have it ready to run; I just can’t seem to get it in front of the players in any fashion beyond “hey go do it”.

What I’m describing is an area of poor performance on my part, which causes some detriment to my players. Additionally, I didn’t realize it until sometime into my first campaign. Someone had to point it out to me, albeit in a subtle fashion. I would’ve noticed eventually, after all player dissatisfaction gets written all over their faces at some point or another. That facet of play produces player feedback, whether they intend it or not.

But what if I wasn’t aware of it? What if the players’ feelings on that facet of play were obscured, or worse, difficult to express? This is GM Tunnel Vision; a lack of awareness of the players’ experience at the table, particularly related to your decisions as a GM. If I didn’t pay attention to what my players wanted, which I could guess at being a frequent player myself, it could seriously degrade their experience at the table. Even if other aspects of play I had power over were fantastic, my simple disregard for one section of play could erode trust in general.

Eroding trust is a companion essay to this one, so let’s go back to GM Tunnel Vision. The reason I spelled all of that seemingly self evident stuff out is because it’s easy to fall into as a GM. The GM can ban race and class options, right? Well within their rights to, as a matter of fact. It makes more or less sense depending on the world or setting they’re running. There’s no reason to assume the class spread of the PHB is perfect for every world, after all. Let’s not even get into the trouble of cramming dozens of races together in one world.

So we go to our players in this hypothetical situation, and say “I’m banning the Sorcerer and Druid. I’m also ditching gnomes, tieflings, and dragonborn.” Races are usually easier to get past more experienced players, but banning classes really rubs folks the wrong way in a far more common fashion. Let’s now say some folks make their disappointment known, whether they’re anonymously commenting on your decision online, or they’re your actual players complaining. There are any number of responses to give, so we won’t go over the list; just the one that spurred this article on.

“ Every time you talk about banning races and classes… (players say) the GM’s just trying to screw me out of my favorite thing. Really? I wrote this whole campaign book, because I wanted you to not have the one choice you enjoy. That’s why I did this! You sir have greatly elevated your importance in my mind.”

There’s nothing malicious in that statement at all. Boiled down, “I did what I wanted, screwing you over didn’t cross my mind” is quote’s essence. But does that player feel better, now? My favorite modern philosopher often devised a hypothetical situation for comment as follows: a man with a gun and a tiger are both hunting you in the woods. One is obviously sentient doing this on purpose, the other is not, driven by instinct. Does it matter which one catches you first? The obvious answer is no, you’re dead either way.

Let’s pull a more relevant example out of our posteriors; a player creates a character who incessantly asks “why would my character do that” at every prompt and prodding to go out and adventure. They’ve created a character who does not want to adventure, unless likely prompted by some very specific detail or event that you, the GM, in all likelihood to not have time to divine. But wait! Our player here didn’t mean to be an obstructionist shitheel, causing problems for you where there were none and diminishing your free time. They did in good faith! You sir, have greatly elevated your importance in their minds. Has the problem gone away, now? Simply avoiding maliciousness isn’t enough . Granted, one could make a case that ignoring any thought of other people’s fun in a group activity centered around having fun is a conscious choice and therefore malicious, but that’s besides the point.

It doesn’t matter if you’re actively out to get someone or not, there are plenty of ways to needlessly be a dick. I’ve banned/restricted races plenty of times, placed different restrictions, etc. Knowing it was a potential negative for a player didn’t stop me from making the decision; it was a decision I felt was best for the game at the time. Acknowledging the fact it was a potential negative allowed me to look for potential rebalances, giving the players other means of fun (tailored to them) across the course of play.

I take this approach because it isn’t “my game”. I didn’t gather friends, acquaintances, colleagues, etc to sit through my b-novel. We got together because in some fashion or another we enjoy each other’s company, especially in the context of this game we came together to play! I’m not saying to never ban classes, races, features of play, etc. For the record neither am I some god-tier GM; I’m still a beginner. But consider, just for a moment, that thing on the other side of the GM screen is a person, a person you may actually care about, who is impacted by your decisions in the game. If you want to bypass GM Tunnel Vision, consider making additional decisions that positively impact the player’s enjoyment or experience at the game. It’s just a simple exercise in empathy. It may not have much of an impact on your decisions to begin with! But in this mindset, you’ll at the very least be aware of what your players are thinking and how they’re reacting internally.

What’s the worst that could happen?

High vs Low magic is BS

This one’s been a long time coming.

I was flitting about the internet, watching posts and forums as I do, and I saw a bunch of folks discussing high vs low magic describe 5e as being high magic, even very high magic. I’d only been playing 5e for one or two years at the time, and this struck me as absurd! That is until, of course, I saw their definition. They defined High Magic as how many people could use magic, and if you take the player race bonuses as being universal representation of said races, that would be correct.

Their definition didn’t strike me as being terribly useful for discussing anything of real importance, though! I think any reasonable DM starts off with “Yeah these are adventuring Tiefling stats, the entire race doesn’t have access to Hellish Rebuke for when a mosquito bites them.” Then you have magic items in 5e, which are apparently supposed to be rare in the system. It’s supposedly a counter to how “powerful” 5e PCs are, but 5e PCs aren’t these juggernauts by design. By the time the PCs get access to anything interesting by way of character abilities, spells, or magic items, the monster manual falls behind. Is that a definition of a powerful PC? Well maybe, I’m Godzilla compared to a 5 lb weight. Once you get to that scale, you start looking at what’s supposed to counter the PCs, rather than look at the PCs as being powerful. I think it’s one of the reasons homebrew is so prevalent in the 5e community.

Back to the point, though. So we have some adventurers who specifically start off with magic, and we have the occasional introduction of magic items. What about spells? Well, cantrips can be fired off every turn. I guess that’s pretty easily accessed magic, right? Look at the majority of the spell list, though. Are there any spells of consequence beyond a battle or two? Yep! They’re few and far between, and the 5e system takes great pains to discourage you from combining them absent a few oversights.

Spells of consequence is the key to that question. You can play 5e disregarding the split between adventurer and the race as large (which I don’t advise), throw magic items at your party (and indeed you should). You can flood your campaign with the stock magic the core rules provide. Just one problem; none of that stuff is consequential. Ok, maybe it isn’t a problem. Plenty of people get by on it.

Shouldn’t “High Magic” be defined as magic having a strong impact on the world, though? Or at the very least, shouldn’t we update our classifications for a grid or some other visualization to place our games on? Take Avatar, for instance. Not everyone is a bender, right? Would you say bending is of little consequence, though? Has everything progressed as our medieval world did, plus a few fireballs being thrown around? Nope. Goodness, bending is incorporated into all fashions of technological development. Earth bending is probably the most obvious example, they have entire modes of transporting cargo and people around that rely on benders and engineering working in sync, and it’s done in a plausible fashion. There are more benders than any given edition of D&D assumes there are mages, but still.

The magic system of Avatar changes the development and technology of the world and empowers its users not just to change their immediate circumstances but also events and circumstances in the long term (I need a stronghold, time to bend one from the earth). This is an axis of evaluation quite different from “how many mages are there?” How different would D&D be if its magic system matched these qualities? You’d have more opportunities to impose on the world, explore new frontiers, push boundaries, get into the sort of swords and sorcery pulp adventures true D&D was built on, or at the very least, create the situations pulp heroes then explored. The prequel to those stories, I can only assume, all began with some wizard saying “oops”, after all.

But I digress (again, damnit).

Point being, starting these discussions of High vs Low Magic, we need something better. We need an axis of Frequency crossing an axis of Consequence. Frequency is the percentage of relevant people in the setting who have access to magic or someone else who can cast it . Consequence is the ways in which the setting can or should deviate from the world as it was (or as is), and the capacity for its users to impose upon the world beyond a single day’s events.

Avatar, for instance, would be classed as High Frequency and High Consequence. The “default” of 5e (whatever that is) would be classed as Medium Frequency (plenty of low level spellcasting going around, not many magic items) and Extremely Low Consequence, for the near-total lack of anything provided as possibilities for altering the world as is.

It’s just a thought.

Are there more sliders or categories to add to this?

Cracking the Semi-Classless Code

A combination of listening to some podcasts, some further discussions with friends, and my point-buy multiclassing post have allowed me to design the true skeleton of the Lord of Brackas RPG.

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to design appropriate prerequisites for class abilities, because I couldn’t figure out what your basic stats and attributes would be before picking said abilities. How many spell points would you have? How would you go about getting more of them? How many maneuvers would you have, what distinguishes a spellcaster from a martial character before they start selecting abilities?

Enter hit dice. Hit dice are a nice mechanic in 5E, but go a tad underused. The variant rule that requires you to use them across a long rest to actually get some healing in was pretty great, and added some grit to the game. I’ll be porting it over as the default in LOB. Besides that, they’re pretty underused. “But wait”, I asked, “what if the first thing you did when you gained a level was choose hit dice?” So, I started laying them out, following whatever trail my subconscious was attempting to lay out for me. I began adding titles to each hit dice. “Psion: 1d4. Spellcaster: 1d6. Half Caster: 1d8. Martial: 1d10.” These were the foundations I needed to start.

In Lords of Brackas, the type of hit dice you select determines what you advance in. Selecting a d4 hit dice gives you more psi points. Selecting a d6 gives you more spell points. Selecting a d10 gives you more maneuvers. Selecting a D8 gives you more maneuvers or more spell points depending on what level you’re at. See the pattern? The “basics” of your character are all filed under this one mechanic. What determines your psion level, spellcaster level, and martial level? Hit dice. Perfect.

Now, when designing class abilities, I can say “This is appropriate for a 5th level spellcaster to access.” The person accessing it may not be 5th level; chances are they have some martial or psionic levels as well. But now that I know the progression paths, these “extras” (class features) can be adjusted accordingly. I originally thought martial, spellcasting, and psionic levels would be determined by selecting the abilities themselves. Could you imagine what kind of hell it would be to balance “ok, so this ability adds a spellcasting level, but this ability adds a martial level, but this one isn’t quite good enough to add a martial level so now I need to scrap it or combine it with-”

Literally impossible. Hit Dice on the other hand, set the foundation for a half-classless system. I’ll add more on them later, but I’d like to point out one last thing I only realized typing this essay out.

This is perfect for a rules-lite game. Psions have their Psionics, Spellcasters have their Spells, Martials have their Maneuvers, and those who mix up their levels get to pick and choose. You could probably sweep aside just about every class ability beyond what your players get at first level, and just play with the bare bones of the system. I would have zero interest in such a game as a player, but it could be useful for people trying to practice with the system, people who don’t like fleshed out systems, or even myself and other team members as devs making getting familiar with how class abilities play off this skeleton.

Neat!

Thoughtbites: anti-powergaming is insecurity (at best)

Resisting the urge to start this off like a Seinfeld chunk, is there really anything to be discussed when it comes to powergaming? Some players like feeling as if their characters are powerful. They’ve “done the work” to make their characters competent, strong, and impressive within the world. “Oh, but that prevents roleplaying!” Yeah, that prevents roleplaying. That’s why all of our stories involve people horrifically incompetent running around failing at whatever goal they or someone else set for themselves. That’s the set of narratives our culture is built on, right? People who suck at everything fail? Bullshit.

I come up against this every once in awhile on forums, quora, it’s everywhere. Come to think of it, my quora rant on “how do I DM for a party of power gamers” is my most viewed answer on the site. What spurred it on wasn’t the question itself but everyone else who was answering it. “Punish your players” came the answer. “Strip everything out of the game they enjoy, remind them that as the GM you are GOD and they are your captive mortal audience, never permitted the slightest sliver of mechanical enjoyment unless you give the go-ahead.”

Sometimes the people in this space are real assholes, and not the “I was a bit harsh critiquing your monster design” types. The “I need to kick over your sandcastle because this time it’s personal”. That’s where the “I hate powergamers” element comes from! This person gamed the wrong way and I need to punish them for it.

This is the mindset of terrible people. Powergamers have a very simple set of buttons to push if you want them to enjoy the game. My character feels cool and good at what he does. You get objections like “Well now I need to design an encounter so it challenges one part of the party without wrecking the others”, which is completely ridiculous for just about anyone who’s been playing for awhile. If you want a gritty challenge for any number of your players, the 5th edition monster manual isn’t the way to go anyways. Having a power gamer only exacerbates that minor problem. What about the other players at the table? Shouldn’t they be happy they’re winning combats thanks to the power gamers? “Well they want to feel strong in combat too!”

So why didn’t they make strong characters? Ostensibly they at the very least had similar access to similar character options. They had access to a power gamer! They could’ve asked “hey, how do I make my character strong with what’s in front of me?”

But no, someone did it better. So now they have to suffer. Right? That’s our only option here. Wait, I have an idea! Maybe, if a person wants to be good in combat, but made a character who isn’t all that great in combat, makes a different character. Maybe they choose something other than combat to excel at. Maybe, just as we wouldn’t accept “I try to murder the guards for no reason” from a powergaming murder hobo if it wasn’t a good fit for the group, we wouldn’t force one player to suck if another player thought their spotlight was threatened. Maybe the person bitching and moaning about their spotlight picks a different spotlight, works with the other player to share that spotlight, or works on matching the other player’s spotlight.

Spotlights are a feature of all groups, varied in degree as they are. If someone feels bad because another player is outshining them, that’s not necessarily because they’re playing the character wrong. There might just be something wrong with the class or whatever other character option isn’t jiving properly with the table. If the immediate reaction is “ruin the character doing the best right now”? That’s wrong. Flat out, you’re wrong.

There are better and worse ways to perform according to the mechanics of the game. Is that the fault of the player who paid attention to them? Or the player who didn’t?

Make the right choice. Stop attacking power gamers as ruining the game.
If you think the game “isn’t all about combat”, stop whining when someone blows through the encounters. Because otherwise, it is about combat, and you’re failing.

Great mechanics come from excuses.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I generally suck at designing adventures. Certainly campaigns, I’ve run 2 major ones and never came up with anything resembling a narrative. At least, not intentionally. You see I am a great designer. I can say that with confidence nowadays, and have a small legion of happy fans and customers to back it up. Narratives, though. Not the best at them. I’ve designed multiple subsystems for 5E! Have only worked on 1 book, though. Like a story, I know I have a physical 5E product coming out.

So how do I shamble through campaigns? Well, I know I need to hook my players in somehow. Rarely do I pillage someone’s backstory for plot points. I did it a bit more in my second campaign. I’m hoping to do it more in my Sky Pirates campaign, when that comes up again. Not why we’re here, though. The most typical hook I use for the players is “go get the thing”. This other takes the form of “go find the thing, it’ll be useful for us if it’s in your hands” and “go repossess the thing, for similar reasons along with the general discomfort of bad guys”. This is a convenient way to present new mechanics, rewards, items, etc. to the players. Coincidentally, if I were to approach this backwards, I could develop new mechanics, discover the natural consequence of their presence in the game world, and insert them as a player hook from there.

This does not make for quality storytelling, at least not on purpose. There were certainly interesting moments that came out of these mechanics, but that’s because narrative is evoked from mechanics. The mechanics we use change the stories we tell. Even if you’re simply narrating an occurrence, you’re still subconsciously referencing (and perhaps modifying, personalizing) a mechanical structure at your table. You’ve read it, now you’re infected. No going back. You’re stuck with it. I tell you that to tell you this; those new mechanics I invent? They tell new stories.

Airships are not new in tabletop games by any stretch of the imagination, mine just happen to be better than just about anything on the market. The fact I beat WOTC to Spelljammer-adjacent mechanics aside (no, their 1-ton cargo weight airship in the DMG doesn’t count), having a ship greatly expands player freedom. As I discovered in my first campaign, too much freedom, or at least too much when I suck at designing adventures to give them a sense of direction. Which I still do, largely. So too much freedom. Ah, but what if I made yet another subsystem? I created Runes, powerful spells the players could access but only cast under certain conditions (which were essentially vancian magic).

Well I had a goal in mind for the players, now I just need a place to put these runes, and a reason for the players to go down there so they can discover them. Someone approaches the players and asks them to make an expedition down south, to unexplored territory. Great! Now, essentially no matter where they go, they’re in the “right” area. Not because I’m keeping them there, just because the main goal is fulfilled by virtue of exploring.

This might all sound like I’m creating cool narratives by excuse of the mechanics, but that’s a separate, upcoming article. You see, to keep the draw of the exploration aspect, players need things to discover, or be rewarded by their benefactor for discovering things that maybe didn’t have a reward in of themselves. Or beating other explorers to important locations, or just beating them in general. Point being, I need to keep up the act, because my players want me to, and get the illusion of things moving along by virtue of me coming up with this shit.

So, I did! I developed probably around a dozen runes across the course of the campaign. Then, I developed a bunch of psionic abilities. I developed mechanical events for travelling in the Nightmare, my version of the Far Realms. I never touched on the personal bestiary I’ve developed to challenge players with absurd items and abilities. I gained all of these mechanical options that open the floodgates of possibilities (on both sides of the screen) because expanding possibilities was the hook of the game I pitched to begin with. It was my excuse to push myself, sometimes in a somewhat tardy fashion, to expand upon what I and the players had access to that session. Again, my excuse.

What’s yours?

Thoughtbites: point-buy multiclassing.

I was playing Total War Warhammer the other day (as Wood Elves, of course), And one of my lords apparently had some unspent skill points. It’d been a while since I had played this game, so I set about perusing the various skill trees and abilities of said Lord. It occurred to me I might want to wait before attributing certain skill points, but I got familiar and often did so anyways. This got me thinking; one of the early episodes of digressions and Dragon included a brief spiel on multiclassing. Unlike the usual drivel about “I can’t see why your character would multiclass”, Scott managed to make an interesting objection. Earlier editions of D&D apparently had minimum age requirements for your character based on class. The assumption was you had to spend a certain number of years studying your craft in order to get to first level. This causes serious narrative conflict across the course of the game, even though little scrutiny will likely be placed on it.

It’s also the first time I’ve heard “the character suddenly gains a level in something else” have any sort of legitimacy. You see, adventurers within the game can always attempt things like casting spells they are not prepared for, attacking more times in a round than they would normally be able to do, etc. D&D simply has no mechanics that outline this process of stretching beyond your usual limits. Fifth level for fighter is simply the first time he can attack twice within around without reliably failing. A very “sudden” transition that we don’t place scrutiny on, because there’s no fun to ruin for someone else without being disregarded and mocked relentlessly down that road. I outlined this process in greater length in an old video of mine, which probably needs to be updated.

Multiclassing in the game, by this standard, is still “sudden” compared to the supposedly years of requisite training. Fair enough. This was all followed by a discussion on Multiclassing’s design writ large; to Scott, it’s an afterthought. Nobody thought about how to explain characters needing multiple years of training to go into one class, could then go into another class across a few weeks of practice (possibly done in an unrelated discipline). Now this concerned me for number of reasons, not least of which is the fact he is absolutely correct. I’m not going to go into an in-game explanation for why this is possible (though I have one), that’s just not the point.

I myself am designing an RPG, which I have effectively begun preproduction on. I am also a pretty flagrant multiclasser. So, whereas I was originally focused on ensuring the dip into various classes would be satisfying and balanced, am now questioning the entire “level dip” method to begin with. I won’t be taking the dual-classing approach Angry mentioned for a number of reasons, because that’s not why we’re here. Remember when we started this post, somewhere in a prior epoch?

Skill points! You could gain skill points based on your total character level, as well as other achievements in game (such as building a stronghold, accomplishing certain feats of strength or wit, etc.). I’m now falling under the rather miserable realization that somebody has almost certainly done this already. I have not looked at any classless systems yet; I probably should. Back to the subject at hand. So imagine D&D, but each and every ability has a set of points that it costs underneath it. They have a level prerequisite, and perhaps a prerequisite ability that must be purchased before hand. Now imagine this is a fantasy RPG that is not D&D, not medieval, etc. We’re talking mine. It’s important for a reason, we’ll get to it.

Let’s say it’s not just “class” abilities (and there are defined classes) that can be purchased this way. Maybe ability score improvements are chosen this way. Maybe feats are chosen this way. Maybe there are ability rewards with pre-requisites most commonly attached to mixed-class themes (even if they don’t occur via multiclassing). You could play a single class in this system, this would just be an optional rule the system was designed with (just very front-and center). “I take all of the abilities listed in this class, because I have just enough points to do so along with some ASI’s or feats.” So everyone who isn’t really invested in character customization (or just micromanaging things) just gets to make a character they want, and let the game guide them.

Now let’s take my encounter manual (includes environmental hazards, traps, along with monsters), and the section on designing monsters from scratch has a list of abilities, passives, resistances, the whole mess.

Those can be built with points. Those points can be directly comparable to the total points player characters have, can be on the same power curve.

Wouldn’t that make designing challenging encounters a breeze? Compare the points from this monster to those of your players? You wouldn’t even need to use the multiclassing rule. You’re just taking all of the background math and “bounded accuracy”, and dropping them into single digit totals to compare against your players. Man, this really got away from multiclassing.

If you build your game (meaning, if I build my game, which you fine folks will then purchase and enjoy for the rest of your lives) on this point system, and take notes from D&D by roping these points into single or double digit totals to match roughly 5% increments in the chance of any given ability succeeding by and large, you have access to an easily understood, easily modified game through which all things can be hand massaged in seconds. Your players can build their own class progressions (if you let them). People online can build your players class progressions, and since everyone has access to the same understanding of the math (without said math being outrageously complicated), collaboration between Historians (GMs of my game) will be a breeze.

This was more of a thought-chomp, now that I think on it.

Psionics, and how to do them right.

After setting up some basic principles and restrictions, writing up a few abilities, and testing them out on my players recently, I can say with confidence, no, certainty, that I know how psionics can and should be done in 5E.

Ready?

First thing I want to note is the fact psionics should not be a default feature of D&D. I certainly think if I was a designer on D&D, I would designate specific domains psionics would be used for (and would therefore not appear in abilities like spells) in anticipation for settings psionics prominently featured in. I would have done this, seeing as though earlier editions of my games had settings which included psionics, and would try to ensure that any eventual inclusion of psionics would not step on the toes of other features of the game. This is commonly known as “foresight”, and we know not to expect such things from WOTC. Certainly, I would never include items which were previously psionics as spells in add-ons to the game 4 years in when people were clamoring for psionics.

Jackasses.

I’m inclined to agree with the OSR guys that Monk shouldn’t be a default D&D class. Why? Because it’s a psionic class. It has supernatural abilities that are often not interpreted as being magic (and existing within systems of magic), though they can certainly interact with magic. Point being, you should explain why supernatural effects not covered by magic exist in your game, both in a narrative and mechanical sense. That explanation can be as simple as “It’s always been here, no one’s bothered to look into it. We just know the things we do with magic and the things we do with this other thing are different.” Not the coolest explanation in the world, but hell, you’re busy. We get it.

Before I give you my explanation, let’s switch to the mechanical purpose of the system. In spite of previously existing spells and abilities, we have options insofar as what domains psionics cover. Whereas spells displace a person’s personality, psionics make minute adjsutments to their personality. You can flavor this as attacking the conscious vs subconscious mind. A suggestion spell may force you to run away from a battle, whereas a similar psionic might impart you with a phobia (of say, metal) to achieve a potentially similar but unique effect.

Here’s another; spells conjure matter and energy, generally do so for specific effects, rather than to be manipulated themselves. Those instances in which they do wouldn’t be present in a system designed from the ground up with psionics in mind, but such things fall to me to do. Psionics on the other hand manipulate matter, whether conjured or present naturally. What do I mean by manipulate? I can hardly think of a better example than Avatar: The Last Airbender (which I only recently watched for the first time). There’s a potential exception when it comes to firebending, but that’s neither here nor there. The primary focus is in manipulating the elements present to your whim, not spontaneously creating or summoning them. You turn water to ice, raise walls of stone, move objects by bending their air around them, etc, This system is potentially more open to creativity than spellcasting generally is, but that’s a double edged sword we’ll have to blunt when it comes to restrictions in a moment.

One other comparison, before we do. There’s only one spell that explicitly affects time in 5e as it currently stands, and that’s Time Stop. It’s quite garbage without some changes to the Concentration mechanic, but we’ll leave that to the side (much as I enjoy screeching about it). Other spells like Haste and Slow obviously invoke thoughts of time in the name, but can be thought of as affecting processes other than time itself ( internal chemistry, creature’s perception, etc). Psionics of a similar sort would affect actual time, displacing a creature for 3 rounds, for instance. They might reverse a creature’s wounds! Said reversal would be more or less powerful based on the most recent damage the creature took, and indeed, that’d be your balance factor for such an ability.

So, let’s run over the comparisons again:
Displacing Personality vs Manipulating Subconscious
Conjuring Matter vs Manipulating Matter
Enhancing Creatures vs Altering Time

Let’s talk restrictions. Psionics are primarily based off the mind, and by extension, their senses. Spells can be fairly loose with what does or does not allow you to target creatures with them. Psionics need restrictions based on said perceptions built into the abilities, given a lack of common counters that magic has (counterspell, magic resistance, generic anti-magic fields, etc). I’ll develop comparable counters at some point, but that only comes after the system’s creation. Maybe not, I’ve already thought of a few as I type this. I can’t help it though, I’m just too creative. So what I’ll say as general advice is plan ahead, but don’t leap to the “ahead” portion until you’ve squared everything you need to make the system function away. Back to the point; psionics need restrictions baked into the system. “A target you can see” is my go-to, and allows enemies with the proper gear or tactical acumen to defend against sight-based spells. Ditto for psionics. Certainly one could think of higher level psionics not having restrictions on sight, but rather “At a point of which you’re aware” or some similar language, to ease the burden on the sense and reflect the Seer’s improving skills.

What we should probably develop next are general classifications of psionic abilities, much like spells have schools. We’ll take a note from the Mystic UA here and call them disciplines. Chronos will denote our time-based abilities. Telekinetics will cover abilities that manipulate matter. Cognetics will be our mind-altering subst-I mean abilities. I’m going to include another here (mostly for my own records) called Fractures, where reality writ-large is adjusted in one way or another, sort of a catch-all for things not covered in the others.

These are just examples to spin off of, general principles to use as you generated psionic abilities. You will inevitably step on the toes of spellcasting or other abilities, that’s fine. As long as the majority of the system feels as if it’s tackling problems from a different angle, the exceptions won’t ruin the fantasy.

Speaking of the fantasy, let’s talk narrative. Mine, in particular.

Psionics in my world come from the Nightmare. They’re able to pick and choose pieces of this unreality mirroring their own, and displace one another. As they get stronger, they begin matching the divinity that spawned the Nightmare to begin with, and exercise a finer control over what gets displaced (manipulating the Nightmare itself before taking pieces of it). This process isn’t entirely conscious; the psions (Seers, on Brackas) know what effects they’ll produce, but not entirely how its done. In some sense, they guard themselves against knowing; woe to the inexperienced Seer who gazes to far into whatever window is opened by their psionics. You never know what gazes back.

Given that lovecrafty things have a very specific explanation for their existence, and have fleshed out consequences and counter-consequences for their coming into being, psions (as created in Brackas) make quite a bit of sense! That’s not the case in all settings, and if i’s not the case in yours, knead an explanation into it (perhaps by changing/advancing the world state), or don’t include it. It’ll feel weird, and forced. Probably.

Psionics vs OP Party.

I GM for what’s currently a party of five, but given what they faced and defeated in the past, you’d think they were an army of players. They are overpowered, so to speak. Now, this is by design. I homebrew my own magic items, and didn’t want to worry about whether certain things were or were not attunement, what combinations could be generated using both book items and my homebrew items, what would frustrate the players in terms of being able to use their favorite gear, etc. So, I throughout the three attunement rule, and simply let the players attuned to his many items as they wanted. I in turn scaled the difficulty curve.

This worked out well for a time; the players got extraordinarily powerful, I got to throw increasingly cooler and tougher monsters at them, and the players received (or crafted) more interesting magic items. At this point though, challenging the players is, well, proving to be a challenge! I find myself funneled into the “one giant encounter per day” strategy. The players have a number of resistances to elemental damage (I think acid’s the only exception), they have a paladin with a +5 charisma modifier in the party, Etc. On top of that, these players received a boon from a deity earlier in the campaign. Many of these players chose magic resistance, which gives them advantage on saving throws against spells or other magical effects. The aforementioned Paladin wields a holy crusader, which also grants this effect to anyone within 10 feet of him.

That’s a very long winded way of saying “My players have lots of resistances to and interrupts for my typical means of challenging them.”

Now, I’ve found another means of challenging the players that isn’t covered by this particular essay; creatures who do lots of damage dice and hit often. I don’t employ those frequently, not frequently enough anyways. But again, not covered by this essay. I need a different series of homebrew monsters/mechanics to rely on.

Enter Psionics! The other night I brought out some Kuo-Toa to attack the players (and give a nod to my first DM Matt, who established a tabletop tradition of them screaming “SACRIFIIIIIIIIIIIICE”). Now, several of these fish-men were spellcasters. One of them I made a Mystic, using the UA article as a baseline. What I found amusing was the mystic was far more terrifying, and roughly equivalent in strength to the 5 spellcasters. “Make me a dex save. This isn’t magic, by the way.”

I was greeted with scared looks all around!

Now, the Mystic class is a total mess, but it’s the sort of mess you can pick through and butcher for your own needs. In my tradition of making a Hobgoblin legion or faction for everything, here come the Seers. These Seers will take beats from my Lord of Brackas RPG version, which does a great deal to distinguish psionics and spellcasting.

I should, now thinking on it, have a simple attack available to these Seers. “Lots of psychic damage, int save for half”, should do nicely. Switching away from the “complex list of abilities to make you do stuff” should be nice, for a chance. I’ll leave that stuff to the players to enjoy.

TLDR use brain stuff against players you can’t challenge.
One of these days I’ll get better about the long winded stuff, but hey, there’ll be a follow-up post on how it went, along with examples of statblocks and abilities.

Airships, what fun!

I’ve got a Kickstarter coming up for this very thing (and of course I do), so in combination with the fact I’ve now used this mechanic in 3 campaigns, as well as my general obsession with them (and what could I possibly love more than talking about myself), it’s time to talk about Airships.

Airships are floating boats of any variety, whether they’re zeppelins, wooden ships with magic sails, floating fortresses, you get the idea. The specific form of the airships will have some relevance later, but we have to go over some basics first.

If you’re including Airships in your campaign, you should probably think of a specific reason why.

How are they made? Magic, tinkering, both? Do they need to be maintained?
Do the Airships provide transportation for people? How about cargo?
Are they common? How long do they take to build?
Are they used for military support? How about direct combat?

Any DM who drops airships into their campaign needs understand that if the players have access to them (including by means of theft), your world will suddenly expands in scope. these ships provide your players with a certain degree of freedom, particularly if they need no additional and PCs to maintain or operate the airship. I prepared for this with a map on the scale of North America. It’s not necessary by any means to do that, there’s plenty to do in any given region or country. I do find it useful, however, to have on hand when players say “we want to take a vacation somewhere else”, in addition to other benefits. Just know in advance; an airship that doesn’t need to be maintained or operated by other NPCs, or are otherwise guaranteed to operate at the parties command, will unhitch your players from locations they’d normally have to struggle to leave.

It also reduces the relative threat posed by any given entity or event whose primary danger is its proximity to the players. That’s a fancy way of saying “if it’s not a hurricane or Dragon, it’s not going to light a fire under your players by necessity.” If you, like me, enjoy watching your players freak out about whatever’s on their plate, you may need to adjust the challenges you throw at them.

Don’t turn their airship into a punishment, though. Don’t get me wrong, giving the players an airship with hit points gives the players a fail state that doesn’t involve players dying or being captured. Absolutely use that to challenge them (or, should mischief take you, a new adventure hook; your ship is gone)! Understand however, the more any given possession or ability of the players needs to be micromanaged, and the longer it takes to resolve the effects of that position or ability (particularly in combat), the more likely they are to push it to the side whenever they can. Your players want to wear tri-cornered hats and call themselves pirates, not become a spreadsheet manager. I made this mistake in my first campaign. My players had the Celestial Wyvern, the bane of the first Host War, stolen from the nation of its creation, their pride and joy. Despite its obvious benefit in combat, the amount of time it took to resolve the firing of various cannons, howitzers, swivel guns, you name it wore the party down. It still wouldn’t be too much if not for the tracking and management of ammunition, their various weights, ranges, etc. afterwards. It brought down the experience as a whole, even though certain parts were fun. I was ruining a night at a five-star restaurant with an obligatory post-meal survey. The dread of resolving the aftermath of a combat started bleeding into the combat itself, and that dread certainly didn’t make resolving the battle any easier.

I also made a custom system for sailors to gain experience and abilities as time went on, giving the players an additional sense of progression and success. When I told them their crew had leveled, they got excited! When I handed them a well written six page document on how to generate the stats for 50 crewmembers, this excitement quickly faded. The fact it made them more effective in combat only made the problem worse; they couldn’t think of an excuse not to make use of the system!

I’ve since Capt. adapted many of the features of that document into simpler, abstracted, easily resolved mass combat systems. This is Matt Colville’s mass warfare system, by the way. Any warfare system that includes a simple way to resolve upkeep will do, but Colville’s system is both sufficiently fun to manage and play and adapt for my own purposes (I’ve already created three new kinds of units within) that’s at the top of my recommendations list. I inflate the cost of “crew” units, which allows me to roll the cost of ammunition into upkeep. I’ve also incorporated the various armaments into the stats of the crew unit itself, determining its power score specifically.

Since in Colville’s system the stats of any given unit, along with certain modifiers, determine the cost of purchasing and maintaining the unit, all I had to do was apply certain modifiers to roughly incorporate the cost of ammunition. The only things the players need to purchase individually are the armaments of the ships themselves. Remember when I asked whether airships in your campaign serve to function in combat? Remember when I asked whether they participated directly? If you want to handle that in a way that’s engaging, simple, and sensible all at the same time, you need to do something similar to the formation process. Or, of course, adapt someone else’s system (or even better, you someone else’s comprehensive adaptation).

There is a reason “The Airships of Brackas” is behind a pay wall, that’s because products like it solves problems like these for the GM and allow them to jump straight into the fun.

So these are the primary lessons I’ve taken from running with airships in my campaign. If I had to boil them down, they’d be:

  • Don’t let them take too much time to adjudicate in combat. Familiarize yourself with someone else’s system (like mine), make setting adjustments, and enjoy.

  • Players like having ships because they like the freedom and expanded opportunities they bring. Not for inventory management simulator.

  • Prepare for the scope of your campaign to expand if the players gain access to one. Start making monsters that threaten characters on or with airships (like the bestiary attached to Airships of Brackas).

Sky Pirates: Campaign Diary 3 (Disaster Strikes!)

Well, it’s what it sounds like.

Not entirely sure as to how long this will be, seeing as though it was pretty straightforward overall. Before dawn, the players attempted to sneak into the desert fortification they were scouting out. They went around the right side where some lumber was piled, stood atop it, and attempted to throw grappling hook onto the wall. It did, in fact, hit the wall. It just didn’t fulfill the purpose for which it’s named, and instead serve that of a tuning fork, albeit one that was fastballed at an adobe wall. the guard on the wall, one of two, took note. He began walking to the other guard tower, connected by a walkway on top of the wall itself. Alistair wanted to distract him with a prestidigitation, mimicking some wind nearby. I had him roll performance check to see how clever he could be with this; it was another fail. The rest of the party in the meantime, hold themselves up over the wall, once Alistair used his climb speed to go up and properly hitch the grappling hook. It’s worth noting at this point, they left the grappling hook behind.

What followed was the party somewhat poorly taking cues concerning the camps general alertness. After the first guard made his way over to the Southwest guard tower, he returned with the second guard. They conversed in their own tongue, but didn’t appear to be on high alert. The party very wisely didn’t try anything risky while the pair were together. The second guard went back to his tower, and the first one stayed on the wall, leaning over the parapet. This was roughly the only section of the night that the party succeeded in not making sufficient noise to alert somebody. the party had at this point gotten to the very top of the Northeast guard tower, at which 2 of them jumped over to the roof of the administrative building, while Gloridrod stayed on overwatch.

we were joined for the first time tonight by Ellis, who joined the group some time ago but was unable to show up for the first two sessions. I had (I thought) the perfect introduction for her character, in need of rescue from this camp. I screwed up, however; I didn’t give the character an opportunity to begin doing things while her guard was still there, sleeping. She didn’t get to act at all until one hour into the session, at which point her guard was quietly drawn out of the building for some purpose (for which I still feel bad). In addition, the party literally did not venture from the administrative building or guard tower for practically the entire session, much less before combat started. Therefore, they didn’t have an opportunity to find the cell, or really anything else.

When Alistair went on to the rooftop of the administrative building, he failed his stealth check. There was a hatch that led down to the second floor of the administrative building, which Braka went down. I mentioned that he noticed movement going down the steps to the first floor right as he made his way down to the second. I mentioned he was in a kind of master bedroom/office. He made some checks to listen into the first floor, and upon doing poorly, just stuck his head down and looked around. He didn’t see anyone, so he went back up and began looting the master bedroom. He stole some official looking documents off the desk ( written in the Brestrel tongue), saw a large metal chest, and noted an empty armor and shield rack, along with an empty scabbard. He decided at this point to attempt breaking into the metal lockbox with a crowbar.

His first check succeeded, which made some noise. Alistair, Gloridrod, and the guard on the wall all heard it. The crowbar had just gotten some purchase between the lid. Braka decided to rage (giving him advantage on the check) and have another go at it. He unfortunately failed the check, and promptly made even more noise. It sounded like shaking marbles inside of a metal can, except louder. Right around this time, the two characters on the rooftop noticed a lantern being hooded and un-hooded repeatedly from the Southwest guard tower. The guard near the northeast tower saw this as well, and hurriedly went inside (though not upstairs).

this is also when Ellis had the chance for her escape. Her guard had been woken by a knock at the door, and after a brief discussion (which she could not understand), exited the building. I think Ellis is new to certain aspects of D&D, and had some confusion as to how certain spells work. I know most of the spells of fifth edition, which in addition to allowing me to help players that get them confused with other editions, lets me understand just how difficult keeping track of them can be. She used dragon’s breath to spray acid across the wall, against which she rubbed her bindings and weaken the wall simultaneously. Bruising her knuckles, she been through the last two or so inches of Adobe sitting between her and freedom. Alistair actually noticed this happening, and there would have been an opportunity to share details (one in particular I’d sent to Ellis over dms) had something not first happened.

Braka approached the barracks, hoping to look through a window. I asked him to show me exactly where on the map (we used roll20 for this session), at which point I explained he was actually pointing to a door. He wasted no time (I’d hoped to point him to the nearest window) in telling me he would peek through the door, stealthily of course. He rolled a stealth check; natural one. Braka tripped as he moved to push the door open, slamming it open to a large number of awake, fully aware, fully armored Brestrels. The jig was up, and unbeknownst to the players until now, had been for some time.

You see, armor (and in particular medium and heavy armor) take some time to put on. Whoever was in the administrative building (presumably the jackal captain) made his way to the barracks when he was alerted, carrying his equipment with him. This was opposed to catching him asleep, unarmed, wearing a tunic.while he was making his way over, the party did not spot him, meaning he had time to wake the barracks, have them quietly get ready for battle, and keep them on high alert. Around two dozen Brestrels, awake and fully armed, as opposed to sleeping and defenseless in their bunks. the captain made his way to the front of the potential recruits, and began attacking Braka. He hits, and the magical blade bypasses Braka’s typical immunity. He’s at this point raged, so he’s taking half damage, but it put the fear of God into him nonetheless. Shots are coming from the southwest guard tower; the Brestrel inside has a heavy rifle, taking a hefty chunk out of Alistair’s hit points. The other Brestrels fan out. Some had between the smaller buildings to the north west to flank, some fire crossbows at Alistair and Gloridrod before ducking back behind cover, and the other storm the Northeast guard tower.

This is essentially the worst case scenario. I heard some players mention ( not entirely unreasonably) that had a certain thing I will mention in a moment not happened, things still would’ve been relatively fine. Besides the fact that they did a poor job of resolving the various issues leading up to this situation, I don’t think it’s entirely the case. Being a lycanthrope doesn’t protect you from being thrown into a canyon, and without area of effect attacks, the Brestrels superior numbers would’ve proved challenging at the least, and deadly at the worst of the party’s poor tactical decisions. These are, of course, what if scenarios. The party attempted to focus down the captain, seeing as though he was the only one capable (to their knowledge) of harming Braka with regular attacks. Once Gloridrod dealt the ostensibly killing blow, however, it became very clear that things were not about to go in their favor.

The captain’s body changed, transformed, his gear melding into his new appearance as a young, blue Dragon.

What followed was Ellis and Gloridrod escaping over the sand dune from which the party had originally approached, Alastair throwing himself into the canyon and casting feather fall, and Braka being reduced to unconsciousness by a lightning breath, subsequently subdued and captured. It’s definitely the first low point of the campaign; but not to worry. The party is already expressed their interest in a rescue mission, and provided they can evade capture before dealing with their opponents or facing enemy reinforcements with reinforcements of their own, it should make for an exciting comeback ( or at the very least, opportunity for replacement characters).

Sky Pirates: Campaign Diary 2

We had our second session of the sky pirates campaign, a bit shorter and straightforward than the first, but just as fun nonetheless. It’d been two weeks since the previous session so we have plenty of time to discuss what was going to happen next time, giving me plenty of time to prep. The party wanted to go on a raid! They had a bigger, tougher ship, more units, they just gained a level, and they wanted to try everything out!

Just to make things easy on them I explained where a prime location for raiding was. Between Joro and Rengkir , perhaps a bit to the west, was a large concentration of Brestrel camps and resources. If the call for reinforcements went out, convoys and ships could travel in either direction. Think of it as an invasion platform. I asked whether they wanted to hide behind an advance line wafer convoy to pass by, or just take the direct approach. The players wanted blood this evening; they wanted to hit the first thing they could see.

I told them they could see a medium-size ship and a small size ship a ways off. True to form, Alistair sent his hawk familiar Zeus on over. Both ships were very lightly armed, with ballistae and muzzle loaded swivel guns. Below however, was a large military convoy. There were two significant units of archers (one of which was actually riflemen), along with several wagons (two of which had a large number of swivel guns attached). I mentioned this was atypical for a convoy.

“Given the lightly armed ships, and heavily armed convoy” they asked, “would it be reasonable to assume they’re carrying some valuable equipment?” I told him that was well within the realm of possibilities. I try to stay away from giving a straight or certain answer by and large. Obviously I don’t do this for things at the players would have good reason to be certain about, but for everything else, I always want to leave room for surprises (even if it’s the equivalent of a supply closet).

It’s the typical setup; Braka hops on the Ornithopter, which speeds him onto the small ship as he attacks the ship’s mage. Alistair and Gloridrod are commanding their forces on the major ship. This was our first time use Matt Colville’s Warfare system, and the players grokked it pretty quickly. Their boarders (a cavalry-style unit I designed) attacked the medium ship’s crew, preventing them from firing on their ships. The major threat, then, came from the archers, riflemen, and cannoneers below. The party focused down the crew of either given ship, neglected the units on the ground, at first. Alistair boarded the medium ship while Gloridrod fired on the various mages and crewmen that attempted to stop him. Braka had the attention of everyone on the small ship, as they desperately tried to stop him from killing the only men on board who could harm the raging lycanthrope.

Once the ground units were up, they fired on the ships and their units. Additionally, a mage began using Battle Magic against them, as lightning and thunder stormed around their ship. This quickly freaked out the players, and they started splitting attacks. Gloridrod wanted to ask if there was a way he could affect the units on the ground. I told him it was certainly possible, but it’d rely on his creativity and the circumstances at hand. It was right up his alley; he asked whether the cannoneers had an barrels of gunpowder or something similar around, and of course they did! He asked if he could fire on it, I told him to make an attack roll with disadvantage based on his distance from it. He still hit, and I had to come up with something on the fly. I rolled a d6, determining the number of rounds -1 it’d take for the powder to detonate, unless the unit stopped it. I rolled a 1, so the unit immediately took a casualty! Gloridrod elected to repeat this process a few times as other units focused the cannoneers down, disbanding the unit right as the medium ship’s crew was dealt with.

Once again, the split-second decision of “Let’s take the ship we just cleared!” was made, and the players retreated. I did my due-diligence as a DM and mentioned they could fire on the archers (who had less range than they) until they retreated or disbanded, allowing them to take the loot. The party elected to retreat anyway, satisfied with selling the medium ship they’d taken and not risking the fury of whatever High Mage still lurked on the ground.

They returned from the raid, sold off the medium ship, replenished their lost crew, and set about planning. the party wanted to enjoy some combat that didn’t involve mass combat (I was expecting this), and asked Arales if he could point them in the right direction. He asked them some questions about what locale they’d prefer to go dungeon delving in, what sort of target they’d hit, and directed the party to a fortification on Brestrel’s southern border. The party determined whattheir crew would be doing in the meantime, set up a rendezvous point a day’s walk from the fortification, and told the crew to meet them back in five days.

the party made it to the fortification, of which I’ll post a graphic representation below. It seemed to be a kind of training/recruitment camp for the Jackal Legion, and the party spotted one representative of the Jackal Legion directing training. What happened next, happened last night, in the third session.

The training camp.

The training camp.

Campaign Diary: Sky Pirates 1

We finally had our first session of the online campaign two Sundays ago, and man was it a blast. We played for six hours, and virtually none of it was introductory work. All of what we might call session 0 was taken care of in the discord chat. This, for the record, was convenient as could be imagined. We essentially just jumped straight into the game!

First off, I explained the plight of Alistair Black and Gloridrod, the captain and chief gunner/quartermaster of a pirate gang, respectively. While on the border of Brestrel (which some of you may remember is the nation of the hobgoblins in my setting), a supernaturally sudden and powerful storm appeared, threw them off course, crashed their ship, and left the survivors in an unknown locale. The pair had their remaining 20 crew members pillage the wreckage for any supplies they could salvage, and began to head off in a random direction. I explained the ongoing downpour (along with this happening at night) was covering any visual indications of where the crash happened. They got the message; if they wanted any chance encounters with friend or foe alike to occur on their terms, they’d need to act fast.

I had them roll perception checks; they managed to spot a light off in the darkness, past the foliage and rain. Hardly difficult to see, given their surroundings, but they need to get closer to glean any more details. They instruct the crew to stay behind as they creep up, and see two hobgoblins next to a horse-drawn cart, apparently stuck. Some clever RP gave Alistair and Gloridrod a surprise round, and during the brief combat, the cart’s contents are revealed as the final PC, Braka Whitefang, is revealed as he uses his manacles to restrain a guard that got too close to his cage. A brief interrogation of the guard and Braka reveals a resupply airbase down the road, and Braka to be a friendly addition to the party. They collect the crew, and make their way down.

It’s still thundering outside, but the rain is ever so slightly lessening, and there’s a bit of ambient light. I explained the configuration of the base. To the south is an obvious guard tower, and a similar (but not identical) tower lies opposite of it on the northern end of the camp. To the east is a single story barracks. To the west is a pole barn of immense size, with large sliding doors on the side they can see. Smack in the middle of the camp is a don jon or administrative building. There were two patrols of guards, moving in a clockwise fashion but in irregular intervals (trying to take shelter from the heavy rain). The players discuss possible approaches for a little while, spending enough time I saw fit to change the state of the camp. I informed them a single deck medium-size ship and a small ornithopter pulled to the side of the pole barn they couldn’t see, and they spotted a small troop of soldiers run out to the double doors they could see. After a minute, they exited with another 40 soldiers.

It had the effect I was hoping for; the players immediately sprung into action. Alistair and Gloridrod would take care of the guard tower, while Braka and the crew would head to the far west side of the base to secure an airship. Here I switched back and forth before the characters, preemptively having them roll initiative. Braka successfully stealthed along with the crew to the west side, while Alistair approached and nearly detonated a trap on the door of the guard tower. They instead elected to climb, and disposed of the two watchers within (nearly alerting the entire camp in the process).

In the meantime, Braka assaulted the two guards who’d made their way to the west end of the (now identified) hangar. One of the guards actually managed to escape around the corner of the hanger. Gloridrod, the Warforged Artificer, was already lying in wait, as Braka had only attacked on Alistair’s signal. He took the shot, killing the guard. At this point, there’d been sufficient motion to warrant the other patrol approaching the guard tower. This resulted in a somewhat louder battle ( firearms are of course a feature in my campaign), in which Gloridrod fired a revolver. The party quickly regrouped, pillaged the hangar, set an explosive trap, and fled just as a daylight spell was cast over the administrative building. The party flew away on a hobgoblin-pattern medium ship and a gnome/hobgoblin pattern small ornithopter as the hangar burned behind them. Don’t worry if those terms sound confusing, you may well get an explanation of them at some point. Not now though, we’ve a story to tell!

Alistair at this point received a sending to head north from an unknown voice, promising him safety. He kept this from the party, but acceeded, and began their trek northwards. They reached the poorly-defined normal border, whereupon two combat skiffs began moving parallel towards them, each poised reach either side of the medium-sized ship. The players debated what to do, and after clarifying that diplomacy was probably not an option for hostiles behind enemy lines like themselves, the party began combat. Through clever maneuvering and use of the ornithopter, they kept fire off the main ship while focusing down one of the skiffs. The failing skiff attempted to flee while the relatively undamaged one covered its escape. The ornithopter flew past the defending skiff, however, and dealt the final blow, sending many Brestrel soldiers to their doom. The two ships then focused down the remaining skiff, which quickly met the fate of its companion ship.

The players first impulse was to loot the crashed ships, and sent down the medium-size ship to carry out the task. They wisely left the ornithopter in the air; Alistair noticed six combat skiffs and a dreadnought heading in their direction. He quickly signaled to the crew below, and they hightailed it north. After about three days, they came across an unidentified outpost. The players (wisely) pulled down the Brestrel colors they were flying on approach, and to skiffs approach them from behind to board. After brief introductions, the players were greeted and welcomed into the outpost, at which they landed.

They met a high mage named Arales upon landing. He congratulated the group on their daring escape, and offered them a deal. The outpost was well defended, but couldn’t proactively engage in assaults or remove threats preemptively without exposing themselves to danger. He suggested the party build a fleet to ferry their beanbag-sized balls around, and in exchange for harassing Brestrel forces and bringing back pillaged goods, they’d receive certain discounts from shipwrights and a safe place to stay. The party gleefully accepted, and spent some time carousing around town.

Before heading out, they wanted to visit the end and see if anything special was going on. I mentioned that’s were being placed on which of two hunters would slay a local drake first. The players sized them up as the two taunted one another and bragged. The first Hunter wielded a greataxe, and clearly had the brawn to move it around as easily as he would a knife and fork. The second Hunter had a crossbow, and the players managed to notice his bolts were covered in poison. Braka Whitefang, the were-tiger Barbarian, decided to take on the contract himself, and Alistair put some gold down on him.

They set out the next day; both Braka and the axe-wielding hunter failed their checks to track. They had no clues as to the Drake’s location until roars and the sound of battle reached their ears. Braka took the opportunity to shift into the form of a tiger, quickly outpacing the first hunter. He arrived to see the wounded drake attempting to pin the crossbow-wielding hunter. Braka leaped into the fray, claws and teeth raking and puncturing the draconic serpent’s hide. The crossbowman took the opportunity to take more shots at the creature, while the drake vomited acid upon Braka. The fight was extremely close; had Braka taken another round, the crossbowman would’ve gotten the killing blow. Luck was on his side, however, and he ripped the creature’s heart out.

Brutal.

I gotta hand it to the players, each time one of them does something on their own, they’re all respectful, patient, and engaged besides.

The players reconvened at the tavern, and debated on their next course of action. The first craft they built with the outpost’s shipwrights would have a hefty discount, and so it was decided they would gain more assets before having their ship built. “What better way to get more funds”, they asked themselves, “than privateering?”

I explained to them the situation of Brestrel’s advance line and border, the difference between the two, and what their characters would recognize as soft targets, more risky but potentially lucrative enemy units, etc. The crew decided to land and hide their ship behind the advance line of Brestrel, waiting for potential targets to ambush. A few passed by, but nothing particularly enticing; until a huge ship with a small escort was spotted. Alistair’s a bit of an odd mix on class features; he’s got two levels in fighter, one level in rogue, and the Magic Initiate Feat. Pretty cool character build! He’s got a Familiar from the feat, (a hawk if I recall), which he sends over to the Brestrel ships. Looking through its eyes, he sees supplies being loaded onto the smaller ship. As the hawk flies further, he can see the pair of ships actually lie between the party and a camp of Brestrel soldiers. By the time the hawk returns, the small ship departs from the larger of the two, towards the camp.

Here, the party puts their plan into motion. They hoped to use a flare to lure a ship in, but hadn’t come across any travelling alone. They expected the smaller ship would close in. On the spot, they decided they’d engage, pillage the small ship, and hightail it out of there before the huge ship came over.

Not quite how it went down. See, the small ship was already en-route to the camp, and was heavily burdened with cargo besides. The huge ship, being more heavily armed and prepared to assist smaller ships under attack, began lumbering on over. The ornithopter, holding Braka and Alistair (along with a few other crew), had be stationed in a different location, and a bit after seeing the flare fired, the huge ship passed over them.

Here’s where the action started; Gloridrod wasn’t about to give the larger, better equipped ship the first shot. As soon as they were in range, he ordered their crew to fire. The Brestrel ship, not expecting a distress call to immediately turn to combat, was surprised. All of the men they’d armed began taking position, and it was time for battle. The ornithopter was speeding up behind the Brestrel ship, and anyone on the ship was too scrambled to do anything that round. It’s worth noting as well that the Brestrel crew was understaffed, as many of their men went down to the Brestrel camp. Braka and Alistair swung down to the ship’s helm to fight while Gloridrod directed the crew.

Initiative was rolled; the players and the single enemies went first, then the various crews went (and there were some interactions between the two). The Brestrel ship’s weapons were powerful, leading Gloridrod have his crew focus the enemy weapons. Now, ship armaments are not made to target individual people. Howitzers make for poor marksmanship, unless fired against structures (or creatures of similar size, spoilers). What the party’s crew does succeed in doing is damaging the panels and deck near the Brestrel ship’s weapons. Combined with some clever target practice, the enemy ship’s siege howitzer fell into the second deck before it could be fired. Meanwhile, Braka flexed his abilities as a lycanthrope; being immune to nonmagical or non-silvered weapons, he let the Brestrels crowd around him, giving Alistair time to focus down the ship’s mage. It worked (mostly)! The mage did manage to pop off a Lightning Bolt before they could take her out, and to 3rd level characters? That’s a lot of damage (editors note: this blog is not sponsored by Flex Tape ).

The bridge was cleared out, and I informed the players that the rest of the crew would be attempting to re-take it. My question to them; how was Alistair going to survive, seeing as though Braka couldn’t take damage from them (not their weapons, anyways; I had another plan for that). Alistair literally tied a rope to the back railing and clung for deal life to the back of the ship as 40 of the crew bull rushed Braka. They overwhelmed him, pinning him to the deck; I had him make strength checks (easy enough, raging barabarian) to keep them from literally tossing him off of the ship. We’d already had a brief discussion earlier on “Is falling damage Bludgeoning damage? Because I’m immune to that.” He knew quite well being thrown off a ship 300 feet up would result in his death (always a way to challenge your players, no matter the circumstance). Gloridrod in the meantime had the crew fire down on the mass of Brestrels crowded around Braka, luckily not needing to worry about friendly fire.

With the enemy crew dead and a good reason to split, the party had a new idea; why not take the entire ship back to trade in? So they did!

We spent the last part of the session going over how we’d track ammo for the crew’s weapons (spoiler, it’d be rolled into the crew’s upkeep) and the design of the new ship/stronghold that’d be built for them; The Hurricane.

Our next session is literally tonight right after my buddy Caleb’s game and we’re adding a new player; I can’t wait!

Sensory disabilities in D&D

There was a tweetstorm a few days past concerning someone very upset with a conversation in “the facebook 5e group”, centered around deaf characters. I’m in a few 5e groups myself (most of them quite small), but I’m guessing they’re referring to the generic big 5e group. I’m not actually in that group, so I don’t have the original post on hand. Not terribly important, but hey, backstory. If anything, consider this a caveat for anything concerning this woman’s tweets; I don’t have the full context. Take that as you will.

Here are the tweets:

Oof.

Oof.

I can’t really help but comment on the attitude here. “Something I argue that can only benefit a table, party and gameplay!” One instance in which a deaf or otherwise disabled character negatively impacts the game comes to mind almost immediately; when it becomes an annoying distraction from rolling dice and killing orcs, in groups who like rolling dice and killing orcs. You don’t get to play the “Sympathize with what I think is fun, you couldn’t possibly have any other style of play at your table” game.

It totally flies in the face of the game’s social contract. Other people have tastes, preferences, whatever have you that differ from yours. Spending 4 hours trying to resolve basic communication between two players might appeal to some people out there. Go find them; leave other people the hell alone, unless they show an interest. It’s not too difficult to imagine why someone would think “Can someone invent a spell/potion/item to fix this person?” after yet another stealth segment ruined by a communication failure between teammates.

All that being said, I didn’t want to write this just to rag on some stuck up snob informing everyone else what “Real fun is”, and ironically getting upset with people for not sharing her tastes (whether that’s an accurate picture of the aforementioned or not). There’s a more interesting point to discuss here.

There isn’t much to reiterate on the point of disabilities hindering player characters, and that hindrance proving annoying to other players at the table. There would be problems if Master Chief’s legs stopped functioning every 10 seconds in-game, everyone gets it.

A given disability doesn’t always have to appear as-is in game, however. Certain issues can be adjusted for, like cripples having animal companions that double as mounts. What about disabilities like blindness? How do you “compensate” for something so objectively debilitating? The answer lies in how we approach the problem; specifically, a scientific solution versus a fantastical compensation.

The Witcher 3’s Phillipa Eilheart was a blind(ed) sorceress who attempted to regrow her eyes. She specifically attempted to grow the tissue on stones that served as a focus for the experiment, and wore an enchanted headband that assisted her in navigating the environment in the meantime. This is a scientific solution to a disability; negating the effects of the disability through whatever applied study exists in that world (yeah, that includes magic). The disability functions much like it would in real life. The character simply restores whatever bodily function the disability impedes, generally using things we don’t have access to in real life. There isn’t a functional difference between Eilheart’s enchanted headband and Tleilaxu eyes, only the narrative in which they’re found.

On the other hand, you have Toc the Younger, whose first appearance is made in Gardens of the Moon, of Steve Erikson’s Book of the Fallen series. Toc’s unfortunate affliction is quite the eyesore (I’m so terribly sorry). During a major battle earlier in the book, a chunk of burning rock slammed into his face, destroying one of his eyes. Besides the obvious detriments Toc, an archer, struggled a great deal in battle afterwards due to his lack of depth perception. Quite awful, isn’t it? Wondering if a healer of High Denul could fix it? Not so fast; Erikson has made a fantastical addition to Toc’s state of being. Our One-Eyed King of archers receives premonitions and visions from his missing eye, briefly alluded to as a common superstition concerning the blind in previous passages. This is a common theme in a great number of works, extending well beyond books. The Divine Tomes of Dark Souls 3 are written in Braille, and their descriptions mention great faith being placed in the words of blind church figures.

The fantastical addition is a compensating factor where disabilities are concerned. A blind character receives premonitions, as previously mentioned (and perhaps receives some manner of blindsight). A deaf character hears the voices of the dead. There are any number of ways to add a supernatural quality to a disabled character that are perfectly in-genre, and if pitched to (rather than demanding acceptance of) a D&D group, could be very appealing indeed.

List for the week (JAN 21)

We’ve got a lot on our plates folks.

  • First session recap for the Sky Pirates campaign (video and blog post)

  • Mechanazium Graphics

  • Mechanazium Special Edition Hardcover

  • Roll 20 asset design (airships)

  • Airship Models (Triton Ornithopter’s at the top of the list)

  • Blog post on sensory disabilities in D&D

  • Record a short excerpt from Eyes of the Forest

Having a kind of public calendar is convenient, I think.

Kickstarters, back-to-back (The Mechanazium)!

It’s Saturday morning (it’s two in the afternoon, but that’s morning for me) as I type this, and boy was yesterday a busy day. I closed my first kick starter, considering the project finally complete, and opened my next kick starter all in the same evening. The messages I’m getting back from backers about the alchemist class have all been very positive, and many of them have informed me that they intend to support this next project of mine!

And what is this next project of mine? It’s a 10 level mega dungeon, overflowing with original, professionally designed content from yours truly. The kick starter will run for 40 days, and it’s currently sitting at 2.5% funding, which is about what I need per day. I’ve secured some advertising space on the Dungeoncast, so likely to get a nice boost when those ads air as well.

I immediately had regrets about setting the funding goal so high; $10,000 is a lot of money for this kind of project, even when you consider on the one running it and producing content for it. I’ve now had the chance to sleep on it, and those feelings aren’t bothering me so much anymore. The circumstances of the situation haven’t changed in any way, mind you (other than perhaps starting out with more funding than I initially expected). I’ve simply knowledge that failure is a distinct possibility, will always be a distinct possibility, and that I’m bound to run into it at some point. No successful person has experienced otherwise.

So, Cheers to a successful, satisfying first kick starter, and Cheers to whatever learning experience I get from this next project (and hopefully, money)!

You can find my current kick starter here; The Mechanazium Part 1: A Megadungeon Adventure for 5e.

If you missed out on my last Kickstarter (the Alchemist Class), no worries! You can access it by subscribing to my Patreon.

Preparing to run an online campaign

I mentioned running an online campaign for some of the folks in the D&D Critposting discord, and got a pretty positive response off the bat. It looks like I’ll have four players, and we recently started going over expectations for the campaign in a discord of my own. The pitch was this; the players will be on an airship, where they go hopping from location to location to raid Brestrel. it’s simple enough as a premise goes, manageable for me running an online game for the first time, and generally appealing to players looking to kick down the door and kill stuff.

The players, having agreed to this, immediately started running over different things they could do in the campaign. I asked if they were more focused on RP, focused on big and flashy combats, one to check out strongholds and have an impact on the world around them, etc. I wasn’t expecting them to building a pirate fleet, building strongholds in the cool abilities they get from them, and other shenanigans they were hoping to get into during the course of the campaign. I very much love the group of players I’m currently running the game for; I enjoy hanging out with them. My natural inclinations as the DM however don’t really accord with their tastes insofar as playing a campaign goes (or, they’re only showing up to be polite in the first place). They’re very passive, and it always seems like I have to pull teeth For them to tell me what it is they’re doing next. This campaign is a lot more spoonfed compared to my previous one; I was hoping to provide a sense of direction to players while giving them the chance to engage the world full of cool loot and dangerous monsters on their own terms.

I never got an answer as to what the players were hoping to tackle next until the day before the next session. The only exception was this; when pestering players yet again and the group chat, when I reminded them we were playing tomorrow someone will have a sudden unavailability. It was then that I found out we’d actually be playing that night, and even then hours I could’ve spent prepping for spent waiting for players to let me know what they were doing. I had rattled off a very long list of things the players could be doing, could’ve discovered they could’ve been doing had they asked. The players actually picked one of those things, and I began prepping for the next session.

Things are better now; I tossed a small handout in the chat describing the place to be going to next, and immediately started working on a dungeon. They spent the entirety of the last session in that dungeon, and it’s still not over yet! I self indulgently sprinkled some lore blurbs into a puzzle solution, which immediately got the players thinking. All in all, it’s actually going pretty well! I’d say this very last stretch of the campaign will close in a satisfying fashion.

That was still about five or six months of somewhat unpleasant DM work. I’ve enjoyed just about every session we’ve had, for the record. It’s just that the things going on behind the screen suffered for the reasons explained above. I’m happy I learned the lesson; my next kick starter is going to be for a mega dungeon adventure, and finally getting through my thick skull that different types of players have different tastes will assist that product design.

Anyways, back to the online campaign!

I pitched the campaign to them; jump around on airships from location to location, wrecking the enemy’s shit and collecting loot along the way. This sort of campaign would allow me to draw up more isolated encounters and dungeons, placing them as I wished without having to do a ton of prep work. That last bit is a lie, I force prep work on myself. Can’t help it. “This airship system isn’t good enough, time to change it.”

Ugh.

The players seemed pretty excited, so I began informing them of the world, doing a setting writeup, etc. I asked what they were looking to get out of the campaign; if what the OSR guys are saying is (half) true, there’s a greater diversity of playstyles nowadays. I asked if they were looking for storygaming, epic combats, having an impact on the world around them, etc. I also asked if customizing their ship was a part of the game they wanted to interact with. Look at me, figuring these things out ahead of time. This excited them; I set about writing up a second iteration of my airship rules, complete with patterns (styles of crafting the airships, conveying different bonuses on them), templates (special kinds of ships like ornithopters), etc. They were really excited by it! So excited, that they immediately set about planning a keep, pirate fleet, and eventual city-state.

These are the types of players I am naturally inclined towards. “We want to make a dent in the world.” Fuck yeah! They glommed onto the setting detail, had some requests of their own that we worked through, etc. I think this is going to turn out really well. First session is tomorrow; I’m excited!

The "Mercer Effect"

There’s a reddit post floating around, written by a frustrated DM trying to deal with poor player expectations. These players absolutely love Critical Role. They constantly make reference to it in the group chat, they speak the dread incantation of “Matt does this thing this way”, etc. Matt Mercer himself actually responded to the comment, offering a pretty heartfelt response, tips on managing player expectations, and encouragement on maintaining your frame (great term from the manosphere) as a game master. I read this, then noticed Bleeding Fool (quality site btw) published an article as a…response? Solution? Not sure. Let’s go with “commentary”, to be charitable.

The author would like you to know that he’s rolling his eyes at Matt’s response, that there are things Matt just doesn’t get, doesn’t understand! Oh, our author is happy people are going out and buying the books, don’t get them wrong. There’s an issue with new people coming to the game; they have expectations, I’m told. They think everything is going to be like what they saw in last week’s episode of Critical Role! They’re not going to bother to read the campaign handouts, they’re going to brush you off and get upset when the blasphemous incantation of “you can’t do that” defiles their corporeal form.

Surely the end is upon us all.

The first dungeon Master I ever had (also named Matt, seems to be a lot of fantastic DMs named Matt) began his first game because of critical role. It was a huge inspiration to him, despite the fact his games were vastly different in style. Not only that, he turned us on to Critical Role as well! Our group really enjoyed the first season. We would talk about it often before, during, or after playing the game ourselves. In fact, we’d occasionally tease Matt with the quip “well Mercer does it this way”. The reason we all laughed in the first place was we understood it would be silly to expect the game to be identical to what we saw on Critical Role. It would be completely absurd to expect our DM to have a world as interesting and detailed as Exandria (though as far as I’m concerned, my friend Matt met and exceeded that goal), just as it would be silly of him to expect quality voice acting of us.

Now, apparently our author can manage the situation. He recommends we advertise our expectations as dungeon Masters to the people we are actually playing with. Then, if we find our players amicable enough, We should try to meet their expectations halfway. Players who have difficulty with this midsession should be spoken to in a respectful, but firm manner, so as to not further embarrass anyone or cause any kind of other disruption at the table.

This to me sounds eerily familiar! Almost as if Matt had mentioned doing exactly that in the reddit comment our author quoted.

Less eye rolling, Vince. More reading.

One last thing I wanted to point out is this bit on expectations. All new players, irrespective of whatever their knowledge of RPGs are, have expectations. Every single one of them. Some might be more subtle than others, may differ in focus (npc interaction vs combat), etc. All players come to the table with an idea, expressed or otherwise, of how things are going to go and how fun it would be. Those expectations may crumble during the first 5 minutes of play, or even before that reading your world doc (if you have such a thing). In any case, you will always need to explain what it is the game is about, and your expectations for player behavior. Critical Role didn’t cause this. It may have turned expectations into slightly less subtle expressions of what the players want out of the game, sure. That’s the reason for this discussion in the first place! Nevertheless Critical Role isn’t responsible, and given the vast interconnected networks of players, dungeon masters, designers, and everyone inbetween on social media? It seems silly to regard players having a more similar, vocal expectations of the game as some massive negative compared to the fact we can crowdsource the solution to these issues in part thanks to productions like Critical Role publicizing the hobby.

The "Draw 4" Solution (little victories)

In game design there’s something called a “death spiral”. You’ve probably heard of it. If you haven’t ( or even if you have), The description typically goes something like this: player one begins to win. Player two begins to lose. Then, the rate at which player one begins Wenning seems to accelerate. For whatever reason, his edge or lead over his opponent is steadily growing. Player two on the other hand is obviously losing, but the key here is this; there are little to no options for player two to reverse the situation.

This is a particularly common experience in RTS games. If you’re playing against the AI, you’ve probably at some point thought “I’ve won, the computer just doesn’t know it yet. Time to go through the motions, there’s literally no way for the computer to turn this around.” You’ve unlocked all of the in game research and abilities, your fleet or troops or at max capacity, and you have to sit through another hour of gameplay wishing that there was a 32x speed because the AI isn’t smart enough to concede (or maybe it is, and it decided to filibuster your victory out of spite). On the other hand, you’ve doubtless quit a game or even deleted a save file because you determined there was no coming back from whatever defeat you had already suffered, even if they were early in the game’s progress. Maybe especially if they were early in the game’s progress.

Personally, I don’t view it as a gratifying experience.

Now I don’t have a solution for RTS games as far as this problem is concerned. But I know that other games have solved this issue, and I find the solution relevant to some of the irons I have in the fire. The drive to write this was stoked if you will by a conversation I recently listened to about Hearthstone (though the conversation did not recently take place). Card games are apparently relatively easy to create, needing little more than two or three programmers to handle UI and the actual player interaction, a ton of art from whoever you can get it, and the role of Yours truly, a designer to handle the mechanics. Consider this a public invitation to DM me if you have interest in such a project.

Ah, but there was a complaint about Hearthstone in this discussion. About a death spiral, no less! There was no cleverness to winning; the game was dependent on how strong the cards were, and whether the other player had encountered them before. There were no interrupts; things for you to do when it wasn’t your turn. This kept the game fast paced (good) but without any other cards to fill this role on the player’s turn, there was nothing to use as a “counter” (bad).

Now, obviously a “counter” isn’t limited to things that interrupt the player on their turn. A counter is simply something that hinders the opponents in their objective. Ever play Uno?
Yeah, you know where I’m going with this. The Draw 4 card! Your goal is to ditch all of your cards in the pile, you’re down to your last 2 cards and your opponent has 8, suddenly BOOM, you have to draw 4 cards. There’s been a reversal in the trend, victory suddenly becomes less certain. Even if you do end up winning the game, there’s an element of satisfaction for the other player.. The game was a war they lost, but they got the joy of winning a battle; they had a little victory.

You can craft a “little victory” condition simply by introducing (in this case a card) an asset the player can deploy to hinder the opponent. Real strategy enters when these assets have 2 or 3 layers of counters that can be deployed.

This essay’s been in the backlog for a few weeks, it got pushed off with the lead-up to the kickstarter.

Describing the indescribable

There is a description of the far realms inside the 5E PHB, or maybe it’s the dungeon Master’s guide. The description follows through for pretty much all descriptive text sections that have to deal with anything Lovecraft related. It goes something like this:

It’s incomprehensible! Your mind literally can’t comprehend it. It’s too alien, too insane, doesn’t abide by the laws of this reality. Your mortal mind can’t handle it.

Boring, isn’t it? It tells you literally nothing about what it is that you’re seeing, experiencing, what the aftershock of such a sight might be.. It’s completely useless. It reminds me of a recent digressions and dragons episode.

You see a creature the likes of which you have never seen before, which is just perfect as descriptions go. Do I know how many limbs it has? Are any of them sharp? “You encounter a creature the likes of which I have not bothered to write down a description.”

I understand the natural inclination to leave something at “your mind can’t comprehend it.” However, as storytellers, we are charged with inventing depictions of the experience, and at this point even ending the story with a simple, fact of the matter “your mind can’t comprehend it” is no longer enough. Sure, we can say constructs of insanity and realms that lie beyond the constraints of our natural laws are beyond our means to explain. Fine! We are not here to artlessly explain how everything functions in a scientific context ( particularly not in the fantasy genre). What we can manage are the aesthetic or linguistic representations of things that lie beyond our full comprehension.

Consider the following:

The light around you is blue, refracted. Something like the surface of the ocean when viewed from beneath lies too the left, then your right, then above you, then moving again. The source of the light is clearly behind it, but looks red despite the soft blue rays it casts.

Or this one:

A gray, tattered landscape lies before you, roiling like a flag, moved by a nonexistent wind. The very horizon shifts in ripples, bending the ground up, up, up until it crests over your head – a quick glance South reveals it to have never moved at all. A quick glance North shows the horizon did indeed crest over you, wrapping ‘round to diminish the sky to a thin line, and the ground 100 miles away lies only a few hundred feet above your head. Looking North again, you can see it never moved at all.

I’m no Lovecraft but, not bad, right? It’s a start, at the very least. Paradoxes are things we characterize as being logically incoherent. Who cares about the explanation? In a moment of madness, the struggle to reconcile the incomprehensible with reality, the description of such an experience is what counts. I be willing to bet there’s a value to doing this inside a game like Dungeons & Dragons. Your players sitting across the table from you, in touch with reality.

Through a clever use of language, I believe we can ever so slightly nudge the player into the shoes of their character as they experience something horrific, or simply inexplicable. They are already engaged in the act of imagination; take advantage of that! Don’t be afraid to invent paradoxes and play with the incomprehensible; with any luck, the group activity this will create a feedback loop as nervous eyes look back to one another in confusion.