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 that lies too the left, then you’re 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 the cress 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.

I’m no Lovecraft but, not bad, right? It’s a start, at the very least. Paradoxes are things we characterize as being logically inexplicable. 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.

DOA: Runescribe

TLDR; the Runescribe was designed to fail.

I’ve only ever played 5th Edition D&D, but I love taking monsters, abilities, feats, spells, whatever have you from earlier editions, and usually that means 3rd and 3.5 (I rarely know which is which when I’m flipping through a supplement).

Back when I was playing my first campaign, the Runescribe came out.

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Pretty interesting concept, right? It was to me, a natural fan of Multiclassing who was at that point getting familiar with the downsides of that aspect of the game. I figured something ostensibly designed to help you explore A character concept within Multiclassing would smooth out some of the issues that was previously having with it. I never actually got to play the rune scribe, the concept stuck with me for quite some time. I never really understood why WOTC didn’t revisit the concept in 5th edition.

I began designing some prestige classes of my own, sticking to what I figured was the formula of the prestige class presented. The principles of design were simple:

  1. Where core classes are generalized, and subclasses slightly less so, prestige classes should explore very specific concepts ( people who use shadow magic, mounted combatants, etc.).

  2. Prestige classes should be mechanically dense. Ribbons should be rare, and only ever presented in addition to useful mechanics. Just about each level should provide the player with some new ability, whether active or passive.

  3. Prestige classes should retain some of the limitations that were in mind when Multiclassing was designed. This manifested as setting a lower limit for when the prestige class could be accessed (level 5), and not including any ability score improvements.

I started setting up some polls, surveys, etc. If I wanted this thing to survive play testing, and eventually public release, I needed to know exactly why people disliked prestige classes in earlier editions. I received quite a few preemptive attacks and criticisms. “Why are you doing this, we already have subclasses! Don’t you know subclasses were introduced to replace prestige classes?”

Thank you, NPC! It never occurred to me to research the thing I was designing.

On the other hand, a quite a few people who were excited at the prospect of someone other than WOTC taking a stab at this. I suspect it was were very specific reason; I asked them what they hated most about prestige classes! Genius, I know. The response was nearly universal; “We hate the stupid prerequisites. We hate having to plan out a checklist from levels 1 to 17 just to make sure we can actually use the prestige class.” There were of course other complaints, but they were usually attached to this one.

I went on my way designing, doing quite a bit of play testing with my long-suffering friends at the table. I think it was a few months after I had started my page that Mike Mearls, Matt Colville, Matt Mercer, and Adam Koebel sat down for a chat about the design of the game. They did another one a few weeks later, but that’s besides the point. In one of these chats, the subject of the rune scribe was brought up. Mike shed a bit of light on the prestige class’s failure to become an official product.

Unearthed Arcana materials have a reasonably high bar to be considered for a future product. If I’m correct the threshold hasn’t changed, but nevertheless at the time of the rune scribe’s release, 70% of the follow-up surveys needed to be positive. Obviously it didn’t meet the threshold (this being something like two years after its release), but what I didn’t know was the exact ratio.

The rune scribe had a positive feedback rate of only 30%, also revealed by Mike to be the most unpopular Unearthed Arcana article released to date. 30%! How could it possibly be so low? Take another look at the Runescribe:

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See that little section there? Prerequisites! Now, the normal D&D multiclassing rules include prerequisites. Nothing wrong with ‘em; it makes sense that stupid characters can’t take levels in wizard. Fine! We see two such requirements in the rune scribe. We also see the level requirement. Great balance tool for prestige classes! I can compare these abilities to 6+ level abilities, get away with front-loading, etc. There’s a problem; “Complete a special task”. I don’t mind if you and the DM come together when discussing a character and suss out exactly how or why he’s branching out mechanically. I don’t think anyone does; the issue comes in when weird pre-reqs like this get in the way of play, especially when they’re so stupidly designed. Can’t advance in the class without access to a specific NPC? Pardon the french, but fuck that.

So why include it? I have a suspicion; WOTC never wanted prestige classes to be a part of 5e. It’s not like they don’t have their uses. Having now designed several, I can say there are many concepts not served by multiclassing, but too specific to spread out over a 5e sublcass. Even those that could be spread out over a subclass would be better served in a dense, balanced prestige class. I can also say based on the aforementioned qualities, it’s a great template for more narrative focused deviations in the mechanics of a character.

So why wouldn’t they carry it forward? Well, based on the reactions and information I was collecting, WOTC’s prestige classes made a piss-poor impression on their ability to design class deviations. That was rectified with Archetypes and other names for subclasses, but prestige classes still leave a poor taste in the general player body’s mouth. People’s general inability to properly justify their gut reactions is rightly feared; feedback that goes beyond “I don’t like it” becomes increasingly suspect as the length of the complaint goes on. There can still be a justified complaint with the product at hand, but the longer the word count, the greater the chance the author made some glaring error in his complaint (which allows bad developers to dismiss it entirely).

Would you want to re-introduce a mechanic that your player base had no confidence in your ability to design properly (or rejected it as replaceable on the whole) in that kind of market?

I might well self-sabotage the product when I previewed it, and while I’m certain they’d never admit it publicly, I suspect the designers of D&D feel the same way.

This is all assuming the devs have some sort of competence when recognizing their player base’s satisfaction, and would certainly never tease a product touting an almost universally reviled feature.
No, never.

Some thoughts on character specialization

I might’ve lied. Technically this is a post on character specialization. However it’s primarily me ranting and raving and generally putting down other people’s thoughts on the subject using allegories and analogies that I have an emotional attachment to. Maybe you’re thinking hey, isn’t that what he always does?

You’d be correct.

I’ve been working on the Rebuilt Ranger recently, squeezing original abilities and spells out of my head like a pressed orange to what’s essentially the husk of the revised ranger Wizards Of The Coast released. There’s something of a shibboleth floating around the ranger class, a preprogrammed response to that afterthought-design cobbled mess. Everyone likes to talk about the Beast Master, and while I of course agree that it’s so miserably designed I practically hope WOTC never attempts a redesign of that particular subclass, I don’t like focusing on it! Poorly designed subclasses can still hold themselves together provided their built on the foundation of inappropriately design class. Likewise, a spectacularly designed subclass can elevate a poorly designed class (as unlikely as that particular combination is) so as to conceal some of core class’s flaws. For this reason, I focus on the Hunter. A subclass of impressive design, clearly focused on martial prowess with a host of well-designed abilities to complement a number of play styles. Unfortunately, the ranger still sucks. The Hunter would be even more fun to play or attach to a class that wasn’t half-baked.

That’s a standard intro I give to any conversation, post, or general essay on the ranger. Here though, I want to drill down on a specific debate on design within 5E. When is it appropriate to attach specialized class features? How specialized is too specialized? Do benefits against specific kinds of creatures take away from the fun of fighting anything else? That last one (aside from the fact I practically open this talking about the ranger) probably gave it away. I’m told what is ostensibly a core feature of the Ranger, favored enemy, can’t possibly do anything useful within the context of the game ( especially not combat). after all, if you’re especially good at dealing with a specific kind of enemy in combat, you’ll feel bad at fighting just about anybody else! How does the rest of the game feel about this? Ah yes, the forbidden question. Are there any other class features in the game that adhere to this apparently unshakable principle? Both the cleric and paladin have bonuses against particular enemies. The cleric has access to destroy undead, which functions as turn undead to any other living creature not immediately vaporized by it. Interestingly enough this is a channel divinity feature; every single cleric archetype comes with its own channel divinity feature. You can use that channel divinity as opposed to turn undead. How about the paladin? When he uses his divine smite feature (adds a bit of holy judgment to a weapon attack the paladin makes), The unfortunate creature takes additional damage if it is a fiend or undead. Not bad at all. What do both of these features have in common? They are not the end-all be-all of the class. In the cleric’s case, turn undead isn’t the only way to use his channel divinity feature. The paladin on the other hand, can apply divine smite to any creature, and simply gains an additional benefit if the creature is of a specific type.

No one really complains about not being able to fight undead in the case of the cleric, or both undead and fiends in the case of the Paladin. Their class features are satisfying enough on their own that fighting these enemies makes them especially useful: not simply useful. There is a difference. To further illustrate the point, imagine if you will that these holy warriors and men of the cloth had no special abilities or features to bring to bear against unholy terrors of the night? It might seem a little strange. Let’s suppose further that we spent several hundred words as a description of a supposedly core class feature describing how good these classes were at attacking these particular creatures. It would feel like a sham; you would wonder why it was there in the first place! The class itself might well mathematically check out in terms of its utility or skill in combat, but this obviously terrible design choice would leave you feeling underwhelming.

I think we can all see well enough that specialization enhances the specifically narrative elements ( how you think about your character and how it’s perceived by others) even if its only technical application is in combat. I sincerely apologize to all the people who think that storytelling and mechanics are completely divorced from one another, who will only read this apology after recovering from what was surely a solid five minutes of wailing and gnashing of teeth, spurred on by my previous statement. Moreover (steel yourselves, please), I think excluding specialization from where the narrative clearly made room for it is a recipe for disaster. Doubly so if the aforementioned hints from the narrative take the form of a 1,000 word description of a class ability.

If you want to make a big deal about how well the feature or class or spell deals with a specific problem, make sure it actually does. Features which deal with specific problems ( or simply do so especially well) should probably be tacked on to a generally useful class, not used as compensation for something underwhelming (side note, I might’ve just solved the poor transition from the 3.5 to 5E Ranger, you’re welcome). Thanks for reading.

Yes, morality is black and white (but)

I watched a few different videos recently, none of which prompted the essay (the title was sitting in my ever expanding drafts section), but nevertheless helped put this in context. Dael Kingsmill’s vid on alignment, Colville’s vid eo on alignment, etc.

People like to bring up the idea that morality “isn’t black and white”. There are general principles sure, but what happens when you bring those principles to specific circumstances? Insert ridiculous oversimplification of a principle in a snapshot moral quandary, and voila! Morality isn’t black and white.

It’s very silly. That’s not to say there’s no confusion to be had when it comes to specific morals situations; on the contrary, it’s because moral principles are objective that they’re difficult to suss out. We’ll take murder as an example.

Killing someone is bad! Wait, what if they break into your house, or try to kill you? Oh, I guess murder is ok sometimes! Nope, we’ve excluded things like self defense from the definition of murder. The aggressor excludes themselves from the protections of moral society (in this case, right to walk around unmolested, bodily autonomy, etc) by way of his aggression. The victim’s rights supersede the aggressors, as the victim was hitherto adhering to moral society’s demands. The circumstances may vary, but this general principle can apply to every circumstance (referring to real life, not snapshot moral quandaries).

Let me pose the morality is not populated by some gray area, but is instead pixelated. From the outset it may appear grey, but zooming in (addressing the circumstances by priority and relation to moral principles) reveals the pixel as black or white. Viewing morality as black and white can theoretically be an oversimplification of circumstance, but more likely the person is addressing the circumstances (whether they’re correct or not).

Designing Spells for the Artificer

This is definitely more of a stream of consciousness post, I’m thinking through various principles for designing spells for my Artificer player. He’s the only guy in our group that’s attending school abroad, so I try to toss him extra goodies to entice him to show up for games. It works (about 50% of the time)! Jokes aside, he largely only fails to show up when he can’t. Anyways, those goodies take the form of crafting primarily. Whenever my player is away, he’s on the airship crafting firearms, potions, magical oddities, you name it. We ran into a bit of a problem though; he wanted a self-winding grappling hook. I’ve got a good grasp on the mechanical advancement of the world and how its limitations differ from those of real life (you can check this post for why firearms will never become widespread in my world). Long story short, it wasn’t gonna happen (not in the form he wanted at the very least).

Being the ever generous DM, I made him an offer; why not create a spell that did what he was looking for? He was an intelligence based caster, after all. This excited him a great deal, and after a short delay, I set off to work!

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Not bad for a first draft, right? It’s even cooler for the artificer, because he gets an ability that let’s him place spells in items! He can literally place this spell that uses a grappling hook as a material component into the grappling hook and hand it off to another character. There’s a bit of wording to fix, I need to say “alternatively, you can swing up to 60 feet away, provided the anchor point is at least 20 feet above you” or something.

You get the idea, though! The moment this concept played itself out it my mind, I started thinking of other artificer spells. It’s such a unique class, of course it would benefit from unique spells! What would they look like?

The Artificer’s ability to place spells in an object is a factor in any spell I design for them. Material components normally are not important beyond a gold cost. The Artificer could of course cast spells into unrelated objects. It’s incentive enough to make spells that focus on altering equipment for me, however. I’m attracted to that variety of narrative/mechanic synergy.

Next is action economy. The Artificer has plenty of things to do with his action already, mostly shooting things with a firearm. As such, anything that isn’t a bonus action spell should probably have some sort of significant effect. I understand that’s horribly unspecific, so I’ll try to drill it down in a sentence or two. Bringing a party member back from the brink of death with a cure wounds, forcing multiple creatures prone with grease, etc. Something that cures or deals a status effect is “significant”, or perhaps is better stated as “changes the conditions of the battlefield”. Spells shouldn’t simply deal damage, they should augment damage. Anything worth casting with his action at such a low level spell would not be balanced in the least, the dude has 1/3rd casting progression. No, the spells need to impact the battlefield in some manner other than damage. Damage is a nice rider if the spell takes an action, but I should look to balance bonus action spells.

Finally, we have spell levels to watch out for. Anything I make for the Artificer can be picked up by the Bard at level 10 with magical secrets, but I’m not terribly worried about that. My primary concern is multiclassing. Since I’m as much of a power gamer as power gamers can be and an avid fan of multiclassing, I usually know what to watch out for. The more the spell is meant to synergize with the class I’m designing it for, and the greater investment a multiclasser has to make to get that “prize spell”, the less I need to worry about it. Things shouldn’t be so far down the line that they can’t access it, on the contrary. I want players to actually feel special with the artificer. Is a 3 level dip enough of a cost to get a new take on misty step, or cast a special spell on a grappling hook? I think so.

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Let’s look at another spell I designed somewhat spontaneously.

By the time the artificer gets this, he’s at least 13 level. It fits with his class, it’s an excellent secondary damage boost (6d6 with the thunder monger from his class, 2d8 from the spell, all to 2 targets, one of which doesn’t require a roll to hit). It’s far enough in that I don’t have to worry about any nasty “I dip in, now I’m OP” multiclassing (though dipping out of the class could make for some interesting combinations). It fits his theme (spell requires a firearm, he’s all about mechanical weapons, can literally implant the spell in the gun for later use, etc). I’d say it fits my principles!

I already had some additional ideas for spells (which will sadly stay out of view until I release a supplement focused on them)!

Another excerpt from Eyes of the Forest

One, two, three, good. The rope had already gone taut; Locirrrus glanced down, pale eyes squinting as the flare’s light stung. An insectoid shriek echoed up the shaft, and the skittering was now quite audible above the river’s burble. A flurry of chitin covered legs was beginning to crowd around the flare, but Locirrus already had his hands around the grate. He pushed; nothing, the grate didn’t so much as budge. He shoved again, harder. Rusted as the iron was, it did not yield.

I’d say I hope no one’s other the other side of this but, they had their chance to help if they did, didn’t they? He lit stick of glairo, filled to the brim with the explosive powder. Even so. “You’d best duck for cover!” he shouted at the grate. He the stick and his hand through the grate, gently rolling it to the side. The staccato tapping of legs on stone grew nearer. Locirrus looked down; only the silhouettes of his would-be assailants were visible, having already passed the still-burning flare. He jiggled the rope, then pressed his back against the wall, and began drawing it up with both hands. The silhouettes stopped, then shrieked once more before scurrying downwards. Must sense the motion. They were finally visible to him; three-sectioned insects, six legs apiece. Each was probably the length of a child were it splayed out. Two sets of mandibles adorned their eyeless heads, and every thorax ended in quills and barbs. Now. He cut the rope, and the creatures followed the dying flare. He placed a hand on each side of the ladder, and began sliding down. Figure I’ve got about 10-

The explosion shook the ladder and walls around him. Instinctively, Locirrus fumbled at his shield, pulling it over his head. Think you forgot to grab the ladder, champ. His right hand smacked the ladder before grasping it. His momentum carried him lower, and every nerve in his shoulder screamed in agony.  Gods, any longer and that’d take my arm off. Debris struck his shield, every blow numbing his left arm. The ambient light from his flare no longer lit the shaft, and neither was the flare visible looking down. Locirrus could hear skittering once again. The hail of rock and iron over, he re-strapped his shield and swiftly pulled another glairo stick. He shaved about two thirds of the fuse’s length off before lighting it, and let gravity do the rest.


Why I hate raids (Warframe and Destiny)

I had an excellent back and forth with my friend Chris (who plays Alan the Paladin in my current game) over xbox live the other night, and wanted to recount some of the output of that conversation here. Destiny 2’s Forsaken DLC dropped about a month ago while the group was on vacation. We all have Destiny 2, but I’m the only one who has it on a different console. I didn’t have an xbone at the time, and was waiting for my friends to buy it on PC. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen (they were reasonably dissatisfied with the original product), I decided to just buy it on my PS4.

We’ve had a few back-and-forths on the game since, and now that Forsaken has come out, my friends are all playing it again. I don’t have the game on that console, and seeing as though I view Destiny 2 as popcorn entertainment (and its first DLC as a disgusting pile of unmentionables), I not to purchase the second DLC and Forsaken.

Also, I was seriously pissed off after Curse of Osiris. I never played Destiny 1, so I was somewhat ignorant of Bungie’s “Abuse our playerbase for a year” policy. Never again!

This backstory is all relevant, I promise you.

In a roundabout sort of way, we came to the subject of raids. I started eviscerating them; I’d only played a few leviathan raids, and all I had to compare them to were the Jordas Precept and Law of Retribution raids from Warframe (neither of which I had high opinions of).

My friends were, understandably, a little annoyed; the Raids are the only real challenge in the game! High level enemies, which I pointed out actually come out to attack you! The enemies in the game world mill about, not really doing anything. The player walks over, kills half of any group present before the even react, and the ones that do have time to react barely get any hits in. The player kills the remainder, taking virtually no damage, all to walk to the group of enemies 50 feet away that ignored the whole ordeal for some reason.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

So we return to raids, where the screaming hordes try to overrun the players. That kind of tension is fun! I definitely think Destiny’s raids are its best content (PVE anyways). Ditto for Warframe’s raids, at the time they were active at the very least. They’re “endgame content”, and it seems the playerbase for both games were starving for that sort of thing. We’ll get to that some other time, though.

So, I agree that they’re the best content Destiny (low bar) and Warframe (significantly higher bar) have to offer. Nevertheless, I think they’re designed poorly. We’ll start off with the Cabal Emperor fight, because it demonstrates my point and I am very, very, very disinterested in discussing other sections of the leviathan.

The fight against the Emperor goes something like this: boss is invulnerable (because of course he is). Adds stream in while the boss starts shooting face lasers at you (like you do). Half of your party stays to fight the boss while the other half feeds instructions to you in an extradimensional space. The people in the psychic realm have to tell you what symbols pop up on the Emperor’s forehead, and the people in the boss room have to jump on pads with those symbols on them. The people in the psychic realm have to do this a few times, and once they do it enough times without falling out of the psychic realm, the boss loses his invulnerability phase and the players can kill him.

Sound like BS yet?

This is obviously something of an abridged version, but what am I specifically not mentioning whatsoever? Player skill, player choice, player’s strategy. It’s not completely absent from the raid; there’s a bit of positioning that players have to engage in when reading the symbols out to the boss room group. Certain party compositions will function better than others. What are those parties doing, though? Following the path the developers set out for them, or fail. The devs have put in a right way to win, which is on the internet within 24 hours of the raid going live, and it simply falls to the players to follow those instructions, or lose. No dynamic play, just have a mic, do whatever role you took for the raid, and hold down right trigger. The raids are puzzles, to which there is only one solution. You read the developer’s mind (or the online text of someone who already did), follow it, or fail.

Fun, right?

I want to say The Law of Retribution and Jordas Precept Warframe raids were better, but they were not. Not as far as design is concerned, anyways; I was more entertained by Warframe’s raids, but that’s because Warframe is more fun than Destiny. No, at the end of the day, it was the same deal. Follow the designer’s path set for you, or fail. The Warframe raids certainly had more to offer in terms of wiggle room; I mostly attribute that to the plethora of classes (frames) and builds you could then combine them with. I can be entertained by something while pointing out design flaws (provided fixing those flaws could produce a better experience).

By this point, there’s almost certainly someone thinking “well it’s easy to criticize without proposing anything better”, and indeed, that’s correct. Chris actually brought this objection to my attention when we had our discussion. I mentioned that these are puzzles, and only have one solution. He shot back that good puzzles only have one solution, and this set me off. I pointed out games like Deus Ex solved this issue literally decades ago; the best puzzles have multiple solutions. Those solutions are created by the player, using the tools at their disposal in combinations that bring them closer to their goal. Warren Spector (who designed games like later Ultima installments and the original Deus Ex) talks about this concept at length. If you know the name, you probably know his 2 stock stories on the subject (one of which I’ll retell here).

Spector was watching a tester play through some urban island level he’d played through himself some ridiculous number of times. The tester came up on a building he had to enter, with three threats to his success: a guard, standing at his post near the door, a clearly visible IR detection system (laser across the door), and a patrolling pair of guards. The player took out his pistol (the weakest pistol in the game), grabbed an explosive barrel (red, of course), and began walking towards the entrance. Warren was biting his nails, thinking “Is that gonna work? Is that gonna work?” The player tossed the barrel at just the right moment, and shot the barrel as it neared the guard, patrol, and IR system. With the weakest weapon in the game, he solved 3 problems, and did it all in a way the developer had never thought of.

That is how puzzles should be done. I’m not sure Bungie has the predesigned assets, competence, or even willingness to acknowledge feedback that might account for this kind of adjustment. There’s another developer I listed here though, and they’re the complete opposite of Bungie in…well, just about everything now.

At some point in the very near future, I’ll be going in-depth on assets DE already has access to in Warframe, and how they could mix those together for a challenging, open-solution raid or even just a high level mission.

UA: Dragonmarks Review

I haven’t paid too much attention to Unearthed Arcana articles in recent months. I’ve spent a lot of time sussing out why I feel so dissatisfied with WOTC lately. I’ve been testing my own material out to see what solutions they might be able to fix, but that’s a story for another time. I felt somewhat spontaneously like checking up on UA, finding that the last one is about 2 weeks old.

First impression: definitely impressed.

They first released Dragonmarks as feats way back when, 2016 I think. A character I’ve actually just started playing again has one of these feats, specifically from the 2016 UA. That matters, because they’ve taken an interesting turn with this release: your first dragonmark is tied to your race. Your Dragonmark is your subrace, affecting ability score improvements and such. The benefits to this are varied, but a new mechanic attached to these benefits is something called Intuition Dice. It’s a free D4 to the related check or action. It’s essentially guidance; not terribly interesting, but I don’t think they’re supposed to be the focus as much as they are a compliment to the other benefits. Additionally, these Dragonmarks being designed as subraces took over the brief dissatisfaction I had in them. Races are mostly employed for the distribution of started ability scores. There are always other benefits, but they tend to be ribbons or at least ribbon-adjacent. As such, I can’t really be so hard on them for not holding my interest. Or can I? You know, I think I can. Sure, more interesting mechanics might make other races “invalid”. Who cares? It’s made for a different setting: if there are a plurality of starting options that are more powerful than those considered “standard”, that’s fine! You’ve created a separate level playing field.

Wait, I’ve just invalidated myself. On second reading, all the really interesting bits are at the end of the descriptions. Score 1 for confirmation bias! I retain my original view of most of them. Mark of Healing, Handling, Passage, Sentinel, and Shadow are all very interesting. There’s enough that “my interest” can be sustained with not just one but a few options, so final judgement, I can’t complain. Mostly.

Now, onto the original Dragonmarks (now called Greater Dragonmarks).

These are mostly identical to their original incarnation (as far as I can tell the spells provided are identical). Nevertheless there are additional benefits! The feats now offer an ability score increase (+1 to one of two stats specified in the dragonmark). In addition, two of these feats (Sentinel and Scribing) regain their spells on a short or long rest, an interesting deviation. I have to admit, taking the Sentinel Dragonmark (as well as its subsequent feat) is extraordinarily appealing to me.

I love this Unearthed Arcana, I think it adds some useful levers to the game, and it has my brain spinning with different ideas. I think I’ll make it available to my players the next time I start a campaign!

D&D Firearms Prep

I absolutely love dumping firearms into a setting. The possibilities of artillery, more engaging ship to ship battles, wars of large-scale, etc. all have my attention from the get-go.

There is just one little problem and it's the same question that literally everyone who breaches this topic asks.

"How do I explain firearms not being used for all combat?" If you've explored any forum in D&D you've probably seen this question yourself. If you like world building, you've probably asked this question yourself to begin with.

I have two answers for you; one is more of a stock answer that applies to just about anybody's campaign setting or campaign world, the other applies to my personal setting.

So, first one. Firearms did not immediately become the best option for combatants upon their invention. The methods of assembling, maintaining, loading, and even firing guns went through many iterations before they could be efficiently deployed en masse.

That particular gap between invention and usefulness was about 2 to 3 centuries, by the way. Now, your player characters probably don't have 2 to 3 centuries to advance firearms from matchlocks to wheellocks to flintlocks (and that's by no means a comprehensive history of firearms). That's okay, you can give your players a head start. Bump your players up to match or wheel locks. "But wait!" you cry out, "wasn't the point of this to say they shouldn't be that common or useful to begin with?" Well don't you worry, I'm not done yet.

There's one thing we have to worry about in the world of D&D that makes common and useful diverge on occasion; that's called magic. This goes across any D&D world in which magic exists; the best and brightest minds who know anything about the existence of magic will want to replicate the power and freedom it offers. That's the baseline assumption of most D&D worlds. No such roadmap exists for firearms in the world D&D; their utility primarily depends on their deployment en masse. Do the cities geniuses want to spend their time on weapon slightly better than crossbows? Or do they want to learn how to cast fireball?

Seems like a pretty obvious answer.

You have to be a special sort of insane, superstitious, genius, or maybe a combination of the three to want something like puckle guns or magazine-fed weapons. Maybe the character has religious or simply superstitious beliefs concerning magic. Maybe they don't like the idea of having to depend on something like the Weave, something not of their own making.

Maybe (and this is where genius comes in) they simply want to be the first to make something new, make a dent in the world. Or at the very least, make a nice hole in the city wall if no one tells the stable boy to keep torches out of the laboratory.
You get the idea.

Sounds like a perfect character to be an adventure, and for one of your players to enjoy. Let them! To boil down my first point, most of the smart and creative people would be advancing firearms in the real world would be advancing magic in the world of D&D. You can still have tinkerers and inventors who made the schematics for some of these firearms, even more advanced ones! But that doesn't mean they're in use or in circulation (see the steam engine, which apparently even the Romans knew of). So go nuts.

Onto the second explanation, something original, something by myself.
My favorite subject.

In the world of Brackas, firearms have gone past muskets. Way past. Schematics for things like levering bolt action rifles are widely distributed, and the sort of artillery you might've seen during World War I have their place on a number of battlefields.

All the same most battles still end with people hacking each other apart. The fight starts with artillery and muskets, and finishes with short swords and shields.

So how do I place these things side-by-side? Turns out, it's pretty easy. In my setting, gunpowder when stored for too long a time in too great a quantity inevitably detonates. The powder is simply more volatile than it is in the real world (and I apply this theme to a number of other materials). How does this play out within the setting? Well, muskets are the easiest firearms to mass-produce, they're the most disposable, and all-around bring the most bang for your buck when it comes to your average combatant. They take a pretty long time to reload, so a squad will let a volley loose before ditching their muskets for crossbows and swords.

A similar principle applies to siege weaponry; the ammunition often has to be manufactured on site and on demand (and it is expensive).

More advanced personal firearms like a lever or bolt action rifles and nock guns are too expensive to manufacture and too difficult for the average combatant to maintain. They are however ideal for more specialized combatants; people who can reliably maintain, supply, and kill using these weapons. Obviously, adventurers fall into this category. They are more skilled than the average soldier, engaged in combat far more often (meaning the expend the ammunition, and thus the gunpowder frequently), and have the capital to finance it all.

What’s the short of it? Players get to use firearms, they’re reasonably advanced, and they’re “special” to boot. Elite enemies and military factions also get to make use of them. They’re otherwise uncommon and simplistic. Ditto for artillery.

Weekly Statblock: Ebrietas

Ever on my Bloodborne kick, I made this creature on vacation for a session that same day. 

The party was Dennis playing Asura, Chris playing Alan, Matt playing Sael, and two others from our primary group! My friends Caleb playing Kevlier and Megan playing Kieron joined us for the session, bringing a Druid and Paladin to play.

I'll probably go into the non-combat details of that session some other time (I tried out some new storytelling techniques), but for now, the boss of that session is here.

Ebrietas.jpg

So, you wanna stat Gods? This is a good start! Ebrietas's strategy for attacking is pretty simple. First, cast Crown of Stars. The sooner you cast it, the more mileage you'll get. 4d8 as a bonus action every round is nothing to sneeze at, and her +12 bonus to hit makes it fairly consistent. Next, start using legendary actions for Magic Missile. There were 2 paladins in the party facing Ebrietas, both with high armor class. You can already see where this is going. If you really focus a single person, it can end up somewhere around 30 damage per round. That accelerates to 60 once Ebrietas drops below half hp.

After the first round, start blowing other high level spells. Synaptic Static is devastating, dealing psychic damage and producing a pretty negative effect on a failed saving throw (which is intelligence, not a common save). Maelstrom was also excellent. The creek in Ebrietas's lair widened to accompany the Maelstrom's size, and at a 30 ft radius, it was excellent for area denial. Area denial works both ways, of course. That is, until, Ebrietas starts using her "Fly" legendary action. 80 feet of movement easily carried her from one side of the lair to the other.  I did end up using Chain lightning, but against my players in particular that was sort of a bad idea.

The Rune Spells are a subsystem I designed, the Elsry rune being the most esoteric (on purpose). I used it several times to Halt (the second level variant of the rune) Alan, freezing him in time. Once a character interacted with him however, he was good to go. I think I used Halt all 3 times she was able to cast it, and all on Alan. That’s all that kept her alive for so long, he’s such an absurdly tanky character.

This was a beast of a creature; I’m happy with how she worked out.

 

Another Condition: Weakened

My long suffering page followers were hit with a barrage of COME WATCH MY STREAM posting (and indeed you should) while I played For The King, specifically their Frostbite Mountain adventure. I had a great time, and it scratched my D&D itch to boot. I’ve been thinking over a lot of the items, skills, spells, and in particular status effects. Video games are better equipped to handle a multitude of status effects than your average RPG by far. You have more time to engage with the game than if you were depending on scheduling something out with your friends, the game adjudicates the status effect’s impact on gameplay by way of the developers coding, etc.

Status Effects in RPGs depend on the players to properly adjudicate the effect, and the DM in particular. So, status effects need to be clear on how they impact the game, concise in their clarification, and from a mechanical perspective can’t bog down the game. This lends to fewer status effects that are featured in a multitude of spells and abilities. The interesting variation comes not from several different iterations of the same status effects, but the twists and circumstances of the individual skill or spell that produces it. I see plenty of requests for new abilities and even spells, but very few for new effects, and in all honesty that’s probably for the best when it comes to your average homebrew designer,

I’m not that designer. Also, a new status effect is more of a tool specifically for people creating content, seeing as you need some sort of delivery system for a status effect to even come up in the game. When considering what I wanted out of a new status effect, I decided on a damage boost (against the target effected).

So here it is.
Frozen: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it takes.

There’s a few issues with this, but let me hit you with the inspiration. “Frozen” in For The King causes the target to suffer an additional 25% damage. Now, vulnerable obviously deals an additional 100% damage. Frozen in FTK lasts for more turns, but that’s besides the point. I don’t need to duplicate it to the exact.

First, the question of Resistances and Immunities. I need to include a small disclaimer of those. I could simply say that it has no effect if the target is immune to the damage type. I could assume the game master is happy to make a target normally resistant take normal damage. Applying vulnerability to a creature normally resistant to an effect isn’t something people normally need to deal with. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that situation has existed even as a possibility until the release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, with the addition of the Grave Cleric. Its channel divinity feature makes the creature targeted vulnerable to the next attack against it. Do resistance and vulnerability cancel each other out? I certainly think so, and I’m sure everyone I play with would agree.

That’s not quite my standard for placing caveats in my design. If I can clear things up without inflating the word count too much, to me that’s preferable than any unnecessary amount of confusion. The questions Mearls and Crawford in particular have to suffer shows it doesn’t hurt to include some extra clarification.

Frozen: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it receives. If the target would normally be resistant to the damage, it instead loses its resistance to that damage. If the target would normally be immune, it takes no damage.

Not too bad! We should fix two last things. First, “Frozen” is probably a bad name for the status effect. It’s a port from something else; D&D has a ton of monsters to use. While it makes sense in the context of For the King, there’s no specific relation to ice or frost here. Next, the last sentence on immunity sounds redundant, so we’ll change it up.

Weakened: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it receives. If the target would normally be resistant to the damage, it instead loses its resistance to that damage. Targets which are immune to the damage suffer no effect.

Now we’re cooking with gas! Weakened makes far more sense when it comes to the effect. I don’t have to worry about any dissonance between the condition’s name and its effect on a creature like Frost Giants or Rhemorazes. This should provide some interesting levers to play with when designing homebrew content. In fact, I have to make a magic bow for Kevin’s new character.

Might see some use!

I took my players to the Argonne Forest

You heard me! The group had just finished up their business at a set of standing stones, a local font of magical power. They received ascending from Ulfin, requesting their assistance. He showed up moments later, asking if they'd be willing to directly assist the war effort. A Vanguard force had found themselves surrounded a day prior. It was the perfect opportunity to showcase the power of the runes, and Ulfin needed a group comfortable hitting above their weight class. The group was relatively happy to assist, and I think they were somewhat excited to test their mettle against an organized opponent. And so they went off!

Ulfin used his usual transport via plants to drop the group off at an encampment of soldiers from Garamentes. The Captain fills them in. A few of the advance force moved too far in, and either didn't receive the retreat order or didn't think it was legitimate. Either way, they're surrounded, low on supplies, and soon they'll have more wounded than men in fighting condition. The group's job is straightforward; smash through a bunker too heavily fortified for their regulars to handle. 

The encampment has howitzers, and a few shells remaining. They can't produce any serious bombardment if they spread their shots. With the party striking the most heavily defended choke point, the main force can rain hell on the flanks, allowing their men to penetrate any defensive line. 

One final point; the vanguard only had 1 spellcaster, who was unresponsive after their last sending. 
An unidentified archmage had engaged them. 

The group settled in, and come morning the trench whistles shrill cry sent them off. I laid out the first battle map; I'd taken a great deal from BF1's Argonne Forest map. The players have a few rows of trenches and barbed wire to cross before coming up on a bunker. The only creature immediately visible was an ogre holding a ballista-sized crossbow. The party engaged!

As they moved forward, they encountered a set of Tyrant Regulars, a hobgoblin legion employing weapons like crossbows, rapiers, and whips. They fired from the trenches before going prone. The party took some hits before moving into melee, diving behind cover before finally getting in their faces. Right as they reached the last trench, two sets of creatures emerged. First, two Tyrant Captains came from the bunker, tossing blastcap bombs (combustible, easily grown mushroom with incindiary materials) at the party. Next, an ogre carrying a small fort came from a side path, leading to train tracks (keep that in the back of your mind for now). 

The fort held four goblins of the Powder Horn Legion, all wielding muskets. On arrival, they sent a volley towards the Paladin, Sorcerer, and Artificer, all crouched behind cover. The ogres from that point were quite heavily focused. The party mages took them down as the Cleric and Paladin moved into melee with the Tyrants. The Howdah Ogre fell, along with his cargo, sending the goblins spilling out. They’d by this time finished reloading, and sent another volley towards Alan the Paladin, to little avail.

Once both the goblins and ogres were dispatched (along with a majority of the Tyrants), two of the Tyrants managed to escape. The fled into the bunker, sealing one of the two doors shut. The party attempted (and failed) to bust through, before attempting to enter the other door. It was unlocked, lucky them! It was also trapped. A blastcap bomb detonated in their faces. Inside this front area, they found spare bolts, rations, rain capes, coils of barbed wire, etc.

The party continued through a long hallway, until they came up on beds with plaster dividers between them. I had the party roll perception, and they failed; Tyrants emerged, and began unloading. They started with a volley of crossbow bolts before clustering next to the edges of the hallway, waiting for the party to emerge. The party engaged, quickly recognizing these were stronger than the last. The Sorcerer Sael cast polymorph on Asura the Cleric, turning him into a giant ape. The ape gave full cover to the party (good for them) but also almost entirely blocked movement to the Tyrants (good for me). What ensued was primarily Asura striking the Tyrants as they desperately tried falling back. They put up a decent fight, taking the ape down by about 100 hp, but not enough. Asura burst through the other side of the bunker, the crumpled bodies of Tyrants around him.

At this point, I asked the players to roll a d4. 2 was the result; they heard the whistle of a train. They looked around, prepared themselves with what little they could (the party had at this point expended almost all of their spells), as an armored train rolled through.

Now, siege equipment/armaments takes time to load, aim, and fire. YOu only have all 3 in the same round if multiple people are operating the equipment. The train had 5 armaments of varying size, each manned by one person. Asura (still a giant ape) immediately set to attacking it, wrecking the center gun. After a natural one on an attempt to flip one or two of the rail cars, he draped himself over the train. The guns to either side fired at point blank, leaving him unconscious next to it.

The party engaged, trying to get to Asura before he died. Dr. Silver (the party artificer) opened up a small bunker next to the train, finding…two Tyrant Knights. What followed was a chase around the battlefield as certain party members tried to catch the attention of the Tyrants as the others attacked the train. Asura was up in about two rounds, and cast Spiritual Guardians. There were screams from the 3 cars next to him, which then stopped. Kevin playing his regrettably short-lived sorcerer (spoiler warning) started throwing blastcap bombs at the hatches on the other two cars, which were at that point retreating.

Kevin’s character actually climbed the car and got inside (after successfully blowing off a hatch) and gutted one of the engineers. The cards continued moving back, and after dispatching the Knights, the party gave chase.

At last, the final map was laid out. Simply a brick bridge over a slight depression, tracks leading over it. Kevin’s character had at this point killed the last engineer, and managed to stop the train on the bridge. He’d also accidentally unloaded a shell from the siege howitzer in his car. The rest of the party arrived, sounds of battle on the flanks, and above a hill some hundred yards ahead of them. This was the final stretch; where was the enemy?

A slow clap rings out, seemingly from all around them. Someone starts congratulating them on their progress, but regrets their journey must be cut short. Undead start rising from the ground, and its initiative. It starts out simply; the zombies don’t have a high armor class or to hit chance. Asura pops Channel Divinity, destroying undead in a 30 ft radius. Here, the strange voice’s owner reveals himself. Decked out in black with a white, engraved mask, our friend raises more undead. Morover, he begins casting spells through the undead around him, their bodies twisting and jerking to match his commands. The battle actually doesn’t go too poorly by and large; zombies prove largely incompetent except acting as remote spellcasters, and the archmage doesn’t have a terribly impressive number of hitpoints. Nevertheless, he is whittling down Asura and Alan’s hitpoints. Kevin’s character has, in the meantime, been re-loading and aiming the siege howitzer attached to his car. The archmage’s turn is coming up, but Kevin and 1 other go before him. The archmage here has roughly 25 hp. Alan and Asura are clustered around him.  Kevin’s character fires the siege howitzer. I have him roll an attack. Even if he rolls above AC, it won’t necessarily hit, and almost certainly won’t be a direct hit. He rolls: natural 20.

Kother and the Zombies around him are obliterated. I have Kevin roll 10d10 and double the result, and ask Chris and Dennis to roll dex saves. Chris, playing Alan, succeeds! Dennis, playing Asura, does not. The total result of the damage is 106 or 112, I can’t recall. Alan gets to halve that damage, but Asura will not. Asura is actually killed outright, but Alan intervenes. He uses an ability from his subclass to take the damage on himself, keeping Asura alive but unconscious, and killing Alan outright.

Asura is brought back up with potions, but he has no spells for Revivify. In fact, all he has a first level spell slot; he can’t cast something like Gentle Repose to extend his window on reviving Alan. There’s one way, however. Expending a first level slot,  he casts the Blood Rune, allowing him to cast a second level spell. He casts Gentle Repose, giving him a chance to revive Alan once they rest.

The other party members, in the meantime, have a talk with Kevin’s character.

Kevin’s character is not longer with us.

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A response to Jeffro Johnson

I was wasting time on Quora (as my poor page followers are by now all too aware) when I got a notification from Twitter! JeffroJohnson and I follow each other on Twitter, and we've interacted a bit before on the topic I'm going to discuss with you here. He's the author of the appendix N, an exposé on the biggest influences on the early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons. I've gotten quite a few lessons from it, and it also serves as a nice guide to people my age (Gen Z) to 20th century classics that have been swallowed up in the age of "Game of the Really Nice Chair" and "Harry Potter and the Grown Ass Adults Who Won't Shut Up About This Series". You can buy from it from Castalia House here. I'm also plugging his work because I'll be referencing it!

So, to the meat of the matter! Jeffro was responding to my answer to a Quora request. Said request was on how to create an engaging plot line for role-playing games. You can find my answer here, but the short of it was to think about what both I and the players would enjoy most while considering the work I need to do to fulfill all parties involved. Then, to take a few of those ideas and simply pitch them to the players.

Jeffrey responded with this: "If your campaign has a plot line, you are not just doing it wrong. You have repudiated the very concept of fantasy role-playing games!"

It's here I should probably mention the very strong generational gap between Jethro and I, which you probably guessed at already. 

Jeffrey doesn't have a seat at my table and so is probably misunderstanding my approach to narrative and the game, but his accusation is just plain silly even outside of that context. There are any number of ways to include a narrative or plot line that has a rough beginning, middle, and end without restricting player agency or ruining the fantasy.

Start off with a classic game on rails scenario. You sit down with the players, you tell them what the adventure is, and you get ready to play. The adventure has a specific goal, and your players are expected to work towards it. Does this necessarily cut down on player agency? Of course not! All you've laid out so far is the general goal of the content you are putting in front of the players. How they achieve that goal could conceivably be entirely up to them. They may take hints and pointers from NPC's, or ignore them altogether and do their own thing! I'll admit here this is probably not how the game by and large plays out; people deciding the what often decide the how of dealing with it, and their players are simply present to go through the motions. Jeffro mentions this style of play in his section on Stormbringer in Appendix N. The game master constantly funnels the players into what they must do next; whether by mining their backstory for family or loved ones to capture or kill, forcing the player into battles which they will certainly fail, and don't provide any option to the players that takes them off the beaten path, even for a moment. This is probably what Jeffro thinks of when he hears the phrase plot line in the context of a tabletop RPG. If I'm right, I can't blame him for his reaction.

Next we have how I personally run my campaign. Here, the plot line is a backdrop for the players, not the other way around. In my campaign, the Second Host War has kicked off. What does this mean? Well, important NPC's are often busy, the prices of many items have gone up, and society at large is a bit more chaotic. I consider it the plot line of my campaign. Up until a session ago, the players weren't even involved in that war (at least not directly). They've been the length of the United States from their home civilization where that war has been taking place. Why are they so far away? They were sent on an expedition to look for lost magic and alchemical formulae by a Druid NPC, looking to tip the scales of the war before it escalates too quickly.

My players have a very sandbox style game. Each location they visit is largely self-contained, hosts its own monster ecology, and contains its own minor setting details for the players to conquer and loot. They're able to craft impressive magic and mechanical items of their own design (provided they meet some minor prerequisites), able to choose which areas they want to engage with, and overall drive their own fantasy. Last session they were briefly transported back to their civilization (of their own accord) to participate in a minor battle. Up until that point, their NPC liaison would occasionally inform them of how what they found impacted the war. What I consider to be the central narrative of my campaign is something my players have engaged with and driven forward, but indirectly. I let them do that, because I want them to be able to drive their fantasy. I don't force them to go through the motions of what I think should happen in my world. I let my players drive the action, I just make sure the numbers check out.

This I think explains the generational gap between Jeffro and I.  I think we both focus on player agency, primarily enjoy the mechanics of the game (pick your jaws up from the floor folks, yes we actually consider this a game), and like being free to toss situations at our players at will, regardless of whether or not an encounter might be considered fair. In fact, this is how the majority of my group plays. However whereas Jeffro would be inclined to say the inclusion of a plot or central narrative inherently diminishes the fantasy of player action, at my groups table we've always viewed it differently. To us, a plot has always been wellspring to draw from, not something to drown the players in.

I have a nagging suspicion Jeffro would enjoy such a game, even if he was using 5E.

You can find Johnson's blog here.

Creative Differences

So my friend Jake pitched me a superhero comic recently. The work on the Eyes of the Forest comic has unfortunately come to a halt (hat's fine, the book is still in progress) so I had something of an opening. Just one problem: I don't like superhero media!

This isn't to say I won't sit down for a movie with a couple of my friends. Yes, I coincidentally had dust in my eyes from the moment Yondu told Quill "He might 'ave been your father, but he wasn't your daddy" to the moment we watched him die in the airless void.

Fuck you, James Gunn.

Just in general though, breaking me out of my hovel or obsessive work cycle to watch a superhero movie demands something like a king's ransom and the universal approval of my friends, because how dare I spend 2 hours on anything I can't justify the productive value of.
Like playing video games. 

In all seriousness, I just can't get down with superhero media. It freaks me out, I see a lot of tropey and "we're trying too hard to not be tropey" stuff and my suspension of disbelief is primed fail the second I see a cape. Shame, really. 

There was one instance of superhero media that I not only enjoyed, but connected with on a really deep level. Alphas, on Sci-fi. It only ran for 2 seasons (and included who would later be one of my favorite voice actors), but it bypassed my normal skepticism. It was realistic; not the grim dark "everything is sex drug use and murder" completely un-relatable realism of DC, these were people living normal lives around what was (to them) a disability. Disabilities that could be used to great advantage if someone took the time and effort to coach them through it. I would not be particularly shocked if I was the only one that sort of narrative could connect with.

So when my friend Jake pitched this comic to me, I told him exactly what I wanted to do with it. I described my personal feelings on the subject, and used Alphas as an example of what I thinks often missing in storytelling in general. To my surprise he accepted! I'm not a tyrant of course, and neither is he. So naturally, we've had a few disagreements on certain plot elements. I want to share to these disagreements here.

I'm comfortable sharing all the details of this one thing is though I think I convinced Jake to scrap it. He wanted to introduce a reality bending device; something that would in his words explain why superpowers started cropping up. It was an alien artifact, Ancient, and every single superpower in the world would depend on it. Moreover, it would be located on earth! Oh, and it can be turned off. Lovely. I spent I think over a week discussing with Jake, Zach our other writer, and a mutual friend whether this was just a McGuffin had no real place in story.

I think what finally managed to convince him was the fact that our audience was coming to us specifically because they wanted a superhero story. Storytelling in general has an over explanation problem to begin with, but explaining to the audience why they are allowed to suspend disbelief is taking it to a whole new level. Jake's response was that it was cool, and there were a lot of story opportunities with it. All of the stories that he proposed intersecting with this device more high escalation everything screwed if we don't win fights. I hate those! I hate them with a passion, and superhero media is absolutely full of them. Everything is screwed if we don't win is almost universally on relatable. I stuck to my guns, and Jake relented. I'm not dictating things, I just have a standard that I measure everything against.

The second was a character pitch. This really did not progress far. I opened up discord to see a message from Jake reading what if Hercules was a real person and had superpowers and survived into the modern age? Here I really got to work. My first question was why on earth but we take a character from mythology? Next, why Hercules? Literally everyone does the Greeks next to the Norse pantheon! The usual "but it's interesting" objection came out. In addition, the other writers felt that just because other people had done it didn't mean we couldn't. In principle, I agree!

There is absolutely nothing in this instance that would convince me otherwise. I had two core objections. First, you take a character from mythology explicitly so you do not have to be original. Unless you're doing a full reimagining that actually fits within the setting of your world, you are taking from the lore so that you do not have to do the writing on your own. The more commonly retold the myth, the more your take is likely something that everyone has heard before. I'm not saying you can't enjoy that by the way, but it's popcorn. It's not deep, and something I really prefer to avoid. Next, I felt the choice of mythological figure was telling. Who is Hercules? He's a big strong guy. Not only is he a big strong guy, he's the big strong guy. It's not exactly the most complex core characterization you could pick. On top of that, we go back to the fact that everyone does the Greeks! There are other figures to choose from when it comes to absurdly tough and good at killing things. I suggested Samson or Beowulf. The fact he chose Hercules told me it was not coming from a place of originality or inspiration, but more of a first thing to come to mind. It's a lazy choice, and I wanted to keep that from diminishing some of the excellent plots we've drawn up so far.

I always try to keep the same standard when it comes to things; if you're going to pitch something, I have two questions. Can we plausibly keep the peace we desire when it comes to escalating conflicts if we introduce this thing? What purpose does it have within the central narrative? It's easy to get swept away by the cool factor. I often go back to earlier chapters in my book make sure I haven't been so caught up in the idea of something that I didn't pay attention to the execution of it. When it comes to comics this is especially important; I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that the plot is central to the success of the comic!

 

 

Changing Spells I

Well the poll on my page was clear, and the Charger revision is going back to the drafts for awhile.

You terrible people. 

All's well though, spellcasting is one of my favorite topics when it comes to games in general. Now, I love magic in tabletop RPG's in particular because there's such a variety of actual spells. Far too many they could get a game like sky room, there's just too much programming and development of assets that would go into developing 1/10 of the spells D&D has (that's not including situations that would involve their application, though most are combat focused so it's layered with other things). 

However if you're like me, you might find spellcasting and D&D a little stale after a while. You're constantly looking up spells that don't have the concentration tag's you can layer some active effects, combats only last three or four rounds, and there's all the spells you can't really justify casting over something else. There may be a situation one in a million where casting wall of sand would aid the party in combat. Perfectly reasonable assumption. However, there will never be a time in which casting wall of sand is a better tactical option than casting haste.

So, my first choice for editing spells within D&D is screwing around with the concentration tags. Now, I've already gone into elsewhere what my current system for managing concentration is. For those of you not quite looking to rip off that band-aid yet, no worries, I'm going to try something a little different here that hopefully exposes the process.

We're going to run down a 5 step plan for determining whether you can take concentration off a spell without breaking the game. There's plenty of obvious spells to choose from, but I'm going to see if I can't run down a list of more difficult choices (can't grow if you don't challenge yourself).

1. Compare the spell to haste.
Haste isn't actually the linchpin here but it's a useful example. Chances are, if you play for a year or more, certain casters have a signature spell. It's the best, the party moves around it, it's the first suggestion someone makes when they want to solve an issue, it's the first thing someone casts in combat. In the game I'm currently playing, literally every player has some sort of martial competence. On top of that, we find ourselves kited often (mostly bosses fleeing from the raging half-orc with two greatsw-ALL HAIL KAINO THE MOUNTAIN) so the speed boost is gravy. Any other concentration spell I cast is weighed against the speed and damage boost 2 or 3 of my party members are receiving at that time, so it's rare that I drop anything else on the field. Spike growth COULD be cool in some situations, but I rarely have the excuse for it. For these reasons, haste is my go-to.

2. Evaluate the opportunity costs of the spell. 
What happens when a character drops concentration on another spell to cast this one? How does the battlefield change? Is it more valuable to maintain concentration on a hold monster or fog cloud then switch to this one? Will it see any use? If you drop in this instance the concentration tag, does it displace the other spells? Obviously if you remove concentration from the spell they can deploy the effect alongside a concentration effect.

Let's say we've got a spell, single target to keep things simple. It doesn't deal any damage but incurs a pretty hefty status affect. Not something that hurts a creature's action economy, just makes it worse that using the actions it has available to it. That spell sounds pretty fun, and it is! It has to pretty hefty downsides though. It offers a saving throw for the effect obviously not bad enough itself, and that save is Constitution based. Monsters tend to be decent at Constitution and strength saving throws. Next, the spell offers a repeating save. The spell can fail well before it would naturally end or even before you take damage and may be feel concentration check, even if the spell originally succeeds. For arguments sake, let's make the spell second level quite a few second level spells match the sort of design.

Now the spell isn't useless by any stretch of the imagination, it's still pretty powerful. Do we add the concentration tag to it? I'd say no! The restrictions placed on the spell are significant, and the spell's benefit isn't something that takes the enemy off the board. It doesn't deal damage, and it has a good chance of failure even if the spell succeeds at first. If you add concentration to this spell, it's not going to be terribly impressive. So unimpressive, that it gets moved from a "nice in-pocket spell" to "right in the never-cast list with wall of sand".

So, we do not add the concentration tag to such a spell. If said spell has that tag, we remove it.
This spell exists, by the way. It's Blindness/Deafness, and it's great for minibosses and clutch moments when I'm playing a character focused on battlefield control.

3. Compare the spell to other spells of its kind.
There's a cluster of 2nd level spells that really overlap in their utility and purpose, mechanically and thematically. Suggestion, Crown of Madness, and Hold Person (that last one might seem odd but I promise it's supposed to be there) all serve to diminish or cut out action economy in some fashion when it comes to the enemy.

Are your players going to ignore spells similar to the one you've selected to change? Is that an indication those other spells are in need of a fix as well? Or are you just boosting a spell to be too powerful?

4. Consider any exploits that result from changing it.
This step in the process of editing the spell is particularly relevant given the tag have chosen to use as an example. After all, concentration is fifth editions design Band-Aid on too many spell effects. So naturally, making your mechanical change in this area exploit – proof is especially necessary.

It's almost like I plan these things.

Changes to debuff spells are especially in need of attention. Stacking multiple conditions on top of one another can create a much faster downward spiral for your monsters. Creature fails wisdom save, creature has a condition that makes it automatically fail dex and strength saves, casters start throwing those spells at the creature, tensions rise, the DM flips the table. Avoid this. 

Don't engage in theory crafting; honestly think about how your usual combats play out. Mine tend to go about 3-4 rounds, and the players tend to get surprised more often than they do the monsters. I wouldn't think about what would happen if the cleric had 6 rounds of not taking damage, total preparation, no restrictions on line of sight, no risk of the monsters overwhelming him, etc. That situation will never play itself out in the game, not even by accident. Does the caster become a higher value target for intelligent monsters? Does the caster somehow make themselves more difficult to hit or take damage with the spell? Do the effective damage reductions also restrict their ability to affect the battlefield? Play out the situations in your head, or just take some 1" grid paper and literally play out the situation on paper. Not enough DMs do this, in can seriously benefit your design decisions. 

5. Evaluate whether toning down the spell may be worth the tradeoff.
There are two easy ways to tone down spells that are normally concentration. First, add a repeating save. There are few concentration spells that last for something like a minute and do not offer a repeating save. Spells of these sorts are usually justified in having the concentration tag. You might want to remove it anyways for whatever reason, so a good way to tone it down is to inflate the chance of the spell's failure. Pretty simple, right? Now some spells have a one minute duration and already offer a repeating save. If you want to remove the concentration tag from that spell, your easiest option for diminishing the effect is hard capping the duration. Make the spell last until the end of the casters next turn. It's a hefty penalty, but it's a nice trade-off. Now, what if you've encountered a spell that already caps the effect at the end of the casters next turn and has the concentration tag? More likely than not, you found a poorly designed spell. But if some miracle such as spell exists and deleting the concentration tag would make it unbalanced, simply increase the minimum level at which it must be cast. In fact, that change is relatively easy to institute to begin with and perhaps easier to remember.

This stage of the process is what I'd most recommend consulting with your players. As the adage goes, if it ain't broke don't fix it. After going through the previous steps, you may find a proposed mechanical change is best in your eyes balanced by diminishing some aspect of the spell. There are a variety of ways to do this of course, but I'd like to note that this step of the process is most likely to step on your players toes. Now, don't try to avoid that while going through this process up until this point. You would to plunge yourself into the mechanics, the math, the way your change plays out of the table. This plenty of opportunities for somebody to be mildly inconvenienced by a change you made; you need to ignore those thoughts while testing things out, or a else slow (worse yet, stall) your progress.

Once you get to this point, feedback is helpful! Making the design process collaborative for this sort of thing in the early stages can be difficult. It's far too easy to shoot each other down before getting things on paper. And since prototyping mechanic for a tabletop game is noticeably easier than prototyping for something like a videogame, the potential payoff for ignoring everyone else to get the idea established is far too high to resist. So, ask your players! Ask whether this will step on any of their toes! They will be best equipped to see if this will have any immediate or obvious detriments to their enjoyment of the game. 

Note: Sorry for a lower quality here, I had a really excellent 2-5 point list buy didn't save changes, so a lot of this is re-hashing things I'd already written down. 
 

Weekend Statblock: Kother

I'm excited for this one; it's a character from my book! I'm generally reluctant to do this sort of thing but it means that character could be killed prematurely or something of that sort. Normally, a writer would just say this is what happens in the book universe and this is what happens in the campaign universe. Better yet, there'd be no overlap between the sequences of time to begin with. Well, maybe. There is probably a right way for me to do this. I don't know what that way is, so I'm just going to try to execute what it is I'm currently doing in the best way possible. I hope there is something in that statement that made sense.
It's a fleeting hope.
Nevertheless, with this character I didn't need to worry about anything of that sort! The means of cheating death are rare, but this guy has access to one of them. In fact, this neatly packages an excuse to make him a recurring villain, even if the players kill him. Especially if the players kill him. In fact, love tossing out enemies that know who the players are and what they can do. I generally employed intelligent enemies to begin with, who react reasonably to the players mid fight. But when my monsters get to meta-game? Oh boy, how I love smacking down my players. For the record, they love it too! 

All right, let's go over the man. You may have guessed he's probably going to make an appearance in the upcoming argon forest side quest I've set up for my players. I'm starting more and more to get the hang of creating solo or near solo boss fights, thanks largely to the creativity and diligence of my friends. Is a friendly reminder that don't worry if you suck as a DM; chances are at least one of your friends is good at some aspect of it. Learn from them!
 

Kother.jpg

Now the Deathtaker's are not really a legion themselves. They're more of a sub faction. Then again, that sort of what the lesions are. To put it another way, they don't fit perfectly within the militaristic paradigm of the Brestrels nation. They have other functions within the state, simply put. Nevertheless, a focus on death and necromancy makes for a nice supplement to a military force. Plenty of corpses on a battlefield....

Let's jump into the purpose. Necromancers as PCs (or summoning undead in general) can be annoying for DMs. I'm generally fine with it, I just hand the player a monster manual when they start summoning. There's also the RP aspect, and while my group does not I think suffer from the oft maligned "lawful stupid" character, we very much DO have the "I antagonize the lawful good" character(s). I of course, being noble and virtuous as I am, would never annoy another player in such a fashion. I don't need to worry about the rp or mechanical annoyances in any case though, as I'm controlling the "I make more NPCs" character. 

This proves an easy solution to the issue of disparity in action economy when it comes to boss fights. Not only that, you get to exploit something I could do more often but simply forget, which is to introduce more creature in the midst of a fight (again, something I really don't do in boss fights).

It works really, really well for this guy in particular. Check Army of Death; +1 to AC for every undead within 30 feet. AC rarely changes across the course of a fight! Even when it does, it's usually pretty predictable. Here though, it's extremely dynamic. I'd actually pose that as a warning if you end up using this guy or even just this mechanic in particular; you may find it difficult to manage. Spells are easy enough to manage, but let's look over Voice of the Dead for a moment. The creature Kother chooses (either an Undead or staying true to my "this faction is special" design, another Deathtaker) uses its reaction to let Kother cast a spell through it. Simple right? I realized my language was poor off the bat for the secondary effect, and didn't want to leave it hanging.

The secondary effect talks about "as if the creature cast it". Here's how I define it: if the creature would suffer or gain any advantage or disadvantage or any other bonus or restriction if it was the one casting the spell, that effect is in play. Examples usually clear this sort of confusion. If the creature Kother chooses is under the effect of a silence spell, he can't use that creature to cast a spell with a verbal component. If it's restrained, it has disadvantage on any spell attack roll. If the creature is paralyzed, it can't take any actions. 

I hope I cleared that up, the language went through more than one iteration before I settled on the final product you see there. 

Death Touch is a ripoff of Lightning Touch from the Kraken Priest in Volo's. Consume Undead is actually pretty great though! At this level zombies and skeletons aren't a threat to the players in terms of damage. You're only 1 failed strength check away from being grappled though! Dog piling the cleric or paladin could be a great investment just to hold back those particular heavy hitters. Also goes back to the dynamic AC thing. Take a penalty to AC, get HP back. 

Legendary Actions! Cantrip actually gives me a lot of room to play around with given the Voice of the Dead ability. Beckon is very convenient if a number of enemies are on the field. Fail a wisdom save, take an outrageous number of opportunity attacks. Empower Undead won't be particularly useful by and large in this situation, I'm not giving Kother high CR undead to control (in this encounter), but when I do, it'll be nasty. 

Also, I'm now realizing the spell save DC and Spell Attack Bonus should be 1 higher if I think of this guy as a 16th level caster. Proficiency bonus is annoying when it comes to NPCs with "class levels". 

I'm not concerned if my players see this (they now have access to my blog) for 2 reasons. One, they're great roleplayers. Two, I have other unique statblocks to add on to this encounter :)

The utility of Quora

I joined quora recently (find my profile here ), and I'm loving it. My views started rapidly inflating with just a few questions answered (primarily about D&D, for obvious reasons). I'm happy to see the positive response. There's this weird thing when it comes to D&D forums, blogs, etc where people don't know how to ask or answer questions. People don't write essays in the comments of twitch streams when they want "advice on a problem player", but at the same time they want personalized advice! When it comes to written media, they'll write an essay, but not include the relevant information that would help them actually assist the given problem. 

On top of that, content creators are very, very reluctant to ever diagnose an issue in a game. Some people even have an explicit policy against it! This isn't a criticism by the way. I know exactly why they have that opinion and they're totally justified in holding it.

I just can't help myself.

If you have any questions (and this is your opportunity to go nuts with "personal relevance"), hit me up there! I love writing essays and getting into the nitty gritty of game design and storytelling. 

Bucklers

I'm going to be frank with you; I have literally no conception of what a "buckler" is beyond "easier to wield/lighter shield that provides a minor defensive advantage". I have no idea if any of that is even accurate to begin with, and furthermore no idea what the history of bucklers in D&D are. None whatsoever.

I needed "smaller easier to wield shield" for a few magic items I was creating though, so here come the bucklers.

2 Bucklers.jpg

You probably get the idea to begin with here. Spend part of your action to position the buckler for a minor AC boost. Doesn't offer you the constant protection of a shield, but allows you to wield two handed weapons with said shield equipped. I definitely see these as being useful for anyone with the Shield Master Feat, as you'd retain those benefits even if your character wasn't in a defensive stance. 

Something I ought to say though, the Vine Buckler is more the "default" for this type of shield. Spending your object interaction for a +1 to AC is fairly powerful, especially if you can use two handed weapons in the meantime. Spending a bonus action for that benefit is a little more reasonable I feel, falling behind shields in utility when it comes to action economy and defensive capacity but offering more versatility in your choice of weapon. It can also then be more on par with a shield in its defensive capacity if the character takes the Shield Master Feat (as previously mentioned).

That's the purpose of the Spriggan Buckler's Enchantment, by the way. It molds to your arm until you command it otherwise, further freeing your action economy for the same benefit as a "normal" buckler. Object Interactions vs Bonus Actions.