Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Critique of Xanathar's Guide to Everything

I think I want to like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything more than I do.

This is not to say it’s a bad book, and I suspect it will become the de facto PHB-part-two everyone thinks it is. But it also is certainly not a replacement for the PHB, nor do I think the options in it will eclipse those in the PHB. (Having said that, I’m not a min-maxer and my last dedicated min-maxer left my games months ago. So there may be opportunities/abuses I’m missing in my blissful ignorance. Still, I doubt there’s anything here that’s going to topple the Druid from its top spot.)

What you, DM or player, will get this book for are the evocative sub-classes. That said, the format shockingly reveals just how paltry a sub-class is. Shorn of the rest of the class info, each sub-class fills about a page, art and descriptive fluff included. You get four or five “features” every handful of levels. Exactly how much that’s going to impact your game depends on how you play. The Rogue, for instance, doesn’t get another sub-class feature after 3rd level until 9th. If most of your play takes place in the traditional sweet spot of 4th through 12th level, those features you get at 3rd pretty much define your archetype for the duration of the campaign. Exactly how useful those are completely depends on the sort of campaign you’re playing in. For instance, the Swashbuckler gets to use their sneak attack bonus damage if “you are within 5 feet of [your target], no other creatures are within 5 feet of you, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.” In my games, having nobody else within 5 feet isn’t going to happen all that often.

Some of the features are even more situational. Also for Rogues is the Inquisitive, an option probably not worth pursuing unless you were able to give yourself a very good Wisdom score (and you’ll probably want a high Intelligence as well). Insight and Investigation checks are central to a lot of what the Inquisitive can do (even dictating when the Inquisitive can get their sneak-attack bonus damage, a la the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes), but the Inquisitive doesn’t get any bonuses to those checks until 9th level.

The Monk’s Drunken Master sub-class is likely to prove divisive. How useful is it to you to wed a Disengage and an extra 10 feet of movement to your Flurry of Blows? At 6th level, the Drunken Master can redirect missed attacks at another attacker within 5 feet; clearly, the Drunken Master and Swashbuckler do not belong in the same campaign.

I love the flavor of these things. Hitting your foe’s friends with their own attacks is fun and not mechanically cumbersome. The idea of a non-magical detective skilled at penetrating lies is appealing. But even more than the options in the PHB, the sub-classes in Xanathar’s are more matters of setting and DM style than preference. Since I do combat via theater-of-the-mind, little adjustments to positioning are less likely to be useful to you. On the other hand, the new Grave Domain for Clerics is something my campaigns have needed for a while now. You’re going to want to talk to your DM about the sort of campaign they’re running before you pick most of these. As a DM, you’ll want to get out ahead of your players by stating the sort of campaign you have in mind and which sub-classes are not suitable for it.

There are some fun build-a-background life-path tables. These include things like tables for why you became whatever class your PC is. The results are purely cosmetic and I’m more likely to come up with this sort of stuff on my own, but for those who love tables, you get lots!

After that is a grab-bag of stuff in a chapter titled “Dungeon Master’s Tools.” Much is the sort of thing you could easily handle with a ruling: sleeping in armor, how to wake someone, tying knots, how to tell if someone is casting a spell, that sort of thing. There’s a long section on tool use that tries to rescue tool proficiencies from obscurity and disuse; I’m not sure how effective it will be, but it’s an interesting read and I think players would do well to peruse it if they have a character with a tool proficiency.

For those who’ve been busting their brains trying to build encounters with the guidelines in the DMG and the CR scores, there’s some handy cheat-sheets for using multiple monsters and mixed-CR monsters. Helpful, if that’s your bag; otherwise, I think six months experience as a DM will take you farther in terms of building “fair” encounters.

“Traps Revisited” is a huge improvement on the outlines for traps in the DMG. It puts a bit too much focus on skill checks for overcoming them, but does (if a bit dismissively) at least nod towards disabling traps with clever thinking. If you’ve been treating traps like Old School puzzles, this won’t convince you to do otherwise. For everyone else, this will make traps a lot more entertaining at the table.

The downtime section is nice. It includes carousing tables! Not nearly as fun as Jeff’s, and the only benefit is making social connections. Still, social connections are damned useful in some campaigns. The downtime section also includes rules for buying and selling magic items. The assumption is still that you can’t just go down to the local shop to buy them off-the-shelf (unless you’re talking healing potions or scrolls, both of which have rules for manufacture in the downtime section). Buying and selling magic items is a long, drawn-out process that involves spending 100 gp per week in your search. The time and money spent improve the roll you get on a random table to see what’s actually available. PCs can seek specific items, but that just raises the difficulty of finding anything. PCs could potentially spend thousands of gold and months of time only to come up with nothing, or, if the DM uses the complications table, something that’s cursed or draws the wrong sort of attention. It’s a system that’s both flavorful and easily handled via email between sessions.

Downtime can also involve rivals, people who live to make the lives of the PCs more difficult. The idea appears to be to create a sense of a living world by putting a face to the problems the PCs might encounter during their downtime activities. The idea has some potential but it’s not the sort of thing you want to toss in the path of murder-hobos.

There’s a collection of “common” magic items, most of which have only cosmetic abilities. I think the designers sold unbreakable arrows short; using them to block doors and the like seems like a pretty potent ability. Otherwise, most of the entries are cute (a cloak that billows on command, armor that smokes ominously) but hard to take seriously.

Then we get the spells. There’s a fair number of them, but most fall into the does-damage-and-something-else category. Damage-plus-potential-blindness has a few entries, there’s one damage-plus-heals-the-caster, and lots of damage-plus-move-the-target-around spells. There are some deliciously atmospheric ones, like a spell that does damage plus kills all non-magical and non-creature plants in a 30-foot cube, a spell that allows you to give your hit points to others (or, more appropriately, take their damage onto yourself), a darkness-plus-gibbering-that-causes-psychic damage, and both water and acid versions of fireball. Some old favorites also return, like mud-to-stone/stone-to-mud and homunculus. There are also a handful of spells for summoning devils and demons that villains will get great use out of and require material components that could potentially tip off PCs before the spells are cast.

We also get the just odd and disappointing. For instance, apparently couples who get a real cleric to perform the ceremony get an AC bonus for their first week of married life. I can understand the type of thinking that went into insisting that something like a wedding needed to include a mechanically significant combat component, and that sort of thinking makes me cringe. Even then, a +2 to AC feels kinda lame, especially when you compare it to the wedding magic from Krull. Weddings are once-in-a-lifetime affairs (especially fantasy versions of them). If you’re going to give them a magical effect, make it truly momentous!

Finally, we get the appendices. These start with suggestions on how to organize a campaign in which the DM duties are shared, whether that’s just friends taking turns in a private campaign or a wide-flung thing like Flailsnails.

After that comes 17 pages of names, arranged in tables you can roll on. First we get one for each of the PC races listed in the PHB (but not from the Volo’s book). Then we get numerous real-world cultures, ranging from ancient Egypt and the Celts to a mix of modern and medieval German and French and English. The range is incredible, including Polynesian, Hindu, Norse, and Mesoamerican.

I would have given my eyeteeth for lists like these back in the ‘90s. Today, however, I have the internet, with resources like behindthename.com that not only gives me more cultures to pick from but also tells me the meaning of the names. Add in the quality random generators available online as well and these tables really only become useful when I’m trying to game on a campout or the like.

The stuff I like, I really like: some of the spells, some of the subclasses, mostly. Most of the rest is forgettable. If 5e is your first RPG, you’ll find a lot here to expand and improve your game. Otherwise, you’ll find some nice tidbits. I will get use of the expanded spell lists. I think I’ll get use from the additional subclasses. All in all, I give Xanathar’s Guide a prospective B- and that’s contingent on the sub-classes proving as useful and popular as I think they will. If it turns out I’m only using a dozen or so of the spells, that grade could drop into the C range.

UPDATE: a very different take can be found here:
To put that another way, the first six subclasses seem determined to explode pre-conceived notions of what D&D is about, and that is all I can really want from a book that is pointedly not titled Player’s Handbook II.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

This is Why We Can't Have Sexy Things

Ok, I may be over-reacting; I haven’t read all of Rappan Athuk. There might actually be some context to this. But as it is…

Anyone entering the room must make a saving throw or succumb to the scent’s intoxicating effect... It generates a feeling of pleasurable lassitude coupled with heightened lust. This prompts those affected to copulate again and again, exhausting themselves. Once they begin, victims sustain 1 point of constitution damage per ten minutes spent in this vigorous pursuit. When their constitution drops to 1 point, they become too weak to continue, though the drive remains; victims typically die of thirst or starvation even while they continue to feel the need to mate.

This looks, well, dull. At first pass, it appears that PCs who fail their save will immediately start with the fornications. With the right group, that could be hilarious as they work out the pairings. It could bring long-simmering issues to the fore. But mostly, this is just slowly losing CON until you die. It’s so slow, I can’t imagine most groups struggling to diffuse it, which makes it even less interesting than a simple pit full of gelatinous cube or green slime dripping down from the ceiling. Considering that Rappan Athuk is described as an adventure that “offers legions of inventive traps, tricks, strange features, and monsters -- many of them never before seen,” I can’t help but assume that the designers were at their wits ends for yet another way to kill PCs slowly. The result is a room that’s going to cause more than a few DMs to snerk and then read the text aloud to their players as an example of design to be mocked, before continuing on as if the room were empty.

Compare this to one of the classic magic items of the first edition: the Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity. Many dismiss this as a blatant example of locker-room hur-de-hurs. But it’s actually a very clever bit of design.

How can I say that? It creates a situation that the players can react to in a broad range of ways. Where the room above is pretty much a death trap for everyone who fails their save (and those who pass just drag their friends out of the room, I assume), the GoM/F leaves it up to the players just how much they want to interact with it. Laugh and move on? Treat it as a horrible curse that must be reversed? As an opportunity for out-of-the-ordinary RP? A last-ditch disguise to escape an encircling enemy?

There might be larger issues in the broader world that are brought to the fore in Rappan Athuk, but there probably aren’t. Getting transformed by the GoM/F will almost certainly cause your PCs to have to deal with the consequences in the world outside the dungeon. Maybe your world is so egalitarian there are none. Fair enough. Maybe the consequences are everywhere, in every little interaction your PC has.

The thing is, it’s entirely up to the folks playing the game. If the DM built that sort of thing into the setting, here’s an opportunity to approach it from a new angle and bring it back to the fore. If it’s something your group really doesn’t want to deal with, just get that Remove Curse cast and move on. Or live with it and move on.

That right there is the brilliance of the GoM/F. It’s as important (or unimportant) as you want it to be. It tosses a new toy onto the table, but you get to decide if it’s just a laugh, a temporary issue, or the centerpiece of the next phase of the campaign. It gives you more options and you get to decide what to do with them.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Getting the Most From Backstories: for the Players

So I recently got to play the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other game, only this time with two girls and one guy. The guy actually gave me a pretty cool, if brief, backstory. It lacked details like names, but definitely left the door open to some neat play.

And that, after all, is the point: encouraging neat play. You want to pack your game sessions with as much cool and excitement as possible. Your background is just another way to do that. But how?

Work with Your DM
Your DM probably has a few themes and ideas in mind for things they want to bring to the table. Ask them about those. See how they might be worked into your background. If you know ahead of time that the campaign is going to be about hunting down a secretive cult worshipping Tharizdun, it’s easy enough to say that cultists killed your family. But you can turn it up a notch to say the cultists are your family! If so, how did you escape? Did anyone else escape?

Feel free to use the Ten Ideas trick. It’s a pretty simple tool for coming up with great ideas. When you need an idea, force yourself to write down ten. The first two or three are clich├ęs everyone would think of. You were probably really stretching through the last two or three, and those ideas, while potential the most creative, are probably too “out there” to be useful. The ideas in the middle are where you’re most likely to find gold.

Ask if there are any institutions that are important to the campaign. Perhaps there’s a temple, a secret society, or a race that figures importantly in your DM’s plans. Find ways to connect your PC to them. This way, not only do you have powerful motivations to get involved in the world, but the DM is going to turn to you to provide exposition and important details.

Don’t be afraid to go big here. My latest campaign takes place in a world ravaged by a war between wizards. The landscape still bears the scars and huge swaths are only habitable thanks to powerful elemental magic supplied by genies. Knowing this, one of my players made her character the daughter of a powerful djinni. We worked together to create a situation where there is a useful link but also insure that her character was independent enough to go out on her own and couldn’t always just fall back on Mom’s influence and power. In spite of that, her ties to the movers-and-shakers of this world have been incredibly useful to both the player and myself in deepening the world and propelling the game.

Work with the Other Players
One of the hardest parts of getting a game rolling is finding a reason for the (inevitably diverse) PCs to join together and stick together. You can not only improve group coherency but also piggy-back on the cool ideas of your friends by linking your characters together before play even starts.

The methods for doing this are countless: family, childhood friendships, old loves and rivalries. You’ve seen all the old tropes in movies and novels for years now. Mine ‘em for their best stuff.

But don’t fall in love with something until you’ve talked it over with the other person. This is all about working with others, and will require some give-and-take. If the two of you can’t settle on something, just drop it; better to play what you want than a character you only kinda like linked to others by bonds you find annoying.

Don’t Stop Working!

It doesn’t do you any good to build all this background if you let it lay fallow on your character sheet. Keep in mind that your DM has a lot of balls in the air between monsters and NPCs and a whole world to manage. If you wait for the DM to bring up your character’s background, it might not happen.

Which isn’t to say you should be pushy and force your character’s background into center stage. The best way to bring your background into play is to ask your DM open-ended questions about what’s currently going on in relation to that background. “Which side of that conflict was my family on?” or, “What sources did my mentor at the Collegia Arcanum use to acquire black lotus?” or, “How did people prevent necromancers from animating their dead back where my character is from?” These are good questions that can deepen the world-building. Understand if the DM can’t address those in the moment; some might best be addressed via email or over coffee between games. And don’t be surprised if the DM throws the question back on you: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Look for opportunities to bring your background into the game, the same way you’d look for ways to use the special abilities of your class or race. Re-read your background regularly to keep the details fresh in your mind. Towards that end, don’t write thousands of words of background. Keep it short and focused on the details. Create a bullet-point version for use at the table. Be gentle; it’s a shared world, after all, and you don’t want to step on the toes of others. But by weaving your character’s background into the story, you’ll be strengthening everyone’s investment into your character and the world you’ve all created.

Don’t be a Passive-aggressive Jerk

This is not an excuse to create traps or subtly influence where the game goes. That sort of nonsense never works. If you want something from the game, be up-front about it with your DM and the other players. Don’t use your character’s background as a club to whack the other players and DM into doing what you want, either. It’s a tool to deepen the experience of play, not a handle for you to drive the game.

Interactive backgrounds that tie the PCs together and to their setting is advanced-level play. It’s not the sort of thing to undertake unless you’re comfortable with your game and you have a good rapport with your DM and the other players. That said, it can also be used to build that rapport, but if that’s your aim, don’t ask it to do any more heavy-lifting until you’ve got buy-in from those players and DM.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Pen and Sword in Accord

There's a lot here I agree with. Especially:

As much as I try and present a story for the players to help flesh out though, I keep in mind that this is a game. In all but the most extreme circumstances, I let the dice "fall as they may", and try not to twist the rules simply to accommodate my story idea.

As it turns out, I think letting the dice fall where they may makes for a stronger story experience. One of the challenges for writers of fantastical fiction is making the world and characters feel real enough for the readers to invest in (aka verisimilitude). When writers talk about creating and preserving verisimilitude, they actually use phrases like: "Your world must be consistent; don't break its internal rules!"

When you fudge a die roll or pretend, "Well, ok, that will work this time," you're damaging your verisimilitude. You're weakening your story. (Likewise, when you whip out your story points to change the rules temporarily, you're weakening verisimilitude unless those story points have actual existence within the world of your story. This is why I can't enjoy most story games; they actually have mechanics in them that damage the story!)

But when you apply the rules of your game consistently, you strengthen the verisimilitude and you make the story more enjoyable. When players know how their magic works, or how likely they are to defeat a troll, or how the city guard will react when they discover a pick-pocket, they can invest emotionally in their characters and the world they inhabit.

In short, if you want your RPG sessions to have the effect of a story (rather than just mimic the structure of a story), you need clear, understandable, and consistent rules. (It’s not all you need, but without them you’re not even going to get started). This is also why it’s important that the rules you choose actually promote the sort of story you want to tell. If you’re fighting your rules, you’ll constantly see your story drift away from the look-and-feel you were aiming for.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

5ogues

I recently had a chat with a friend who’s running 5e for the first time after pretty much sticking with 2e since the ‘90s. One of his players was playing a rogue, and he wasn’t sure what made that class unique in 5e.

Confusion is understandable, because in many ways, the 5e rogue is the antithesis of the 2e thief. 2e’s thief was often found far ahead of the party, using their stealth and trap-detection abilities to scout out what was around the corner or further down the corridor (or listening to discern what was on the other side of the door) before reporting back to the rest of the group. In a fight, they were either a bodyguard for the magic-user or were sneaking around the edge of the fight, looking to get in a backstab on the enemy spell-slingers, snag the Magoffin, or unleash a nasty alpha-strike on a boss monster. After unleashing their backstab, however, they were a second-rate fighter-type with poor hit points and inadequate armor; they primarily survived because, after unleashing the back-stab, they were not much of a threat to anyone.

Most of the special abilities of the 2e thief are now possible by anyone. Listening at doors is a Perception check; the cleric is likely to be really good at it due to their high Wisdom. Ditto searching for traps. There are a few backgrounds (including Urchin) that grant proficiency with thieves’ tools. Stealth is now something anyone with high Dexterity (and less-than-heavy armor) can pull off, so there’s no reason for the rogue to risk going alone to scout.

In fact, the last thing the 5e rogue wants to do is be caught out by themselves. Their back-stab ability can be invoked anytime they’ve either got advantage or their target has another foe in melee range. So what the 5e rogue really wants to do is back-up frontline fighters and clerics. And they’re really good at this because their Cunning Action ability allows them to get extra movement, or attack and then disengage safely the same round.

This means the 5e rogue makes a great mobile reserve. They can move in against a foe already engaged to ensure flanking bonus or just to deal out extra damage. Or they can rush in to support a character who’s hard-pressed by the enemy. They can support a cleric who needs to take a round to cast healing spells rather than fight.

They could use that extra movement to harass enemy spell-slingers or snag Magoffins, but they’re far less effective combatants when they can’t use their sneak-attack bonus damage. (Besides, the barbarian and druid are both much better at the deep-penetration of the enemy backfield.) They can put together some powerful synergies, for instance by fighting alongside a druid transformed into a wolf (who gains advantage thanks to Pack Tactics), a paladin with Aura of Protection, or a fighter with Commander’s Strike or Rally. And at mid-level, a rogue is able to stay in the fight longer thanks to Uncanny Dodge and Evasion.

5e’s rogue is not the antisocial loner 2e’s thief was. They’re a support-class, rather like the cleric and the bard, but unlike those, they don’t buff their allies but rather get buffed by being close to their allies. A 5e rogue should buddy-up with a character who’s either putting out a lot of damage or can create synergies with the rogue’s sneak-attack bonus damage. And they should stay mobile throughout the fight, ready to hop over to another part of the battlefield to aid someone else.

Outside of fights, they’ll probably find use for their thieves’ tools, but they might not be the only one who’s got them, nor are they necessarily the best at sneaking or perceiving dangers. This does allow the rogue to be much more flexible, concentrating on any holes the party has in their skills. This can be especially useful in a party that doesn’t include a bard.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Making History

My very first issue of DRAGON magazine was #74, an out-of-nowhere gift from my brother while we were on summer vacation. That issue is still magical to me; between Ed Greenwood’s seven magic swords utterly transforming the way I played D&D, to the “review” of Star Frontiers, to the comedic-yet-epic cover by Jim Holloway, I treasured that issue for years.

Amongst all the great stuff in it was talk of this thing called “GenCon.” It seemed magical. A gathering of gamers from across the world. I could barely conceive of such a thing.

And this at a time when attendance could be measured in a mere four digits!

This marks my fourth GenCon and Tam’s second. We have a great time every time. And every time, I do things I’ve never done before. My GenCon experiences include my first games of pictaphone and Dogs in the Vineyard. I met Larry Elmore and discussed my critique of his work for TSR. I’ve met face-to-face with people who, up until then, had only been names on the internet. I got a press badge and did one-on-one interviews with industry luminaries and legends like Eric Mona and Liz Danforth.

And this year, due to a sequence of odd circumstance and luck, I got to host Zak’s post-ENnie’s party.

To everyone who came, thank you so much for being such gracious guests. I’m sorry we had to move things downstairs as early as we did, but as I understand it, the hotel is favored by vendors who have to actually be awake and functioning in the morning. So completely understandable. I hope you all had as much fun as Tam and I did meeting you and enjoying the energy of that amazing night.

However you slice it, this year I got to help create a little GenCon history. My 11-year-old self would have been totally blown away.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Death is Still Boring

This is insightful:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is like a Saw movie for kids: it matches grisly fates to the sins of the children who enter the factory. I needed all or most of those grisly fates to be represented in the adventure: blueberrification, being boiled alive in chocolate, being shrunk and stretched, uncontrollably floating, plus a bunch more of my own design. All of them weird and gory and absolutely deadly.

They were one of the first things James Raggi took issue with.


While LotFP adventures have a reputation as being really deadly, he wanted BitC to be for 1st level characters, and specifically new players. All my listed damage was way too high, and all my poisons too lethal. His point was along the lines of “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?”. He suggested toning down the damage of the adventure significantly, and instead focusing on these poisons and effects inconveniencing players or making them rethink how they play.

This turned out to be a genius suggestion, because it provided a clear through line for the rest of the adventure. Few things in the final draft of BitC are designed to explicitly kill. Instead, they’re designed to unsettle, gross out, and inconvenience players. Body horror carries with it the threat of death, but it’s more about the perversion and grossness of life than it is about death.

This is why death is boring. “How can characters get weirded out by these if they’re dead?” Answer: they can’t. They laugh or shrug or whatever and roll up a new character. “What’s next?” they ask.

And understand, I’m not denigrating that kind of play. If a rolling series of grizzly deaths is what gets you and yours excited to play, more power to you. But if you’re into body horror, the joy isn’t in the death, but all the stuff that leads up to it. It’s the inflation, or the bulging of the eyes and the appearance of gill-like slits along the neck, or the way the xenomorph squirms within your belly as it grows. It’s in the way the body devolves, or turns traitor, or evolves in sudden terrible spurts.

And sure, the victims of body horror often die (Aliens franchise) but sometimes they devolve (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) or evolve even to a point beyond fleshy existence (Akira). The real challenge for a DM running a game based on body horror is keeping the horrors and transformations new and fresh. Too much of anything gets boring after a while.

And this same principle largely applies to nearly any campaign; death is anticlimactic. It’s got no answer for, “What next?” except shake off that old character and everything they’ve been through up until now, and start a new one. It violently forces the player out of the fiction and thrusts them head-first into the realm of mechanics (though skilled players can hop right back in again). All the work the group has done to build up tension and interest in that character and their contacts is suddenly chopped off. Death is, in terms of fun, expensive.

Which isn’t to say it should never happen. The fear of death creates wonderful tension in a game. As a DM, killing an NPC you love early on is good way to let the players know you mean business. (Hey, it works for GRR Martin and J Whedon, right?) But it’s vital you keep in mind your themes. Death is rarely the best way to support those, and defeat that doesn’t involve death can give you entire new avenues to explore.