Tag Archives: dungeons

Happy 40th, D&D!

Turns out this week is D&D’s 40th birthday!  I’m slightly older than it is, and have been playing for somewhere around 30 of those years.

My first D&D game was in a car on the way to a Boy Scout camp.  It was diceless and mostly rule-less.  I joined in progress; one guy had Blackrazor, one had Whelm, and one had a crossbow. Encounters usually ended with us all trying to kill each other as well.  Good times. (I find it interesting that nowadays people contend you can’t play D&D diceless, or can’t play it PvP…  Kids nowadays.)

I was always more of a SF guy so I played Star Frontiers, but got frustrated with buying Dragon Magazines for the Ares section and not being able to use or understand the rest (What’s a “hit die?”) so got the original Red Box, and then it was off to the races!

So thanks to D&D for many years of fun.  I still play it (even though it’s called Pathfinder now)!

D&D Next Might Be OGL?

In an ENWorld thread about their Amethyst Kickstarter, Chris Dias of DiasExMachina claims to have it “on good authority” that D&D Next/5e will be released under an open license, possibly the OGL.

If true this would be huge, and possibly bring D&D back into the living mainstream of gaming from the weird blind alley it’s been coursing down.  I’ve been reading the next playtest docs and it’s OK – but not OK enough for me to bother with if it’s not open with a SRD and third party support (especially for adventures). If it is actually open, and distinguishes itself enough from Pathfinder (ideally by being way more simple and D&D Basic like), then it might just have a place at my gaming table after all.

When I got my copy of Third Edition at Gen Con 2000, it was the Green Ronin Freeport module that was the first thing we ran, and their (and other 3pp’s) rapid adventure support after that was what kept us in avid 3e gaming goodness for quite a while. If Next can pull off the same thing, then it could light WotC’s D&D back up!


De Ludos Maleficus – On Evil Campaigns

As inspired by an RPG Stack Exchange question on how to run evil campaigns.

I’ve run a variety of tones of campaigns over time and some could be considered “evil”; in fact currently I’m running a three-year long Pathfinder campaign where the PCs are pirates, Reavers on the Seas of Fate.  Not all of them are technically evilly aligned, but murder, torture, rape, slavery, etc. have all come up in the game. Here’s how you make it work.

Why Do It?

Why would you run an “evil campaign?” Sounds like hassle!  And dubious morally, I mean, it has “evil” right there in the title.  There’s a couple reasons to run an evil campaign and the measure of success is different per type.

  1. I want to freak out and kill everyone! Not a real mature campaign type, but often behind more immature groups who want to play an “evil campaign.” Tell your players “go play Call of Duty and teabag noobs if that’s what you want.” There is no meaningful success metric here.
  2. I want freedom! Much of the time people want an ‘evil campaign’ it’s because they feel constrained/manipulated by their GM and/or other players based on an overly restrictive interpretation of alignment (or whatever similar concept your game has). They’re tired of “you can’t do that” and “Your character wouldn’t do that!” and want to cut loose. If that’s the case, consider running an evil campaign once, use it to demonstrate that criminals generally enjoy effectively less freedom than good folks per the above reasons, and then take the hint and run ‘good campaigns’ with more meaningful character choices and letting the PCs be proactive and diverse in their belief. Success is measured by whether you all learn how to do that from the game.
  3. I want to explore the darker side of human nature! This is why I run evil games. I actually have stronger beliefs on goodness than most folks in real life. I like confronting people with the consequences and ramifications of their actions in games to make them think. Is trading off part of your soul or good name or humanity worth it for that goal? How about long after you’ve achieved the goal but you’re still marked by the act? Success here is fuzzier, since games that actually uptake more roleplaying have less clearcut “win conditions” in general. But it’s successful if it’s enjoyable and if it causes people to grapple with moral questions.

But What’s It Really About?

“Evil” is not really a campaign concept (well, not one that passes muster past the 9th grade level). You need a campaign concept and one that will generally keep the PCs acting together instead of being at each others’ throats unless you’re looking for a very short, PvP campaign, which is legitimate. In fact, there’s plenty of short form indie games that facilitate that (Fiasco is probably the most notable). If you are more going fora longer campaign, however, it needs to have as much in teh way of concrete goals as any other campaign. Smart PCs know they need other mighty people to achieve their goals, good or evil.

Heck most “normal” campaign setups work as well or better with evil groups – just because you’re evil, you don’t really want where you live and work taken over by zombies or whatever, that interferes with your cashflow. Often times players want to “play evil” because they feel like the GM has been using “goodness” to manipulate them into being passive and they want to be proactive and smart in confronting threats. Squinting too hard at many campaign concepts passed off as “good” reveals them to be a sequence of home invasion, murder, and robbery anyway.

The main trap you’re trying to avoid is the PCs just self destructing by going nuts on each other and everyone in the world in general – at least, if they’d be unhappy with being hunted down and slain a couple sessions in.

Decide on Limits, Within Limits

Some people, when they say “evil campaign,” just mean “I want to kill lippy villagers like they’re orcs,” not that they want to really delve into the darker aspects of human nature. You may want to establish an agreement on tone/content with your players up front – you are not required to run (and the players aren’t required to participate) in anything they feel like is over their boundaries. I’ve been known to have players vote on approximate levels of sex, violence, etc. in a game ahead of time, and where they want it to “fade to black.”

However, a lot of that will be emergent. In my current pirate campaign, no one really thought about torture until they caught an assassin who was trying to kill the crime-boss they were aligned with. The PC halfling rogue decided he’d torture her extensively to find out who sent her. This definitely put off the other PCs – but not enough that they stopped him. Boundary established (well, lack of one).

Not every “evil” person is 100% evil and on board with everything “evil,” though. The ship took two elven women prisoner and one was claimed as a slave by a vicious half-orc pirate. The PC captain didn’t really like that but felt somewhat constrained by the expectations of the crew (mutiny is always a threat if the crew doesn’t think they’re getting their due) so he allowed it. The PCs and that half-orc were having dinner in the captain’s cabin, and the halfing from the anecdote above suddenly stabbed the half-orc to death on the dinner table (he’s an assassin now – successful death attack). He explained to the shocked command staff that he wouldn’t have any slaves on board or associate with slavers. Boundary established.

If you have real characters really roleplaying and thinking through their motivations, you’ll still have limits, whether it’s “no women, no kids” or the Mafioso that are patriotic and still want neighborhoods to be “family places.” Try to depict other “evil” people as complex in that way as well so that they will understand that evil isn’t just a race to maximum depravity. With that halfling, torture of captives is OK but slavery and rape is a killin’ offense. There’s no “Evil Checklist” you have to adhere to and say every crime ever considered is OK – in fact most evil people really are just into one and consider the others to be as bad as other folks do.  Realistic motivations and roleplaying are what will make the campaign something real and not goofy.

However – some people make too much of setting boundaries for their games. If you came up to me and asked me “Do you want to see some chick saw her cheeks off?” I’d say “No! What are you talking about?” But I just went to see the movie Evil Dead, where that exact thing happened as part of the overall horror movie experience. “Boundary pushing” can be good and desirable and allowed based on initial buyin to the general campaign premise. Sure, there’s a very slight majority of people so traumatized by something that if it comes up in game it’s going to truly trip them out, and there you have outs just like any other kind of media – “press stop,” say “I can’t deal with this” – but most gaming groups don’t really need to do more than establish the general MPAA-rating (e.g. “Hey guys I’m active in my church and I don’t really want to go past PG-13 with this game”) and then mess around in that area. Worrying too much about what exact things might disturb your players is overthinking it IMO. If you go see Evil Dead, you’d better expect that if you have a fear of/complex about anything, there’s a nonzero chance it’s going to come up in lurid color. All the buyin we required for the pirates game was “people can be evil if they want, and expect HBO Original Series level depravity, the pirate world is not a gentle one.”

Actions Have Consequences

Review How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins? – there are a lot of reasons people don’t perform unrestrained evil deeds all the time, from “I don’t want to” to “I will get in trouble for it.” Sometimes my players complain that the pirate-friendly port city they frequent is “too lawful” just because they can’t get away with any heinous crime or breach of the peace they can come up with – but all societies need some kind of stability and will crack down on those affecting that too much. On the other hand, they have become used to not going out into the city alone; traveling in groups is mandatory to not be victimized themselves.

Many evil societies are like this – see how lawful Drow society looks from the outside. Our pirate PCs have to fear their pirates mutinying, the law/navy hunting them down, the bigger pirates in port deciding they’re too big for their britches or have so much loot that they’re a tempting target in turn. Criminals “hide out” for a reason – they are not free to operate within larger society, and therefore end up having less freedom than good people (something good to play up as the GM). The law, higher level “good” adventurers, etc. are always looking to wipe you out with a clear conscience.

A mechanical option here is keeping track of “infamy points” – I have my own homebrew system I use, but there’s a lot of extant reputation-tracking mechanics in the world. People have heard of the big bad people and will react like people do – avoid, confront, narc them out, victimize them, etc. Remember that many victims of crime are doing something bad themselves – criminals, or at least the dishonest, make the best marks for cons and crimes because they have little legal recourse. The pirate PCs can’t go just anywhere as their infamy becomes known; honest ports reject them, and other evil folks are generally not the best allies because they like to turn on you when you blink.

So that’s my take on evil campaigns.  Our current one is turning out very well, with complex characters. Sindawe the captain is reluctant to do much “really bad” stuff himself except the occasional act of violence – but he’s happy to let/order others to do them. Serpent is concerned with getting married and having a kid, and even surreptitiously tried to let some of the elven women escape, but he’s even more murder happy than the more measured and Lawful Sindawe. Wogan tries to not do much evil himself but he doesn’t speak against it either. Tommy tortures and worships lust demons, but will do anything to free some slaves. HBO Original Series achieved!

D&D Next Playtest Readthrough: Eh, It’s OK

I’ve read through the D&D Next (aka 5e) playtest doc and my general opinion is… It’s OK.

Background: I have played D&D Basic (BECMI), AD&D 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, and Pathfinder, but hated 4e at first play.  I like Pathfinder but it’s wearing on me due to the sheer mass of rules; I hanker for a more Basic/2e approach with less… junk.  I don’t really like the retro-clones because I don’t like retro for the sake of retro, I’d like modern and streamlined but just lighter. Anyone who can say with a straight face “Want to play a game with us? OK, read this 576 page book first” deserves a punch in the mouth.

The playtest rules say I can’t quote rules directly, but I can discuss them generally, so here goes.

The core rules are pretty D&D-like.  Interesting main points are:

  • Ability checks vs DCs replace skills and are used for saves. Good.
  • New thing: “Advantage” lets you roll 2d20 take best, “Disadvantage” is take lowest, this replaces the host of annoying little modifiers.  Good.
  • Individual initiative 3e style. Fine.
  • You can take an action and optionally move – so far the rules are gratifyingly free of the host of Magic: The Gathering-esque action types that invaded 3e+. Good.
  • Rests and semi-healing surges like 4e… You take a long rest and regain *all* of your hit points?  WTF? Bad.
  • Conditions like in 3e, which is on the line between helpfully streamlined and annoyingly legalistic. Fine.
  • Armor is simpler, AC, all/half/none of your DEX mod, and speed mod.  Good.
  • Weapons are about the same with lots of categories and bludgeoning/piercing/etc… Well, a little simpler I guess.  A weapon might be a “heavy” weapon doing 1d10 bludgeoning and having a couple “special” attributes like Reach; at least no weapon speeds and crit mods and all that.  Good.
  • There’s not the annoying “types” of bonus, but dangerously, the stacking rule is that only the same exact spell doesn’t stack, so we can look forward to super min-maxed stuff that 3e at least tried to mitigate somewhat with the “different e.g. enhancement bonuses don’t stack” thing. Good for sentence 1, bad for sentence 2.
  • Spells require either a hit roll or a save; more than 3.x require hit rolls using your spellcasting stat bonus. Some people hate this, I don’t know why, I used to do this in 2e as a house rule so that magic wasn’t 100% reliable. Heck, they should do it more (like for placing fireballs I used the usual grenade weapon rules and splash diagram). Good.
  • Spells do not appear to scale at all with level – not durations, not cure light hp healed, etc. Magic missile seems to be an odd exception. Maybe as a “sacred cow?”
  • The base rules as they put them out seem fine, but then again that’s what I thought about the basic mechanic of 4e in my 4e PHB readthrough. So I’m nervous.
  • The core rules as they printed them here seem to focus more on exploration than 4e, which was purely tactical combat, but that’s hard to tell from a 31 page draft.
  • The DM guidelines are fine if not innovative. It does put the DM back in the driver’s seat.
  • Since there’s no skills, DCs don’t scale as much, with a DC of 20 being “Extreme.” That’s very good. The swinginess of 3.5e “DC 40” checks was lame. It also seems to stress flexibility and roleplay in how to go about making a check.  Good.

So that’s all pretty good, the only “Danger Will Robinson” moment is the thing where you heal up completely overnight automatically. Avoids the “CureLight Wounds wand” syndrome but isn’t very realistic, I’d like to see some persistent wounds on top of that maybe.

The Characters

Then I read the character sheets, which scared me a little more. A first level halfling rogue seems to have a lot of crap. Race and class and background and theme turn into like 11 specials to remember. I start seeing what are basically skills, just hardcoded, and feats. It seems like too much.  Although in the examples, background seems to only give skill bumps and themes give a feat. Maybe background *or* theme… Especially on the wizard the difference between the two is pretty thin and confusing. Themes are like 2e kits, kinda. But so are the backgrounds.

On the plus side, all the powers so far seem to make sense- the fighter’s powers aren’t weird pseudo arcane stuff like in 4e.

The Monsters

The monsters in the bestiary are OK, except for being a little too complex and legalistic full 3e stat block style – and with fixed hit points, but that might be just for the playtest.

I am concerned with the treatment of NPCs as monsters and not real characters 4e style, so for example there’s an evil cultist entry with three “types” as if they’re Left4Dead zombies as opposed to being real people – “What, there’s no such thing as a second level evil cleric?” I see more of this in the adventure, with arbitrary “specials” on the orcs and goblins.  And several of these powers (gnoll packlord, I’m looking at you ) go over the line to breaking simulation (no in game world justification, just “a power”). Meh.

The Adventure

Caves of Chaos.  A good choice as it is very nonlinear. I like the format for rooms that leads off with sensory input, very short boxed text, then gets to it.  Not just three 4 hour long setpiece battles like 4e does, but a proper module, looks like it’ll play like any other D&D at first glance.

The Summary

It’s like a simplified 3e, corrupted with only small 4e-isms.  The ongoing meme is that it’s somehow more like OSR stuff but I don’t see that – there’s a little simplification but not even down to 2e levels, let alone earlier levels. Removal of the obsessive focus on the tactical map is what’s making people say that, I guess. “It’s not pure 4e, so it must be OSR?” The simplification is welcome to my eyes.  I’m not sure if this quite reaches the level of being compelling, though. I worry especially from the character sheets that there’s a bunch more junk they just haven’t shown us yet that’ll take it to 3.5e levels of law degree gaming.

One of the big things that’ll sway me is if they go open.  I suspect they won’t just because even the playtest is laden with legalese junk. If they do, it might make it.  If they don’t, they won’t pull anyone from their current games of choice, is my prediction (and all my 4e/5e predictions are coming true with regularity now…).

D&D With Porn Stars Goes Video (ok, not that surprising considering)

The newest hotness in the blogosphere is the “D&D With Porn Stars” blog – it’s not a gimmick, it’s really a group of D&D players who are also (mostly) porn stars.  The blog is actually quite good and full of thoughtful articles written by DM Zak Sabbath!

Anyway, he does some session summaries, but they’re going one step further and filming their play sessions and airing them as a series called “I Hit It With My Axe” on The Escapist.  No, there’s no hardcore action (yet, at least), but you get to see…   Well, an only slightly more chaotic than normal gaming group, really.

Insights so far from the first episode:

  • Hot girls like to play elves and tieflings.  That should not be news.
  • Porn stars have geek hobbies.  Also should not be news; I remember fondly the long discussion I had with that stripper about her WoW priest.

Zak says it should liven up more in future episodes!  It’s getting loads of press: io9 interviewed Satine Phoenix about it, even my favorite geek site Topless Robot reported on it.

I totally want a big version of their logo to use as my background…

Another Batch of 4e Excerpts

I let the new D&D Fourth Edition excerpts on the Wizards of the Coast site gather up this time since the first couple weren’t too notable.

Fallcrest is the new “default starting town” in the 4e DMG.  It’s fine, it’s a generic small town, D&D style.  I still wonder why they felt they needed to so totally cut bait with all the rich legacy of older editions.  Why not Hommlet?  Why not Saltmarsh, they revamped it and put it in the 3.5e DMG2 after all.  But, whatever.  3/5.

Rituals are the new way you cast ‘big spells’ in D&D.  Crafting magic items and raising the dead are rituals, not spells or feats.  Rituals come in scrolls and books, which work like magic scrolls and books (one use vs reusable).  Actually, as I read on – rituals have been used to replace any spell with a permanent effect, or even an effect that lasts more than a couple rounds.  Cure Disease, Detect Secret Doors, Silence, Endure Elements, Water Breathing, and Knock are now rituals, not spells.  Basically anything you wouldn’t normally cast in combat (well actually, a lot of the above I would normally cast in combat).

Continue reading

4e Excerpt: Swarms

The latest D&D 4e excerpt, swarms, doesn’t bear much comment.  It’s swarms, same as they were in 3e.  They talk a lot about their “research” and “insights,” but pretty much a swarm is the same with a 4e statblock.

They do “clarify” that you can’t bull rush a swarm, which I must say has never come up for me, because you don’t need to write down rules for things that are blazingly obvious.

The one thing I don’t like is how fast swarms move.  One of the ‘signature’ aspects of swarms in the movies is that they kinda mill about a lot and though an individual component is fast, the whole swarm doesn’t really move super fast, due to the need of staying together and just being kinda dumb.  These swarms shoot straight at someone like an arrow, eat ’em, and shoot at the next guy like an arrow, which would be fine for some special swarm but not for all of them. 3/5.