A Short List of RPG Goodness

April 18, 2021

I was just thinking about several very different but interesting and helpful videos on tabletop RPGs, ranging from introducing new games, better ways to play, game reviews, homebrewing rules, and more. Here's a short list just off the top of my head, all worth watching--or re-watching:

Runehammer - The Moral Imperative
Matthew Colville - Bad Guys! Running the Game #15
Matthew Colville - Roleplaying, Running the Game #83
Runesmith - Basically Ravnica
Dimension 20 - Start Spreading the News (Ep. 1) | The Unsleeping City
Curious Beginnings | Critical Role: THE MIGHTY NEIN | Episode 1
Dungeon Dudes - Our Top 5 Multiclass Combinations in Dungeons & Dragons 5e
Chris McDowall - Electric Bastionland RPG Deep Dive - Part 1
Dave Thaumavore - Tales From the Loop: Get your 80’s kid retrofantasy fix - RPG Review & Mechanics
Dungeon Craft - DungeonCraft #37: How to Handle Magic in D&D & Pathfinder

The Nine-Cities of the Seaborn

April 17, 2021

Here are perspective and top views of the "Nine-Cities"--so called because each of the nine Great Houses of the Seaborn have their sectioned off or floating domains within the area. See the labels and legend for more info, including points of interest, population, temperature, and size details. This two page spread will be going into an upcoming Seaborn Tabletop Roleplaying Game book (Can't say more at the moment, other than "in the not too distant future"). What's crazy is this June it will be 13 years since Juno Books, with the awesome Paula Guran as Editor, released the first edition of my novel Seaborn, the mass market paperback one with the Tim Lantz cover.

Playbooks & Classes

April 16, 2021

The Playbook in PbtA Games is a streamlined version of Class and Subclass in D&D. I know there's a lot of arguing back and forth on this—often passionately and sometimes dogmatically, but I don't see any difference other than Class elements well-edited and focused down to fit on a couple pages of a Playbook. And don't get me wrong, Playbooks are brilliant game components. A brand new player can sit down, pick one just by an evocative name ("The Savvyhead"), read through the options, special moves, flip it over, read a little more, and be able to play tolerably well. I would argue it's the inviting format along with the design wisdom applied to what goes or stays on the page that makes Playbooks special. It's all there in D&D, but a new player will have to read through the Class information, pick a Subclass, background, proficiencies, and then sort out cantrips and spells for first level from a different part of the Player's Handbook. Playbooks and D&D Classes both represent the rules, constraints, special abilities, roleplaying direction, and fictional bearing for a particular kind of character. A 5e Warlock has a patron—that's built into the Class. They do not have powers of their own, but have negotiated or given themselves to something that provides that power—magic, immunities to conditions, along with a deep fictional base, like how the hell did you come to the attention of one of the most powerful demons in Solgrallen, and what did you trade for a piece of that power? A good DM like a good MC will make sure that comes up in gameplay. Count on it.

One more thing: it's popular in D&D to provide pre-gen characters with a range of classes and everything but the name, maybe background, a few abilities pre-selected. With this approach, a new D&D player doesn't have any more to do than a new PbtA player. There are some great pre-gens on DMsGuild built specifically for new players. The other side of this is an entire session--hours of "play" spent creating the exact character you want to bring to the story, a process many D&D players thoroughly enjoy and prefer. 

Playing with a custom D&D 5e character sheet

April 12, 2021

Just a little something I put together in Photoshop. Here's the front. The back has a lot of room for info, magic, inventory, track your coppers, silver, and gold.

Download in PDF (both pages), Front, Back

Use the links above to download the full size versions.



Thinking about D&D 5e, difficulty class, saves, and using Apocalypse World's ternary dice outcome

April 10, 2021

There are some surprising benefits when you attempt to mod D&D 5e to use Apocalypse World style dice mechanics. The core PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) mechanic is a 2d6 roll with three outcomes, 10+ is a strong hit, 7-9 is a weak hit or a hit with complications, and 6- is a miss with an appropriate GM move (something bad), and this drives how well or poorly a character does when faced with a challenge, how a gnoll gets in 12 HP damage without ever getting its own combat turn, and how a character can fail spectacularly—and learn from the mistake.

In Apocalypse World, like D&D, you roll + ability modifier—called ”stats” in many PbtA games. Ignore the differences in scope and theme for our purposes in this exploration. Think of Apocalypse World’s stats, Cool, Hard, Hot, Sharp, and Weird in the same way you think about D&D’s ability modifiers for Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.

Using Paul Gestwicki's post about Comparing the dice of D&D and PbtA with Math (see the link below) we can represent very similar dice mechanics with a d20:

Ternary Outcome with a d20: strong hit: 18+, weak hit/partial success: 10-17, miss: 9- (9 or less)

Add your STR modifier to the roll, and that’s you swinging your sword at the gnoll captain.

Okay, that’s interesting, but what’s this I hear about no difficulty class (DC), no saving throws, no initiative in combat, and no combat turns for monsters/NPCs? 

Yup. Your players are the protagonists of this collaborative story, and their abilities alone will determine their success, partial success, or failure. There’s no need for an additional difficulty threshold to jump over. Or think of it this way: we’ve ditched the binary success / failure outcome, and now that we have three outcomes in the mix, with the dice rolls skewed toward the middle bucket, success with consequences, we don’t need a separate bar for difficulty.

There’s no initiative because there are no combat turns in the traditional sense. Sure, the group will go around and let the DM know what they’re doing against the band of gnoll guards—“I stride forward with my sword out, heading for the one on the right”, “I’m going to cast firebolt—gesturing fluidly and calling on the elements”. The important concept is that the gnolls do not ever get their own combat turns. They do damage, cast spells, hit a player character with a crossbow bolt when the players fail a roll or succeed with a complication/consequence (You can put money on that “consequence” being damage when you roll badly during combat). Going all the way with PbtA, the DM does not have to roll any dice at all. (BTW, “Going all the way with PbtA” might be a good slogan to have on a con shirt. You're welcome). You can and probably should have the players roll the D6s and D12s for the gnoll damage rolls.

Try this:

Instead of Initiative, characters entering a combat situation must roll to keep their courage up. In most cases, every new fight can potentially end badly for a character, and unless they are psychos, there is going to be some trepidation, rapid strategizing, a hollow feeling in the stomach that’s your system telling you this might not go well for you. Rolling a failure in this case (on the approach; we haven’t even entered the fray yet) means you stopped dead in your tracks with the gnawing idea that maybe you’re not ready for this—or you have a bad feeling about these bugbears. Why aren’t they afraid of us? Are they protecting something or someone, and maybe they’ve already resigned themselves to death before fleeing—makes them more dangerous?  Weak hits and misses make great opportunities for developing the fiction around the encounter, and adding to the entire story. Instead of just another seemingly random encounter with some bugbears, it becomes “that time we ran into a group of mama bears—a pack of bugbear mothers with their brood in tow, and they were willing to defend the young bugbears to the death, bearing their teeth, threatening us. We just held up open hands and backed off until they had passed by”. Fiction first. The bugbear mama bears is a much better tale, a memorable tale. A random encounter with a random group bugbears is soon forgotten.

This also gives you, the DM, an opportunity to think about impending combat in new ways—anytime the characters approach a dangerous situation, a room full of powerful monsters, or even one large monster—let’s say a dragon. Take a minute to think about how this would play out in reality. There is no way your player characters are going to get close enough to swing a broadsword at a dragon without the firebreather getting in two or more attacks first. That’s reality. It doesn’t matter how powerful these characters are. Unless you have superhuman speed, or you can wade through a wall of supernatural fire, or you happen to find the dragon asleep, the characters will have to endure—survive—several armor-melting furnace blasts before they can get an attack in. You have an opportunity to make monsters far more powerful if necessary.

Where does this leave armor class? With this change in the core game mechanic—success, weak hit, or failure rolls are driven by the character’s Strength or Dexterity modifiers, ignoring the defender’s armor class or ability to avoid a hit. The armor becomes part of the fiction—on a miss or weak hit, the armor “held up against the sword blade” or “lost a few scales with the impact”. Ideally, your armor would reduce damage, but I haven't given changes to AC enough thought for an elegant solution. We'll have to come back to AC.

No saving throws? Sounds good. Let’s say you cast Poison Spray, which reads—this is from the 5e SRD:

You extend your hand toward a creature you can see within range and project a puff of noxious gas from your palm. The creature must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or take 1d12 poison damage.

So, what do we do about the saving throw? With the new mechanism, all spells require a rollno exceptions, and that covers the save or fail-to-save mechanic. In this case, a 10-17 partial success means the target takes 1d12 poison damage and you, the caster who is out of melee range, also take something, maybe some backspray from the spell, a caustic cloud that you breathe in and now you cannot cast spells with a vocal component for two turns? On an 18+ you spray poison like a freakin’ pro, and 9- means you botched the whole thing, no poison, no attack, and maybe even a side-effect for you to chew onor a spell coming at you from their mage. Crap! Duck, you fool!

How do experience points/milestones work with this new way of doing things?

I would lift this process right out of Apocalypse World. (This method is also used in PbtA games like Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, Monsterhearts, City of Mist, and more). The idea is that there are a number of open slots, circles, squares, usually 3 to 5 on your playbook (character sheet), and when a player fails a roll (9 or below in this context) they mark experience. The PbtA way is that characters learn from their mistakes, and after they fill in the final mark for experience or improvement, they “level up”, they get to increase a trait, add a skill, become better at things that need improvement. What I especially like about this is that as the DM/MC/GM you get to say “mark experience” when a player rolls poorly, which takes a little bit of the sting out of the damage you’re about to bring. Not really, but it’s still cool. What it does do is subtly adjust the perception of a "night of bad rolls" to a "night of bad rolls, but I came out of that mess with a new feat."

There, that's my first pass at using Apocalypse World's beautiful dice mechanics in D&D 5e—while allowing players to keep their beloved d20.

Paul Gestwicki's Blog: Comparing the dice of D&D and PbtA with Math,  June 15, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons 5e Systems Reference Document

Thoughts on Dungeons & Dragons and Apocalypse World

April 3, 2021

Continuing with my deconstruction (in a good way) of science fiction and fantasy roleplaying games like Apocalypse World and Dungeons & Dragons. 

I'm stepping back from the mechanics and looking specifically at gameplay in this post. For the record, I think both systems are amazing, but there are foundational differences between the two rulesets that make it difficult to do any cross-adoption at the mechanical level. AW's Moves consolidate much of what D&D provides as Actions, Movement and general roleplaying, but they're inherently different animals—this includes throwing out ground-floor D&D rules such as the combat workflow being completely separate from normal the RP cycle—so, no need for initiative or turn-based rounds in most Apocalypse World-based games. The dice mechanics are also a big one, with Apocalypse World's 2d6 providing three clear outcomes—a miss, weak hit, and strong hit. D&D's d20 main mechanic provides success or failure, with small chances of critical failure or critical hit. 

Okay, with all of that very important mechanical stuff out of the way, let's just focusing on gameplay...

In my mind the differences between PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) games and D&D are mostly a matter of degrees of gameplay modes, and there can be significant overlap between them in gameplay style. I like to imagine a game panel with sliders, like on a sound mixing board, and two of the sliders drive story structure and story mode. 

With story structure you have a completely open world on one side, with most of the world undeveloped and unprepared by the GM and players. The other end of the slider is what I might call "story world", which is a pretty well developed and playable world, with numerous named NPCs, dangers, and pre-built scenes that can be dropped into the path of characters--and all of this is usually part of a larger story in terms of a GM-proposed arc or fully developed published adventure. 

The Story Structure slider looks like this:

Open world <--------------------> Story World
(Mostly Unknown)                 (Mostly known)

Storytelling mode is another slider on the game panel. On one side we have "Collaborative Storytelling", where the players and the GM share, on fairly equal terms, the world creation, establishing the tone of the game, character development, and in some cases complete story creation and management. On the other end of the slider we have the GM as the primary storyteller, where most of the story direction—scenes, NPCs, the story details, what the characters will face in the tavern stable or in the next room, is managed by the GM. This is where the significant differences between PbtA games and D&D are obvious: Apocalypse World-based games typically run with the slider over to the collaborative end of the scale in "play to find out what happens" mode where most of the world, new encounters, and story development comes from the players during gameplay. And I'm imagining old-school dungeon crawls on the other end, with every step of the way mapped out, where play is focused on threat management, thoroughly understood goals and motivation, with dice determining most of the surprises in the game. 

The Storytelling Mode slider looks like this:

Collaborative                       GM is the primary
Storytelling   <----------------->    Storyteller

Here's the thing. There are solid D&D games that go an hour without a dice roll. There are plenty of DMs who run whole D&D campaigns with the sliders pushed toward the left, with minimal prep, and no way to know where the players are going to take the story. I think the most common perception of D&D is of a very tactical game, where encounters are allegedly balanced and every adventuring party has some mix of fighter, spell-caster, cleric, and rogue—and where players have to roll dice to do anything. Of course, there are plenty of D&D games run in this manner, but I doubt there are enough to support this perception of typical game play, especially in this era of streamlined 5th Edition and streamed games, where we see entire parties of bards, or sessions with far more roleplaying than dice rolling, and with far less combat.

Constraint drives creativity

I think there are misconceptions about Dungeons & Dragons gameplay that lead many to pigeonhole D&D as a paint-by-numbers ruleset, while in reality it encourages and provides a wide variety of creative tools for customization and open world play, all within an established set of constraints—the constraints are mostly focused on common modes of play such as combat and magic. With D&D I can easily run an adventure in Waterdeep or 19th Century New York City, and player characters can cast Eldritch Blast in both. At the same time, I can play Apocalypse World in a dismal futuristic Columbus, Ohio, or in some unnamed Mad Max world, with a narrowly defined set of constraints on genre and tone (It's always going to be some sort of post-apocalyptic world). The two games focus on different mechanics and game foundations, but they both come with constraints that foster creative roleplaying.

At the end of the day these are personal choices. I definitely love reading Powered by the Apocalypse game rules and playbooks, and a lot of it has to do with my fascination with how different game designers have adapted PbtA rules, moves, and other mechanics to student life at Hogwarts, the Star Wars universe, or the trenches of World War I. In fact, I would encourage anyone thinking about upping their D&D or any roleplaying game to go to the source and read Apocalypse World, as well as any of the amazing work derived from AW. You may already be familiar with Ironsworn or Blades in the Dark, but pick up Masks, Urban Shadows, or the many other PbtA games to gain insight or ideas that you can apply when running your own games.

The apparent truth in "constraint drives creativity" always makes me think of Dungeons & Dragons, of tweaking the magic mechanics in new ways, or re-skinning the Druid class to fit into life in modern day Southern California. Apocalypse World makes me think of the Brian Eno quote about The Velvet Underground's first album--that it only sold 10,000 copies but everyone who bought one started a band. 


Creativity and Constraints: Exploring the Role of Constraints in the Creative Processes of Research and Development Teams, Brent D. Rosso, Vol 35, Issue 4, 2014, Organization Studies, https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840613517600

Apocalypse World

Dungeons & Dragons 5e

Great session postmortem from Runehammer (@HankrinFerinale) He's using the OSE—Old School Essentials ruleset. Some brilliant stuff here--"think in time lapse" is crazy good advice, and I've never heard this before.


Just a creative human with a pen and a paint brush. More here: https://www.saltwaterwitch.com