Blog Posts

Looking to the Horizon

I’ve been running Tomb of Annihilation for about 15 months; I started running two separate campaigns. The campaign with my daughters sputtered out. Coordinating a group of teenagers involved in theater is a task I’m ill-prepared to tackle. For the campaign with a few of my high school friends, they’ve entered the Tomb of the Nine Gods.

Meanwhile, I started playing in what will likely be a once a month First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign. This was my first foray into 1E AD&D. I rolled up a half-elven Druid, with a penchant for communing with dirt. The evenings adventure was Journey to the Rock.

This weekend, while not working at our retail shop, I spent reading through parts of the remaining adventure. There are some very interesting set pieces, but less social interaction opportunities than I like.

I also began thinking in earnest about what comes next. Based on our rate of play, I think we’ll be wrapping up the adventure sometime in May.

Do we continue with the characters into higher levels? The whole campaign revolves around the Tomb of Annihilation. Do we have enough interest to move

Or do we grab some dice and roll up new characters? As the keystone of the campaign wraps up, we’ll have a conversation. Personally I’ve been thinking that the next game I run will not have an artificial time constraint The Death Curse in the Tomb of Annihilation puts an arbitrary time pressure on the adventure, and at the beginning of the campaign, when the pressure is most salient, there are lots of options to explore; In other words campaign building content is left on the cutting room floor.

For the next campaign, I want to leverage a system that slows down the pace of play. I’ve considered Burning Wheel, but believe the system could be a barrier for the whole group. Also, I’ve been contemplating what it means to use rules to which I don’t have ownership. The Open Game License and many Creative Commons Licenses provide such ownership. I’m also considering Whitehack as another option.

Likely, I’ll be running 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons with the following likely modifications:

Gritty Realism (Rest Variant): short rests are 8 hours and a long rest is 7 days.

Steel Thyself (Reaction Option): a reaction option I wrote-up based on the Whitehack. I see this rule a bit as a counter-balance to the Gritty Realism option.

Wounds from Dropping to 0 HP: I’m perusing different options to put some additional teeth behind dropping to 0 HP. My current inclination is to look to Whitehack’s injury mechanism. From my translation of Whitehack: A character that goes below zero HP should write Grievous Injury on their character sheet. While the character has a Grievous Injury they recover hit points at the normal rate, but cannot go above 1 HP.

To remove a Grievous Injury requires that the character be treated by a healer - via a vocation or miracle - or the player may choose to gain a permanent disadvantage (e.g. limp, scar, lost fingers). The disadvantage is noted next to an attribute on the character sheet and can be used by the Referee to force disadvantage on relevant tasks.
I’m not proposing using that rule verbatim, but would look to translate that rule. In particular I want to push the decisions and bookkeeping onto the players.

The goal of these adjustments is to encourage more downtime activity as well as to put pressure on the players to think about the consequences of combat. Surprisingly, I’m looking to reduce the lethality of the game, but increase the consequences of combat.

I’d also like to revisit Bonds, Ideals, Traits, and Flaws. I think the easiest tweak would be to have a review of BITFs at the end of the session and award Inspiration for each of those touchstones. Players would then be able to stockpile more than one point of inspiration.

For now, I’ll keep on enjoying our Thursday night tradition of delicious food, homemade beer, and adventuring through the Tomb of Annihilation. Evil thought: What if lifting the death curse changes the rules of the campaign to the above house rules? Acererack’s lasting impact. mwah hah hah

Own Your Tools

I started this post with an alternate title: Switching Website Build Processor

On , I cutover my website hosting from Wordpress to Github pages. This involved moving from a content management system to the static site building tool: Jekyll.rb. I wrote vaguely about this process in My Blogging Engine.

I switched from Jekyll to Hugo. What prompted the change?

Jekyll took ~66,000ms to build and serve the website on my machine; That’s 1 minute. Hugo took ~1,500ms; that’s about 1 second.

When I wanted to see a stylesheet change, I’d make a change and Jekyll would take 1 minute to show me the change. Hugo took 1 second. Hugo provides a feedback loop 60 times faster than Jekyll.

I found Jekyll for easier than Hugo to dive into. But the speed difference made learning Hugo worth it.

Build Process

In building my Jekyll site, I added a few additional steps after generating the base site. This was all managed through a series of rake tasks.

First, I ran a custom amplify task, creating an AMP friendly set of pages. This involved making a copy of each page and using the following:

  • Nokogiri, an XML/HTML parser, to create or replace HTML nodes; Removing the print stylesheet, transforming img tags to amp-img tags, etc.
  • Regular Expressions to remove/replace strings
  • Readlines and CSS Minifier to remove non-AMP friendly CSS declarations then create a compact inline CSS
  • ImageMagick for extracting image attributes
  • And some other antics to ensure an AMP compliant page

Second, I beautified each HTML document. Using htmlbeautifier, I created nicely tabbed output. I thought about using minified HTML, but found myself viewing the source as often as using web inspector tools. So I erred on the side of legibility.

Third, I again ran the CSS Minifier to create compact CSS for the non-AMP pages.

In switching to the Hugo build process, I ported over much of this work. Keeping the rake tasks.

My new build process leverages the speed of Go for the heavy lifting of building the base site. Then when its time to publish, I run a series of rake tasks written in Ruby to do the fine-tuning for publication.

Conclusion

By moving away from Wordpress, I’ve owned my website’s build process. When I found a faster component, I was able to swap out that component with minimal fuss, while keeping other build pipeline elements.

This process is analogous to the games derived from the Open Game License and the resulting plethora of system adjacent games and material. I found a system that worked for me, ran with it for a bit, then found something adjacent that improved my experience.

Most important, I did this all while maintaining ownership, through open source tools, of the entire build process.

In other words, make sure you own your tools.

Everything I Ever Wanted in an RPG

This post builds on Features of Burning Wheel That I Enjoy(ed?), listening to Burning Beards actual play podcasts, working on my own OSR hack, and dragging myself into preliminary iterations of a game by Phil Lewis (see my interview of Phil concerning Wrath of the Autarch).

I enjoy RPG sessions in which the characters face a situation with no clear solutions. They prod around the edges to form an intent. And then they dive into the execution.

Quick Recap

In our Tomb of Annihliation game, we had four fantastic sessions that built on each other. In the first session, the characters waged a three way battle with Assassin Vines and a Red Wizard and their entourage; The PCs routed the Red Wizard.

In the second session the PCs tracked the fleeing Red Wizard, and pieced together where he was going. They scampered ahead and set up an ambush; A rather quick affair.

For the third session, they prepared an ambush for the next wizards, but did not have an opportunity to spring the trap. Instead, they concocted a grander plan. And set that in motion. And the fourt session became one of my most memorable combat-oriented game sessions.

Reflecting on Those Four Sessions

Digging into these 4 sessions we had an initial situation—challenging and dire. Emerging victorious though battered, the characters pounced and flipped the situation. With clear intentions, they disposed of one threat and gleaned information to prepare them to address an even greater threat.

They laid out a trap, and when their prey didn’t spring the trap, the PCs shifted plans. With some social engineering, they partnered up with the Red Wizards. All while setting a second, potentially more dangerous, plan in motion—Silence a T-Rex and lead it into the wizard camp as a vanguard to a larger ambush.

Encouraging This Behavior

I want a game that encourages this behavior: planning, risk taking, stacking the odds in your favor, and rewarding risk taking.

Of those, I want a game that rewards risk taking. I also believe it to be important that the players establish the kinds of risks they are looking to take. OSR games rewarding XP for treasure which is guarded by monsters creates a great dynamic. Fighting will gain you XP but it is more dangerous and far less lucrative than swindling those monsters out of their gold

Defining Rewards

For the Tomb of Annihilation game, I’m just telling the players when they level up. No one tracks XP, because I’m lazy and don’t want to reward characters for combat. For this game, the reward is intrinsic; Play the game for its own enjoyment, knowing that every so often the GM shall bequeath a level upon thine character. Intrinsic rewards are far stronger and meaningful than extrinsic rewards

I reward the players for risk taking by rolling with their hair-brained ideas. I adjudicated extended spell durations and how silence works in 5E because a silent marauding T-Rex is way cooler than a noisy T-Rex But I want to talk about system rewards.

System Rewards

5E has two system awards: XP and Inspiration. I suppose magic items could be viewed as rewards as well With XP you gain levels and abilities to face more and more difficult challenges. With Inspiration, you gain a momentary advantage.

First, lets talk about XP. By default, defeating monsters, completing quests, disarming traps all garner XP. However, you could chose to modify how you award XP. In OSR games, you get XP for defeating monsters and for gaining treasure (1 XP per GP). By explicitly defining the conditions for XP, you can incentivize different styles of play.

Imagine if you reduced the XP for 5E monsters to ⅒th of their normal value, and rewarded 1 XP per 10 GP gained? How might that shift incentives? What style of game might emerge?

What if you only gave XP at the end of the session for playing to your Bond, Ideal, Trait, and Flaw? How would that shift your game? Fight all you want, but unless it tracks to a Bond, Ideal, Trait, or Flaw, you won’t get XP.

What would it mean to gain XP and level based powers that may or may not map to the acting on your Bonds, Ideals, Traits, or Flaws? An astute reader will see that these questions are pointing to design decisions of Burning Wheel

Second, let’s examine Inspiration. At it’s core, Inspiration looks like a good idea. Play to your Bonds, Ideals, Traits, or Flaws (BITFs) and gain Inspiration, which you can use for advantage on a dice roll. This system echo’s Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits(e.g. BITs).

Yet, I find it clunky and awkward rewarding Inspiration. If a player plays to a curse or madness, I hand out inspiration like candy at Halloweeen. I pile on inspiration because the player adds complications to the story The primary reward mechanism of 5E, XP encourages fighting and defeating creatures. During these combats, BITFs are a bolted on design afterthought.

Gaining and using Inspiration is not critical to the game. Inspiration helps make tasks easier, but the difficulty of tasks is low enough that inspiration is a “nice to have” feature. If each roll in 5E resolved a conflict, An example of a single roll to resolve Beat a 15 with a Strength (fighting) skill check to overcome the goblins inspiration would be far more crucial to the game—I’d need to make that one roll count.

Instead, 5E focuses on moment by moment, blow by blow, skill checks. An example is a single attack roll to deal some damage to a creature; Rarely enough to remove it from combat. Another example is most spells require an upfront saving throw, and then provide one each round to shake off their effects The impact of a single successful action is less, you chip away at the hit point totals.

Closing the Circle

Out of the box, 5E rewards diving into combat and defeating monsters. That is how you advance. It also rewards, in bursts of efficacy, playing towards what should be your character’s motivations and drivers. It would be somewhat trivial to shift rewards towards accumulation of treasure and ensure that ever tougher monsters guard ever more lucrative treasure. Though you may want to look at the XP progression

I’ve been thinking how I might shift the mechanical reward structure of 5E. I concede that the level advancement tightly couples to ever improving combat prowess, which creates a disconnect. Why should playing to your BITFs about pacifism increase your combat prowess?

I guess it may be time to dust off Burning Wheel and give it a roll. Burning Wheel’s advancement system requires taking risks. For those risky tests, success requires spending Artha—an analogue to 5E Inspiration.

Aside from the intrinsic fun of a game, Burning Wheel’s tight rewards and advancement feedback loop models the kind of RPGs I look to play.

Medieval Demographics Made Easy

Joining me in this experiment of hosting S John Ross’s Medieval Demographics Made Easy is Rob Conley. Seriously, go read Rob’s post, as it provides greater context.

In late October 2018, S John Ross put out a call to host Medieval Demographics Made Easy. I answered that call, and am putting up a copy Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S John Ross.

You may also be interested in the generators building on this work: d20srd.org and donjon.bin.sh

Updates

Following-up on Character Attachment

This blog post is a follow-up to Premature Character Attachment Disorder as well as conversations on reddit/r/rpg and

How do character creation, binary-vs-wounding HP, and morale systems interact?

Nestled in my blog post is what I consider the important point:

I suspect that players view the time it takes to make a character as directly proportional to the perceived durability of their character; Dice and random elements are less likely to take out of play a higher durability character than a lower durability character.

If your game has a long character creation (or you put a lot of time into your charatcer creation), make sure you understand the durability of your character. As written, characters in OSR games are not durable, 5E characters are more durable, and Burning Wheel characters are more durable than both.

Yet, OSR games telegraph this fragility. You die at 0 HP (or somewhere close to 0 HP). Prior to that, you are at full efficacy. Note: In some variants, critical hits do not do additional damage. That is a feature.

D&D 5E obfuscates durability. You die if: damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum; Or you die if you drop to 0 HP and then gain 3 failed death saves before stabilizing (and you can gain failed death saves by when you sustain damage). At low levels, the specter of instant death looms—Especially when you include critical hit damage. As in all editions of D&D, until you hit 0 HP, you are at full efficacy.

Burning Wheel, you die when you sustain a Mortal Wound and you don’t have—or choose to not spend—a Persona Artha. For someone to inflict a Mortal Wound on your character they’d need to typically get 5 successes above the number of successes you got; And your armor would need to fail you as well. Along the way, as you sustain minor injuries, you lose dice from your dice pool, and must make Steel tests.

The design decision of binary-state HP is a valid design decision. It is hard to enter into a proverbial death spiral—Where hurt compounds on hurt, and its hard to take action. It remains incumbent on the player to assess, based on murky information, whether they should press on or bow out.

In OSR games, the point of no return is clear; Don’t get within one weapon strike of 0 HP. Some incarnations in the OSR do not deal extra damage on a critical hit; In other words, playing the odds becomes far easier. You have something solid from which to make a decision. In D&D 5E, that line is less clear— From the action economy, it often makes sense for your character to drop to 0 HP and let healing magic pop you right back up.*bleck*.

The rules for wounds should telegraph the impact of sustaining a wound. In Burning Wheel, you make a Steel test. Failure means you have one of four options: “Stand and Drool”, “Run Screaming”, “Faint”, “Drop to your knees and beg for mercy”. None of those are attractive options, but the rules inform the player “Something serious has happened. Right now, you can’t press on. Consider your options.”

Enter the Morale Check

With its fight to the death mentality, D&D 5E is a system lacking a de-escalation mechanic. You fight until one side collapses. OSR games bring front and center the rules for morale. Yet morale is something for non-player creatures.

I’ve introduced the optional DMG morale mechanics for non-player creatures. I like it, as it provides an unbiased and random mechanism to determine the response of non-player creatures. I’ve circled around adding morale related mechanics for player characters, but have held back—There is an assumption that characters are near super-heroic. They dive into the fray, unscathed (until they hit 0 HP) and fight ever on.

A tactical group should shift towards triggering morale checks; Hit hard early in the fight. Without a morale mechanic for PCs, they push fights hard; Again falling back to the “Oh well, if I drop to 0 HP, someone will shoot a bonus action heal my way, and I’ll be right back at it” mentality.

D&D has a long history of not forcing morale type checks on PCs—except for fear spells. Burning Wheel puts this front and center with Steel tests; PCs and NPCs alike.

And here-in lies the connection:

If you are interested in character durability—in building out and seeing a character play out over a long running campaign—then look to how game system supports this desire. OSR games provide clear, albeit stark, guidelines. 5E guidelines are more ambiguous.

Without a morale mechanic for PCs, players are left navigating the more convoluted death conditions (eg. things that take characters out of the game) without de-escalation mechanics such as morale and it’s sibling reaction rolls.

Conclusion

The solution? I’m looking for my game to provide tools in 5E that further telegraph that durability. I’m not entirely certain 5E is the game for me. It is close, but the behind the screen DM-ing in 5E creates a far greater cognitive load than many other games I’ve run. The Steel Thyself mechanic I introduced, honor’s player agency with their characters, while providing a mechanism to increase durability and draw attention to the subsystem that triggers when a character drops to 0 HP.

What are other options that you see? Is this a problem for your games? Drop me a line.