Sep 19, 2014

Eberron in D&D Fifth Edition

So, my favorite setting for D&D is Eberron, hands down. Eberron (the brainchild of creator Keith Baker) was the result of a contest during the 3.5 edition days, and initially I was skeptical. It's a very different setting from the generic-fantasy Forgotten Realms, and the avant-garde-fantasy Dark Sun.

Instead, Eberron as a setting tries to combine film noir plot elements with pulp-magazine-style action and D&D fantasy tropes. What does this mean?
  • Film noir is a term that describes Hollywood crime drama films from the 1940s and 50s; Wikipedia says the films are "stylish... [and] emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations." These are more "realistic" motivations that many characters have had in D&D. The movies had duplicitous patrons using the protagonists as expendable pawns, and shades-of-gray characters; even the most evil villain might have redeeming qualities, and the most saintly character might end up the real villain of the piece.
  • Pulp magazines were glossy, sensationalistic magazines that became popular in the 1920s and 30s. Slick and cheap, with lurid covers promising exciting stories, they were a mainstay of popular culture at the time. Many memorable characters were introduced in the heyday of the pulps, like the Shadow and the Spider. While the pulps covered every conceivable genre, from early science fiction to romance, the most popular pulps featured violence and death-defying action, ornamented by some of the great illustrators of the time. A pulp hero could be jumping from one plane to another one week, then dodging death traps in a Mayan temple the next, trying to solve the mystery or foil the plot of the villain.
  • D&D fantasy has become a specific genre of fantasy literature. It involves "typical D&D" character archetypes (fighter, thief, paladin, etc.); "typical D&D" races (elves, dwarves, orcs, etc.); finger-waggling, dress-wearing wizards; polytheistic faiths that grant magical powers to followers; and so on. Some elements, such as the presence of murderhobos, are optional but also sadly iconic.
Eberron tries (effectively, IMO) to combine these. The setting has several elements that appeal to me:
  • A de-emphasis on alignments and a removal of definite gods from mundane affairs. Clerics of a particular god can be any alignment and still draw upon magical power, because that power comes from faith, not necessarily from some otherworldly source. This allows the DM all sorts of fun plot elements to explore that are otherwise absent in D&D. For example, a weird cult isolated to one small town in the Forgotten Realms will require a mage-charlatan or some other huckster to explain its apparent miracles. In Eberron, the cult leader who honestly believes the dogma of his religion gets to perform "magic" based on his (and his followers') beliefs. The players would have to work much harder to convince people the cult is a sham.
  • A good in-game rationale for psionics. Psionics are the weird power of the Realm of Dreams where they intrude into the mundane plane.
  • A planar cosmology with a lot of breathing room. The planes of Eberron aren't solidly-placed in some Great Wheel; instead, they ebb and flow, drawing closer or retreating according to poorly-understood planar mechanics. This gives a whole specialty of scholars room to argue and develop. Not to mention a field day for astrologer characters.
  • A history full of fallen empires and destroyed civilizations and cultures. Humans are not the first culture of Eberron, nor were the elves. The kobolds and lizardmen have an older civilization, based on that of the dragons which is even older. Even the hobgoblins/goblins/bugbears have an older claim than humans.
  • Practical extrapolation of magical technology. Eberron has elemental airships and lightning-charged railroads powered by bound elementals, a telegraph system based on magical communication stones, and so on. Most D&D settings are "medieval Europe, but with magic," or "medieval Japan, but with magic;" few people actually ask what effect actual magic would have had on the cultures and technologies of those settings. Eberron effectively tries to reproduce a culture and society different from anything in history based at least partly on the presence of magic.
I could go on. I'm a huge fan, although admittedly not all of the Eberron supplements were good. My general rule of thumb is, the closer Keith Baker's name is to the top of the authors list, the better the book. Dragonmarked has his name at the top? It turns out it's chock full of good ideas that really fit Eberron's flavor. Magic of Eberron doesn't list his name at all? It turned out to be terrible at Eberron flavor -- full of overpowered prestige classes and items that were a poor fit for the setting; my least-favorite book of the lot.

Anyway, Mr. Baker has stated that he believes Eberron will be a part of 5th edition. A casual read of the Monster Manual led me to quotes from characters from the Eberron setting as well as a host of references, so I think he's right. They intend to release Eberron stuff in a 5E flavor.

Until then, I'll just have to do some conversions of my own.

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

So, the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons has started dropping (Player's Handbook last month, and I got my Monster Manual last night). I've been running this on Wednesdays at 7:00 PM at Maplewood Hobby for the last two years (three years in February) during the playtest, and as time has gone by I've been more and more impressed with it. It's very similar in feel (to me, anyway) to the original Basic Set D&D (and I'm talking about the purple box with the Erol Otus cover, so B/X for any OSR people) which was the most "fun" version. But the mechanics are very streamlined and simplified -- gone are different-methods-for-different-tasks, instead we're using the d20+bonus>target number method, which makes things easy.

The idea was, I believe, to keep what people liked about 3rd, 3.5, and 4th editions and attach those bits to a 2nd edition framework. It really seems to work (at least, my players are loving it). It takes about 15-20 minutes to make a character if you're in a hurry, and there are enough options to give you some room to create without paralyzing you with too many choices. The classes are well-balanced; the races maybe a little less so, but for once it's not humans who get the short end of the stick. I've seen debates online where people argue that humans are "too powerful." When was the last time you saw that argument in D&D?!?

Mike Mearls & Co. have introduced a couple of new facets to the game which vastly improve it in my opinion. The Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic is a way for the DM to impose modifiers on a situation without having to look up what the modifiers should be. If you have advantage on a roll, you roll twice and take the higher number; with disadvantage, you roll twice and take the lower one. You went to the church at the beginning of the quest and got a blessing from the high priest to defeat the Demon Lord? Maybe each of you gets advantage on the first saving throw you have to make against one of his powers. You are trying to climb out of the pit you've fallen in while it's collapsing? You might have disadvantage to the Dexterity (Athletics) check. And my favorite part of it is that you can get advantage/impose disadvantage either mechanically (as in, you got it out of a particular build, like a barbarian's Rage) or organically (growing out of the story, as in my Demon Lord blessing example above).

Another nice bit they put in was Inspiration. Tucked away in the Player's Handbook on page 125 is a new feature that I particularly like. Players are supposed to develop character personalities and denote them on the sheet -- Personality Traits, an Ideal, a Flaw, and a Bond. If a player roleplays a Flaw or Bond properly, you can give them an Inspiration token. The player can spend that token to give your character advantage on an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check. So, good roleplaying is meant to be rewarded in a concrete way in the game. They had the feature in 4th edition to give players Action Points to reward roleplay, and it's nice to see that continue.

Now that I've got the Monster Manual, I'm starting to see the overall pattern of what they're trying to do. This isn't a completely modular system like 3rd edition. This isn't a wholly focused system like 4th edition. It's a happy medium, with an emphasis on ease of customization. I'm really jazzed by it, and can't wait to see how it turns out.

Apr 30, 2014

One Page Dungeon Contest 2014 - The Oracle Caves

As I've done the previous three years, this year I produced an entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest. This year's entry came in just under the wire; I had four different ideas that I worked on at one point or another, then I went ahead and completed one I started in 2011 and never finished. Inspiration is a fickle mistress.

This year's entry is The Oracle Caves, which was one of the adventure locations from my 2011 wilderness entry, Wilderlands of Dire Omen. I had thought that, for succeeding years I could flesh out the world with further One Pagers, sort of gradually building a complete free setting. Blah blah fickle mistress blah blah. Anyway, the ideas for the Oracle Caves have been bouncing around in my head now for three years, I guess that was long enough for them to gel properly.

The map I ended up making was huge -- I'd had in mind that it was a big place with plenty of room for improvisation, but had underestimated how much space that would take up on the paper. I ended up shrinking it a lot in order to make it fit, which means a lot of detail is lost. The full map for the caves (minus insets and labels) can be found here. I didn't give myself enough time to prettify the damn thing, so it looks really ragged.

I find the constraints of the one-page requirement liberating -- I have a tendency to unnecessary detail in language, and have to pare my text down mercilessly in order to make it fit.

I used to do the compositing of the image, the Isomage's Random Cave Map Generator for the individual sections, and Microsoft Word to compose the document itself.

Mar 31, 2014

David A. Trampier, 1954 - 2014

The news came out last week that one of the cornerstone artists who defined the tone of the original Dungeons & Dragons game, David A. Trampier, passed away on March 24, 2014, at the Helia Healthcare facility in Carbondale, IL. He would have turned 50 on April 22.

Jan 26, 2014

Dungeon World

So, I've run a short Apocalypse World campaign (set in the ruins of the Hoover Dam) and have an occasional Monster of the Week game, and I thought I'd check out Dungeon World. This is the same game design, but with the trappings of Dungeons & Dragons. As a long-time D&D DM (I run the D&D Encounters program at Maplewood Hobby) I've had a great deal of experience running all different flavors of the game.

Basically the idea here, is that DW is a story game. That means it's focused on narrative over dice rolls, though there's plenty of rolling dice. It's also focused on the fiction over the game mechanics, though there's plenty of game mechanics. Essentially, on the Narrativist-Gamist-Simulationist axis, it's about three-quarters Narrativist/one-quarter Gamist.

It's worth mentioning that Vince Baker, author of Apocalypse World, also did Dogs in the Vineyard. If DitV is Mr. Baker's meditation on dice mechanics in role-playing games, AW is his meditation on character sheets. When you choose a character type, you pick up that "playbook," which is a character sheet with all the character-specific options already printed on it. As you develop, you select from the other options in the playbook. Some of them give you new things you can do, while others just improve your ability to do things everyone else can do.

This fits very well with the D&D concept of "character classes." Character classes in D&D have traditionally been niches that defined what your character was capable of, but gave some room for expansion; it was a fairly uniform approach, so that every instance of the same character class was fairly similar. As time went by, people developed tools to allow people to customize the classes to better fit their vision of what their character was. Originally, there was some playing around with the experience point structure of white-box D&D by Gary Gygax, where you could add abilities to your character class but would need to earn more XP to advance. Then there was the kit system of 2nd Edition AD&D, which essentially codified the earlier system. 3rd Edition D&D strongly resembled RoleMaster, in that a character class just defined what you found easiest to learn, without really preventing you from doing anything else.

In AW-style gsmes there's enough structure to feel like D&D, but there's also possibilities for swapping in other abilities. They support niche protection -- there is only one of each playbook at the table -- but still let you gain some other abilities as well. It's a pretty good fit, more abstract than the original system, and is simpler to boot.

One of the big draws for a cheapskate like me is the huge amount of quality free material online. Check out the Dungeon World Tavern for just a sampling of the kind of thing available. My thinking is that this will also work well with the One Page Dungeons I'm a big fan of -- the One Pagers are practically tailor-made for DW, as the system encourages limited DM pre-planning.

Dec 17, 2013

[Pathfinder] Judeo-Christianity in Pathfinder

I was going through older files I'd put together years ago for a home game, and came across my Religion document. I was going to have quite a few real-world religions, represented in a fictionalized context in a sort of "multiversal collision."

Anyway, among the religions was an interpretation of the Judeo-Christian church. I had been inspired by this thread on the Paizo boards as well as a series of discussions on the HârnForum on adding early Christianity to fantasy games. I never ended up running the campaign, which is just as well. I'm more interested in theological navel-gazing than anyone else I play with, and the extra effort to make something plausible would have been wasted. In fact, it is wasted just sitting on my hard drive, so here you go.

Greater God (Lawful Neutral)
Jave is the god of a fierce desert tribe. He is one aspect of a three-part deity (along with Yshu and Ruch), being the creator of the world. He is a strict deity who provided his followers with laws covering all aspects of life: community relations, social contracts, dietary restrictions, and the like.
    His dictates have been delivered through a series of prophets. He first sent a prophet to inform his chosen people of their status. When his people were enslaved by a foreign empire, he sent a prophet to lead them from slavery to a promised land of plenty. They have followed a series of occasional prophets ever since.
    Symbol: Star.
    Portfolio: The universe, law, society.
    Domains: Glory, Law, Nobility, Strength, War.
    Favored Weapon: Longsword.
    Cleric Training: Clerics of Jahve see to the needs of their communities. They learn the many laws Jave has given his people to follow, and act as interpreters of the law and judges of the accused.
    Quests: Typical quests for Jahve include converting a community of unbelievers, leading a group of faithful out of an ambush by marauding orcs, and constructing a church in the Desert Wastes.
    Prayers: Prayers to Jahve ask him to grant the worshiper the strength to endure hardship.
    Temples: Jave, Yshu and Ruch are almost always worshipped in one temple. These churches are usually large stone structures, with many stained-glass windows and a high tower.
    Rites: Normal services are held one day a week, with day and evening ceremonies performed. Specific rituals are held for special events: births and deaths, or to commemorate a community boon or tragedy.
    Herald and Allies: Jahve's herald is a solar angel. Allies are celestial astral devas and planetar angels.

Intermediate God (Neutral Good)
Yshu was a mortal of some mystery. He preached to the desert people until he was executed by the reigning empire who saw him as a threat to their dominance in the region.     Many believe he was one of the prophets of Jave, come to inspire and lead the people while in a time of tribulation. A subset of the faithful believe he incarnated Jave's power in the world, and redeemed it through his death.
    He counseled fellowship and understanding between people, and some say he performed many miracles during his ministry.
    Symbol: Cross.
    Portfolio: Community, fellowship, redemption.
    Domains: Community, Glory, Good, Healing, Protection.
    Favored Weapon: Mace.
    Cleric Training: Clerics of Yshu learn to be intercessors between the faithful and the divine, counseling the flock to lead good lives. They typically perform charity for the less fortunate, and many are accomplished healers.
    Quests: Typical quests for Yshu include bringing supplies to a remote settlement in the midst of a famine, preaching mercy and restraint to a tyrant, and enduring a series of punishments in the stead of a guilty man.
    Prayers: Prayers to Yshu ask him for assistance in time of need, or call for his mercy when things are dire.
    Temples: Jave, Yshu and Ruch are almost always worshipped in one temple. These churches are usually large stone structures, with many stained-glass windows and a high tower.
    Rites: Normal services are held one day a week, with day and evening ceremonies performed. Specific rituals are held for special events: births and deaths, or to commemorate a community boon or tragedy.
    Herald and Allies: Yshu's herald is a 20th-level human cleric. Allies are celestial astral devas and planetar angels.

Jul 28, 2013

Secret Societies 1: The Great Enlightened Society of Oculists has a great article on an enciphered manuscript from a secret society that has recently been cracked with the use of computer-aided linguistics. Interesting read!

Jul 22, 2013

Insight Into the Gaming Trust Model

I found this extremely insightful post about trust issues that can crop up in gaming, and wanted to bookmark it. Then I thought, why not share it here? (via nerdwerds)