Friday, September 30, 2022

Off the Shelf: Tunnels and Trolls

Tunnels and Trolls recently moved home to Kurated Korner, sort of a shopping portal and company that owns many different smaller companies and built a shopping portal around the collection of diverse parts. It isn't a dedicated game company, which would be very nice, but this is the next best thing since T&T isn't a game that needs a lot of redesign and support.

The Goodman Games Example

The closest modern game to T&T is Dungeon Crawl Classics - a large core book that never really needs to change except for unique variant covers created every year and put out on Kickstarter, plus a dedicated line of modules. Goodman Games does a great job doing the online store and module support, and the DCC & MCC modules are highly entertaining, with fantastic art, and very fun to read and play.

I would love variant covers for T&T, and I would really love new adventure modules to be created.

Goodman Games does an incredible job with community support, road crews, the sales of 3rd party books, swag, and convention support. You feel like you are a part of something huge when you play the game. That sense of fun is there, and I could wear a DCC t-shirt and instantly connect with others and that I am a great person worth getting to know, hanging out with, and playing games with.

Still Here!

But the most incredible thing with T&T is the books are still being kept in print and sold, which is keeping the game alive. Even the MSPE hardcover is here, which is a very cool thing. So while not ideal, I am happy it has a home, and the game is being kept alive.

So I had T&T on a storage shelf, and I was doing some cleaning here and found a spot for a shelf where I could put my "quirky games" on. Of course, DCC and MCC got the top shelf of that collection and became an instant shrine to quirky, silly, good fun. On the second shelf down, I put a collection of odd OSR and other games, and I put T&T on there since the game fit in.

T&T is the perfect "fistful of dice" sort of game. The game doesn't really care too much for special moves, class abilities, action surges, or a vast number of classes and archetypes. Balance is relative; you can play a fairy mage with very little strength and a lot of magic. You can play a brute who smashes everything. You can play the dead-shot elven archer.

And the more dice in your attack, the better.

Floating Scores

And the ability scores float. You can get permanent (positive and negative) ability score changes during adventures, from gear, and at any time, your stats can be modified permanently. Your level depends on your highest prime stat, and you use XP to continually increase them. You can find a ring that gives +5 luck. You could act like a fool before the King's Ball and suffer a -10 charisma. There is no master level chart; you continuously improve stats and just "go as you go."

T&T is also a great "pick up and play game." My recent experience with 5E was a 2-hour session to design a character, and I felt like I wasted my time for what I got out of the process. With T&T or even C&C, I could spend 5 minutes designing my character and get playing. This kills 5E and Pathfinder 2e these days for me; they are so complicated, with so many books and options, that you go down a rabbit hole of rules and options for dozens of minor bonuses to specific situations. You get a character who is no better off than a B/X 3d6 down the line, except you have a dozen lines of special modifiers for random things.

Computer Needed? Not a Tabletop RPG

And with 5E or Pathfinder 2e, you often need a computer to design a character. I am ready to say that no pen-and-paper game that needs a computer-assisted character generation program can call itself a tabletop RPG. Sorry, you are a computer game now with tabletop interactive elements. I don't have two hours to pour into a character anymore without automated tools, and for a minimal benefit. The options and special abilities I got were trivial, and a few minor modifiers to specific combat situations.

And my B/X character took 30 times less time to create and gave me the same gameplay. A T&T character would be the same. And in T&T, if I start with a score of 4, I can spend XP to raise that as much as I want with no real penalty or loss of advancement elsewhere. I am not "wasting my first four character levels" trying to get that to a score of 12; I just get XP and raise the ability score how I want. Your level is based on your highest prime stat. You could be level 1 forever and raise a non-prime stat to a score of 100. T&T does not care, work on your character however you want, and have fun.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

5e Hardcore Mode


Between 5e Hardcore Mode (Runehammer Games) and 5e Hardmode (Pickpocket Press) I like the latter better. 5e Hardcore Mode (Core-Rune) makes a lot of changes to the base game and rewrites many parts of the primary game, whereas 5e Hardmode (Mode-Pick) touches a few parts of the game without making too many changes to the core mechanics.

Core-Rune changes how skills are used, character generation, hit point generation, adds an injured state, death rules, adds a magic candle, spells - so much has changed I would love to see this as its own game.

Perhaps this was a trial balloon for a bigger game.

As it is, the Core-Rune rules feel like a disorganized junk drawer of cool stuff. I can see a lot to like here; I just wish it wasn't so scattered and all over the place. I can see using a few of these ideas in my current game, and I like the whole concept of a rebuilt and re-baselined game. If there are these many fundamental changes, please make a new game and integrate them all with a standalone set of rules.

And yes, I would like to see that game. There is enough changed here it could be a new game, and to see that, with hardcore monsters, spells, and campaign rules would be cool. If I want a complete overhaul of base 5E, I will play with these rules.

...vs. 5e Hardmode


Mode-Pick is a smaller set of changes and feels much easier to plug into an existing 5E framework, such as Original 5E or Level Up 5E, or even something like Ultramodern 5E or Ghost Ops. Low Fantasy Gaming and Lowlife 2090 are from the same publisher, and they already integrate rules like these in the base systems, so a mod like this is already included in those games.

I like this mod better since it is simpler, plugs into fewer places, and every one of the changes is optional and they do not need to be used together or with each other - but they can if you want to flip all the difficulty switches and play in insane mode. As a result, all these optional rules sections make it easier to incorporate into other 5E games as a "universal difficulty settings" sort of mod.

If I feel a couple areas of the game are too forgiving, but like the base rules as they are (or are playing another 5E clone), this is the better choice.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Labyrinth Lord Second Edition

Got this news off of Facebook, and Labyrinth Lord 2nd Edition is coming out! I still love that game; it started my OSR journey and led me down an incredible path of discovery - and rediscovery.

Very few people can do what Dan did, inspiring countless others to live and dream with the games they love. And as the first real OSR standard-bearer, Labyrinth Lord is one of the all-time greats.

Welcome back.

5E Math

A part of me feels ability score mods are too powerful in 5E, and they are thrown around for little reason other than to get characters to a certain baseline of damage. A good example is finesse weapons, which allow a wielder to replace their damage modifier with DEX instead of STR.

Proficiency? Add your mod to a skill roll.

Mods are passed out like candy.

I have never seen a game so focused on modifiers as 5E. As a result, the hit point and damage scale of this game are double B/X. Comparing monsters between editions hit dice/points are about doubled, but due to the game's bounded accuracy rules, ACs are way too low at higher levels compared to B/X. You need to figure the max proficiency bonus in 5E is +6, and in Swords & Wizardry, it is +13 for a fighter at the 20th level. So doing the math...

5E HD / 6 = AC adjustment for B/X (positive)

So if a monster has 20 HD in 5E and you want to use it in B/X, give it an AC bonus of (20/6) = +3, halve the hit dice for B/X and give it 10 hit dice. For attack bonus, recalculate that as a fighter of the same level in B/X, and either halve the attack damage or recalculate it by a melee weapon or similar attacks from monsters that level.

The math works in reverse too, so if you have a B/X monster you want to use in 5E...

B/X HD / 3 = AC adjustment for 5E (negative)

So your 12 HD monster in B/X should lower its AC by 4 points to be more in the bounded accuracy strike zone and double its HD to 24. Double all attack damage, or use similar attack damage from monsters closer to the original. Base to-hit bonus off a similarly leveled fighter, plus ability score mods.

DMs Can't Crit

You give the first-level character normal D&D starting hit points, and you double monster attack damage, and no wonder monster critical hits at low level are insta-killing PCs at too high a rate. You look at the 5E goblin attack damage, which is 1d6+2, for an average of 6 points damage (12 on a crit). If you got rid of the DEX finesse weapon mod and left it at 1d6-1, which is more in line with B/X, that is an average of 3 points of damage (6 on a crit). So Wizards says "DM's can't crit" as the solution in One D&D.

So they make another rule to patch the issue.

They completely broke the damage and hit-point scale of 4E by tripling the values, and they only half fixed the issue with 5E when they went down to a double scale. The original B/X math is fine, and it works, even without the "bounded accuracy" fix, which wasn't needed because the +30 and +40 to-hits were a broken part of 3 and 3.5E, which broke the game in many other ways they are still trying to fix. 

I love the game, but the math is atrocious compared to the original editions.

The B/X Math is Good

They mess with the damage and hit point scales - and the to-hit modifiers - to break compatibility with B/X, and frankly, B/X had the math right in the first place. Gygax and Arneson knew those dice, they knew to keep hit points low, and they knew that out-of-control damage and ability score modifiers would completely break the game. And the more you mess with it, the more rules you need to throw on there to fix the mess you made.

If you have a leaky pipe, do you hire the plumber who replaces the pipe with a new pipe the correct way; or the one who ends up using 20 pipes and six rolls of electrical tape?

3.0 and 3.5 introduced non-linear hit-point and damage scaling to higher levels, and that was a terrible thing. At the 5th level, you started opening up multi-attacks (and you still see this in 5E with action surges), and then you saw monsters at that level start to creep up in hit points. Back in B/X, this was a linear scale, 8 HD was about an 8th-level creature (depending on special attacks and defenses), and that worked fine. When introducing a non-linear scale to monster hit points, you need to invent new artificial rules like challenge rating - and patch and patch again to try to tell people how to balance encounters.

The original B/X math is the finest in all of fantasy gaming.


An ancient red dragon in B/X can have 60-90 hit points and still be an end-game boss monster. A sword that does 1d8 is still a threat to that dragon. You give the dragon 300-600 hit points, and that sword is a joke. And then, you need to start throwing multiple attacks and damage modifiers on the weapon. Special conditions. Scaling damage with class abilities. And what was once a simple x + y = z formula turns into 3x + (10+y) + d(3b + 4c) - e = z formula.

In 4E, the ancient red dragon had 1,390 hit points, and the sword was a toothpick. Most powers in 4E were also toothpicks, including the dragon's own attacks. Combats took hours. And Wizards tested and approved these numbers. Yes, that team is not there, but it just goes to show you the groupthink the organization falls into, and they still make these mistakes (Tasha's unarmed fighters vs. monks, Spelljammer, etc.).

You go back far enough, and those issues do not exist in B/X.

They made some fundamental mistakes, and they have always kept up the non-linear scaling of monsters and damage as you go up levels. Even in B/X, your epic fighter gets one attack, like a +3 STR mod and a +2 sword, for a 1d8+5. No, that does not change as you go up levels, but your to-hit gets better, so you are landing more hits - one attack per turn. With editions past 3E, you see abilities increasing damage and also multi-attacks per round.

And those mods stack with every blow landed. Some estimates of 5E character DPS have 20th-level characters averaging 100 hit points damage per round (or more for some builds). Our epic B/X fighter is still averaging 10 points at level 20, but versus a 88 hit point ancient red dragon, that is pretty darn good.

I know, but that is boring to never increase in DPS! The damage scaling has been the secret sauce of D&D since 3.0 and is the main addition Wizards made to the rules. Before 3.0, we were focused on stories; after 3.0, we were focused on character power. And it comes at the cost of complexity - both in rules and balancing encounters.


This differs between the White Box style games (Swords & Wizardry) and modern B/X (Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord). I like the idea only fighters get damage bonuses from STR in the old editions, as it makes fighters unique. I have a feeling there are too many house rules in modern B/X that were introduced back in the D&D era (BECMI and others) that made the game easier, like giving every class the STR modifier to damage.

'But still, even allowing those house rules, the B/X math is far better than the scaling, non-linear, plus mod-heavy system we have in the modern game.

Less math, reduced modifiers, and lower numbers = a simpler game with fewer rules and, honestly, a better one.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Pathfinder 2e vs. Level Up Advanced 5E

Specifically, character creation. So, with Pathfinder 2e, we have the following steps:

  1. Concept
  2. Start Building Ability Scores
  3. Ancestry (race)
    1. Select Heritage
    2. Select Ancestry Feat
  4. Background
  5. Class
  6. Determine Ability Scores
  7. Record Class Details
  8. Buy Equipment
  9. Calculate Modifiers

It is interesting the ability scores are split into three steps, start, determine, and modifiers. But when I got the feeling that Pathfinder 2e characters had that disconnected from the world "floaty" quality to them, I wanted to know why I felt that. You know the feeling, this is the same one where you generate an OSR or 5E rogue, walk them into a generic fantasy town, and wonder, "now what?" You have no connection to this place or the larger world, and you are the stereotypical "adventurer as wanderer" trope.

Ancestry is a mix of physiological race and heritage, like the OSR sub-types of races. You are an elf, but are you a dark elf or a woodland elf? Heritage gives you an ability, and you get a choice of a unique ancestry feat to specialize.

Background in this case helps, but it feels elementary. These are essentially jobs. Were you a barkeep or acrobat? You get two ability score increases, two skills, and a feat. Then we pick our class, and things go on like normal for the rest of the generation process.

Level Up Advanced 5E

Let's hop over to Level Up Advanced 5E. This game had the benefit of being designed after Pathfinder 2e, so it takes those lessons and extends them into something interesting. Let's look at our steps:

  1. Heritage (race)
    1. Select Gift
  2. Culture
  3. Background
  4. Destiny
  5. Class
  6. Determine Ability Scores
  7. Calculate Modifiers
  8. Buy Equipment

Heritage in Level Up gives you a choice of gifts, such as does your Dragonborn have wings or tough scales? There are no racial feats or feat lines that improve as you level up. The gift does morph into an advanced form at level 10, where your wings provide full flight and can carry a heavy load. The lack of feats here does not bother me since, in 5E, we are deemphasizing feats and doing broader "more roleplaying" character abilities instead.

Custom Heritages

Since these gifts are pretty broad and varied, it feels like you could make up your own and get the narrator's approval for your unique gifts, such as a Dragonborn with a "shadow dragon" origin having stealth proficiency and a limited shadow form (phase step through objects for fatigue, and full shadow walk at level 10 ). I like the less-tied-to-rules gives in Level Up better than the mechanically complex races of PF 2e, since I do not need to design feat trees and balance feats - I can just come up with something and make it like something else, and I have a new heritage sub-type right there on the spot. PF 2e can feel too tight and limiting and way too tied to the rules. With Level Up, I have a brand new Dragonborn heritage sub-type, something I just came up with, and it is good to go without too much game design and charting.

A Dragonborn with base 5E? That Charlie Brown "bag of rocks." You get some ability score improvements, a breath weapon, and damage resistance. And that's it, no culture or background (that OSR floaty feeling again). I know in One D&D, this is changing a little for the better, but some changes (such as them taking away options for dwarves) are being taken away and feel regressive. In Level Up, do you want to play an Ice Dwarf? Go to town, design a gift, devise a paragon form, and run it by the narrator.


Level Up then gives you a choice of the culture you grew up in. I am an orc who grew up in a high-elven community. I am a Dragonborn who grew up with dwarves. I am a human wanderer. I am a gnome who grew up with shadow elves. You typically get skills, one expertise dice, and languages from this choice, but it is very cool. This is not PF 2e's "job choice" - this is a mechanical step that ties directly into your character backstory and gives you benefits on your character sheet. This is also very multicultural and can show how different societies can integrate and learn to come and live together.

And if you want, come up with a custom culture. This is not so tightly tied to rules like PF 2e that you can't really come up with your own stuff, and you are forced to buy more books for options.

Instead of telling you to be more inclusive, this game writes it in as mechanical benefits and challenges you to come up with the story. You can have bad-guy factions that are exclusive, too, as this is your world and your choice, but this step also serves to "place you on the map." I looked at my Nerrath map of the Nentir Vale, and when I made characters, I could instantly place them in the various towns, factions, and places around the map as their homes.

I do not get this in 5E, PF 2e, or the OSR.


After this, we get the "job" part, which is made all the better by the previous step. My tiefling character is a villager who became a town guard. I placed her in Winterhaven. With PF 2e, we get the job selection but no culture, and I get that floaty and incomplete feeling like my character is tied to nowhere on the map. I would say, tiefling plus guard, and never knew where she grew up unless I wrote that in character story (and got no benefits).

In 5E, forget it, she is a tiefling fighter, and you get nothing for your backstory. Pathfinder 2e does a good job here and gives you this option, but I get the feeling the missing "culture" part hurts the game a lot and gives me that floaty and disconnected feeling.

And again, the backgrounds here are mechanically simple, if you want to come up with your own, you can, and you aren't breaking the rules with creativity.

Another cool feature is that in every background, they tie you further to the world, listing "adventures and advancement" that may come up during your adventures, such as my tiefling's town guard calling her back for special missions or helping them with a brutal monster. There are also random charts to help you create a break from your past job or other types of connections to them if you want ideas.

Level Up is forcing me to look at my sandbox map, pick a home for my character, decide who they are, how they grew up, and what they did there. Every choice I make in my backstory is reflected on my character sheet as a bonus or mechanical rule.

So Many are Wrong...

I see reviews that paint Level Up as a "complicated 5E version" or a "5E version of Pathfinder 2e," which are entirely wrong. Or adding unneeded complexity. Or fault the game for being character incompatible with the base 5E rules.

Um, no, those are wrong.

This is an entirely different game with an entirely different direction entirely. Yes, the mechanics, rules, and numerical scale is 5E compatible - but this is where the comparisons stop. This is a game where you can have a "living backstory" that is mechanically reflected on your character sheet.

Pathfinder 2e is a tabletop wargame with many "snap together" options. It is not as concerned with backstory as Level Up, nor does it matter compared to the action on the tabletop. The tabletop action in Pathfinder is fantastic.

Base 5E is like Basic D&D in comparison, as it is fundamental and straightforward. Culture and background do not matter. Just roll me a dwarf fighter and get me in the dungeon! Sometimes, that is all we want, and it is excellent.

Level Up takes your character backstory and codifies that into rules on your character sheet, and leaves you a lot of room for customization and unique roles within a class. I have never seen a game do this so well, and for it to be 5E compatible and work so well with D&D 4E concepts is a real treat.

Level up mixes the OSR pillars - exploration, social, and combat -  with backstory as mechanics.

It is not PF 2e or 5E at all.

It is a unique game with an entirely different direction.

Yes, they redesigned a lot of 5E. But this was done for a reason. So they could make that character story matter and that OSR-like exploration game work.

Monday, September 26, 2022

The 5E OGL

I suppose when I think about it, I support the 5E OGL version of the rules more than I do the official D&D 5E or D&D One versions. I love the OGL; this is a license for creators to play, create their own games, build their own adventures, and play in this beautiful sandbox of creativity called the OSR.

A few 5E clones are already in the OSR, I love them, and these are my 5E systems of choice.

I want more games to go fully independent of the 5E core books and plant a million seeds of games and imagination worldwide as a common language for that game version.

I don't want to support a version of the game where an official OGL never gets released, the license forbids you from selling anywhere else than a company portal, or the game gets tied down by legal language that people cannot create new things.

I want the game to be free for everyone to use and imagine worlds with.

I don't want it to turn into Madden or Diablo Immortal, something that perpetually siphons money from its players. And you bet there are many executives looking at those "platforms" and drooling about how they could monetize D&D's massive player base.

So while I play Level Up Advanced 5E and Low Fantasy Gaming, I don't currently play One D&D or Original 5E. Not until I know more, and they have given us reassurances and released the final OGL of the game, and I know that is a long while off, but I support the OSR options today to help ensure they will be around tomorrow should the worst case come true.

And I hope it doesn't.

But this is the "game industry" and "big tech" platforms we are talking about, and Hasbro is a billion-dollar Wall Street company. To put blind trust in them - just off of hype and marketing videos - is foolish.

And a promise to release a without-strings OGL version of One D&D would be a massive step in the right direction for everyone supporting 3rd party publishers and creating books for the game we love. I know it is early, but for the publishers making books for 5E, this would be a massive help since much of their work is planned and created over months and years, not a few weeks. These publishers could afford to keep writers and artists employed during the transition.

But I can't go wrong supporting the OGL version of 5E since this will be around forever.

And if the worst happens, this will be the only 5E version of the rules in the open gaming space.

But I will still have my incredible 5E OSR clones to have fun with, support, and enjoy.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Level Up A5E: Creating Characters

I have done two of these, my first two, which take about an hour each. My pro tips for getting through this process follow. It isn't bad; only the first time through is tricky.

Online Tools are a Must

Use the A5E Tools website instead of the book! This is also in the sidebar. You will save so much time flipping, and you can have multiple tabs open to reference everything.

Download the Pre-Gens

Download the pre-generated characters and use those as a guide! This site also has form-fillable character sheets that will save you a lot of time. Copy and paste as much as you can and type instead of writing; you will save a lot of time. Especially features & traits, copy and paste all of them.

Other Notes

Remember specialty skills! This tripped me up, especially when I saw the pre-gens having all these specialty skills, and I had no idea where they came from. This is a 2 + INT bonus (knowledge skill specialties only for the INT ones) total.

The supply max is STR, and 1 supply is food and water for 1 medium or small-sized creature per day. Give everyone 2 supplies to get going.

Use the pre-created equipment packages to start; this will also save you a lot of time shopping.

Compared to 5E Characters?

These characters are fantastic. This game sits between 5E and Pathfinder 2e in terms of complexity, so if you want more detail about your characters, you can have it all here. I created a wood elf druid who wanders the woods and is the new chief of a loosely organized tribe of wild elves. She had special abilities that helped her play that role, which was very cool. She is driven to help her tribe, and help them prosper and grow.

I also spun up a tiefling town guard (fighter) and focused her abilities on spotting hidden items, lie detection, and a combat style where she fights better alongside others and can take sudden advantage of opportunities. She is driven by excellence in her work and military achievements and someday hopes to lead armies to make the lands of the kingdom safe.

Both of them can get adventure and advancement opportunities from their backgrounds. The tribe could bring up a threat to my druid, and she would need to help them. The town could put together a raid to break up a thieves' guild and call on the help of my fighter to assist. If help is given and the mini-adventures work out, there could be assistance from both groups given to the characters for a while, such as aid, spells, supplies, information, or even soldiers to help in a special mission.

Advanced 5E is an excellent system if you want to build characters with mechanical benefits granted by their origins and backstories. I like that these characters play well with the world and do not feel apart from it, and the backgrounds matter and can pull in adventure opportunities, NPC interactions, and news of events in the world.

Replaces 5E Character Rules Entirely

This is the sticking point for a lot of 5E die-hard players. A5E does not really play well with traditional 5E character creation and is sort of its own 5E-based game. Inside this beautiful sandbox, you can do a lot of cool stuff. You just won't be pulling in 5E classes or third-party 5E classes all that well. You can fight 5E monsters, cast 5E spells, and have 5E adventures - just using the characters in A5E instead of the original 5E.

Me? This is cool; I like it. This is a fun system that ties characters to their backgrounds, origins, and the world tightly. With our 4E game, characters felt disconnected and like they "floated" into town with no connections. I have little original 5E experience, so I can't speak much to that. In A5E, I have this really cool character creation system that ties my characters to the sandbox I am playing in; the characters, as designed, have established connections to the world.

This is so cool. Since I dislike that floaty, disconnected, planar style 5E play and love set worlds and sandboxes, having a 5E system that ties characters to specific factions and places on the map feels really good. I have characters with mechanical ties to the world, with exciting sub-systems and widgets built into the classes that make them act cool and unique. My town guard fights differently than other fighters; she has unique combat techniques and fighting styles. She feels and plays differently from other fighters, the same for my druid.

Even Pathfinder 2e characters feel a little floaty by comparison. People who say this is an easier 5E version of Pathfinder 2e are missing the point. I designed characters that fit into the 4E Nerrath Nentir Vale sandbox, and they feel like they belong there. My Pathfinder 2e characters, by comparison, felt unique and mechanically excellent; but they still felt like generic, be-anywhere adventurers. They had that disconnected from the world feeling many OSR games have, like the random level one fighter who walks into a generic fantasy town.

Now I know why they completely replaced the 5E character creation system. You can't get this level of tight integration, world meshing, and mechanical backstory importance by just "modding" 5E. You might as well go the entire way, fix the broken parts, and overhaul the system so it is focused on characters and their place in the world equally.

There is something more to this game that many of the reviews and articles miss.

Pick a medium-sized sandbox and start creating characters for it, and you will realize there is something more here than a "fixed 5E" or a "5E version of Pathfinder 2e." Advanced 5E is going in a different direction than One D&D, and I like it.

If you want a grounded, sandbox-strong, background-oriented version of 5E, check out A5E.

Friday, September 23, 2022

5e Hardmode

This excellent rule supplement for 5E introduces many optional rules to make 5E a harrowing, gritty, Dark Souls-like experience. This is caused by the same folks who created Low Fantasy Gaming, so I love this company and the rules they put out.

Healing and Death

This is a needed set of rules to even approach 5E, as I can't stand the zero hit-point unconscious, healing word, zero hit point, healing word, rinse and repeat exploits of the base game.

This would not feel right if that was in a video game. Imagine playing a CRPG, and you could get away with the instant resurrection of seriously wounded characters by common heal spells. I come from the OSR, and zero hit points should mean something more than being knocked down by a non-lethal laser in a He-Man or GI Joe cartoon.

This set of rules is a small booklet introducing a few really great rules. Rule #3 is excellent; one death save at the end of the battle, fail and die. Healing magic or assistance gives an advantage. Combined with rule #4, that healing magic at 0 hit points takes 1d3 minutes to take effect, is another good rule.

Resting Rules

Combined with the resting rules (rule 5), they add the resource attrition game from Low Fantasy Gaming into 5E, which is beautiful. This set of rules doubles the class abilities and spells available, which seems like a massive boost in power, but these abilities are regained on a 2d6 roll with an average of "half expended" returned every long rest. Short rests do not return class abilities. Most of the results are "half" or "none" expended are returned.

It does seem like an odd rule, linking all spells and class abilities with long rests, but I can see the logic. Give the players a larger pool of resources, and make regaining them slower and harder, requiring a long rest. I am supposing doubling spells and class abilities and making them regain on long rests evens out with the ones regained with short rests and rapidly recharged over and over again.

Short rests are only good for regaining hit points with hit dice.

Retreat and Chase Rules

The book has rules for retreating from a fight and also chases. They mention the retreat rules are the most critical part of the 5e Hardmode rules since this allows the referee to throw any type of encounter at the party, balanced or unbalanced, and gives the party a heroic "escape" if things do not go well. This also makes refereeing the game much easier since you can play looser with balance and have more brutal monsters show up for a real challenge.

I sense OSR fans wrote this. And I really appreciate it.

Highly Recommended

Honestly, I can't see playing 5E without this. Level Up Advanced 5E or Original 5E would work great, with my preference being the former. This is a straightforward "mod" of the game that adds that wonderful and dangerous OSR flavor to 5E games, and it lets players stick with a 5E set of rules (what they are used to) and increase the difficulty of the game to epic proportions.

To me, this makes 5E a challenge, which interests me. I can't play a game that I know is too easy, or it is impossible to lose a character. I want that sense of danger. I like that thrill of overcoming impossible odds. I like that Dark Souls or Elden Ring level of challenge.

If a character goes down during a fight, that is a serious thing. No low-level spell or healer's kit will pop them back to their feet. They may suffer a severe long-term injury. This affects the balance of many written "boss encounters," but so what? Use the retreat rules. Or perhaps you will TPK. That should be a risk of adventuring.

I want resting to matter. I love that feeling of running out of resources, spells, abilities, and even healing hit dice for short rests. I also like resting to be a little unpredictable; maybe one character did not get a good night's sleep. All that factors into the adventure. Long journeys drain resources. Perhaps you need to rest a few days to prepare. Maybe that eats resources and increases the chances for encounters. Perhaps you need to use fewer encounters during a travel session and make spending those hard-to-recover spells and abilities a hard choice.

This is one of my "must-have" mods for playing 5E, and it hits all the right OSR notes for me and makes 5E exciting and tactically challenging again.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Level Up Advanced 5E: Design

Does Level Up Advanced 5E exist in this strange space between 5E and Pathfinder 2e?

Yes and no.

Yes, the rethink of race and background is similar to Pathfinder 2e.

No, in that the game is still 5E-centric.

As a result, you get people in the 5E circles used to their builds and options who don't want to try anything new. And you get Pathfinder 2e fans who do not see the need for anything else. The game exists in a difficult place and is targeted at long-term 5E players who want a heavily rebalanced and deeper set of rules that offer depth and variety to combat.

Me? Hey, I played Aftermath and Rolemaster. I like the extra depth and options.

The more I read this game and get introduced to 5E concepts, the more I see the 5E design ethos. I see a lot of subconscious demands of the rules, where definite bonuses must be laid out for every option. For example, if you have a villager background, you are proficient with improvised weapons.

If I make a choice, then I get something for it.

This is a very modern look at rules, and this is not really the case in the OSR. In an OSR game, if you choose "elf" as your race and your character comes across elven runes - there is no rule that says you can read them, but the referee will make a decision, and the game will move on. You may be able to read them perfectly, they may be ancient or vague, or you may just not - it depends.

This is why a lot of modern games, such as Pathfinder 2e and D&D 5E, are huge - for every option they give you, a lot of rules need to be written. Pathfinder 2E, I could not deal with all the cross-linked hash-tagged powers and effects and the constant pachinko machine of reference that went on every time someone used anything larger than a basic attack in combat. My brain does not think like that, Pathfinder 2e; sorry, I had to box you up.

With 5E, we have a game of lists. A list of ability scores. Lists of saving throw modifiers. Lists of skills. Lists of proficiencies. Lists of special abilities. Lists of powers. Lists of tools. Lists of class features. Lists, lists, lists!

Your skill in playing the game relies on three things:

  • How organized and quickly you can reference lists
  • How you build your lists and rules knowledge
  • What list items apply to the current situation

Contrast that with Castles & Crusades, a game that mindfully throws lists in the bin and tells players, "We do not need all these lists to have fun!" D&D 5 has this design stuck in the mid-1990s that is a little retro, but more complicated than it needs to be. It does remind me of the Palladium RPG in a strange way, as that game had these huge skill lists to scan down whenever a situation came up and your first thought was, "Do I have the skill to handle this?"

So the real difference between D&D 5E and Level Up 5E is the latter has more list options and different rules for putting your lists together. It adds a new list, combat maneuvers, and a pool of exertion points used to activate them.

Again, if you understand the OSR, you can understand how lists of skills, class abilities, powers, and special features can handcuff your thinking. Modern games teach players to "scan lists for what applies," while OSR games teach players, "think first, lists later." I have had players immediately look at their character sheets when a situation came up, and then blankly stared at me when their sheets did not handle that situation.

I kid you not.

I would be kind of sitting there as the DM, giving them a silent nod, telling them non-verbally to, "do something, do anything!" Once they got into the style of play, they loosened up, but a few could never leave the confines of "the cave of the character sheet" mentality that some games put you in.

Honestly, I like the Level Up game better than the base 5E game. There is more to read, put together, and do. The box of Legos is bigger and more fun to build things with, but is also self-contained and focused. The cheese builds that people get angry about having taken away from them are gone. I can focus on the world and story again instead of "what builds to avoid."

A baselined game like this is fun because it puts the focus back on storytelling.

Then again, plenty of OSR games are focused on storytelling even more than this, and get out of the way a lot better so your story can be more important than the rules. It sounds like I am souring on Level Up, but I am not - if I want this tight, rules-based play, the game is perfect. This is my 5E game of choice since the game is self-contained, does not need expansions to make it interesting, and gives me more in a tighter package. It is a collection of the best concepts and advancements in 5E over the last 10 years without needing to buy and sort through a shelve of books and learn all of the "creeping rules advancements" of 5E circa 2014-2022.

The OSR is far better for stories since it stays out of the way and provides the bare minimum of rules to get the job done. The 5E style of game is the fun of playing, and for those who enjoy the play of rules and builds.

Level Up is all my 5E is in one place, in a core set of books, with all the best parts distilled into one tight game.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Low Fantasy Gaming: 5E or OSR?

I used the free pre-gen characters and ran a few battles between them, and wow, Low Fantasy Gaming is a great system. My first feelings were mixed, like what is the difference between this and Castles & Crusades?

Castles & Crusades:

  • Simpler character sheets (3x5 card)
  • B/X style combat
    • Simple AC vs. hit points
    • OSR stunting
  • Classic resource management (hit points, spells, torches, supplies)
  • Classic classes, magic, monsters, spells, and races
  • B/X compatible game
  • A pure OSR experience with modern gameplay improvements
  • It feels, sounds, and plays exactly like B/X

Low Fantasy Gaming:

  • Moderately complex character sheets (8.5x11 paper)
  • Pulp-action gritty B/X combat
    • AC vs. hit points
    • Minor, Major & Rescue Exploits
    • Class abilities matter
    • Rerolls & Luck saves
  • Enhanced resource management
    • Classic (hit points, spells, torches, supplies)
    • Character (luck, rests, rerolls, class abilities)
  • Reimagined classes, magic, monsters, spells, and races
  • 5E compatible game
  • A 5E implementation of the OSR
  • It feels like B/X, but plays like than 5E

Luck Saves to Dodge?

One of my biggest mistakes was allowing luck rolls to dodge blows. The rules are not clear on if this can be done, and seeing how this one change slowed the game down considerably, I would not allow it. Once I stopped doing this, the game flowed and played much better. These were my first few combats, and I was a little confused about how things work, so it is understandable.

Luck Saves to Avoid Killing Blows?

For non-boss monsters and random NPCs, I would never allow luck saves to avoid a killing blow. The example in the rules on page 6 where a PC throws a spear at an enemy NPC on a rooftop did not have any mention of the NPC making a luck roll to avoid a deathblow, and this is the only example I could find but sets a good example for me to follow.

For boss monsters, essential NPCs, or player characters, I would probably allow a luck roll to avoid a killing blow. For level one characters, the end of my fights would often end in this tense series of potential killing blows and luck rolls to dodge them, with luck decreasing all the time until one failed and the combat ended. The rules on page 12 for luck checks are a little vague:

A Luck check or save may be modified by an attribute bonus or penalty, depending on the nature of the attack or hazard. For example, an adventurer’s DEX modifier applies to dodging out of the way of a Lightning Bolt spell. In such a case, the notation would be a Luck (DEX) save. 

"Attack or hazard" cloud be interpreted as death blows by enemies, but I am guessing they mean monster attacks requiring saves. This will make your game less deadly and more pulp, but the more reasons to burn luck, the better, I suppose. It does lengthen combat, but we are talking just the end of a fight, and if player characters are heroic figures, then I would say yes, allow unmodified luck saves to avoid death.

I use unmodified luck saves for deathblow saves because once you link it to an ability score modifier, the bonus becomes too important. There is an argument for almost every ability score to modify this roll (dodge with DEX, survive with CON, see the blow coming with PER, continue living with WIL, etc.). And remember, each luck save reduces luck by a point, so every round you make a deathblow save, that luck goes down by a point until it recovers (which takes a while).

This rule adds a lot of tension to the end of fights and is admittedly more pulp-action than a straight OSR system. When I did this, the game felt very Savage Worlds, with lots of close luck rolls meaning the character could live another round to fight and turn things around. This gave low hit points and softer characters (rogue, magic users) a chance against the armored and high damage dealers (fighters, barbarians). My fights between a rogue and a fighter in plate felt much better once the thief had a chance to avoid a 12-damage deathblow, pull a major exploit, and turn the tide of battle.

But this rule does lengthen battles considerably.

But those ends to fights are fun as the characters made saves, and pulling off lucky turnarounds is incredibly satisfying.

What it sometimes avoids is the "sudden death" hit that comes in out of nowhere and kills a character with a full-luck pool, and that feels unfair in a more heroic game.

Deathblow Save, Barbarian Conflict

Note the above rule conflicts with the barbarian Rage ability, which allows a Luck (con) roll while raging to avoid a deathblow and be reduced to 1 hit point. So the "luck to avoid deathblow" rule I made is most likely an optional rule for more heroic-pulp games. It would require the barbarian ability to be changed to match the "complete avoidance" of the blow landing but give a con ability modifier bonus just for the barbarian class.

I would likely (just for the barbarian) add a free instant counterattack if the roll is made while raging. That would feel cool and fit my barbarian ideas.

Then again, the designers said, make up your own rulings, so this rule is actually in-line with how the game is designed, and the OSR plays. Go ahead, mod the game as it is yours.

Class Abilities Matter

All characters have special class abilities, and these matter a great deal. Some are always-on with no use limits (backstab), and others have uses per level, so make a note of this on your character sheet.

My rogue has a Tricks & Techniques ability, and this is a one-use per level ability. Within this pool of techniques is the "hidden blade" technique she can use, which allows her to reroll a failed melee attack. This gives her a second reroll that she can use whenever she expends a use. This ability got used frequently during my test combats once I knew what it did and how to use it, and it gave her the edge to turn a loss into a win.

The Difference: Pools & Mechanics

From 5E, LFG takes the class combat abilities that the classes give you every so often, putting many of them on a "use per adventure" pool that is recovered possibly during a short rest and entirely during a long rest (1d6 or 1d4 days of downtime).

This differs from D&D 5E, which has fewer "fun things to do" in combat, and your pools and rerolls matter greatly. Your resource management in LFG is more mechanical and rules-based than a regular OSR game. This makes it way different than either 5E or OSR and puts the game in a place of its own with a fun, almost euro-game, abstract pool of abilities to burn to use during your adventure. As a result (and with my accidental misinterpretation of the Luck/deathblow mechanics that made endgame fights incredible), the game took on this almost Savage Worlds style pulp-feeling with a nice layer of dark fantasy.


Major and minor exploits are fantastic, giving the game that OSR feeling where you can say, "I swing on the chandelier and kick them off the table!" If you hit and do damage, you can try for an extra effect (once you fail an exploit against a target, you can't do another for the combat unless things change, such as an ally joining the fight or the target becoming staggered at half hit points.

This is a massive change from 5E and OSR combat and adds to that Savage Worlds feeling.

During my test combats, my rogue tried to disarm the fighter, kick dirt in the eyes, and do all sorts of nasty tricks just to avoid that colossal blow she knew was coming. She forced the fighter to fight with his dagger a few times. The fighter also used these to knock the rogue to the ground, stunning her, or otherwise set her up for that substantial d12+2 damage wallop to her 8 hit points.

The combats are a touch slower than B/X or C&C fights, but they have a lot of excellent mechanical depth and resource management that is even better than a 5E or C&C experience. It does come close to a Savage Worlds feeling, but instead of bennies, you are using pools in your character and class mechanics to pull off specific tricks and moves.

Combat in LFG is much more fun and interactive than either 5E or C&C but at the cost of complexity and resource tracking. For those players who like their character to have "a bag of tricks to pull from" and think on their feet with exploits and cool moves, this is a better game for them to play than either 5E, C&C, or B/X.

5E or OSR?

This game is honestly both 5E and OSR. But since the 5E OGL license requires significant changes to make a 5E-like game, the designers went all out and added a ton of "fun mechanics" to their system and did their own thing while keeping the numbers compatible with 5E material and abandoning the 13+ level out of control damage output game.

The result is a dark-fantasy game that plays a lot better than stock 5E, but it has the OSR feel. The resource management is tight, mechanically satisfying, and adds to the game's fun and creates tension.

I love C&C as my OSR game of choice, and it has all of the hallmarks and recognizable bits that I want from a B/X experience. You have the classic number range, the spells you know and love, and the experience that the OSR brings to the table.

With LFG, I can use 5E monsters and 3rd party books and play in this world without the overpowered and impossible-to-kill characters that 5E typically has and get my OSR feeling of danger. I also get better character mechanics than 5E, with some excellent resource management of character abilities. It is not as superpowered as the base 5E game, plus expansions where very few limits are placed on character power and stacking abilities ruin the game's balance.

LFG is a balanced, fun, great, and mechanically interesting 5E-like OSR-inspired game that does its own thing. You can play a 5E-style game without the official books and play in that classic OSR style without changing much of what you are used to.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Level Up Advanced 5E

Level Up Advanced 5th Edition (LUA5E, or Level Up) is nothing short of remarkable if you are a 5E player, and given the 5E game will be in flux for the next 2 years, this is the perfect time to dive in and try something new while keeping most of what is familiar to you.

In fact, this feels like the perfect 5E game for the next 20 years once you realize it is a community-patched version of 5E immune to external changes and interference.

Reading through this game, I get the feeling original 5E is more spartan yet broken in many ways D&D Basic set, while LUA5E is the AD&D of 5E with the added benefit that the game is not going away or majorly changing in 2 years. EN Publishing did an incredible job of creating "teams" around each class and part of the game and crowdsourcing the best of the best improvements to 5E in every area.

Community, not Committee

Level Up is the opposite of One D&D. It sticks with what people love, the original 5E system, and goes to town making the best community-focused changes to the game. The community of designers assembled to build the best game controls the game, and it only changes for the better. Some online reviews of this game remarked that some of the Level Up rules were taken from popular 5E house rules and improvements that everyone plays with anyways, so they rebalanced them and wrote them into the game.

With One D&D, you have a government-style rules committee that thinks they know better and dictates rules to the community from on high. We get limited playtest documents and nebulous feedback forms, and nobody knows if anyone is even being listened to. Few people know what changes are coming, and when they arrive, good or bad, we must accept and live with them.

"Oh well, if I want to keep playing the game I love, I must learn to live with it."

I can't see more of a clear difference between the future of Level Up and One D&D than that. With Level Up, I feel this game will only improve in the next 20 years, and it will not change too much from what we know and like about 5E. If I were just starting with 5E today, which I am, I would learn to play Level Up and skip base 5E from Wizards.

Like Classic Pathfinder

Level Up feels like the classic Pathfinder 1e vs. D&D 4E situation. The game everyone knows and loves, and is playing today, is being preserved and improved for generations in the future to enjoy. The improved game is compatible with old guides and adventures. Everything feels the same and is improved in many ways.

You can play without the core books from Wizards, which they use to control the game. You are not under the control of Wall Street and some digital distribution and mobile-game-inspired monetization effort. You can keep playing an improved and supported version of the game you already know.

I would not be so happy to see a version of 5E like this unless the design team took some serious effort to fix exploits and cheese moves, which it appears they did. The "one-level dips" into classes to steal abilities for DPS builds are gone, and the base classes were made to work and be fun. Resting and healing seem fixed. They support three pillars of play, combat, social, and exploration, with dedicated mechanics and class features.

This is the game you get when a community that knows how the exploits and cheats work, are asked to redesign a game and build it for maximum fun. They remove the cheese, and replace it with making the classes and systems in the game fun again. You do not need to exploit to keep up. This feels like a very good "balance mod" for a game like Skyrim that is tough to play without because it fixes the underlying game so completely - and it enhances what is already there to make those choices matter.

Depth and Changes

All that said, the game feels more in-depth and a level more complex than base 5E. I am glad I skipped most of 5E and have little to unlearn here. Some online are a bit sour that the base classes and options of 5E are not compatible, but in a redesign like this, I can see why they did it. If the goal is to create a solid foundation, the broken and cheese parts of 5E should be fixed; otherwise, why waste your time making a "class and option expansion" book for base 5E? What they did here was a good and intelligent design decision, rip the moldy wallpaper off the walls, chop out the rotten wood, and rebuild the parts of the game that needed serious attention.

The whole race/class/background thing is fixed, and they give some fantastic character creation options. The system they used feels like Pathfinder 2e and feels suitable for everybody's tastes.

And they included a 4E-style warlord sort of battlefield commander fighter-support class. What? People that loved 4E are loved here too? Are you kidding me? Do we have warlocks too? Dragonborn? Tieflings? Eladrin?

I feel I could replay our old 4E Nerrath campaign and absolutely have EVERYTHING.

This is not just an advanced 5E; this is everything I loved about 4E too. That is one thing beautiful about a community-run game, one company can't come in and change things on you, remove classes, tell you DMs can't roll critical hits, change how things work, and dictate to you. If the game is loved, plays fine for millions of people with a few accepted community-suggested fixes, then it stays that way.

Pillars of Play

Level Up feels like it pays serious attention to the exploration pillar of play, which is fantastic for an OSR player. I was reading this last night and asking myself, "How long has it been since a 5E game paid serious attention to exploration?" Class abilities are also integrated with all three pillars of play.

The ranger is not holding Charlie Brown's "I got a bag of rocks" anymore.

You can fail a mission or begin with a severe resource issue because your party's exploration talents and skills are not great. Are you serious? Someone has obviously been reading the OSR here.

Welcome 4E and 5E Players

Would I switch away from the OSR for this? To be honest, Castles & Crusades is my OSR game, and with all the Swords & Wizardry content I have, I have no reason to switch.

I never got into 5E; that would be the next game for me and my brother, but life happened, and we never got to play. We were huge into 4E; we walked to the bookstore together and collected every book they put out. Nerrath was our second home. The game was not perfect, but the tabletop figure combat at levels 1-10 was incredible.

The next question becomes if I were to revisit our Nerrath game, and since I am a little tired of nostalgia, it would be something I am more inclined to leave to the past at this time; what rules would I use? A hypothetical question, but a valid one.

If I were to use C&C, my life would be much easier. No new game to learn. The characters work great, and each one fits on a 4x6 card. The game would be an old-school tribute to the times we had there. A few things would be missing, such as some of the races and classes. Some of the powers would be missing. The feeling would be missing. The game would be OSR, which is fantastic, and it would likely do what I want it to do. More characters, a few things missing, and better rules that I know and love.

Even better, I have 25 years of Swords & Wizardry and OSR content I can toss into this campaign.

With Level Up A5E, I get it all. I have to learn a new game, a more in-depth version of 5E, but I would have it all. And I would have a game that isn't changing in 2 years and plays like a community-patched version of 5E - the best of hundreds of peoples' ideas and agreement on how the ultimate version of 5E should play (with some cool 4E stuff thrown in there). I would play fewer characters since each one is 2 double-sided letter-sized pages of paper. Fewer characters, nothing missing, and rules I would need to learn.

I am converting 4E modules and playing 5E adventures, which isn't bad, but it isn't the OSR's depth and variety of adventures and content.

This would still be a 5E game, however. If you are not inclined to like 5E, you will get very little for jumping in. This has a lot of differences from 5E and an expanded exploration game support with mechanics. That is one thing that intrigues me, and feels like it does a better job than the original 5E. The cheese and exploits I disliked about the original game are gone and patched. Level Up feels like that "ultimate edition" that comes out a few years after the game that you wait for that includes all the DLC, graphical improvements, gameplay improvements, and quality of life improvements that take an okay-but-annoying game to incredible-and-satisfying.

And the game is free of Wizards, just like Pathfinder 1e was free. And my Pathfinder 1e game still is highly playable (and supported in 2022, surprisingly).

But there is one question I would love to have answered.

Is Level Up A5E the game they promised us in 4E, but this time with a massively improved 5E engine under the hood? If so, then this is my game.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Mail Room: Level Up Advanced 5E

I got the PDFs for this today, and wow, what a fantastic game. They went through complaints about 5E and created a standalone version of the game that improves on every aspect while still remaining compatible with the adventures and monsters of the base 5E game.

With is a Wizards-less version of 5E, created as a stand-alone game. Why is this important? If 5E will ever break free of Wizards and become an OSR-like force, we need games like this for indie creators and to inspire others to do the same. Some are upset this is a new game, and the characters are incompatible with 5E characters, but to start something new, they needed to make a break, and I saw this before in Low Fantasy Gaming. Not a big deal if you are just starting 5E, but it is for established games.

This feels like the Pathfinder 1e version of the D&D 3.5 situation, except this time, as D&D moves on to a new edition, there is a torchbearer here for those liking the old way of doing things. It feels strange to have skipped all of 5E and to start with this game, but that is also cool.

And at first glance, they do a heck of a lot of things I like in this edition, almost to the point where I feel that old 4E excitement coming back.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Low Fantasy Gaming

This is seriously a good game.

I can play an OSR-style experience and collect high-quality 3rd-party 5E books, and stay 100% away from Wizards' content? Now, you may think I say that because I have a dislike for Wizards' D&D books, I don't really; what I have a severe aversion to is the library of books needed to play, the power-creep expansion book builds, and just the creeping complexity of how the D&D game changed since it was released. Also, the mainline D&D 5E game feels too cartoony, just like Pathfinder 2e.

Don't take it as dislike; I want a fresh start - not a by-the-books official game.

Yes, I could play with the original 3 books, but being a fan of the OSR, I like the OSR themes and the difficulty they enshrine in Low Fantasy Gaming was better than the stock easy-mode 5E with the three base books.

Better OSR-Style Systems

The resource management in Low Fantasy Gaming feels better than the base 5E game, with ever-depleting rest, reroll, and luck pools. You have to be careful which type of resting you choose. Your luck keeps depleting. Resources become scarce. You play the resource management game here in a 5E experience, with some game mechanics providing tension, which is fantastic.

The combat system slays D&D 5E and makes the base game feel boring. There is a lot to love here, from fighters switching up styles to expendable rerolls, fighting styles, and martial exploits that let you trip, push back, and otherwise gain an advantage on your foes. Exploits are separated into minor and major, with major requiring a luck roll and expenditure, and you could outright slay a weaker opponent in one hit. Combat here is expressive, pulp-action, and uses the resource system - very cool.

The magic system has corruption and divine favor, which is not a sure thing. Mages can gain corruption effects, suffer spell failure, and magic is a strange and dangerous thing. Cultists (clerics) have to be active speakers and practitioners of the word to gain favor, or they risk angering their gods. Divine magic also does not have spell lists, but they have a blessing type that simulates a spell, so I am sure if you really wanted a spell from a 5E divine list, you could make it happen through that mechanic.

Everything else is primarily compatible with base 5E rules, except classes and characters. You can use 5E monsters, treasures, spells, and adventures quickly with the system without much conversion.

This is the only 5E game that catches my eye away from Castles & Crusades. Granted, C&C is a much easier game to run and manage, with way better OSR compatibility. The LFG characters are that complex, large character sheet, 5E-style, that I tend to avoid. But still, this game has a very Savage Worlds feeling to me like the extra complexity is worth the effort.

A Wizards-Free 5E Game

What I love is the system insulates me from the beast D&D 5E has grown into, with all the min-maxers, power-gamers, S-tier builds, and all the changes introduced down the line (and still being introduced) to the game. I can play a fun, OSR-like, sandbox 5E-style game and be walled away from all the noise of the official books. I can roll exclusively with this book and a few 3rd party books and have a Wizards-free 5E game.

That is cool.

Not that I dislike Wizards, but it is a remarkable design achievement to have a standalone game. And, I have a limited sandbox with 5E mechanics to play in, plus OSR-style play.

Some games still need the base three books, and I do not like it when that happens since the base books are this "siren's call" to come back. I only play standalone 5E clones since much more effort was put into these, and they are immune from base-game changes. That will matter in a few years when the "requires the base 5E book games" have to upgrade to One D&D or rely on the used book market.

Low Fantasy Gaming can continue on for years as it is and never have to change the rules.

Right now, this is as close to a "White Box" style 5E clone as I can get, but with the added attraction of pulp-action combat mechanics to spice up battles, along with resource management to increase the tension as the dungeon crawl goes on and on. Would I love a pure White-Box 5E clone? I have one possibly coming in the mail, and we will see. But yes, the game that resets 5E and creates a pure base game that addresses balance issues and creates an OSR evergreen 5E game - while ignoring the expansion nonsense - is my unicorn game right now.

Low Fantasy Gaming is really good, and it is nearly a bullseye in my quest. The beauty here is that the things it does change; it does for a good reason and to emulate a genre that I love - dark fantasy gaming.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

D&D 5E: Passive Skills

D&D 4 and 5 introduced a few concepts into roleplaying, which did more than change the game; they changed the fundamental expectations of the interactions between referee and players. The game and how it is refereed wholly changed as a result.

One of these changes was passive skills, introduced in D&D 4 as an extension of the “taking 10 and taking 20” rule of D&D 3.5. I never liked the “taking X” rules in D&D 3.5 because they assumed a player would sit there and repeatedly roll until they made the check. For our table, all skill checks were one chance, pass or fail. If you did not do it, someone else could try, but you needed to figure out another way forward if all else fails.

This is where “fail forward” is such a tremendous innovation, and it eliminates the need for the “taking X” rules entirely. Passing or failing forward is the way to go.

So the passive skill in D&D 4 was “passive perception,” which meant the players calculated a threshold number where perception checks would always be made, acting as an “always on” radar for anything in the area needing a perception check. The burden of keeping track of a party’s passive perception scores was now shifted to the referee. D&D 5 added insight (like a sense motive), and we now have two passive scores. They feel like "gotcha" mechanics and force referees to "take back" events the party says, "we shoulda..."

I get why this is in the game; it is to eliminate the endless "I check for traps" behavior of players every ten feet, and this speeds up play. Or with NPCs, the first thing said by players is, "I roll sense motive!"

The Modified OSR Way

I use a modified OSR method of passive skills in 5E-style games, and I don't even require them to be this "always on" thing. If you are moving carefully (different games have different rates, I assume half or quarter speed), you, for the most part, are alerted to the presence of any trap (or I will drop a huge hint). No passive skill needed, no need for a referee to constantly compare numbers, no nothing. The next time you move through there, and you know there are no traps, move full speed.

I assume careful movement means using the 10' pole, poking at strange stones with a dagger, examining the way forward carefully, and all the careful things players do. Otherwise, what are they doing when they say "careful movement?" Careful is careful.

Careful movement equals trap detection. If I wanted to mix this with a purely descriptive OSR method, I would drop good clues (cracks in the floor, loose flagstone) during careful movement and not during normal movement.

If a trap is really that hidden (and most aren't), I will make a secret roll for it. This won't be used for every adventure and is a special case.

Passive Insight

The passive insight I don't use since I feel it gets in the way of roleplaying. If someone is lying, I roleplay it and hope they pick up on my speech and body language. Either that or I will flat out tell them, "you notice he is acting strangely," and let them react without needing a radar skill. They can react however they want, and I am not hiding anything based on how less insightful your character stats say your character is. I am harsh, but that is what passive insight does; it puts your stats first and minimizes roleplaying to a numbers game. I assume everyone is a hero enough they can tell when someone is being shifty or manipulative.

Assume they are heroes. Don't hide information based on stats, and make one player feel their character is too dimwitted to pick up on the obvious.

I can also just use wisdom and tell the player with the highest score, "You notice..." Hey, high wisdom means you are wise, right? You should pick up on those things, wise guy. Let the ability scores work for a living.

The 5E Passive Skills

Otherwise, you encourage builds around the radar skills, and the entire concept is pointless. Someone in the group will be required to be the passive perception trap radar, and another player will be required to be the passive insight roleplay expert.

And just like that, you have excluded the other characters from meaningful roleplaying or exploration discovery around the table. The mechanics let one player specialize to the exclusion of everyone else. That is unfun. The passive rules that allow you to lean into specialization only help one player and hurt the rest of the players around the table.

Let everyone poke and prod at the scenery. Let everyone roleplay.

Do not let passive skills become exclusionary, which is what they are today.

If I play 5E-style games, I typically go by the OSR methods; if I ask for a roll, it will be very important and have consequences if it fails. You do not roll perception or insight every 5 minutes. At most, you roll them only once per game in that critical moment.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

It's Actually D&D 14

D&D 5E was the 13th Edition of the game.

The next version, One D&D, will be the 14th edition of the game - counting AD&D.

If you just count D&D, it is the 11th, and 5E would be the 10th edition of just the D&D brand.

The marketing line, "there are no more editions," does not change the past. Or the future. Or thousands of years of book publishing.

When talking about a game, you could more accurately call One D&D, a D&D 5.5 version. The version number would be a bit more accurate than the word edition since, in software, compatibility inside a version number is usually a guaranteed thing - most of the time.

But to say "no more editions" ties your hands so tightly; you are hurting future improvements and teams by making such a statement. Let's say for their online component, they would need to make significant changes to make it a worldwide hit, and a new version is absolutely needed? Well, saying "no new versions" is counterproductive and may prevent that from happening. Or it may tie their hands so they can't make those changes.

I don't care about "version/edition this or that" - just make a great game and do what you need to - to deliver on that promise.

5E Alternatives: Low Fantasy Gaming

I usually stay in the OSR for most of my gaming, but if I wanted that 5E feeling (and good compatibility with many great 5E sourcebooks), the excellent Low Fantasy Gaming (LFG) would be my game. The game is this perfect mix of 5E, dark fantasy, and a reimagined setting in the "points of light" style of D&D 4E that drew us into that game heavily.

Why go with LFG and not stock 5E? Well, for one, I am insulated against Wizards and their random rule changes and splat-book power creep. It is not changing in two years. Having a baseline set of classes means I can predict power level and damage output, making the game easier to referee. Also, this game feels OSR while still being 5E-like, which is pure awesomeness. The monsters, spells, and magic items are compatible between 5E and LFG. The magic system rocks hard.

This is the best 5E-like game out there and one I would make my 5E home.


Magic is greatly simplified, with magic users being the only ones with access to spell lists. Magic users suffer "dark and dangerous magic" (DDM), which is a rolling number that increases 1 per spell cast. Rolling under this number triggers a corruption-like effect and resets the counter to one. This is a very Dungeon Crawl Classics style mechanic and puts a heavy price on magic that I like.

Note, that magic item use also triggers DDM.

Cultists (clerics) have blessings and start the game knowing a number of them equal to their WIL modifier, and these are like the traditional cleric spells (but a smaller list). They get one use of a blessing per level, so a level 5 cultist would have 5 blessings available. In addition, if a cleric has favor, they can expend that to cast a blessing without using a charge. Otherwise, a WIL check is required to make the blessing manifest (and could fail and invoke a divine rebuke).

On the plus side, the favor system has cultists always finding a roleplaying way to gain it again, so this is a very strong roleplaying mixed with a game rules mechanic that I love. Your faith-based characters are doing their jobs, finally, and not being a heal bot.

Yes, this is good. Very good.

And magic-users and cultists are the only magic classes in the game, and their magic is different and dangerous in unique ways. I absolutely love this mechanic, and this makes the game different than most any other OSR game out there (except DCC) and makes LFG stand apart from even games like Old School Essentials or Castles & Crusades.

I like dark and dangerous magic, and I like fewer classes having magic. If everyone has "easy magic," then there is nothing unique, fun, or interesting about it at all. Magic is supposed to be fun and unpredictable, rare and always dangerous to cast. The spells are renamed like the old ones were lost, changed, and the spell names that once were are never used these days. It feels thematic and cool.

The magic system here is why I would play this game.

Balance and Compatibility

There was a post calculating average damage per round of the various classes on Reddit that is fascinating and illustrates the damage scaling present in games past D&D 3E. For 5E, it is generally:

  • Level 1-5: 10 damage per round
  • Level 6-10: 30 damage per round
  • Level 11-15: 50 damage per round
  • Leve 16-20: 100 damage per round

These can swing +/-50% for various classes, with some coming ahead and others falling behind but providing utility benefits. And I know the martial-caster damage disparity exists hardcore in 5E, these are averages, and I bet casters are skewing these numbers way-way up. No wonder most people quit before level 10, and the balance and damage numbers feel wrong past level 10.

Is high-level 5E play really ten times the damage of level one? I guess with casters it is.

Low Fantasy Damage Scaling

The maximum level in LFG is 12, though there is an option to break the cap. The monsters do not have a level cap, so the higher-level creatures become these "boss monsters," which require larger parties (raids) to fight, and that is an interesting design choice. Damage per turn in LFG feels lower, though 2-weapon fighting does allow two attacks per turn (the second at a disadvantage), and some classes get 2 attacks (when a reroll is spent). Critical hits do maximum damage plus half-level, so a level 12 great sword hit by an 18 STR fighter would do 12 + 3 + 6, or 21 points of damage.

I am betting the average level 10 damage is a solid 2 hits from a d8 weapon plus STR mod, and add another 2 points on there for other factors, so let's call it 20 points a turn average martial damage at level 10 for burst damage, and 10 points damage otherwise. That is in the 5E ballpark, so it feels right, and the numbers do not feel like they get out of control.

Rogues at level 12 do 1d4+STR+2d8 with backstab damage and can reroll with an expenditure of a reroll die. That is, like, roughly 15 damage per turn, which is where I feel they should be.

I feel damage per round is around half that of 5E, which I do not mind since this makes monsters more challenging (use less of them), and it sets up a Dark Souls style of experience during battles. I love the max 12th level of characters, which means some monsters will out-level the characters, and they are the instant boss monsters that take an entire party with teamwork to defeat.

Also, this sets up MMO-style "raids" where 8-12 characters are required to take down an ultra-high-level monster, with likely a high mortality rate, but I have faith that the "massed attacks" benefit of 5E will come into play and make the fight easier just by numbers.

Monster Balance

As for monsters, I picked a random one out of the book (basilisk), and the stats were very similar to the 5E version. D&D 5E monsters have skills with levels, and in LFG, skills do not have levels and are the straight roll-under ability check style. It converts nicely if you drop the D&D 5E skill levels and just make the monsters roll under (with a reroll if needed).

Also, note that attack bonuses and damages may need to be recalculated, as LFG is a flat +1 per HD for monster attack bonuses (and a cap of +15), with non-fighter classes getting 3/4ths of the total bonus. For the most part, the damages and to-hits seem fine, but do some quick math before the encounter to double-check. Also, do not put human-class level characters higher than level 12 in the game without a good reason. and don't fret about monster abilities changing or some things feeling like they have extra powers - not every monster in the world is the same or should be.

So monsters feel 90% compatible, especially in the statistic, AC, unique ability, to-hit, and hit point areas - which is all I care about anyways. If Wizards ever "invalidates your 5E books," they will find a home with this system quite nicely. Granted, this is not a high-fantasy setting, so the plethora of magic items and ultra-fantasy magic will be reduced substantially, but if you want it in your game, it is still an option.

Also, remember since this game does not go beyond level 12, your max caster damage will be 12d6 for direct damage spells, and martial classes will be around 10-20 per turn. Monsters above 10 HD will be very dangerous foes, especially with the lower overall damage.

Character Options, Not Compatible

The only thing incompatible will likely be classes and races, and I would recommend sticking with the LFG ones just for that tighter balance and design. You do not want classes with that higher base-game damage output slipping into a Dark Souls-style game like LFG. I would prefer to drop a +2 sword into LFG than a level 1 D&D 5E fighter from the D&D Player's Handbook.

Overall, a Great Mix of OSR and 5E

I like this game a lot. It lets me play a sort of OSR-like version of 5E and that is cool. Why not just stay in the OSR? Rules and adventure support is way better there?

I admit, staying in my C&C and S&W mega-mix is a very cool place and gives me tons of adventures to play. The library I have for these two games is years of fun and it beats what LFG and 5E have to offer my a huge margin.

I do like 5E conceptually, and I want to see if there is anything to salvage here now that the edition is fading and I can take a look at the things I missed. A lot of what I missed I was happy to walk right by, since I am not into that science-fantasy thing that is all the rage for both D&D 5 and PF 2e at the moment (more planar in D&D 5, more steampunk in PF 2e). One of the best things about the OSR is they have taken the traditional fantasy space by storm, and if you want that classic "no tech, no planes" classic fantasy experience the OSR is the best place to get it.

Wizards & Paizo seem to be living in a bubble in Seattle where they think D&D = Guardians of the Galaxy anything goes science fantasy. They have abandoned any historical elements of the game. Honestly, any classic fantasy pretenses the game feels like it starts with serves as the MMO starting zone before your planar adventures begin. They kept this structure from D&D 4, and we felt it ruined every world the game touched.

And they left the entire classic fantasy genre to the OSR.

It is fun to see a game like Low Fantasy Gaming come and try to make a place for the genre I like in the 5E world. One world, historically based, less fantastic, dark fantasy, and cool.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Let the Past Die, Kill It If You Have To

The Last Jedi was this mess. An ugly, horrible, messed-with mess.

But there is one quote in here.

A good one. One the series should have taken to heart. One I feel the director was trying to do, and he failed miserably. This is like an ice skating routine, like at the Olympics, and the pair of skaters fall and fall again. At a point, you feel sorry, but at least they kept trying. The end was thought-provoking, too, like anyone could have the force. Instead, we got this typical" blood of kings" story from the last movie, and it wasn't empowering or engaging at all.

We should all feel like potential Jedi knights; that is where the fantasy was when we were kids.

It should never be a "royal bloodline." The prequels and the sequels got it wrong. Let it be a mystery. Let us dream. Let us be kids again.

But the biggest issue is holding onto the past. We all go back to nostalgia, even if it kills us; we want it so bad it is like a heroin addict should we ever be parted from our drug.

Nerrath, Greyhawk, The Realms

I was trying to start my Low Fantasy Gaming campaign the other night, and I wanted to set this world as "Nerrath 900 years after," which was the default D&D 4 world. I started the game with a young researcher looking into the past, fascinated by it, and trying to get as much information as she could...

And it sucked.

I quickly realized that despite any character I introduced into this world, my experiences with the past version of Nerrath I had in D&D 4 would always hang over this campaign.

She would never be able to escape it, either.

She would never be able to make the world "hers," and the specter of the past would always haunt me, these characters, and my entire experience with this world. There would be no great mysteries we unlock together. We would never get to discover a new world. The shadows of past heroes would always be what she stands in. Even the high-magic age of D&D 4 would be "a greater time" than the one we have today.

And it was grossly unfair to me and the characters I wanted to play.

If I have a shelf full of retro modules and a world I have never played in, like Lost Lands, that is cool. I got a thousand stories on that shelf, all waiting for a moment to be told. If all I got was a world that was never developed, abandoned by its creators, and all I have are fond memories of us trying to make it work - then that is not enough.

Bigger Issues

It reminds me that we keep wanting to reinvent the same superhero or storybook character by putting a new actor in the old clothes. Yet, this is unfair to both the audience and the hero.

There comes a time to move on.

To let go.

To look towards a future.

To discover somewhere new, tell a new story, discover a new world, or let a fresh group of characters enjoy their own destiny without a past chained to their ankles. What you are doing is telling people, "nothing new or fun will ever be created," and "stop creating." Diverse creators with original characters are getting shut out of the conversation or handed an old character's superhero costume and told, "here, fill this."

It is unfair.

I want to hear new stories with new characters.

And everything about our nostalgia-driven present sucks.

New Worlds Only

From here on, I am playing in worlds I have not experienced yet (Lost Lands) or making up my own. I am done with retro modules and world books. I am done with them.

It is time to move on.

Because the person I am shortchanging is myself.