Thursday, September 21, 2023

Aquilae Revisited

I keep coming back to the Aquilae setting. This is a unique setting in that it really is a giant map with thousands of locations, dozens of kingdoms, and no rules. They sell a gazetteer that fills in the blanks, but I am happy with the map and doing whatever I want with the place.

This isn't for any rules system, and it goes as well with GURPS as it does DCC. Use 5E, A5E, ToV, LFG, or PF 1 or 2 if you want. Rolemaster or Palladium Fantasy? OSE or Index Card RPG? It works with anything.

It is just a map.

It could be more if you want, but it is just a map.

Every kingdom, city, dungeon, and fantastic location you make up for yourself.

Do a hex crawl or make it up yourself.

But this saves me a lot of work and gives me a canvas for my imagination.

Some others feel hopelessly stuck in the Pathfinder 1e era, though I have a precious few that held up pretty well, considering. Primeval Thule is one, but I feel this is weaker these days since Conan-like has been done to death. One drawback is this sameness to the kingdoms; referencing is knowing what is where is difficult. Compared to Aquilae, I would rather just make everything up myself than endlessly search through a book for something that may or may not be there. The newer versions of this setting feel a bit slick, as many do, and they lose something going into the 5E world from the more realistic PF 1e setting guides. I had fun with this using Savage Worlds Fantasy, though, so it is still on my shelves.

Another classic is the old Scarred Lands setting for D&D 3.0. This is a fun, primarily human-based setting with many cultural backgrounds and illustrations. This book puts a lot of modern setting guides to shame with its art and ease of use alone, and it is always a favorite.

But I have a lot of trouble using these with a few games. Thule is more pulp, so playing it with 5E feels wrong. Scarred Lands has this layer of realism and human-centric lands, so it feels better suited to a GURPS than a DCC. The flavor of these settings feels stuck in the era they were written in, which is better for some games and not for others.

Aquilae? This could be anything from a gritty, realistic GURPS setting to a gonzo 1970s DCC world. I can put my flavor on the map and do whatever I want. This could be Savage Worlds Fantasy. I look at this and see an A5E game. Old School Essentials works. Swords & Wizardry. I played Pathfinder 1e in a part of this world, and it worked well.

Whatever rules system I have, the map works well with it.

I can't say that about most settings.

Dungeon Crawl Classics reflects an extremely crazy world. GURPS is the ultimate in realism. The map does both equally well. Thule doesn't do that, Scarred Lands doesn't, and the classic D&D settings sure don't. That is a vast range of world support, and having places and towns to fill out myself saves me a lot of work. Even for DCC, the unique location names are thematic and could support many interesting gonzo DCC adventures. With GURPS, the maps turn into survival and exploration challenges.

I could even play this with Mutant Crawl Classics, though it would need more ruined areas. The deserts and badlands could serve as those, or this could be a world so far in the future many of the old cities and structures have rejoined nature, so these forests could be littered with the ancient superstructures of vine-covered skyscrapers and hidden ruins of places forgotten to time. Some cities could be hidden under the seas or in giant underground caverns.

Use your imagination!

What is in the above cities of Angrave, Trezona, and Prose on these 12-mile hexes? What is that fort? Is one an elven city? Who knows? Make it up yourself. Put dungeons in every hex. Make a cave map. Place some orc camps in the woods. Place Keep on the Borderlands around here somewhere. Use the GM layer of prepopulated adventure locations, or don't, and stick to the player maps and do your own thing. If you are playing DCC, place the adventures in hexes!

I could use random tables to create the towns, who lives there, and what their governments are like. I could make it up myself. I could make them friends or enemies.

The maps are the ultimate fantasy sandbox where you fill in whatever you want. It feels like the old 4E Nerrath setting, only expanded to an entire world. You can buy just the maps or get the setting book that fills in the details.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Setting Search

I like the Hubris setting, even though this is more of a non-setting book. This is more like an idea book than a setting, a bunch of grimdark science fantasy, retro-cool, twisted evil, carnival of the grotesque setting than something resembling a traditional setting book. The map doesn't even have a scale (or one I can find). This is more like an homage to heavy-metal fantasy worlds, with many gonzo-crazy descriptions and crazy locations.

DCC has this incredible range of genres, from 1970s neon-felt poster fantasy art you buy from a van in a parking lot to Manowar/Megadeath/Iron Maiden album cover epic-rock fantasy to traditional AD&D-style fantasy. This setting falls in the middle of that scale, which is fantastic.

Nothing in this world is ordinary, run-of-the-mill, pseudo-modern Renaissance, Ren-Faire fantasy. Nor is it the generic, inoffensive D&D fantasy-pop style. In today's over-sensitive age, we have come full circle, and 5E has fallen back to AD&D 2nd edition censorship. I expect demons, devils, and the concept of Hell to be removed from the game because it too closely adheres to a Christian worldview and triggers people offended by religious concepts.

5E already pulled the succubus and incubus out of the demon section of the monster manual, so what are they, well-dressed, flirty tieflings? Sounds like the average bard character to me.

6E demons and devils will likely be replaced by those generic 'meat face' evil magic aliens we see all the time in Hollywood movies and be renamed strange names like they were in 2nd edition: Baatezu, Tanar'ri, Yugoloths, and Gehreleths.

And my spell checker will hate them all. Back in the 1990s, those at TSR figured nobody would get offended if Christian parent groups could not spell the new names for demons. To be fair, DCC does not lean too heavily into the adult or demonic tropes, so they are BYO on those topics - which I suspect many groups do since the door is open.

So, the DCC setting?

Why I feel a little nebulous about picking a setting for DCC is I have a specific tone I want to capture. There is a ton of this classic-adventure art in the DCC book, where average, gritty, and sometimes goofy fantasy adventurer party art is in peril from everything and anything in random dungeon environments. I like that classic AD&D-style vibe.

And what got me thinking is the above book, which translates the standard B/X monsters into DCC. Many of these monsters feel different than B/X monsters, too, and are way more powerful and deadly in a DCC environment. Fire beetles are very deadly here, and that sounds like incredible fun.

The DCC book contradicts the entire concept of this bestiary by emphasizing we should seek out the unknown, unseen, and new things. Our adventures should be full of monsters and treasures we have never encountered before to bring back that 'for the first time' feeling back in the original AD&D days.

But these monsters are crazy, gonzo, and deadly versions of the B/X standards. Some of these make B/X monsters look boring and plain. I haven't seen monsters like this for DCC; they opened my eyes to many possibilities. Part of the charm of DCC is 'the fantasy world going sideways' like the pictures in the art of every day fantasy adventurers getting into all sorts of silly, tongue-in-cheek dungeon fun.

I could play Keep on the Borderlands with this set of monsters using DCC and start the adventure with the orcs showing up, banging on the front door of the keep, surrendering, and telling the town they are afraid of what the bugbears summoned at the Caves of Chaos and they need protection.


Classic modules are completely hosed and going sideways.

DCC, the magic, and the entire 1970s vibe of that world are taking over. Magic does not work like it should. The times are changing. Even the monsters know it. Every one of them is allowed to change alignment. An evil gold dragon who wants all the gold in the world? Why not? The intelligent fire beetles who speak an alien insectoid sonic buzz and barter for fungus? Do it.

Everyone in the world knows the world is changing.

Even the monsters and the traditional evil forces.

No one knows what to do, and the old ways are dying.

The old way of life, alliances, and allegiances are dead.

The demi-lich in the Tomb of Horrors becomes a patron and asks for help expanding his looted and completely solved dungeon? Is the spaceship in the S3 Barrier Peaks module becoming a kingdom of robots? Playing the Isle of Dread, helping the natives fight off greedy adventurers, riding dinosaurs, and saving the island? Why not? The drow elves destroy the spider goddess and turn to the light? Are giants being hunted by alien spaceships, harvested for meat, and asking for help? A kingdom with a benevolent aboleth as king?

The world can slowly morph into that gonzo, grimdark, strange, almost alien setting - but the possibilities for screwing up the classic modules and showing 'how this madness started' almost seems like too much fun for me. The DCC book also plays on this 'twisted fairy tale' trope in its silly art, so there is precedent.

It also seems like a tearing up of the D&D mythos and a way for me to finally put it to bed in my mind and move on. The old D&D mythos and monster tropes hold us back and prevent our imaginations from taking flight. In that way, Goodman Games is right, saying the old ways limit our experiences and hold us back.

But for some of us, it is therapeutic to rip it all up to start again. Part of art involves willingly destroying something, from a blank canvas to breaking a crayon in half as a broader brush. Recasting the old monsters in new roles and tearing the myth of D&D's cosmology and tired monster ecosystem feels terrific. Yes, create new things. But let me tear down the past first.

And it does make me question OSR games endlessly replicating the past. I can almost recite the standardized B/X monster progression in my sleep like this was some 8-bit RPG I played on the Nintendo. Giant rats, goblins, orcs, gnolls, bugbears, etc., etc., dragons, demons, planar creatures...

It is 2023, and it is tired.

It may be time to destroy it all and start something new.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Dealing with 5E Apathy

I am dealing with this "5E apathy" and looking at the garbage of old and trying to make the rules compelling to me again. One of the deep-rooted core problems of 5E is the "preset build paths," which force you to multiclass to have freedom. Otherwise, if you stick with a single class, all the "you have no freedom" arguments 5E players use against OSR games apply to 5E.

Dungeon Fantasy powered by GURPS looks like a better 5E at this point. I know, it sucks; this is heresy; all the math; it is not d20; I need a computer program to design characters, and the complex, simulation-nature of the rules all come up. But to tell you the truth, if I want a great 'character builder game,' nothing touches GURPS. I could sink thousands of dollars into 5E for a few dozen build options - one or two I will use - or buy an eighty-dollar box set once and have everything I will ever need.

If I want more, I can mod-in options from GURPS and have anything I want, even superpowers. Even with the extra cost of the base GURPS books, you are still under the typical 5E investment needed to play. If a game is about 'character builds,' don't waste my time, fish my wallet with books that cost sixty dollars, and give me one or two broken new options.

I started paring down my 5E books to a core set of "the best of the best" with Advanced 5E as the core and putting aside my Kobold Press books for Tales of the Valiant release next year. I am doing homebrew for an Advanced 5E setting since many older settings don't feel right with the game. Advanced 5E is my 5E, and my core old 5E books are in storage.

Advanced 5E is the "Windows clean reinstall" version of 5E. I have had enough of the broken, bloated, messed up Wizards version that never worked right, and I felt like people played with X, not Y, Z, not W, and all the other messes the official books made over the years.

Part of dealing with 5E apathy is changing the game and freshening it up. There is a good game in 5E; we have just had so much junk thrown at the system the last 10 years that it is hard to find.

The problem is that GURPS sits on the next shelf, telling me, "You're serious, right? If you want a bard-enchanter-thief hybrid character, I am a skill-based and point-buy system; I've got you covered. You don't need to wait three levels, either. Do you want advantages and disadvantages for roleplay, too? Got chapters for those. Custom powers? Got those. You are not dealing with bad game designer syndrome, too, since you are the game designer, buddy."

The 'bad game designer syndrome' kills 5E for me. This is why we have One D&D, because the 5E design is broken, and likely, what they will ship in One D&D will be broken too. I design a cleric in 5E and am unhappy with the subclass choices. Or did the game force me to wait three levels to pick a subclass? What if I feel the choices and powers aren't that great? I am stuck with what a 'bad game designer' gives me. Sorry. Everyone has to deal with it, so everyone plays the same game.

See also basic-game 5E rangers. You end up with classes where 'everything sucks about them.' And you can't predict which class gets the shaft by 'bad designer syndrome' since a lot depends on multiclass synergies.

To fix it? Buy the 2024 books, please!

With no guarantee, things won't end up broken there, either.

Trust our game designers this time! This coming from a company short on trust this year.

The A5E designers did well with what they had and made an excellent clean-room game. The problem goes deeper, though, down to the root of the post-AD&D 2e design. The core design of D&D 3+ relies too much on skilled designers, and with the tighter numbers of 5E, every mistake or broken synergy worsens things. You need to step back and take a deeper look at the design to know what is happening here.

For the last 20 years, D&D has been built on the Wizards model, where designers create rat-in-a-maze 'build paths' from level one to twenty and force players down them. Multiclassing is the only way to 'break the Matrix' in D&D and create synergies, which is what 5E ended up as. Pathfinder 2e showed what a tight, balanced game design could be - but it took considerable revamp and effort to get there. PF2e is still not a great game for me since solo-ability is complicated, and the game plays better with a group.

5E apathy is rooted in that 20-year-old design and over-reliance on the current crop of game designers and their skill at pulling together a game. For 5E, they did a good job and pulled in the best minds from various fields, styles, gaming backgrounds, and experiences. I doubt 'Lightning in a Bottle' can be replicated in 2024; I don't see it. The consultation and design are entirely inside of Wizards this time.

But are people tired of the core design?

This is where I feel my 5E apathy lies. I feel tired of the structure and framework of 5E, and this extends back 20 years to the Wizards model and design theory. I can do a better job at designing a compelling class and experience. The game I move towards will be a toolbox that supports that feeling.

And as I walk away, GURPS adds, "And I do it in fewer pages, too."

Sunday, September 17, 2023


I was flipping through YouTube and came across this video by Bellular. I played WoW for a while and was interested, so I watched it through.


Yeah, this hits it on the head.

And how he feels about WoW is how I feel about D&D and Pathfinder/Starfinder. These games have gotten too pop-culture, soft, mass-market, safe, padded room, and cute. Everything I liked about the edge and cool factor of Pathfinder 1e is gone now. Stafinder looks like a plushie RPG. D&D and the iconic worlds feel like your old favorite places to eat, but under the new management, you get this feeling that everything sucks.

I used to have some interest in Forgotten Realms novels. These days? Thoroughly checked out of Wizard's brand of mass-market Wall Street quarterly numbers fantasy gaming. Any story they could write, even by bringing back the genre's legends, would not interest me.

Engagement is way off because the parent company does not care, or they care about the wrong things.

I like A5E; the math and technical challenges are back. The game's feeling is like any other 5E clone; the only thing interesting about the world is what I bring to it. Otherwise, it is still a bland, generic 5E clone. Tales of the Valiant? The same, another 5E clone that feels like Generi-5E. I love the mechanics, innovations, and presentation - but the excitement and engagement are not there unless I do much lifting.

What drew me into A5E was the world and characters I brought to the table.

I spun them all up in Castles & Crusades, made a few mods, and had the same thing. If you can do this and still retain the same level of engagement, the game you are playing is not keeping you there. I still like A5E for the math, but the game feels generic and lacks flavor and style.

For ToV, I am saving all my Kobold Press content and not using it until that game drops. It sits on a shelf, and I want that flavor to belong to ToV and give it the best chance I can when I finally have it. Midgard is fabulous and I feel some engagement there. But that is for next year. I don't want to burn out that great KP library on A5E.

I tried replaying the old 4E Nerrath setting with A5E and felt that same 'who cares' feeling set in. An old Wizards setting I have fond memories of isn't really doing it because what we loved about that setting was more 4E than the setting. Remove that game, and who cares?


Engagement and excitement are what I look for.

A world and characters I care about.

Knowing I am not being pandered to by the same tired, cute tropes.

 And a game that challenges me.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Aquilae Bestiary of the Realm (Abridged, DCC)

Ever want to play B/X adventures with Dungeon Crawl Classics, but did not want to make up monster stats? Well, Infinium Game Studios has you covered. They did a heck of a lot of work and converted 410 monsters (in the abridged 1 book set) of all the most popular B/X creatures to the DCC system.

If you want more, you can find (these 410) and more in the 2-volume set, 1,660 monsters for DCC. The abridged version is refined for most games and gives you a quick reference for hundreds of monsters and stat blocks (with 4 challenge levels each). The two-volume set is two 800+ page books and an incredible collector's item and reference work.

This book (or a 2-book set if you buy all the way in) bridges the gap in DCC between the standard B/X experience and the gonzo DCC set of rules. I know the DCC mantra is to not recycle the past, do new things, and create monsters and beasts that no one has ever seen. I agree, and we shouldn't keep endlessly recycling the past. We need new ideas.

But the seeds for new ideas can come from the old. Having so many monster stat blocks, special abilities, special attacks and defenses, and the abundance of choice and variety gets my mind working overtime. Even if I flavor these as something else and change them up, they are helpful as bases for my creations, monsters for Mutant Crawl Classics or Weird Frontiers, or any other DCC-aligned game like Star Crawl and many others. Every one of these can be the canvas for something new and extraordinary.

Also, there are new players out there who haven't seen the classics. If they want to experience these monsters for the first time in a DCC environment - let them! If you run a funnel of level-zero villagers fighting an advanced fire beetle as the boss monster, that is cool, and it gives me a whole new perspective on how terrifying that monster can be in a game like DCC.

If all a 5E player experienced fighting a fire beetle was laughter and dismissal at how easy a 4-hit point AC 13 creature could be killed in a single stab from a dagger, seeing an elite fire beetle with 18 hit points, AC 11, and two +2 to-hit and 1d10+1 damage attacks per turn slicing villagers in half in one hit will sober them up. Is that cool? Heck yes!

Here's the point: what is more authentic and accurate to you? Is the 5E cockroach the fire beetle you see in your head? Or is it the insect that can crawl, fly, and kill like Jason Vorhees, the fire beetle you want to see in your game? Yes, Goodman Games, don't endlessly recreate the past - but come on, the 5E version of the past sucks.

To paraphrase MythBusters, I reject the 5E version of the past and replace it with my own.

Suddenly, I am not recreating the past but seeing it differently.

And seeing things in new ways is as cool as imagining new stuff.

And I could always say, "These fire beetles are intelligent, and communicate in sound above our normal hearing range. They have a culture around fungus harvesting." Oops, the past is broken. They may share the two-noun name as the 5E monster, but suddenly, they are lightyears away from the original step wrong and you crush it, unimaginative annoyance.

This is the problem with nostalgia. It makes you stupid.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Yes, if you wanted to replay Keep on the Borderlands with DCC, you could with these books, and your monsters would be DCC enough to make the game feel right. The module would play much more like B/X on crack, but that is DCC, and go to town.

DCC play in traditional modules would likely turn into a slog of epic proportions, as traditional B/X modules are often of incredible length and depth. I would cut them down to the essential few areas, cut down the number of monsters, and focus the run through the area like a story with set parts and action scenes. A valid criticism of many adventures written for DCC is that they can't be used for one-shot games. If players want to get together and solve a situation in one 4-hour game, that is a good design goal for a module.

Classic B/X modules were all over the terms regarding the time it takes to play, with tournament modules being the more refined experiences with fewer encounters and a set flow to the action. I like the old tournament modules with scoring, a party of pre-gens racing to meet a time limit, limited gear, limited spells, no resting, and trying to survive as many rooms as possible before the clock runs out. Those generally make better frameworks for DCC adventures since they were designed to play in one session.

These books are the "missing monster manuals" that DCC never wanted but always needed. Having them opens up B/X style play and adventures and is a great resource for any zochi-dice based game.

Friday, September 15, 2023

But You Can't Do That!

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

"You must follow the rules as written!" is one of the most toxic behaviors modern games communicate to players. Some games are worse than others, and the community adopts this attitude of, "If you change the rules, your entire game is invalid, get better at playing!"

In an OSR game, if a thief player walks a tightrope in an epic moment, I could give the player's character a +1 DEX permanently. Or a permanent +2 on all balance-related saving throws. Or something along a cat's grace ability usable 3 times per day. A balance-like power with a d6 skill die roll could be possible.

"But there isn't a rule in the book for that!"

"That isn't a power in any class!"

"This is cheating! Homebrew games are bad."

"You are ruining the game for others! Every group should play the same!"

"Learn to play the game better."

We used to do this all the time and it was great. The game was played entirely differently back in the day. A character sheet wasn't something you could do a "code audit" on to determine if the character was "legal for organized play" - it was a collection of customized abilities and powers collected through the character's journey, and often just made up and balanced by the group as best they can.

Every group had its own definition of balance too. Some liked realistic, and some liked overpowered games.

These days, companies seek to control options strictly. Pathfinder 2e does this. You can see the parallels between Magic the Gathering and D&D, where characters are like "deck builds" more than they are "organic creations of a story." If Wizards could ban spells and powers in D&D like they do in Magic, they would create a competitive e-sports play league around the game instead of what we have today.

At this point, I feel D&D was a horrible acquisition for Wizards, the play and model of the traditional game "as it was" fights against the new world they want to build. They could have just created a fantasy deck-building game where your +1 sword was a card the adventure gave you and been done with it and had the game they wanted. Your character should have been a deck of cards, and you collect spells, gear, powers, and abilities through competitive play. A group would buy an adventure game box, that would contain all the cards for that adventure, and when players succeeded and got levels and treasure, the cards in that box would be handed out to those players to keep.

Instead, we had six versions of Wizards D&D since 2000, and none of them get it right. None of them are the game they want to make, and the name D&D keeps them stuck to physical books. They have to transition the game to electronic now and be nebulous about supporting physical books. Physical books in D&D 4 were all but DOA; the patches were out before the books hit the shelves.

The problem comes when modern players bring the "by the rules" play style to OSR games. They will buy a game like Old School Essentials or Dungeon Crawl Classics and come in with the expectations that if a rule or character ability "isn't in the books," then "it isn't legal in the game."

Yes, you can play OSR games by the rules written in the books.

But that is 100% never the way we played them.

If I felt a character earned something, they got it. An ability score increase, special power, extra hit points, skill, feat-style, AC bonus, class ability, spell, power, or anything else we could dream up - the characters were "sticky". They gathered special "not in the rules" abilities through adventures. None of them were the same, pulled from a list in the book, and we could use things from other games to craft our unique experiences.

Did it make our characters "100% unable to be recreated by the rules?" Yes, but that was the point. If you wanted character audits and being able to track every character point spent all the way to maximum power level, you played GURPS or Champions. These days, Pathfinder 2e and 5E feel eerily similar to GURPS and Champions in that same "character audit" sense.

Honestly, GURPS does the entire point-build and character audit thing 100% better than 5E or Pathfinder 2 and is a better-balanced and more accessible game to run with a unified mechanic and build system. Be careful thinking newer games do things better; sometimes, the classics do it better, do more, and with fewer restrictions.

All D&D 3E through 5E games do are pace out GURPS powers and skills on a level chart. Feats? Designed superpowers or advantages. Spells? Powers with usage costs and limitations. All of this stuff in GURPS and Champions is based on math, and the math is often better in a point-buy system.

There is a difference between 5E and PF2 designers who do darn things they please and systems designed on math. Why should I trust designers who can never get an edition right? I would rather trust math. The math is more complex, but balance is guaranteed, and if there are exploits - they are clearly apparent, and the math can be changed easily. If 1d6 damage per 5 points of power is too much, change it on the base level (in one place) and go from there. Or force a limit on all damage powers.

Math is a better system for "following the rules" because "math has rules," and the rules are easily understood regardless of background, language, or culture. If I play a character design game, I am playing GURPS. Is it painful? Yes. Does it just do it all better? Yes.

And I don't need a new edition of a game every 10 years like I don't need a new edition of math every 10 years.

For softer designs with asymmetrical balance, like an OSR game, why is what they wrote in the book some sort of mathematical law? It is not. The rules in a game like this are all made up, allowing you to make additions and changes as you wish. Are OSR games balanced? Typically not.

An OSR game is a starting point for a game designer. The rules, as written, are just suggestions.

Do you want to give a player an extraordinary power or ability not in the book?

You are a game designer; you all are at the table, so why not?

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

A Terrible Situation

It is funny with the horrible move by the Unity game engine; everyone I see online is comparing it to Wizards of the Coast and the proposed OGL changes in early 2023. This was the first thing that popped into many people's minds,  so much it trended on X/Twitter.

They are trying to WoTC us!

When your company name becomes an Enron-like verb, it is time to pack it up. You have lost the goodwill of not only the community but a good part of the entire world. This is why I feel a leadership change at all levels (WoTC and Hasbro) is needed to move forward because it will be unfair to the new people to burden them with the old mistakes. We will never be able to move forward, and it will keep getting brought up. They need to go for the health of the game and hobby.

Ethics matter.

They do.

5E the WoTC game, is dead to me; and Baldur's Gate 3 owns the goodwill and idea space for the 5E game. To many people, BG3 is D&D to them, and that is all D&D will ever be. The game is so good it killed the VTT before it was even released, if not now, in the future when the next BG3-like RPG is released. 

And remember, BG3 will be modded and stay around for a long time. Skyrim comes to mind, and we are in for a long (and fun) road with just this game.

Very few games or VTTs will ever live up to that masterpiece.

I have this relationship with the game where I have many books- very few of them WoTC - mostly by 3rd party publishers I support. I play Level Up Advanced 5E since the game supports all the pillars of play and the math is tight. It is the best clean-room version of 5E out there, and I am more excited about this than Tales of the Valiant (at the moment).

I played a little with 5E sci-fi, but like Starfinder, it wasn't working for me. Cool art, but art is art, and it isn't genre support. 5E sci-fi is something you play only to compare it to better sci-fi games in the OSR. I still like Esper Genesis, there are a lot of cool ideas, but I wish it used the A5E rules instead of the old 5E.

So I see WoTC coming up again and I thought it was something they did. Here we go again.

I was surprised when it wasn't.

And saddened when this was the first association people made.

It is hard to be a 5E fan right now.

I get by and support 3rd party publishers. They need communities and love more at this time.

Otherwise, I feel my interest in 5E slipping away. The negativity alone ruins it for me. I tell myself, there are more positive and friendly communities I can be a part of and matter.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

That Space Stuff, Part 3

I got my character created, my laser pistol in my what? Do I have a job at a starport? How much does that pay per day? Are there mission, planet, and star system generators? Can I easily create alien species, robots, starships, security systems, and NPCs? Are there mission creation systems?

Sci-fi is a lot more complicated than fantasy. You can run dry on ideas in an instant. The nature of a dynamic environment in three dimensions, with cultures, cities, space travel, and billions of factors, can overwhelm any game master.

Every tool a game gives you goes a long way.

Frontier Space has a lot more of that low-level sandbox sci-fi information. Where a game like Stars Without Number is incredible for creating planets and fantastic adventures, the nitty-gritty for how you do a 'street level' sci-fi campaign is fully realized in FS.

Where 5E games often fall short is in the limited space and energy they have left to do 'the other stuff.' You will have unique characters and powers, but very few 5E games cover the rest of what you need. This has been a curse on 5E ever since the original 5E DMG was released, and the world took that as, 'Oh, game mastering advice is not important.'

I can find plenty to do for my Frontier Space pilot-engineer. There is a table for wages and pay grades. If I have a million credits, I can buy a scout ship.

My Esper Genesis character awaits a published adventure and boxes of credits to open in space dungeons. The game does an incredible job with classes and powers, but like 5E, what lies beyond that is weaker and depends on published content.

This is the same problem Starfinder had for me. The entire starship economy in that game is lost in space, and taking cargo for profit to buy ship upgrades is hand-waved away. They have this strange space socialist society where starships are given to parties, and the upgrades are free. I still felt there was no sandbox to play in, nothing to the world on a low level, and the game revolved around the adventure path. All the flashy powers in EG or Starfinder are useless without supporting material.

Again, another difference between old-school games and new. OSR games give you the tools to fuel your imagination. 5E and -Finder games are tools to sell published adventures and put your wallet on a content stream.

Give me Frontier Space, Traveller, Stars Without Number, and any other classic or old-school sci-fi game, and I am set for life. I like the Esper Genesis vibe, and it feels like Mass Effect.

But I can get space magic through modding Frontier Space with Barebones Adventures. I can also get trading and exploration games with Traveller or SWN.

Many of these 5E games are fantastic, but many are just flashy collections of classes and powers and not much else. I see many Kickstarter 5E games, too, and most of them follow that same model - lots of cool character options, and behind that fa├žade, the support for living in a world like that feels lacking.

5E is fading fast for me, outside of Level Up Advanced 5E. That game backs up the other pillars of play, and every other game - even 5E sci-fi - feels lacking compared to the entire sandbox and social play support that A5E gives me. A5E spoils me regarding 5E, and the other wannabe 5E games feel like they have pieces missing.

Even stock 5E feels weak compared to the better character-building systems of games like Shadow of the Demon Lord (and the Shadow of the Weird Wizard Kickstarter, which I am in on).

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Esper Genesis vs. Frontier Space: Round 2

I did create my pilot-engineer character in Esper Genesis. I wanted to make sure my comparisons weren't just theory-crafting and go through character creation and that big 'what next' step that happens after.

Both systems created the same character. My hybrid pilot-engineer hero guy who makes his living flying a piece of junk, keeping it running on ingenuity alone, and getting into trouble he has to fly his way out of. In the 5E space game, he had "space magic" that simulated fantastic engineering powers. He had a skill and toolkit in Frontier Space - no magic.

To be fair, in EG it isn't magic but 'super high tech' nano-bot and energy science that lets him do amazing things. In game design terms, it is magic. A way to quickly describe the impossible by today's understanding and comprehension. The world of EG feels higher-tech than a traditional Star Frontiers or even Frontier Space setting. I assumed he had one of those Mass Effect-style arm computers with a holographic display. That thing could use an ancient energy source to do amazing things, like conduct scans, blast laser energy, and direct nanobots to make minor repairs close to him.

It does not surprise me that a 5E game leans into the 'personal power' design style, shipping hundreds of powers, dozens of classes, and even more variance with subclasses. This is how a 5E game works: it ships with hundreds of options that could never be tested on how they work with each other. The game sits broken, sells expansions, and is technically in beta for 10 years. They release a new edition that finally addresses the exploits - and nobody will play it since the broken design was more fun. If you cater to self-focused power gamers, shipping a fixed edition will not appeal to them.

So we could never do 'space magic' in Frontier Space? Not true.

DWD Studios also creates a little-appreciated game called Barebones Fantasy. This has a magic system. All you need to do is add the five magic skills to the game and add one +0 skill pick (that does not have to be a magic skill) to character creation. You add these skills to FS:

  • Cleric
  • Enchanter
  • Leader
  • Scholar
  • Spellcaster

Ignore the scout, thief, and warrior skills in BBF; these are already skills in FS. And set the following skill/level equivalencies in FS for the magic skills, and improve them like FS skills:

  1. -20 to +0
  2. +5
  3. +10
  4. +15
  5. +20
  6. +25 and higher

Ignore the BBF magic skill percentage chance calculations and stay in FS's skill and success chance systems (the action economy will take care of this quick). If our engineer with nano space magic wants to do a scan with his +5 'spellcasting' skill (level 2), it is PER plus 5 as the success chance. Spells are picked off the BBF lists, and the 'divination' spell becomes 'scan' for our space engineer, and it can be used once per hour (as per the divination rules in BBF).

A repair power that uses nano-bots? The heal spell is in BBF, and we could flavor this to only work on machines. Our cleric spellcasting skill would use the same spell for living things and have their Mass Effect-style armband project nano-healing bots to repair wounds.

It is all flavor! Play Cypher System, and you understand this.

BBF has a concept of a primary skill; wizards, if they choose spellcaster as their first skill pick (in FS, the +0 skill), this is a primary skill, and you get 2 spells a level instead of one. You can simulate this in FS by saying if you put a +0 skill in a magic skill, it is a primary.

And characters with that extra +0 skill choice do NOT need to pick a magic skill. You can pick another skill and ignore 'space magic' entirely, which works well since in EG all engineers are assumed to be 'space magic casters' - and in the hybrid BBF-FS hack, you can have engineers who rely on traditional skills without all that 'nano space magic' stuff. Characters who do not choose magic skills get that extra +0 skill and start off more powerful.

And with the BBF-FS hack, you get a few interesting new character types. A scholar with space magic scholar powers? Enchanters who can use powerful nano-powers to enhance objects, or even create robots? Leader skills for space admirals? Clerics for 'nano-powered' space healers?

Just flavor all the BBF magic with 'techno science' explanations, and you have a sci-fi plus space magic hack that feels like EG without all the 5E imbalanced cruft, self-centered design philosophy, and system complexity. FS plus this system feels like a Mass Effect, and characters have 'personal powers' that enhance the game but do not focus too much on personal power. But they feel more unique and capable, which hits that 5E sweet spot.

This also could be used for my 200-years-after game set in the original Star Frontiers universe and gives me a set of kewl-powers to add to the game that signifies a jump in technology and personal power. The Enorea crystal tech on Volturnus was probably used to create all these cool nano-space magic powers, and now everything is techno-slick like Mass Effect. Yet there still is room for those holding onto the old ways and that original traditional skill base and way of doing things. Even without space magic, it is possible to roll up your sleeves and fix a hyperdrive the old-fashioned way.

Part three for this comparison and hack is coming, and it has to do with the part that happens after character creation...

Saturday, September 9, 2023

The 5E Thing

I wanted to use Esper Genesis for a Star Frontiers ' 200 years after' style campaign, but it fell apart. This is a great game, with many compelling character powers and classes, along with one of the best "Mass Effect" vibes - with no magic - that I have ever gotten from a sci-fi game.

But it isn't Star Frontiers.

These days, the excellent Frontier Space is my Star Frontiers. Nothing is close, nor does anything work as well as this. The original Star Frontiers rules work but show their age in many ways. With FS, the action economy is fantastic, the support for many sci-fi standards is right there, and the rules give me easy character creation and options for improving characters that beat the original game. Scores above 100% in FS do not break the game; the game is designed for higher-level play from the start.

But the fascinating thing to look at here is why EG failed for this setting. EG is a Mass Effect-feeling version of 5E, a stand-alone system with fantastic classes and non-magic powers. It should be an excellent choice.

And then I realized that, at times, the secret sauce design of 5E can suck. The entire 5E design theory is to keep granting powers and abilities at every level. 5E is heavily influenced by mobile game design, and constant reinforcement and power grade make you want to play "one more level."

But 5E has a dirty underside with the design. Because the notion of power is centralized within the character, external items and wealth are deemphasized. The game reinforces a very inward-looking design, where "my character is my god" sort of feeling. You gather so many abilities and powers it gets to be like a bad MMO, where you fill up 100 action buttons (and still need more), and how you "play" the game involves rotations of what buttons you press, in what order, and on what timing.

5E is a very "me" focused game. Wealth and magic items are relatively unimportant. The world around you is less important. The story is less important. The NPCs in the world are unimportant. The god you serve is the exponential power curve, and the power is mostly inside you.

With Star Frontiers and Frontier Space, character power is relatively linear. What is important in a sci-fi game like this? Having credits to buy a starship and maintain it. Establishing contacts, finding missions, and building a story. Relationships with NPCs are essential. Story arcs are important. Character power happens naturally, but it is not a driving force.

Your adventure motivation is for the story and not to gain power.

The sources of power in traditional games are often outside the character - wealth, relationships, accomplishments, treasures, and a few other things. Very few character types are built on that 'internal power' design philosophy - wizards, clerics, and a few others - but it is not 100% that all the classes are inwardly focused like that.

In 5E, I stare at those character sheets and wonder, how can I get to another level? The 5E design is based on a very me-centric and selfish design philosophy. It is a superhero game where nothing outside your list of powers matters.

When I want to be a space trucker, visit a star system, figure out what is going on, and how I can flip my cargo for a profit - I am externally focused. No power will do that for me. I need to get my hands dirty and roleplay. I need to make friends and get into trouble or have trouble finding me. My eyes need to be open. I need to ask the right questions. I need to meet people and determine how my next space trucking run will expand my bank account. Someone may need help along the way.

The EG classes and powers did not feel correct for a Frontier campaign.

They felt so inwardly focused and took over my thinking of how my characters interact with the world.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Level Up: Advanced 5E Starter Box

They seem to be leaning on the 5E books for rule support, but I would be much happier if they leaned on the 5.1 SRD instead since compatibility between whatever Wizards does in the next version and this set is not set in stone. It is a minor point since the official A5E books are stand-alone, and this starter set is targeted at "players with 2014 versions of 5E books that are looking for a new thing."

I would love an A5E SRD standalone rulebook for product development.

Would I like this to be a stand-alone? Honestly, yes, break with the past and go your own direction. The core A5E game does precisely that, rewriting everything to create a new product. But as this stands, it is an excellent product I will support.

But why A5E? I am back to hand-creating character sheets, and it takes me 30 minutes to assemble a character. I dislike the character generator programs out there - they limit your options, often don't have the 3rd party books you love in them, and they force you to play the game one way. If I hand-roll a character, that character is mine, and I can tweak and customize them any way I want.

A5E is also a fantastic departure from 5E. The system is tuned and tightened, and if all One D&D is going to be is a balance patch - I would instead break from Wizards and go with community-balanced and developed games rather than the Wall Street overlords at Wizards.

If A5E needs tweaks, I am free to make those.

In D&D, I feel you won't be able to because anything outside of the VTT will be homebrew and looked down upon. After all, if people are paying to play the game that way, what value does 'unofficial 3rd party content' have?

If I do things by hand, I still own my game.

If I play something not made by Wizards and not tied to an official VTT, I own it even more.

And A5 E is the most OSR-style and 4E-like version of 5E out there, with the math highly tuned, so it is my 5E of choice.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

5E: Stop it with the Darkvision Please

5E and its darkvision problem are almost a joke now.

I was reading through the race selections of Esper Genesis, and seven of the nine races have darkvision or a variant of it. One of the races that doesn't can get it as an option, though. For some, it does not make any sense.

Stop it. You might also list torches, lanterns, flashlights, night vision gear, and other light sources as "human vision assistance." If I play this game, the races are getting a massive redesign. I see one or two having it out of the nine. They have an aquatic race with tentacle hair, and I expected them to have another enhanced sense, like vibration sense (or even hearing), but no, it is darkvision again.

What is the problem with 5E? Would enhanced senses ruin every module Wizards ever published? Does sensitive hearing or smell cause so many arguments designers banned it from the game?

If a race has darkvision, it will get swapped with another enhanced sense. I am done with darkvision unless it is granted by equipment. Yes, even the cat people. After a thousand years of being in space, they are accustomed to normal light but retain their heightened senses of smell.

And sadly, 5E puts too much emphasis on vision. Senses like the enhanced sense of smell, heightened hearing, vibration sense, enhanced taste, empathy, heat sense, distance vision, and so many other great senses are there to design with - yet this darkness dungeon map line of sight mentality rules 5E designs.

There is no such thing as a dark and spooky starship wreck if every race in the party can see through the darkness. To be fair, it isn't just Esper Genesis; many 5E games have this reflexive, "give them darkvision," thing going on - even the D&D expansion books have darkvision like the plague.

No wonder Shadowdark is taking off; 5E designers just can't get enough of the darkvision, and people are sick of it. If people ask me why I play other games, I can usually say, "darkvision," and they instantly know why. What's worse, some players will pressure people who pick non-darkvision races in a party to change their minds and align the party to the god of dark-vision.

It is like playing Resident Evil but with full-bright environments. Hello, zombies in the back corner of the room! Hello, zombie dog waiting to ambush me outside the window! What is the point of a dungeon anymore? It is just walls now.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Describing a dark spaceship corridor and having characters shine a flashlight down there to check it out is ruined. Are the designers more concerned about how the game plays with other 5E material, ease of play on battlemats, or immersion?

For sci-fi, I am choosing immersion every time.

Off the Shelf: Esper Genesis


I like this game despite its chronically out-of-print referee's book, the glossy page presentation, and the feeling of "5E Mass Effect" drawing me in. The fact that the referee's book is only PDF hurts, and I wish I had a hard copy. I may order a B&W spiral-bound copy.

And Ultramodern 5 is a much more complete and expansive game for 5E sci-fi and far more popular. UM5 feels cyber-punk and magic-oriented and reminds me a lot of Shadowrun. It is an excellent 5E system for sci-fi and is well-supported.

Esper Genesis cuts closer to the base 5E rules, making it easier to mod and play with other 5E games, such as Level Up Advanced 5E. So, if I wanted to swap out the rule engine for A5E, that would be easier with EG than UM5.

Esper Genesis has fantastic classes and powers, all tech-based, and they feel very Mass Effect to me. The default setting is exciting and moldable, and you could play everything from a 5E version of Star Frontiers to anything imaginable. I can see this powering a simpler version of Starfinder quickly.

One strange drawback is the weapon tech, which assumes a default projectile-weapon universe. There are guidelines for swapping out damage types to "hack in" a laser pistol, but no laser pistols in the game. I would edit the weapon list to suit my game (and make more guns high velocity to up the damage to unarmored targets). I would add lasers, blasters, and other sci-fi favorites.

Laser pistol: 1d6 radiant damage, 60/300 range, 2 lbs., high velocity, 20 shots, 500 cr. If you wanted the Star Frontiers 'varying power levels' just give it three settings: 1d6, 2d6, and 3d6 damage. Make ammo consumption: 1, 3, and 5 shots to account for diminishing returns. Make a natural 1 an overheating result for the two higher power levels (like a jam), and the weapon needs to cool down for a combat turn (or two for setting 3) before it is used again.

Game design is fun! Play games that let you do this.

There is also that thing in sci-fi RPGs of "too many weapons, who cares, only use one." We played the original Space Opera and had characters who only had a blaster pistol and never used another weapon.

I found it strange the weapons did less damage than the ones in the DMG. Still, they have weapon properties that double damage targets with no natural armor (this term is crucial once you open the monster book), so they try to balance lethality with playability. Less damage is a more intelligent choice, especially with a party of four all blasting away. As usual, the warriors get action surges and extra attacks, so DPS should scale along 5E levels.

I would rather have the weapons doing 1d6 to 1d12 damage instead of the 3d6 sci-fi weapon damage in the old DMG and keep turn damage predictable along 5E levels; otherwise, that party of four is doing 12d6 damage a turn (plus ability modifiers) if they all hit and will vaporize anything in front of them below ten hit dice. Tell yourself, "It is all cinematic damage," and it will be fine.

EG is a game that deserves love, attention, and a second edition. What we have today is impressive and a solid sci-fi game that presents the basics and does not try to do too much. UM5 does everything, and I find that book easy to get lost in. EG does a Mass Effect-style game perfectly, and it has room to mod in plenty of custom ideas.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Level Up: Advanced 5E - Staying Power

I put this game aside for a while, and I ended up missing it. 

A 5E-based game does not do that to me. Why? I don't really like 5E; it is just a collection of combat abilities and powers. Out of combat, 5E sucks and has very little depth. You will typically have the charisma class do all the talking while everyone else stands around and waits. The highest passive perception party member spots the traps and hidden items like a radar system. The ranger is there as the 'checkbox that we don't get lost' and avoids wasting the players' time with a GM sidetrack or encounters on the way to the dungeon.

5E has this video game mentality: "If it is not in the officially published module, you are wasting your player's time." It actively fights against GM creativity with passive skill checks. Unlike the OSR, where you have to search that chest before you open it, the passive system kicks in and makes players lazy - well, I should have spotted it! Is a goblin hidden around a corner? Well, I should have seen him!

5E goes out of its way to trivialize out-of-combat abilities and to minimize GM creativity. You play a game like Call of Cthulhu or Traveller, and suddenly, those characters seem deep and complex. Those games have a focus on non-combat abilities as their primary design goal.

5E also trivializes death and danger to the point where a great sword could cut your character in half multiple times in a day, be brought back with a healing word, and be fine - 100% healthy - with infinite bisections. It is the worst part of the game and even worse than the 4E MMO-isms it brought in.

So why did I miss A5E?

Well, it gives characters a considerable amount of non-combat abilities and bonuses, many of them dealing with the other 2 pillars of play - social and exploration. The game supports all three modes of play through character creation and advancement. Exploration, navigation, and survival are essential! Where you rest matters. Your social abilities matter.

You can't recover from death an infinite number of times.

This game was created by 5E fans who had problems with many parts of the game, and they did the hard work and fixed them. They kept inspiration as well but merged the concept with a destiny system. Where Tales of the Valiant seems more like "a compatible 5E mod," - A5E seems more like a complete rebuild.

If the original Warhammer FRP was the UK's answer to D&D, Level Up A5E is the UK's answer to 5E.

It also shares a little of Warhammer's grim and gritty DNA, but it retains the play and feeling of 5E. You will not 'get away with' ignoring overland travel. You will not ignore food, water, and even light. You will not marginalize social encounters, and everyone at the table will have tools to bring to a social encounter. You will carefully consider where and how you rest. You will not get away with the party hiding in a small closet in the middle of a deadly dungeon and taking a long rest next to the entrance.

Martial classes are fun and have options. Casters aren't nerfed. You feel powerful, but you also have vulnerabilities. You track resources. Your party stamina matters. You can't just 'close your eyes and push through to the boss battle' like you can in a videogame.

I can hear UK players calling old 5E out, laughing at the stupidity of what the game forces players to do, calling parts of the old 5E design rubbish and lazy, and then fixing it in their own version.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

"We are in the Tomb of Horrors, right? Well, let's all climb into this closet and take a short rest!"

That sort of statement should be met with stares of disbelief followed by laughter. You are in a horror module. If this were Dungeon Crawl Classics, I would have the closet be a giant mouth, the door grows teeth, and you are all swallowed alive; please roll new characters. Save-or-die if I am feeling generous. Even in old D&D, that is six 1-in-6 (or 2-in-6) wandering monster rolls for that hour of downtime. Prepare to be surprised and run an extra combat without the benefits of the rest.

Try putting away your old 5E books and forcing yourself to just play with this. Don't say, "I wish they would have made this an add-on for 5E," because that argument marginalizes their hard work here.

5E is reductive and brings everything down to the combat lowest denominator. Combat power - by the numbers - is all that matters. This is a very American perspective on fantasy and roleplaying, and it isn't always correct. Frankly, it gets tiring after a while, and One D&D is leaning more into this numbers-based mobile game theory.

A5E was designed in a different mindset, where there is much more to being an adventurer than where your position on a hypothetical damage spreadsheet puts you. Your character is twice as deep as Tales of the Valiant (which borrows some ideas from A5E) but ten times deeper than a base 5E character. When I design a base 5E character, I think about combat power first. When I design an A5E character, I am forced to consider abilities and powers out of combat - and how these would help my party.

If you play A5E by itself, you see the system in an entirely new light. What it could be.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Off the Shelf: Dungeon Crawl Classics

The more I played 5E, the more I appreciated the classics.

What turned me off to the 2023 version of 5E is the rampant power gaming and cheating (and a lot of official 5E content does this) of expansion books. Games like Level Up A5E do an excellent job of establishing a sane baseline, but once you bring in any legacy book, the balance gets thrown out the window.

5E is to D&D what Modern Star Wars is to Star Wars. It is a 'Homer's Car' version of the original game, with so many great ideas piled on the game that it is an unrecognizable mess. The more books you add to get it playing how you want it to, the worse it gets, and the more books you need to fix the problems introduced in the books you added.

You are soon forced to baseline by returning to the original 3 books or a new version like Level Up A5E or Tales of the Valiant. Still, even going back to these as baselines put a band-aid on the problem; once you add expansion books, you are back in the same boat. The best way this works is to throw out expansion books and start fresh.

5E isn't a game but a kitchen junk drawer of ideas people call a game.

Many of the ideas they introduced in 5E (bounded accuracy) cause more problems than they solve, and they aren't as huge of improvements as people make them out to be. Even advantage/disadvantage isn't that revolutionary a mechanic since it is only +/- 3. Rolling one die and adding or subtracting three is faster and simpler than rolling two dice; this is grade school math. The A/D system prevents you from using a -6 or lower modifier for complex challenges and ends up being a one-size-fits-all solution for problems that require nuance and judgment.

So I returned to Dungeon Crawl Classics and rediscovered that Appendix N goodness.

I needed to clean the palette, rediscover fantasy gaming, and get out of this "gimme something every level" slot-machine addiction feedback loop of modern game design. 5E is designed like a mobile game;  it gives me something at every level, and it shows. Even feedback from 5E players I see online who play other games (like DCC or C&C) get that instant dopamine withdrawal symptom when they play other games, "This game doesn't give me things at every level like they do in 5E!"

75% of the time, how you make 5E players happy when switching to other games is to implement a feat system at level one and every odd level after. They will be happy even if you "let them make the feats up" or adapt 5E or 3.5E feats. C&C has a feat system (called advantages), and DCC even mentions implementing a feat system in the game if you want to (page 447). You can buy books of 5E feats or PDFs of all the 3.5E feats that are free online - use those for inspiration for both feats and subclass abilities.

If you allow advantage/disadvantage, all that is left are subclasses. I could mod subclasses into DCC or any OSR game by starting them at 2nd level and allowing players to invent a subclass and gain a feature every even level. Make it a 15% benefit at one thing, and you are fine. I am a life order cleric; I get +1 per die of healing. If it is a 30% benefit, give it a duration or number of times a day equal to the level limitation. And subclass features can stack and double up if you don't want too many of them. DCC makes things easy by allowing a shift up the die chain for some abilities.

Most players can imagine a minor subclass benefit they would like to have and be able to balance it themselves. If it is broken, adjust it. If it is broken and can't be fixed, that character is a one-of-a-kind, and never allow it again. If it is too weak at higher levels, give it a buff.

Feats can be taken by anyone and are more general. Subclass features are limited to classes and often focus on improving the class abilities. Want to replace a feat with a "race or background ability feat?" Go ahead if your character would qualify.

This is precisely the "game design" that Gary Gygax and everyone else did around the table as they developed the game. We did this in the 1980s! Designing the game as you play to be "your game" is just as Appendix N as anything in a rulebook.

There. That is the imitation secret sauce of 5E. A feat at every odd level. Gain one subclass feature every even level. Every 4 levels, raise two ability scores by a point. People rarely play above level 12, so the number of "things to track" won't be very high.

Most importantly, everyone is a game designer.

This is my problem with 5E. I could play with five shelves of broken, low-content, consumerist game books and waste most of my time searching for the one or two options I want. Or, I could use a simple game 'built to mod' like a DCC or C&C, and play that while modding it to precisely what I want. With the 5E imitation secret sauce, any of these can play like 5E and give that dopamine hit.

Most importantly, I trust myself to balance and create options far more than the designers at Wizards or a dozen 3rd party companies interested in selling books built for power gamers.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023


AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I can tell when YouTube channels struggle; instead of providing exciting content, they start sniping at each other, white knighting, arguing, and fighting. Worse, they start making 'lists' of other YouTubers like they were in middle school and begin fighting over them.

Psst, I heard Tommy put you on his 'dorks' list. You better go over there and force him to take you off it!

If you take a Twitter fight onto your channel, I do not care. I am turning you both off.

My side! Your side!

I have no tolerance for this; I don't care who it is or how much I liked them before; I unsubscribe immediately. I am there for people who love the game and can bring people together to enjoy something we all love.

Apparently, these creators love things outside the game more than they love the game, and this is always a red flag. Then, they use the game to gatekeep. In other cases, they start fighting for no good reason and feel 'drama is content' - again, like some childish middle school idiocy.

Anger channels, too, in general, I am done with them. Sarcasm channels, your days are numbered, too; I tire of sarcasm as smug inside knowledge. Anger-content creators always end up making up reasons to be angry at something that doesn't deserve it just to keep the shtick going. But it is humor! Right. No. And they inevitably get 'angry' at other creators, and here we go again.

YouTube, your platform sucks. It forces creators to use anger, drama, smugness, and hate as content, and Google pushes and promotes that for ad money - no wonder the culture sucks, and people hate each other. The algorithms pit one against the other in dog fights. To win these fights, "user gangs" are forced to gatekeep and de-platform. Creators use the games to push outside agendas, and you recommend those channels to me constantly.

Garbage in, garbage out.

YouTube, take a long, hard look at yourself and your ethics.

Advertisers take note: you fund this.

As a viewer, I am making better choices and turning YouTube off.

I will play a game I love instead.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Mail Room: Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion (2023)


Look what I found propped against my front door (and likely sitting there all night). I joined the Kickstarter for this and got the book and a few sets of cards. I am also in both Savage Pathfinder Kickstarters (and have yet to receive the second). Thoughts?

I like Savage Pathfinder, but I get overwhelmed every time I try to play the game. The characters have too many edges, and the class edges feel too much for me to pull apart. I know this is just Savage Worlds, really? Also, the Paizo iconic characters - I love the art and style - feel too overwhelming, and this is their game, not mine. It is a strange feeling, but it is like playing a superhero game, picking a vigilante character option, and seeing Batman on the page as iconic.

Now, I am forever going to compare my hero to Batman.

Most people probably did not have a problem with this. But somehow, I did. Strangely enough, I don't feel 5E has the iconic character problem, and there feels like room for my characters to "be" the iconic character in that class. The OSR certainly doesn't have this problem; the characters there are generic 3d6 dead meat and try to survive. Savage Worlds does not have an issue with iconic characters.

At times, the Paizo flavor of fantasy leans too heavily on their IP, and the game doesn't have room for my ideas. This is even more prominent in the remaster of Pathfinder 2, where the iconic spells, monsters, and creatures are being memory-holed for non-OGL replacement content. Yes, I am harsh, but seriously, replacing drow with reptile people and saying previous dark elf content was "fake news" is peak 2023. The drow monster entry is in the Creative Commons; nobody owns them now. I will check out the new replacements, but they are not in my history, and Golarion 2.1 feels alien to me now.

D&D and Pathfinder 2 are not in the same fantasy genre as most OSR games or even old D&D. While they can be used to play something like the OSR, they are either too planar or too specific to emulate the older generic fantasy game worlds.

Paizo IP feeling dominant is not a bad problem! This signifies solid branding, theming, and tight product management. The game has a definite identity, which is excellent - but it hurts using the system elsewhere.

Still, if you are playing Golarion and love the old-style art and flavor, play Savage Pathfinder 100%, or play the original 3.5E version. You can have your red dragons and magic missiles, and it feels like 2010 again. I love my copy of Savage Pathfinder, and it stays on my most-played shelves. Despite what Paizo does in the future, my version of Golarion is the original.

Some history: I ran a short Savage Fantasy (2012) game in the Pathfinder version of Primeval Thule, a sort of "Conan plus Cthulhu plus D&D fantasy" mish-mash of a setting, and it was a fun swords & sorcery romp. The thing I love about the original fantasy companion was it was a "stuff book" for the main Savage Worlds book, and things still worked essentially the same as the main book plus this.

I tried running it with Savage Pathfinder, and it fell apart. WTF?

It felt like Pathfinder. The characters in my game were not limited by class edges and had all the options open to them. I could have a bard with rage. Whatever - you are surviving in a messed-up world, let your characters progress naturally. If your bard has a reason to pick something "disallowed," then do so. I know you can do this in Savage Pathfinder, but the game felt wrong, and I had a lot of extra information in lists of "can't pick" X, Y, and Z that I would end up ignoring.

Great if this is Pathfinder, but this wasn't. If I can return to superheroes, it is like playing a Marvel RPG with rules meant for a DC Universe. It did not feel right; the goblins were the football-headed ones, I felt the presence of the iconics, and it was like biting into a hamburger where you knew you would only take one bite.

I wanted Conan plus D&D flavor.

I was getting Paizo flavor.

The game was better with the Savage Worlds book, plus the 2012 Fantasy Companion.

Now, I have a revised 2023 Savage Fantasy Companion. The game is a generic fantasy sandbox simulator. The races are a catch-all of everything. Nothing is assumed for me. The art is excellent, and the setting is agnostic. Characters can progress organically.

Most importantly, no world flavor or theme is forced on me. Thule can be Thule. If I played in any other setting, the flavor there would be dominant. Savage Worlds plus the 2023 Fantasy Companion would fade into the background - like they should.

A great generic game fades away and lets flavor take over. Cyhper System does this well. GURPS does it. Many OSR fantasy games do this. Pathfinder 1e does it better than 2e (even with the iconic characters). Savage Pathfinder does not feel generic enough to me to run anything other than Golarion. Likely, it is heavily themed towards "fulfilling the fantasy" - which is excellent for running Pathfinder.

It doesn't do it for other fantasy settings, not as well as a generic fantasy toolbox that keeps complexity down and strips out the flavor and setting limitations meant to emulate a genre.

Savage Pathfinder is great; it is one of the best Pathfinder experiences I could ever imagine.

The new Fantasy Companion has infinite potential outside of that area.