Monday, February 27, 2023

Emergent Gameplay

One of the great things about a solid "sim" game is the emergent gameplay the experience generates. We had this with the Aftermath game back in the day, and I have this with GURPS today. You get into melee combat, and you get all sorts of exciting situations to come up when your character gets their hand stabbed and needs to fight with the other, a goblin gets stunned and falls off a cliff, and the game's "sim system" generates a story for you.

If you can slog through the rules, the system rewards you.

Then we move to the "hot thing" in many games today, with many random tables. Emergent gameplay is created through table results, which enforce a theme and mood depending on what can happen. One of my favorite games in this genre is Dungeon Crawl Classics, and I love the tables in this game - with one huge caveat:

The tables are not an endpoint; they are a starting point.

Given what a table result gives me, I am free to replace it with a similar effect from my imagination or better appropriate for the situation. Once you start to know the tables and the dice ranges, this gets easier to "break away" from the charts - and it enhances the feeling and mystery of magic once you do.

I know why we need charts - they surprise us and break our habits. Play too much of games with too many rules, and your imagination goes away.

But there is a danger where charts shackle us and limit our imagination. I have a rule, I never roll twice on a chart. If the first result I get does not excite me - I must make something new. I can use the result as inspiration or ask myself, "what would be the most fun?" And "most fun" can be harmful too if the chart produces a negative result, like "what is the worst thing that could happen?"

So in comes Cypher System. A game I did not understand and sat on the shelf for months feeling like a mistake. I even had this boxed up at one point.

Oh, I was wrong about this.

This is a game where "making it up" is the rule. I rolled a one-use cypher, an "attractor," which I think is a magnetic thing, and it did not make sense for the character. Keep the result and let the player figure it out, right? I had that "not happy" feeling, so I asked myself, "what else can attract things?"

A bottle of pheromones, perfume, cologne, or scent.

Then I had it. This was the most fun thing, and it had very little to do with the chart result - but it worked incredibly well. The player was happy, I was delighted, and we had an excellent, new, one-use item to play with that felt great.

I could have easily made this something else that "attracts," like a flare gun, signal beacon, homing tracker, a pistol that shoots a market dye pellet, magnetic glue, charming attitude, magnetic personality, irresistible advertisement, or anything else that attracts X to Y. On the flip side, I could have taken the opposite word, made a "repulsor" item, and potentially doubled my potential creative inspirations.

Then I stepped back, realizing I could do that for any die roll, result, or action in the game.

I know, it sounds silly.

But play too many games with strict rules that limit your creativity and too many charts that tell you only a few results are possible, and suddenly you aren't thinking for yourself anymore.

You are following what is written in a book.

And never going beyond that.

The authentic "emergent gameplay" exists in your head, and no amount of rules or charts can replace it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Mail Room: Numenera Discovery/Destiny

A new game is here, and I am looking this one over.

All I can say is wow, with one nails the science fantasy Appendix N feeling perfectly - but then, takes a step beyond. More soon.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Cypher Character Creation

I got through character creation. While it appeared very obscure and complex to follow at first, the procedure on page 17 with the PDF hyperlinks is the way to go. Go through exactly as they tell you, and do not even think about backtracking! Here's a tip:

Copy and paste every power, choice, and selection you make into the form-fillable character sheet.

The official Cypher form-fillable sheets have the room to do this, as long as you put enablers on the second page and "point costing" abilities on the first page. Use the page-2 background box for your arc, player intrusions, GM intrusions, and other notes.

So, what do I think?

This system makes a lot of "narrative system games" obsolete for me, such as FATE, Index Card RPG, Genesys, and a few others. I still love these games, but this does all of them so much better. This also makes 5E obsolete for me since it does so much more under the same sort of framework.

In 5E, your characters are limited to what Wizards gives you. You need to open your wallet to get more options.

In Cypher, you DIY build the character of your choice out of a menu of powers organized into grouped and themed selections, and some of these sections "level up" with you. One book does it all.

It is like a version of 5E where you break component classes down into building blocks, like a druid's natural powers, a fighter's battle abilities, and a thief's sneakiness - and you allow players to mix and match those blocks any way they like to build characters. You can ever do X for Y swaps if you really want something.

I need to do some play sessions, but once you have characters built, the system melts away into the background. The GM presents the story and sets pass-fail challenge difficulty for every critical moment. This part of the game feels indistinguishable from D&D's flow, except the referee never rolls dice.

And the Cypher system is setting-neutral; it can do anything from cavepeople to end-of-time sci-fi.

The characters are interesting. Even ones without "tons of combat skills" feel robust but slightly more prone to failure (and need to exert more effort to do the same thing as a skilled character). I have a party of characters without "trained combat skills," and I still feel good about them. Will I buy weapons and combat skills? The game only allows that when it is explicitly said by abilities, like the second-tier warrior "Skill with Attacks" or "Skill with Defense" abilities. So you can't just increase combat power with generic skill picks.

In short, the base combat effectiveness of all characters feels good. Warriors are better, but everyone can have fun fighting and feel capable.

I can see why some call this their perfect "desert island game." I could replace four boxes of 5E books and three shelves of Pathfinder books with just this one book. Would I play those games exactly? No. Would I be doing the same things? Yes, with a better framework for how the game is run and flows and infinite options for creating characters in any genre.

When I was done, the characters felt like 5E characters, but this was for a modern setting, and everything worked smoothly. My options "per character" felt like great 5E classes, and any concept I came up with worked well with the design system and gave me the opportunities I expected.

Do I lose low-level rules granularity? Yes, but I have GURPS if I want to play games where goblins get shot in their right hand by an arrow and know what exactly happens. This game does that "narrative streaming" sort of play you see on steaming "let's play" shows like the game was made for online play. If the referee never needs to roll dice, there is no need to show that; the referee can act as the storyteller in a more decisive and assertive role. If the difficulties are known by all, there are no "secret dice rolls," and the play is much more followable.

Overall, this is an impressive system once you get past character creation. Well worth your time and investment since it replaces the need for many games and opens up your creativity across a wide range of genres.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Backerkit: Cypher System, Final 6 Days!

It is the last 6 days for the Backerkit for the Adventures in the Cypher System campaign. This is a great chance to get a bunch of cool add-ons and a deluxe rulebook, so it is worth jumping in if you are interested.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Cypher System: The Ultimate 5E?

The more I read this game, the more I feel this is the ultimate version of 5E you could ever play.

Yet it is entirely different from 5E.

If you boil the essence of 5E down to its component parts and throw out all the rules, class options, spells, feats, and all the other D&D things - you have the following framework:

  1. You create a character who can do [actions] with [abilities] using [equipment] and [consumables]. Or, in short, "things."
  2. You collect new things as your character advances.
  3. Your character possesses [resource pools] that improve as you level, which are spells, ability uses, and health. And these are regenerated through [recovery].
  4. Your pools improve as you level, and the cost to use abilities reduces.

With Cypher System, you get all the toys in one book. You do not need any expansion books. You do not need class and option expansions. You get to design everything and create any class out of the collection of abilities the game comes with.

Boiled down, you don't need the 5E rules. And the one-level dips and senseless class combos are unneeded since you design the hero you want, and they level up exactly how you would like. There are custom options too, and the powers you get are balanced and "kick in" at the correct power level.

In a way, Cypher System end-runs around 5E systems and focuses on the core class roles, and augments them with leveled power selections. Everything else is simplified to the bare minimum, and the excess cruft and rules bloat is removed. All the silly feats and "you are not a game designer" guardrails are removed. You do not have to "pay for power" or "purchase options" with expansions.

You are just left with your pools, stuff, and powers.

The game comes with a near-infinite combination of choices.

And everything else goes away.

When you look at the game as a 5E alternative, it makes a lot of sense because it factors out all the junk and leaves you with the "secret recipe" of 5E-style characters - and focuses squarely on the fun.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Why More D&Ds?

I love this take; why do we need more D&Ds? Check this video out and subscribe; I watch his videos a lot.

We have so many retro-clones, clones of every edition, new takes, fresh takes, and slightly different versions of the same thing. Why do we need new versions of 5E? We have a few out there (A5E, Low Fantasy Gaming) and a huge one in development (Black Flag).

As for D&D-alikes, the excellent and tactical Pathfinder 2e is out there.

3.5-alikes? Pathfinder 1e.

OSR? Too many to count. Gonzo OSR with Dungeon Crawl classics is the way to go for me.

Sci-fi? Starfinder or Traveller are great games.

Rosetta-stone games? Castles & Crusades is "every D&D" and is being revised to eliminate the OGL entirely.

I am playing Dungeon Fantasy, which is GURPS, and it is a fun change of pace. It clears my head and cleans my palette for all the D&D-like games I just want a break from.

And I am not going back to 5E or Wizards. They don't want players or dungeon masters like me in their "brave new digital world." They want subscription customers who play on their monetized 3d VTT. If you play elsewhere or on an old-fashioned table face-to-face with your friends - it does not seem like they want you as a customer.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Cypher System: The Ultimate Narrative Generic System?

GURPS, Savage Worlds, and Champions are less narrative systems, in my feeling, and more traditional generic "toolbox" systems. They do not abstract as much, and they feel and play more like a conventional "dungeon crawler" than they do a narrative simulator.

Cypher System falls into an area where games like FATE and Genesys live. The other two games use special dice, and Cypher uses traditional d20, d6, and 1d100 dice - so the buy-in and accessibility are greater. Like these generic narrative systems, the flow of the story is closely tied to play.

With GURPS and Savage Worlds, I can play these like a traditional dungeon game, and the narrative flow is more tied to the concrete dice rolls made at the table. With a generic narrative game, the flow of the story is very much the game and built into the mechanics.

Cypher does things differently. The game uses a d20 and is loosely based on the 3-30 difficulty class system familiar to D&D 3.5E players. The game also uses an OG Traveller-like pool system for the three attributes, where damage reduces the attribute pool (and effort also comes from these pools). The role of skills and gear is to reduce task difficulty. The role of pools is for damage, stamina, and effort. Damages are fixed. And the xp and reward system is deeply tied into the narrative flow of the game, and XP serves as a currency that drives both story and advancement.

And the characters have this fantastic build system, much more interesting than 5E. I can't figure it out yet, but I feel that is one of the system's weak points - it is so conceptual that it feels challenging to approach from the standard "let's design a pen-and-paper character" mentality. I am sure this will be easy once I "get it," but I will need to watch a bunch more YouTube videos on getting started before I feel confident in this area.

People love this game, and it is taking over the "narrative play" space by storm. This is one I am looking forward to learning and playing since so many people are excited about this one.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

After Winter Dark: Aihrde A Fantasy Campaign Setting

Another great Kickstarter dropped, the After Winter Dark: Aihrde A Fantasy Campaign Setting. This is Castles & Crusades' first post-OGL set of books, compatible with the old OGL version but forward-looking in design and vision. This looks like they are focusing on the campaign world first, and then the new version of the rules with the OGL excised will release later this year or next.

These days, dumping the OGL and any mention of the company that created it is a selling point and an attractive feature to buyers.

The OSR is forever.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Great Video: GURPS, Don't Convert, Create!

This is one of those mornings where you realize the hundreds of dollars of setting books you bought are a complete and total waste. I kid; they are still good for inspiration, but the advice here is spot-on.

Do not waste your time converting. Instead, create!

The list of reasons is excellent, and one of the most obvious is that you will be able to share your creation and publish it if enough people love what you do. There is a future for your work that is greater for you and the thing you are creating.

For a while, I was checking out setting books for use with a few games that I have, and most of the time, it felt like a waste of time. The only one that really worked well was Savage Worlds with Primeval Thule. You know a setting and a rules system go great together when the "rules disappear," and the "setting feels perfect" for the conversion. Still, Thule is a knock-off of Conan meets Cthulhu, and even the latter elements feel weaker than they should be. Also, the "standard races" are shoehorned here to make this work with "your favorite fantasy RPG."

I would be better off mixing Conan with Cthulhu and making my own setting. I don't need all the standard fantasy backgrounds; most would be distractions. Part of the difficulty in using a setting like this is this process:

  1. Have a fantastic idea for an adventure!
  2. Endlessly flip through the setting book, trying to find a place it would fit.
  3. Never find anywhere great, but maybe a few "okay" places.
  4. Compromise and feel disappointed.
  5. The above took a day of work, and your inspiration is gone.

If I wanted "Conan versus the village of fish people cultists," why didn't I do that myself? I swear I keep doing the above "foolish dance" each and every time with these campaign settings, and every time I start with a great idea that I am happy about and end up disappointed and never playing.

Why do I have to fit it into someone else's idea first? Do I need permission to use my creativity? What am I getting by using a published setting? Am I saving any time by being forced to do the "foolish dance" with each and every idea?

I could have just used my imagination and created a village of evil fish people cultists. The next step would be to grab my character sheet and begin playing.

But where in the world is this place? That is up to you. Make your own world and put it where you want it to be. Mostly it won't matter, but you may continue the idea, and then it does. But you enjoy the same freedom of extending your world and putting the place "next to this one" that you want, instead of being forced with a few terrible choices the setting guide forces you into.

Same with conversions. I wanted to do a GURPS: Star Frontiers game, but really, Star Frontiers has a lot of problems, and only a few of the parts of the game I really like. The races would be about it if I were given a choice of "what to keep." Then again, everyone owns generic sci-fi concepts: bug-alien, flying-monkey-alien, and blob-alien. And if I do my own thing, I can add sci-fi races to the game.

What don't I like about Star Frontiers? The setting was never developed and prevented me from telling specific stories I would like to tell. The spaceships and starship combat rules are "meh" stuck between Traveller and Star Fleet Battles, and the system doesn't work well on 1" hexes. Some of the technology is cool, but most are generic, and a bit stuck in the early 1980s. Parts of the game feel like they assume anti-gravity, and others do not.

Starfinder feels like a much more expansive and dynamic universe design by comparison.

If I take the parts I like and start over, I feel more inclined and excited to play. Let's say I wanted to go "hard science" with a sci-fi game, with an exploration ship that took years to get to one exemplary star system, with a crew in cryosleep, and there isn't really any going home easy. Games that assume "fast and east hyperspace travel" (you too, Starfinder), will break that design unless I GM fiat all over the place and take things away from the players.

Why take away?

Create something new without the parts you do not want.

This also dips into the curse of modern gaming, where the default assumption is that "every choice must be made available." You see this in 5E and also Pathfinder 2E. While it is nice to have choices, they lock you into one world, one style of play, and a small subset of campaign settings. Every fantasy world becomes the "Star Wars Cantina" of different cultures and backgrounds; the effect is choice paralysis and sensory overload.

I love you, Pathfinder 2E, with your hundreds of choices and combinations - but with a toolbox game like GURPS, I can have infinite possibilities and choose the few I want. With modern "mega choice" games, the hundreds of background and class options can shackle my creativity and force me into the "default set" of options; otherwise, players feel I am "taking parts of the game away from them."

Suppose I want a hard science game where the bug-men meet humans, and we explore how those two cultures meet, relate, and learn to live and work together. Why would I want a game that gives me 99 other background options, hyperspace, psionic powers, space empires, and 99% of the game and background information I would never use.

And then what happens inevitably is I feel I am "missing out" if I don't use it, and my fantastic "first contact" idea gets shelved because "more is better!"

Tuesday, February 7, 2023


At this point, every week, the largest game company in the world does something else stupid.

Today was another, and I will spare you the details since enough people are talking about it.

When I was in middle school, my best friends were an African American kid and a gay kid.

And we played D&D together as the outcast nerds. In the early 1980s. We were all today's "marginalized groups," and even more so because everyone thought we were devil worshippers for playing the game.

People just found a new way to hate people they already disliked. Namely, us.

And today, companies are infected by people saying stupid crap just for popularity points on social media or what they think people would like to hear. The company they work for is burning down around them.

And they dump on entire groups when people in those groups are honestly trying to "be someone different" and have that experience outside their little box. And now people in these companies are telling entire groups, "leave the hobby," or if this is taken another way, "certain groups can't be creators in the hobby."

In a hobby where honestly, everyone is a creator.

Back then, when my best friends and I were trying to get into other hobbies, people didn't want us in or create art and music; we were told to leave those hobbies too. You don't belong here.


A trash fire.


And a game I loved goes up in flames.

The OGL and SRD Hold Us Back

When you look at it, we don't need the OGL and SRD at all.

An argument can be made they hold us back. We are putting our ideas of fantasy gaming inside the box D&D and Wizards made. Yes, sure, the "network effect" argument can be made, but on the flip side, you can argue that "it only benefits the market leader."

Plenty of other games use rules that are nothing like D&D; people learn and play them just fine, and they do everything D&D does.

  • Runequest
  • Forbidden Lands
  • Pathfinder 2e
  • Conan
  • Cypher System
  • Warhammer
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • Sword of Cepheus
  • Castles & Crusades
  • Mork Borg
  • Blades in the Dark
  • Dungeon World
  • Savage Worlds & Savage Pathfinder

And that is just a small list. Those games are very different than D&D, yet they do the same things just fine. Within the D&D-like games, there are too many to list (OSE, Labyrinth Lord). A few of the above are arguably close (DCC, PF2, C&C), but they are so far removed from the core experience they can be called entirely new games.

And some of these 5E has borrowed from (C&C), so 5E and the 5.1 SRD should be asking the question, "Who made who?" It looks pretty petty for Wizards to have tried anything like what they did, and many people still need better tastes in their mouths - especially since no changes at the top were made.

Same Wall Street corporation, different day.

The same "delayed implementation" rollout.

Wall Street's plans do not change THAT quickly.

And honestly, moving away from the OGL and SRD will free many games to follow their creator's dreams rather than being judged strictly on how closely they follow ideas created 20 to 50 years ago.

Why do we chain ourselves to the past?

Why is what Wizards says about fantasy gaming gospel?


Is nostalgia enough to say today's creators' dreams are worth less or somehow invalid?

There is such a thing as SRD fatigue, that if all you play and see fantasy as comes from between the covers of books and documents created by Wizards, then your world is tiny, limited, and restricted to the ideas of a few people in the past plus a small subset of inputs.

Yes, D&D opens the door to your imagination and gives you that framework to express yourself, but on the other hand, the longer you stick to those ideas, the more you limit your dreams and fantasy vocabulary. Why are everything magic missiles, sleep, and fireball? Is that all fantasy magic can be?

Or can it be something more?

Something uniquely you and me?

Sunday, February 5, 2023


I am still not feeling any goodwill towards 5E or Wizards. Their mistruths, actions, and silence have caused so much hurt by their actions it is hard to forget those days in January. The emotional damage they caused to a community is immeasurable.

Even with the Creative Commons thing and the statement supposedly ending this disaster, the damage has been done. I don't think an SRD 3.5 released into the Creative Commons, though it would be welcome and a good move, would help all that much.

The damage is done.

Every one of the games they affected fed into their status as market leaders. There were "those other games," but there was always the "latest version of the one they were based on" to check out.

Now, that isn't so.

Many of these games are going their separate ways, and many players have been hurt; they will think twice about joining - or DM'ing - a game of 5E. The "DM crisis" worsens as experienced and long-term veterans leave the 5E market.

And I checked out a few 5E live-streamed games, and the views on those are way down. Few want to watch the game being played these days. That might change, but the secondary "blast zone" of Wizards' actions is evident, even among live-streamers in the middle of campaigns, and I feel bad for the position they have been put in.

I see tremendous interest in competitors, games like Dungeon Crawl Classics and Castles & Crusades are seeing a resurgence in interest. Pathfinder 2e is growing to become a viable alternative and possibly a market leader, which is nice.

Me? All my old OSR adventures and Castles & Crusades go together like rum and coffee. It is a solid alternative, has fewer charts than B/X, and is simple enough to play off 3x5 cards. It replaces Pathfinder 1e (I still love that version). I can house rule back in just because of any complexity I lose, and it feels more like AD&D than Pathfinder without the complexity and 4-page print-out character sheets.

And all my OSR modules play as-written with no changes in stats, hit points, damages, or much else.

The TSR worlds?

Anything Wizards did with a TSR world (beyond the original 3E collected materials) has been terrible, and the campaign settings are mostly unsupported except for a few adventures "set" there. I could still play in them, but the shadow of Wizards would still hang over the world.

I am considering The Lost Lands or Aihrde for my next C & C games. Lost Lands does a better Greyhawk than Greyhawk with all of the old-school adventures to collect there, plus it has Rappan Athuk as an anchor for a mega-dungeon, which every good world needs. The quality and quantity of dungeon crawling here from Frog God games make the original AD&D run of classic modules look weak by comparison.

Aihrde does a Forgotten Realms setting easily, minus the GMNPCs. Any "concept area" in FR can be replicated or found worldwide. Need a Candlekeep? Put one down. Need a Waterdeep? Pick a city. Want a Baldur's Gate? Make a place like it. Want GMNPCs? Make some, or just drop in your favorites from the Forgotten Realms. There have been enough "times of trials" in that world that copies of those GMNPCs from earlier editions can probably be found anywhere in the multiverse.

Golarion and Pathfinder 2e do everything better than any Wizards campaign setting. That world is a like a classic comic book, ready to deliver any adventure.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Another GURPS Blog

Check it out!

Sometimes I feel some information is better suited to a dedicated blog, and my love of GURPS is one of them. If I liked GURPS and Dungeon Fantasy (which I do), this would be the type of blog I would read and check up on.

This also allows me to deep dive into GURPS subjects and have the information collected for an audience who likes it in one place.

No, I didn't know what to name it, and this was fun.

And yes, that is graph paper in the background, not hex paper. I still like my graph paper, and as a gamer, that speaks to me on a primal level and gets my imagination going. My hex paper resource would confuse the presentation and distract the eye with that type of pattern; this feels much better to me.

At War with Local Game Stores?

I love this guy. Yes, he made mistakes, but he quickly fixed them and made apologies; he isn't a journalist, but he tries to make it right and present factual information.

So, Wizards is actively undercutting local game stores?

The places we gather, meet new friends, play together, and support the store owners because their dream of being a part of the community is ours too? Those local game stores where we gather and play are a part of our community!

Here's a hint, Wizards, if you attack local game stores and try and push everyone to your "online play portal," this will likely not end well for you. The community will support its own and walk away.

The crowd running Hasbro and Wizards just seems worse and worse the more that comes out.

Take your "mobile gaming" strategy and leave our community alone, Wall Street.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Old Modules, Conversions, and Feel

You have old modules, you want to replay them with newer systems, and inevitably you run into the "bulk encounter" trope that was so overused in these older modules. You even see this mentioned in conversion notes for Savage Pathfinder, where the game's designers cut down dungeons and larger encounters to get the best "flavor" of the adventure rather than a 1-for-1 exact replication.

The old modules were content to throw 10 goblins with short bows at a party as an encounter and let you throw a sleep or other AoE spell at them to resolve the situation. You try and simulate this in other games, and you are either "grouping them up as one foe" (Savage Worlds), cutting them down to fewer combatants (GURPS), or leaving them as-is for games that still have that bulk-encounter resolution mechanic (C&C and B/X).

But these encounters feel overly "wargame" to me, and one of the best examples is Keep on the Borderlands. You will have rooms in this adventure with 20-30 enemies frequently, and I tried playing this with Pathfinder 1e, and it was a complete game-slowing slog and slaughter simulator.

Warning, spoilers ahead for N5: Under Illefarn.

One exciting project I am doing is replaying the old Forgotten Realms setting with GURPS and Dungeon Fantasy to see if I can get that original "feeling" the world had when we first played it. I wanted less of a focus on monsters and more on roleplaying, skill use, and deadly and gritty combat. This is a low fantasy world (to us), and I was looking for modules set in the Forgotten Realms to try to convert.

Enter N5: Under Illefarn.

The scale of the Sword Coast is vast, and right off, the scale of this adventure is way too large. The map has this scale where the secondary adventure areas are two to three hundred miles from the town. Interstate 80 in Nebraska is 300 miles long, and you are supposed to chase someone 300 miles at one point in the adventure. By horse. Without roads. The beginning swamp is 200 miles away and uses tribes of lizardmen who never are used again. The final part of the adventure requires that 300-mile trip. I would have been happy with the 30-mile area around the town. The adventure feels like TSR gave the designer a map and said, "please fill this out."

Are there dinosaurs here too? Yes, there are, and it feels wrong for the Realms.

There is a point where a fantastic "honor duel" is short-circuited by 10 goblins firing bows into the situation, and I was sitting there with that old familiar "TSR pulls the rug out from under you" feeling again. What would have been an excellent roleplaying encounter was thrown away because AD&D's rules only do swordplay and honor duels in a generic "AC and to-hit sense" with no options or style.

I sit here with my GURPS books and say, "Daminit, I can do that honor duel easily in this system!"

I would have liked the adventure to focus on the town and the surrounding area rather than being so travel-heavy. The first encounters with the lizardmen feel like throw-away compared to the end of the adventure, where you are split between three factions in a dungeon trying to repair a water source contaminating 300 miles of river (that the dwarf faction should know how to do). Seriously, the town's farm and sewage runoff will contaminate the river more than a few green slimes 300 miles away.

The adventure does not need a "trigger warning" for sensitivity issues; it needs a trigger warning because it lacks environmental impact knowledge.

Fixing N5

I would cut the swamp and lizardmen out of the adventure. The "bad guys" attacking the village should be one of the factions in the final dungeon, either the orcs or the necromancers. Thus, you solve the dungeon and destroy the bad guys, and help the town. Simple. No more goblin drop-in encounters for cheap combats; this isn't Starfinder. I kid, but even Starfinder's early adventures suffer from too many random goblin encounters.

Keep the kidnap plot and honor duel. Maybe flesh out the bad guy in this arc's hometown and craft a rescue scenario at a "forced wedding" party the idiot put together. That would be a lot of fun, and add a few options for sneaking in, even disguising yourself as the party catering. You need to have silly and fun parts to the adventure, and this is a great moment to do that.

Strengthen the factions in the end dungeon, and involve them in the town. The dwarves should be in town, asking for help early and warning people about the evil factions. The town should ignore them, setting up the "I told you so" part later. Make the evil factions more active in town, either orc raids or necromancers digging up graves, and have these as "set piece" battles or investigation parts of the adventure.

After a while, everyone realizes, "All roads of trouble lead to the dungeon."

The end of the adventure should be the faction dungeon (placed closer to town) and involve helping the dwarves complete a series of tasks to repair the water source. Help the dwarves raid an orc stronghold in the dungeon. Seal off a passage the zombies sent by the necromancers are using. Destroy the orc's supplies outside the dungeon and weaken the force there. Destroy a power source used by the necromancers. Have the dwarves develop exciting missions involving the party with adventures from war movies.

And then one big final battle.

N5, as written, feels unfocused and railroads players into situations.

This design feels like a story and novel and is a much better experience overall.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Adventures in the Cypher System

I feel so dense like I never "got" this game. I have been looking it over recently, pulling it out of one of my 5E "sell" boxes and giving it another chance.

I am glad I did.

It is a strangely abstract pool-based game in many ways, and the power levels are very relative. Like a FATE, you set a power level and go, "we are playing Transformers," and suddenly, every pool and ability score is relative to the Transformers. Are you playing intelligent mice? Same range different scale.

In a GURPS or Champions, those giant walking robots need 200 STR, and humans need to stay the game's baseline. In Cypher, it is all relative. Play as ants or planets, and the game works the same.

Another thing that helps me "get" the game is to think of all of this as a superhero game, like the comic books that rate "power levels" on a 1 to 10 scale, and you don't worry about pounds of force of impact, joules of energy in a power blast, or any of that stuff. Weapons are fixed damage, modified through effort or good rolls. Armor decreases damage. Damage is done to your pools in a set order.

In a comic-book world, you get these situations where a softy hero like "Bow Guy" could be punched by "Mega Brute" and take a lot of damage, get knocked through a wall, and be unconscious for a long time but still survive. That would be a mega-damage one-shot kill in games that stress high levels of realism.

The play is relatively simple, and the GM rolls no dice. Yes, the GM rolls no dice - just narrating and setting difficulty. Players do all the rolling, and the monsters "attack" by forcing a defense roll - made by the player.

The GM sets a challenge level, the player reacts, and if a roll is needed, the player's skills, gear, and effort (spent from three pools) can adjust the target number. The pools also double as "hit points" and can be rested back, though each subsequent daily rest takes longer until a "full rest" is required.

The above is a complete rule primer with a sample adventure and pre-gen characters.

All that said, there is a BackerKit going on this month for a deluxe edition and all sorts of other goodies, and is worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Forgotten Realms: Our History

We played the Forgotten Realms in the early AD&D 1e days, way before the 2e novels caused havoc with author NPCs and ever-expanding "don't touch this author's area" world design, which honestly caused a strange fractal repetition in cultures and places, so every writer could baseline a "fantasy setting place" as their own. We never had invincible GMNPCs running around or organizations in every area that could step in and save the day.

It was just a world, and it was ours.

The 4e disaster destroyed the world, and for us, the world's history ends around the above-depicted 3e book. We hated the 4e shoehorn of eladrin and dragonkin in the FR lore, and this foretold today's homogeneity where "every world needs every race and background," even if it does not make any sense at all. What makes a world unique is who lives there and accepts the limitations of the culture and setting; otherwise, we will need Klingons and Vulcans in Star Wars. Along with anthropomorphic animal races, space goblins, dragons, and...

The tendency to put everything in every world becomes obsessive-compulsive after a while. It takes away anything unique and exciting about the setting and makes it just like every other place. This is the equivalent of chain restaurants and applying that logic to fantasy settings. You go to a place looking for some great local barbeque, and your friend from there takes you to Applebees.

Diversity of background and culture can exist in settings with a world with just humans; just look at Earth.

5E, as far as I know, still needs a Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide (if we ever get one). Wizards stopped making setting guides except for books linked to Magic: The Gathering and a few other oddities that have been underwhelming and feel like filler. The great campaign settings these days are written by 3rd parties (see also: The OGL Disaster of 2023), and if I want a fully fleshed-out "official" setting, I am buying older setting guides and adapting. In some ways, it is a good thing since they won't screw them up.

We Played Low Fantasy

When we played in the Forgotten Realms, it was a low-fantasy game. It was terrific; we were so used to the chests filled with a million gold pieces, PCs with gloating castles and armies of djinn and gold dragons, and characters with stacks of +5 magic items so deep they walked around with a chestful of gold bling Greyhawk 100th level characters - having an AD&D world that was down-to-earth and realistic felt so good.

There was even the concept in here (enforced by the gods of Dragonlance in their world Krynn) that if characters got too powerful, they were asked to leave the world and banished. And there were strict "transfer rules" in place for any visitors to the world; you could not be disallowed race and class combos, unrealistic ability scores would be trimmed down, powerful magic items disallowed, technology banned, and wealth for incoming "residents" severely restricted.

Yes, the Forgotten Realms was this strange European country with all sorts of limits on citizenship. And we were sure if a character ever got too powerful, they would not be allowed to stay; most likely, they would get sent to Greyhawk with the rest of the power gamers and 100th-level characters.

Monsters? What Monsters?

Many town maps had no walls and natural defenses, so we assumed these areas were already settled, and the land tamed. This was not your typical B/X world where you step ten feet into the woods out of town and start rolling random encounters with giant beetles and goblin war bands. There were militia and patrols in settled areas, and towns existed peacefully in the settled areas of the world. We did a lot of roleplaying, and this was one of our first "fantasy RP" worlds where the conflicts were story-driven and not "the monster of the week."

Evil wizards, bandits, and other humans were often the bad guys in these stories. You get towards the borderlands of each kingdom, and you start seeing orcs, gnolls, and other humanoids. The silly monsters of Greyhawk (gelatinous cubes, mimics, ropers, piercers, etc.) were not present since we saw those as a little childish and "dungeon-y" for a mature and realistic world.

It did feel a lot like Lord of the Rings, in fact. Elves stuck to their forest and were rarely seen outside of it. The dangerous lands on the borders were where the King's forces battled the armies of chaos. If you found "adventure" in a settled area, it was something special and mysterious, like a lost ruin nobody knew about for hundreds or thousands of years. Elves and dwarves stuck to their lands, and seeing visitors in town was a memorable and fun moment worthy of roleplaying the meeting.

Please Stock my Dungeon!

These days I get the feeling that campaign settings exist only for a reason to provide a map to throw fully-stocked dungeons on. We ran ours as a realistic world, devoid of powerful GMNPCs and some of the silly "dungeon ecology" stuff Greyhawk enshrined in the hobby. Whenever we talked about "the Realms was a cool place" with other players, we got moans about the omnipresent GMNPCs, and we were left scratching our heads - having skipped the novels and most of the adventures to do our own thing.

We didn't have the cartoon beholders and drow who ran thieves' guilds in Waterdeep or most of the godling and powerful monster stuff in the Baldur's Gate games. We skipped the first "time of trials" and felt it was stupid to cause an in-world event to happen to explain the 2e rules changes. TSR ended up destroying the world for us in the 2e transition, and we moved on to superhero games and sci-fi.

There is this tendency in D&D the game to over-magic the world into this silly high-fantasy superhero mode, the same one established in D&D 4e. The 5E game has that feeling in spades; everyone is a superhero starting out and gets more superheroes by the campaign's end. It is fun, but it is also very tiring and lacks challenge.

GURPS or Dungeon Fantasy

If I ever revisited the Realms, I would do it with GURPS or Dungeon Fantasy. I would want a low-fantasy, gritty, realistic game to match our original experience with the setting. I do not care about having "every monster in the book" and "every magic item on the list" at all. Our Realms never had them, and most of the conflicts were between humans and humanoids, and actual monsters were rare and unique. Magic was not too commonplace either, and wizards were special. Most battles were fought without magic, and magic was a relatively unique and rare power. Most classes did not have magic powers either, and you could get by in the world being a great ranger with excellent wilderness skills.

One evil mage with his network of assassins, spies, mercenaries, and an allied humanoid tribe? A great campaign villain. Monsters? They could be summoned in and were very rare and unique, or one powerful owlbear would be the "boss monster" of a dungeon. Dragons? Maybe you see one flying far overhead and wonder.

I thought Pathfinder 1e would be a good fit, but after I thought more on the subject, the entire 3E ecosystem and Pathfinder have way too much "stuff" to ever be of use in the Realms we played in. I would not use 95% of the classes, monsters, backgrounds, and items in the game - and it would be more of a chore cutting things out than recreating a world I knew.

Castles & Crusades could do it well, but it would still have higher magic than our game, and again, I would only use a small portion of the game. The GURPS combat system is a lot more gritty and realistic, and that would give a good "feel" to the game and enforce the deadly and brutal nature that would feel right for the experience I want. C&C is still a great game, the best AD&D feeling game out there.

Much of what ended up mattering in D&D and even Pathfinder was absent in our version of the Realms. The world was fantastic, like Lord of the Rings, and in its own reality bubble.

And it was a fantastic place while it lasted.