Thursday, June 29, 2023

Blog: Cheapy 5E

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

As a silly blog project, I started the Cheapy 5E blog. This blog is dedicated to playing 5E as cheaply as possible and homebrewing your version from the 5.1 SRD.

As kids, we would have loved a blog like this since it is a bit rebellious, funny, cool, and trying to get away with not buying books and using our imaginations to fill in the gaps.

And we would have built a better game and loved what we made together.

Advanced 5E vs. Tales of the Valiant

Once Tales of the Valiant emerged, my interest in Level Up Advanced 5E rose considerably. I had two games to compare. A5E was first, so it bore the brunt of the criticism, such as being "house-ruled 5E." Well, guess what? One D&D will be "house-ruled 5E" compared to the original version of the game everyone came to love.

Past 2024, it is all house-ruled version versus house-ruled version.

The direction that ToV is taking feels like Pathfinder 1e compared to D&D 3.5. Slightly increase character power and monster difficulty, and say you are backward compatible with the previous game. Technically you "are," but playing D&D 3.5 encounters with a bunch of Pathfinder 1e characters gives you an unfair advantage. As I recall, they made a conversion document to increase 3.5E encounter difficulty when facing a similar-CR group of Pathfinder 1e characters.

One of the most significant differences between A5E and ToV is that you get both ability score increases and feats as you level, whereas A5E keeps it as a choice between either. This tells you a lot, and it is a crowd-pleaser sort of gimme from Kobold; it means character power at higher levels will skew higher than 5E. A5E keeps the power level roughly the same as 5E while eliminating cheese builds.

A5E sticks to the 5E power level but rebalances and increases overall encounter difficulty. There is math rebalancing going on here, but nothing raising the curve. A5E had a more demanding job when it came out since it couldn't be seen as "OP easy-mode 5E" and had to stay math-compatible with 5E adventures and expansions.

A5E also eliminated a lot of cheese. As a community-built game, it feels tightly balanced and like a fixed version of 5E - but math compatible.

Of course, time will tell how ToV is eventually balanced and what the power level finally is set at; we are still pre-playtest early, to be fair. Also, I like gimmes and a higher power level since Pathfinder 1e felt more exciting to play than 3.5E. But that said, I did appreciate the "dry balance" 3.5E without all the "bam-pow" flash of Pathfinder 1e.

One D&D's changes to inspiration (making it far more common and happening multiple times during fights) also feel like a power-level bump, and they will need to balance for splat-book power creep in the new edition just to keep up with the work they say they are compatible with before. So far, it looks like a standard set of nerfs and buffs to all the classes, and again, time will tell.

I like A5E's take on inspiration better than ToV's luck (and removal of inspiration) or One D&D's "popcorn inspiration" mechanics. Having inspiration linked to your character as a "Destiny" that can be fulfilled is impressive. Specific roleplaying in-character actions are needed to gain inspiration. Alignment (as a trait) is only gained through a few destiny choices, and for the most part, alignment is not a critical part of the game - but still kept around for spells and items that affect alignments.

If you like the inspiration mechanic, A5E or 5E are your choices, but A5E does better with the entire concept and links it to roleplaying. If you like the luck points mechanic, then ToV is your game.

We are also seeing this with weapon mastery, something in the 5E playtest for martial classes now being given to many classes, and A5E does this better by keeping these moves in the martial class sphere (as what makes martial classes fun to play). Just because something is popular doesn't mean everyone should get it, and this feels like a design-by-committee mistake.

The difficulty is added to A5E by building an exploration pillar and putting resource management into A5E. The rules for A5E's exploration turn the game into an OSR version of 5E, and the situational environment modifiers also tip the hat to D&D 4E. We also get a nicely built social pillar; so much work was put into this set of rules. I hope that ToV adds as well as-designed rules for these two pillars of play and avoids being just another dungeon combat game.

At this point, A5E is much closer to OSR design philosophies than ToV and way better than what stock 5E delivered (or looks to deliver in One D&D).

Suppose you are an OSR player who is okay with a bit of abstraction of resources during travel. In that case, A5E will make you happy, give you a machine-tight level of numeric balance, and still deliver on that brand of superheroic fantasy roleplaying that 5E does so well. This does feel like AD&D versus D&D back in the day in that AD&D was a much more mature and better thought-through set of rules.

As for ToV? That looks like a "fun enhanced" version of 5E, a popcorn crowd-pleaser game. That is my early impression, and we will see if this holds. There is room for both, but you are making a mistake if you ignore A5E for the "shiny new" game. The thought and frameworks around what an exploration and social pillar of play - built from the ground up - can do in a 5E framework are worth the price of admission.

If I stuck with an "as-is" 5E set of rules, with the balance tuned around existing material, A5E would be my choice. Even over the original 5E, which has massive numerical balance issues, A5E cleans up nicely. ToV will also do a lot of cleanups (as needed), but if it comes out as a higher-powered rule set, that is fine too.

A5E would be my game choice with that "dry balance" feeling and classic OSR pillars of play. This is the closest to "as-is 5E" balance minus exploits and mixes in many fun old-school concepts.

ToV would be my crowd-pleaser game for the VTT, with exciting combats and that more brutal Kobold Press encounter build level.

One D&D I will most likely ignore, but it feels more like ToV than A5E in that it leans heavily into table-fun moments (and possibly too much for my liking). I am done with Wizards as a company until the leadership changes. That is a fair position, not trashing the game but holding people accountable. Given all they have done this year, keeping a fair chance open for new people to take over while letting the current crowd know I am still unhappy with their behavior.

Most of my time will be taken up with these two incredible games.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Post-D&D Era

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

We are in this strange moment before the release of One D&D, a game many will not return to. That is likely not because of the OGL disaster or anything else; a sequel for something that popular will be an impossible sell. It will likely sell well but nowhere near the level of mania we saw during the heyday of Critical Role and the pandemic. Especially for something so similar to what people have and love.

Some are burned by the OGL mess and will return once the leadership changes at Hasbro and Wizards. I fall into this camp, and it is a fair position to not trash the game while holding people accountable for their actions. Also, D&D needs a creative reset and rest, and I expect more out of Wizards than a "patched 5E" for the next 10 years of the game.

A 5.5 edition will last 5 years before people start getting tired of the same thing. This is also a risk for all clones and highlights the need for innovation in the space. For me, 5E is entering its "classic OSR game" phase of life, so I don't consider commercial success an indicator of quality. 5E will live on in the OGL, and I expect D&D 6E to be here sooner than we expect and for it to be radically different from anything we ever saw before.

This is common sense; look how fast AI is advancing and compare that to a 10-year release cycle of D&D. Some "AI fantasy roleplaying system" will likely come along in 2-3 years, giving us a true virtual world, and then D&D 5.5 will be forgotten as the "could have been." We are not even in the same world we were 5 years ago, and "new books" will not be the next big thing.

Wizards will have invested millions of dollars in an Unreal Engine VTT moving static figures around, and most of the public will be playing an AI-driven "VR Fantasy Realm" on a Facebook or Apple VR headset. Wizards will then be chasing that, and 5.5E will be forgotten. What Wizards is chasing now is an idealized version of the past, vastly different from the next cool thing people will want in the future.

Wizards are not software developers; that is not their core competency or culture. They should be working with partners and licensing. They should create content, support their settings, create novels and stories, and create the IP others will use and license. This whole software development phase is pie-in-the-sky thinking and ultimately unsustainable because they don't have the software and customer support history.

The only future for 5E at this stage of life is in the community as an indie-supported rule system.

This means a clone needs to rise, such as Tales of the Valiant or Advanced 5E.

What matters now for "legacy 5E" is the license for the community to move forward with since every "classic game" will be supported by the community. This made the OGL scandal so toxic that people are abandoning the OGL 1.0a, which doubts all future 5E "classic game" support.

And again, that one move was so destructive to their "Next D&D" plans as well; if they can't support the community, how would we trust them when their altered reality D&D experience comes out?

The community won't be included, so why should we care?

That is what made the OGL disaster so damaging. This isn't about a "what next book will you buy?" but "leadership in the space." They lost that, and the books you see providing alternatives show their leadership has yet to be recovered. The missing scale in the dragon's hide has been found. The Wizards company is not so invulnerable anymore.

They may still have the size and leadership position, but once upon a time, Detroit did too.

People aren't moving on to new versions of 5E because they want to; they have to for the game's ongoing community support to survive. Wizards have shown they can pull "license shenanigans," even the Creative Commons isn't enough protection from a billion-dollar company.

The Tales of the Valiant game is seen by many as trying to capture lightning in a bottle again. Can Kobold Press capture the excitement, and for historical reference, the same way Paizo did with Pathfinder 1e? This project has gotten me interested in what a post-D&D era looks like, what I would like to see in the rules, and what the tone and flavor of a 5E game I would like to see would be.

What Tales of the Valiant has going is excitement and energy. You buy into this game because the buzz is there. That is a powerful thing. The game feels fresh and alive. There are plenty looking forward to this. There is an innocence here that beckons the call to adventure.

Level Up Advanced 5th Edition, terrible name and all, excites the nerd in me as much as playing the old AD&D by the rules did. This set of rules is an excellent mix of OSR pillars of play and the 5E rules and is really one of the first 5E-OSR games out there that maintain compatibility.

Where ToV has the excitement, the systems with fantastic depth in A5E make that OSR nerd in me happy. There is also some D&D 4 DNA here with the environmental combat challenges. The strong linking of character to the world increases player investment, and the destiny system replacing alignment is fantastic. The game's designers learned from the lessons of the OSR revival and the mistakes of 4E, kept the best from both eras and moved forward with a 5E framework.

And A5E cleaned up the math. I love the "dry balance" feeling this game has.

Yes, ToV, you have the excitement. But I hope the ideas explored in A5E are recognized for the incredible additions to the game they are. Strongly supporting the three pillars of play makes this feel like an OSR game, which is very cool.

Note that a massive part of the popularity of the current 5E relies on late-game exploits and power gamers. Those will be fixed in every version of the game coming up. The playing field for exploit builds will end no matter where you go - unless you stay with old 5E (and that hurts Wizards more than it does the other games).

Let the community support Legacy 5E; this is what they do best.

And Wizards is too big to chase a 5.5E and a 2020-era VTT. They shouldn't be playing "license games." They are wasting their time and, honestly, losing their leadership position by looking backward and trying to close the market.

They should be focused on a future coming at us faster than we can imagine.

This is the difference between the leadership of a million-dollar brand and a potentially billion-dollar one.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Video: Why Pick A5E?

Here is an excellent Level Up A5E video that covers a few things I missed, including the overall lethality and the resting and supply system, along with the tools for exploration (havens, supply, strife, and fatigue).

The video also covers the game's math and how that has been rebalanced and smoothed out. This is a huge selling point, and I hope Kobold Press pays as close attention to the math as EN World did. The math in this version is highly tuned and fixed considerably to make creating encounters and judging challenges much more straightforward.

With all the excitement around Tales of the Valiant, it is good to contrast and compare editions to pick the version that fits your preferences for 5E. As this video's creator states so nicely (in another video), 5E doesn't belong to Wizards anymore; it belongs to the community. D&D is Wizards; 5E roleplay belongs to us all, and we are free where we choose to play.

I am still very excited about ToV, but the ideas and innovations in A5E are worth considering. The amount of effort put into building a 5E exploration pillar - and how that interacts with combat - is impressive and takes 5E to the next level. You can tell the OSR ideas are influencing here, but with that gamified twist which 5E does well. Social encounters are similarly as well thought out.

If base 5E (and one D&D) are D&D, A5E feels like an AD&D to me.

Overall, it is a great, informative video.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Advanced 5E Redux

This is still a great edition of 5E, and if you want to sidestep participating in the Tales of the Valiant playtest and want a full-featured 5E alternative NOW - this is the game to get. EN World did an outstanding job with this game, and they put a lot of thought into the modes of play - including exploration, and tightly tie characters to the world through character generation.

Even in the Tales of the Valiant world, A5E feels more like the AD&D to 5E's D&D. In terms of settings, this is what AD&D's Greyhawk was to D&D's Mystara back in the day - a heftier, more in-depth, complete set of rules that pays tribute to the OSR pillars of gameplay.

ToV? That is more like Paizo's Golarion (and Pathfinder 3.75 to 3.5E), a new direction with alternate rules replacing the standard 5E systems (replacing inspiration with luck). A5E cuts closer to the 5E core, and ToV diverges in specific ways. ToV, like Pathfinder 1e, has a higher base power for characters, and the monsters are balanced around that standard.

A5E keeps the choice between ability score increases and feats, and from what I saw, it makes feats pretty worth taking instead of that default-5E ability score increase. ToV? You get both a feat and an ability score increase, and your character power is higher than the 5E baseline (which is already high, admittedly). Is it fun to get both? Heck yes! Is it 5E? Not really, since ToV characters will start collecting "feat lists" as they level, which adds to the complexity.

Again, this is Pathfinder's "gimme" design, where they upped character power and compensated with monster difficulty. Giving players what they want is good, but you pay a cost in complexity for every gimme you give. A5E sticks to the original design goals of 5E while making fixes in plenty of needed places. ToV makes fixes, too, but leans more towards crowd-pleasing and less to the original design mantra.

It also uses an "expertise die" mechanic, which is fantastic, and I like the idea of adding a die to a roll in some situations. Expertise dice are like Shadow of the Demon Lord's "boon/bane" system, but it is a dice chain like in Dungeon Crawl Classics. For example, flanking in A5E gives you an expertise die (not an advantage). If you have no expertise dice with your attack, it starts at a d4. If you already have a die, it bumps up to the next highest, so a d4 goes to a d6.

Simple, and it replaces the need to use "advantage and disadvantage" for every problem.

Another cool feature is linking inspiration to your character's destiny. Destiny in this game is a choice you make at character creation, and it could be something like chaos, knowledge, revenge, wealth, and so on. Doing a "source of inspiration" toggles your inspiration. This is used as usual. One thing I dislike about Inspiration in the One D&D playtests is that they are moving towards making it happen frequently and on things like die rolls of one. Having inspiration linked to your character archetype and roleplaying? Chef's kiss! 

Yes, inspiration makes for emergent gameplay and fun moments. Still, I get this feeling in One D&D that inspiration will be so every day it will be meaningless and another expected part of character power. I really do not like that; even if it is "more fun" to be toggling inspiration multiple times per fight, I would rather have it as a "key moment." resource than a "turn to turn mechanic" one. One is used for special moments, and the other is another thing to track every turn. Huge difference.

These are well-thought-out and cool changes.

Again, this is the more mature, balanced, true-to-5E core AD&D to 5E's D&D. It does a few things differently (expertise dice), but there is some solid game-design reasoning behind these additions.

The Level Up Advanced 5E game should not be ignored in the hype and launch of Tales of the Valiant. I expect Kobold Press to knock it out of the park, but A5E is worthy and a solid AD&D style alternative to 5E.

Pathfinder 2: Stepping Back

This is a better game than 5E, just because it clarifies everything. The number of rules needed to run a tactical wargame like this approaches the old Advanced Squad Leader, so the game is 600+ pages to cover every topic and contingency.

In 5E, you are told to "wing it," leading to a network of unwritten rules where there is a "Reddit ruling" you need to look up to play the game and have a consistent, community-approved way of handling a situation or combination that breaks the game.

Pathfinder 2? It is all in the book.

This is why people see the game as more complicated yet say it is easier to run.

In 5E, you are referencing several spells to define a term like "sunlight." Some spells say they make daylight but not sunlight. There are no official rules for sunlight and what it does and counts as; they are hidden in spell and monster descriptions.

You figure it out.

Pathfinder 2 will have a tag on the spell to tell you what it does. Sometimes it will have a few. Look up the rules for the tag, and you are 100% playing the game by the rules without having to Google D&D rulings (that may need to be updated).

I understand; you play enough 5E (or Pathfinder 1e), and Pathfinder 2e looks like a genius-level clarification and simplification. I suspect most 5E players only loosely follow if you play by the rules.

But I don't have time and would instead stick to rules-light games. 5E can be played "rules light," but you will ignore most of the rules. For 5E, I am sticking to the "Kobold-Verse" with their edition of K5E, Tales of the Valiant. ToV is 5E from now on, and it is a company I can support and believe is a good steward of the game and its community.

The Kobold-Verse is my 5E, just like the Paizo-Verse was my 3.5E. I am done with Wizards, which insulates me against game-breaking changes in the rules. I can use the 3rd-party 5E books I didn't sell with K5E and not worry about the game-changing.

But I hope Kobold Press cleans up 5E instead of leaving it as-is in its messy state, or else I am revisiting the original PF 2e. That would be a deal-breaker. 5E could be better, and I hope a new company can clean up the rules and make them easier to play. With Wizards, too much is "left up to you" - so much the game becomes broken and unplayable in some situations.

A lot in ToV will likely be worked out in the playtest, so if you want the game to be cleaned up, join the playtest and give your feedback.

I know, coming from an OSR guy, that sounds funny. But with games like 5E, where builds and strategies matter, balance and combos rely on precise rules and clean presentation - which is where Pathfinder 2 shines. As for Pathfinder 2e? I am taking a break until the revisions but will miss the SRD content. They may come up with something cool, but I am waiting to see what happens next. If I play PF 2e, it will be with the books I have.

I don't want to make a huge commitment without seeing the revised edition.

Right now, lovely collection, but wait and see.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Tales of the Valiant: Goals Exceeded

10,057 backers pledged $1,151,914 to help bring this project to life.

This is a fantastic start to a great campaign to create a new 5E "distribution" that will be out of the control of Wizards. If you stay with Wizards, that's cool, but seeing competition for the game's health is good. This diversity is a good thing, and it ensures a viable commercial published set of rules will be there for 3rd party developers.

  •  Mid-July – Alpha release PDF sent to Kickstarter backers and put on sale for the public
  •  Mid to Late July – Caverns of the Spore Lord adventure reward sent to Kickstarter backers as an adventure to accompany the Alpha release and put on sale for the public

And if you missed out, the beta PDF is on sale to the public when it goes live to backers in Mid-July. You can join in the fun when the backers get the beta, which is an excellent and inclusive step for the game.

I like the design goals here:

  • Make the rules easier to read, understand, and use.
  • Reduce GM burden with encounter-building tools, exploration encounter tools, social encounter tools, and more.
  • Rebalance some existing elements, such as feats (now known as talents) and subclasses.
  • Provide opportunities for PCs to make meaningful choices throughout every level of play.
  • Make spellcasting cooler.
  • Keep combat interesting for martial characters.

The OSR part of me screams "Yes!" when they mention exploration rules. I also like eliminating the feat versus ability score choice; you get both. Also, they are editing the rules to be easier to learn, play, and use - something 5E needs desperately.

Do I care they don't have a game master book? I have plenty of excellent 3rd party books like that (Lazy DM's Guide, etc.), and I would like them to focus on the core game and get that right first. A game master book can come later. It is not like the existing DMG for 5E is anything to brag about (being one of the worst DMGs ever published for D&D), so that is a non-book when comparing game editions.

5E has a place. It is superheroic fantasy and many like this genre. The current Wizards version needs to be more balanced, too easy at high levels, and more straightforward in many rules and interactions. Pathfinder 2e is the better game for rules, balance, and organization. For 5E to survive, it needs new blood. It will take a lot of work for 5E to survive another 10 years in its state, even with a 2024 refresh; I'm curious if much will be done to address deep-seated issues.

Another game doing things better is what 5E needs.

But a revisit of 5E by a new team with fresh eyes is a very good thing. Like the Advanced 5E team, a new look at the rules benefits everyone. Wizards lost my support, and I am ready for a change. This happened in 4E, and guess what? D&D survived and got better.

And this is an excellent chance for a change, to give D&D a rest, and to let the current management of Wizards and Hasbro leave and new people be brought in that respect the community. D&D will be fine. You can walk away and play something just like it.

When 6E comes out, I may come back.

But for now, this feels like a Pathfinder 1e-style break from the same old to a new team with new excitement.

Tales of the Valiant: Last 5 Hours!!!

This is your last chance to get in on the insanely popular Tales of the Valiant Kickstarters, 5 hours left at the time of this writing. They have 1.1 million dollars and 9,600+ backers in this insane campaign to create an ORC-licence version of 5E, break the game free from Wall Street control, and make a stable, known, and supported edition of the game for 3rd party creators (and you) to last for a long time.

I am all in on this one.

If you like the concept of the OSR and the idea of community-supported games, like 5E, and want to have feedback on this new edition - this is where you need to be. If Creative Commons 5E is like the Linux source code, this game is like building a great distribution everyone can get behind.

Planar Problems

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Over 40 years, I watched the planes go from something inhospitable, the realm of souls, unreachable and too alien to conceptualize... a theme-park default setting.

The planes ruined the 4E setting, and we felt betrayed once the expansions came out, assuming "planar adventures" at level 10 (out of 30 levels). The fantastic campaign world stopped at level 10 like some MMO starting zone (Elwynn Forest in World of Warcraft). The planes as a campaign setting began in 4E in earnest, and the established campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, etc.) felt like afterthoughts. We have never recovered from this state of affairs, and none of the great settings have ever been revisited.

This assumption never stopped, and it is the current state of affairs with Wizards. All of their fantastic IP in campaign settings are withering on the vine, with zero support in 5E, no gazetteers or atlases, nothing introducing players to the world, and they seem to focus more on the planes than the settings their novels (once NYT best sellers) reside in. This is like the Lord of the Rings franchise abandoning their world for some nebulous "multiverse" and "planar setting" just because the writers want to have the freedom to do sci-fi or something but still have that Lord of the Rings name attached to the project.

Lord of the Rings: Planetfall, the Rise of the Star Empire.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Okay, shut it down; the IP is obviously dead. Either that or the studio can't hire writers who can do the work. This is what happens when "everything is a sequel" - people need to shoehorn in things that would have been "new ideas" into "old properties," and both are ruined.

But that above picture? This works in Numenera perfectly since the game is built around a core of anything possible. Still, Numenera is just one world without needing planes of anything watering the setting down. Numenera is not a theme park; it is a blank sheet of paper used to imagine anything.

The planes are the ultimate theme park game world replacement. Need a gothic vampire area? Need a beast-lands? Need a Norse place? Need a Greek place? Need a floating whatever with some whatever on them? An infinite city? A ringworld? A water/fire/earth/air place? A shadow dimension? A place with lots of (non-religious affiliated) demons and devils?

We got a plane for that!

Old campaign worlds? They are there too! The planes answer every question. The beauty of the planes is if the parent company gets sick of supporting a planar setting or just wants to do a one-shot, it is easy - a plane is disposable and ultimately meaningless. Sure, we have room for you old-timers, too; just put the campaign worlds we don't support in there!

And planar settings feel lazy. There is no history to write for a planar setting. Cartography feels unimportant. You do not have to fit the place into a campaign world and culture. It feels like a lazy way to "skip the work" and deliver a setting without making it work with anything else. The price for unlimited creativity - is nothing being compelling, related, or holding meaning.

The planes, as they exist in the default mindset of 2023, are overdone and tired. They are not the "home of the gods" anymore. None of them seem alien or strange, and it is just a disconnected theme park of ideas used in a hundred campaign worlds before.

I would take a decent theme-park world over a planar setting any day.

They aren't even "planes" anymore.

It is an overused and nebulous junk drawer that does everything poorly without form, history, connection, or function.

Infinite and meaningless.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Kobold-Verse is Rich and Deep

Let's look at the final 24 hours of the ToV Kickstarter (and a million dollars raised with close to 10,000 supporters) with a fun look at the answer to the question, "What if we only played and based our games on Kobold Press content?" Let's take a look at the store and do some creative filtering:

Oh, and we are getting the playtest of ToV before the end of the month!

Unlike Wizards, we have a fully supported official game world, which leaves them unsupported legacy content. This puts us in line with Paizo and their official world, so that's a great start. There are 50+ items in the Print+PDF selection and over 350+ in PDF. There is much more stuff here than a game would ever need.

The selection is A+ quality in presentation, content, and art; on par with Paizo and Wizards, and with enough variety and depth, you could game for years using only Kobold Press content and always have things to do. The art also has a fun cartoony style but pays tribute to the classic notes of heroic fantasy from the past. Look at the Midgard and ToV Preview covers; they are beefy, chunky with brawn, and exude power and strength.

What I love here is having a fully-supported Forgotten Realms-style world. Wizards, it has been too long; please get your act together and support your settings. Even Paizo finds time to do their world-building work, and the Lost Omens books are excellent. This puts K5E a huge step ahead of 5E and, on the level of Pathfinder, considers the appeal of a strong and supported campaign setting. The Forgotten Realms carried a censored and weaker version of AD&D through the 1990s just through the strength of the fiction releases.

And Midgard has been around a long time and is awesome. I was a fan of this back in 4E.

We have more spells and adventures, and I suspect the class option books will be a little less valuable since the ToV classes will be the stars of the show and not the old 5E content. The spells may be like that too, but I suspect most will be fine.

Magic options? Plenty of those, and built by the same team, so you know they will play well with the base system. I have not played with this book that much (since I started 5E right around the OGL disaster), but it looks fun.

We have three fantastic (and huge) monster books, balanced to a more difficult encounter challenge level like the ToV monster book, which can all be used from day one. Already we are approaching a Pathfinder 2e level of content and options here.

This is one of the more exciting game launches since a wealth of supporting content will be ready to use. Both 5E and Pathfinder 1e and 2e did not start with this much stuff. If you wanted "one voice" for your 5E content and that stable base of content, adventures, and expansions - Tales of the Valiant is where you should be.

It is one thing to always depend on Wizards for the base game and then worry about the compatibility of expansion books from 3rd parties - nobody wants to waste money and be stuck with useless books. But when a company commits to supporting what we have and using that as a base to keep all this lovely, high quality, existing cool stuff?

That is a difficult thing to dismiss.

For someone who is not terribly interested in 5E anymore and feels burned by the OGL disaster, it says a lot for me to be generally excited about a new version of 5E. Not because the rules are groundbreaking but because the base world, supporting material, adventures, and future support will be there. With everything happening around 5E, especially feeling I need to force myself to excuse bad behavior from Wall Street, supporting a vibrant and stable community is good, and this is a fabulous home to participate in.

A pleasant place and a fresh start are all I want.

Eliminating the "feat or ability score bonus choice" is a welcome change. Replacing inspiration with luck is another. These are good, progressive changes, and long overdue.

No drama and a focus on fun.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Mail Room: Shadow of the Demon Lord


What an incredible game.

This is like a rules-light, R-rated (violence, gore), 5E for horror adventuring.

One of the best play-throughs of the game was where the game's creator ran the Penny Arcade crew through the game as a demo, and the entire video is worth a watch from beginning to end, but be forewarned, this does get pretty graphic. 

What I love about this playthrough is it shows the creator's intent for the tone and play style of the game. Often, groups fall into this D&D norm "adventurer mentality," sort of like, "If a dungeon exists, we must go in and clear it!" sort of ARPG feeling many games fall into. You see this in the OSR too, and this is that sort of "mega-dungeon mentality" where you have a few million ten-foot squares to explore, keyed encounters to clear, traps and puzzles to solve, and treasure is littered around the place waiting for you to pick up.

This game is different from that.

The combat mechanics are tight and built to run fast, unlike 5E, so there is the tactical challenge and numeric balance. The classes have incredible customization and depth as you level. The game has a classless zero-level funnel-type experience, like Dungeon Crawl Classics. The game has professions, and you start as dark fantasy characters, like Zweihander.

Also, in the video, pay attention to some excellent game mastering - how every combat has a twist, and things that happen during the fight change everything and up the stakes. The use of dynamic environments and conditions. Enemies throwing characters around. Area attacks versus close-in party members. Multiple attack use. Special attacks. Triggered actions while wounded.

You only need to add some 4E concepts (triggered environmental hazards, map hazards, and forced movement) to have a master class on creating engaging encounters. You aren't sitting in a "bag of hit points" 5E slog, playing turn denial games, and burning down with this style of refereeing.

The rules are a d20 variant, but they run fast and are not the complex and vague mess that 5E has turned into. 5E is the game you start with, and Pathfinder 2 is the game you end up in after you tire of dealing with unclear rules and looking up answers online. A rules-light d20 framework solves those problems, too, especially with a few universal mechanics like boons/banes and the turn order system. The advantage/disadvantage system in 5E feels like a hammer to problems you need other tools for, and this system feels elegant, is stepped nicely, and works well.

Another game this reminds me of? The classic Arkham Horror board game. You have a choice of which apocalypse is happening. You are fighting to stop the end of the world and frantically running around the world, completing missions to try to stop the inevitable. Every end-of-the-world choice is flavorful, brings new challenges and boss monsters, and plays differently. You can play this game subtly and in the shadows, build slowly to a catastrophe like in Arkham, or go full-out Roland Emmerich at the start and turn the dial past 11 with every level the characters gain.

You leave the city, and it is destroyed behind you.

That is cool, epic stuff. Since the campaigns are supposed to be one-shots, you will start a new world next time, and different things will happen. Again, this is something that really doesn't happen in D&D; how dare you destroy Waterdeep, Ravenloft Castle, or the City of Greyhawk? You can't do that! Your campaign sucks now! You can't have the defeated Tomb of Horrors fall into Hell and create a bottomless 3-mile hole in the planet! You can't defeat Tiamat and have her explode, permanently tearing a hole into a nether realm and destroying a kingdom 300 miles wide! You are ruining the map! You can't turn Elminster and the good guys of the Realms into a secret society of spider demons and kill them! Those were my favorite characters from the books!

That happens here often. Like Arkham Horror, everything is paid for, and this world ends. Feel free to tear up your source material and start fresh next time. Arkham had events that closed off boards or shut locations, and the map changed during play. But every time you played, things went back to normal and were destroyed again - maybe.

And it is fantastic and the stuff that makes legends.

This is like D&D 5E meets Arkham Horror, minus the Cthulhu plus demons. There is a Warhammer FRP comparison in here, but I would pick Arkham over Warhammer because the player power scales more on 5E's epic-hero curve than it does the more realism-based Warhammer. With the right mix of artifacts and abilities, Arkham player power scales high too.

Nothing has plot armor. No place on the map, no NPC, no dungeon, no part of the setting, no monster, no villain, no good guy, no city, nothing on the map, no "favorite thing in the novel," no piece of product identity, no magic item, no spell in the rules, no kingdom, no way the world works, no assumption about cosmology, no cute thing, no ancestry, no god or demon, no PC - nothing.

You only know how good that feels when you try it.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

And no PC is safe. Get your self-insert character out of your head; that is dangerous for your mental health (as we were told repeatedly in the 1990s by every game company). The industry pushes these "identity gaming" concepts to increase attachment for profits, but nobody seems to care about their players' health and well-being. Profits are being put ahead of the mental health of players.

If you watch the video, combats are fast, and they have a back-and-forth flow to them. Fights can also be deadly, which should be in a horror game. Advancement is one level per adventure, with a maximum of ten levels, so the game is suited to a shorter campaign and more campaigns played. A supplement has rules for levels ten and higher, so it could be played long-term, but again, the one-and-done campaign structure feels suitable for a horror game.

Again, watch the video and note how fast the combats play. This highly streamlined system feels like an OSR game where the combats play fast, but there is that 5E-style tactical depth and choice. Even a 4-on-4 battle was completed relatively quickly, and a two-hour video handled four battles (two of them boss battles), which is blazing fast at the mid-level of play (level 6) they were adventuring at. 

Significant-sized battles will always be something 5E is terrible at, and to be fair, many games could be better at. Cypher System does these relatively quickly, but asking players to wait 30 minutes for a turn is a non-starter and, honestly, something I am concerned about for all the 5E clones, even Tales of the Valiant.

Also, this game flips the D&D assumptions on their head. The "big bad" is the demons, and you could recast monsters as demon servants - or recast them as monsters realizing what is happening, and they throw in with the good guys to avoid the end of the world. In D&D, 99.9% of liches are evil. In this game, you could make a lich hate the Demon Lord, fear the end of the world, and give the characters' missions and assistance. This game casts a standard fantasy world in a "The Walking Dead" sort of apocalypse, and the story starts there. Good guys could be bad, bad guys could be good, and you take it from there.

The game does many things I look to other games for, but this has them all in one place. The zero-level funnels and deadly world of DCC? Check. The grim and gritty horror and professional progression of Zweihander? Check. The rules-light framework of Cypher System? Check. The freedom to multiclass and build interesting characters of 5E? Check. The deadliness, horror, fear, and insanity rules of Call of Cthulhu? Check.

The game's progression curve is also designed to teach the game. Seriously, why isn't 5E more like this?

Until Tales of the Valiant emerges, I will play this for d20 and 5E-like gaming.

Then again, this may be what I am looking for.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Tales of the Valiant


If I touch anything 5E-like from now on, it will be a version not from Wizards. I liked what they did in Advanced 5E, but I like what they do in ToV slightly better. Instead of expanding the game like an AD&D, the ToV design goals are to simplify and reduce frustration and complexity. They are also improving presentation and making the game easier to learn, which will move the needle.

This is an exciting version; they have 7 more days to reach their final goal.

Played as-is, 5E is a beast of a game to play strictly by the rules. It is way more complicated than Pathfinder 2E. A game that rebuilds the experience, like a Basic D&D, feels better and is a perfect starting point for a rebuild of 5E. This is a starting point to jump on - we don't get many of those outside of the OSR.

And some of the sacred cows of 5E are dead, like Inspiration, replaced by a luck mechanic. You can't do this in a patch; a fork and rebuild/refactor is the only way to build a new experience.

This isn't, "Well, it is just like 5E, so who cares?" The refactoring goes way deeper than that, and this is like a code refactor on the 5E game that takes something that became a 10-year-old pile of spaghetti code into a clean object-oriented framework.

From the end-user standpoint? It plays like 5E! So what?

If you got in there and looked at the code? Yeah, your opinion will change, and you will realize how simple it is to break and exploit the old system and how the old system is written into a corner in many places where they can't do anything new.

And this is a deeper problem a rewrite of the 5E core books can't fix. You are just putting a new UI on a pile of broken code, with a few fixes here and there. The old books will still break the new stuff and introduce problems that can't be fixed.

Everything in this game seems like the team is working smarter and harder on it than the Wizards' design team. Where the updates from Wizards seem to be passed down from the king, the Kobold Team is making their playtesters active designers. They listen, and things change. I also liked Advanced 5E doing this; the players know the exploits and cheese moves, and involving them early makes a better game.

ToV will be a better, more streamlined, easier-to-play, and smoother experience than a patched 5.5E. They are rebalancing the monsters as well to make them more challenging and more enjoyable, taking design cues from D&D 4E, where monsters had interesting scripts and abilities they could pull on a party (doom points for bosses) and not just sit there like a "bag of hit points."

Everything I see here feels like "The Basic D&D of 5E" mixed with the tactical rebalancing of 4E.

And Kobold has been around a while, and it doesn't embarrass itself regularly. I don't have to make excuses for terrible business practices, ignore horrible community treatment, pay more for less, and wait for Wizards' next "we screwed up" apology.

Enough is enough.

Play a game from a team that wants your business and cares.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The VTT Wars

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

So I am late to the party with VTTs, enjoying playing solo or in person. I logged into Roll20 and made a serious effort to learn the platform. When you look at the number of games on these platforms, something deceptive is happening.

5E is the default choice since everything is ready to go. This is the "use an iPad as my computer" answer to the "Which game are we playing" question. It is about the most straightforward system to get going, all the integration features are there, and everything is done for you.

But damn, 5E is NOT designed for VTT play. If they are redesigning 5E for VTTs, the game's design needs to change dramatically to avoid all of the ritualistic "okay, do X, Y, and Z" to get a surprise round complete and the first round of combat. It is clunky and requires specialized knowledge, a rule book open, and multiple opening and closing character sheets and dice rolls to figure out what is happening.

5E's surprise round and the first round of combat remind me of old-school Car Wars in that game's slowness, ease of messing up, and complexity. It makes card-based initiative systems like Savage Worlds look amazing by comparison.

That first turn of combat is the most important. It "builds the shared universe" that defines the critical experience that is VTT play. There are so many rituals and procedures to follow; if you got a room of Apple engineers in there and said, "Simplify this and deliver a better experience," they would have a field day.

The entire game is like that, open a sheet, click on something, get the roll, and continue play. It is 90% set up, which makes it the default choice.

But what is really the default choice here?

It is not 5E.

It is the Roll20 platform.

5E is in the position the Java programming language was in a few years ago. The default choice for corporate people to build business applications in (and still the default for many organizations), but with many different flavors and vendors supporting the common language. There are other languages, but you use Java to play in the corporate sphere.

And there are as many different flavors of 5E as there is Java. Amazon, IBM, and many other companies make a version of Java to use. The default is the official Oracle version, but it is a weaker standard, and companies sometimes choose other versions. In 5E, we have Esper Genesis, Tales of the Valiant, numerous OSR variants, Low Fantasy Gaming, Advanced 5E, and many other flavors.

One of the substantial strategic weaknesses of Wizards 5E is it is fantasy only. They open the doors for competitors to play in every other genre, and other games own those spaces. Wizards should focus on 5E as a generic system, with officially supported modules for every game genre. A 5.5E wastes time, especially when the strategic goal is control of the VTT space. This is probably one of their critical mistakes with 5.5E, on the "Windows Phone" level, that people will look back on and say they blew it right here.

What happens when players want to play Cthulhu, modern, weird west, superhero, horror, or sci-fi? They play other games, some are 5E, and many are not. They use other VTTs with supported systems. You can't monopolize the VTT market by catering to one genre.

Properties Hasbro owns are using other systems! What is going on over there?

Wizards has an engine they could turn into any game genre and then control the platform that runs them all. It should be simple to see, build, implement, and support. They have the designers, IP, and know-how to do this.

But instead, they are blowing it by putting all their eggs in the D&D basket.

They should be putting their eggs in the 5E basket.

Roll20 is positioning itself as Linux, the system all games are run on. They do that by supporting all games across many genres. This is where Wizards should be, but they can't see it.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Mail Room: Rules Cyclopedia

I remember I saw this in Waldenbooks in a mall in 1991.

I skipped buying it, then.

Something felt strange about not buying it like I shouldn't take the plunge.

D&D was dead to us, and we moved on to better games. I had no use for it, and there were many other better games to play: Shadowrun, Battletech, Vampire, Rifts, GURPS, Twilight: 2000, and many other incredible experiences. Even the D&D alternatives, such as Runequest, Rolemaster, and Warhammer FRP, were far better than D&D.

Besides, D&D was being heavily censored back then, and anything offensive was removed from the game with this massive "mass market sanitization purge." The edgy games with the warnings on the covers, like Vampire? That is where we ended up.

D&D wasn't cool anymore.

A few years later, Magic the Gathering would drop and kill off tabletop roleplaying for that generation.

Thirty years later?

D&D is being sanitized again to not upset anyone, and I feel demons and the concept of Hell will be purged from the game soon as "troubling Christian beliefs." We have returned to the era of AD&D 2nd Edition, and instead of the Satanic Panic, political correctness drives the sanitization.

And the nefarious "put yourself in the game" identity marketing they do today, that games in the 1990s warned us NOT to do because it was mentally unsafe and potentially dangerous for some.

Who cares? We need to increase attachment and make this a lifestyle game.

D&D is dead. These forces are driven by Wall Street monetization, and the game will never recover. In fact, any edition they put out between now and when they turn this into a heavily monetized card game with scarcity and paid character customization is a waste of time. You know it is coming. Just do it and get it over with. The VTT that still needs dungeon masters is a waste of time.

Yes, the VTT may be cool, but the fatal flaw is that my imagination is far more than a few maps released monthly. The same town, the same halls, the same inn, the same boat - incredible for the first few months, then it drops off dramatically. Buy more!

Some other platforms will come along with AI-generated 3d environments and character models and blow their static asset store away. That technology is just one or two years off. And the platform that does that will destroy a static Unreal Engine VTT and be the "hot cool thing."

The game needs a revolution in play, digital asset collection, and resale, not an evolution with a few rules tweaks and new higher-priced books. This feels like a half-step to what is coming anyways, the failed point-five version of the game that didn't sell as well and was forgotten when the online experience came out.

We are waiting.

It may be excellent, as Diablo IV is a terrific way to waste money. Let people have fun, and they can decide how to spend their money. I don't buy into it (often) because I am not a fan of predatory business practices.

But having the Rules Cyclopedia now as a PoD book brings back memories. It is a lovely book, a solid resource for other, better OSR games I like better than the originals. Why not play the originals? We have people out here pouring their hearts into their dreams. Why should I support older versions of the games when there are people making new things for the new games and communities enjoying them?

It is still a cool book, and in the back, it even admits it is an inferior game to AD&D 2nd Edition. TSR was out there trying to bankrupt itself by releasing games that had you read and get excited for a few hundred pages before telling you that the game was a waste of time.

And it brings back those same feelings today's version of D&D is dead, attempts to revise are a waste of time, and we are waiting for a true revolution.

Grimdark vs. Modern Style

There is something to say about a game that inspires you to create great things. I don't get the same feeling with Warhammer FRP either. Low magic, rare monsters, sparse healing, and the ever-present force of corruption twisting souls and changing the land. Anytime I open the Zweihander book, I am in this game. The mood is there. It inspires me in a way very few games do.

It is a great death metal album that transports you to another world.

Warhammer FRP is well-made, but it has a different feel for me. The game feels silly in parts, and it panders to the self-insert crowd a little too much. The danger of "seeing yourself in the game" always leads the game down a path of player protection, since no one wants to see their alternate identity avatar die. We were warned against "putting ourselves in the game" in the 1980s, and that logic has not changed. It is dangerous, especially for those who need an excellent grasp of the difference between fantasy and reality.

Player protection is easy healing, abundant magic, and fast resource recovery. There is also an emphasis on "fun combat," like a video game, where the players are meant to win every fight. Once you get player protection, you get the strangely cute player races since no one wants to see their Pokemon-humanoid talking animal hybrid PC die.

And the entire game slips into this planar haze of the multiverse, and nothing is relatable or means anything anymore. Nothing seems grounded in reality. The game is a snarky young-adult cartoon, safe for everyone, and doesn't reflect anything relatable in reality.

You get JJ MacGuffin plots like, "The Planar Stone is missing!"

Who knows what it does, and who cares?

In ten years, all this cute-multiverse cartoon stuff will look dated, just like all the rule-of-cool stuff they made years ago looks dated. Time to rebuy a new edition.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

The classics will always look in style. Dark elves will always be extraordinary. Dwarves will always be themselves. High elves reflect a part of who we are. Halflings are always great. Evil humanoids are a symbol of hatred and violence. I don't need an alien fantasy race to express relatable traits; I have them all with the four or five classic fantasy staples - and the standard types of monsters.

The classics reflect our nature.

You can't escape that, no matter how cartoonish the facade becomes.

In fact, once you start embracing the cartoonish, the tremendous variety of human ancestries becomes less critical. In a way, the cartoonish erases cultural diversity. We no longer need to deal with human cultural differences with all these funny animal masks and pastel-skinned planar character options.

It is too easy to pick a cartoon and ignore something based on who we are as people.

I am moving away from the silly and into a more realistic and darker base for my creations. I don't want theme park worlds. I don't wish to equate magic with technology. A campaign world saves me no time if I don't use it. And I don't want cute and cartoony; there is almost too much of it nowadays.

With Zweihander, I don't have a campaign world; I make it all up myself. The world I like best? It is an everyday world with average run-of-the-mill places. Really an Anytown with little danger around.

One of the incredible suggestions in this game is to have corruption spread in the game world as it is accumulated by the PCs and NPCs of the game. In this world, no monsters exist. Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and others live in harmony.

But as different areas of the world gather corruption, evil crawls out of the depths of the earth. Goblins begin coming out of caves. More corruptive forces and dark cults emerge. Animals are twisted into horrible beasts. Even more and an army of orcs builds a fort. Elves fall to darkness and become dark elves. Where did they all come from? Do I need a map saying, "Orcs here, elves there?" No. They come from corruption and nightmares.

Fight the corruption, and you can stop the scourge before it consumes the land. You have a chance of saving a land falling to corruption, but it will take work, and sacrifices need to be made. Fail, and your game world has a new evil kingdom on the borders of others.

I only need some of this Warhammer FRP lore - it is excellent stuff, but I like making my own stories and worlds. Too many times, I will buy giant sandbox campaign worlds and have everything laid out, and I never use them. They feel static and set in stone. Everything has a place and can never really change (until the next edition, please buy so you can keep up).

Zweihander is DIY dark fantasy cool that keeps you on a low-power base. It is not a premade world and setting, it is an incredible set of rules used to craft your own worlds.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Castles & Crusades: Dark Fantasy?

One of my favorite lines when GM-ing Cypher System is, "It's all flavor!" Do you want a comedy game? You don't need humorous rules; you just enforce the flavor of humor through the storytelling, GM intrusions, and other non-mechanical aspects of the game.

Do you want horror? Same rules; just make horror the feeling and use your rulings to enforce a horror flavor. Pulp? Same thing. Comic book? Same method. Hard science fiction? Same exact thing. A gritty post-apocalyptic game? Same thing.

It is all flavor.

This is one of those things to remember whenever someone tries to sell you "a new game" that does horror better, old-school better, pulp action better, gritty better, or any other buzzword. Your current game does it fine. 

Except if you are playing 5E, since that trends towards overpowered builds and superheroic fantasy in the spirit of an MMO. I really have to make that caveat since 5E puts a lot of assumptions on the table regarding resting, resource recovery, and multiclass build optimization that break many of the above genres.

If you are playing dark fantasy, and your mind is on the next one-level dip so you can optimize your character build and DPS, you are not playing anything other than 5E. If you are taking short rests to magically recover from grievous wounds, you are not playing dark fantasy; you are playing 5E.

There are many games I could easily make a few flavor changes and have a great dark fantasy game. With 5E, I need to return to the SRD and start doing significant operations and rules overhauls to get the concept to work correctly. The base underlying dicing and numerical systems will work, but you need to throw out all the classes, spells, feats, and resource replenishment rules to get what you want the way you want it. At that point, a new game is easier to learn than 5E is easier to unlearn.

I get the same feeling when I try to use any superhero game to play fantasy.

5E is a superhero game.

The saying "everything is flavor" applies better if the game has a neutral base. GURPS, Cypher System, Savage Worlds, and any other generic game fit the idea perfectly - the rules have a very generic flavor, and they do not assume a superheroic power level, so you must bring everything to the table. And since the power levels are more baseline human, the recovery times are more in line with reality, with tweaks to lethality available; you can tweak the dials and make the system work for anything.

Flavor? You need to add that. This is one of the nice things about generic rule systems; you can tweak and flavor them to your heart's content.

With Castles & Crusades, I see how you can play this as a dark fantasy game. Throw an insanity, fear, and corruption system on there (all ability save-based, with CL on the strength of hazard), along with a spell failure/corruption/divine anger chance (even just a crit fail on a natural one) and you have it. The rules are a toolbox and a starting point; it is your game to mod.

One of the best parts about this system is no new spells or systems to learn. I love the Zweihander game, but it isn't the "dark fantasy plus dungeon" game I want for a particular game world I am working on. I must mod that game's spell lists to make healing and recovery easier. I could still make it happen, and the professions there are perfect, but again, the rules matter less than flavor and getting to the desired result faster.

That is not so easy to mod in with 5E, and many rules and assumptions are made that fight you. Some of the better dark fantasy versions of 5E (Low Fantasy Gaming) ended up rewriting the game rules entirely to get the correct result and feel.

Monday, June 5, 2023

5E: Kleenex and White Bread

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Is it me, or does the term 5E mean anything these days? I see so many crowdfunded projects coming out for this "generic 5E framework," which could mean anything from official rules to a clone to any system based on 5E that is numerically compatible.

5E has become a word like Kleenex, Xerox, or Aspirin.

It is the white bread and facial tissues of roleplaying.

Loosely anything with +1 to +6 bounded accuracy, 2d20 advantage/disadvantage, the same hit point scale, damage output, skills, feats, and multiclassing could be called 5E. There are only a handful of common factors that make something 5E.

You could take the new Swords & Wizardry, double the hit point scale, toss a skill and feat system in there, up damage output as you level by a scaled factor, and you would have 5E.

Quick OSR to 5E Chart:

  • Levels 1-3: Base damage
  • Levels 4-6: 2x damage and monster hp
  • Levels 7-9: 3x damage and monster hp
  • ...etc, all the way to 6x damage and monster hp at 20

The damage scaling has been here since D&D 3.0 and it is no secret. This is the biggest difference between OSR games and post-2000 games. Oh, look how much damage I am doing now! Well, look at the monster hit points. it all evens out, and this is why OSR hit-point scales are better. There isn't arbitrary scaling, and the numbers are more manageable.

It just feels better as a fighter to be doing 6d8+12 at the 20th level, versus a guaranteed 1d8+2.

Look how much power I have!

Honestly, that multiplier is an illusion and slows the game down. More math and bigger numbers do not make a "high-powered game" if your character falls behind the curve - which you do, or even entire classes do.

Also, some versions of the game unlinked the damage output to a hit-point scale, like D&D 4E, and hit points soared to unmanageable levels where every opponent felt like a bullet sponge.

You have 5E clones coming out at a rate I have never seen before. All the crowdfunded 5E products are rushing to release early, before the official 5.5E releases. But I get this feeling for many people, "anything 5E will do."

Wizards have lost 5E to the community.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Mail Room: Zweihander Starter Set

What is not to love about the era of jam-packed starter sets? Thirty dollars (on sale now for 25 over on Amazon) for a complete starter set for the excellent Zweihander game?

I am glad I took the plunge.

What is in here is not just a beginner version of the game; this is like a "version 1.5" with a vastly improved layout and presentation. More capable characters, ancestries, rules improvements, cleaned-up examples, and system streamlining - all 100% backward compatible with the main book. They even have sections describing the differences and how to "backport" the rules improvements into the main text, making the differences minor but significant in play and flow.

The content and tone are improved as well.

Oh, and that 3 AP system that Pathfinder 2 uses? Done here first, and in a grim-fantasy d100 game. I like the presentation of this one better since it is easier to grasp without knowing special symbols.

Moving On

And this game is moving away from its Warhammer inspiration with the new ancestries and becoming its own thing. That is a significant improvement; the game is starting to mature into its identity. This is not "that other game you can play Warhammer with" - it is beginning to have its unique identity.

That is cool. I support that. Go in your own direction, and I am all on board.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Early OSR games are often content with emulation. When they start doing things differently, they finally grow up and develop their personality. This happened between OSE Basic and OSE Advanced, and I loved their additions to the game. Adding many non-human ancestries is another positive step for the gamers more used to that variety in 5E, and the option to use a more human-centric world is still there.

Also, while Warhammer is a fun universe - let me make my own. I don't want my efforts and creativity judged or measured against official releases and not have that thing in the back of players' minds saying, "Fun, but definitely not canon."

I do not want to compete against a shelf full of beautiful and very official books.


And for those who disliked the lovable-Grognard presentation of the original book? This layout is as good as you would get in any 5E or best-in-class OSR game. All the rules are easily presented, with larger text and plenty of white space to make each page readable. You could easily use this as the "main rulebook" and the original giant tome as the expansion book. I am all in if they do a 2nd edition that looks like this. I heard via their discord they were working on a "reforged" rulebook (cleaned up and presented like this) which will be the standard going forward but doesn't invalidate the original tome.

General Audience Efforts

Also, the game seems to be taking on some of the original edition's criticisms with much "edgy" content in the original tome. They are cleaning up the topics and language that tend to upset the more mainstream audience and supporting the first book for those who want an uncut game. I get it; while part of me likes the original "no limits" tone, I get trying to market this game to a more general audience and address those criticisms. They continue to support the original book, which gives the more grindhouse horror fans what they like and then are building a solid base moving forward.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

This feels like an AD&D 1e to 2e move, but I get why - they need to appeal to a larger audience and younger players too. VTTs may have content guidelines that need to be met. Bills need to be paid, artists need to be compensated, printing costs a lot, and crafting books is costly.

Some may get angry, and some may hold the original game's grindhouse content against them. They are trying to move in a positive direction (while keeping that olive branch for the hardcore fans), and that is a tricky tightrope to walk - but they deserve praise for the effort - and another chance from their detractors.

Please, support positive efforts to make a change. We all benefit!

More Capable

The characters in this set are more capable and have rules to use the new generation methods with the main book. These are more "dungeon-ready" characters at a low level, and I feel the change is good. Some say this makes the higher-level play too easy, but when the reforged edition comes out, this will be addressed, or you can just up the challenges at a high level and balance things yourself.

Healing is still slow and rare, and dungeon crawling and the 5E and Pathfinder brand of "combat entertainment" relies on cheap and easy healing and resource recovery. And while a lot of people derided D&D 4E as an MMO, I see 5E and Pathfinder 2 are even more MMO since it isn't character structure that defines MMO-like gaming; it is that health and mana bar that returns to 100% between combats, just like a video game.

You do this when you give up on balancing fights for a game that relied on resource tracking and dwindling resources and the "go back to town after every fight" crowd Wizards fostered in 3E. Actual D&D? What you have on your character sheet is what you have for the whole adventure, fireball wisely. That is how the adventures were often designed, especially the tournament ones.

Could you mod in better healing into Zweihander? Yes, it is easy. Just make the "Lay on Hands" spell a resurrect, and create a "Healing Touch" generalist divine spell that all divine casters can use (using the original Lay on Hands spell as the template). Remove the once-per-day limitation (or make it increase the casting difficulty by one step per time when used on the same target per day), and you are done. Easy healing achieved. You could build a whole generalist divine list based on the common cleric tropes out of dungeon games and be fine.

The game says, "House rule this game!"

So house rule.

A Solid Basic Set

What don't you get? The higher-level spells and professions are one, and the monster selection is thin. All of this is solved by having the core book on hand, which is 100% compatible. Again, use this as the primary rulebook and the large book as the expansion. The big book has more monsters, spells, gear, professions, etc.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I am guessing the new reforged set will fill in the blanks and form a complete game, but the original book plus expansion is a complete game "plus." I like the more straightforward presentation in the starter set, which clearly presents rules and concepts. The original book is sometimes hard to follow, and the starter set "opens the door" to understanding. This is relatively easy from your standard OSR game.

OSR Style

And it isn't Warhammer, which is done in the OSR style. Use what you want, change things, mod the game, create your own world, and do what you want. Warhammer is a great game and setting, but change too much, and you will run afoul of the lore-sensitive types. I do not feel I have as much freedom there as  I do here. That freedom also allows me to surprise players with something wholly new and unexpected.

Hacker Friendly

I am a hacker and a modder, and a world builder. The rules here are simple, without too many bolted-on subsystems. The fortune point system is improved, and there are fate points as well. The core is extremely simple: percentages, tens-modifiers for each ability, and some leveled-wounding systems (for body and mind) that depend on hitting threshold numbers. Armor raises the threshold number.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I don't want a shelf full of books selling me options - while nice to have - are is not something that comes from my imagination. Fewer books, more freedom, a more open and hackable game - that is what I want. Can I do a hex crawl with Warhammer? Yes. Does a game where you build your own world do it better? Of course, this is one of the classic OSR play styles.

Zweihander is progressing, improving, sharpening its presentation, and upping its game.

It is an incredible time to be a fan.