Monday, July 31, 2023

ToV: The 5E Base Game

I am playing the Tales of the Valiant Alpha release, and it feels like a solid 5E base game. This could easily replace the 5E Player's Handbook for me and serve as a competent 5E rulebook. Being an OSR fan, I don't want to shop with Wizards anymore, and my trust in them will only change once the leadership teams of both Wizards and Hasbro change.

This is fair; it doesn't trash the 5E game or fans but holds people accountable. This also doesn't create a situation where trashing 5E would hurt 3rd party developers, I support 5E alternatives and a bunch of great companies can keep their employees, writers, and artists paid.

I would like to see more direction from Kobold Press going forward, like their product roadmap. Will they be presenting expanded classes? Their back catalog is compatible, so books like Deep Magic are already there as expansion content. A lot has to do with the success of ToV, and they will straddle the fence with 5E/6E/ToV compatible books. This way, any book they publish will be a winner.

Want to play Midgard with 6E? It works! Sticking with 5E and want to buy Tome of Beasts? It works! Want to use Deep Magic with ToV? It works! Of course, they want you buying ToV, but this gives the company a fallback position in case Wizards tries something else.

What do I want to see? For ToV to move forward as a game, take the Pathfinder 1e route with "Advanced Players Guides" and expand classes and character options in their own style to work the best with their own ruleset. I would love to see them become their own game.

Will ToV - on release - go far beyond what 5E gives us? I doubt it. They will fix the game's imbalances and exploits and tighten the math. They may change a few subsystems (like inspiration), and you could quickly drop their luck system and use inspiration instead. But ToV doesn't need to be other than a balanced and repackaged 5E on launch.

And they will face the same pushback as Level Up: Advanced 5E did, with so many voices saying, "It is just another version of 5E!"

Well, that is what it is supposed to be.

And really, that is all I want this game to be - at the start.

The more exciting things will be to come with their first expansions for the game and the direction they take things in. But this is a new beginning, and one people can get on the bus with. The hobby needs that for those who still want accountability and others who want to get in with a brand-new starting book.

If I want a new "total conversion" 5E game that takes the game in new directions? Then Advanced 5E is still my choice. I don't expect  ToV to support robust (and entirely new) exploration and social mechanics. A5E brings back D&D 4E's "battle leader" class and emphasizes environmental hazards as a part of the initiative track (and exploration challenges).

This is 5E blended with OSR concepts, and that lets them rebuild the ranger class to be more than a flavored combat class with a few "before the dungeon" abilities that are rarely used during play. The ranger is essential to survival in A5E, and they are to the overland game what rogues are to the stealth game. They are masters of exploration and irreplaceable in a party.

Caster can find rare versions of spells?

They double up the background abilities for the social game and include a bunch of fun-specific social bonuses to use. Where ToV focuses on a few, A5E goes deep, and you have a list of fun abilities that apply to roleplay and social encounters. Old 5E looks like a simple B/X combat game in comparison, and the characters feel like bland collections of combat powers.

People that say, "They should have just built this for 5E," don't understand A5E. They needed a complete rebuild like a total conversion mod for Skyrim usually ends up needing a complete rebuild to support the features they want to add. When you are that deep in the weeds, you get to a point where you say, "We have it all ripped out, let's fix everything!"

Is A5E still compatible with 5E? Yes, they are closer than ToV (in some ways) since they maintain the inspiration mechanic. The math behind classes and damage are cleaned up and tightened considerably, and many exploits have been addressed. But 5E content ports right in, just like any OSR to OSR B/X style content typically does.

Both ToV and A5E clean up math and exploits.

ToV will likely be a closer to the metal version of 5E with a few changes.

A5E is like a total conversion mod turning 5E into an OSR-style experience.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

A5E: Social Tier

How they enhanced the social tier is very clever in A5E, and it makes me think a lot more is going on here compared to straight 5E. I also see some influences on Tales of the Valliant's background system from this game. Take the "cosmopolitan" background in each game:


  • Discreetly Armed
  • Fashion Sense
  • Skill Versatility
  • Urban Denizen*
  • Well Connected
  • Languages*

ToV (Alpha release, July 2023):

  • Street Smarts*
  • Worldly Wisdom
  • Languages*

*similar benefits

Advanced 5E doubles the benefits for a background heritage, and while this makes characters a bit more complicated, the social pillar is greatly enhanced by the set of abilities. ToV seems more focused on combat and adventure skill rolls, while A5E uses backgrounds to support the social pillar. ToV has a "you do not get surprised in urban environments" as a part of Worldly Wisdom - which means everyone in cities doesn't ever get surprised?

ToV also doubles the tool proficiency bonus to understand what tools, places, or buildings are used for in cultures you need to become more familiar with. You also get an advantage on streetwise-style rolls. And you get three languages.

A5E does much more and focuses the benefits on combat, adventure, and social abilities - with social abilities taking center stage. You get a bonus for hiding weapons or convincing others to let you stay armed. You get a fashion sense of how someone dresses, giving you information about them. You gain skill proficiencies. You do not get an advantage on streetwise style rolls, but when you make them, you get much more information (and can discover secrets) - this acts more like a skill enhancer than a straight success chance increase. You also gain a background connection, a concept absent from ToV.

To be fair - ToV can still change, and I am looking at the Alpha release circa June 2023.

But regarding design goals, A5E is much more ambitious than ToV, since the game is an AD&D-like reimagining of 5E and adding systems to support the three pillars of play. ToV is a straight 5E retelling with a few changes while maintaining as much compatibility as possible.

And this is not a "A5E gives double powers" comparison. The game does, but there are subsystems built into the game that make both social and exploration viable games inside the game, where 5E leans heavily on combat, and ToV feels more like 5E with a modern character creation system. A5E takes that system and gives it depth and subsystems to work with.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

A5E is far more ambitious, and the characters I create feel interesting. I see social abilities I am excited about using, and I can plan my way through situations using these - and they will change the path of my adventures. ToV, by comparison, feels basic in this regard and more focused on the battle mat and the typical information-gathering aspects of adventures.

Basic 5E doesn't come close to either, and my characters feel like plain collections of combat powers.

With ToV coming out, A5E is not obsolete and should not be ignored!

These are two vastly different games, with ToV having design goals closer to 5E compatibility. A5E adds a satisfying "complexity layer" on top of standard 5E characters, giving them abilities for combat, social, and exploration challenges. This is built into character design, and while ToV does something like A5E - the A5E game goes much father and more in-depth. ToV is like a D&D basic compared to A5E's AD&D, especially with the concepts and depth the latter takes the experience.

A5E is a complete "5E total conversion" like a Skyrim mod that enhances social encounters, survival, travel, and exploration and fixes many underlying problems of 5E. The characters get a lot of fantastic abilities during creation, and they enhance all the pillars of play. There are so many (double ToV) because they cover three pillars, and the characters feel like they have a great collection of social tricks and advantages useful in social roleplay.

A5E also has a destiny system that functions much like Cypher's "story arcs" and maintains inspiration as a mechanic but links it into your character's story arc. So in my earlier Mystara campaign, "Kill Bargle" would be Aleena's story arc, and she would gain inspiration every time she advanced that arc and possibly XP bonuses for story progression. This is not in ToV or 5E.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Advanced 5E: The Heir to D&D 4E

The more I read this game, the more I love it as the true successor to D&D 4E, mixed with OSR sensibilities. For one, they have a marshal class, a "fighting party leader" like the old D&D 4E warlord class. My group loved this class in 4E; seeing it again is incredible.

Sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards feel thematically different - and warlocks feel like warlocks again (and they didn't ruin the class to fix them). The class description implies the patron could ask favors at any time, a 180 from the typical D&D "just another caster" sort of class feeling I get from them. This sentence, in particular:

The bond forged between the seeker and their supernatural patron is called a pact—which can have any number of terms and stipulations, most commonly arcane power in return for work in kind.

As a narrator, can you roleplay a patron and ask the warlock player to do favors, missions, or pay tribute? Or the power gets turned off? To be fair, the 2014 5E PHB says this about the warlock and pact obligations:

Your patron's demands might drive you into adventures, or they might consist entirely of small favors you can do between adventures.

It says "work for power," but the official 5E seems to hand-wave off the patron service requirement. A5E is more explicit about the roleplaying and adventuring requirements. "Work in kind" and "terms and stipulations" are much stronger statements than "might drive you" and "small favors between adventures."

But my one-level dip into warlock for sweet power! You are not forcing me to serve anything or anyone other than "the lazy spirit of giving me power and requiring nothing in return."

The video game optimizer culture over what the books say rubs me the wrong way. Warlock is something you do not one-level dip into for free power! Warlock is signing up for a lifetime of service to an extra-worldly "something," and you will be expected to give back constantly.

This is what drives people to the OSR, I swear. A pact like this in a typical OSR game is a roleplaying thing, and the consequences for refusing to return service for powers are much more severe - and that is fun! A5E, just through their presentation of the class in a more OSR-manner of writing, brings back that feeling. 4E also presented "strong binding" to a patron, but the roots of the "lazy service culture" began in 4E since the rules guaranteed the powers (and that was a mistake).

This also plays into the "gimme culture" of the current playtests, and I like designs that put roleplaying requirements on classes that aren't laid out in rules but enforced through roleplay and behavior. The same goes for paladins, clerics, and any other class that borrows power.

In my games, service is required. Bad-mouthing a patron or god can have serious consequences, and even acting out of line will be judged harshly. You will be asked for favors, sent on missions, and roleplaying a certain way will please your patron. Do it well; you may get an extra spell point, expertise die, or another boon until you rest next. I may even drop in patron help during a critical moment in the adventure just because your patron is happy (and has another warlock they want to give a mission to).

The video game mentality is destroying 5E by making the game entirely about power.

This is probably due to the VTT. Classes and powers need to be standardized for UI elements, like power buttons. But the overall focus on power, not roleplay, will kill the game.

You can never make D&D compete with an ARPG on the videogame level.

I feel Pathfinder 2 is also overly focused on powers and not roleplaying. 4E also had that same problem. We must always take a step back from this and focus on roleplaying again and what it means to choose a class. Again, this drives people to the OSR and games like Shadowdark (and I am there too).

Focus too much on power, and there is little difference between 5E, Pathfinder 2E, 4E, and tabletop Warhammer 40K wargaming. A5E focuses on the game's three main pillars, preventing it from getting too power-centric. Social interaction and exploration are "ways you can lose" that have nothing to do with your character sheet full of powers and lean more toward roleplaying.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

There were some excellent decisions in 4E related to the wargaming aspect. A5E also presents environments as participants in combats, giving environmental effects a guaranteed spot on the initiative track and integrating them into overland travel. This fantastic feature was introduced in 4E and almost as quickly dropped in 5E. Falling boulders, swirling bats, flame rain, unstable footing, jets of heated steam, and any other environmental hazard can interact with combatants at every turn of battle. They can be used as travel hazards and inflict damage or consume supplies.


Again, more amazing 4E concepts coming back (the hazards, not the overland). 4E had some significant innovations, but the wargame part turned many people off. It is great to see the best pieces of 4E being resurrected.

4E could have had better overland travel rules, and A5E reaches into the OSR and builds a fun exploration and travel system into the game. In some ways, the game goes beyond 4E, returns to the root of the hobby, and pulls in the classic pillars of play. The ranger matters and can make the difference between never arriving at a dungeon and arriving rested, well-fed, and avoiding significant encounters that drain resources.

Without an excellent overland game, you don't need to have rangers in the game - and then you are forced to make them entirely a combat class. Rangers are to the exploration pillar what rogues are to the stealth game.

It is early, but I need to hear more on the classic pillars of play from the Tales of the Valiant team. I hope they address exploration and travel, which will be in my feedback when the playtests arrive there.

But A5E's designers had the foresight to support the three pillars of play as a part of the game's design principles. That alone makes me a fan. They went back into history and wrote a game that appeals to 5E players and OSR fans. And they also paid tribute to the 4E tactical combat and party synergy fans.

There is much to love here in a game that gets easily dismissed and ignored.

Yes, this isn't the "hot new thing," - and I don't buy the argument "they should have just made these ideas a 5E supplement." A5E is a redesign of 5E using core design goals.

Tales of the Valiant feels more like a "drop in 5E replacement" with balance tweaks, changes to inspiration, and presentation changes, which are needed, and the game will be fun. I hope part of their design goals includes the classic pillars of play, but I have yet to see too much on that - but it is still early.

A5E is a 5E fork and rebuild, taking 5E in a direction that plays more like 4E mixed with the OSR.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

A5E: To Save a Kingdom (Late Pledges)

This is a 400-page hardcover adventure for Level Up A5E. I am in as a late pledge, and this looks like a fun one. I like Level Up A5E; it gives me about twice the character depth and detail of the Tales of the Valiant (alpha) and supports the three classic pillars of OSR play in a 5E ruleset (combat-social-exploration).

5E feels like a B/X-style game compared to this game's AD&D level of depth. While I like B/X, I love depth. If you are checking out Tales of the Valiant for something different, this one is highly worth a look too.

There is no other 5E game like it regarding depth and character customization.

The D&D 32X

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I feel One D&D has this design goal of not invalidating ANY previous book in the entire D&D line. If you remember back to the 1990s, Sega tried to extend the life of the Genesis console with a series of "add-on" devices:

  • The Sega CD
  • The Sega 32X
  • The Sega Channel 
    • This was an add-on plugged into a cable outlet, and our family had one on our Sega CD
  • ...and so on

All of them would plug into a Genesis console and offer new functionality. They never wanted to force consumers to "buy a new console," so the Genesis became this massive pile of add-on devices, dongles, and expansions that grew like some Steampunk machine.

And the graphics and sound capability of the original Genesis limited all of those devices.

Compared to a Super Nintendo, the Genesis was this massive pile of junk. And some things have different levels of quality control; we had parts break and had to be returned. It was all cool junk at the time, but ultimately none of it mattered.

I get the same feeling with One D&D, and they will support the original three 2014 books in a way. The new version will NOT fix any problems introduced in the expansions. As we see in the playtests, they already have to roll back changes that are cascading waterfall effects WITH those old expansion books.

Wizards did something like this before with the old D&D Essentials line for 4E; they "soft rebooted" the game - without invalidating previous books - and it just heralded the beginning of the end of that edition. I feel D&D 2024 will be the same, a soft "5E Essentials" reboot with a few ideas that will make it into the true 6E dropping a few years later.

4E Essentials did not magically fix 4E; and 2024 will not magically fix 5E.

We will get a shuffle and minor improvements, at best. But we are still waiting for a new design. It makes sense; the engine is still good. But what hurts are the legacy books holding this game back. All the old cheats will still be valid. The old expansions will give overpowered options. They should have taken more care of writing expansion content (just look at Spelljammer), so we are stuck with a legacy of splat-books that sold power gaming options. And these old expansion books will hold the new game back.

What happens when post-2024 expansions start breaking pre-2024 books? Or worse, when pre-2024 books break the new stuff?

Like Sega, this company is asking customers to support an even more and more cantankerous pile of systems, understand it all, be able to support any legacy book that shows up at the table and know how it breaks the current game, and hope it all works together as advertised. The DM crisis will worsen since maintaining domain knowledge of pre- and post-2024 books and rules interactions is out of reach for the average customer. That Super Nintendo is looking better and better all the time.

Wizards must jettison the past and move on to a true 6E.

And they need to support the Forgotten Realms as the official campaign world.

But I don't see those happening. So I am moving on to other games, and even the 5E SRD is worth hacking into new games at this point.

On the other hand, we have new versions of 5E to play with from different design teams. Tales of the Valiant looks like an incredible clean-room 5E design. We are getting a new official world, new monster books, and redesigned everything. It is all compatible, but the team is much more free to improve. The Kobold-verse is a fantastic place, and they are a team known for mastering a lot of 5E class designs and improvements that focus on mechanics and fun. Midgard is excellent, and it is fun to see an officially supported campaign world again, which Wizards is afraid to commit to and deliver (even though they have some of the most iconic campaign worlds in gaming history).

This game gives me that Super Nintendo feeling, compared with One D&D's mess of "pile of Genesis" books and legacy expansions. It is a new system with its own world and a self-contained experience you can immerse yourself in. And Kobold has a wealth of 5E adventures and content already made, so the game is well-supported even before its release. Like the Super Nintendo, you can forget about every other videogame system and just be a fan of this, and have a fantastic experience.

Advanced 5E is still great too. Oh, I know it is not a shiny new thing, but it is a fantastic OSR-style rebuild of 5E that does many exciting things. They build all three pillars of classic gaming into the rules. Character designs are tightly tied to the world, and backgrounds interact with the world! A soldier background can get you a small unit of 8 soldiers to use in your adventures. Where ToV cuts closer to the 5E core, A5E cuts closer to the OSR, with exploration and background being necessary again, which is beautiful. They pull in some of 4E, too, with environmental challenges in combat and exploration, one of the best parts of 4E brought back.

This is one worth picking up and playing, and it really is a fun version of the game that feels like an "OSR meets 5E" experience. Of all the versions of 5E out there, this one feels a lot like AD&D, which is no small feat. And they have a feat that can make you into a Batman-like vigilante. There are many cool things about this game, and it is worth picking up and playing - especially if you are an OSR fan with a collection of 5E books.

If I had to compare this with a 90's videogame console? I would have to go with 1990s-era PCs, like the 486DX. I was going to say TurboGrafx-16, but this game has those early SSI and Ultima feelings to me, along with the original Daggerfall and Arena 3d adventure games. There are games here you can't get on the Super Nintendo or Genesis, and Advanced 5E feels like those old "gold box" D&D games where you could walk 8 squares to the west of town on the overland map and have your whole party die from a random encounter of 5 giant spiders.

Yes, A5E is that game system where some hacking and system knowledge is required, but the experiences you can get from it are not available anywhere else. You need to port in adventures and 3rd party content, so more work is in store. Using this to build original worlds is fantastic. I am still a fan.

But also, the tighter world-binding of the characters here is something ToV doesn't do, along with maintaining the inspiration mechanic but tying it to a destiny system. Want to have your character turn into an angel? Select the Metamorphosis destiny, and earn inspiration from every act that moves you down that road to your ultimate character goal. Tying character stories to inspiration and rewarding the ultimate goal is another thing other 5E games do not do, and this makes the system worth checking out.

This is the game where the designers said, "I wish 5E could do that," and they made it do that.

Low Fantasy Gaming replaces Warhammer and Zweihander for me, and it is all 5E compatible while blending OSR concepts with a 5E framework and a brutal level of grit and survival-focused gameplay. If you want to play a gritty game but want to stay within 5E, this tremendous one-book game delivers a hardcore playstyle while still staying in the 5E sphere of rules. This game does what many "dark fantasy" games do, but a lot easier and in a familiar framework.

They have tremendous grimdark rules and mitigate balance issues with an escape and evasion system. They also allow you to invent your class feature every three levels, so no two characters will be identical. This game opens up every player's inner game designer and allows incredible customization and class expression. They also do a luck system that burns down and exploits that would enable pulp-action like saves and exploits.

Another 5E-like game is Shadow of the Demon Lord, which has horror covered. This is a little farther from 5E, but the mechanics are similar, and there is a LOT out there for this game. The build options increase exponentially as you level, and some fantastic mechanical improvements here make this the fantasy horror experience.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

There are many options for 5E gaming, and none need to port in the broken 5E legacy content. You can start fresh and ignore what came before in all of these. In One D&D 2024, you can't. A vast library does not equal fun, especially if it invites hundreds of broken builds and exploits. And if a new set of base system books won't fix that, why do I need new base system books at all? Do the new base classes play better? Okay, but how many play those base classes anymore? The other stuff isn't going away.

I like the remakes and new experiences better than a patched game that relies too much on backward support. Yes, that back support is a strength of the game, just like the original Genesis game library. But time moves on, and people want new things to experience and play. Those Genesis games collected dust on our shelf as the SNES took over and had some fantastic experiences. The old library of 5E books will do the same, while One D&D looks increasingly like a stack of Sega hardware trying to keep the old books selling and viable when customers want to be amazed and experience new things.

The war is over if Kobold Press puts out an impressive "adventure path" that feels like the original Final Fantasy III (6j) game on the SNES. Inspire and amaze me, deliver an experience everyone talks about, and you cannot ignore it. One D&D, I don't care about new rules - I care more for experiences. The rules only matter if they spoil the experience through exploits and overly complex book collections only big-spending players can access. All that Sega hardware cost money too, and the SNES delivered a better experience with less complexity and cost.

I hate to sound negative, but I have seen this game play out. I want D&D to do well, but Wall Street, history, product design, a backward compatibility fallacy, and consumer moods work against them. They are already dealing with customer anger over 2023, and asking people to buy a fixed set of base books to support stacks of legacy books is a tough sell.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

D&D 2024

Backward compatibility can hold you back.

Console companies did studies, and this is one of those features everyone says they want, but only some people actually use. For 5E, I get the appeal; you are saving customers money and not forcing them to toss out books.

My issue is the statement of backward compatibility in 5E, and I feel even down to saying the 2014 books will be usable. At this point, the classes and options in One D&D better be far better than any of the older counterparts, and I have even seen people saying the "Tasha's Ranger" is better than the one they put out in the latest playtest packet.

You are forcing your customers to play a game of "find the best option" and possibly making the new books worthless since the power gaming builds of old will not be invalidated. You want to avoid a situation where you get new players - playing out of the 2024 books - and a veteran showing up with his legacy books and blowing them all away in terms of power.

The new players will ask, "What is the point of the new stuff?"

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

This is why games like Civilization version up after a slate of expansions. The company learns, evolves its ideas, and presents a familiar but new framework. The old strategies and exploits are gone. Just because a cheat existed in Civ V doesn't mean it will work in Civ VI. In One D&D's case, playing with broken legacy content is valid.

So the new books need to be even more potent than anything that came before, or they will be discarded as "noob options."

They should have just made a 6E and done a hard reset. It should be a new game. If Wizards doesn't want to do that, then they should just stick to reprints of nostalgia editions. Every game company knows this, from Nintendo to Sony Playstation. You create a sequel that improves on the original.

Advanced 5E, Low Fantasy Gaming, Shadowdark, and Tales of the Valiant are fine. They are new baseline game experiences. I am on board with all four of these games. They are entry points. Exciting things are coming for them. The first two are older but still great and compatible experiences.

Anything "5E" ports in, but this isn't the default option.

In One D&D, Wizards is asking groups to silently ban previous books, but that is already done in a way since there are so many horribly broken character builds people deny at their tables. This is the only way to play the game "clean room," and many will do just that.

But all the previous issues still need to be addressed, like too-much Darkvision and plenty of other problems that will force players to go to other games. I want the 5E-likes to do well since there are more 5E players in the pool. Fracturing will happen, but keeping players in a similar ruleset - no matter what - will keep the community and 3rd parties more robust. So even if you play "clean room One D&D," the problems are still there, baked in because of backward compatibility.

A redesign that breaks compatibility in just the critical problem areas is needed.

Which is what many of these newer 5E games are doing. They keep the spirit and play of 5E and fix the broken pieces. They establish new foundations.

Going to a "silent 6E" and hoping your fixes compare favorably to previous options - without being overly-complex power-gaming versions - is not a great strategy.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Kickstarter: Shadow of the Weird Wizard

Here's an interesting one. I like the Shadow of the Demon Lord game, and it looks like they are doing a "weird fantasy" version - minus the horror - but probably adding in some of that old-school Appendix N sort of charm, and I am getting a Dungeon Crawl Classics vibe from this.

Very cool, and my eyes is on this one.

Tales of the Valiant: Darkvision

Oh, this I like. Tales of the Valiant is rolling back the lineages with Darkvision. Some have Enhanced Senses instead (elves, beastkin), while dwarves were the only lineage to have Darkvision. I like this design decision, which is one of those critical differences between ToV and 5E.

You get lineages with the wonderful Darkvision. And Enhanced Senses gives you skill proficiency, which is good in many environments. Everyone gets something cool!

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

I hope this survives the Alpha, and this is how you compete with games like Shadowdark. You don't make Darkvision a limiting factor in selecting a lineage, so players say, "Everyone in the party has it; we don't need torches!"

If you give Kobold Press feedback, ensure they know this is a good change in the feedback form!

Never mind that even in 5E, that dim light (what Darkvision sees) gives a disadvantage on all sight-based WIS checks. Say hello to all those ambushes and traps you will be walking into.

Cutting back on Darkvision to the few lineages who should have it is a significant first step. Otherwise, players who enjoy the atmosphere the "light game" brings to the dungeon-crawl experience will leave 5E for OSR games and Shadowdark.

You could always house-rule in "How our group likes to handle light," but this is a significant and positive change as the default design choice.

And at this point, this is a change you can only make in a new edition. Trying to roll back 10 years of "just give them Darkvision" for dozens and dozens of player races in 5E that "One D&D still supports" is a non-starter. 

One D&D needs to be 6E, and they need to address this.

Otherwise, their competitors will.

And that is a good thing.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Tales of the Valiant Character Sheets

Kobold Press put up some nice form-fillable PDF character sheets on DriveThruRPG. I am tempted to spin up a party of four and take them through a level 1-5 adventure to see how this goes. This is a straightforward sheet, well-organized, and easy to read.

And they are free!

Tales of the Valiant: Rituals

I am happy to see the 4E-like rituals for caster classes return to the game. Rituals were one thing 4E got right, making those "big spells" with the long casting times separate from the main spell lists. If they take a long time to cast and aren't for encounters, make them a ritual and keep the spell list clean.

Animate dead, magic mouth, identify, and summon familiar? All rituals. Long casting times, they don't clutter the spell list and are off in the ritual section where they belong. More and more, I like the decisions made in this game. This is like, 5E: Sanity Edition.

A considerable part of the appeal of Tales of the Valiant is nostalgia. For 5E? Well, yes, playing the game as it came out, from the beginning, and watching it slowly expand and take on its own identity. Honestly, Wizards should have made 6th Edition a thing since the nostalgia would be there - but a 5.5 clean-up for VTT play will inspire only a few to begin again. Plus, all the old 5E exploits are valid, so it may be split between the few who try things from fresh again and a bunch not wanting to give up their still-supported power gaming builds.

But with ToV, I feel that nostalgia pull again.

The game is fresh and new and has that innocent feeling.

I can toss all the broken stuff out and focus on classic dungeon crawling.

I can play a single world again and ignore the planar circus of randomness.

If you want, pull the old stuff in. But you don't have to.

You bet this plays to nostalgia even more than One D&D does. ToV is a new beginning based on the well-loved classic rules. Preserving 5E is a noble cause and needs to be more than "the original 5E books."

It needs to be a caretaker who will invest in new content, make the needed fixes to keep the game alive and engaging and support a community that supports them. I expect One D&D to be focused on making the game support the VTT, and given the money they poured into that project, it is both a smart thing - and one that could hurt the game by making the tabletop feel secondary.

I have high hopes for ToV, since I know how great the OSR is. This is 5E entering that world as a system preserved and expanding for this generation and all who are to come.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Tome of Horrors: Enemies of the Valiant

Oh wow, we have a new Kickstarter for Tales of the Valiant! It looks like Frog God Games is converting their Tome of Horrors monster book to ToV and getting that out early.

Early system support by 3rd parties is a great thing to see.

Part of me says to be careful with ToV Kickstarters like this to make sure they are not just 5E content flips, but I trust Frog God to do a great job and put the work in with ToV-specific mechanics, and also doing updates to the monsters to fix issues and oversights in the designs. I would like to see more specifics, and I will be very interested if they create new (or full-color) artwork.

This is one I will be following.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Tales of the Valiant: Alpha

The Tales of the Valiant Alpha dropped today, and you get a complete set of rules with the base four classes, play up to level five, and about 50 monsters. If you are not a part of the Kickstarter, you can get it on the Kobold Press store for $9.99.

I recommend getting in on this if they open the Kickstarter up to late pledges. This game will be huge and the #1 alternative to One D&D, if not the preferred one for many.

PDFs and stand-alone physical books are a huge reason.

So far, I like what I see here, and it feels like a tightly put-together rebuild of 5E. This is more in-depth than an A5E, but it cuts more toward the B/X style of the game. Subclasses happen at 3rd level, which is nice since it forces you to commit and build, and discourages the one-level dips that plagued 5E.

Inspiration is gone and replaced by luck, which is a better mechanic. You spend these after a roll, so if you are short by two on that hit, you must make and have the luck; spending luck is a no-brainer. You can also spend 3 as a reroll, which is excellent since if you missed by more than your luck would make up for, you could try another shot. You start the game with zero, and they do not reset or change on resting or the beginnings of adventures (unless you would get a 6th, then they reset to 1d4). This feels more pulp-inspired and gives the game a Savage Worlds-style feeling.

Does ToV have to be vastly different than 5E? No, it doesn't. It has to be a solid version of 5E without the baggage of Wizards and the mess they are cleaning up and making again in the One D&D beta tests. Making too many things a class feature when it should be a spell slot is a huge turn-off. It makes One D&D feel like they are turning classes into World of Warcraft classes with standardized "button push" abilities given at set levels - and removing most customization.

You are getting a specified power even if you don't want it in One D&D. This is a substantial regressive change, and Kobold Press mainly sticks to the 5E design concepts - but fixing them - is a huge relief.

I like that "dry balance" feeling in A5E - where nothing seems out-of-whack, and a dungeon adventure feels more like old-school play. This feels like SRD play, and getting back to that is beautiful, given the state of broken build over the last few years of D&D.

This is all they really need to do. Improve a few areas, balance things, and stick to the masterful design of the original 5E. Make the game a better tabletop experience, not an MMO for VTTs. Wizards feel like they are making the 4E mistakes all over again and for the same pie-in-the-sky static VTT reasons (that will be instantly made obsolete by AI-assisted play).

This is the Pathfinder 1e playbook, and it will serve Tales of the Valiant well. I was uncertain about ToV and wondered about direction, but seeing this - almost a solid rebuild of the game along 5E's solid foundation, focusing on presentation and ease of learning, makes me happy and hopeful. This feels like Old School Essentials in the B/X sphere, the new "community standard" that cleans things up, fixes problems, and gives you the best core rules on the market.

A base hit by Kobold on this will be a home run.

Anything more than that will be icing on the cake.

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Cypher: Still the Awesome

I keep returning to Cypher when other games make huge promises and fail to deliver.

I am at the point where playing fantasy campaigns in Cypher is more interesting than D&D 5E or Pathfinder 2. The characters I create in this game are similar to their 5E counterparts, and I build them from little building blocks, pick the abilities I want, and power them up as they adventure.

The resource management in the Cypher System game is an A+ game of risk, reward, and tension. Even in non-combat missions, burning those ability pools down to achieve goals, complete tasks, and get the job done is tense - add the risk of combat to that, and we have a winning combination that makes many play themes engaging. Your resting is limited. Damage could kill you if you burn pools down too hard.

Using XP to change the narrative and have the narrative reward you with XP is fantastic. The reward system in this game is pure magic and makes solo play fun. Your stories give you XP. You can use XP to help shape the story and the world as players.

My old game was the incredible Road War, Mad-Max-inspired madness. My new game is a fantasy game in the classic Mystara setting. I could create the classic Aleena character and give her the "Kill Bargle" character arc, and an entire campaign would write itself. Every time she advanced her goal of getting to Bargle, taking down the evil soldiers of the Black Eagle Barony, crushing the evil wizard's evil allies, smashing his magical laboratories, and burning down his library towers of magic, she would get XP. She could invest in new character arcs along the way and start them, so her story would not end if she were to get her final revenge.

She is not some "off-tank heal bot."

She is a woman with righteous vengeance on her mind, and the game rewards her story arc progression.

Every action she takes will be justified and rewarded.

The powers she picks as she levels are tied into her story. I am not limited to the D&D standard character-build strategies. The Cypher books give me more options, and I am customizing characters like this was a "spend it on anything" GURPS game. With a different character arc, her character may come out in an entirely different way. Even in this one, she could go more "magic power" or "battle power" or more "leader of an army" - depending on how she wants to approach the problem of resolving this "Kill Bargle" character arc.

The story's needs and the player's direction will decide the build.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Many OSR, 5E, and even Pathfinder 2E character mentalities are built along a classic "passive" adventurer mindset. We will sit in this tavern until someone tells us where the adventure is happening. In Cypher, establishing one strong character arc can drag the entire party along for fun, leading to even more opportunities to light the fuse on other character arcs, driving the narrative like a 25-ton rolling stone ball. When you get great character arcs started, with a risk of actual loss and defeat involved, you do not want to stop playing this game.

I don't get that in 5E, One D&D, or Pathfinder 2. These systems feel like "last-generation" designs.

And the beauty about Cypher is I can play a complete adventuring day in about 30 minutes of play as I "check-in" on the party and see what they are up to today. I am not flipping through monster manuals, looking up spells, creating battle mats, managing complex combat rules, reading 300-page campaign books and adventures, reading 12 pages of class options and powers per class, or managing inventories by the pound. I do not need shelves full of books.

Yes, it is a rules-light game, but it has enough mechanics and power choices to make it feel equal to a 5E in character options, along with a compelling resource management game that gets more agonizing, deciding "how much longer do we go on?" I can run a four-character party in this, no problem. The math isn't as bad as 5E, with dozens of modifiers for skills and abilities to deal with.

Are things abstracted? Yes, weapon damage and armor are pretty abstract, but they make the game feel like the world is following "movie rules" where we are not worried that a Star Wars blaster is doing a d4, d6, or d8; it is just a blaster, and there are light, medium, and heavy ones. The character will make it more lethal. The movie does not care about fine detail, nor should the game. Magic is the same; you can flavor a power in the game to be "spell-like," and it is.

It is all flavor!

Could I play this with 5E? Yes, but I would fall into the "Where is the adventure?" rut. Cypher lets a character control the narrative, make the bad guys show up, tell the GM, "Bargle has a secret laboratory here," and spend XP to make that a truth. They could spend an XP for a player intrusion and have an informant slip them the location of an evil shaman summoning a terrible monster that Bargle wants to have delivered to his dungeon. She will be a pain in his side every step of the way.

A player with XPs will make things happen and shift the narrative to serve one of their character arcs. If the players have no XPs? Trip a GM intrusion on them, and they suddenly have XPs.

XP as narrative currency is a fantastic mechanic. Investing in your story and game world is as fruitful as saving XP to buy powers and "level up." Your spent XP create more opportunities to earn them. I am pretty generous on XP, and my players go crazy spending them on the story and world, which is fantastic. The world is mostly theirs after a while, and they are earning more XP than they would if they hoarded them for character improvement.

Cypher is primarily a player-driven game. The GM doesn't even roll dice, instead acting as a storyteller that interprets "what happens next" given the world and the character's actions. I avoid touching dice or having them near me when I referee this game. I don't even take them with me. If I need a d100 roll, I ask a player for one.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Off the Shelf: Advanced 5E

I keep coming back to this version of 5E again and again. One side of me says it is far easier to use straight 5E! The other says there is much more to A5E than meets the eye. Even with Tales of the Valiant out there and taking the spotlight, this is a very well-put-together version of 5E that deserves attention.

The three pillars of OSR play are all supported by rules. I am not so sure that Tales of the Valiant will have as robust of a travel, survival, exploration, and hex-crawling experience as this game supports - and the classes are built to play this game, especially the irreplaceable ranger. The fact travel, survival, and exploration are written into the rules makes me an instant fan.

The combats include environmental hazards that are a part of the initiative track, and it feels like a love letter to 4E's tactical combat. There is a marshal class, which fits the 4E warlord class perfectly. I love the idea of a battle-leader class that supports the party and can fight on the frontline. A5E is as if the ideas of 4E were brought forward into 5E, which is fantastic.

The balance feels much better than 5E, and it has this "dry" OSR balance feeling, making party teamwork and tactics more critical than spamming abilities and damage dice.

The 7-level fatigue system controls pop-up healing nicely. Where you rest and have supplies matters! Your character will begin to lose abilities and suffer when higher fatigue levels are reached, and death could happen. There is a 7-level sanity system as well, which works similarly. If you wanted to hack a 7-level corruption system into the game, it would work along those systems perfectly.

Tales of the Valiant will be fantastic. No doubt about it.

But A5E is a blend of 5E, 4E, and the OSR that deserves to be played independently and enjoyed for the exciting blend of games and ideas it brings. I loved 4E when it started, and I have always loved the OSR. This seems like a natural game for me.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Mail Room: Shadowdark

Believe the hype.

I got the PDF for this, and wow, the GM section alone puts the 5E DMG to shame. The art is fantastic. The presentation is up there with Old School Essentials, but it is easier to read and grasp and uses 5E as its rules engine.

The rest of the game is a fun mix of B/X style and 5E rules, and the game leans a little into the gamist side of things - especially the gear system with slots. But this gear slot system lies at the heart of the game and brings back old-school inventory management in an accessible and theme-defining way. And it isn't hard, and you are not using a calculator to figure everything out.

Another blurring of the lines area is in time management, but this, again, is the game. Like the gear slot system, the game abstracts time and links it to the real world instead of the game world. This encourages efficient and intelligent play, and wasting time in every room looking at every tapestry is a risk and reward calculation the players need to consider.

And it leads to faster play sessions that stay focused on worthwhile endeavors. The rules are simple, too, standardizing DCs and when you check (you succeed in every skill and ability check unless there is time pressure or consequences of failure).

Every OSR ethos is enforced by design, and these are driven like nails to hold this game together. With a game like OSE, the old-school "happens because" and is more the accepted style of play for a familiar framework. Here, the design is baked into the game, like how an iPhone's UI is designed to feel seamless and natural.

It isn't said, but it is there.

And the OSR is baked in and drives every rule decision and what text appears on the page. Coming from the horribly overwritten SRD 5.1, the intelligent and frugal writing here feels like fresh air. One section on "choices" in the GM section says more in four sentences than the entire 5E DMG says in the book.

And the use of white space around these points drives every point home.

I am putting my overly-written games away and focusing on these amazingly-designed digest games where space is at a premium, and there is no room to waste your time. Sometimes I like background and flavor, but only sometimes in the core rulebooks.

Get in, find the rule or table, and get out. Here is the SRD 5.1 section for the initiative rules:

And here is Shadowdark's:

Four sentences versus three paragraphs. 

Everything in SRD 5.1 possibly needs to be said, but you can design things so they don't need to be said. It is like having a rule in Monopoly for moving a playing piece stating the player reaches (with their hand and arm) to the game board, grabs the playing piece (and not anyone else's), and moves it a number of spaces equal to the dice roll (indicated by the dice). And then having a paragraph in there saying not to bump the game board (do not dislodge houses and hotels from their placements) and unnecessarily move the other pieces on the game board around (with lots of parenthetical anecdotes like this). And then, another paragraph goes over placing your piece in the center of the square so it is clear where it is during this turn (so as not to cause confusion). A likely final paragraph saying that your playing piece, while it may be a shoe or a car, does not mean that the character it represents is actually a shoe or a car in the game's world (perhaps this piece reflects a facet of the character's personality, but it does not have to, and you are free to use other small items from your house as playing pieces but make sure they fit on the square, not damage the game accessories, and are clearly understood by the players present to represent your token on the game board).

At some point, you realize someone was getting paid by the word.

Or the editor was trying to be everyone's friend, which is not an editor's job.

Or the game wanted to fill a few hundred pages long hardcover books, and there is only a little game in there. To be honest, the "big hardcover" game companies are all guilty of doing this, and it makes the games inaccessible for so many.

A thousand pages of rules for a 20-page game.

A simplicity and elegance of design here put this up there with Old School Essentials, and like that game, creates its own miniature "setting in a shoe box" sort of world implied in the book. And like OSE, these shoebox settings, essentially a game world modeled after the game's mechanics, are highly compelling and amazingly deep in flavor.

Highly recommended, and this reminds me of Old School Essentials, or even Mork Borg - as a slap across the face, telling the community to WAKE UP. Where Mork Bog attacked the layout, goals, and structure of the roleplaying game; Shadowdark is a wake-up call to both 5E and the OSR, in presentation, focus, and clarity.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Fixing 5E


5E in 2023 is broken. We are in this exploiter phase of the game, where people know what build to take as they go up levels to optimize. Hybrid combined classes are the classes people play the game with, to the point those combo classes should be the base classes in the game's next version. Sor-Lock? Yeah, make that a class and balance it, please.

The base classes could be more exciting, optimized, and good to mix and match powers from.

And the exploits from things like instant "pop-up" healing, good berries, chaining short rests, and other cheats have become such an accepted part of the game nobody questions the pungent odor of cheese in the room anymore. And the exploits are so prevalent that the new version of the game will be seen as a downgrade for power gamers.

A good thing and a bad thing.

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

I know the cheats too, and even in solo play, it is hard to not use these. Yes, I know; who will you anger by banning a cheat for solo play? But I would rather have a fixed set of rules, work within those limitations, and discover the optimal play path for a given party mix. Even for solo play, I want a fixed and balanced set of rules that takes care of cheats and cheese.

So my interest in the 5E alternatives like A5E and ToV is raised. I don't want a game that is balanced around cheese tactics. I get bored of those on Steam, and I get bored of them in real life.

I like sets of rules like 5E Hardmode. This only touches characters or builds a little but tweaks the rules around them. Some spells are outright banned. Pop-up healing is not possible. Short rests can only do so much, and powers that renew on short rests get double uses - but only reset on long rests. What you recover on a long rest depends on a roll.

You don't need to stop playing 5E either; this is like an "Insane Difficulty" setting for your game, like in Skyrim or other Elden Ring-style games. This "mod" to the game makes it more difficult than A5E or ToV, but I am sure once you start playing with books outside of the core three, the system starts to break again. All the parts are optional, so you can tweak the difficulty with the various rules and make things as hard as you would like.

This comes from the group assembled Low Fantasy Gaming, where the ultimate OSR-5E blend of the hard-mode game is king. This is still a fantastic set of rules and deserves to be up there with both A5E and ToV as a 5E alternative, but more low-fantasy focused.

One issue I see with Wizards, and their playtests is that they default to the "most popular" decision every time and spread that out far and wide, like weapon mastery. I feel it complicates the game, and other games tend to do this better like A5E limiting those sorts of "special fighting moves" to martial characters and giving everyone a basic set of these as options (shove, trip, grapple, disarm, etc).

The D&D playtests sometimes feel like a "Homer's Car" design out of the Simpsons. Amazing games can't be designed by popularity contests or committees. It feels like they get a great idea, toss it around like popcorn, and make it happen frequently (inspiration).

And weapon mastery, if given to every attack, will add a lot of complexity to the game.

Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

The biggest problem for 5E Hardmode is that LFG exists and is 100% more awesome. Another problem is that A5E and ToV also exist, and our choices are very nice now. Would I rather patch 5E or switch to another game? Honestly, my lazy part would switch and not worry about modding and patching. Still, I would rather have 5E Hardmode around than not since the rules here point out the apparent parts of 5E that need fixing.

I like the Warhammer-meets-5E experience of Low Fantasy Gaming.

I love the "dry balance" and "OSR pillars of play" support of Advanced 5E.

I love the rebel feeling of Tales of the Valiant, and Midgard is awesome.

Even modding the SRD 5.1 is fun.

There is much fun to have with so many games other than the new version of D&D, and that is my current problem. Is the beta interesting? Yes, but there is a lot of development and excitement in so many other places, even the Kickstarter 5E OSR-style games.