Saturday, September 30, 2023

GURPS Space Combat (Interstellar Wars)

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Pew-pew! I will get some exciting, balanced, hex combat wargame where even starting-level characters have a chance! Every fight will be exciting and a close-fought battle! You know the old saying, "If you don't pander to the player, your game sucks!"

So I played a space combat session with GURPS last night, in a version of TL10 GURPS: Star Frontiers using Interstellar Wars as my ship design and combat rules. Let's go; this is a training mission with an instructor and my 150-point brand-new hotshot space pilot.

I have no sensor operations skills?

What do you mean I have to find the other starfighter first?

Okay, no problem, let's detect each other, fly in, and start blasting!

Even the trained expert pilot in the other starfighter couldn't find my hotshot. Nobody could. I retconned in a nearby moon and space station with a controller who could see and speak to both ships. "No, turn left, you are getting closer, no, farther apart, keep turning. Okay, you are within 10,000 miles of each other. You should be able to... You STILL don't see each other? Are you blind?"

Yes, we are blind; this is space.

Two stealth-enabled fighters trying to find each other in space, even with a pretty good sensor operator, could not find each other. Given how I set the scenario up, it ends there; they have to be within 3-4 hexes or each other to remotely have a chance at an 8-minus roll on a 3d6, which does not happen often. They would have flown off into space forever, looking for each other, slowly drifting apart with their thrusting and maneuvering. This would be like trying to find a marble dropped into the ocean.

Actually, make these two marbles, and compared to space, your chances of those two marbles bumping into each other under the ocean thousands of miles apart is a far better chance than these two starfighters had of finding each other.

Even if one side started firing and getting hits, the other ship would still need to FIND where those lasers are coming from and get a lock on the firing source. Yes, you know the lasers are coming at you from 30,000 miles away, and you may get a bonus and negate passive sensor penalties and stealth, but getting a lock to within a few feet to line up a shot at that distance requires a sensor lock on.

Your ship can be killed by something you never knew was there, never knew who or what it was, and they won't really know if you are destroyed until they see the explosion, so why not keep firing until they see the bright flash of light and your ship exploding into a fireball? One or two more turns of fire to ensure the job is done is nothing to them, and this is not game balance or being friendly to the players by disabling their ship and roleplaying through the story.

This is war.

I haven't been slapped this hard by reality since I played the naval wargame Harpoon in the 1990s.

The combat system, I can see how people hate it. You are adding up skills, numbers, and modifiers to 30, 40, or higher or less on a 3d6 - and this should be guaranteed, right? Then, the negative modifiers hit for range, stealth, ship profile, and passive stealth, and all of a sudden, you are rolling 3 or less on a 3d6, which is a good roll. Five or less on a 3d6 is exciting!

And this is both for sensors or to-hits. My note paper looked like I was playing Pathfinder and writing down long lists of initiative rolls again, which were 3d6 rolls and modifier chains this time.

Your skills need 18 minus or higher to function effectively in this environment.

And you need the tactics skill to even have a chance of moving last to line up a shot.

And I hated it.

Then, I loved it.

This game is not made for a one-on-one starfighter fight. You don't really have 'facing' since you can be going in one direction at a few hundred thousand miles per second, then use your reaction thrusters to point your nose behind you (or to the side) and begin firing at whoever is getting closer or vectored alongside. This is like that old arcade 'space war' game where you could fly sideways at an incredible rate and fire off to the side or behind you, spinning in place as your direction and speed do not change unless thrust is used.

Finally, it is a game that treats space combat realistically. As realistic as a pen-and-paper game can be, this is a cruel, deadly affair of mystery and terror in the stars. Yes, it is mostly math. No, it is not built for fun and tabletop hex combat that entertains players and is made to be artificially fun. This is more like a modern submarine combat game, where information, skill, and knowing more than your enemy allows you to put the screw on them before they even know what is happening.

Your best option is to never be seen, get in and out, and get the job done without anyone knowing you were there.

If you have to fight, make sure your crew is the best of the best. They better have 'break the game' 20-minus skills in gunnery, sensor operations, tactics, and piloting. Those skills will get pared down to 6-minus rolls fast, and you will look for every edge. Skills give you a distance advantage over your enemy, and every hex away means hitting you is more complex; if your crew can fire at that range and the other side can't hit you - you are winning.

Keep firing until you see the explosion or the ship breaking apart.

This is war.

Friday, September 29, 2023

GURPS Traveller: The Interstellar Wars

Many people loved GURPS Traveller, and the line for the 3rd edition of the game was complete - with some books written by the game's original designers. To many, this is when Traveller 'felt real,' and they really felt immersed in the setting and stars. The GURPS rules 'felt more real' than the 2d6 game, and people got lost in this universe with an intense immersion.

You can get all the books in PDF these days, but the best 4th Edition book (with character creation support in GURPS Character Assistant) is the epic GURPS Traveller: The Interstellar Wars. This is a combination 4th Edition GURPS Traveller update with complete rules for exploration, creating ships, characters, starship combat, and the complete Traveller experience for GURPS in one book. It is like the final hurrah to the GURPS Traveller line and the only update we got for the combined games in the 4th Edition.

This is a Terra-focused book set in 2,170 in the Empty Peace before the 4th Frontier War. All future events are off the table; the universe's future is yours to shape. The official Traveller game is set thousands of years into the future, about 3,453 years until we get to the current Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition game.

And I have never really realized that until now.

Comparatively, Interstellar Wars is only about 147 years from today's date, so all the current pop culture, music, and movies are still around. This is a huge difference, and if you want to be cruising around in your scout ship listening to Snoop Dogg, Interstellar Wars is the place to do it. You will be playing as Terrans, so wreck history, blast heavy metal music, recite movie quotes, and conquer the stars.

Granted, all that high-tech stuff in current-day Traveller is science-fiction compared to this setting. The limit is tech-level 10, and TL 11 is still 70 years away, but it comes as fast as the players can influence events and push things along. Jump-2 is the limit, so some stars are off-limits, and travel is slow. You are also mostly getting the classic projectile and backpack laser weapons; there are no fusion guns or crazy weapons here.

Again, the future is not set in stone. If you want to use the Bio-Tech book, go ahead. Supers? Why not? Develop tech along the lines of Ultra-Tech instead of the Traveller timeline? Go ahead! Use the Psis book, Martial Arts, or Horror. Use the Furries book for aliens. Put new aliens in the universe! Make a third evil empire attack!  Let the players invent Jump-3! The next big war does not have to happen, but the setting gets the ball rolling with a closed border between stars, lots of intrigue, and the secret buildup of military forces on the Imperial side.

Whatever happens is up to you.

This is your game.

The fantastic thing about this setting is it still feels like Traveller, but it is a more approachable, Earth-oriented, modern-day sort of setting. The overall "space" is small, focusing just on Earth and the surrounding systems, yet still ample enough that you can declare every side of the map as "uncharted space" to have room to randomly generate star systems and explore instead of jetting around the central conflict. You can even bend history a bit and say the core Imperial worlds have a lot of unexplored distance between here and there, and establish a single arm of stars as the transit point for the Imperium and make all the surrounding space unexplored.

So both sides can do exploration if they want and ignore everything.

You don't need all the high-tech TL15 stuff to have a great game with infinite possibilities. This setting feels very close to how we envisioned things in 1977 when we first picked the game up, sort of a blend of 1950s sci-fi, retro-future, Earth-focused, guns in space, Outland and Alien sort of experience.

The book has a few omissions, such as using GURPS Basic Set for weapons and no vehicles or conversion notes. The equipment section feels light. The system generation system is missing gas giants. The book goes the distance but falls a few steps short where it matters. If you have the PDFs for the original GURPS Traveller, you already have much of this stuff (but for the 3rd Edition).

The ship design and combat system feel strong and are great material for a TL 10 campaign - and could even serve as the starship rules for any TL 10 science fiction game using GURPS. This could be lifted and used in a GURPS Star Frontier game as-is.

Don't ignore this setting because it isn't mainline Traveller and doesn't have all the high-tech stuff. Enjoy it for the near-future Earth we could be heading towards and all the unique possibilities you can explore from there. Or play a more intimate trading and exploration game and ignore all the politics and could-be stuff. You may make first contact with a race nobody ever knew about, ones you invent or pull from other games. You can fight or be space pirates against any side you wish. You can just play a scientist on one planet full of ancient ruins.

The micro-adventure in this game is impressive, especially when combined with GURPS.

And the future is all yours.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

B/X Expert Book Now PoD!

Something of a holy grail of POD releases went up on DM Guild today - the POD copy of B/X Expert.

B/X Basic is not there yet, but I have hope.

I am grabbing this and waiting patiently for the other one to drop. These bring back memories for me, and these are history.

Okay, thank you, Wizards. This is a nice surprise.

GURPS: The Specialist

One key difference between a 5E and a GURPS-based game like Dungeon Fantasy is that you can create viable non-combat characters in DF. In 5E, everyone has the 'default dungeon skills' baked in, and everyone knows how to fight.

What fun is a non-combat character?

Or, is the only fun of a typical 5E game combat? If 5E has a weakness, combat is the game's default playstyle, followed by 'messing around' in social situations where everything is handled so softly that the game is more community theater LARPing than a game with rules.

I was creating characters in Dungeon Fantasy (and GURPS Space) today, and it wasn't that bad. GURPS Character Sheet has package deals, and while sorting through them isn't as easy as GURPS Character Assistant (you are more sorting and deleting in the former, where the latter has guided choices), I got through it and ended up with characters I was happy with.

I like mixing and matching games in GCS and pulling in things from other books if I want them; with GCA, you strictly define the books you use before you even start creating characters (and GCA's scripts will delete unused things in a library via the scripting system). GCS goes along with the assumption that GURPS is one colossal game: do what you want. GCA adheres to the model: GURPS can create tightly defined subset games out of book collections, with valid choices only applying.

There is a 'must have' advantage in GURPS called combat reflexes, which I would only allow combat veterans to have. It raises all your combat-related reflexes and bonuses and is a must-have for frontline fighters (in any genre of game). You could play an entire campaign and never need that advantage, and some support and mage characters may never even consider it.

My characters were more skill and social builds and were not the front-line fighters. My bard was a total urban and social skill monster, and I realized the character may never step one foot into a dungeon or seriously fight anyone - and I could still have fun playing them. They may learn to fight later, but it isn't needed. They had basic defense skills and could use a short sword and buckler, which was good enough.

Same with my space pilot. Knew how to shoot a blaster but had some extraordinary pilot abilities that would make any adventure with the character unique and fun. Did I need the combat-focused Starfinder engineer build or assume piloting skills? No, I paid points for some fantastic pilot abilities, and they will get used.

Both characters were 'combat light' and could function defensively. I always have the option to turn them into complete fighters if I want or keep going with their specializations. I could invest my following 200 points with that bard and make them a sword-swinging ninja barbarian (who sings), which is my choice. Or not. I could take my pilot and make them a power-armored, missile-launching, mobile ground forces Starship Trooper (who can pilot), which is my choice. Or not.

I could make the starship pilot a bard.

Oh, class-based systems, how you suck the life out of the hobby. My mind is back to 30 years ago when we first played GURPS and discovered how class-based systems are terrible and limit your imagination. The more significant point is I can play a game in GURPS that isn't focused on combat and killing and still have a great time. 5E is so damn bloodthirsty it is almost shocking, but it covers up all the violence in a veneer of no-bloodshed, family-friendly, fun adventure art.

That squarely focuses on killing and combat.

I could play games with my pilot or bard and have many things to do. They can fight defensively. Given the campaign threat level I establish, they can buy as many combat skills as they need to get by. But they can play the starship or social game quite effectively, immerse themselves in those worlds, earn XP, and improve quickly without taking a single life.

I don't feel bad about taking a non-combat specialist because I always have the option to turn them into a cold-blooded killer. In a class-based game, forget it; that choice you made at level one sticks with you for the whole game; enjoy sucking at combat your entire life, wizard.

On the flip side, if I spun up a space soldier or fighter good at combat, they could do something else for the rest of their career. Become a mage. Learn how to be a ship captain and free trader. Learn how to be a thief. Become a space doctor. Or a ranger. The combat skills are there; maybe they get used occasionally, but I am not being forced to become an epic dealer of death with the slow treadmill of XP turning me into a killing machine every passing day.

You can play GURPS as a to-the-point, hex-by-hex game of death and violence hyper-optimized murder simulator. But it doesn't force you to. If all you want to do for your following 200 points is buy skills that help you become the best florist in the universe, go right ahead. Get some plant growth powers from the supers book, and create plant minions. Whatever you want to do!

And referees don't need to constantly up the need for better combat skills either. The game is deadly, and the power curve can be as steep as you want. The combat challenges can stay "low level" for the entirety of the campaign, and there is no power curve. It is up to the group and referee how hard they lean into combat play.

You could play the bard with basic defensive skills and do an entire campaign that way, with only a few fights here and there. The bard could entirely focus on defense, disarm foes, knock them down, use magic to subdue them, convince them to surrender, dodge or block all attacks, and fight non-violently. Give them a code against killing as a disadvantage and lean into it as roleplay. Earn XP by dealing with problems intelligently and with creative use of skills. Leveling up does not mean more deadly; it means more effective. It reminds me of Adam West Batman.

5E and B/X can't do that. The power curve is built in, and the game forces you to take 'combat power' and forces these false, MMO-like, higher-level challenges on you.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Typically, my GURPS-recommended videos go like this:

  1. Here's how I would fix GURPS!
  2. GURPS needs a new edition!
  3. ...lots of noise.
  4. GURPS sucks, watch my clickbait.

I don't feel GURPS 4th needs a new edition; if anything, it will most likely be simplified down for gamers used to the 5E. Once you lose the math and deep customization, you will lose much of what I love about GURPS. At best, make a hardcover GURPS Lite, a subset game that covers the basics and appeals to 5E players, and leave the 4th Edition alone. Just 'wishing for a new edition' will get us something nobody wants, "5E GURPS for 5E Players."

I can see the first line in that book, "How I learned to stop worrying and love the d20..."

The only way to fix GURPS is to play GURPS.

And share your Let's Play videos. Tell people about your fixes to the system. Get consensus on those. Get the community talking about flaws and weaknesses in 4th Edition. Get people interested. Start the discussion.

And "How I Would Fix GURPS" videos feel like they are talking into the wind. Everyone has 'the magic secret sauce' of game design, just like everyone has the 'magic secret sauce' on how to fix anything on the Internet. If the secret sauce worked, they wouldn't share it; they would write their own game and Kickstarter it for a cool million plus - like Shadowdark.

If GURPS doesn't get more popular, we will continue along with 4th Edition and lots of noise. The default movement in game design is to "do what D&D 5E is doing," which isn't what we love about GURPS.

But to get the narrative going and to communicate what we love about the game - more people need to see the game in live play, and we need to share what we love about the game with new players. Without getting out there, playing, and sharing what we do, we will never get what we want in a 5th edition of GURPS.

Theory crafting is filler.

GURPS hate videos are clickbait.

Let's Play videos are pure gold, and these are what the community needs.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Off the Shelf: Dungeon Fantasy

This is a challenging game. I like GURPS, and the character design is so good it kills 5E for me. Why am I wasting my time with a preset level one to twenty design done by game designers I don't know and who have a different idea of what fun is than me? Or is the only joy being multiclass exploits found by the community? Why do I need to wait for new versions of games and spend all this money on a patch?

I can design a better character myself.

I don't need levels or classes, even though Dungeon Fantasy tries to do 'classes' as templates - you do not have to follow them or obey the guidelines. If I want to pull powers in from GURPS Superheroes or the main GURPS rulebooks, I can.

But all this comes at a price. Characters are so in-depth an electronic character creation tool is needed. I have been using GURPS Character Sheet (GCS) and learning that, which is pretty handy - consider being a backer if you use this. The nice part about this over GURPS Character Assistant (GCA) is you can access every book without defining a library of books (and worrying about conflicts). You need to know where everything lives, so the learning curve requires a little system knowledge of what is in what book.

GCA is more new-player friendly once you understand libraries.

GCS has features you want if your shelves are full of GURPS books.

Both work fine with Dungeon Fantasy.

Most people also use an electronic character sheet with 5E, so this is not a considerable drawback beyond the learning curve. The more important factors are the rules, combat, 3d6, and the game's learning curve.

Conversion from B/X monsters is trivial:

  • Hits = HD x 10
  • Attack Skill, Parry = 10 + Attack Bonus
  • Dodge = 6 to 10, estimate
  • Damage = As listed, plus special effects as needed
  • Special Damage = 1d3 or 1d6 per HD (or 5 character points per HD for a power)
  • DR = estimate based on armor

You don't need much more than the attack skill. You need special attacks, defenses, and any other skill level - base those on the creature's attack skill. Does it have 3 HD and a special attack? It does either 1d6+3 or 3d6, depending on how frequently it can be used. Not everything should be handled "by the rules" to the letter, and you don't need a complete character sheet for every monster - a rough estimation of a few numbers is really all you need.

Combat can be as straightforward or as in-depth as you desire. One of the big mistakes many make when playing the game is following every combat rule. Download GURPS Lite - this is all you need for combat rules 99% of the time, and most of the time:

  1. Attack Roll
  2. Defense Roll
  3. Roll for Damage

DR and penetrating damage modifiers are the only difference from D&D damage. The attack roll is just like D&D, but a roll under skill. A defense roll is under a target number, depending on the chosen defense. Other combat rules? Shock is a GURPS standby. Major wounds, knockdowns, and stunning are other great rules that add grit to combat. Combat in GURPS is far better than 5E and goes as deep as you can imagine - but it can stay at the default GURPS Lite level if that is not your thing. GURPS has a negative reputation for complex combat, which it shouldn't.

You must understand and reference a fraction of 5E in page count. About 100 pages for all options for all classes. All the spells are about 80 pages of choices. Gamemaster info and rules? 100 pages. And you really only need to read 10% of each to get the hang of it. 3d6 and roll less than a number is 99% of the rules you need to know.

But the character builds are amazing. Whenever I pull GURPS off the shelf, I sit there a little shocked, saying, "Why am I playing 5E? This gives me everything." I am not waiting for powers to be given to my class; if I want something part of another class role for a character, I can have it, and the lame choices a designer being paid by the word isn't going to make my character weak.

Oh, the ranger class sucks.

This class isn't any good unless you dip a level into a warlock.

Why play a rogue?

The 2024 books will fix everything!

Um, why do I trust those designers? I have a book where I can design characters with a point-buy system on my shelf. I don't have to wait for new books or pay for anything more than a single-box game. I am not flipping through a 5E book, taking what the designers give me, and feeling left out because of something I wanted in another class I can't have.

I am 'the' game designer.

I can frankly do a better job than any design team in any version of 5E. Especially with something as simple as a character build. Also, have you ever played a game where a class's limitations made you quit? The class couldn't do everything you wanted it to do, or the mental image in your head was way better than the class the game gave you? The 5E ranger and survival skills come to mind. 5E has terrible exploration and survival rules, and you have to play A5E just to get something halfway decent.

GURPS? Every Minecraft survival skill is there; you can even prospect for ores and minerals. You can fish, set traps, hunt, scout, build shelters, predict the weather, hike, navigate, create maps, and so much more. Creating a map for a trail and prospecting for minerals along the route is an adventure in GURPS, with monster combats and finding lost ruins as icing on the cake. In 5E? We must pay writers by the word to write a module like that. In GURPS, you have skills, baby! Use them.

The adventures in GURPS are 90% using your skill list, and the enemies trying to prevent you from doing that. You may be on an adventure to use a skill at a particular location, and the entire adventure is trying to survive and get there. The best adventures in GURPS are simple tasks with a vast unknown factor that are very difficult. In sci-fi, deliver this mining robot to a remote digging site on a moon in another star system. The adventure is the space pirates, solar storm, micrometeoroid impact, unknown alien contact, engine failure, distress call, and a dozen other things going wrong.

The same goes for fantasy; copy runes from an engraving of this ruin and bring them back here.

If you think you need this giant story to play GURPS, you don't. The game is primarily a sandbox simulator, like Minecraft, and adopting that 'do simple things' mentality where you 'use the skills you are given' gets you a long way in GURPS. Dungeons don't need to be more than a few rooms. You create a lot of the adventure yourself. Your skill list drives the adventure and action. What tries to stop you is the opposition and where your combat fun comes from.

Want more things to do?

Get character points as experience and buy a few more skills. Improve your fishing or prospecting, and sell what you gather. Skin hides and barter them. Sell the maps you make. You could go to a dungeon, take notes on everything rune and tablet in there, use your history skill to figure out when they were made, write a book on it, and sell that to someone interested for a considerable profit. Is this even a thing in 5E? If you paid a module writer by the word to create an adventure like that, maybe - but in GURPS, you have skills, baby! The only limit is imagining how to use them (and make a profit doing so).

GURPS is the game of using your skills to side-hustle the hell out of the campaign world.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Divide

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Wizards betrayed the community with the OGL, and life moved on. D&D YouTubers got back to work, and I don't blame them - they built their channel on a game and have to pay the bills. I get it. Many just want to forget that time and don't want their social lives disrupted. What Wizards tried to do was so horrible and shocking that it still seems unreal.

And many walked away.

We now have this divide in the community between D&D and everything else. Wizards is betting big on a flawed system, and they have just a scant few years to make things profitable before One D&D's creative team is replaced by a new management team, and we get a 6E in three years. They even said their timeline was short and needed to make this point-five version a success.

They have everything against them, even Baldur's Gate 3. The mods alone for that game will kill any interest in the VTT for the next ten years if the game gets to be like Skyrim. I feel bad for the job they have ahead of them and wish them luck. But the same team that tried to take it all away is still there, and I can't support that unless things change.

So we have the divide.

Those people play D&D, and the rest of us play everything else. There is a little crossover, but the divide is forming and growing. Some will not even play anything, but D&D. Others won't touch it. The current management needs to change for me to be on board, but another part of me feels Wizards, TSR, D&D, and 5E are sunsetting.

A 'fantasy world model' starts with giant rats and goblins and ends at battling the gods through the same old tired tropes and collection of fantasy monsters that feel level one to twenty tired. Half-elves, drow, demons, and many things I grew up with are being erased from the game. The game is, by default, planar adventures. The builds are too tight and preplanned, and the fun in the game comes from breaking it with multiclassing.

The apathy is there. None of it feels fresh and new anymore to me. But still, others have fun with the game, which is okay. I am not some zealot telling people what they should play. I still play a 5E clone, Level Up Advanced 5E, and it is my 5E experience that feels right for me.

The divide is still there, though.

When I read the Aquilae Bestiary and saw these traditional monsters spun up in Dungeon Crawl Classics and how they became 'cool' again - something changed in my head. I realized the 40+ years of copying monsters from B/X to 5E and making them the same old 'weak goblins,' 'pushover orcs,' and all the other same-old power curves that every game - from B/X to 5E - repeats over and over again made me think how the OSR has its faults.

We endlessly Xerox the past.

We will never have anything new.

We will never see these monsters outside that B/X or 5E lens.

The divide may not be between 5E players and the rest of us. The divide may be between those who cling to the past and those who want to experience a few new things in this life and see things differently before the sand runs out of the hourglass.

I get what Goodman Games is trying to do with Dungeon Crawl Classics. Don't feel beholden to the past. The only way to have that 'brand new feeling' again is to take on challenges you have never seen before. Fight monsters you know nothing about. Adventure through lands so strange they defy explanation. Solve unsolvable missions with no frame of reference in anything you experienced before.

That is how you feel young again.

This is rediscovery.

Seeing those old monsters cast in a new light broke the chains in my head and made me realize how my mind had slipped to one side of the divide, stuck in the past. Subconsciously, I saw a monster and thought, 'Weak low-level trash mobs.'

That worldview is based on B/X.

Something OSR games and 5E celebrate and perpetuate, for the good and the bad. That entire 'D&D progression' feels enshrined in fantasy gaming so strongly that we can never escape it, even if you play OSR or 5E - the model is the same. The rules are different, but little else is.

When I saw the monsters again in a new light, my mind told me things could be different. Granted, the power level in the Aquilae book is still along OSR lines, but I saw breaks in that pattern. Sometimes, all it takes is seeing a few patterns, and your view of a situation changes. Would I play with the old monsters in DCC? Even though I know what I am doing, I am subverting the tropes and tearing down the old order.

And that is doing something very new for me.

Good guy orcs? Evil silver dragons? Why not? Burn it all down. Break free.

DCC starts with the B/X fantasy tropes as a foundation. Thief, warrior, mage, cleric, elf, dwarf, halfling. Then they go to the stars. Well, the B/X monsters can too. Start with the tropes and break them ruthlessly.

And you talk about the divide and realize it isn't between 5E and everyone else. The current people at Wizards need to keep selling you that old worldview since it makes money. OSR games ship it because it is familiar and what we used to do. Even some of the 'new OSRs' like Shadowdark play off those tropes and adhere to that old world model.

It is funny since in 1974 there was a divide too.

D&D was the new way of seeing things, not the old.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Aquilae Revisited

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

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

It is just a map.

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

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

Do a hex crawl or make it up yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can't say that about most settings.

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

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

Use your imagination!

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Setting Search

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, the DCC setting?

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

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

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

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

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


Classic modules are completely hosed and going sideways.

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

Everyone in the world knows the world is changing.

Even the monsters and the traditional evil forces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is 2023, and it is tired.

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

Monday, September 18, 2023

Dealing with 5E Apathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To fix it? Buy the 2024 books, please!

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

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

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

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

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

But are people tired of the core design?

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2023


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


Yeah, this hits it on the head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Engagement and excitement are what I look for.

A world and characters I care about.

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

 And a game that challenges me.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Aquilae Bestiary of the Realm (Abridged, DCC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 15, 2023

But You Can't Do That!

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

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

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

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

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

"This is cheating! Homebrew games are bad."

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

"Learn to play the game better."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

A Terrible Situation

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

They are trying to WoTC us!

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

Ethics matter.

They do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was surprised when it wasn't.

And saddened when this was the first association people made.

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

That Space Stuff, Part 3

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

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

Every tool a game gives you goes a long way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Esper Genesis vs. Frontier Space: Round 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Cleric
  • Enchanter
  • Leader
  • Scholar
  • Spellcaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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