Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Fantasy Trip: GURPS Dual-Use

One of the best things about investing in Fantasy Trip is that the maps, counters, and hex geo-morphs are all 100% compatible with GURPS and Dungeon Fantasy. If you need to throw together a hex dungeon or cave, just pull them out of the box and play with any of the three games. The blank, white hexes could be anything from a dungeon to the interior of a space station.

You can use counters or figures. These are highly useful game pieces by themselves.

The rules are a simplified "origin source" cousin to GURPS, so they are different but familiar - but highly simplified.  There is a companion RPG called Into the Labyrinth, which provides simplified roleplaying, exploration, and expanded talents for combat. So, this game is a full-fledged RPG in its own right. Where GURPS has 5, 10, and 15-point abilities, TFT has 1, 2, and 3-point ones. They are comparable but a subset of the ones you would find in a generic game and more suited for a "hex-based dungeon skirmish" world.

I like this game; it is a skirmish-focused RPG, with card-based character sheets, simple characters, and fast combats, which I feel is underserved in our hobby. The last great one was the tabletop RPG Mordheim by Games Workshop. Like that game, TFT can be deadly and brutal, so you need to be a careful dungeon crawler to survive.

There is also a considerable amount of random tables and solo RPG support, so if you want to randomly generate a campaign or dungeon and stock the place with monsters and loot, nothing stops you.

This is close to being a perfect game for me. I will have something I can randomly create dungeons with, keep characters on simple 3x5 cards, set up on a table, use figures with, and crawl through the halls searching for treasure and glory.

Does it matter there are only two character types, melee and mage? Not really, since the talent system lets you personalize, and in most games, there are mainly those two archetypes. It keeps it simple.

If I want more detailed characters with nuance and maximum customization, I have Dungeon Fantasy.

Wizards Selling D&D to Tencent?

Current rumors are that Hasbro is shopping D&D around to potential buyers, and one of those is Tencent. I speculated this in an earlier article.

The Creative Commons SRD release may be the last we see of the D&D IP as a freely shareable resource. This was likely not a goodwill gesture but a life preserver tossed to the gaming community.

You are on your own now.

It is still possible to get involved with other communities if you are not on board with Open 5E by now. Open 5E may be the only way the 5E system survives. At this point, pick a game and buy-in. Support those communities earlier rather than later.

It is time to pick a side, choose, or walk away.

Even if this is just a fake story, D&D will be bought and sold by Wall Street to worse and worse companies, disappearing like your favorite movie gets sold to another streaming service as the parent company gets absorbed into the blob of 'content.'  Or the entire game gets locked behind a 'lifestyle brand' paywall and micro-transactioned to hell.

Honestly, it is only a matter of time.

I have zero confidence in things owned by Wall Street.

A5E Play Report: Part 4

This got pulled from a sell box recently. I never listened to this podcast, but I enjoy good campaign settings. This one is on the smaller side, with the main island being the size of the US West Coast. There are a couple other island mini-continents on the map (not explored), and the rest of the world is yours.

The map reminds me of a Final Fantasy game on the old NES 8-bit console. It is not huge; there is a lot of ocean. The first continent is the largest and divided by mountains; the others are strange islands, thin strips of land, and oddly shaped islands. It feels like islands in a broken world more than a complete world. Which is okay; I can fill the rest out myself.

Some of the art is great, there are good maps, and there is a lot of cartoony art for characters, which is okay. I am not too hot on the cartoon art, but at least it does not have that same-ish feeling that many books from the larger publishers have.

This isn't an epic setting but a solid, small sandbox setting.

But for me, it is still too small, not epic enough, and not anything wrong about this setting - but I have better, more epic settings that feel more like places rooted in history than a collection of places visited. I have old-school 5E worlds that are a tour-de-force of amazing adventures.

Midgard is my favorite for depth, history, maps, and a sense of the natural world. I am saving this one for Tales of the Valiant. It is simply amazing. We discovered this during our 4E years, and I almost switched our campaign here. Best of all, unlike any Wizards settings, it is supported with current releases and new books.

You snooze, you lose, Forgotten Realms. All you have is nostalgia, and the shine is wearing off year after year. Not supporting a setting "damages the brand," and I left the TSR worlds a while ago to explore new places.

And sadly, the creators of many of the lore of the Forgotten Realms aren't helping with movies and media. We will only realize it is too little or too late when we lose that generation of creators. Then again, Wizards tried to get into TV and movies, and they blew it. The larger market isn't interested in the stories of D&D, just the game culture, which is easily copied by others. Visually and dynamically, there isn't much difference between D&D, ToV, A5E, MCDM RPG, or any fantasy RPG these days. The roleplaying uni-culture is what it is, and the word D&D is like Kleenex or Q-Tip.

You have to ask yourself the actual value of a brand if the name can mean any game from any publisher.

Lost Lands is my Level Up A5E setting of choice. Old School with street cred, home of the best grandaddy mega-dungeon, and plenty of old-school adventures converted to 5E make this a fantastic experience with rules that tip the hat to old-school play - just like A5E.

And it is home to the above. This a 5E version of what I feel is one of the projects Gary Gygax left as his legacy, and this blows the 'oh so rando' Tomb of Horrors out of the water as a dungeon where you must pay attention, synthesize history, solve mysteries, read, understand, and care about the culture. If you go through this without caring, not thinking, trusting the detect magic spell, divination, and passive perception are getting you through this, your characters will die. If you treat the native culture like dirt or act like tourists, your characters will die. If try to do this in one run and avoid roleplaying and breaking for outside research, your characters will die. More on this later, but this is S-tier dungeon adventuring here.

And, the other I am saving for Tales of the Valiant, the Arcanis Setting. A pseudo-fall of the Roman Empire mixed with magic and dark sorcery, and it feels epic and grand, with a deep sense of history.

Theria is a great little setting, but it does not give me what I want in a setting. I have too many other great ones I will barely explore. It is returning to my sell box, but not because I don't like it. It just pales in comparison to what I already have.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Ordered: The Fantasy Trip

I have always seen The Fantasy Trip as the Car Wars' answer to D&D. This is the game Steve Jackson lost control of and the one that made him create GURPS to replace it. Now he owns the rights again, and we are seeing a resurgence of popularity after this game's Kickstarter.

The game is 25 pounds in a huge box, with the "I Want it All" box at 35! You get a lot here for your money. I love these "big box, infinite play" games, and there is a magic to them I can't describe. It is like owning a treasure chest containing infinite fun.

As I hear, there are two archetypes, fighter and mage, and you customize them with talents in the advanced game. You can mix magic and fighting, but buying those abilities will cost you more XP. I don't mind a game with only two archetypes, as in recent years, the "specialism" of needing dozens of character classes to simulate every possible occupation has gotten tiresome.

I picked a "dockworker" as my character class! Oh yeah, I picked "cargo handler!" I want to be a "harbor master!" Me? A "salty dog" for sure! You get this strange mix of professions, positions of importance, slang terms, oranges that do not relate to apples, and nothing makes sense. Scurvy lad? Matey? Swabbie? Freebooter? Pirate? Corsair?

Game designers only embarrass themselves when given a thesaurus.

TFT focuses on two types of play, melee combat, and spellcasting, presenting tight tactical challenges. The tactical combat is better than D&D 4E, with every turn and move making a difference. Weapon and armor choice matter (and this is like subclassing when you mix talents in there). Party composition matters. Turn order matters.

This is also a game that solo plays well, as I am told. I have been looking for a light-roleplay, heavy skirmish, rules-light game. This game will fit my needs perfectly. It reminds me of the old Advanced Hero Quest games, with the WHFRP rules cut down for dungeon-skirmish play and a heavy focus on scenarios and building your figure's power through advancement.

When solo-figure gaming was popular in the 1990s as an AD&D alternative hobby, this was an excellent pastime. The DM laid out a dungeon with tiles, and the rules were clear and straightforward. There was no "theater of the mind" play, which also reminds me of what they tried with D&D 4E (but failed). You had a hero, a character card with simple abilities, and you went to the hobby shop to play a few 'dungeon skirmish' adventures and get rewards to use next time. The characters were simple, so validation and "loot tracking" could be done before play and kept as records. If my dwarf got a magic axe, that was added to my card, and the GM put that in their notes so I could use it next time.

4E tried to do this so hard by making every power, item, and magic item a card. The game tried merging with Magic: the Gathering - which was an exciting idea, but how they went about doing it was a dumpster fire. First of all, no cards. A 4E adventure should have come with cards for the treasures you find in there so you can hand them out to players. But, no! This is where your legacy holds you back, and another game steps in and does it better.

They tried to do that concept in Gamma World 4E, but by then, it was too late, and the 5E team was already trying to fix the mistakes of 4E by rushing back into the cave and banking on nostalgia hard. It was a smart move, but I already had 3.5E (and Pathfinder 1e) for that.

This is also a GURPS-like 3d6 system but without the GURPS. The complexity has been cleared out and eliminated. This is like a GURPS 5th Edition beta that removes all the fiddly parts and messy point builds and keeps the game's heart - the combat.

The relation to Dungeon Fantasy is strange, as this game is pure GURPS, and The Fantasy Trip is pre-GURPS. Dungeon Fantasy is what to play if you love GURPS and its infinite layers of detail and customization. The Fantasy Trip you play because you don't care for any of that and just want the tight tactical game. But even Dungeon Fantasy pares a lot of GURPS and focuses the engine on the fantasy gaming part.

I like DF, and my fantasy gaming is slowly moving back into this area because of the excellent solo play. The fewer heroes you have, the better the game gets. There is a point where a game is so easy and the characters so pigeonholed in a class role that you feel you have no options other than to grind XP and "level up how they want you to." With GURPS, 5-15 points in one place can change how a character plays and puts them in a new role.

SJG is succeeding in stripping down the excellent 3d6 and GURPS engines and focusing them on experiences. This is a winning formula.

You can get the Fantasy Trip: Melee in PDF for free right now - so the first melee-focused game is free to try yourself.

I am looking forward to this one.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Mail Room: Shadowdark

I got my Shadowdark books a while back and finally opened the box. Sometimes, I will hold off on opening something until I have the time to thoroughly enjoy it. A few thoughts...

The referee's screen isn't as helpful as I would have expected. I will probably know more in play, but there aren't many tables to reference during play. I am sure there is a reason for these tables to be on here, and I will know more when I sit down to play. I guess I am used to rules-dense screens with many tables and reference charts, but this isn't that type of game.

No roll under ability score; everything is DC, modified by ability score. Skills are "soft" there is no skill system. In downtime, you can learn a skill (nothing that crosses class abilities); with a DC 18 INT check and an instructor (and likely paying some money), you learn the skill and have an advantage on those checks. Also, backgrounds can be used as skills in those situations.

Lots of random tables. Almost too many. Are games turning into books of random tables?

This is a very rules-light game! This is lighter than most versions of B/X, and Old School Essentials is a deeper game. If you are coming in here looking for a full 5E replacement game, this won't be your thing. This does not replace Tales of the Valiant or Level Up Advanced 5E.

Simplified gear and encumbrance.

No index? The game isn't complex enough to need one, but I was looking for something a few times and had to flip through. The Internet was faster to find answers, honestly.

Random-level awards, like the original Gamma World or even Lion & Dragon. As long as they are all good, I am OK with this, and it produces interesting and unique progressions.

Lots of charts in here.

The book is small, but the type can be seen easily. My copy does not stay open and lay flat, so if I were playing this, I would order a spiral-bound printed copy from a commercial printing site and get this in 8.5x11" lay flat (personal use only, and using my paid-for PDF, of course). This would also blow up the font, which would be a good option if you are visually impaired.

Note, you DO NOT add ability score modifiers to damage rolls unless you are told to do so. The mostly compatible 5B rules set has monsters and treasures that work well with Shadowdark, but if you use the monsters here - ignore the static damage modifiers in the attacks. The bear in SD does 1d8 damage on an attack, while the bear in 5B does 1d8+4. Drop static damage modifiers for monsters converted this way; SD is deadly enough.

DEX and STR modifiers do apply to to-hit rolls.

The time-based light mechanics get a lot of heat, but I see them as okay. This is closer to a board or mini-game where the unique mechanics add tension and flavor. The levels are capped at 10, so this game is excellent for one-shots, short, and mid-length campaigns.

Excellent referee's advice. This book says more in a few pages than the 5E D&D DMG does in an entire book. This is due to the tight focus of the game.

The GM always tries to find ways to put the light source out.

Money is tight! The random treasure tables and adventures keep a tight reign on cash, and this feels like money is progression as you can buy better gear. I get a "Heroquest" feeling from this game; every coin matters, and player skill is essential.

No short rests.

I like this game; it feels very "small" concisely, which is very attractive. I am a fan of minimalist designs, and to take 5E and turn it into a rules-light dungeon game with unique time-based light mechanics and a hefty penalty for stumbling around in the fark effectively simulates an old-school dungeon romp without a lot of math, tedious bookkeeping, and character preparation.

Spellcasting rolls.

This game also requires a minimalist mindset, especially when modding or bringing in 3rd party content. It is so easy to port in a heavy, complicated system that takes over the game, muddles progression, introduces too many variables to track or bogs down the game in ways the designer never intended. The designer here likely wrote on a whiteboard "what I like about OSR games" and "what I don't like." Why do we need to mod all that stuff back in? Especially if it bogs down the game.

Danger levels of areas mean something.

When you put yourself in the mindset for this game, you are focused on the environment, story, and what is in the next room. There is a tight focus here, and things outside that focus have been eliminated or simplified to the point where the rules are left to the game master. I don't need a book with 1,000 pieces of gear for this game, weights down to 0.1 pounds, and an old-school encumbrance system.

The less you have, the better.

This game is about the minimal guidelines to recreate a particular old-school experience. The empty calorie crust of D&D was cut off, leaving us with the best parts.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Tales of Argosa Public Playtest

FREE Playtest PDF:

Kickstarter Link (Feb 2024):

Wow, this one took me by surprise. The Low Fantasy Gaming team is rewriting LFG into Tales of Argosa and rebuilding the concept around a Shadowdark-like experience with a unique art style, presentation, and gritty theme.

How is this different from Shadowdark? LFG was always closer to a 5E-like experience than OSR, though it takes a lot of inspiration from the OSR. This is more Warhammer FRPG and Conan than old-school D&D, and there is cinematic flare here, where Shadowdark is more square-by-square grim-and-gritty. ToA also pulls in ideas from Dungeon Crawl Classics, like dangerous magic, and revamps the martial-caster power divide.

They also may go Creative Commons with this version, breaking away from the OGL and standing on their own. More games need to do this, embrace that Shadowdark energy, express their creativity, and go their own way from B/X, the OSR, and D&D - and make something more than someone else's stuff.

It is great seeing this team spread their wings and fly, taking inspiration from Shadowdark, but keeping most of what made Low Fantasy Gaming fantastic. There are tons of minor, mechanical tweaks in here to refine the experience from the first version and to pare down the cheese and exploits.

And the Kickstarter is next month.

This is another I am all in on.

A5E Play Report, Part 3

Ah, the Nerrath campaign, the D&D 4E "default setting" that felt like more of an example of a starting area that every player wanted to see fleshed out as an entire game world. This was part of 4E's "rebel nature," and people loved this since it wasn't Greyhawk, the Realms, Dark Sun, or anything else we have seen before. The game had a lot of things we never saw before, such as elevating tieflings, dragonkin, and eladrin as core rulebook races. The world was new, the planar cosmology was new, some of the gods were new, and the world's model felt more interesting than we had in 20 years of 3 and 3.5E.

Then, 5E comes along and quietly rolls back many of the changes. Back in the cave with you! I get why; 4E's design was horribly broken, and everyone in this uni-class acted and worked exactly the same. The entire experience was MMO-ized. It felt like a card game in book form. High-level play was a disaster. The game needed a reset and back-to-basics to survive.

But we loved this little place like it was home. We built a world around it that was our own.

When we tried to create 5E characters to fill this world back in 2014, when 5E came out, the characters felt lacking. Something was missing. We never replaced 4E with 5E and put the game aside as "meh" compared to other things we were interested in.

Ten years later, I designed some of my NPCs from our game using the A5E rules, and what a difference a solid core design makes. A5E tightly links your character to the world unless you choose a more nomadic background and happen to wander into this area. Otherwise, if you say I am in a trades guild, the game asks you, "What guild? Who do you know? What connection do you have?" In every case, you must answer specific questions about the world that tie your character to it.

We had a character, a female tiefling town guard from Winterhaven, and in 4E she was what she was - tiefling fighter. In A5E, she had this background where she still had some of the responsibilities of that background in the sandbox. She could get called upon to serve if the town were in danger. The guards could ask her to investigate mysterious caravan attacks on the north road. If a killer were on the loose in Winterhaven, she could be asked to bring her friends in to solve the mystery. And if she did enough for the town, she could have skilled retainers, a 4-person squad, assigned to her permanently. This is great if the party were on a long trip and needed a small group of trusted, trained guards to guard their camp, look after their treasure, and watch over them while they rest.

She went from bland to fabulous.

I don't get that in D&D or 5E.

I get all this for every background in A5E by default.

One of the problems many adventures have is the "wandering adventurer" mentality. They are written from the standpoint of "you wander into town," and it feels like such a tired cliche. I love my sandbox settings and a system that forces me to say this person came from that place and knows these people. You can tweak this relationship to your liking, so if you want to be more of an outcast - that is your choice. But you will still have to say who threw you out and why.

I could run a fantastic Nerrath campaign with A5E. The one I wished we could have run. Nobles could have been linked to Eladrin families looking to restore their manors in the Moon Hills. Traders would have contacts in every town. Guards would be linked to actual towns and NPCs. Members of different guilds would have NPCs and guild houses to visit and deal with. Entertainers could make names for themselves and earn a living in different towns. Clerics could perform religious ceremonies at temples in exchange for room and board.

As the PCs level, the importance of their groups and circles grows. The cleric is brought to a council of faith for a larger area. The guild invites the player to a regional meeting to discuss significant issues. The guard becomes an officer and is sent to the local monarch to represent the area in significant security issues.

The PCs would still be adventurers and free to go where they wish, but having a world to fall back on helps. This world can also be a source of adventure hooks and opportunities. The PCs are part of the world, and the world is a part of the PC's experience.

My adventures are mostly "you wander into town," which limits my options. Most 5E adventures are written like this so they can "drop-in" anywhere. Even if I use these, I would like to establish a "home area" and "why the PCs are here together."

I would do that work before I ran the adventure; even though they could be a hundred miles away from home, the questions of "where do they come from" and "why are they there?" must be answered.

Starting with a more robust sandbox helps like some of the classic OSR mega-dungeons converted to 5E that come with starting towns. These have NPCs you can use during character creation, where you can point to someone and say, "I worked for him, or she was my guild master." That makes for a great game; you are tied into the setting, and your motivations are clear and personal.

D&D suffers from a plague of "the adventurer class" like they were a caste middle class between peasants and royalty. They assume these people have no connections to the world and just exist as a wandering group of thrill seekers. This feels like the people who go to Burning Man and other festivals, one after the other, and you wonder if these people have real jobs and real lives.

And every adventure is written for them. "The wandering band of adventurers stumbles upon..." is now equivalent to "it was a dark and stormy night." It is a lazy cliche, tired, and invites the players to care less about the world and adventure since another one will be waiting for them just down the road a little.

I love the concept of a system that forces a tighter connection to the game world. You could house rule in "I am a wandering X," but that should be the outlier, not the norm.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

A5E Play Report, Part 2

Do you know how some 5E players feel about B/X characters compared to 5E characters?

"They are way too simple! I got nothing to work with here!"

This is how I feel about 5E characters compared to A5E characters.

I went through all the characters I built for my A5E game and designed them in Hero Lab for straight 5E, and time after time, all the fun stuff was missing. The 5E characters were flat and uninteresting. Parts of the rules dealing with resting, navigation, survival, environmental hazards, and social encounters were flat-out missing.

The DMG would say, "Make it up yourself!"

I don't have to; the A5E game gives me all this plus more.

Do you know how GURPS players fall in love with the detail level of their characters? Where is every skill, disadvantage, advantage, and other particular facets of the player character mapped out in intricate detail? While A5E does not go as far as to-the-point GURPS, I can say having 9-12 special abilities (a mix of combat, social, and exploration) for my 5E characters makes all the difference in the world between a flat, combat-only, generic race-plus-class-plus-subclass build.

A5E is 5E with a semi-GURPS level of customization, all done through background choices.

In A5E, I can swap out these specials for anything I can imagine when I start to homebrew and custom-hack my characters. Like swapping the cosmopolitan option's "discreetly armed" feature for "expertise die for getting into royal events." Or anything else, wine tasting, area knowledge, criminal gangs, or any other area of knowledge where an expertise dice will make a character shine above everyone else.

One of my characters in A5E is a sailor berserker who gets angry like Popeye and kicks butt with his giant boarding axe. In 5E, generic barbarian. In A5E, this guy can talk him and his friends onto a ship voyage for free (you may have to do a little work), hire a ship crew (or cargo handlers) for half price, know ship captains and ships, talk salty language to intimidate people, and get information from the local sailors by drinking hard and telling fish stories.

Sorry, D&D, you are boring. Your game gives me nothing to work with. Your advice is, "The DM makes it all up!" or, "The player's backstory gives you ideas!" I have played for 40 years, and none of that would have immediately come to mind. It helps to have a little inspiration and guidance.

He also has an AC of 15 without armor because of his toughness and cool tattoos, and he moves at a base speed of 35' per round. He does a d12 + 2 slashing damage a turn.

In A5E, this guy is fantastic.

Parts of him directly work with the game's unique pillars-of-play systems. He can learn fighting styles at level 2 and have unique attacks and defenses linked to a stamina-like resource.

He is like a freaking Danny Trejo Popeye.

His ability to socialize his way into any waterborne adventure gives me ideas for adventures for this group. If I were doing a game based around ocean travel, this is the guy I would want in my party. Even on land, this guy kicks butt. And he only gets better as he levels.

A lot of the complexity is never seen in A5E and melts away; it plays like 5E. When you need it, it is there. The options and extra systems are only in the places where the original game has a void.

I don't need D&D anymore.

I have this.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

A5E Play Report, Part 1

Stop talking about your books; play the darn game.

This is one huge problem with a lot of content creators; they talk about a lot of games, but they never actually play them. I played a month of A5E last summer, so I can speak to the game. This time, I am coming back with a new set of characters in the old-school Lost Lands world.

So I was creating characters tonight, and it took me about 30 minutes per character to create them by hand using the walkthrough on the A5E tools site. I like doing characters by hand, I am reading the rules, making choices, understanding a class, and making all the choices the rules tell me to make. Too often, with programs like Hero Lab or Pathbuilder, I will click through, make a character, and know nothing about the class or how it plays.

Is it tedious? Yes. But I am learning a lot more and reading the books.

Can I make mistakes? Yes. Who cares? This character was unique.

Do I have the freedom to pull in any 3rd party content I want? Yes.

Can I make tweaks to characters depending on unique backgrounds? Yes.

Are characters supposed to follow the exact letter of the rules? Yes and no. The secret is it doesn't matter as long as most of them are correct, and you get better every time as you learn and evolve your understanding of the game.

Doing characters by hand beats web or app-based character creation considerably. If your game, character sheet, and math are so complicated, you need a program to create a character - fix your game. I am not playing it. I know, and I play GURPS. Truth be told, I am rethinking GURPS these days.

Did I need 30 expansion books to create a character with so many options I need to scroll through substantial drop-down dialog controls? No. The basic books are fine here, and since A5E has more detail per character, I don't need to make up for flat, uninteresting character choices with tons of options. A5E lets you make five choices per character - plus more when you finally pick a class. So, the build-diversity and granular depth are very high, like in Pathfinder 2.

A5E gives you 8-12 special abilities based on your choices, spread across combat, social, and exploration pillars. The roleplaying aspects of many of the options give these characters incredible depth. My stock D&D 5E characters built with Hero Lab seem more like "combat characters" with zero social and exploration abilities. They fall very flat. They feel like they don't have any tools to work with outside of combat.

5E has too much combat focus; the characters feel flat, hurting the game. I opened up Hero Lab and built the same characters, and it took me about 3 minutes to do each one - ten times faster. When I was done, I printed them out and looked them over. Same abilities, gear, and spells - okay. I could play with this, but it seems thin.

The skills? No specialties and expertise dice. Do you mean I can't have a character specializing in a skill area? A background can't give one of my skills expertise dice? Well, that sucks.

Are connections, mementos, and backstories coded in with character creation? Bleh.

No Destiny system? The entire inspiration mechanic in A5E is tied into inspiration, and you can achieve your goals and gain a unique ability! Do you mean I am back to having the players get nothing for completing their backstory character arcs beyond a "good job" from the GM? Does the inspiration system have nothing to do with character goals? Ugh. Bland.

Do my exploration-focused characters have unique knacks for creating shelters, tracking, or finding food? Are the resting mechanics tied into having a safe place to rest to regain everything? Can rangers build those safe places? No? Wow, the ranger class sucks again.

Martial characters can't train in fighting styles and learn special moves? Fighters and other non-magic martial characters will be boring during combat again. Magic characters have all the fun again. Ugh. Why play martials?

Where is my list of special abilities my heritage, culture, and background give me? All the cool roleplaying bonuses like half training time, expertise dice in particular situations, cantrips gained, rules tweaks, minimum rolls for activities, advantage on some rolls, and allowed rerolls for some tasks? I usually have 9-12 of these to write down for each character, and they fuel roleplaying and give me benefits in all of the game systems, like exploration?

This is a massive part of A5E vs. 5E; all my characters have a list of special abilities gained through their choices in character creation. Tales of the Valiant also does this (about half the number A5E gives you). This is a massive part of "modern 5E" for me; having these game and roleplaying abilities adds so much to the game that I can't play without them.

Plan 2014 and 2024 5E are boring compared to this, with very shallow, combat-focused characters where players need to bring in "pages of backstory" to justify arguing a benefit to the GM. If you don't write a backstory novella, good luck being anything other than a boring wargame miniature - a generic soldier or tank like any other on the board. This is what D&D is missing; it does not look like we are getting anything as in-depth as this. Wizards are pushing backward compatibility to a flavorless base system with broken expansion books. This will not end well.

With A5E, the character creation system allows you to merge templates of backstory benefits and list those on your character sheet for use during play, directly affecting the rules. Every character's mechanical interactions with the rules are different.

Yes, it takes me 30 minutes to create a character here, but I am saving three days of writing a novella for my character story. I still could write that backstory, using my abilities as a guide and framework, but that is optional. Here, I will have something to base that story on, and in-game effects will be tied to that special ability list.

I have an idea of the adventure I want to play, an amazing one from Frog God set in the Lost Lands setting, Splinters of Faith. Frog God has been delivering some fantastic 500-page hardcover 5E adventures with an old-school feeling that should not be missed. The cover alone on this is fantastic.

More on this one next time.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Building an A5E Library, Part 10

The more I read about 5E, the more I get the feeling the later designers at Wizards had little idea what they were doing. Tasha's book broke the game by giving too many ways to break the bounded accuracy system. I get the feeling the design team was responding to the popular sentiment that "Missing to-hit rolls sucks."

So, they broke their game to fix a design flaw. Only the rules are so vague that different groups could disallow the parts that break the game and others won't - leading to wildly differing accounts of system balance and how easy the game is. Overall, the game is still far too easy, and if you use the broken parts, it is laughably easy to survive almost anything.

They fell into a design pattern of "patching complaints" rather than "proceed on solid design principles."

Conversely, games are using 5E's flaws as a marketing point. Pathfinder 2 has universal, unambiguous, agreed-upon rules that are the same for every group. MCDM RPG eliminates to-hit rolls and actively markets against the "negative experience" that D&D forces upon you. How will this work out in practice or will the entire game devolve into "total versus total?

Which reminds me of another game...

Tunnels & Trolls, published in 1975, the second RPG ever published, never did melee to-hit rolls (only ranged to-hits, and in the 8th edition, those have been pared back). The idea is familiar if you know your history. Then again, only some creators want you to learn history, so you must click on their YouTube videos to get their manufactured version.

But a lot of 5E was just piled on as books were released, and since the entire community has this sort of "who cares" sort of attitude, every group allows or bans different things, and the thing we like to call D&D isn't one codified set of rules we can point to. It is a blob with a million items stuck on it and floating around inside, different from every group that plays the game.

Nobody plays D&D because nobody can say what it is. There isn't a single accepted set of rules and options everyone plays by. When people say 5E dominates the market, I can easily say a million versions do, and each has a minuscule market share.

This is a colossal stealth problem for a VTT, which will force one way of playing on everyone.

Nobody talks about this.

You get 10,000 players who love a Pokémon-style battle monsters version of D&D from a 3rd party publisher, and yes, they are counted as 5E players. But, oops, the VTT doesn't support that! There is no good way of tracking and leveling our battle monsters in the VTT. So we don't use it. This example uses a 3rd party product, but even for people who 100% use Wizards content, there still are so many interpretations and styles of play they will never fit into the VTT system cleanly.

And even if a substantial amount of people are willing to pay and play in a VTT, how many will keep doing it after three months? A year? The investors may expect millions; if the company delivers hundreds of thousands (which would be excellent for any company), they may fail to meet targets. The Dreamcast sold 10 million units in North America and was sold out for a year, but it was still canceled since it did not meet an insane expected sales target and user base.

Then you understand how much money it will take 3d artists and content creators to sustain a market like that, especially if the assets are in-house. If you aren't allowing 3rd party set, figure, animation, and content creators in your VTT - you will never be able to sustain a beast of customers that hungry.

And if people don't get what they want - they leave quickly.

Other companies will be doing what you tried to do better because they can organize a team around producing results in line with customer expectations. The ones you failed to meet but paid all the money to develop the market for them. I've been in companies like that, too.

I worked in commercial 3d, and I know you can wreck the health of a talented team if you try to support a ravenous community hungry for content all yourselves. You aren't building a walled garden; you are making a marketplace. Keeping this in-house due to greed will cause it to crash and burn.

Evidence? How long can you sustain a video game development team in all crunch-time mode? The level of work developing assets is similar. Primarily if they must be "coded" to work with game rules. I have been there. They have no idea what they are getting into.

And investors aren't patient, giving you time to figure it out.

Pathfinder 2 goes hard in the other way. The rules are very well-defined, and there is no room for interpretation or group customization. Pathfinder 2 is what you play after you get sick of how undefined and random D&D becomes. I hate telling players no, and I hate having to chase down every exploit and keep ahead of the latest cheats; no, you can't bring that third-party book into my game; this is broken, that sucks, and everything is so random and undefined it should all work out but never does.

When I get sick of the D&D "whatever this game is," and I want to play an actual game with clear rules as written? That is Pathfinder 2.

The character sheets are still atrocious, but I appreciate what they did. The game is not for me.

Level Up Advanced 5E is a rules fork of the original three 5E books. It is math-compatible with NPCs and adventures, but it creates a new sandbox for character creation and advancement incompatible with 3rd party classes and subclasses. It would be best to build your character using these rules to play this game as intended.

The disadvantage is that very few of what sells 3rd-party books are usable, such as the character options. This is also the advantage since many of those, even the ones Wizards put out, are so broken to hell that they are not worth putting in your game. So Level Up does its own thing and puts out regular 'zines' and collects them at the end of the year, and there are some 3rd party expansions, too.

So, while 3rd party character options need to be converted and homebrewed to work, there is good support overall and likely more than I will ever use with the gazetteers. If I want better base compatibility with 5E subclasses, Tales of the Valiant will probably do better in this area.

You can import straight 5E NPCs, and they will work, but try to play them as PCs, and you will discover they are missing subsystems and pieces that A5E needs to make their exploration, social, and skill mechanics work correctly.

A5E is easier than 5E to play since it only requires a subset of multi-book knowledge and is a fork based on the core rulebook engine. To enjoy it, you have to enjoy the goals they were aiming for, which are rules that support combat, exploration, and social encounters with mechanics. It is 5E in a bubble where things are balanced and work well together.

ToV is the game with better across-the-board 5E compatibility.

A5E is a custom hack that brings in the best of 3.5E and 4E.

Owning many 3rd party books I use to put a game together, I am very picky about what I allow in my bubble. I came into 5E at the end of the game's lifecycle, so I am happy with the basic book classes flavored with a few options. I can homebrew in special powers for classes, backgrounds, origins, and ancestries. D&D has a problem with people constantly getting bored with what they have and always wanting to consume more. This is a problem with a game too focused on delivering many options with very little quality to each choice.

To me, the story matters more.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Another Difference

Level Up A5E? You are not 5E enough!

Tales of the Valiant? You are too much like 5E!

...wait, what?

Strange how times change, but the complaints around these two games seem a complete 180. One needs to be 5E more, while the other doesn't go far enough to not be 5E. Something tells me the complainers are only happy with D&D, and 5E could matter less. If Wizards shifted to a d6 pool system for D&D, they would want that, and the complaints would be, "Not enough d6 pools!"

But if we want "not D&D" these days, MCDM RPG, Pathfinder 2, or Dragonbane are the places to be. We have plenty of "not 5E" systems out there; why compete if your company's strengths are in Open 5E books both sets of fans can use?

And D&D fans, even if people (and creators) go to these 5E-like games, it is better than having them leave the 5E sphere entirely. So, chill. I get the feeling nothing will be perfect for the complainers, so it is best to have my eggs in a few baskets with ethical and morally sound companies than it is living in a world where the daily drama of Wizards is all people talk about.

Honestly, this is what killed Hasbro D&D for me. I could not pick up the game without thinking of Wizards' attacks on the larger gaming community (OGL), this drama, that drama, the layoffs, the stupid statements,  everybody wins, and all the negativity D&D YouTube pushed. It is partially my fault for watching so much of that crap, I get it, but lesson learned. I am un-subbing from those 5E and OSR channels and moving on. I rarely watch tabletop content on YouTube unless it is something positive (like a preview) or live-play.

2023 was the year D&D died for me. I got caught up in the drama - and it was easy to. The OGL crisis was a surprise attack on games and communities I loved. But, as the year dragged on, I saw the true faces of different companies, communities, and groups. Wall Street companies always act the same. Clickbait producers are not to be trusted. People pushing agendas for a community don't care about the game. People who are more concerned about telling you how to enjoy something are not interested in playing a game and fostering creativity.

If it is not "about the game," then walk away.

I needed to be in a space where my worlds, characters, stories, and creations mattered more than the community politics and daily drama. New seedlings took root out of disaster, and I found positive spaces and places where I could be myself again.

I found a bunch of great games and communities, like Cypher System, Level Up A5E, and Tales of the Valiant. I tried Pathfinder 2, and it wasn't for me; no problem, sometimes things don't work out. Like many people, I felt disappointed with ToV but overcame it when I realized the bigger picture.

ToV protects all the work the Kobold Press team - and others - put into the 5E community. Who knows what will happen to D&D? They could get sold to Tencent, an overseas mobile game company, or a big-media holding firm (Disney, Warner), and everything would be lost. This is Wall Street and billion-dollar IP stuff we are talking about, and there is no such thing as "never could happen" in this world. The fact they thought they could threaten the OGL, then promised not to - who knows what the next owner thinks they could do? In 5 years, everything could change. We could be right back where we were in January 2023 after D&D is sold again.

Due to the fact it is owned by Wall Street, D&D is always on a short clock. Yes, it has been 20+ years of ownership, but the market is radically different. The media mergers alone prove this.

3rd party creators have businesses, artists to pay for, and people with homes and families to support. No one will create 5E content on "a promise to be ethical," - especially how we got here when they didn't. You can't plan 5 years out on that uncertainty or run a business. Without Open 5E efforts, the large-publisher 3rd party 5E community would collapse. The smaller market would follow.

Even if all you care about is 2024 D&D, this is serious. Do people want 3rd party 5E content or not? I would rather live in a world where Kobold Press still prints 5E-compatible books than switch to Dragonbane, Pathfinder 2, or make an incompatible system.

I would rather live in a world where an Open 5E protects all the books I have and love. Do we want to protect our wealth and investments, or let Wall Street tell us that to enjoy our hobby, we must pay a tiered subscription fee behind a locked gate - with the haves and the have-nots? Do we want a hobby where books are regularly tossed out and we are forced to pay for new ones? Wall Street creates profit by manufacturing inequity where there is none. They will remove this hobby from an open market and lock all your personal property behind a paywall.

2023 was the year everyone woke up. Or at least me.

Reality check.

But I am happier with an Open 5E system; some great ones exist. I can keep having fun with the books I have. I am not being forced to subscribe to a paywall service. I can support 3rd party creators. The books have zero drama.

And the game is mine again.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Building an A5E Library, Part 9

There really isn't a downside to selling off my 2014 5E books. Some will say, "Hold onto them just in case!" But what? My feelings are how they are; they haven't changed for a year. 2014 and 2024 D&D are dead to me. Goodbye. The 50th anniversary of D&D means little to me; it feels like the 50th anniversary of a highway I drove on. So? Yay, I have been down that road. They will never write another 'new thing' such as Keep on the Borderlands or Tomb of Horrors; the team doesn't have the skill or focus to make a new classic. They will reboot, remaster, and write member-berries, but that is it.

And you bet the new "digital market" will lean hard on nostalgia, rewriting digital versions of every classic module - even down to the terrible ones. But there will never be a 'new classic' like the GDQ series, the S-series, or others from the Wizards team. You must visit the OSR and 3rd party creators to find those experiences.

And if I wanted to write 5E compatible products? Stick with the CC-SRD and be safe. The only reason for keeping them is if you were building subclasses or spells and wanted to avoid accidentally duplicating something Wizards made. Then again, a FAQ would probably work better here.

If I want new stuff that blows my mind, things I have never seen before, I will play Dungeon Crawl Classics. This is where the imagination is. I don't want reboots of 50-year-old classics. I played them when they came out. The reboots will never be the same.

If I wish to play 5E, other companies better present the game and fix the problems. The thing is, let's say Tales of the Valiant turns out to be the better game. Or it doesn't, and I stick with a game I like already, Level Up Advanced 5E. I could go either way. If ToV rocks and is the new hot thing, great! I am there. All the books in this series work with either game.

I win either way.

And all the negativity is gone.

Also, I own all my books. Character creation is software-free. I can "go without" the paywalled digital convenience, protect my wealth and investments, and be free from monthly bills for hobbies.

A5E has a few issues - the subclasses in other 5E books don't play well with the ones in A5E. There are class features and mechanics unique to A5E that the subclasses here work better with the game. The company puts out a ton of updates and gazetteers, and there is third-party support - so the pickings are still strong.

This is also why ToV may be a better game for some books, like Arcanis, that do a near-total conversion and need a game closer to the 5E metal than a total conversion like A5E. ToV will be closer in compatibility with 5E, and that is a good thing. Subclass features in 3rd party books will work better with ToV. A5E rebuilds the game into something extraordinary, with many subsystems built to support different pillars of play.

If I play the Arcanis setting, it will be with ToV.

If I do more old-school 5E, like Lost Lands, I will play with A5E. I could also play Lost Lands with ToV, but A5E will give me that old-school feeling I want with this setting. There is more here for exploration and social, and the rules have detail and grit.

Midgard? I will play with the home system, ToV. Kobold Press does a fantastic job supporting their games, and it will be a 2010 Paizo-like ride for the first few years.

The closer we get to the books, I get hyped about the Tales of the Valiant release. Gone is the feeling of "this is just another 5E," and I am on board with this game version. Having all my Wizards books in sell boxes helps since this is a new game with new experiences. When you collect and horde roleplaying books, you can put your mind in a prison where you can't enjoy new things.

You have to be stronger than hoarding and let things go.

You will be happier if you do.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

POD: Classic Tomb of Horrors, Back in POD

This is a rare one to go back into PoD availability. The classic Tomb of Horrors is back in print on DMG. Pick it up now if you are collecting print versions of the classics.

Building an A5E Library, Part 8

You don't want to start out with a ton of junk when you start a new game and load on so many optional rules and expansion subsystems that your fun turns into an unsustainable mess of piled-on cruft. I plan on starting with the base three books for LU-A5E, and just starting for the first three to five levels here. But I do want a few fun systems from my expansion books that fit the theme of my game.

The classic demons will be present in my game, a nod to old-school AD&D where these were the world's ultimate bad guys. Back in the 1980s, the demons and devils in our games were the ones who plotted, made the orcs invade the lands of good, spoke words of encouragement into the dragon cults and their allies, gave the drow power, and were always there until the characters were high level enough to face them down in an ultimate battle to save the world. From Dante's Guide to Hell, I plan to use two optional systems.

The first is Corruption and Damnation, on page 66. Exposure to demonic entities, temples, unholy sites, magic spells, relics, runes, magic items, and evil acts will all tick up characters' corruption counters. To fight the darkness, they must go into it and risk corruption. They will need to atone, do acts of virtue, spend time on holy grounds, and undergo cleansing rituals to remove the taint. Otherwise, they will begin to hear the whispers and be offered untold power by the things they are trying to fight.

Corruption gain could mean a character gets a free level of warlock or other evil class as a dark gift.  There are corrupt classes in plenty of the books I have, and there are more in the PDF-only Player book that is a companion to this one. Everything comes with a price, though. You take the quick road to power, and you will pay the price.

I do plan on milestone achievements instead of counting XP and leveling that way. At any time, if a character has enough corruption, a level will be offered in something nefarious. The bill will come later.

The Sins and Virtues system on page 70 also looks fun and is sort of a yen-yang system of personal choices, like the corruption system, but it is less world-ending and more roleplaying-focused. If my paladin picks Justice as a virtue, they will get +1 on a roll to intimate wrongdoers and can earn extra benefits in the system. If he decides Pride is his sin, he will have disadvantages on rolls when someone flatters him, and if they continue to fall into the sin mechanic in the game, they will suffer new drawbacks. This fun system could be a gateway to corruption if the sin is egregious enough. The system is a lighter-weight one and encourages roleplaying.

Character power does not determine success in this world, and it does not give you immunity from corruption. The more character power you get, the harder you work to break the taint. This puts roleplaying and social encounters on a high level of importance since the threat that is not always easily dealt with is always out there, whispering in the darkness.

Too often in 5E, characters will become unassailable bastions of power and invincible. I want the enemy to be inside everyone, and they will need to observe each other for the telltale signs that the things they fight aren't becoming the dark allies they are working for. While old-school games often lacked these sorts of corruption mechanics, they fit in with the theme and story of the world I want to tell. We have them in newer games, and they not only offer plenty of roleplay opportunities but are also a threat outside of the d20 and system mechanics that offer a different endgame for a character's journey. Too often, we assume, "My character is good forever with no changes," but that isn't always true, given the nasty things they fight.

I will not have "planes" or "alternate worlds." If I do any portals to a modern world, it will be a 1940s pulp-era adventure via Amazing Adventures 5E. No modern technology, the 2020s, Internet, cell phones, or anything like that. Just mad science, two-fisted heroes, gumshoes, gangsters, and the pre-WW2 Nazi bad guys looking for artifacts of magic power. Like Indiana Jones before the last two movies. This is the only "modern world" anyone is getting in my game, and no exceptions trying to go forward in time to grab an iPad.

By keeping this to the 1940s, the advantage of pulp characters will be in gear and skills, whereas fantasy characters will be brute power and magic. Guns will only be limited to pulp characters and toned down to a level where they aren't walking armories. Characters here will have the Sins and Corruption subsystems.

I like this book; it is a self-contained game, and I may run it for fun.

One Million Magic Items may get used early since my love for Diablo-style items knows no bounds, and they force inventive play.

And that is it; I am keeping the start simple and avoiding all the other books, extra monsters, spells, magic items, and the other books in my collection off the table for now. As I need them, they will get added in.

ToV & A5E

I like both of these games, and I have room to play either. I have done some serious reading of ToV's alpha, and it is a quality, sound, solid system. But what is the difference between them?

Level Up Advanced 5E is my 3.5E, 4E, and Pathfinder 1e replacement. This design pulls the best from many past editions and rolls them into a 5E compatibility base. A few reviews of A5E loved the bard's inspiration song and said it was what they loved the most about 3.5E - and that is here. We get the warlord class from 4E. The team here looked back and asked, "What did we love from the old editions?" and added that to the game.

Much of the A5E supplemental material is forward-looking, but it brings back the "best of" from earlier editions. Exploration and social mechanics are a nod to classic, OSR-style play. Looking back and feeding my nostalgia bug is a good thing, and having a version of 5E that plays like an OSR game is beautiful. I would consider A5E an OSR-style game with a 5E engine driving the action.

Play A5E if you sit there and say, "I want my bard to play how they used to."

Play ToV if you sit there and are happy with the new direction of bards; the same goes for any class. ToV will make some changes to modernize, but they are done through the 5E lens.

And they rewrote everything, so they are not subject to any OGL-related insanity. They cleaned-roomed this game, a heroic effort, and were years ahead of the market.

Tales of the Valiant? Forward-looking. Improving 5E and creating a guilt-free decolonized edition of the 5E rules. ToV is not as concerned with the past as it is with improving the present and creating a starting point to move forward. This is "Future 5E," with characters who operate at a power level a notch above old 5E characters, and the super-heroic aspects of the game are turned to 11. There are a lot of "crowd pleasers" in this game, like how when you get a talent, you don't have to forego an ability score increase - you get 1 point and choose a talent pick.

Where A5E is rebuilt to simulate an old-school experience, ToV maintains a high level of 5E compatibility. If I had a setting book with many custom subclasses and options, I would use ToV to play this since there would be fewer headaches with making it all work. The Arcanis setting is an excellent example since they rewrite 80% of the classes and present an almost complete game as a part of the setting. If you have a lot of 3rd-party books and want the best compatibility, choose ToV.

With A5E, you get into issues with the subclasses not having the parts needed to make the exploration game work, and there are a few breaks in compatibility created to support old-school play. A5E is a bit "in its own sandbox," but it is enjoyable. There is also fun in playing a sandboxed game like this with fewer books since the game is more straightforward to grasp, and there isn't a lot of mess to deal with with compatibility.

This became clear once I saw Level Up A5E as my Pathfinder 1e replacement. Is it 100% Pathfinder 1e? No. Is it close enough to what I liked about Pathfinder 1e in how I used to play the game? Yes.

Pathfinder 1e is a little dead to me now, with 2E changing the tone and flavor of that world so much that I barely recognize it. It is not the classic picture on the first book's cover anymore. There is nothing edgy or cool. There isn't any youthful, rebellious energy to Pathfinder 2E. The game grew up, got a job downtown, and sits on the bus every morning, regretting its life choices. And filling out a character sheet that looks like a tax form. I wish I liked Pathfinder 2 more, but it isn't for me.

Wizards killing the OGL in spirit killed Pathfinder 1e for me. I loved that game. And I can't forgive them for that, either. Yes, I have the books and can still play it as it was. But it feels like listening to the songs of a pop star who passed before their time. The sad feelings are there. This is a memory, not life energy, to move forward with.

I could sell all my Pathfinder 1e books and move on.

The rebellious energy I crave in the design sphere has also moved out of the OSR. I rarely find much here except endless Xeroxes of specific game editions by year and version. Oh, this is 1981 D&D! Mine is 1982 D&D! Dungeon Crawl Classics is one of the last rebellious places, but at 100 modules in, they need to refresh that energy, or they will become part of the establishment, too.

The rebellious energy these days is in the Open 5E movement.

Both A5E and ToV are holding a middle finger up to the establishment, telling Wall Street to get out of our gaming communities and deliver rebellion and change.

You can't put a price on that.

And this youthful, rebellious energy will make or break a game.

Just like it will make or break a generation.