Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Two Years of A5t!

So 5e’s been out for a few years now, two this January to be exact (counting the DMG), and it’s finally been graced with its own general-purpose rules addition in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. (I’m not counting Sword Coast because it’s very setting-specific and, frankly, appears to go largely overlooked, at least in my neck of the woods.) Now seems to be a good time to look back at the evolution of the art of 5e’s hardbacks.

The first thing that’s obviously different is the utter disappearance of the Robert-Howard-esque, checklist multi-culturalism that was everywhere in the PHB and largely gone by the DMG. It’s still gone. Instead, D&D art direction appears to have fully embraced the post LotR-movies “generic gamest fantasy” trappings you see just about everywhere these days. We’re a far cry from the Dungeonpunk look of 3e; weapons are armor look serviceable and realistic (except for dwarven armor which apparently revolves around sculptural paldron ornaments). The clothing and gear looks worn, sometimes even stained or tattered around hems. The further you get from the PHB, the more careworn the look and feel is. Also, the more practical it looks, with pockets, pouches, straps and hanging gear, without going full Wayne-Reynolds-kitchen-sink, and certainly not like the pants-made-of-belts Dungeonpunk of 3e.

Still, we’re not seeing a resurgence of ‘80’s you-are-there, either. What we’ve got now is a very digital look with a soft focus and lots of color effects, clearly inspired by Frazetta but with the heroics tamed down. The proportions are strictly human, the heroics more Aragron-with-his-feet-planted-on-the-earth than Legolas-leaping-through-the-air. It’s kinda reminiscent of the reskinned 2e with Jane and Bob from accounting, but instead of a near-photorealistic painting of them in their late-‘90’s renfest garb, the wardrobe’s up to Weta Workshop standards now.

Nor are we seeing the WoW-inspired, ultra-cool of 4e. The palette is muted, almost muddied to the point of ‘90’s-era computer games like Morrowind or Quake. There’s lots of browns, umbers, and sienna with very little crimson or royal blue. When we get bold, brilliant colors, they’re atmospheric effects like lava, or a magical effect inspired by a monster, and almost never on a PC.

In short, the WotC focus has moved from who you are and what you’re doing and into concept-art style moods. The wall-of-action is gone; in its place are almost contemplative scenes that promise that action is imminent, but not happening just right now. Unfortunately, the moods tend to be things that art conveys very clearly, but can be more of a challenge in an RPG. The eminent attack of this giant is neat, but PCs rarely wait around for the monster to strike, not when there are buffs to cast, weapons to poison, and plans to make.

The other very common piece of art is the head-shot and full-body portrait, very reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen Paizo do for their adventures. Unfortunately, while this sort of thing ought to be extremely useful to DMs running adventures, my own experience with the art has been very hit-and-miss. It’s pretty rare that I see one of these pics and get a good sense of personality. These portraits rarely tell me anything useful about the people they represent. The most interesting thing about the headshot of Out of the Abyss’ Sarith are the bright orange spots that blatantly give away the most interesting thing about him.

The end result is art that feels like it’s attempting to justify its inclusion through utility, attempting to be informative and inspiring, but stumbling due to the traditional limits and expectations of RPG art. NPC portraits should come on sheets that can be handed to the players, with ample space for the players to jot notes on. Mood pieces should accompany tools and tips for DMs to create and maintain that mood to useful effect at the table.

On the one hand, I appreciate this respect for the consumer. The art’s not there just to be pretty, it’s not there just because there needs to be art, the art is actively trying to make my game better. On the other hand, I think WotC needs to be even more experimental, or, at the very least, pay attention to the experiments of others. Why are the end papers in their books still blank? Why don’t their full-color illustrations have the vibrancy and life and character of their sketchy line-art? Where are the visual puzzles? Where are the hand-outs of items and locations that contain visual clues for the players to pick up on?

All-in-all, I’m finding 5e’s art to be ok. Not great, but not off-putting either. It’s just kinda there. I don’t mean to be damning with faint praise, but yeah, it doesn’t really inspire or excite me. I won’t be rushing out to purchase poster-sized versions of any of it. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m having to fight against it, either, which is a step in the right direction for me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Weeping Iron Makes Wizards Writhe

Sorry, couldn't resist all the alliteration. ;)

Reading the fourth and fifth Black Company books inspired this. Most likely to be encountered by my Wednesday group, but considering how ubiquitous spell-use is in 5e, it seems it would have very broad application.

So, somewhere in the mists of time, someone hated spell-slingers. Someone hated them A LOT. And they devised multiple methods of killing them. One of the most effective, and enduring, was weeping iron. Weeping iron looks like black iron except it weeps a nasty purple oil that coats the metal. Most weeping iron weapons are enchanted (because, apparently, they didn’t hate all spell-slingers, or maybe they were one flavor of spell-slingers with a hate-on for another flavor; whichever works best for your campaign, naturally).

Regardless of whatever enchantments a weeping iron weapon has, anyone struck by such a weapon must make a CON save (usually against 16) or be poisoned (as per the condition rules in the PHB). If the victim doesn’t have any spell slots available, they’ll shake the poison off in 10 minutes.

On the other hand, if the victim does have spell slots, they have disadvantage on the saving throw and immediately take 1d6 damage per the level of their highest remaining spell slot. (So if a wizard has two 1st level slots and a single 3rd level spell slot remaining, the wizard takes 3d6 damage from the poison.) Every hour after, the spell-slinger takes another d6 damage per level of their highest remaining spell slot. The poison feeds on the spell-slingers magical potential; only magic will serve to purge the poison from a spell-singer’s body.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Black Company Brings D&D Magic to Fantasy Lit

I’ve read this book three times now, I think. Once was in high school. I could swear the second time was more recently, and I thought it had been since ’08, but now I’m not so sure; there’s a lot of this book I did not remember. Perhaps ’09. There are a lot of frustrating holes in my memories of ’09.

The Black Company is important to me in large part because it’s kinda-sorta the template I’ve based D&D on since high school. When I first picked up D&D, I was days away from turning the recommended age of 10. My models for fantasy were Harryhausen movies (especially Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), a random sampling of Norse and Greek myths sanitized for elementary-school kids, A Boy’s King Arthur, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A lot of the core of D&D can be found in these things: warriors that take blow after blow, their mail hanging off them in bloody rags, but staying on their feet and in the fight; professional specialization; the ensemble of disparate characters united in a quest; derring-do, danger, and reward.

But there was a big, ugly fly in my D&D soup: magic. I would learn before I reached high school that D&D magic was based on the writings of Jack Vance, but I wouldn’t actually read any Vance for over a decade after I got that first Basic box. Magic in my fantasy didn’t work at all like D&D magic. D&D magic didn’t fit in Camelot or Cair Paravel or Isengard. My earliest attempts to fix this with spell-point systems were, of course, disastrous; such a gameist solution actually snuffed out any sense of the mystical.

In my teens, however, I discovered two writers whose work really, really fit D&D. The first was Steven Brust with his Taltos novels. The second was Glen Cook with The Black Company.

In spite of Green Ronin’s free-form, point-based magic system to the contrary, magic in the Black Company universe is clearly based on very distinct spells, cast over and over again:

The occasional pair of balls howled over from Duretile. I later learned that Silent was throwing them, having been taught by the Taken.

The worst seemed over. Except for the three escapees Elmo was hunting, we had contained the thing. The Limper peeled off to the join the hunt for the three. Whisper returned to Duretile to refurbish her store of nasty tricks.

This is probably the most descriptive passage about magic in the Black Company books. Spells are, clearly, distinct and teachable techniques. And they need to be “refurbished” occasionally. In short, it looks an awful lot like D&D’s Vancian magic.

Even better, for me, The Black Company gave me a lot of what I loved from Tolkien and Lewis and King Arthur, but modified for the “reality” of D&D-style magic. We had the clash of armies, political skullduggery, the wide-ranging quests, the memorable locales and characters. Yet the focus was on grunts down in the mud and the blood and the beer. We got glimpses of great and powerful sorcerers, but from the thick of steel-on-steel melee down below the flying carpets and spiraling towers. Ok, yeah, there is a “chosen one” character, but she’s not a main character and we never see anything from her point of view. It’s mostly Croaker and his annals.

And what we get is very D&D-looking magic, with powerful artillery spells able to brutalize entire companies of soldiers at a time in horrific ways. There are rains of acidic dust, germ-warfare eggs, gargantuan invisible stompy things, and various sorts of pyrotechnics. Want to stop magic? You need either your own wizards to counter the spells of your enemy, or huge masses of cannon-fodder to absorb all that deadly magic and still swamp the enemy with.

Or, even better for D&D, be a small elite band that can slip in unnoticed, ambush the enemy wizards and rifle through their letters and documented orders, and then get the hell out before anybody notices what you’ve done.

And that’s the model I’ve used ever since to make my D&D worlds. There are powerful bad-asses bestriding the world like colossi, but still being very mortal and limited beyond the range of their particular suite of powers. And below them, entire pyramids of experts, specialists, spear-carriers, and grunts getting all the things done that need doing. The colossi have their own goals and rivalries and plots rolling along, and while most folks might just see that expected clash between Good and Evil, or Empire versus Free Cities, if you peek behind the curtain you’ll see that the game isn’t actually what you’d expect.

I remember thinking, the second time I read The Black Company that it clearly was intended by Cook to be a stand-alone thing, very much like his The Tower of Fear and the one about the guy with the magic sword. But if you look at the publication dates, that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Wikipedia, Shadows Linger was published five months after The Black Company, and The White Rose came out six months after that. Then we get a four year gap before Shadow Games. It’s going to be fun to explore this journey again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

D&D is a Transhuman RPG?

I was contemplating the realities of 5e D&D (the setting the rules assume/create) when I realized that D&D takes place in a transhuman setting. Notice the similarities:

  • There are superhuman abilities all over the place! Lots of common folk can do things like see in the dark or cast simple cantrips, or even higher-level spells like hellish rebuke, even before you start discussing class levels.
  •  Death is reversible. In 5th edition, a 5th level cleric can revivify a corpse if they’ve died within the last minute. This very much looks like tech medical researchers are perfecting even now. Many common folk have natural lifespans measured in centuries.
  • Enhanced reality and magical make-up! Lots of normal folk can toss around cantrips like thaumaturgy before you even start talking about class levels. High elves have access to the entire wizard list of cantrips, and these include things like lesser illusion, mage hand, and mending. A single 3rd level cleric can light every street-corner in town (given enough time) with continual flame.
  • Mind hacking is a thing. While friends and charm aren’t the spells they used to be, crown of madness and dominate person allow you to adjust a person’s behavior in real time, while suggestion, geas, and modify memory can distort or even reshape a personality.

And keep in mind, everything I’ve discussed above is available to characters below 10th level of ability. Modify memory and geas are 5th level spells, available to 9th-level wizards. I haven’t gotten into the really reality-bending stuff like teleportation circles, control weather, earthquake, true polymorph, or wish.

However, as in cyberpunk, the future is unevenly distributed. High elves are the big winners, having universal access to wizard cantrips and the longest life spans. Poor humans are at the bottom of the stack, though they do appear to have improved facility towards learning and personal development.

Just how uneven the distribution is depends on your campaign. 5e doesn’t assume, the way 3e did, what sort of campaign you’re running. If you decide that most priests can’t even manage a cantrip, then even kings might not have access to revivify. However, in most campaigns I’ve seen, almost every village has someone capable of casting at least lesser restoration, meaning they’ve got a 3rd level cleric or druid around. The rules for the teleportation circle spell state that “[m]any major temples, guilds, and other important places have permanent teleportation circles inscribed somewhere within their confines.” The DMG walks this back a bit, but there’s a strong implication that 9th-level wizards and sorcerers are thick enough on the ground to make these things useful to commercial and religious institutions (who usually don’t create wizards as part of their regular activities). Keep in mind, it takes a year of casting and over 18k gp (assuming a 365-day year) to create just one circle AND you need a 9th-level wizard or sorcerer at the other end, where people will be teleporting from. This isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to do on a whim.

So while your standard D&D campaign may lack the usual trappings of a transhumanist setting, it has a lot of the mechanical parts of one. This should make transhumanist lit a good source for mining plots, conflicts, and themes for your D&D game.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Monster Manual Cage Fight!

Alex Schroeder has weighed in with his thoughts on what makes a good monster book. I have to admit, there’s a lot there that clicks with me. As much as I love my weird and artsy, Noism’s book-of-pics-with-no-stats doesn’t sound as useful to me as, well, a traditional MM.

This has led to some introspection on which monsters I use. As I mentioned to Alex before, a lot of what makes a monster click with me is awesome art. It was di Terlizzi who really made hobgoblins work for me, both as monsters and as a PC race. Trampier made both the rakshasa and the pseudodragon must-use races for me in the original MM. So I, for one, will never denigrate the importance of good, inspiring illustration to make a monster not just come alive, but sell it to me as a DM.

That said, no stats? Sure, I could come up with the stats myself, but, as Alex points out, that starts to degrade the verisimilitude of the setting. I could also make up what spells do on the spur of the moment, but soon I’m wondering why I bought a game at all. Spending the hours working out the details for that sort of thing and communicating them to my players is part of what I’m paying the publisher for.

Don’t I want my players to be surprised by the monsters? Sometimes, but not most of the time. Most of the time I’m painting in broad strokes across the canvas of my setting when I put monsters down. I want my choice of monsters to communicate things to the players. They should see (or even just hear about) the monsters and be able to think, “Oh, if Brian’s using them, that means…”

And that’s why I tend to use well-known monsters that come with their own implications for the players. Orcs are tribal warriors, vicious but proud and fecund. Hobgoblins are militaristic conquerors. Gnolls are bestial and savage, destroyers and ruiners. Gryphons are proud and majestic predators. Dragons are powerful hoarders who spread fear and devastation far and wide. Sometimes, all I need to say is the monster’s name and players drop all sorts of assumptions down on the table. That’s great! It allows me to create the illusion of depth with minimalist strokes.

So on the one hand, it would seem I would embrace a book like Volo’s Guide to Monsters with open arms. And I would, if I didn’t put my own individual spin on monsters. Orcs are noble savages (with the emphasis on “savage”) from Sir Frazier’s Golden Bough. Hobgoblins are Romans minus the humanity. Gnolls, like hyenas, are matriarchal. It’s gryphons, not griffons, and they are sentient. Dragons are extremely feline in their mannerisms and sadisms. A book like Volo’s Guide to Monsters means instead of adding on to what the players already know about these races, now I have to walk them back from the official line.

It gets even worse with monsters that have a strong presence in mythology. Trolls, for instance, are guardians of places of transition: bridges, mountain passes, magical gates, etc. This fits with how they’re described in mythology. It doesn’t jive at all with what’s in the MMs.

So what do I want from an MM? 2e’s Monstrous Manual came closest to perfection for me: broad strokes with a few telling details to build verisimilitude. Give the players just enough info that they can understand why I’m using the monsters I’m using, but leave me the latitude to make them fit into my setting.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Story Bricks and Volo

This is an intriguing read. I have to admit, I have very mixed feelings about it. For instance, at one point Mearls says:

In the end, it's still a giant book full of monsters. No one would argue with that. But I just think that if that’s all the Monster Manual is, then we're selling ourselves short.
Ok, cool. I can totally groove with that. So long as what you do is better than a giant alphabetical list of monsters. But he follows that up with:
So the idea was, the kind of genesis of it, was that want to do something that's more story oriented.

Now, largely what they appear to be talking about here is the back-and-forth between Volo and Elminster, which looks to be very reminiscent of the comments by hackers and the like in the margins of the old Shadowrun books. Yeah, I suppose that might make it more fun to read, but does it make it useful at the table? Or am I going to be flipping through the book, scanning the text and trying to find where this or that snippet of info I want is hiding in giant blocks of dialogue?

Mearls bit about living in a “post Game of Thrones” world is interesting. I see where he’s coming from, but I think he’s oversimplified the timeline. I mean seriously, has he never heard of Michael Moorcock, Martha Wells, Steven Brust, Katherine Kurtz, or Ursula K. Le Guin? All of those folks were writing amazing fantasy, far from what we’d consider the standard fare, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Back then, everyone talked about how fantasy as a genre needed to escape the shadow of Tolkien, and they did it. Now you hear a lot about how far we’ve come, and how we need to rediscover our roots in Tolkien, Dunsany, and Howard.

But I can totally see where Mearls is coming from. D&D grew out of a mishmash of pulp and Tolkien and spawned its own thing which has become, in a way, self-referential and self-reinforcing. I’ve heard of this referred to as “gaming fantasy” and when people talk about “generic fantasy” that’s totally what they’re talking about. It’s the fantasy of EverQuest and WoW and, yes, default D&D now.

But the last time D&D attempted to interject more “story” into the game (and, amusingly enough, spawned all those Volo’s Guide books) was the ‘90s. And you’ll have to cast about far and wide for someone who says that was a heyday for the game.

Here’s the thing: if you want story spoon-fed to you, you’re totally set with Paizo’s excellent adventure paths. Even if you’d rather do them as 5e, they’re not too terribly difficult to translate.

I don’t think that’s what Mearls has in mind. He’s more about supplying us with story-bricks we can use to build stories. Which is cool, if the bricks are cool. Here’s what Mearls has to say about mind flayers:

What's the biology of the mind flayer? But no one asked about its feelings. But when you think about, it the game tells me that mind flayer has an 18 intelligence. The highest intelligence a human can achieve, that's their average. Literally, they walk in the room and they are the smartest being there. They are smarter than every human they've ever ate. So talking to us is like meeting dogs, for them. What’s that got to be like?

And here’s where the problems start. Because, as cool as this is, Zak did it better. The web is full of really good stuff, and if you’re not producing stuff that’s better than that, are you doing anyone any favors?

But for a guy like me, it gets worse. Because I’ve been thinking about how mind flayers work for over 30 years. I know how their reproductive cycle works, and while the tadpoles and the elder brain are neat, I’ve got adventures, settings, and themes spanning multiple campaigns about how that works (without any elder brains) and what the relationship is between the mind flayers and the aboleth and the beholders. I can tell you exactly what it means to be a member of a centaur herd, the different sorts of relationships elves form, what makes Abyssal different from Infernal and Common, and literally hundreds of other tiny details that I don’t have to stop and think about because I’ve already internalized them. When I need those details, they’re right there.

Which means anything in a new book must be extremely awesome to get me to do the work of replacing my head-canon. That’s setting the bar really high.

Which isn’t to say it’s impossible to clear; Zak’s thoughts on mind flayers certainly did so. But, again, you need something exceptional to make me interested, and I haven’t seen that yet in this book.

But I’m still going to buy it. Why? Because at least a third of it is an alphabetical list of monsters that I can use in pretty much any campaign I run.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Money, Money, Money!

So, your PCs are at mid-level, they’ve each got a piles of gold large enough to swim through like Scrooge McDuck, and nothing to spend it on. Why bother keeping track of treasure if there’s nothing to do with it? Here’s how I’ve answered that question:

Something Cool
Give the PCs something neat and fun and useful to buy with their money: flying mounts, a cool house, a ship, whatever. Just make sure it’s something that’s actually useful for them. Their house should give them a bit more status in the community, and the human guards and pet basilisk mean the treasure they store there is safe. Never punish them for having spent this money. But do make sure whatever it is requires upkeep. Sailors and guards and servants need to be paid, pet gryphons and basilisks need to be fed, etc. So long as the players feel their getting value from this sort of thing, they’ll be eager to spend the coin.

Let Them Throw Gold at Problems

Let them bribe guards and buy off politicians. Let them hire someone to take care of an annoying side-issue, especially when it is an annoying side-issue that will take up time better spent on something fun. Let them dump a giant pile of coins in the demon-sage’s lap and learn where the secret enemy base is, or the Arch-duke’s hidden weakness. If it moves things along and greases the way to the fun parts, absolutely let them do it. Make it expensive, sure, but not so expensive they decide they’d rather do it themselves.

Bringing Home the Bacon
Page 157 of the PHB lists daily living expenses. As Gygax himself said:
Seriously, this is a good way to keep a low-magic campaign tense. You gotta eat, so you gotta adventure or rob or something.

It also allows the players to say something about their PCs. Are they frugal to a fault? Do they enjoy living it up? When they crash the Duchess’ tea party, are they dressed like they belong or do they look like something even the cat turns its nose up at? In the Real World ™ we spend not insignificant amounts of money to signal our relative social status. There’s no need to go into exactly what colors are in this season; if your PC is spending enough to afford a high-status lifestyle, they (or their tailor) has that all figured out already.

And the PC might not be alone. Characters could have apprentices, dependents, or family. These should be people the PCs can rely on to get the small, annoying tasks done, letting them concentrate on the fun, heroic stuff. Like servants above, the PCs should get value for the money they spend on family and household, through material support, gossip, familial connections, and social status. Avoid the temptation to punish a character for having family; we’re trying to encourage them to spend money, not punish them for having it. Having money (and a house and family and social influence) should all be fun!

Winning Friends and Influencing People
This is kinda similar to throwing money at problems above, except it’s a pre-emptive drip of expense. I’m talking about the sorts of things you do to cement your place in the social hierarchy and secure professional resources. Things like join a guild, attend religious services, take part in political events, donate to charity, throw parties, and all that sort of thing.

Again, make it fun and useful. Let them get access to special tools and knowledge through their guild, allow them to rub elbows with the high and mighty at the temple or get a discount on spells due to their regular tithes and offerings to the gods, have the Duchess show up at their party even though inviting her was more an act of politeness than an expectation she’d attend. And while she’s there, she could let drop a bit of juicy gossip that could lead the PCs to their next quest.

Gold for Experience
This is my personal favorite: PCs get 1 EXP for each gold piece they “spend.” And I use the term “spend” loosely; they could buy something useful, donate it all to charity, or fritter it away on whores and ale.

I love this because it puts the problem of too much money in the players’ laps. They have to decide how they’re going to spend it all. It keeps them relatively poor and hungry, because they need escalating amounts of cash to “buy” their next level. They’re motivated to actively seek wealth-creating opportunities, which gives the campaign a much more Sword & Sorcery vibe (as opposed to KILL ALL TEH THINGS homicidal computer-gaming that EXP for kills creates).

A variation on this theme is EXP via carousing. Building your own personal carousing tables for your setting (or even individually for each player) is fun, and lots of people enjoy the vicarious gambling that goes with rolling on a crazy table with a wide range of outcomes.

In any case, if you go this route, keep a weather eye on how much wealth you’re putting in dungeons. While this might discourage PCs from killing everything that moves, it will encourage them to cart off everything that’s not nailed down: carpets, tapestries, thrones, silverware, it’s all potential wealth (and a new level) for the PCs.

Ale & Whores by Scott Kurtz.