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Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling

DM David - Tue, 01/28/2020 - 11:59

Even though experience points have fallen from the favor of the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, XP brings advantages proven by countless video games. XP show players steady progress to the reward of their next level. Players feel a sense of control over their advancement. With every victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards kept gamers hooked. (See XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas and XP Versus Milestone Advancement.)

As I run Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, I’m using the story-based awards set in the text because adapting for experience points seems like too much work for any potential benefits. Still, in a more open campaign, I would opt for XP.

I suspect D&D fans undervalue the XP system. Dungeon masters tend to be more vocal in D&D circles, but we gain no rewards from experience points, so we just see a chore. As for players, seasoned D&D fans feel far too canny to fall for cheap psychological tricks. (Also, we never stay up playing a video game for just one more level, and we never become distracted by social media.)

For DMs who want the advantages of XP, fifth-edition D&D features a mostly-excellent system. Too bad the terrible part of the system—the XP awards for individual monsters—gets all the attention. Ignore those XP scores for two reasons:

  • The monster XP values hardly relate to the difficulty of the encounter. Most of encounter difficulty stems from the relative numbers of monsters and characters. Also, some monsters like banshees and shadows hit harder than their XP value suggests, others like spell casters rarely survive long enough to merit their XP.

  • Monster XP values steer players toward fighting, even when they might prefer to overcome obstacles with ingenuity and roleplaying.

As my dear Nana used to say about monster XP calculations, “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

Instead of using the monster values, rate every obstacle, even combative monsters, as non-combat challenges as described on page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Each challenge gets a difficulty rating of easy, medium, hard, and deadly—call that nearly impossible. If you run a campaign where players have enough freedom to seek greater challenges, higher difficulty scores match higher risks with bigger rewards. Otherwise, you may as well rate every challenge as medium. Uniform ratings free you from judging difficulties and the points even out over the course of the campaign.

By this system, look for places in the adventure where the players’ goals meet an obstacle. The obstacle could be a monster, but also a puzzling door into the treasure room, a disagreeable queen who might offer help, or an ogre with a key. The players can set their own goals with help from the adventure’s hooks, secrets, and clues.

Whenever the players overcome an obstacle on route to their goal, they earn experience for the achievement. Some solutions might pass an obstacle, but leave problems for later. Think of times when the characters sneak past a monster that remains to block their escape. In these situations, you can grant half the XP award for half a resolution.

For investigation and exploration goals, the obstacle comes from the lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make that bring them closer to their goal.

Don’t bother awarding XP to the group and then dividing by the number of characters. Such math only makes sense if you count XP scores by monster, and monster XP scores assume a bogus precision that D&D can’t offer. Instead, just award each character points based on the number and difficulty of obstacles. And in most campaigns, count every obstacle as medium difficulty.

To determine how much experience to award to each character, the following table shows current party levels and the XP awards for easy, medium, and hard obstacles. Nearly impossible challenges earn as much as two medium challenges.

Current Level Easy XP Award Medium XP Award Hard XP Award Medium XP Awards to Advance 1 25 50 75 6 2 50 100 150 6 3 75 150 225 12 4 125 250 375 15 5 250 500 750 15 6 300 600 900 15 7 350 750 1100 15 8 450 900 1400 13 9 550 1100 1600 15 10 600 1200 1900 18 11 800 1600 2400 6 12 1000 2000 3000 7 13 1100 2200 3400 6 14 1250 2500 3800 7 15 1400 2800 4300 7 16 1600 3200 4800 6 17 2000 3900 5900 7 18 2100 4200 6300 6 19 2400 4900 8500 6

If the party mixes characters of mixed levels, award experience points based on the higher-level characters in the party. This helps the lower-level characters catch up. Few players will complain about advancing too quickly.

Sometimes characters need extra experience to keep pace with, say, a hardcover adventure. You can award bonus experience for bigger, story achievements. If you plan on such awards, then when the players set the goal, I suggest writing the quest and award on a note card and giving it to the players. This makes the award feel like a prize for an achievement rather than an arbitrary bonus. The value of XP comes from how the points feel to players. Such bonus XP awards correspond to the milestones described on page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

In games where wandering monsters encourage characters to act with urgency, you might skip awarding XP for overcoming these foes. Wandering monsters serve to penalize players for dillydallying, so adding an XP reward just mixes the message. In the original D&D game, wandering monsters usually lacked treasure and the XP award that gold brought, so they worked as a similar consequence for loitering.

My XP table shows the number of medium-difficulty XP awards required to gain a level. This helps DMs see how quickly characters will level and helps plan the pace of a campaign. For faster or slower advancement, you can adjust the XP awards listed.

Players commonly fault XP for adding math and bookkeeping. Many close relatives of D&D adopt smaller XP numbers as a quick route to simpler math. For example, in the second edition of Pathfinder, gaining each level takes 1000 XP. But such uniform numbers might cost a system a key advantage: D&D’s steep, level-by-level rise in XP awards speeds the advance of lower-level characters who join higher-level parties. That helps new characters and players who miss sessions catch up to their companions. Characters never fall far behind their group. Pathfinder works to capture a similar advantage by  granting party members behind in level double XP.

Still, an XP system that counts obstacles rather than monsters could grant 1 point for an easy, 1st-level obstacle rather than 25. From there, every XP award would be 1/25th of its current D&D value. This table shows XP values divided by 25.

Level Experience Points Medium XP Award 1 0 2 2 12 4 3 36 6 4 225 10 5 260 20 6 560 24 7 920 30 8 1360 36 9 1920 44 10 2560 48 11 3400 64 12 4000 80 13 4800 88 14 5600 100 15 6600 112 16 7800 128 17 9000 156 18 10600 168 19 12200 196

The smaller numbers have some appeal, but they hardly merit a house rule that confuses players by replacing the standard XP advancement table.

Some DMs suffer from players who ask for XP awards throughout a game session. While this reveals the addictive boost XP can deliver, it also brings the worst aspects of XP, the bookkeeping and distraction.

Never award XP until the end of a game session. But avoid delaying the awards until next time, because you want the accomplishments to feel fresh and the rewards immediate. Review of the characters’ successes while you cite the XP awards each earns, and then the total award for the session.

Recounting the achievements and awards makes the most of the cheap, I mean, powerful psychological boost brought by XP. Players hear they did well and feel good about their accomplishments. Plus, the account helps everyone understand and remember the session. This pays off during the next session.

Related: How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

Postscript: My last post promised the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of gold, but this post has run long enough. That topic must wait.

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Delving Deeper With Chainsaw - The 'Lost Treasures of Atlantis' For The Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea rpg line Interview

Swords & Stitchery - Mon, 01/27/2020 - 16:13
"In the far reaches of Hyperborea’s Crab Archipelago lies a small, mountainous island known as Crystal Point. Passing sailors recently have witnessed a crimson glow in Crystal Point’s waters and beams of russet light shining up from its steep cliffs. Too, unusually frequent lightning storms in the area have torn the sky in blinding flashes, shattering the air with their awesome sound. The Needles
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The Lizardmen of Illzathatch

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 01/27/2020 - 12:11
By Shane Ward 3Toadstools Labyrinth Lord Level 3

The green dragon Illzathatch has been dispatched by local heroes “The Shields of Atreu”, thus ending his reign of terror across the countryside.  Only one problem remains, the adventuring party left to raid the lair of the dragon, they have not been seen since.

This thirteen page adventure, from 2014,  features a small fourteen room dungeon described in five pages, the rest being advertising, licensing, etc. The map bears little relation to the text, and the encounters a bit sparse. It’s a straightforward dungeon with a few twists but not much that’s memorable.

The dungeon here is pretty straightforward, just a few rooms and just a short description for each, about four per page. The encounters tend toward being interactive, more so than combat anyway. A dwarf drinking, who’s actually someone else. Bandits and lizardmen fighting each other. Other lizardmen, no longer slaves of the slain dragon, gaming and drinking. These are highlights of the adventures; little encounters that are more than just a monster or a trap that springs. This is a strength of the adventure: the encounters, the monster ones anyway, are generally not just hacks.Except when they are, like a giant snake that barely fits in a room that has a chest in it. Obviously a hack, and not much player choice in that, since the party don’t see the chest AND snake. Seeing the chest and CHOOSING to fight the snake to get it is a much different affair than opening a door and having a snake attack the party … and then finding a chest.  Does everyone understand why? In the first case it’s a player choice. The chest is the temptation, the bait, to get the party to engage with someone they know they should not. In the second it’s a “It Attacks when you open the door” case, with the chest then treasure. The first requires a layer choice while the second does not. Certainly, not every encounter needs to involve choice like this, but player choice and interactivity are SUPPOSED to be a hallmark of our hobby. Can anyone argue, without resorting to corner cases, that’s not true?

The map is simple, and a mess. While it has same-level stairs and tunnels that run under/over some of the rooms and hallways (great additions to a map that use it leverage even more interactivity and mystery out of a DM tool) it also bears little relation to the text. Some of the text refers to rooms having doors. Some of the text does not. None of the rooms on the map have doors. The room text describes each room; this room is 20×30, for example. Except on the map it’s not 20×30 it is instead 50×60. Weird features on the map are not explained, hallways that go nowhere or look to go elsewhere. 

There a bit too much emphasis on GotCha! Traps. A trap in the middle of the hallway, tis happens several time. Or, you’re walking down the hallway and the DM asks for magic saves from everyone. First, these arbitrary traps create paranoid players. Instead of playing the game they are busy trying to not get fucked over by the DM. They search every 10 square for a trap, for example. D&D becomes a slow grind instead of being full of wonder. The traps have little in the way telegraphing them, nothing in most cases. Thus it’s completely arbitrary.  Arbitrary is seldom good, especially at this level. Little clues like mentioning dust, cracks on the walls, blood, etc, are a way to the DM to drop hints that are then expanded upon if the party follows up with more examination. Otherwise it’s the old “Yup, you all missed your save, you were disintegrated when you entered the empty room. New characters!” There might be some role for this as the party gets to higher levels and they should be using their spells and research to find out more about the dungeon, but at lower levels especially you might as well just roll a d6 at the start of each adventure for each character and on a one or two they just die. ITS THE SAME THING. It’s arbitrary. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trap they can’t see/don’t have a chance of detecting or a BLATANT roll by the DM, abstracted. Both are equally bad. If you roll a save you detect a strong odor. How about instead the DM somehow mentions an odor that, if followed up on, is chlorine? Interactivity vs arbitrary.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of … $0! The preview is five pages and shows you most of the rooms, so good preview from that standpoint. Note the writing style and in particular the disconnect between the map and the text.

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Talislanta: In Zandu

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 01/27/2020 - 12:00
Art by P.D. Breeding-Black
The land Zandu and it's people are relatives of the Aamanians, but the opposite side of the coin. Tamerlin tells us they are "eccentric and uninhibited" and "enhance their features with vividly colored pigments, adorn their hair with silver bands and dress in flamboyant apparel" to express their individuality. Where Aamanian society is uniform except for class, several factions of Zandir are described.

The entries on Zandu are no help with the Aamanian skin-color dilemma, however. The archetype descriptions across most editions say they have "topaz skin" (as they do for the Aamanians), but the setting text only says they "bear a marked physical resemblance to the Aamanians, both being descended from the copper-skinned Phaedrans." As mentioned before, the 4th edition attempts to resolve this by given the Zandir "copper or cinnabar" skin, and the 5th edition just says copper for everybody."I respond to three questions," stated the augur. "For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue." - The Dying Earth, Jack VancePerhaps the most interesting aspect of Zandu is its state religion, Paradoxism (or Paradoxy, as Tamerlin would have it). The Paradoxists  "profess to be mystified by their own existence." The central text  of the faith is "The Great Mysteries (author unknown), a lengthy book filled with over 100,000 questions, and no answers." The Paradoxist writ is named The Book of Mysteries from the Cyclopedia vol. 4 on. There are no Paradoxist priests, but wizards serve as seers for the faith. Outside of Zandu, these wizards "are largely thought of as frauds and impostors."
French Talislanta artParadoxy gets most detail in CTv4. It may contradict Tamerlin's original account by naming the founder of the philosophy as Zand, though this is ambiguous. I suppose he might not have been the author of the foundational text. While Paradoxy has no central deity or Pantheon, CTv4 introduces the idea of the Ten Thousand, which is the poetic name (there number is unspecified and ever changing) of the syncretized "saints, heroes, and deities" incorporated into Paradoxist practice.
"No fear of that. Cath has no laws, only customs, which seems to suit the Yao well enough."
- Servants of the Wankh, Jack VanceAll of that is the good stuff in the noncanonical CTv4, but it also has a tendency to present Zandu as the good guys with Aaman as the villains. There are hints of this in other Talislanta products, but it is the most present here. I think this is a mistake. Zandu is certainly more into personal freedom than Aaman, but it's ruled be an absolute despot and a capricious one to boot! It's a place where disagreements are often handled with duels.

I think Zandu works best if it is as frightening as Aaman in its own way. The culture of the Yao as presented in Vance's Planet of Adventure series would certainly be a strong inspiration. The libertarian, but baroque culture bound society of Sirene in Vance's "The Moon Moth" would be an influence here, too.

Paradoxy is, in many ways, more interesting than Orthodoxy, because it seems like it could come in so many flavors from absurd ascetism (not very popular) to lampoon's of New Age-y faddishness. I imagine variants of Paradoxy rise and fall like gods in Lankhmar (see "Lean Times in Lankhmar.") As to its seers being charlatans, well, I mostly take that to mean they have no more spiritual connection than anybody else, but their wizardry is likely real.

A Dragon in the Ointment - Godbound/Cha'alt Play Session Recap Part II

Swords & Stitchery - Mon, 01/27/2020 - 04:35
Things got a little weirder in my on going  Cha'alt/Godbound Rpg game!Well, sometimes players love to throw a spanner into the works using one of  my wife's idioms! The players seized on one small aspect of our play sessions from about a month ago. This bloomed into an entire night of campaign catch up & play! So the wizard & his war machine ala Thundar The Barbarian is now going to attackNeedles
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Review & Commentary On AX2: Secrets of the Nethercity by Newton Grant & Alexander Macris For The Adventurer,Conqueror, King Rpg & Your OSR Campaigns

Swords & Stitchery - Sun, 01/26/2020 - 17:43
"Cyfaraun is a city of ancient lineage. The name itself is an Auran corruption of its original elven name, Cyfarawn. Evidence of elven construction is still visible in the city’s oldest district, today called Old Cyfaraun. Many city residents know that Old Cyfaraun was founded atop an earlier settlement – Ancient Cyfaraun, buried by cataclysmic ashes over 500 years ago. Only the most Needles
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Mail Call & Review & Commentary On 'The Lost Treasures of Atlantis' By Chainsaw For Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Swords & Stitchery - Sat, 01/25/2020 - 19:32
"In the far reaches of Hyperborea’s Crab Archipelago lies a small, mountainous island known as Crystal Point. Passing sailors recently have witnessed a crimson glow in Crystal Point’s waters and beams of russet light shining up from its steep cliffs. Too, unusually frequent lightning storms in the area have torn the sky in blinding flashes, shattering the air with their awesome sound. The Needles
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(5e) Voice in the Machine

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 01/25/2020 - 12:07
By Will Doyle Self Published 5e Level 2

The brokers of Salvation pay good coin for artifacts scavenged from the haunted battlefields of the Mournland. In this nest of cutthroats, daring explorers gather to carve their destinies from the ruins of Cyre. The adventurers head deep into the Mournland to rescue a missing salvage team. In the heat of battle, they unearth a strange device from the ruins: the Oracle of War. This machine knows all the secrets they need to overcome their enemies—if only the adventurers can figure out how to operate it!

This 32 page adventure has the party exploring an old marketplace to rescue another salvage crew. The big payoff, half the adventure, is a handwaved open tactics sandbox. Poorly implemented, as usual, and as usual, you can see where it WANTED to go and those ideas are quite good. I look forward to the day they actually deliver. If it ever comes.

Right off, let me say that this series as won me over to the Eberron setting. I don’t think I ever understood it before but now I see promise. A STALKER (or Stalker) like experience in a post-apoc setting. These are all things that speak to my soul. There’s been this little newspaper handout in each adventure thus far that has some colorful little things in it, adds for leaving your will to the war orphans, notes that the last group to explore was drown in a pool of living mercury … the whole series has these little things it drops in that adds a lot of brief color. It’s doing some other interesting things as well, like placing good effects from mournlands travel hazards in a table with bad effects also. I’m a big fan of mixing in good effects with bad ones on choices the players make: how else will they ever  be convinced to eat the glowing tree fruit if ALL glowing tree fruit fucks them up? It’s mis-implemented here, on a table of “what happens if you fail your survival check”, but, still, their hearts are in the right places.

Speaking of, the thing has a lot of ok ideas that are mis-implemented. It REALLY like to abstract descriptions. “In here, the town’s brokers do business from behind armored counters.” Well, that’s fucking boring. This was a perfect opportunity to describe a Thunderdome like weapons check, or something else, and instead it’s all “behind armoured counters.” B O R I N G. Because it’s an abstracted description. Specificity is the soul of narrative. Instead we get words wasted on “The Salvage Market is a dirt-floored warehouse built from scorched wood planks scavenged from the Mournland. The room reeks of dust, sweat, and oil.” Dirt floored? Great. Scorched wood? Great. Dust, sweat, oil? Great (I maybe would have thrown in “sweltering” also) “scavenged from the Mournland”? Who gives a fuck?Do they have twisted faces and scream? Otherwise who cares? Better to stick in a couple of more words and/ore rewrite the last sentence to describe someone behind an armoured counter. Now, I’m being pretty specific in this one example but the adventure does this abstraction over and over again. “Leaving Salvation, you’re soon swallowed by the fogbanks that encircle the ruined nation of Cyre.” I thought it had a bunch of faces that were screaming and buildings collapsing and other freaky deaky shit? “Fogbank” ain’t that. The writing does this over and over and over again, taking an idea that should be cool and then abstracting it to boring placeholder drivil. 

You travel eighty boring miles in to find the other crew (proving once again why adventurers never have love interests, family, or friends: the DM will use them against you.) Once again THE FANTASTIC is reduced to boring. Once there you see a marketplace where the other crew was and you explore it. You find the crew, they are under siege by a raiding force … and then the raiders allies show up. The party is supposed to use the marketplace things they’ve found/been informed of against the LARGE raider force in order to escape with the other crew.

I have about ten thousand VERY valid critiques of this, the main part of the adventure. 

The map is linear. It’s unclear if it’s buried or not? Or what the roof situation is? This is important because the party will face a VERY large number of raiders and be given advice on how to deal with them, using elements found in the marketplace. But how do you GET to those elements in a linear map? And who the fuck doesn’t use rooftops to travel when you can? What’s interesting is that the adventure DOES provide some DM guidance on several points, like using mending on a torn and faded map that is found. But on other topics, like the roof, and others, its as if there WAS no playtest feedback. How many raiders spill out when they all show up? A dozen? A hundred? This is an obvious question and is left for the DM to dig through to discover. If you have to take notes, or highlights, then the adventure was not written well.

A lookout hides in place and tries to get to their buddies if he sees the party … but there’s no way (linear, remember) for them to do this without the party seeing. An elf hologram has it’s “stuck in a loop” saying related as “stuck in a loop”, destroying the joy by summarizing a conclusion rather than letting the players do so. The marketplace encounters are all a little samey-samey, with animated brooms, animated armor, animated rugs, animated … you get the idea. (And, maintenance bots in the shape of brooms? Unless these are Mickey references I think you can do better than this. Or a fucking suit of armorfor that matter. THEME the monsters. Trashbots, use stats of animated broom, for example. Mannequin, as animated armor, for example. That’s what you’re being paid for, after all. To add color.) 

The last section of the adventure, where the massive raider force shows up, is terrible. It takes up, like a page of text, if you delete the unique magic item (that gives the party advice on how to use the marketplace.) No advice to the DM on how to run this part, which should take up half the time. The most complex part. Where are the raiders. What are they doing. How does the linear map and advice mesh together with the raiders. Where’s the fucking giant hole they smashed in to the wall?  The idea here, using the marketplace against the raiders, is a good one. The cat and mouse, the hidden goals of finding other missing scavengers, roaming raiders. It’s a classic trope. But instead the adventure is padded out with useless repetition and padded entries instead of helping the DM run the more complex part of it. 


This is $5 at DMSGuild. The preview is four pages. It is completely fucking worthless, showing you nothing of what you are buying. It’s all just Adventurers League padding. The preview needs to show us something of what we’re actually buying. An encounter, the encounter writing styles, etc.

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The Continuing Outer Realm War - Godbound/Cha'alt Play Session Recap

Swords & Stitchery - Fri, 01/24/2020 - 19:57
I'm picking up my first Godbound/Cha'alt  play session tonight & here's what's going on. I've got little time but the United States Military is fighting back with groups of salvaged Cha'alt robots & droids. The Cha'alt wave & planar pulses have caused an EMP. Only the alien equipment,guns, & swords are working. The world has been knocked back to the Nineteenth Century!What the Needles
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Talislanta: The Iron of Arim

Sorcerer's Skull - Fri, 01/24/2020 - 12:00
"...a suspicious folk, who flourish their knives at a harsh word. At night they strike without provocation."
- The Dirdir, Jack VanceArim in the West of Talislanta is described in The Chronicles as "a grey and windy realm" of "rough and irregular hills." The Handbook (1987) tells us it's people are: "a dour and moody folk who find no joy in song, dance or revelry. They drink heavily, favoring chakos, a bitter and metallic tasting liquor." They're neither lookers nor snappy dressers, as Tamerlin observes:
They are swarthy of complexion, with long black hair and dark, deep-set eyes. The men tend to be gaunt and wiry, with glaring countenances and hatchet-like features; the women, heavy-set and lacking in charm. The customary mode of dress in this region defies all concept of fashion, and consists primarily of sackcloth garments, animal hide boots, bulky fur vests, and wristbands, knives, and ear-rings made of dull, black iron.This description is largely ignored in later editions where they tend to present Arimites as well-muscled, relatively attractive folk.

Arimites are mostly miners, but this is usually only mentioned in passing to get to the more interesting stuff: Arimites' fame as skilled knife-fighters and their secret Revenant cult. The Chronicle describes the Revenants  as "members of a secret society who specialize in carrying out acts of vengeance for their clients." Tamerlin reports that they have subspecialties in various "forms of revenge from delivering insults and threats to arson, coercion, muggings and murder-for-hire." Later editions tend to emphasize their roll as assassins, implying that that's all they do.

The deuterocanonical Cyclopedia Talislanta vol. IV gives information on the structure of Revenant Cult's cells and mentions a mysterious High Revenant that rules them all. Third edition says this leader is an assassin-mage who lives in a mountain top sanctum, which seems unlikely given the preponderance of evidence indicating the Arimites are poor mages. All editions agree that the Revenants are the de facto rulers of Arim, in that the nominal ruler, the Exarch, refuses to leave the Forbidden City of Ahrazahd out of fear of them. The Exarch, for what it's worth, is not very popular among his people.

The Cyclopedia holds that Arimites worship or perhaps revere Destiny, or have a few of cults that do. Fourth edition says they are agnostics.

The Arimites have the gloomy environment of Robert E. Howard's Cimmerians and elements of a number of hill or mountain folk. They've got a thing for knives like the Afghans of pulp tradition with their Khyber knives, though the Arimites mostly use throwing knives. They're miners, and prone to feuding and substance abuse, traits often associated with Appalachian folk. I say play up that stuff and add a bit from the Khors of Vance's Tshcai--see the quote at the start, and here's another: "they consider garrulity a crime against nature."

The Revenants at times seem to be trying to draw on the Persian Order of Assassins and maybe even the ninja. I'm okay with that, as long as a hillbilly element is played up. I also like the Vancian absurdity of them doing acts of vengeance besides murdering people.

Exarch as the title of Arim's ruler is interesting. Since it's a Byzantine title for a governor of a territory, it suggests to me that the earliest exarchs were perhaps barbarian stoogies of the Phaedran Empire. A "Forbidden City" is an odd detail for hillfolk, but I assume it's more a fortified town and the Exarch is more a chieftain or tribal leader with delusions of grandeur.

Review & Commentary On 'The Sea-Wolf's Daughter' By Jeffrey P. Talanian For The Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Swords & Stitchery - Fri, 01/24/2020 - 07:09
"Your party finds itself in the employ of Ragnarr the Sea-Wolf, a jarl of New Vinland and a reaver of old. His daughter, a shield-maiden named Gunnhildr, has been abducted by a brute called Björn Blackbeard. During a desperate search, the Sea-Wolf crossed sails with a former rival, and from the blood-flecked lips of a dying foe, he learnt the location of Blackbeard’s stronghold. Now, Needles
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Epic Spell Wars: Become a Wizard Contest

Cryptozoic - Thu, 01/23/2020 - 17:00

Enter our Epic Spell Wars: Become a Wizard Contest by letting your imagination run wild as you create a name and description of yourself as a Battle Wizard. One Contest Winner will be chosen by Epic Spell Wars creator Cory Jones to appear in an upcoming ESW game. Enter by March 18!

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Talislanta: The Purity of Aaman

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 01/23/2020 - 12:00
Art by P.D. Breeding-Black
In The Chronicles of Talislanta (1987), our narrator the wizard Tamerlin starts his journey across the continent with Aaman in the Westernlands. The introduction of Aaman was actually in the Talislanta Handbook published a month before. This, in summary, is what we are told about the Aamanians, and what holds true across every edition:
  • Aaman is a remnant of the Phaedran Empire and a theocracy, ruled by conservative Orthodoxist faith, worshiping Aa the Omniscient (Or Omnipotent. Or Omnificent.)
  • Aamanians are high conformist and dressing simply and conservatively, and removing all their facial and body hair. 
  • All Aamanians desire to attain mana, "so that they may rise in status and piety." 
The Aamanians' skin color is the subject of some disagreement across publications. Character archetype descriptions in the 1st-3rd editions hold that they have "topaz skin and green eyes." The text of The Chronicles, however, describes them as having "skin the color of cinnabar," as does the Talislanta Worldbook of the 2nd edition. The 4th edition is the first to be internally consistent is this regard and goes with "cinnabar." With the 5th we are back to some discrepancy, with Hotan's History saying "cinnabar" and the Player's Guide saying "copper-colored."
Art from the French edition of Talislanta
But that's a minor issue. What's more interesting is mana. The 1st edition Handbook tells us mana is accumulated by good works: "pilgrimages to officially sanctioned holy sites, donations to the church, service to the Hierophant, and so on." By gaining sufficient "mana points" one can advance in status. The Chronicles expands on this by telling us mana is "spiritual purity," and defines the hierarchy with the Hierophant with unlimited mana at the top, and the district-ruling (and mana awarding or deducting) Monitors beneath him having at least 1000 mana points. Slaves and infidels have 0 mana points, naturally, and between the extremes are ten ranks of Aspirants.  Advancement in status by this measure is a "preoccupation" of Aamanians because position in the worldly Orthodox "caste system" corresponds to position in the after life in some unspecified way.
Material wealth enters into this as we are told the easiest way to obtain mana points is to enter into the priesthood and study to become an archimage--but tuition is high. In addition to the other means mentioned in the Handbook, buying statues, medallions, and relics is also a possibility.
The 2nd edition (in the Worldbook) tells us that "aalms" are the unit of mana (presumably the mana points mentioned). Reading all the texts, I am confused as to whether mana is a state or a thing to be accumulated. I suppose like the word sin, it might be employed both ways, though the analogy isn't perfect because counted sins are discrete entities, not a continuum that needs units to measure it, like say force or electric current.
The Cyclopedia Talislanta vol. 4 (1989) is now considered "noncanonical" for reasons various and not entirely clear, but it does have some interesting, detailed information on Aaman. It emphasizes the importance of wealth in determining status, presumably indirectly by the purchase power it allows to buy aalms. (Confusingly, it calls mana "the mystical unit of a person's worth.") It notes a requirement to buy a different symbol of Aa at each level of the Hierarchy. 
The Cyclopedia is the first to address gender roles and places women as second class citizens in the hierarchy, making them always one status level below their husband or father. 
Art by Jason SholtisThe oppressive theocracy is a genre staple, though Aaman never seems to dip into the "decadent or hypocritical theocracy." Instead, it seems to go in the direction of more secular totalitarian societies in science fiction. The aalms economy and rank system is interesting, too. It seems to have parallels to Scientology as well as the obvious ones to the indulgences of the Middle Ages.

I would leave out the sexism of the Cyclopedia; Aaman should be equal opportunity in its oppression. I would play up the extreme conformity and societal control, borrowing from Vance's The Pnume, and the speaking in aphorisms and quotations of liturgy mentioned in the text, almost to a degree that resembles the Ascians of Wolfe's The Book of New Sun. While material wealth would afford some advantages in maintaining one's position Aamanian society, I figure high mana is the key to getting wealth in the first place by leading to the award of lucrative positions, titles, and contracts, and some high mana individuals might wield considerable power without a lot of wealth.

Finally, despite what is possibly implied in The Chronicles, I lean toward the idea that Orthodoxy is aniconistic with regard to its deity--other than the eye. There is no commentary literature regarding the holy Omnival. The word means what the Hierophant says it means. Doctrine does change with time, but devout Orthodoxists will not admit a revision has ever occurred, indeed they may be strongly conditioned not to see it, even it it is pointed out to them.

Review & Commentary On AX3: Capital of the Borderlands By Alexander Macris & Newton Grant For The Adventurer, Conqueror,King Rpg System & Your OSR Game Systems

Swords & Stitchery - Thu, 01/23/2020 - 00:39
"The Borderlands has been contested throughout recorded history and its landscape is littered with ancient fortresses, blood-soaked battlefields, and dread ruins, all crumbling relics of the empires that once ruled there. Now the dangers facing the Borderlands are greater than ever. Monsters are slipping across the porous border to terrorize and plunder. Travel has grown perilous, and the borderNeedles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Castle Xyntillan review

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 01/22/2020 - 12:11
By Gabor Lux E.M.D.T. S&W Levels 1-6

The immense, rambling complex of Castle Xyntillan has stood in its mountain valley for many years. Built over several generations, it has now been deserted by its former owners, and left to time and the elements. However, that is not the end of the story, for Xyntillan’s fabulous treasures and Machiavellian deathtraps continue to fascinate the fortune-seekers of a dozen lands – and never mind the ghost stories!

Non. Fucking. Stop. Buy more. 

Buy more now. Buy more, and be happy.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree – – Legendary was the Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome. Today, almost as legendary is Florida’s Xyntillan, world’s largest private pleasure ground. Here, on the mountain valley, a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built. One hundred thousand trees, twenty thousand tons of marble are the ingredients of Xyntillan’s mountain. Contents of Xyntillan’s palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace. A collection of everything. So big it can never be catalogued or appraised. Enough for ten museums – the loot of the world. Xyntillan’s livestock: the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, the beast of the field and jungle. Two of each, the biggest private zoo since Noah. Like the Pharaohs, Xyntillans’s landlords leaves many stones to mark his grave. Since the pyramids, Xyntillan is the costliest monument a man has built to himself…

This 132 page hardback adventure, an homage to Tegal, I don’t know know, fuck it, 350 rooms? In a castle, mansion, just like Tegal. Full of family members, paintings on the walls, a map reminiscent of Tegal … it shows what good writing and design actually ARE. Magnificent in its achievements, Charles Dexter Lux has created something very rare and wonderful. 

Sometimes publishers will respin a classic. They will rewrite Borderlands, or create new levels or caves or areas for it. They will update a classic adventure for fifth edition, or third, or whatever. I always look forward to these. And they all suck, disappointing me to no end. Inevitably the update is to add A LOT more words to existing entries and pad them out with trivia, what the butler ate for supper two weeks ago and the exhaustive contents of the kitchen cabinets. Maybe three paragraphs of tactics for some encounter. 

Xyntillan is not that. Xyntillan is the real deal. 

A respin of the Tegal Manor concept, it takes a sprawling manor home filled with the crazy Tegal/Amber family members that occupy it, as well as their paintings. Tegal fell in to the minimal keying side of the genre, just a step beyond “only a monster listing.” Xyntillan takes inspiration from Tegal and then expands the text to EXACTLY THE RIGHT AMOUNT. Both have a certain OD&D charm to the encounters, with Tegal being so because of the minimalism and Xyntillan having it because Melan understands adventure design and his soul evidently not (yet?) having been crushed by modern life. 

The encounters are reminiscent of Tegal, but not one for one respins. Tegal has a room where a screaming woman runs across a room every four turns. That’s the extent of the entry. Xyntillan has a room where a screaming mortally wounded woman in white runs across the room (33% chance), stumbling before she reaches the NW corner. And this is after a two sentence description of the potting room. And before a few sentences describing what happens when you dig in the NW corner. Evocative of, but expanded to the correct degree.

Expanded to the correct degree? Indeed. We’re looking for an encounter description that inspires the DM, the implants a seed idea in their head that will grow and allow the DM to fully visualize the room and riff on it as they describe and run it for their players. Writing that inspires the DM to greatness. And, writing that does it in a split second. And I mean a second. The DM glances down at the page, takes a second to read the entry, look up and runs the room. A second. Maybe two. The DM’s job is not reading the adventure at the table, it’s interacting with the players. The DM glances at and scans a room entry and then runs it. While the players are fumbling about with that to do, etc, the DM is glancing/scanning a bit more, in another couple of seconds. Not minutes. Not 30 seconds. A few, less than five or so. (I should time this one day …) So the job of the text is to give the DM the mental picture that inspires them to run a magnificent encounter and to do it in mere seconds. Evocative and terse, is generally the technique. 

And Gabor Lux does it magnificently. The text is the correct length. You get the overview of the room. Then you get indents and bullets to highlight important aspects of the room that the players may follow up on. The rooms have titles to orient the DM. Monster stats are brief and at the end of the room for easy reference during play, almost Ready Ref sheet style. (Although, perhaps not quite as stark as the Ref sheets, thankfully.) It’s cross-referenced, so if there’s a quest, or an object of a quest, for example, it tells you where to find more information. Bolding is used appropriately to highlight important features and call the DM’s attention to them, sometimes with further follow up text again, indented, bulleted.) The text manages around eight or so entries to the page, with wide margins, with the generous formatting contributing immensely to usability by the DM at the table. 

Encounters are wonderful. Skeleton guardsmen sing and tall tall tales in their barracks. The kitchen knives fly at the party … once. Statues mock the party, or give them a level boost. An unseen hand stays a killing blow, if the party restores a statue. A body buried under a gazebo on a small hill in the center of a pond. A horseshoe in the stables that, if found, gives you a good luck effect. These are things you fucking expect to happen, which make them wonderful. A horseshoe giving luck? Of course it does! That’s what SHOULD happen when you find a horseshoe. Of course the skeleton guardsmen sing and boast. Of course there are phantom steeds in the stables. Duh? WTF? Aren’t we playing D&D? Of course the iron stove in the kitchen closes, biting you in half, if you look inside. It makes PERFECT sense. Tropes are good for a reason and when done right they really shine, acting as cultural clues to the metagaming player. Which is exactly what the fuck they should be doing in order to stay alive in this place. 

Oh, what else? The wanderers are easy to find, in the back of the book. The little town presented as a home base has EXACTLY enough detail to fulfill its purpose. It’s a home base to make forays from. It details a couple of bars, etc to recruit henchmen and stay at to recover. A cleric to heal. Some secret police. Wait, what?! Yes, a couple of subplots in the town. But no more! It concentrates on the details and flavour that are useful IN PLAY. And only the important stuff that inspires, not boring old lists of prices, etc., or Yet Another Description Of a Jovial Barman. The maps are great, Conley does a great job of making something reminiscent of Tegal but much more useful, with little side notes on the maps about webs in the hallways, lighting, sound, refuse on the floors, etc. A perfect tool to assist in both usability and creating an evocative environment. Treasure is magnificent. Ocacular brains in jars, unique magic swords. A whole host of things both mundane and magic to keep the party busy and for them to leverage. Notes on how the family in the castle react to intruders. It’s all great. And presented in pretty much the perfect amount of detail. And monsters? How about “The Blind Beast of Xyntillian.” That’s fucking right! No generic-o “animated statue” crap in this adventure! I got a name baby! New rules./clarifications are present for morale, hiring, fleeing the dungeon … things very pertinent to actual play. It’s perfect.

There’s an occasional miss. Every once in awhile there’s a bit of information that you wish were present. The most notable, for me, is the roof/window/vista-view situation. Only a sucker goes in through the door. A couple of words on the exterior entrance situation, and overview if you would, would have been nice. And, also, a little description of Xyntillian when seen from approach. This is clearly a tie in to the roof/window/door commentary, giving the party notable landmarks to seek out (a dome, etc) and/or holes to poke their heads in to. “Where are the doors?” the party asks. One can intuit a great deal from the maps, especially major border landmarks like doors and side towers, but the dome, interior towers and courtyards are less clear without intense study … the kind I don’t like to do during play. 

But, magnificent! Ye Olde Kente once said that Thracia was the only adventure you ever needed. He was, I think, correct, at least in general. This however IS the only adventure you ever need. You could run a party through this for YEARS, with more than enough information present to riff on. A perfect OD&D product, with whimsy and wonder without going off in to Funhouse territory. I got this last night, stayed up all night reading and re-reading, write this the next morning, and will be adding it to my “No Prep” Dungeonland game tonight. 

This is good. 

This is available at his storefront: for $40 for a Print+PDF copy. $40 is a FUCKING STEAL! G1, at 8 pages, would be $20 in todays cash. $40 for this this is a BARGAIN! But it also costs $22 to ship to the US so, even at $62 it’s a bargain. (Mother fuck! Seriously? $22 to ship it? I don’t doubt this is the actual cost; my own experiences with international shipping have been price gougy also. You can ship a boatload, literally, of stuff from Asia to the US for nothing but the worldwide national post office conspiracy bends you the fuck over and makes you take it!) 

There’s a sample layout on MEGA, if you want a preview:!dwIkXYiJ!4lZA2ar0h5RhKM7n7Z9U0ACJqPkJStmF0wnCB7U8HYQ

But why not go ahead and just buy it? Because you hate quality? Seriously? You’re on the fence about one of the five best adventures ever written? Why, because it’s $60, shipped? I’ve had lunch for one that is more than $60. It’s not worth a lunch to you? Really?

Gabor Lux also has some philosophical statements about adventuring and how they apply to Xyntillan on his blog. They are useful to understand the concepts behind Xyntillan.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Wednesday Comics: Hill House

Sorcerer's Skull - Wed, 01/22/2020 - 12:00
Hill House is a horror imprint of DC Comics curated by horror writer, Joe Hill. He writes a number of comics himself, as well as presumably selecting the other creators. I have read at least the first issues of three of the four current titles and while it's difficult to draw definitively conclusions in this age of decompression each is off to a promising start.

The Dollhouse Family
Six year-old Alice is left a Victorian dollhouse by a great-aunt or something, and soon finds she can visit the house's inhabitants. and can even escape the domestic violence of her home to live their all the time. There's a price, I'm sure. This one is written by Mike Carey and his art by Peter Gross.

Low, Low Woods
Described as "coming of age body horror" it tells the story of two outsider teenage women in a dying mining town with a cold seam fire beneath it. There's also a mysterious plague that causes people to lose their memory and the girls already have one night they can't remember in a movie theater. Then there are the skinless bodies (undead maybe?) they show up sometimes in the woods. Unlike The Dollhouse Family, it's harder to see where this one is going. It's written by Shirley Jackson Award winner Carmen Maria Machado and features art by Dani, fresh from Coffin Bound.

Daphne Byrne
In Victoria era New York, Daphne Byrne has recently lost her father and her grief-stricken mother is an easy mark for spiritualist hucksters. In dreams, Daphne is contacted by her presence who claims to be her brother and promises help for her situation. It's writer by television writer and playright Laura Marks, and features artwork by the great Kelley Jones.

XP Versus Milestone Advancement—At Least We Can All Agree That Awarding XP Just for Combat Is Terrible

DM David - Tue, 01/21/2020 - 11:55

When Dungeons & Dragons arrived in 1974, players rated experience points (XP) as one of the game’s most irresistible features. Now, all of D&D’s official adventures ignore the experience point system, and the official Adventurers League campaign has dropped XP. See XP started as one of D&D’s breakthrough ideas. Now the designers don’t see the point.

In the place of experience, the official adventures and the league substitute what folks commonly call milestone advancement—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.261) calls this method story-based advancement.

“I have no quarrel with you sir, but I need the XP.”

Dungeon masters typically favor milestone advancement because it spares them the chore of planning and calculating XP awards. Instead, milestones give DMs lazy and total control over when characters advance.

While DMs dislike accounting for XP, adventure writers hate fitting XP in their designs. Organized play campaigns typically required designers to write their adventures around combat encounters that net a specific number of XP. Some authors met their XP quotas by adding bandit encounters until ambushed by thugs became a cliché of awkward design. Adventure paths pose an even bigger challenge. “Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace,” writes D&D head Mike Mearls. “Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot.” Designers who wanted fewer fights could add XP awards for accomplishing story goals, but these awards lead to the same outcome as just telling players to level up. Just telling players to take a level skips the math and planning.

Experience points come weighed with another negative: Everyone agrees that the XP system commonly used for D&D’s last 30 years is terrible. Those three decades began when D&D’s second edition stopped awarding experience for winning gold, leaving the notion that characters only gained XP for killing monsters. That has never been strictly true, but players, organized play, and designers most often treated XP-for-slaying as the rule.

D&D builds around three core activities: roleplaying interactions, exploration, and combat. Awarding XP just for monster slaying rewards just one of those pillars. This twisted incentive shapes play. For example, players in the third-edition Living Greyhawk campaign understood that their experience came from killing monsters, so many players felt resigned to solving every problem with violence. You might be able to succeed through stealth or diplomacy, but only battle guaranteed XP. “I once had a player tell me they were 40 XP short, so they wanted to go kill a few bears,” writes SwampRob. We’ve all known that player.

Erin Adams writes, “As a story-focused player, I’m not a huge fan of XP because it seems to skew the focus towards combat. I enjoy letting the DM decide when it’s time to level up because it often feels like a reward. Leveling after a tough social combat feels just as satisfying as leveling after a boss fight.”

When the Adventurers League stopped counting XP, the administrators cited a desire to support the roleplaying and exploration pillars.

DMs and adventure designers tend to dislike XP because milestones offer an easier route to the same bottom line. But computer games prove how compelling XP feel to players. With every battlefield victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards keeps gamers hooked. We all love stacking wins and watching our scores rise.

Fifth-edition D&D includes an excellent XP system that allows players to gain points for overcoming challenges and achieving their goals. Characters can gain levels without grinding through combat. But the system still requires some bookkeeping. Do XP feel compelling enough to tabletop players to merit the math? Many players say yes.

Players like how winning XP gives a sense of progress. Nicholas Qualls writes “I enjoy the wrap up at the end of the game to see how well we did, and actually seeing a quantifiable measurement of progress.” Players enjoy anticipating the next level.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm describes the positive feedback loop that experience points create. “Growing in power feels good. Making progress with your character feels good. Making progress in the game feels good. Winning feels good. And connecting the extrinsic rewards with the intrinsic good feelings makes everything feel even better.” Some players like to beat monsters, some like to achieve progress in the game, some like to gain power, and some like watching their score zoom higher. Most of us enjoy a mix. Experience points connects all those good feelings into a loop where one joy leads to another. “Everyone gets something out of it. And therefore everyone can celebrate together even if their motives are different.”

XP Gives players a measure of control, which encourages players to take risks that make the game more fun and exciting. Peter James Mann writes, “I find that XP makes everyone at the table gamble for higher rewards, and that end game tally can really be a nail-biter. Unfortunately, milestone advancement has felt a little anticlimactic over time.”

Tom Henderson writes, “It makes me feel like I am actively involved with leveling my character as opposed to having a GM decide when I get to advance.”

XP makes an especially good fit for more open campaigns where characters wander without an overriding narrative shaped by a hardcover or a DM’s plan.

In more story-driven campaigns, where hooks and clues lead players through an adventure, and where the DM adds achievement XP awards, the players’ control over their advancement looks more like an illusion. Nate Finch writes, “The GM always just chooses when you level up. It’s just less work if you don’t have to bean count.”

The players who preferred milestones all touted the freedom from bookkeeping. Instead of feeling distracted by the game of seeking XP, they felt focused on story and character.

Milestone advancement works best when players know what achievement will earn their next level. Adam N. Dobson writes, “My group unanimously prefer milestones. The goals are made clear and they pursue them without feeling that they have to kill everything. Milestones are more inventive, immersed, and versatile.”

“If a DM uses [milestones],” Graham Ward writes, “I like to have some information on what those are. Even the illusion of an objective measure makes a difference for me. I hate when DMs decide on the fly.”

Next: Doing experience points right and the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of giving XP for gold.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

It's like Jazz, isn't it? (an attempt of a post about the different types of DMs out there ...)

The Disoriented Ranger - Mon, 01/20/2020 - 20:50
Happy New Year, friends and neighbors. I hope you had a good one and wish all readers a great year 2020. I'll keep it casual here on the blog and post every once in a while. For now. However, there's hope that I'll get some more time in the very near future and I also might start tackling new designs this year, as Lost Songs is in the final stages of development and Ø is about to get published soon, so the next fresh thing would be exploring The Grind a bit more (D&D steampunk heists with cards!). So excited to finally tackle that one ... Anyway, let's talk about DM styles.

DMing is like playing an instrument ...

... but with words (you can quote me on that one). All right, that doesn't sound like a big revelation, I guess. However, it's in pushing the concept to see what it means in all its consequences and dimensions where the fun is. I came across this very specific issue a couple of times, although from another perspective: that of a producer of content (as a writer and designer, if you will).

Basically I was getting the impression that reviewers in general try to enforce a standard that doesn't necessarily match (or cover) all the different styles of DM
our little hobby must produce by the sheer endless variations of the basic premise that comes from learning to DM.

Now, I have talked about this from very different perspectives over time. I did that (most of the time) based on my own preferences, of course, for the simple reason that I don't know any better. It's also what has to inform my designs, so what I end up realizing ideally should match what I prefer to run. Turns out, the result is not mainstream.

Bad design choices be like ... [sources]
Which I quite like, to be honest, but I have to defend my design decisions occasionally and it's quite the tricky thing to do, as I'm still exploring my position. Well, I'm not shy in voicing my opinion, but I'm prone to make a strong case even if I have no idea what I'm talking about (result of decades of DMing, I guess).

If I'm lucky, I will argue my way to something conclusive and true over the course of such a discussion. Most of the time I have to sit down afterwards and chew on the problem a bit before I can get anywhere with it (sometimes I get to explore it here on the blog, obviously).

One topic like that was my decision to have some empty rooms in a temple dungeon in that module I wrote. Most reviewers will make a strong case that in a "product" ALL rooms should be described, because why else use a module, for instance, if not to have all the "work" been done for you? I wasn't convincing in defending my position there. Only after I read a post about empty rooms over at Delta's D&D Hotspot and wrote a comment in a Mewe Group about it, I realized not only where I come from, but also got a fair grip (I think) on how that relates to other approaches.

Here's what I wrote:
My take would be that really "empty" rooms are best to give that impression that a ruin or dungeon is mostly abandoned and it helps to emphasize that those small areas where monsters lurk are little islands with reasons to be where they are (the goblins only need 3 room, the giant spiders came through a natural crack to the underdark and set up shop because of traffic and so on). Empty Rooms are also a chance to give players some breathing room or room to maneuver or to set the atmosphere for the surroundings (noise, furniture and stuff like that). In that, empty rooms are necessary parts of the "symphony" that is manifesting when exploring a particular dungeon (or dungeon level). The idea that every room needs to have something is not only very boardgamey, it also seems to be connected to that customer's point of view of "completeness" or the demand thereof, which I believe to be problematic ... DMing is, imo, a creative endeavor and the DM should be able to join the melody with his own (like jazz) instead of just making his attempt on the melody given (I can see value in both approaches, though).Getting that far into it, I thought it warrants a post, and here we are. But how many types can we get out of this analogy? Let's see.

Type 1: The Jazz DM

[source]I know I'm not the only one ticking like this. We take inspiration where we can and make them motives for our improvisations. In a sense, those motives can be described as "oracles" (as I talk about here). This style would also heavily lean on sandbox play. DM like this prefer some complexity and depth with the systems they use, but also need a high level of abstraction available (material to riff off of, so to say).

The Jazz DM sees playing the game as a team effort. All contribute to the story (rules, players, setting and DM), everyone brings their own melody, their own ideas and concepts. In that sense, rules could be analogues to instruments, which makes the DM tools the leading instrument, offering specific opportunities for the other instruments to join in. Here's the Wikipedia attempt of a definition for Jazz (as far as it relates to gaming):
A broader definition that encompasses different eras of jazz has been proposed by Travis Jackson: "it is music that includes qualities such as swing, improvising, group interaction, developing an 'individual voice', and being open to different musical possibilities". [source]I think this illustrates how we are not talking about what music is played, but about the approach to play music.

That said, it can have serious drawbacks. For one, DMs like that will have a hard time (or no interest in) DMing most published modules or adventures since they'll find it too restricting (railroady, even) without any meaningful room for improvisation (even if it's just true for the DM-side of the game*). Another thing is that players need to be up to the task (which means they'd have to bring a somewhat similar mindset). Players that go through the motions and hesitate to add their own melody will end up having less fun.

A third disadvantage I can see would be a lack of dedication for a campaign. Other "instruments" may be too tempting and the urge to experiment can result in a lack of consistency (which I try to compensate by writing and designing stuff ... to mixed success, I might add).

Ideally, a Jazz DM will offer a lively game where like-minded players are able to explore and create over the course of small campaigns.

Type 2: The Conductor DM

For me the next logical comparison. Conductors take great and complex works of art and negotiate them with an ensemble towards a performance. Your typical AD&D DM, I'd say. They orchestrate the perfect manifestation of the "instruments" of their choice and prefer rule systems that offer depth, crunch, teamplay and long campaigns (AD&D/HackMaster, CoC, Pendragon, games like that).

They tend to take themselves out of the game as much as possible. If their style emerges, it is through the conducting of the campaign as the players reach their goals from level to level by playing their characters. They'll be (or aspire to be) very savvy in the rules and trivia of the game and their joy is in seeing it all unfold as proposed by the rules.

I'd say DMs like that are good with pre-defined campaign settings (Greyhawk, Ravenloft, the works ... AD&D again, too), but excel when combining it with some campaign spanning module of sorts (Against the Giants, to give one example ... Call of Cthulhu offers some great campaigns like that as well). They'll come preppared either way. With Conductor DMs  you can play campaigns over decades.

Conductor having a moment ... [source]The drawback of a DM style like that would be inflexibility in some aspect or another. Depending on the DM this could be rules or canon. They will also have very concrete ideas how the game is played, which means that it'll need players that are able to play along with that. 

Ideally, Conductor DMs orchestrate epic campaign arcs for players to experience and be a part of over long times.

Type 3: The Band Leader DM

This DM is less about the rules as he is about "personality". It's your typical storyteller DM, if you will (World of Darkness is the base line here, but there sure are more games like that ... 7th Sea, maybe, or Over the Edge and Prince Valiant).

The group dynamic is more towards an assortment of band members that might even have different agendas. Teamplay isn't a necessity as it is more about exploring a selection of themes and concepts. The Band Leader DM offers the stage for the other members to express themselves and shine.

Something like this? [source]DMs like that will tend more towards improvisational theater than indirect narration or even meta play. Plots will be more dramatic and emotional than, say, epic. However, just as meticulously prepared, with the focus more on story, history, background and personal impact.

As far as drawbacks go, I'd say Band Leader DMs can run the risk of having short-lived campaigns (usually purpose build, as in, exploring some theme or another). Another drawback can be the emotional toll of playing that way and conflicts that can result out of it, depending on how mature the member of a group are.

Ideally, Band Leader DMs offer an emotional experience for players that like to express themselves in a more direct, or say, theatrical way. Everyone gets a chance to be part of a big performance.

Type 4: The DJ DM

This might be the GUMSHOE DMs. And maybe most of the indie games in general? Definitely Dungeon World and consorts. And the whole Light rules Movement, I think. It is not as much about offering to reconstruct an experience as it is about imitating one. It follows the idea that you don't play to have a step by step recreation of whatever characters are capable of but instead an abstraction of that to a degree that the process can be evoked instead of produced.

It's a difficult distinction, but nonetheless one worth having. Hear me out here. I've been thinking about this for a while now, because people tend to ignore the difference to, say, all the other games: it's the analogue of dancing to music instead of making music (which is why the DM is a DJ here, duh).

It's games where the player gets the clue and gets to shine while exposing the murder instead of grinding the evidence and hoping for some lucky rolls. It's the games where you don't have to make a calculated risk in a fight to kill the monster, but instead fight to celebrate the action happening. It's about dancing to celebrate the tune the DJ DM is throwing. You know what I mean?

Utz utz utz ... [source] The drawbacks I see in DMing games like this is in the limitations it forces on narratives. You don't play to get there, you play to talk about it, if that makes any sense. It's imitation, so, there'll be no depths to most games, because they quote instead of experiencing ...

Anyway. Ideally, a DJ DM will offer a Best Of players will air guitar to for a couple of evenings. And you can have that like having a night in the club every other weekend. There's nothing wrong with that (but it is a difference).

Type 5: The Composer DM

This is the DM as author. I'm not sure this is a real category or a cautionary tale, but lets go through the motions here. This is the DM that wants to tell a story and goes through the motions of engineering it. Some say, it's the guy that should rather write a book ... However. Role playing games are a new medium and who's to say that an approach like this is wrong? If we can have interactive movies, we sure as hell can have auteur-driven campaigns.

So here's my thinking: a DM like that would be driven to tell a grand story and the players are merely audience. It'd need players going along, but those players exist, I'm sure of it. This isn't even about quality, I'd say, as long as the illusion of quality is agreed upon, everyone is having a good game (I'm thinking about a vibe like Gentlemen Broncos for some reason ...).

What I'm saying is: it can work. DMs like that are about controll and will most likely claim authorship of the rules as well (playing something obscure, if not entirely DIY). However, players into emerging themselves into that private canon, will most likely reap the benefits of indulging the Composer DM.

Make it artsy, baby ... [source]Well, the drawbacks are obvious, I think. If the composer isn't any good, players will ride that wave of hope to be close to an undiscovered genius until they crash on some neurotic cliff incident of sorts. You'll have DM player characters and calls towards the narrative anmd all those bad habits.

Ideally, the Composer DM will do a great job to please an audience that accepts that the DM is in controll. I believe it's rare, but if you can make it work, it might actually be exceptional.

Can be, but needn't be ...

Well, that's 5 styles right there. I'd go as far as saying, it covers a lot and that the analogy goes a long way. Is it definite? No, it's most likely that people will read it and find themselves a bit here and there. It's a spectrum, maybe. Is it complete? I couldn't say. Maybe not? I sure as hell have gone as far as I dare to push it. But I could very well have missed something crucial (you tell me).

That said, I see myself in most of the above to one degree or another. I think I'm the Jazz DM right now, but I would love to be the Conductor (for some proper AD&D/HackMaster campaign, man), I've tried and failed to be the DJ (but will take that approach for some limited D&D one-shot convention gig), I was the Band Leader for a while (oWoD, for real) and the Composer .. well, who doesn't like groupies :)

Another possibly interesting take-away would be that the standards we are mainly talking about right now don't pander to all the possible styles to DM a game. They mainly pander to two (I'd say). Just food for thought.

So where do you guys see yourselves? Anything I missed? Any more benefits or drawbacks to the styles I describe (I'm somewhat biased, for sure).

What's your style?! Huh! [source]* Uuuh ... now there's a topic I haven't seen anyone talk about: railroading gamemasters. My immediate take would be that it can be just as bad (for the same reasons) as railroading players (wrote a defense about railroading once that'd apply here too, if you are interested). I'd also say it happens far more often than player railroads ...

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Solar Sanctuary of the Cannibal Corpse

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 01/20/2020 - 12:11
By R.J. Thompson Appendix N Entertainment OSE Levels 1-3

The plague year has been harsh. Countless victims have fallen to this terrible disease. Many commoners with no knowledge of healing have been called to assist the healers as plague doctors, checking on victims and clearing the dead bodies. Yet in this dark time, darker rumors have emerged. In the north country, it is said that those who die of the plague are rising from the grave! Worse, these undead have a taste for human flesh, and seem to spread the disease to those who survive their attacks. Many believe that this new evil marks the place where the plague originated. Do you dare to solve this mystery by entering the Solar Sanctuary of the Cannibal Corpse?

This 44 page adventures features a 23 room dungeon described in twelve pages. It features a Vampire for your Level 1’s to destroy, because nothing means anything anymore. And you get to Save or Die all the time. And it’s full of padding. And is mostly a hack. And is mostly devoid of flavour. And there has to be something better than this as we search for meaning in a world devoid of it. 

Ok, here we go: Village. Bubonic plague. Zombie infestation. Ruined temple nearby. Vampire in it that created the plague. You got the makings of something mighty fine in there! Alas, tis not to be. There’s no real pretext here, you’re in the village, determining that it’s the center of the plague that’s festering in the kingdom. Plus, it seems to have mutated here, creating zombies from the plague victims when they die. It seems, though, to still be a fully functioning village. Any hint of  flavour or local color from it being a plague village or the victim of cannibal zombie attacks is not present at all. It’s just a village. For some reason you to go the ruined temple two hours from town. I’ve looked things over several times and I can’t seem to figure out why the party would learn about or go there. A couple of people know about it, but it’s not clear that they think the plagues comes from there. There’s a rumor or two on the table, but again, not really connected. Just something like “there’s a ruined temple nearby,” In game terms this is probably ok. Like, sledgehammer to the head ok. I mean, everyone knows that’s where to go, but, still, it’s nice to have a pretext for suspension of disbelief. I mean, we could just roll a d6, on a 1-5 you win the adventure and on a 6 you roll again. No, don’t like that? Then perhaps just a few more threads to follow up on in the adventure, please? 

The journey to the temple takes two hours, which of course means two pages for a wandering monster table. For serious? For a 2 hour walk? I get it, they are a staple of adventures, but this seems more like a “just a have an encounter” opportunity. Anyway.

Did I mention the village entries? They are at least 80% worthless trivia. Entry 1, the Stable, tells us a stable boy runs it and then spends multiple paragraphs telling us about the former stable operator and how he is now found in the temple and working for the vampire.  The entries are full of this trivia, hiding the real information that they know about the vampire, the temple, etc. There is the opportunity, though, to acquire a chicken lazer rifle. I kid not. An oracular rooster that shoots sunlight from it’s eyeballs once a day, former rooster of the temple of Helios. It’s dumb as all fuck and I love it! 

Let’s talk plague! Getting bitten by a zombie requires a save or die or you get the plague. Walking through a miasma cloud requires the same. Getting the bubonic plague means you die in 12d6 hours and rise as a zombie. This seems a bit rough to me. Deadly, for sure, and perhaps in a high level adventure I’d be ok with it. But sweet Vecna, you have to give the suckers an even break or they don’t come back to play anymore! 

Ok, so, vampire in the ruined temple. 7HD, full on no joke vampire. Don’t worry, there’s a magic sword called Lightbringer, that’s also in there! It can create Light three times a day. It also has the Undead Bane ability that is described as “acts as a normal sword against all living foes.” Well, yes, that’s what all swords do, right? And Light doesn’t impact vampires … it’s Sunlight … or am I wrong in OSE? Whatever, fuck it, there’s no time for that anyway, you have to roll a d6 every turn to see where the vampire mvoes to in the dungeon. EVERY. TURN. I have a hard time remembering to roll wandering monsters, and I have a turn tracker to help me …

The writing is ineffective and padded out. “4. Stable Boy’s Quarters: !is simple room contains a small foot locker, a rope bed and a chamber pot. Anything of value is long since gone.”

No, not good enough? How about: “7. Commander’s Quarters: These were the quarters of Commander Auron, who now resides in area 22. !e room contains a bed, a desk, a footlocker and a #replace on the northern wall. There is nothing useful to be found in the room, save a …” All of that text to tell us nothing at all. Joy. 

Monsters are, of course, listed in the appendix. Yeah! And they have both too little and too much formatting. Bolding abounds, making it quite difficult to look up the different monster entries. Plus, they run over several pages, with little effort to do a proper layout. Guy Fullerton has a series of excellent articles on adventure layout from his blog that are worth reading on this subject. 

It does have mobs of floating heads that attack you, so, that’s pretty cool. And the core concept? Great as well. It’s just the wrong level, has no detail to speak of to bring the place to life, has too much padding text and too much trivia embedded in it.

Save yourself. Take up knitting. Or write down the numbers of passing trains. There will be more joy.

This is $6 at DriveThru. There’s no preview because, why would there be?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Getting Out of Rivertown

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 01/20/2020 - 12:00
Our Land of Azurth 5e game continued last night with the "Masters of Mayhem" in the midst of a robbery. Using a Blades in the Dark-esque opportunity to retcon planned events (at the price of a greater chance of a complication), the players attempt to establish that they bribed the vault guards to look the other way prior to the robbery. They are successful with the pertinent rolls and the retcon is established. The approaching guards are ready to be knocked out with a sleep spell, if necessary.

But the angry invisible stalker has not been bought off. It attacks the party again, and Bellmorae (disguised as the vault manager Wotko) is unable to get it to stand down. The party eventually kills it with magic and stolen energy weapons.
The party decides to get out while the gettings good, but their only choice is to leave their Armoire of Holding behind with the hope of regaining it later. On the way through the lobby, "Wotko" (the disguised Bell) is accousted by a customer demanding her attention. She manages to talk her way out of it and they leave the vault with Gladhand's gold.
The party becomes concerned that when the real Wotko and his associate awaken, they may well draw attention to the Armoire, leading to the heist being discovered. They figure they have to get out of town. But they also want to get the Armoire back. They make the mistake of letting Gladhand know this before negotiating for a higher fee, and he offers to both help them get out of town and retrieve the Armoire in lieu of further payment. 
Ultimately, though, they decide not to take his offer of getting them jobs and cover identities with a caravan heading across the Dragonspine Mountains to the Country of Sang. Instead, they plan to make their own way to the Sapphire City along the Wizard's Road, and from there to Virid to meet Queen Desira.


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