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Mothership? Beam me the fuck up!

So, I am not a big sci-fi Game Master. I just do not have the background to do it right. I often feel like I’m reduced to sounding like a Star Trek extra rattling off some “sciency” sounding gibberish. I just do not have the confidence to run sci-fi. Thus, over my 30+ years of gaming, whenever I have been involved with science-fiction RPGs, I have been a player. Although, Dear Reader, I am about to launch an Alien campaign with a few friends interested in the system. I will be detailing their exploits here on this blog. Stay tuned!

We were all Lloyd Dobler at some point in our lives…

Where was I? Ah yes…Mothership! When I read the rules of this system I was intrigued and desperately wanted to try it out as a player. A few months ago, Fantastic Dimensions started a Mothership campaign that I could not participate in due to my work schedule. Sadly, shortly after the campaign started, my schedule changed and I became available, but the group was full. Alas, I was going to be regulated to listening to the exploits of the player-characters on Fantastic Dimensions as a non-participant. I felt like John Cusack outside Ione Skye’s home with the boom box raised. You know that scene from Say Anything, right? C’mon…I know you know what I’m talking about…it’s a classic! Anyway…

Sometime in December a few of the players in the campaign dropped out for various reasons and a spot opened up. I jumped on it and I have been playing since about January. I am so happy I got an opportunity to play. This game is great! Let me tell you this game does what Traveller should have done: focus less on the science and more on the fiction.

First off, the rules are relatively simple and straight forward. It is a percentile based system for task resolution. The skill descriptions are short and open to interpretation to allow for GM and player collaboration. Space travel is, essentially, up to the GM to move the game along in terms of the mechanics. The game includes simple starship design rules. It is a really easy and straight forward game that you can jump right into and start playing. In fact, the character sheet is designed to walk you through character generation which I have never seen any game really do. In my humble opinion it is quite innovative in that regard.

Indeed, this game has elements of player facing as well. When attacked you make an armor saving throw. If you suceed you don’t take damage. If you fail, you take damage. Similarly, when something horrific happens, you risk taking stress. The more stress you accumulate, the more likely you are to panic. I have yet to see what happens when someone panics but your panic roll could result in crippling fear, a decent into madness, or even death as your character has a heart attack.

There are four character classes: Teamster, Scientist, Android, and Marine. They serve very similar roles to their counterparts in the Alien RPG, although Alien expands the character classes into pilot, corporate agent, etc. Mothership’s skill system allows you turn your teamster into a corporate agent, or your marine into a commanding officer, etc. It all depends on how you spend your skill points on the skill tree. It is very simple and very customizable.

I don’t mean to pick on Traveller because I actually like Traveller. I just have not had a great experience with Traveller. I am just not a science guy and I need a sci-fi game that is going to do the science thinking for me. Running a Traveller game is just not my thing as I just don’t understand (nor do I have the desire to learn) some of the science involved with calculating space travel, the types of planetary systems, etc. I will happily play mind you. But as a GM dedicated to being thorough, I just do not have the time to learn. Mothership, in contrast, is less about the science and more about the encounters. I feel like I could run this. It helps that Mothership is billing itself as a sci-fi horror game, which I really like. (Alien anyone?) The two games actually share quite a bit in common in terms of fear, panic, and the types of characters one will generate to play. The difference is that Alien uses a narrative dice system and Mothership fits nicely into the OSR style of play.

Now that I think about it. Mothership was published in 2018. Perhaps Free League took a cue from Tuesday Night Games when it developed Alien? I would not be surprised. Mothership is a tight game. It is worth emulating.

In my limited experience with Mothership, I have seen quite a bit of third-party support. The fans love this game and there is a ton of material out there for your campaigns. I strongly recommend joining the Mothership facebook group there is a lot of support and enthusiasm for play. Tuesday Night Games also has a number of modules and supplements for Mothership as well. Fantastic Dimensions is uing the Pound of Flesh module. It is really cool.

Did I mention you can get the pdf for free from the Tuesday Night Games website? Did I mention that the game book is only $15. It is a softcover pamphlet style game book. When it was shipped to me, they shipped it surrounded with stiff paperboard so as not to be damaged in transit. The supplements are not that expensive either.

With the ease of play, the enthusiasm of its fanbase, and the plethora of third-party content out there, this is a game that is going to be around for a while. It is worth picking up.

Old School versus New School: The Fight Over the World’s Greatest RPG

This meme is not just about worldview…it is about play style and its consequences

I do not want to get into the political fight over this meme. From what I can tell it is a silly and stupid fight anyway perpetuated by people who don’t have a dictionary. Rather, I think this meme illustrates something much deeper at the heart of the #OSR and #dnd5e debate that seems to rage across social media. It is about playstyles and, as a consequence, what the game ends up becoming. This became crystal clear to me after I ran an introductory LotFP game for my players. While the one-shot was fun there was a palpable sense that, as players, they were deeply unsatisfied with LotFP.

During character generation, I saw the looks on their faces as they realized they had little choice in what they could make and what they could do. For those of you unfamiliar with LotFP, there are seven classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, Specialist, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. This is very similar to B/X, BECMI, and even Dungeon Crawl Classics. Each class has a specific set of abilities which loosely translates to a role they play in the group. For example, the dwarf gets a lot of hit points, they get the architecture skill and good saving throws. They can also carry a lot of stuff. They are not as capable at fighting like the fighter. The player who played a dwarf (with a 7 strength) bristled at the fact that his dwarf is a tough dude who couldn’t fight very well.

My LotFP game revealed to me a serious divide between the new school games and the old school games: newer games give the players a ton of options to develop the character that they want. This translates to game mechanics that allow them to more accurately and confidently interact with the world created by the Game Master. OSR just does not provide those options to the players.

Let’s compare a dwarf fighter in 5E: attack bonuses that go up with levels, second wind ability, multiple attacks, action surge, access to feats at higher levels, etc. At third level the dwarf fighter picks up an archetype which gives the dwarf fighter a host of additional options designed to give the archetype flavor and solidify a particular combat style. This is great fun for the player as he gets a badass character and he can think about the ongoing build.

It is a very “player centric” game design that, I believe, relegates the GM to the role of CPU, especially if you are a Rules as Written kind of GM. As a GM you are to remind people what the rules are, apply the rules, then adjudicate the outcome of a successful or failed roll. As a consequence, the players just look at their character sheets to see what they can and cannot do. For them, their character is the total set of options for them, nothing else exists. The modern games stifle creativity in player agency just like a drug does to an addict.

There are other criticisms to this playstyle as well: It doesn’t produce immersion. It encourages number crunching and gamesmanship. It encourages combat over role-play. At the higher levels 5E provides so many choices for a player it creates analysis paralysis, combats get drawn out, and we suffer from the tyranny of the grid. Not to mention that, at the higher levels, designing encounters becomes more like work for a GM as it is a challenge to make sure you create something challenging for players.

With all the criticisms of 5E from the OSR crowd there is one irrefutable fact that cannot be ignored and cannot be disregarded: the players are having fun, lots of fun in fact. The reason is that in exchange for player agency, they are seeking character development. Given the popularity of Critical Role and the Tasha’s Hideous Woke Cauldron (or whatever the hell it’s called), I do not see this changing anytime soon. If the OSR developers want to compete with WotC or if OSR GMs want to compete with 5e styled games, they are going to have to develop something to provide their players, especially those new to RPGS, something to play with…and that means options.

On a personal note, I got into the OSR because, for years, I had a nostalgia for something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. For years, there was a storytelling experience and gaming experience I just wasn’t getting from Pathfinder, 3e, and certainly not 4e. If I am honest, I kind of got that storytelling experience from 5e, but it always broke down once the players hit the higher levels. For years I would, every so often, make a suggestion to play an older version of the game. I had no idea that OSR existed. I guess that is why I’ve dived head first into this community. It is nice to see like-minded people talking about this play experience and style. What is really cool is that the community is not just composed of old grognards, there are younger people playing as well.

But I digress…the consequence of the 5e playstyle can be seen when you look at a module and how it is designed and compare it to a module published by an OSR company. When I read Death Frost Doom, I got a lot of backstory with some suggestions on how things ought to go but that was it. I had all I needed. I just had to wait and see what the players did and what they reacted to. Unfortunately, the players in my one-shot, in contrast, had no idea how to do anything because the were wedded to the 5e playstyle. Many struggled with the idea that solving the encounters in the module was only limited by their imagination.

In contrast, I have a Waterdeep: Dragonheist game that I do enjoy playing but something happened that really demonstrates the differences in styles. In Chapter 3 a fireball goes off killing someone and the big conspiracy begins. The design of the investigation at the beginning of Chapter 3 really pissed me off. There were really only a few options available to the players, i.e., what skills they were to use, what dice to roll, etc. There was nothing else available to me, as a GM, to pull from. Because of the design of the module there was a bottleneck. I had to either prompt the roll needed or ad lib some bullshit to get the players to do what the module said needed to be done. At no point did the players really figure out what they had to do because nothing on their character sheets jumped out at them to do. It was a very frustrating encounter.

It is one thing to design a module to fully prep the DM for those circumstances and it is another to expect a mechanistic resolution to an obstacle like this. Was that what WotC expected of me? To say to my players: “Oh? You wish to investigate the scene? Fair enough. Roll the following skills and I will tell you what happens…” How is that fun for anyone involved? Why not just go play a videogame? There is no collaboration at that point, just dice rolling.

Indeed, I am finishing up my very first module for publication on DM’s Guild. (Ironically, it is a 5e module. To quote Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday: “Well…apparently my hypocrisy knows no bounds.”) My module involves investigation and, upon reviewing some playtest comments, I took great pains to make sure there were plenty of options to choose from in order to solve the mystery. I am a little flummoxed at how the Dragonheist Chapter 3 made it past the cutting room floor.

I’m digressing again, aren’t I. Sorry. The nostalgia for me, and why the Tracy Hickman’s meme is so salient is that, when I read Dragonlance it changed the way I approached my own story telling with my friends. They experienced agency in a way that was more powerful than just figuring out how to get around an obstacle to grab the treasure chest. They started thinking about ways to be heroes just like the Heroes of the Lance. Yes, some of them died and when they did it was tragic precisely because of the good role-playing that got the party to that point. This is what the OSR has to offer: an immersive collaborative experience for all.

I just don’t see that level of storytelling with 5e. I don’t. The players start out already as idealized versions of themselves. It is easy to get up in levels. Players focus on “their build” rather than role-playing. It is easy to meet the challenges presented because you just need to look down at your character sheet and roll the skill check your DM tells you to roll. A good 5e game to me is like a good rollercoaster ride, but it is not really storytelling. However, despite all of this, the players love the characters because of all the bells and whistles they get. They just love 5e.

Which brings me back to my original point: OSR is going to either stay a niche gaming community or it has to shed the orthodoxy of simplicity and provide the PCs with something. I desperately want to run an OSR type game. In order to so, I am either going to have to find some new players online who can appreciate the uniqueness of OSR play, or design something for existing players that give them some options for their character. Maybe I need to take another look at Dungeon Crawl Classics? Maybe I have to design some options to insert into Lamentations of the Flame Princess? Maybe I have to create my own 5E hack to make it more like OSR…I really don’t know. It is going to be a challenge regardless.

Challenge accepted.

Saving Cha’alt: Help us Venger Satanis, you’re our only hope!

Yes, dear reader, this is two Cha’alt posts in a row and there is a reason for it. Venger Satanis is doing a kickstarter campaign for Cha’alt! For those who don’t know, Cha’alt is an eldricht, gonzo, science-fantasy, post-apocalyptic campaign setting that can be used for both 5E and OSR systems. It is a funhouse that invites you, as a Game Master, to do whatever your little fuchsia heart desires. You can see my reviews of Cha’alt, here and it’s sequel, Fuchsia Malaise, here.

Does Cha’alt need the collective hivemind of the RPG community to save Cha’alt, as the provacative title of Venger’s Kickstarter suggests? Hell no! Venger’s creation is saving YOU from the doldrums of run-of-the-mill fantasy/sci-fi settings and tropes. You know what I am talking about. Your players play the same god damned characters every. single. campaign…And that’s because you keep running the Forgotten Realms, which is the most ironic title to a campaign setting in the history of campaign settings.

I urge you to back this kickstarter campaign. The kickstarter is for a series of one-shot scenarios designed for campaigning in Cha’alt. The one-shots look to be, like the world itself, something that runs the gamut of possibilties. The two adventures summarized thus far involve a ship crashing into a prison zone while protecting a high ranking muckety-muck. The other adventure is about a meteor that is on a collission course with the planet.

So…I guess Cha’alt does needs some saving…

By the look of the teaser maps posted on Kickstarter, this is going to be another high quality product from Venger. I for one cannot wait to get these adventures. The more his kickstarter is supported, the more we will get from Venger. As you have probably figured out by now, I’ve been thoroughly impressed with Venger Satanis’ Cha’alt campaign setting. I don’t know a lot of gonzo material, but this has set a bar for me and I am looking forward to what Venger plans on doing with it.

Cha’alt!

Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise – A Game World is Coming into its Own

So, when I picked up Cha’alt I did it on a lark. I’ve seen it’s author, Venger Satanis, beating the drums of his creation on social media for some time and my curiosity was piqued. When he announced that there were only 5 hardcopies left, I bought one. I didn’t know who Venger was and I never read anything by him so I figured, “what the hell?” I’m glad I did because I became an instant fan of Cha’alt. You can see my review here. Imagine my joy to hear that he not only wrote a follow-up, Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise, but I won a free copy in a raffle! Thanks dude!

This review is written in the context of a blog post by Venger. I think his musings on writing best explain what is going on with Cha’alt and its offspring, Fuchsia Malaise. Our fearless author is not holding anything back. His imagination is running wild with a laser focus. Fuschia Malaise contains more wild gonzo encounters and creatures, more adventuring locations, and more pop-culture references that made me openly laugh as I read through the book. Fuchsia Malaise also gives us a look into how Venger Satanis approaches RPGs. Included with Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise is an Appendix that contains three of Venger’s prior publications: “Old School Renaissance Like a Fucking Boss,” (some serious good advice, I already own it), “Crimson Dragon Slayer” (his homebrew rules that I’m not a big fan of), and a supplement “Cha’alt Ascended” (which provide some options for rules light games…which I intend to use). Aside from getting more bang for your buck, these documents provide you with an insight into his RPG philosophy and style. This makes Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise more than a sequel or a supplement but something a bit more intimate. Like Ethan Hawke spouting poetry encouraged by Robbin Williams’ beatnik professor, the reader is encouraged to open his/her mind and take a deep look into its darker recesses as a source of instant inspiration…all the while Venger holds his hand out as a guide into that unknown.

The crunch of Fuschia Malaise provides a Game Master with tables that can be used for NPC design, encounter design, and/or PC background design. With very minor tweaks, these tables can be used in just about any campaign (much like Cha’alt Ascended). Also included with these tables are tables for the effects of drugs, demonic communication, and other random things that a GM may need on the fly. Fuschia Malaise is an immediate resource for any GM whether you’re planning on running a game in Cha’alt or not.

What I am not a big fan of is the “save or die” mechanic that seems to be constant theme with the encounters in both of his books. Can that be overcome? Of course. I don’t have to use it. However, I do not want to focus too much on mechanics. Mechanics isn’t why I enjoy an RPG publication. Game mechanics is not how I get immersed into an RPG. Moving on…

My favorite section is one that is devoted to additional encounters and adventuring locales, including Elysium the home of the Federation’s presence on Cha’alt. I’m a junky for game world lore and this section really fleshes out Cha’alt without overburdening you with detail. The expansion of the city of A’agrybah is great. You are provided factions and the politics behind what goes on in the city that gives you a sense of the culture of Cha’alt and is an excellent source of adventure material. You don’t get a city map, which may irk some people. It doesn’t bother me as you can pretty much do whatever you want with this book.

Also included in Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise are a couple of adventures, including an invisible tower and a flesh pit, some strange tentacle storm, a clown worm, and the remnants of a subway system that harken back to 80s era New York City, with a smattering of contemporary political insanity. All of these seemingly disparate elements actually help coalesce and provide you with the sense of a dynamic world that is more than just an odd collection of gonzo encounters. Cha’alt is alive and stuff is happening there whether your players are going to do something with it or not.

That is not to say that Cha’alt is perfectly defined. I said this about the first book: the writing style and layout can get confusing. If you are not prepared for this, you can easily get lost and none of it will make sense. Although, Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise feels more cohesive than its predecessor. That being said, there is a ton of room for any GM to add or subtract as they see fit. You can make Cha’alt your own and the author encourages this. It is all by design. His “do what thou will” attitude with his own creation takes an incredible amount of maturity that is typically only given lip-service to by authors publishing for the more mainstream RPGs. I had a lot of fun reading Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise and I can’t wait to run a Cha’alt campaign. I am excited to read that Fuschia Malaise is part two of a Cha’alt trilogy. I have every intention of picking up book three.

Fuchsia Malaise’s strength is that it has added depth to what Venger started with Cha’alt. The world of Cha’alt is not some oddity in the gaming community that appeared from nowhere only to disappear into the cacophony that is social media. Venger really demonstrates that he knows what he is doing with his creation. There is a plan. What that plan is, is anyone’s guess. Regardless, Cha’alt is here to stay…nestled on the edge of your consciousness beckoning you to take a step onto the radioactive wastes of S’kbah, to seek the mysteries contained in the Sunken Library, and to make your way to the center of the Black Pyramid itself.

Meditation on World Building Part 3: Metal is Scarce

Merchants are a class!? Wow!

Happy New Year and welcome to another installment of my Meditations on Worldbuilding series highlighting one of my favorite campaign worlds published by the world’s most popular role-playing game! That campaign world is Dark Sun. As I have stated on this blog as well as on my podcast, I believe worldbuilding requires a mechanical component or real world game mechanic correlate in order to bring that world to life for the players. In order for that world to “feel” real, there needs to be more than just narrative. There should be a game mechanic, derived from the world itself, that will force players to make real world choices about their character. Dark Sun is an excellent example of this philosophy put into action. Thus, the focus of my meditation.

I started this meditation with the World is a Desert which focused on terrain, travel, encumbrance, food and cannibalism. Then I started talking about The World is Savage, which was a post that began talking about combat. Technically, I’m not done with “The World is Savage” as I have been mulling over what to do about combat. There are two posts already on this and I am nowhere near complete. It is a complicated subject. I might just scrap what I’ve already done and start over. The reason being is that there are OSR games out there that are doing some really interesting things with combat. I would go so far as to say these games are innovative in their approach. From what I’ve seen these games just might suit my needs in terms of lethal and fast-paced combat. I need to do some research. So, I shall put a pause on “The World is Savage” and move on to something a bit more straightforward…at least in theory anyway!

This topic is a part of Dark Sun that I’ve consistently enjoyed: Metal is scarce. This adds so much flavor to any campaign that uses Dark Sun as a backdrop.  Finding an ancient metal sword is like finding a magic item. The breakability of non-metal weapons makes combat more challenging and dangerous. “Metal is Scarce” further solidifies Dark Sun’s reputation as a game focused on desperate survival and your players will certainly feel it.

Back in the ol’ Second Edition days, there were three categories of weapons: Wood, Stone/obsidian, Bone. Each conferred a penalty to hit and a penalty to damage. I did a wee bit o’ research into primitive cultures and their weapons. I discovered that stone weapons were used rather quickly in human societal development. Stone tools were made from chipped stone (cryptocrystalline materials) such as chert or flint, radiolarite, chalcedony, obsidian, basalt, and quartzite. Why did obsidian get singled out in Dark Sun? Two reasons: (1) there was a city-state that mined it and used it as an export; but (2) apparently obsidian will fracture down to a single atom, giving it a cutting edge five hundred times sharper than steel. However, obsidian weapons are still very delicate and breakable.

I also discovered that a cubic inch of bone can, in principle, bear a load of 19,000 lbs. (8,626 kg) or more- roughly the weight of five standard pickup trucks—making it about four times as strong as concrete!?

I think this topic can easily spinout of control and become too burdensome. Do we have different rules for bone clubs versus wooden clubs? Do we create a new list of weapons unique to the world much like the original Dark Sun? How detailed do we make this without deviating too significantly from my desire to keep this as simple as possible? With the original rules, I did not see any exceptions made for certain weapons like a club. Why would a club made from a big piece of wood suffer penalties? Also, do you need a penalty for a wooden arrow? Certainly, a sharpened piece of flint at the end of the arrow would be sharper than a piece of wood.  Is a club made from the femur of a giant creature more potent than a piece of wood? Do we need to get that detailed? At the end of the day a decision needs to be made for the sake of “the game.” This may have been the reasoning behind the decision made in the Dark Sun rulebook. Just pick something and go with it.

MaterialCostHit probabilityRarity
Metal100%Very Rare
Bone30%-1Uncommon
Stone50%-2Common
Wood10%-3Common

Given what I’ve “researched” (ahem) I am actually going to focus on hit probabilities rather than damage reduction. I own a bokken (wooden training katana—no, I don’t know how to use it). Getting hit with that is going to hurt…a lot. I think the real issue with these weapons is whether they can pierce a target’s armor to do damage to the body. Reducing damage is going to simply prolong combat which I don’t want. Therefore, the weapon’s material is about hit probability and not about doing damage.

I am going to include a rarity chart. It is probably a bit superfluous but I think it is important to know that running around with a bone weapon means someone killed the thing used to make it. Monsters aren’t going to be easy to kill. Thus, bone weapons are not going to be readily available. You will only readily find them in the city states.

The cost column is how to calculate the value based on the material. Thus, a wooden longsword (normal weapon) from LotFP’s Skills & Magic (which is the base ruleset I’m using) will only cost you the Athasian equivalent of 2sp. For purposes of full disclosure, I am ripping that right from the old Dark Sun ruleset. I see no reason to deviate.

Weapon breakage: Non-metal weapons risk breakage upon rolling maximum damage. There is a 1 in 20 chance the weapon breaks and becomes useless. When there is a critical hit, regardless of damage or effect, weapon breakage is still rolled. The critical hit effect is still applied.

Improvised weapon: This was a skill in second edition AD&D. Essentially, if your weapon broke, you could roll a skill to find a weapon that did some damage. Rather than a separate skill to find an improvised weapon, I am going to subsume this into the Search skill that will be modified by intelligence. Upon a successful roll, the PC finds a large rock or bone or something that does d3 points of damage.

I did want to add the Atlatl as an item to purchase. It is essentially a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in javelin and spears thrown at opponents. It is typically made from wood. Using the atlatl will add +1 damage to spears or javelins when thrown. Their effective range will be increased by 25%. Purchasing will cost 1 silver piece.

Piecemeal Armor: This is also a really cool feature of the original Dark Sun game. Rather than walking around with a full suit of armor, a PC scavenged what they could find. You might have a shoulder pauldron and maybe a shield. It was awesome. The original rules provided an exhaustive list of how each armor type may be broken down. I am not going to do that. I don’t think it is necessary. I think a simple bonus to armor class for each piece of armor is sufficient.

During a 5E campaign I ran a few years ago, I allowed a PC to sacrifice a piece of armor to avoid a critical hit. I am going to continue to use this. It is a cool option that further intensifies combat.

As far as full armor is concerned, I am going to limit it to only few of  the lighter armors, such as leather and hide. These armors can be added to with shin guards or pauldrons, but once a PC’s base armor class is at 15 or higher, the PC will require double the amount of water for the day to stave off the effects of dehydration.

Armor typeArmor classEncumbrance
Leather armor12Normal slot
Hide14Normal slot
Breastplate+3Normal slot
Shoulder pauldron+0½ slot
Shin guard+0½ slot
Two shoulder pauldrons+11 slot
Two shin guards+11 slot
Helmet+0No slot

For all other equipment, I’m just going to via Referee fiat declare that all non-metal items will be 1% of the cost listed; whereas metal items will remain the same value in silver pieces. There. Nice and simple.

The currency in Dark Sun was also a bit different. The currency used centered on the ceramic piece and the bit. The 10 bits made 1 ceramic piece. 100 ceramic pieces made a gold piece. As I am using LotFP as the base ruleset, I will be using the silver standard. Therefore, 10 ceramic pieces will yield a silver piece. Therefore, a wooden longsword will cost you 20 ceramic pieces or 200 bits.

To add to all of this, however, is the fact that water is in high demand. I think the original game missed an opportunity here, especially after I read Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess. In Veins there is a currency called “lumen” which is based on 1 hour of light. Why? Because light is a valuable commodity underneath the earth. Why not do the same for water in Dark Sun?

In Dark Sun, 1 gallon of water was equal to 2 bits—that is an awfully low figure from my perspective. Perhaps the original game designers were concerned about making the game too challenging. For me, 1 gallon of water is going to be equal to 1 ceramic piece which is, essentially, 5 times the value from the original game. Water will be just as valuable as currency and it is an easy calculation to use when a PC engages in bartering and haggling.

I have never been satisfied with bartering and haggling systems presented in the games that allegedly featured them. Bartering and haggling is a very subjective exchange. A weaponsmith may not want the 30-lbs of grain you offered in exchange for the weapon he’s been working on, or maybe he does? I am of the opinion no rule system will effectively capture bartering and haggling. Thus, I propose the following as it will be consistent with LotFP’s skill system.

Bartering/Haggling Skill: Roll a d6 and add your skill level plus charisma bonus and compare it to the opponent’s skill check. If you are successful, you reduce (or increase) the value of the item haggled over by 5% per pip over the opponent’s roll. Introducing this skill will provide an easy method of addressing this. Essentially, merchant NPC will note that the item costs ‘X’ amount in ceramic (or silver). The player can then try to talk him down. Alternatively, a PC can try to sell an item. A prospective NPC buyer will offer an amount and the PC can haggle to increase its value. Introducing this skill also allows the LotFP specialists to function as the merchant class, which is an even easier solution to a problem that we will address when it is time to start putting together the classes later on down the road.

Okay…that’s it for now. Next time, I swear…I’ll finish up the combat section!

To Rage or not to Rage…Revisiting the Barbarian Class

So as this fucked up year comes to a close, I’ve started to prepare for 2021. I have a host of RPG related New Years’ resolutions, which include publishing a few things on DM’s Guild and DriveThruRPG. I also want to start an OSR campaign. In preparation for that, I have been meditating on the rules and options available to players. I’ve already started a meditation on world-building for an OSR DarkSun campaign. (Which reminds me, I really should get back to that!) My podcast is thinking about starting up a discord server as a home for our fans (all 3 of them) and a place to look for games.

I digress… The point is, I’ve been thinking about some of the OSR rulesets and I think I need more character options for the type of game I want to run. In some respects, it is about adding a little something to each existing character class to provide a bit of variety for the players. But I decided to take a look at the Barbarian class as a potential class option for my future players. First, I’m going to get this out of the way: I dislike that some kind of “rage” feature is limited to the barbarian. I think that is silly. When I look at the potential combat options available to a warrior, I think raging is an option for a well-armored knight, just as much as it is for a dude wearing a bearskin loincloth. It seems that in 5e games the barbarian class is typically seen as an adventurer from a primitive culture who just gets mad and proceeds to hack things apart with a battle-ax, a two-hander, or maybe a broken table leg. I find that kind of one-note. One of my more creative players reimagined the barbarian as a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, which was cool. In another 5E campaign, I made a barbarian archetype called the Brewmeister–a dwarf craftsman who uses alcohol to fuel rages. However, his main feature, beer craft, allows him to make magical potions. (Stay tuned, dear reader, the Brewmeister among other “dwarf stuff” will be made available on DM’s Guild soon!!!) At the end of the day, I can’t shake the feeling that attaching a rage ability to the descriptor “barbarian” is a bit ridiculous. Do all uncultured people or “those not from the dominant civilized culture” just fly off the handle and start cleaving skulls? No, of course not. The term “barbarian” is defined as those that are not a part of the classical civilized cultures, such as the Romans or the Greeks. To be called a barbarian in those days was to say your beliefs, values, and cultural practices were just not the same as the dominant “civilized” culture. With that said, the Germanic barbarians were quite barbaric when compared to what Rome had to offer. Similarly, Native Americans participated in cultural practices that would not be deemed civilized even by today’s standards. Certainly, this is a matter of perspective to some degree. I mean in feudal Japan, Europeans were referred to as gaijin, which is like calling them barbarians. Indeed, I do not think we would necessarily think of early modern Europeans as barbaric. I mean, maybe we would, considering some of our own modern cultural values. But the point is, “barbarian” does not mean you like to bash the heads of your enemy in with the nearest blunt instrument. I’m sure being labeled a barbarian might piss someone off, but I don’t think making a character class rage because of being a barbarian makes any sense. For my game, I’m going to make “rage” a fighter stance that is available to fighters and dwarves. I previously referred to it as a reckless attack. As of this writing, I am changing the stance as follows: “reckless attack: -4 AC, +2 to attack, +2 damage.” So, with that said, “Lordmatteus’ OSR Barbarian” is going to be a class similar to that of a dwarf, elf, or halfling. It represents a cultural option as much as it is a class option. And yes, they are not going to be as sophisticated as the other four main classes as the assumption will be that those characters come from the dominant “civilized” society which assumes a medieval/early modern European society. The funny thing is, TSR tried this back in the ol’ AD&D days and that class looks to be absolutely unplayable. The AD&D barbarian can be found in Unearthed Arcana. The barbarian disliked magic and shunned it. To make up for the barbarian’s aversion to magic, the barbarian gained a bonus to strike creatures immune to magic. (This is ridiculous…like…why not just let them wield a magical sword?) The AD&D barbarian got a bunch of bonuses for saves against all kinds of things…probably because they can’t wear magical devices, armors, or other wondrous items to protect them. Again, ridiculous.
RAWR!!! I’m still level 1!!!
What is interesting for me (and my focus) is the natural abilities that the barbarian gained. It can hide in shadows, surprise opponents and it gained something called back protection to avoid sneak attacks. The barbarian can also detect illusions and magic, it can track and survive in the wild. Some of these abilities seem related to the fact that the barbarian cannot use magic items; thus, an ability to offset that drawback. I think the designer started with “Barbarians are averse to magic” and went from there. It’s ridiculous. With all the abilities it gains to make up for its inability to use magic items, level advancement was severely hindered. To get to second level you needed a whopping 6,000!! Ridiculous. I think this is a completely unplayable class. This could have been avoided if the designer just did not focus on the aversion to magic, but rather focus on it as a cultural descriptor. That being said, I think an OSR Barbarian should focus on survival-type skills. This is based on the assumption that the barbarian comes from either a hunter-gatherer or early agrarian society, where outdoor skills like hunting and tracking are valuable skills. I also think the barbarian class should be a hardy and physical class, one that can take some damage. Therefore, I want to give the class a lot of hit points. As I am not going to limit the barbarian from using any magical items; I do not think it needs anything else to make it tough. I’ll probably give it a fighter’s saving throws as I think that the two classes are similar in that regard. I am also going to give them the same stances that a fighter can do (that means they can rage if they want!), but I am going to limit them to only proficient with shields, hide and leather armors. The barbarian will be advancing with climbing and bushcraft skills after all. FYI: I’m using Lamentations of the Flame Princess as my base ruleset for now. That could change in the future… Lordmatteus’ OSR (LotFP) BARBARIAN CLASS
Level Experience points Hit points Paralyze Poison Breath Device Magic Climb/Bushcraft
0 1d8 16 16 16 15 18 1 in 6
1 0 1d10 14 12 15 13 16 2 in 6
2 2,250 +1d10 14 12 15 13 16 2 in 6
3 4,500 +1d10 14 12 15 13 16 2 in 6
4 9,000 +1d10 12 10 13 11 14 3 in 6
5 18,000 +1d10 12 10 13 11 14 3 in 6
6 36,000 +1d10 12 10 13 11 14 3 in 6
7 72,000 +1d10 10 8 11 9 12 4 in 6
8 144,000 +1d10 10 8 11 9 12 4 in 6
9 288,000 +1d10 10 8 11 9 12 4 in 6
10 432,000 +3* 8 6 9 7 10 5 in 6
11 576,000 +3* 8 6 9 7 10 5 in 6
12 720,000 +3* 8 6 9 7 10 5 in 6
13 +144,000/level +3/level* 6 4 7 5 8 6 in 6
*Constitution modifiers do not apply

AIs are gonna AI…Introducing the Derp Snake!

“Awww…he’s so cute.” Griselda set her spear against the dungeon wall before approaching the wriggling twenty-foot long creature before her. The creature was snake-like, its scales the colors of the rainbow. The peculiar thing about this monstrosity was its eyes. They were the size of ostrich eggs, bulging from its sockets. Rather than a slit, its pupils were rounded like a human and were pointing in opposite directions. Sprouting from the top of its head was a large pink puff of hair like a pom-pom. At the end of its body was a broken rattle like that of a rattlesnake. Rather than make the alarming sound of a venomous reptile, it simply made a dull, arrhythmic ‘tink, tink, ta-tink’ as the creature repeatedly bashed its head against the wall. As Griselda approached the creature, it stopped what it was doing and looked at the warrior woman, its tongue hanging lazily from its mouth with an odd oafish grin.”

You may have seen this, you may have not. It is an article about a scientist who used a recurrent neural network to come up with monster names for Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not sure how successful the experiment was for the scientist but some really wonky monsters were produced. One of which is the “Derp Snake.” So…of course, I just had to stat the Derp Snake!

Is the Derp Snake a Naga? Is it a mutant? Is it a demon from the 9083292th layer of the Abyss? No one knows and the Derp Snake wouldn’t have it any other way. The Derp Snake is highly intelligent (Intelligence 17) and rather charismatic (Charisma 16). It uses its odd appearance to ingratiate itself with a party of adventurers by acting dumb, friendly, and playful. The Derp Snake does not take any aggressive action toward any party that stumbles upon it. Rather, it is very docile. It may even aid the party in some way but it is careful not to reveal itself to be overly intelligent. Once the party has let down its guard, the Derp Snake will unhinge its jaw and swallow an unsuspecting party member whole.

The Derp Snake is very intelligent and can only be surprised on a 1 out of 6. The Derp Snake is patient. If the players have their guard up, it will follow the players around like a puppy occasionally banging its head against the wall, using its long tongue to pick its nose, or any other adorably stupid action to convince the players it is not a threat, just a stupid giant snake with pink fuzzy hair.

Derp Snake: Armor 14, Move 90′, 5 Hit Dice, Morale 7. The Derp Snake does no damage with an attack, rather the target character must make a save versus paralyze. On a failure, the character is swallowed whole and is incapable of movement as the snake’s muscles constrict the character for d4 damage each round. In addition, the swallowed player takes d6 acid damage each round. The derp snake can only swallow one player at a time. Once someone is swallowed, it will try to escape to digest its meal.

If a Character is swallowed whole, the Referee is encouraged to look at the player, cock their head to the side, and say “Derp!”

Can you do gritty realism with D&D 5E? A DM’s confession.

I got into a little discussion with a fellow DM on Twitter about gritty realism and D&D 5e. The querry was simple: has anyone tried to the gritty realism rules provided in the DM’s Guide? Well I did and it was not good.

To put it simply, to make 5e gritty and realistic you extend the duration of the rests period necessary to recharge abilities and heal the character. The normal rules define a short rest as a 1 hour (in-game) period where those abilities that recharge on a short rest are recharged and you can spend hit dice from your hit dice pool to gain some minor non-magical healing. A long rest is an 8-hour (in-game) rest that recharges all spent hit dice, replenishes all hit points, and recharges all abilities.

This is derived from the 4e mechanic of “daily powers” and “encounter powers.” If we were honest men, the 4e labels for this mechanic is exactly what is going on in the 5e game. It has nothing to do with time. It is expected that some rest taken by the players in between encounters such that the “short rest” abilities are, essentially, an encounter power. Herein lies the problem with 5e and it is annoying. Rather than just declare, “these abilities can recharge after an encounter,” there is this fiction where the party stops what they are doing for an hour to recharge those abilities. It makes very little sense to me.

What is worse is when you have the party decide to take a long rest in the cave/dungeon/place crawling with monsters. Who the heck would do that? The characters are in a very dangerous hostile environment. It makes little sense and I absolutely hate it when my players do that. Thus I decided to implement gritty realism.

The DMG’s Gritty Realism rules essentially turn a short rest (1-hour in-game) into a 24-hour (in-game) rest period, and a long rest became a 1 week in-game rest period. Adventures in Middle-Earth Role-Playing takes this even further and declares that you cannot take a long rest unless you have sanctuary. Sanctuary is a place of safety so you CANNOT TAKE A NAP IN A DUNGEON. I thought this was great….then we implemented the rules. It was awful once the PCs reached about 7-8 level.

The PCs started hoarding their abilities that required a long rest to recharge, spell casters felt useless as it would take an in-game week to rememorize spells, and combats started taking longer and longer because no one would “go nuclear” to wipe out their adversaries. What was worse was that the players started not having fun. There was a lot of griping… and rightly so! I was on the verge of having a full scale revolt at my gaming table. I had to do something.

Then COVID-19 happened and we had to take a hiatus from my homebrew gritty campaign. This gave me an opportunity to do some tweaking with the rest/recharge issues. I am going to share it with you. But be forewarned we have only been playing a few months so it is not completely playtested.

The Pros of the following method is that it allows the PCs to recharge their abilities as normal, but makes natural healing feel a bit more realistic. The cons of this method is that it creates a bit more book keeping for both the players and the DM.

  1. Rest periods for purposes of recharging abilities

For purposes of recharging your abilities and spells the rest periods are Rules as Written (“RAW”) A short rest is going to be presumed to occur during the course of an adventuring day with some exceptions. For example, traveling overland and resting after a particular difficult encounter (combat or otherwise) will be presumed. Further, you cannot be expected to sit on your horse for a full 8-10 hours without the occasional stop for some rest. However, you’re free to do a forced march, if need be. If you do take a forced march, you will not have the benefit of a period of rest. You just might obtain an exhaustion point (see below). However, in dungeons you will have to announce that you are sitting down to rest in order to recharge your abilities. For purposes of recharging daily abilities (those abilities that require a long rest), a long rest will continue to be the 8-hour period RAW.

2. Healing and rest periods

For purposes of healing and recovering from exhaustion, hit point loss, and any adverse effects, the following rules apply:

  • A short rest: As noted above, this is a rest for a one-hour period to recharge those abilities that recharge upon a short rest RAW. You may not engage in any natural healing during this time. That means you cannot expend hit dice to recover lost hit points, nor can you use any feats or abilities to recover hit points during this time.
  • A long rest: This is an eight-hour period where it is assumed the PCs are not engaged in any strenuous activity for more than an hour. During this period a player may expend hit dice to recoup hit point loss, provided the player uses a healer’s kit. During this time, a PC may use an ability or feat that typically allows players to recover hit points during a short rest RAW. Those feats and abilities are now used during a long rest. During this time, a PC may spend a hit dice to remove exhaustion points accumulated during the day (see below). In addition to spending a hit dice, a DC 15 medicine check by someone proficient in medicine can remove all accumulated exhaustion points. During this time, a PC recharges any ability that, for purposes of RAW, requires a long rest to recharge.
  • Recovery: Recovery is an indeterminate period of time calculated per the DM’s discretion where the PCs recover from their serious injuries. This period of time will be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. PCs can only begin recovery when they have sanctuary (“a place of safety” per the DM’s discretion). A period of recovery is how a PC will recover up to half of their HD total, remove 1 level of exhaustion, and perform less strenuous downtime activities. Someone who is tended to by another proficient in Medicine can recover all HD lost and remove all levels of exhaustion. To do this, the person administering aid must make a DC 20 medicine check.
  • Sanctuary is any place where you are “safe” from the terrors and horrors of the adventuring world. Humbly seeking assistance from a local lord when you enter his lands will get you sanctuary. Hiding out in the attic of a friendly merchant for a week because you angered the local lord “might” be sanctuary depending on the PCs’ behavior/conduct during that time. Offering an isolated farmer help with his farm in exchange for a place stay could be sanctuary as well.
  • Exhaustion: PCs will now risk exhaustion more frequently. As the PCs act, they will be exerting themselves. As they exert themselves, they will gain exhaustion points. Every time a PC gains an exhaustion point, the PC must make an immediate check versus exhaustion. The PC may choose constitution or wisdom to represent physical hardiness or mental fortitude respectively. The DC is calculated as multiplying 5 times the number of exhaustion-points the PC has accumulated. Upon a failure, the PC has suffered one level of exhaustion and the PCs exhaustion point count is reduced to 0.
  • Using exhaustion in this manner treats exhaustion as more like serious wounds rather than just being “really, really tired.” In order to recover from exhaustion, a PC will need to take some time off to recover.

3. What causes you to obtain exhaustion points

  • Failing certain skill challenges: This is highly situational and up to the DM’s discretion. These skill challenges are more likely to be related to physical activities, although I suppose losing a game of chess against an arcanaloth would be exhausting…although, if you lost a game of chess to a fiend known for its shady underworld deals, I think the last thing you need to worry about is accumulating an exhaustion point!
  • Engaging in certain activities for an extended period of time: This will also be highly situational and up to the DM’s discretion. Assisting a town with manual labor over the course of many days probably won’t require a skill check. But it will certainly be exhausting. I can also envision that a scholar would be quite exhausted after spending 12 or more hours a day in a dark, dusty library searching for the true name of the arcanaloth that just beat him at a game of chess!
  • Losing 50% or more of your hit points in combat: If you suffer cumulative damage that results in you losing 50% or more of your hit points, you will be deemed “bloodied.” A bloodied PC suffers an immediate exhaustion point. A bloodied PC is also susceptible to additional exhaustion. For every fight thereafter where the bloodied PC takes damage, that PC gains an additional exhaustion point.
  • Casting spells above 1st level or higher: For mortal spell casters, harnessing the arcane or primal energies of the world, as well as channeling the divine, is a physically taxing activity. Thus, every time a spell caster casts a spell, the spell caster suffers an exhaustion point. As the caster gains in power, lower level spells will not have an effect on him/her. This is based on the chart below.
Character TierCorresponding levelsSpells that cause exhaustion
First Tier1-4Levels 1 and beyond
Second Tier5-10Levels 2 and beyond
Third Tier11-16Levels 3 and beyond
Fourth Tier17-20Levels 4 and beyond
  • An example of this system and how it is to be implemented.

Elijah is a 3rd level warlock who is investigating rumors of bandits threatening the roads leading to the Northern Kingdoms of Arynor. He travels most of the first couple of days without incident. By the third day he has accumulated no exhaustion points and, thus, no levels in exhaustion. On the third day, he is ambushed by the bandits and lo! they are goblins! There are but three of them and they are not very good shots with their bows. Elijah is able to dispatch them without taking any damage and only using cantrips. Thus, no exhaustion points and no levels of exhaustion. He finds a crude map on the goblins that shows him the location of their hideout. So, off he goes to figure out why goblins are raiding the northern roads.

The map takes him deep into the wilderness and, by the end of the fourth day, a terrible storm washes over the land requiring him to find shelter. His survival check is not very good (a 6 vs DC 12) and he is forced to sleep huddled in a tent that is practically ripped apart by the wind. By morning he is soaked and miserable. He has earned his first exhaustion point. Thus, he must make an immediate constitution check vs DC 5. Huzzah! Despite only having a +1 to constitution, he rolls an 11 and avoids a level of exhaustion. Determined to get to the bottom of the goblin bandits, he continues onward. He reaches the bandit hideout by the end of the day.

The bandit hideout is an old and dilapidated keep. As the ground is littered with stones, Elijah’s own feet, crunching upon the broken mortar beneath, obscures the approach of the goblin guards moving in to ambush him. (Perception check 6) They attack! Again, he is able to avoid injury. However, due to the shear ferocity of the attack, Elijah feels it best to use a magic missile to ensure the goblin guards are vanquished before they call for assistance or do any damage to him. Being a spell of 1st level or higher, he gains a second exhaustion point. Elijah must now make a constitution check vs DC 10. He rolls another 11! He avoids an exhaustion level a second time! Undeterred he presses onward into the bandit keep.

Within minutes, he encounters a group of goblins led by a hobgoblin warrior!? What are the minions of Teng Fe doing this far west of the Taryn Principality? But this collection of warriors poses a problem for Elijah. He has one spell slot left and he knows there is more to the keep that must be explored. He opts to rely on cantrips as he has the element of surprise. Elijah is victorious. But the hobgoblin warrior’s katana is able to strike true wounding Elijah and causing him to be bloodied. He has a third exhaustion point! He makes another constitution check versus DC 15. Curses! He rolls another 11. He now has an exhaustion level, but his exhaustion points are reduced to 0. With one level of exhaustion, all skill checks are made with a disadvantage.

Clutching his wounds and blinded by pain, Elijah makes his way to the keep’s main hall. He tries to move quietly, but his wounds are deep and his breathing heavy. (Stealth roll with disadvantage 4 &13). He knows the bandit leader is prepared for him. Elijah knows they can hear him limp his way down the hall, but unbeknownst to the bandits, Elijah has one more spell in his arsenal. Staggering into the room, Elijah is greeted by a Hobgoblin Samurai with two loyal retainers. The hobgoblin greets Elijah with smug courtesy. Elijah attempts to intimidate in an effort to gain information from them. Another failure due to the blinding pain (Intimidate with disadvantage 3 & 9). The hobgoblin, impressed with the frail warlock’s courage, offers to end his life swiftly. The three samurai advance upon Elijah for an attack. Elijah unleashes a burning hands spell consuming them in fire and anger. With the death of the hobgoblins, he has earned another exhaustion point for his spell use. He rolls a 20 vs DC 5! Elijah remains at exhaustion level 1 with one exhaustion point.

In doing a quick search of the remaining parts of the keep, Elijah finds a scroll with arcane writing on it. He is hurt and the pain of his wound is distracting, but his keen mind and arcane training allow him to decipher the magical script as a letter from one of Teng Fe’s Consorts, warlocks devoted to the Undying King. (Arcane roll with disadvantage 15 & 19). Too tired to ride home and too wounded to care, Elijah elects to sleep in the samurai’s makeshift chamber. The long rest allows him to spend 2 HD to recover some of his wounds (after deducting 2 uses from his healer’s kit) and one additional HD is spent removing the exhaustion point. The road home will be long and he is going to need all his strength in order to make it back to Canticle to warn the Arns that Teng Fe has plans for the Northern Realms.

I thought I knew gonzo… then I read Cha’alt by Venger Satanis

One of the things I started doing during this pandemic is to reignite the love of role-playing games I had and the feeling of wonder that accompanied that love. During the 90s I devoured games. I haven’t in the past two decades. I don’t know why. But with the pandemic, I started exploring other games and game systems. That’s how I found LotFP and DCC/MCC; it’s how I discovered Alien and The Expanse RPG. It is how I revisited the old school games and discovered that there exists a huge community of like-minded gamemasters and players who, like me, are into the old stuff. This 2020 pandemic journey has been a wonderful exploration into “what’s out there” in this hobby of mine that has clearly expanded beyond what I was playing way back in the late-80s and the early-90s.

During my exploration I discovered that the notion of “gonzo” is being applied to RPGs as a a sub-genre. I am familiar with Hunter S. Thompson and that’s about it. Some of the gonzo RPG stuff I’ve read has been truly weird and bizarre. But nothing prepared me for Cha’alt. I picked up the hardcover and devoured it within 24-hours. This was the craziest thing I have ever read. I could not put it down. I found myself laughing at some of the quirky encounters, being seriously impressed with the layout and art direction, and contemplating story arcs using the NPCs contained in this 200+ page tome.

I don’t want to say too much as I think you need to experience it without any spoilers. But what I will say is that Cha’alt is a post-apocalyptic, eldritch, gonzo mélange that takes Dune, Call of Cthulhu, and maybe even the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, and presents a world like no other. There are wandering spice mining robots, old dead gods, (the carcass of which is a dungeon for your players to explore), there is a radioactive desert, tentacles (lot’s of tentacles), and then there is the enigmatic Black Pyramid–an inter-dimensional mega-dungeon that will keep your player’s guessing from start to finish. There’s a cantina, desert raiders, and all kinds of horrors to throw at your players. It -literally- has it all.

The wackiness of this world is laid out for the gamemaster without any presumptions of “how” it should be presented or how Cha’alt should be used. Indeed, the author recommends you let your players decide what is going on as they desperately try to find some logical thread that connects their many and varied experiences in The Black Pyramid. I think that is great and completely fits with the underlying Lovecraftian themes in this book.

The writing style takes a bit getting used to, but you can tell the author was having fun while writing. Venger’s play on words and naming conventions almost create a language for Cha’alt. It is a language that you start to pick up on and a GM could easily adopt it for a more immersive play experience for the players.

Our fearless author also makes a ton of pop culture and contemporary references throughout which I like. It adds a level of levity to the book but also provides a would-be Cha’alt gamemaster with an unlimited well of source material to draw from when designing encounters. With the background lore to Cha’alt and The Black Pyramid in mind, you could -literally- put anything in an encounter. You want to have an encounter with a jedi, a Ghostbuster, and the Teletubbies? You literally could do it and it would make sense…well…sort of!

Which leads me to what I think is the strength of this book: it is system agnostic. Venger Satanis just provides you with some basic stats that could fit WotC 5E or the OSR. But, frankly, with a little work you could fit Cha’alt somewhere in the Outer Ring in a Star Wars: Edge of Empire game if you wanted. I think you could put this out there in an Alien RPG campaign, if you really wanted to. You can do literally anything with this book!

How many times am I going to use ‘literally’ in this blog post?

I know a campaign world and/or a game system is good when it gets me excited about starting a campaign. For me, I think I would run Mutant Crawl Classics (“MCC”) with Cha’alt. But I think I would allow the players to use both Dungeon Crawl Classics (“DCC”) and MCC when generating characters. Using the character funnel, I would have the 0-level PCs crash land on Cha’alt as former prisoners. Maybe their prison ship was attacked by space pirates? Maybe an old cosmic deity decided to smash the ship sending it careening into the fuchsia atmosphere of Cha’alt? Maybe they are normal teenagers that boarded the Dungeons and Dragons ride at their local theme park. I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Starting the players emerging from the wreckage of a ship on a burning radioactive wasteland, a fuchsia colored sky, with The Black Pyramid looming on the horizon would be an awesome start to a campaign that could go just about anywhere. Our only limitation would be our collective imaginations. That’s awesome. That’s what I’m looking forward to!

The World is Savage Part 2: Further Meditations on Combat

Welcome to Part two of the second installment of my Meditations on Worldbuilding series highlighting one of my favorite campaign worlds published by the world’s most popular role-playing game. That campaign world is Dark Sun. As I have stated previously on this blog as well as on my podcast on numerous occasions, I believe worldbuilding requires a mechanical component or “real world game” correlate in order to bring that world to life for the players. In order for that world to “feel” real, there needs to be more than just narrative. There should be a game mechanic, derived from the world itself, that forces players to make real world choices about their character. Dark Sun is an excellent example of this philosophy put into action. Thus, the focus of my meditation.

By meditation, I do want to add that I am stream of conscious writing in the style of Kerouac here. I have thought about the current topic prior to writing, but I prefer to let my thoughts flow onto the page. Once my thoughts are complete, I plan to run a campaign based on my thoughts here. From the playtest, tweaks and corrections are likely to occur…So…for the time being I thank you for your patience as I ramble on about “stuff and things.”

I started this meditation about a month ago (World is a Desert). Then I started talking about “The World is Savage,” which was a post that began talking about combat. Combat is a big topic and I know I’ve probably gotten a few things wrong already. But! That is what playtesting is for, right!? I’ll get to that eventually. For right now, I just want to meditate on the subject to see where this takes us.

In part one, I got rid of initiative to portray the desperation of combat. I also went into a simple way of adding tactics to a game without bogging it down via the tyranny of the grid. I refer you to that prior post for what I am proposing. In retrospect, I’m already seeing where I am going to have to change some things here, but we can get to that in a wrap up.

Today, I am going to talk about surprise. Surprise is a classic first step in almost any combat system I’ve played in. In contemporary games, it is usually resolved with a stealth versus perception type skill check. In older games it was simply a die roll where if you rolled within a certain range (5-6 on a d6 for instance) you were surprised. I have never been happy with either of these methods. The later method is too simple and does not take into consideration either side’s skill, composition, or environmental factors that could play a role in surprise. The former method seems to rely on the one sneaky character surprising the monsters; or, if making a group check, creating some absurd results, such as everyone being surprised but the one very perceptive character who, apparently, isn’t saying anything until combat starts…and, in most cases, if combat started, the sneaky character can’t do anything anyway as everyone else has lost a turn being surprised.

I like the idea of surprise being a group check for simplicity’s sake. But I also like the idea of modifying the roll to some degree based on the circumstances. I am going to start with an admittedly arbitrary number. I think a group of adventurers (or monsters) should be surprised 33% of the time. The players are adventurers and are likely to know full well that they have to be vigilant, but will, on occasion, suffer from lapses in judgment.

I am going to assume this is true for an adventuring party of 4-5. I am going to increase the difficulty in “being silent” via larger groups. For every two additional members of the party, the ease by which a party can be surprised is increased by 1 pip on a die. I’m think of using a d10. Thus, to be surprised, the party would have to roll 1-3. If there are 6-7 members in the party, the chance for surprise would increase to 1-4. For every two less in a party, the chance decreases by 1 pip to a minimum of 1. Thus, if the party sends the rogue up ahead all by himself, he would only be surprised on a 1 out of 10. I think this makes sense as I would expect a single person to be at a heightened sense of awareness if he knew his friends may be a round away should something jump out of the dark to eat him or her.

What about a group of knights versus a group of lightly armored thieves? Party composition is going to be important, but I also think analyzing the near infinite number potentials here is opening a can of worms I just don’t want to deal with. Thus, a simple bonus or penalty of 1 is going to be used for party composition. If the PCs are actively being stealthy by foregoing heavy armors in exchange for stealth, that reduction in protection should be rewarded. Conversely, if the players opt for protection and don plate mail to trudge through an echoing cavern, then there should be an added penalty of 1 pip to the die roll for surprise. If there is a fair mix of both, no modifier.

What about the environment? Similar to the issue of composition, we could easily go down a rabbit hole of modifiers that would make a ruleset that I want to be simple to become burdened by needless complexity. If the environment is favorable (howling winds to mask the party’s approach) grant a bonus of 1 pip to the surprise. If the environment is not favorable, (splashing through a sewer system) then penalize the party with 1 pip on the die roll.

What would surprise look like in a combat that doesn’t use initiative? Well, I think by winning the surprise roll, you win the initiative. You get one round to look for favorable ground to prepare defenses and/or an ambush. Again, rather than just a needless level of complexity here, I am simply going to penalize the surprised party with disadvantage to their rolls for that first round. If both parties are surprised, then both parties have disadvantage. I think this makes sense as both groups are fumbling with their weapons as they are caught completely unaware of each other.

Encounter distance is important; but if I am honest with myself, I have no idea how to handle this without making something needlessly complex. If one party is surprised, the encounter distance should allow an attacker to use the charge attack immediately. If both are surprised, then, presumably, the groups are rather close to each other. If neither are surprised, then there is going to be considerable amount of distance between the two.

This could get quite complicated too. Won’t encounter distance change depending on environment? You are damned right it will! Take for example, an encounter that takes place out on the plains versus in a cavern complex. Presumably, the PCs could spot someone heading toward them from a mile away, provided weather conditions were good. Whereas, even if the PCs aren’t surprised, the monsters might be mere feet away on the other side of the door.

AD&D had a rubric where there was a standard die roll (6d4 feet, I believe) then you subtract from the roll depending on the environment, surprise, and other factors. I don’t know if I want to get that detailed. But more importantly, do I even need a roll? Certainly, the randomness makes things “fair” from a player’s perspective and a DM can’t be accused of setting things up against the players. 

But the idea of putting together a chart or some other ruleset for encounter distance doesn’t seem appealing. I want something simple. Finding the balance between enough complexity to make the game interesting but without bogging it down is the goal here. I think I’m going to leave encounter distance alone for now. I’ll just say that encounter distance will be determined by line of sight and Game Master’s discretion. Obviously, I think that will get modified by circumstances such as a loud group of orcs coming down a hall, versus a small group of riders racing across a plain as the sun sets.

So, what about action economy? I’m keeping this simple as well. One move and one obvious action (attack, spell, use a magic item, etc.). I am not going to say opening a door is an action. I think that can be done as part of a move action. But rummaging through your backpack is going to be an action. I disagree with LotFP’s rule. I think rummaging through a pack back takes way too long in that game. It is almost punitive. But I think that if you have a potion of healing in your backpack, that should only take you one round to get. In the following round you can drink the potion.

ActivityTypeActivityType
AttackActionDrawing/sheathing a weaponMovement (there will be a penalty imposed for the attack)
Cast a spellActionPick up an item (from a table, floor, bookshelf, etc.Movement
Use any item (magical or otherwise)ActionPull a lever or a throw a switch, press a buttonMovement
Using a skillActionTurn a key in a lockMovement
Using an innate abilityActionOpen/close a doorMovement
Fighting withdrawalActionHand an item to another characterMovement
  Change a combat stanceMovement
I’m sure this list will change as I dive more into this…

I do not think I need to concern myself with “reactions” or “free actions” or “bonus actions” as 5E does. Those types of action certainly make things more interesting in a tactically focused combat. However, as these action types add interesting complexity in player agency, they also bring the combat to a slow crawl. I want to do away with that and I do not think much of those extra actions will be necessary in a combat that is doing away with initiative. For example, in 5E if you want to leave combat without incurring an attack of opportunity you have to use the action disengage. Otherwise, you can be attacked by an opponent out of turn as a reaction (aka an attack of opportunity). Without using an initiative system, the character that wishes to withdraw from combat can still be attacked by the character that is targeting him that round. In order to give the players an option to leave melee combat and avoid damage, the player can take a fighting withdrawal stance. This will provide a +4 to the character’s armor class, but they will forego all attack actions that round. Alternatively, if the player needs “to act” that turn, they can still do so, but they run the risk of being harmed. For example, the thief character leaves combat in order to turn a crank (use an item) to lower a portcullis in order to block enemy reserves from joining the fray. The goblin attacking him will still get an attack, just as if it was an attack of opportunity from 5E. Alternatively, if the thief wanted to do a fighting withdrawal, he would gain a bonus to his armor class as he leaves, but he won’t be able to turn the crank until his next turn. Decisions, decisions…

Well…here we are at about 1900 words again. Jeez…writing about combat is tough! In the next meditation I will talk about critical hits, how to avoid them, as well as lingering effects from being reduced to 0 hit points. Again…I suspect a lot of this will be changed, modified, and/or altered, once I start play testing all of this! Thanks again for letting me ramble dear reader!!!