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.

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!!!

Meditations on Skills in RPGs. A defense of the old “make a dex check” method of task resolution

This blog post is inspired by a rousing back and forth that occurred at the official Lamentations of the Flame Princess Facebook page. The discussion was quite lively and involved a lot of neat ideas. The conversation got me thinking about skills in RPGs. The basic gist of the discussion was a player wanted to add some skills to the skills available in the LotFP retro-clone. The skills available in the retro-clone are the basic skills a rogue or thief typically have (in LotFP the rogue/thief is called a specialist). These skills are what I refer to as the “adventurer’s skills,” which are skills likely to be used as integral to a classic dungeon crawl and/or hex crawl. For example, climbing and sneaking are skills that anyone will need to check when making their way through a cavern. Similarly, trying to disarm a trap or knowing how to survive in the wilds are skills that are likely to come up quite regularly for an adventuring group. Thus, making a simple skill check mechanic for these skills makes sense, especially for the “game” portion of Role-Playing Game.

These skills and the mechanic is one of the things I like about LotFP. These skills are singled out as necessary for an adventurer and the mechanic is simple to keep the game moving along. But do we need to add lore-type skills to this? I don’t think so and here’s why. (This might get a little crunchy…you’ve been warned!)

For those characters in a retro clone like LotFP that are not specialists, they have a 1 in 6 chance of success for these skills. That is an approximate 16.7% to succeed. The speicalist gets to increase this, thus making the chance for success greater and making that character-type the specialist. Creating lore skills that are resolved via this mechanic gives other players who should be specialists in their field a decreased chance of success. Take the skill “Arcana” for example.

Arcana knowledge confers upon the character an understanding of magic. There is certainly nothing wrong with a non-magic-user having some lore in magic, but to make it a skill like climbing in a game design like LotFP increases the chance your magic-user is going to fail at the roll, which makes little sense to me. Why not just have the magic-user make an inteligence check instead? If the magic-user has a 14 intelligence, there is a 70% chance of rolling beneath the intelligence roll. That makes sense to me as the magic-user is a profession, not just a character class. I would expect a cleric to have a better understanding of religion than your average non-cleric class. Similarly, I would expect a fighter to be better at warcraft than anyone else.

You may argue that creating two separate skill resolutions is clunky or inconsistent. Certainly, WotC with their skill system has made every task, whether it is an attack, lore check, or a climb check to involve a d20 roll plus appropriate modifiers to hit a target number. That is fine and makes for a relatively easy system to understand in terms of the basics. But it also can get complicated quickly. It is also a system that has quite a few skills to choose from. You tend to find players placing their proficiencies and/or skill points into those skill that are likely to be used more often.

Which goes back to my original point: why not have a two tier system? One for those skills that are common for everyday adventuring and a second for those skills that are either not common to adventuring, or are just not adventuring skills. When the non-adventuring skills are required, say Blacksmithing, the player will have quite a bit of flexibility in terms of how the task gets resolved. Is it a lore roll on blacksmithing? Use inteligence to determine the success. Is it a crafting roll? Strength roll. Is the blacksmith working overtime to craft weapons for the king in preparation for a battle against an invading force? A constitution roll seems appropriate.

In terms of arcane lore, the magic-user gets to remain supreme in this realm. The non-magician will fall to second place when compared to the magic-user. This makes sense to me. But, to be fair, knowledge arcana skirts the line between non-adventuring and adventuring skill. So what to do about this little problem?

I created a spellcraft skill to be included in the basic LotFP adventuring skills. You can find it in the unofficial fanzine of LotFP. (I think it is in book 4.) It functions like a knowledge arcana type skill, but it also allows the specialist a chance to try to cast a spell from a scroll. There is a drawback to using spellcraft. If the specialist fails, there is a mishap or he gets the knowledge check hilariously wrong. That won’t happen with the magic-user of course because this skill presumes the magic-user is already a master of his craft. For those interested in the spell-craft skill, I am seriously considering expanding the random mishap table to include many more possible mishaps.

All that being said, perhaps players should be given a list of professions or general skills to choose from in order to round out their characters during character creation. These skills could include anything from boyer/fletcher, to seamstress, to weaponsmith. Or, better yet, just let the players decide whether the character they are creating has any kind of training in a profession. But even a peasant who has taken up arms to go look for treasure will have some knowledge in animal husbandry or farming.

In the end, I have nothing wrong with declaring a player “make a dex check” because I am now, after thirty years of roleplaying games, more interested in simplicity. I think this two tiered system does just that. Keeps the game simple and fun to play.

At the gaming table, no one can hear you scream…except for the GM, the other players, and the kids in the other room watching Disney+. A Review of Free League’s Alien RPG

Every Halloween I put a momentary pause on whatever campaign I’m running to do a Halloween one-shot. The idea is to run something fun, spooky, horrifying, weird, and deadly. I design a scenario with a villain and/or monsters, I make the characters, and I give the characters brief backstories so the players have something to work with when they play. We then turn down the lights and for the next 6 hours I get to be a very sadistic human being. It’s awesome. In the past, we’ve run a Call of Cthulhu game. This year we decided to do something different: Alien. I am so glad we did.

Yea…its got facehuggers.

Where to begin? Well, the system is rather simple and it is beautiful in its simplicity. You roll a number of 6-sided dice equal to a skill level plus an atribute score. That is your dice pool for a skill roll. If you roll one 6, you succeed. If you roll multiple 6s, you get a stunt that the player narrates. Typically this stunt confers a bonus to a future roll or some other action.

The skill roll can be modified depending on difficulty which simply adds or subtracts to the number of dice you roll. There are also opposed checks where the 6s rolled by each side cancel each other out until there is a clear victor. If you don’t roll a 6 (or you want to go for a stunt) you can “push” the roll. When you push a roll, you reroll all the dice that weren’t 6s. However, doing this causes stress. This is where the fun comes in.

For every stress point, you gain a stress die. A stress die is a 6-sided die (of a different color to identify it). You add to your skill dice pool a number of stress dice equal to your stress level. If you roll a 6 with those dice, great! However, if you roll a 1, you panic. A panic is an automatic failure of the skill check and you must roll on a panic table. You can also gain stress by losing oxygen, seeing a dead body, or witnessing a xenomorph crawling through the ducts toward your position.

That’s it. That’s the entire game in a nutshell.

Character generation is really easy. There are four attributes (Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy). Each attribute has three skills associated with the attribute. You start off with 14-points for attributes and 10-points for skills. Your selection of career path gives you options with regard to where you can allocate points. The careers are officer, corporate agent, medic, pilot, marshal, colonial marine, kid, and scientist. (Yes, you can play a kid just like in the movies!) And that is it, in terms of game mechanics.

The character generation system encourages the players to think about relationships among the party. You may have a rivalry with someone, a signature item, or other such features. This is important as a character will also have an agenda that will guide their actions during an “act” of the game.

Did I mention you can play a synthetic? There are rules for synthetics. I would certainly recommend houseruling either (1) no synthetics or (2) only one in the group at a time. Synthetics do not suffer stress and cannot push rolls. The stress mechanic is the keystone to this entire system. It is what makes this game really fun. (The pilot in my Halloween game had 9 stress by the end of the session…he was panicking on every roll! “Game over man! Game Over!”)

There are ways to recover health and reduce stress. But for a one-shot like mine the players never had a chance. I enlisted a friend of mine who is in self-quarantine to play a synthetic with an agenda to get a xenomorph on board the remaining players’ ship. As my friend was playing virtually, it added to the atmosphere of a scientist speaking through the comms to ask for help from the other players with his damaged ship. It was awesome.

The authors of this game seemed to understand that they are putting together an RPG with an existing IP, which can be challenging to do. For me, I didn’t want to put a xenomorph in my one-shot because it would be expected. But then…how am I supposed to run an Alien one-shot without a xenomorph? The players wanted to fight a xenomorph! The solution offered by the authors are two modes of play: cinematic and campaign.

The cinematic style of play is a one-shot were the players aren’t expected to live. That’s what I did. The campaign mode is longer term game with longer lasting player goals. The players gain experience to advance their character and the villains can be whatever the game master wants to incorporate. The authors provide some background for the unvierse of Alien, such that a game master can get into corporate warfare, faction war and intrigue, or just exploration. There are rules for ship-to-ship combat, as well as the hazards of space flight and living in space. The authors also provided a few other monsters as something to use to shake things up or act as templates for a game master’s own creation. The authors give you just enough to work with without overloading the book with too much “cannonical” material.

Going into this one-shot I expected this to be it. I expected this game to be a novelty. But afterwards my players started talking about a long-term campaign using Alien. I gotta say, I think it would be fun to run. I have no idea what I would do. But the system is so simple and fun, I would certainly sit down with my players and think of something. I highly recommend this game.

Meditations on Worldbuilding: The World is Savage, part 1

Welcome to Part Two 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 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, that springs from the world itself, that forces players to make real world choices about their character’s actions. Dark Sun is an excellent example of this in action.

She’s toast…

Previously, I talked about the World is a Desert. Now, I am going to talk about the World is Savage. This blog is going to be about combat. I have a sinking suspicion that this topic may take a couple of blogposts to cover…we will have to see how this goes.

First, in an attempt to organize combat, I think we should simply start with the generally accepted method of organizing combat: first determine surprise, then roll initiative, then resolve each combatant’s turn individually. As a general matter, there is nothing wrong with this. It is a decent abstraction necessary for game play. But I think it lends itself to some absurd notions about combat.

The combat round has generally been considered to be a 6-10 second moment of time. But the way the game is played out feels more like two chess players (or three, or four) responding to those combatants who came before. For any one who has been in a real-world fight, it never goes down like that. All the fights I got into when I was a smart mouthed teenager, could be described as a wild flurry of blows that happened so fast that I didn’t have time to think. (For the record, I lost more than I won. But everyone knew I wouldn’t go down without a fight! But I digress…) In the end, in order to make the world more savage, I think we really need to upend this back and forth mentality.

Let’s start with initiative. I’m getting rid of it. I have seen numerous discussions about this topic, both written and on various Youtube channels. Dungeoncraft has an excellent video on this. I am convinced that, in the right setting, doing away with initiative will amp up the roleplaying, add heightened tension to an already tense social encounter with a villain and/or group of monsters, and immediately create a sense of impending doom when the swords are drawn for combat. I think doing this will make the most bloodthirsty murder hobo in the party think twice before getting into combat.

I also think it will give morale checks more meaning. I haven’t seen Morale discussed as a serious topic in any recent iterations of D&D. I was pleasantly surprised to see it crop up in Dungeon Crawl Classics and LotFP. It is a mechanic that should comeback and is necessary in a combat ruleset like this. More on that later.

As a practical matter, the Referee would have to go around the game table in order to determine each action in combat. I think I would use a 10-30 second counter to make sure the players do not take up too much time deciding what they are doing and avoid too much metagaming. Alternatively, I may give the players a minute (or two) to plan what they do collective to facilitate cooperative play.

But once the players declare what they are doing they are locked in.

Without an initiative order what would combat look like? Well, all combat actions would be resolved at the same time. That means the goblin that was gutted by a longsword doing 7 damage, is still going to get a chance to make its attack before being declared dead. In fact, we shouldn’t think of it in those terms. We should consider the 6-10 seconds of intense combat to be a number of attacks, parries, dodges, all occurring simultaneously. Thus, combat should be narrated as:

“Ragnok the barbarian landed a furious number of blows upon the goblin assassin totaling 7 points of damage, gutting the goblin and causing it to collapse to the floor and bleed out. The goblin was able to slip past Ragnok’s defenses at one point and pierce him with a lucky dagger strike causing 2 points of damage. The burning pain from the wound alerts Ragnok to the fact that the blade was poisoned…time to make a saving throw.”

How do we make this still a tactical game and not feel like there is absolutely no control to what is going on in a combat encounter? To answer that, we need to look at the three things that are a part of any combat: the terrain/environment, the weapons used, and the actions used by a combatant.

With regard to terrain, I do not want to bog combat down by creating a list of potential terrain types that players may encounter and then provide a corresponding bonus or penalty. I think doing this would defeat the purpose of this entire exercise. Rather, I think instituting a simple advantage/disadvantage system is all that is required. If the circumstances of the terrain or environment allow for it, a combatant may have advantage on the attack roll, thus giving them an opportunity to roll twice and keep the better result on their attack. Advantage can be awarded because of having the higher ground, being able to see in the dark, having surprised the opponent, or some other effect (magic or otherwise) the Referee deems fit. Rolling with disadvantage would mean rolling twice and keeping the lower result. I can see this applying when fighting in difficult terrain where a combatant’s footing is hindered, such is in thick mud or terrain covered in rocks and debris. I can see disadvantage also applying to a situation when fighting in the dark. As I write this I am listening to a liveplay of the classic Ravenloft module where a swarm of bats harass the players while they fight off wolves invading Ireena’s home. This would be a perfect opportunity to impose a disadvantage on anyone acting during this combat because of the bats.

Terrain FeatureSuggested effect
Difficult terrain (thick mud, broken ground, clinging vines, etc.)Disadvantage on melee attacks
Cover (of some kind)Disadvantage on range attacks
Fighting in darkness without magical aid to seeDisadvantage on all attacks
Catching an opponent by surpriseAdvantage on first attack
Being able to see in the dark against opponent who cannotAdvantage on all ranged attacks
Higher groundAdvantage on melee attacks

With regard to player actions, I am going to first focus on the attack action before addressing any other action (using an item, casting a spell, etc.). I like the idea of giving a simple option for the players to describe how their character is attacking: Are they being aggressive? Are they being defensive? A little bit of both? I am going to call this a player’s Stance. In order to represent this in game terms there is the classic trade off of gaining a bonus for one side of the attack/defense dichotomy, with a penalty to the other. I want to give the players other options as well, such as a charge that will allow them to move into combat quickly with an attack bonus. I also like the idea of a reckless attack that opens the character’s defenses wide open, but gives an opportunity to for a serious attack bonus.

Combat stanceEffect
Normal stanceNo change
Aggressive stance+2 to attack, -2 to AC
Defensive stance+2 to AC, -2 to attack
Charge Stance+2 to attack, only on first round of combat, must not start the combat while engaged in combat
Changing or exchanging a weapon in melee-2 to attack for that round only.
Reckless Stance+4 to AC, -4 to AC
Two-weapon fighting stanceOn a successful hit, roll two damage dice and keep the higher result.

Finally, I like the idea of weapons conferring an ability and/or some other mechanic because of the weapons design. For example, a spear sets to receive a charge. Thus, the wielder can harm someone before being harmed from a charging opponent.  Ranged weapons would also take out an opponent before that combatant is able to attack. However, I do not like how certain games allow for ranged weapons to be used while the wielder is in melee combat. I am doing away with that. A ranged weapon is just too unwieldy to be used during the ferocity of melee combat.

Weapon characteristicEffect
Large Weapon typeCannot be used with a shield; Must be used two-handed; Use 2 of the weapon’s damage dice on a successful hit.
Medium Weapon TypeSingle-handed weapon can be used with a shield.
Missile WeaponDamages target before target has an opportunity to strike; cannot be used in melee.
Set to Receive ChargeCan strike first on the first round of combat only.
Small WeaponCan be thrown; can be used for two-weapon fighting.
Thrown WeaponMissile weapon; Can be thrown in melee.
Special WeaponSome weapons will have special characteristics unique to the weapon.
Versatile WeaponCan be wielded with one or two hands; when wielded with two-hands use the next higher damage dice.

What about spells in combat? I think the spell’s range is going to determine how the spellcaster’s action will play out. I think all that is needed is to determine whether the desired spell is a touch or melee range spell versus a ranged weapon attack. If it is a spell that can be used in combat, it will go act as a normal melee weapon barring any special wording in the spell description that would suggest otherwise. For ranged spell attacks, the spellcaster’s spell will act like any missile weapon.

What about other actions in combat, such as quickly closing a door, or grabbing or using an item? I think this will be entirely situational. But if someone is trying to drink a healing potion while in combat, I would say they are (1) stupid and (2) still subject to attack. I also think that a player doing something like this would not benefit from any stance but for the normal stance. Performing certain actions and skills will be highly situational and the Referee will have to adjudicate carefully as he or she sees fit. But I do think an opposed roll would be appropriate to determine if a player’s action would preclude or make void the actions of another.

The basic attack roll is going to be the (now) standard d20 roll versus an ascending armor class. LotFP uses a natural armor class of 12 for an unarmored individual. I think that is a bit ridiculous to be honest. An untrained commoner shouldn’t require a 60% chance to be struck. I will be using base armor class of 10. I plan on using piecemeal armor rules which will increase that armor class anyway. I will develop this in a later post.

With that said, there is more to say about combat and this post has reached over 1900 words. So, I will end here for now. The next post on this topic will address movement and action economy, surprise, damage, and morale, as well as the stuff that will really make a Dark Sun campaign really brutal: critical hits.

Who knew Maryland could be so fun? A review of Colony of Death by M.W. Hess

So I picked up another OSR publication. I told you…I’m obsessed! This one sounded intriguing. Basically, its a Lamentations of the Flame Princess compatible publication that takes place in Maryland of all places.

I thought…Maryland? What’s so fun about Maryland? So for about $5 I got a hard copy. (The pdf version can be found at I gotta say, this is awesome. There is a lot about Maryland that is weird. This is a neat little set up for an entire campaign that can take place in 1650s Maryland. Of all freakin’ places… Maryland.

Clearly, Mr. Hess put some serious research into this. The first third of the book is devoted to providing the Referee and players with background to work with (the book is about 57 pages). There is a timeline and brief history of the colony. Just enough for a Referee to get their bearings, but not too much to rankle the historians. He provides a simple vigniette of the people one is likely to find in colonial Maryland. Again, there is just enough to provide a player with an array of options for character creation, but not too much to bog down the work as a whole. He provides background for both Catholic and protestant players, servants or criminals, or even Native American characters. (If I played in this setting, I would totally reskin a Lamentations Halfling as a Susquehannock native. I’m from the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I loved reading about the Iroquis when I was a kid).

There is also an option for the players to build and maintain their own homestead and tobacco farm. Again, there was some research put into this work as the back of the book contains a primer on how tobacco was grown in 1650s Maryland. It is this kind of detail that can make a setting come to life. I love it. Even if the players never decide to grow tobacco, the Referee can incorporate that into his or her narratives to really immerse the players. Bravo!

For the rule and option junky, Colony of Death gives you rules for colonial diseases like dysentery, typhoid fever, small pox, and yellow fever. Another (dangerous) way to immerse the players in their adventures through colonial Maryland. I have every intention of using these rules in other campaigns and settings.

I really like the use of local folklore as inspiration for monsters and adventure. I won’t go into the details here as a I don’t want to spoil anything. Colony of Death provides you with four adventures, three of which involve his monstrous creations. One adventure includes some very potent and incredibly weird magic items that will certainly make your players think twice before using them.

The map and encounter charts provide a Referee with the means to run a hex crawl through colonial Maryland. My only criticism that I can offer is that I would have liked to have seen some named places on the map that aren’t given any detail in the book. Something like “cursed burial mound” or “So-and-So’s cabin.” Anything to give someone like myself who knows nothing of Maryland’s history something to work with and to get the creative juices flowing. I once ran a 10 year campaign that was inspired by a single sentence in the 1ed Forgetton Realms Campaign book: “On this date, the Ring of Winter is found.” There was nothing else in the book about the Ring of Winter, but boy did that sentence fill me with such foreboding, I had to write about it. That sentence launched a campaign that my friends still talk about to this day. Anyway…I digress. My criticism is minor. The hex map is cool and there is a lot of room for a Referee to put his own stuff on the map.

So, with all that said, I absolutely love that colonial America was explored as a possible setting for some wierd fantasy roleplaying. While this book is not an official Lamentations product, it was written as one compatible with the system. Those familiar with LotFP know that the default setting of that game is early modern Europe in the 17th Century. It’s nice to see that the weird has expanded to the American colonies.

This book is worth way more than what its listed price is on DriveThruRPG. Pick it up. It is totally worth it.

Meditations on Worldbuilding: The World is a Desert

Welcome to Part One of my Meditations on Worldbuilding series highlighting one of my favorite campaign worlds published by the world’s most popular role-playing game: Dark Sun. As I previously blogged and/or intimated, I believe worldbuilding needs to start with the world, not the characters types that play in it. For a world to “feel” real to the players, there must be mechanical consequences to the choices they make in game, i.e. real-world consequences. Stated another way, any campaign world can role-play a character deciding to make a trek across the desert, but what happens if he or she is not prepared? How abstractly do we address this? A lot of campaigns probably gloss over this as the terrain and environment in your average high fantasy campaign world is probably not that important.

But Dark Sun is about the terrain. It is about the environment. It is about survival. So, my dear readers, we begin here: The World is a Desert. This blog post is going to go over the mechanics related to the unique terrain features of Dark Sun, some specific rules on foraging and water finding in Dark Sun, and, last but certainly not least, rules on cannibalism and eating monsters for sustenance!

I’m starting here because I think it will set the tone for what follows in campaign design. I’m starting here for all other decisions will flow from here. Why? Because the Crimson Sun and the barren wastelands is the first enemy your players are going to encounter. If they cannot handle this, they will not survive a monster encounter.

I am going to make this easy for you all because a uber crunchy slog through movement and terrain isn’t going to be all that fun for some of you. Some of you might enjoy this. Frankly, I think it is a good idea to just start simply before getting too complex. I like how Lamentations of the Flame Princess handles overland movement. It is simple and does not add any unnecessary complexities. In prepping this portion of world design, I cracked open my beat-up old copy of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2ed Dungeon Master’s Guide and I was immediately smacked with nostalgia. But my memories as to why I did not pay too much attention to travel distances came flooding back as well. AD&D2e uses “movement points” that get used up as you travel over land. While I appreciate the idea of using movement as a resource that is expended, it was never very effective when operating a hex crawl. The system assigns terrain points that are subtracted from a character’s total allotment of movement for the day. For each hour of travel in a given terrain, the PC subtracts the points. I find this problematic when a hex crawl’s hex doesn’t really cover “hour of travel,” but rather distance in miles. Lamentations does this better by simply saying that an unencumbered person travels twenty-four miles per day. Terrain will adjust the total number of miles per day based on the difficulty of the terrain reflected by a fraction—simple multiplication. Perfect.

With that said, I think the encumbrance rules of Lamentations make a very boring and unfun part of D&D very easy. A character has a set number of slots for items. The more items a character carries, the more that character becomes encumbered. The more a character becomes encumbered, the less distance that character can travel. Simple. Effective. I like it.

Game masters and player’s familiar with the Dark Sun setting will recognize some of the terrain features noted in the table I have provided. Each of these terrain features pose their own unique challenges to a group of characters and the travel adjustment represents the treacherous and difficult nature it is to make ones’ way across the particular piece of terrain. For those unfamiliar with Dark Sun, the “silt” is an actual sea. There is no water, just silt. There are special considerations for that, which will likely be dealt with in a separate post.

In terms of weather, Dark Sun is hot or really hot. When it rains, it is more like a mist that offers little in the way of relief. I do not see that impeding travel. The real issue is the sandstorms that plague the land. When the wind whips up, it can cause tremendous sand storms that make both vision and travel difficult. As such, a further adjustment to distance travel needs to be included.  

Boulder FieldsBroken, jagged rock created by lava flows, rockslides, or slopes of scree. Notable for lack of water.X 1/4
Forest/jungleVery dangerous places as many predators hide here.X 1/3
MountainSimilarly, many predators are found on the mountain slopes.X 1/8
Obsidian PlainsLarge planes of endless obsidian. Flat, hot, and lifelessX 1
Rocky BadlandsHilly regions composing of highly eroded mazes of sharp-edged ridges, winding canyons, and thorn-choked ravines.X 1/3
Salt FlatsGreat plains encrusted with salt that is white, brown, or black. Some are dotted with briny marshland and lifeless.X 1
Sandy wastesDeserts dotted with the occasional oasis. They can be flat or composed of rolling sand dunes.X 1/3
Scrub planesSavanna, prairie, or chaparral with just enough water to support extensive vegetation. Tough, dry grass punctuated by creosote bushes and tumbleweed.X 1/2
SiltThe sea of silt is finer than sand and more viscous than water. It cannot be traveled upon without special equipment.Special
Stony BarrensLand composed of exposed bedrock and weathered plains covered with rocks and standing boulders.X 1/2
SwampAs rare as jungles, these are places where predators lurkX 1/5
Minor sandstorm X 1/2
Major sandstorm X 1/3

Water and Dehydration: I am going to use the LotFP rules for this. They are simple and concise. There is no need to change this. The AD&D2e handling of this issue forced the PCs to take regular damage, which made little sense the higher up a character got in levels. Dehydration is dehydration. It doesn’t matter if you are 1st-level character or a 15th level character. Basically, if you don’t eat and fail a saving throw, you lose a point of constitution. If you don’t drink and fail a saving throw, you lose 1/3 of your constitution. When you reach 0, you are dead. However, I am going to incorporate the AD&D2e alignment shift for dehydration. When a character’s constitution is reduced by 1/3, its alignment shifts one step toward chaotic. This is a temporary alignment shift. It is merely to impress upon the character’s player that the character is becoming more desperate and selfish as the days of water and food shortages roll on.

Borrowing from AD&D2e, I am going to assume that an active character requires 1 gallon of water per day. If the character is inactive, that character will only need ½ gallon. If the character is in the shade for the entirety of the day, that character needs only ½ as much. Anyone stupid enough to wear a full suit of armor is going to need twice as much water as they bake in the heat.

Because food and rations count as 1 slot for purposes of encumbrance, foraging and hunting will be a very important skill for any character. Using the LotFP skill system is the simplest means of handling this issue. The following chart assumes that finding something to eat will be easier than finding water. Traveling the Sea Silt is going to be tough and if you aren’t prepared, you’re dead. Period.

Terrain TypeDescriptionFoodWater
Boulder FieldsA success is likely to garner small lizards and larger insects.-2 in 6-3 in 6
Forest/jungleAll kinds of stuff can be found here, provided it doesn’t eat you first.+2 in 6+2 in 6
MountainsNot the greatest place to hunt, but it is doable.No modification-1 in 6
Obsidian PlainesThe obsidian planes are lifeless. If you find something, it is probably something that wandered in and died. It may not be edible.-3 in 6-4 in 6
Rocky BadlandsThere is water here with vegetation, just not much.No modification-1 in 6
Salt FlatsSimilar to the obsidian planes, the salt flats are lifeless.  -2 in 6-3 in 6
Sandy WastesYou might find a lizard or an insect, maybe a cactus…?-1 in 6-2 in 6
Scrub PlainesAside from insects and lizards, the characters may find small mammals or flora to eat.+1 in 6No modification
SiltYou do not want to know what lurks beneath the silt.ImpossibleImpossible
Stony BarrensLike the bolder fields, the characters will find small lizards and insects to eat. Maybe some flora.No modificationNo modification
SwampLike the forest/jungle, there may be food here, but it may be hungry too.No modificationNo modification

Can I eat this? In addition to the expanded rules on foraging and water finding, I thought it might be a good idea to provide the players with another option. So, what is an outlander supposed to do when he is out of rations, and he just killed a nasty creature that popped out from underneath a sunbaked rock? Eat it of course!

To determine whether the creature killed is edible, the Referee shall make a secret bushcraft roll on behalf of the hungry character. The chance for success is modified by the type of creature. On a success, the character is able to figure out which parts are edible, which are not, and which are likely to poison him. The Referee will determine whether there is sufficient food for just a single character, a few characters, or the entire party. But a successful roll will provide the character(s) enough food for the day. On a failure, the character eats the wrong thing and must make a poison saving throw or become violently ill for a number of days equal to a roll of d6 minus the character’s constitution modifier. During this time, the character cannot engage in any strenuous activity, cannot hold down food, and requires twice as much water for the day.

Creature typeAdjustmentCreature typeAdjustment
Avian+2Otherworldly aberrations-2
Insect+1SlugsNo modifier
Oozes & slimes-3  

A word about cannibalism: In the really real world, cannibals risk contracting kuru. It is a disease created by some protein (prion) found in the human brain that screws with the nervous system. The disease has an incubation period of many years (decades even). Once symptoms manifest, the individual dies within a year or so. Symptoms include unsteady stance and gate, tremors, and a decrease in body control. As symptoms persist, the individual with kuru develops slurred speech, moodiness, dementia, compulsive laughing or crying, as well as difficulty swallowing and a loss of appetite. Kuru leads to death and there is no known cure.

With all of that said, if your players are as sick and twisted as I hope they are, should they choose to eat one of their own kind, they risk developing kuru. The character will suffer a cumulative -1 penalty to his saving throw versus poison. This roll will be made every time the character engages in cannibalism. On a failure, the character contracts kuru. Because this is a fantasy game, I’m going to push the timeline up a bit. For every week thereafter, the character must make a saving throw versus poison with the same penalty for the amount of cannibalism engaged in. Whenever there is a failure, one of the character’s ability scores is reduced by 1. This cannot be reversed except by magical means. The ability score loss is determined randomly. When the character’s constitution reaches 0, the character dies.

And that’s it! Let me know where I screwed up or whether I missed something. But even though I just started on this little project, I like where this is going.

Special Delivery! A Review of Palms Passing Parcel & Logistics Guild

Today I received a package by a rather polite halfling advising me that he is a representative of a new faction for the Dungeons and Dragons 5e RPG. Aside from his insistence that I mark his service record as “excellent” on the delivery chit, he was quite polite and I felt obliged to write a bit more than “excellent.”

What’s that you say? What is the name of that faction that caused me to set aside my wizardly musings for the day and peruse the contents of the package they delivered? The Palms Passing Parcel & Logistics Guild by Ryan Hennessy of course!

This supplement was a fun read and I think it is worth the money at DM’s Guild. To quickly sum up what this supplement is all about, it is about couriers as a guild and a faction. That’s it. It sounds incredibly mundane, but Ryan Hennessy does an excellent job of making the courier’s job anything but mundane.

As a guy struggling to properly layout a publication for the DM’s Guild myself, I am impressed with the work Ryan Hennessy put into this. It has a slick layout and I absolutely love the conversational tone. I’ve always enjoyed an RPG presentation that feels like the author is role-playing with me as I read through their work. (The army codexes published for the Warhammer 40K table-top game do this and it is awesome.) Reading Palms Passing Parcel & Logistics Guild does this and it makes me want to either play a courier or run a campaign around couriers.

For a small sum, this supplement gives you some great background to add to your campaign, new magic items, faction benefits, adventure hooks, and some neat random encounter tables that are more than just “Oh, hey…more goblins sneaking up to fight you. Roll initiative.” I could quibble about how some of the magic items actually benefit the player using them, but I would be just quibbling. (For example, I do not understand why the telescoping ladder needs to grant the player an increased bonus at higher levels…the PC already has higher bonuses at higher levels, right?) But again, I’m quibbling over a few game mechanics. This is a great supplement!

The thing I like most about this is the level of creativity used to develop this. At its core this supplement is just the faction mechanic detailed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but expanded and developed to feel like more than a mere afterthought. I am currently running a Waterdeep Dragonheist campaign which I am thoroughly enjoying. Part of that game is the use of factions the PCs will interact with. However, the authors of the Dragonheist book gave the DM very little to work with. I spent some time developing something to use for my players so that their interactions with the guilds and factions in Waterdeep is more meaningful. But for an inexperienced GM, the potential contained in Chapter 2 of Dragonheist, could be lost and/or glossed over. Thus depriving the players of both great character development and campaign development.

I guess the authors of Dragonheist should’ve contacted Ryan Hennessy. Because this is how factions should be developed and used in your campaigns. I really like what he did here.

To get into the nuts & bolts of what is presented in Palms Passing Parcel & Logistics Guild is, essentially, an experience point system for determining how and when a PC can attain the next rank. But it is disguised as an in-game role-playing element vis-à-vis, the delivery chit. The delivery chit is a magical piece of parchment that contains the information needed for the mission. Each courier has to fill out and return the delivery chit upon a successful mission. The more they fill out and return, the more the character advances in the guild.

We all want immersion when role-playing. At times it can be difficult to reconcile the gaming side of an RPG with the role-playing side of an RPG. Some game mechanics take away from the immersion. Experience points is a good example. Monsters, NPCs, villains, traps, and other obstacles, do not have numbers floating over their heads (or tentacles, or whatever) that conveys their value as an in-game encounter. The experience point system is an abstraction that gamers just accept in order to play the game, but there is no in-game element to it, other than victories acquired by the character. Ryan Hennessy’s use of the delivery chit provides a goal for the player to achieve and keep track of to advance their character; but it is also an in-game goal for the character as well. It is no longer an abstraction. It is, in a real sense, an attainable goal that both the character and the player can seek as one. Bravo!

Many DM’s Guild publications say “pay what you want.” Sometimes I think authors undervalue themselves. This supplement knows its worth. Buy it. Even if you never intend to use the courier guild itself, the supplement is a great example of what you can do with faction development. Buy it.

How many times do I have to say that? Buy it!

Spelunking with Monsters

Okay, so…I know I have been going on and on about LotFP, but the publisher puts out some great stuff. (I just finished Zak S’s Frostbitten and Mutilated and it is great!) But the one I am going to review today is one that you should own because it is going to have application in any game setting and any game system. I’m talking about Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart.

This book is a revelation. It is a big, 357 page tomb of “why didn’t I think of this!?” It is something every Gamemaster should have in their library. Whether you are running standard dungeon crawls, an Underdark campaign, an eldritch horror game, or even a sci-fi space hulk adventure (more on that below), you need this book.

First, let me say I love the layout of the book. It starts with a monster menagerie that does something I have never seen any other supplement do: it provides you with little in the way of sight imagery. Yes, there are these wonderful sketches by Scrap Princess, but that is it. What you do get is a description of sound and smell for the creatures. The art of Scrap Princess is but what you would “see” in the gloom of flickering (and possibly dying) torch light. All of this vague or, perhaps, non-standard description sets you up for the real reason to purchase this book.

Light. It is a commodity. It is a precious commodity; and when it goes out, all you have is the sounds of the dark around you. It is horrifying. Veins of the Earth presents the dark as a living entity that is every much a threat to the players as the monsters lurking in the dark recesses of the cave complex they are exploring. (Did you know that there were 12 different kinds of dark? Well…there is now!) This section of the book alone is worth the purchase. It gives you the tools and advice you need to make a dungeon delve scary…and a dungeon delve should be scary!

Veins presents new rules to supplement a delve into the earth. The climbing skill has been expanded and adds additional realism and danger to your PC’s spelunking efforts. Encumbrance is expanded-again- to add a level of realism to your dungeon crawl. (Like who in the right mind goes spelunking with plate mail? A player who is interested in rolling up a new character, that’s who!) There is madness, hunger, and hypothermia presented as another challenge for your players. The challenges provided are not only awesome, but a breath of fresh air to reinvigorate an RPG trope that is as old as the game itself.

As I mentioned in a previous post Veins of the Earth has a cavern complex and cave system generator that is just fun to play around with and it has universal application. I’m using it for my annual Halloween one-shot for my main gaming crew. This year I am using Free League’s Alien to run a sci-fi horror game. Veins of the Earth is helping me to create a system of ducks, crawl spaces, maintenance hallways, and main hallways of the ship where the story will take place. I am having a blast putting this ship together…especially considering I am not tech savvy and generally find dungeon/cavern design annoying and/or boring. Veins of the Earth is making it loads of fun.

To sum up: Buy this book and make your players face the Dark like never before.

My first Dark Sun post: a meditation on world building

The Dragon by Brom (’nuff said)

To begin, I want to be sure that I clear up something. In a prior post I stated that I saw some efforts by others to re-imagine Dark Sun using Lamentations of the Flame Princess or some other OSR game engine and I said I didn’t like it. I don’t want to disparage the efforts of the authors. I think they are valiant efforts and I like some of the ideas, but I think the problem is that these game masters/designers made a mistake by starting with character generation. It is a logical first choice IF your world, campaign, or one-shot adopts the typical fantasy role-playing tropes of a medieval European world. That ain’t Dark Sun by a long shot. You need to start with the world and the mechanics that effect the game before you go into how characters mechanically function in that world.

Dark Sun’s world is called Athas. It is a world devastated by ecological disaster brought on by war and the misuse of magic. The result of which is that many (if not all) of the typical fantasy RPG tropes have been turned on their head, if not completely replaced. It is my position that, because of Athas’ history and backstory (it is a character in its own right, isn’t it?), we need to start with the fundamental rules that govern the world itself. These rules will make the post-apocalyptic desert more than just window-dressing in a description provided by the game master or referee. These rules will have a direct effect on the choices the PCs make for there will be both an in-game consequence, as well as a real world consequence that the player will have to contend with in terms of dice rolls, penalties, set-backs, etc.

I should also take a moment to interject and note that currently there are D&D 5e projects out there that have people jazzed about bringing Dark Sun into the brave new world of 5e. I have taken a look at several. The one at GM Binder looks fairly decent. It honestly appears similar to some of the choices I made when I tried to make a 5e version of Dark Sun back in 2015. I am not going to comment on it other than to say I think it will be suitable to your needs to play a 5e version of Dark Sun. The author has also provided some interesting rules options for flavor. But, as a game master, you will need to do a lot of monster stat conversions, find some psionic rules (I made my own…never play tested unfortunately), and figure out how to make survival “a thing.” Again, as per the first paragraph of this post, the author focused on character creation first. I made the same mistake with my 5e Dark Sun campaign. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but there was something missing.

One of the reasons I want to look at a “retro-clone” of the earlier versions of D&D is that the current version of D&D makes the player-characters too powerful and game balance is decidedly in their favor. I do not think you can capture the flavor and tone of Dark Sun in a system designed for the players to succeed on average 60-75% of the time. Dark Sun needs to be hard and it is the hard that makes it great! That is why I think an OSR styled project is in order here.

At the time it came out, the D&D 2e resource materials did a fine job defining the world and provided alternative rules that brought the world of Athas to life. I loved it. No other campaign world provided such detail in terms of game mechanics. Thus, my disappointment with some of the stuff that is out there. WoTC’s 4E was an absolute joke (chitin plate mail? What!?) However, 2ed D&D, in general, was not without its problems…*cough* THAC0 *cough* Thus, using and/or designing my own retro clone is the way to go.

So, with all that said, I am going to turn to what every foray into Dark Sun starts out with: what makes Athas (and a campaign in Dark Sun) different.

  1. The World is a Desert – Survival under the hot sun is going to be difficult as water is scarce. There are no rivers or lakes. The terrain is treacherous (salt flats, deserts, etc.). Thus, rules governing weather, travel & encumbrance, supplies & resource management, as well as specific rules for water & dehydration will need consideration.
  2. The World is Savage – Life is brutal and short on Athas. Everything is about competition for survival. Whether your PCs are facing off with terror from the desert, a group of desperate and hungry dune raiders, or the minions of a tyrannical sorcerer-king, the PCs will have to fight and they will have to win. Thus, rules governing hit point loss, recovery, and combat will have to be examined. In my old game, I used permanent injury rules to make things even harder on the players. I am already considering doing away with initiative just to add to the ferocity of combat.
  3. Metal is Scarce – Due to the socioeconomic set backs created by the ecological disaster that is Athas, metal is just not available. Plus, there is a level of impracticality to walking around in 120-degree heat wearing a suit of metal. Thus, rules for alternative materials for weapons, armor, and other mundane objects are necessary. Weapon breakage was a big thing back in Dark Sun’s heyday. I will most certainly be utilizing something such as this.
  4. Arcane Magic Defiled the World – Magic is powered by the essence of life. Thus, to cast a spell, a magic-user would destroy the life around him. At higher levels, this could actually cause physical harm to non-vegetation. I think this treatment of magic fits nicely with the LotFP view on magic being dangerous and weird. I think I will shift away from weird, and hit upon dangerous and frightening. I also think this may be an opportunity to develop more than just how defiling works. Rather, how about devising a totally new magic system where a miscast of magic can cause even more disastrous results…?
  5. Sorcerer Kings Rule the Cities – The sorcerer kings jealously guard oases where their city-states reside. They also jealously guard the secrets that made them kings. Sorcerer Kings can be villains, quest-givers, or both. They are, at all levels of the game, beings to fear. Given that they rule through priesthoods and bureaucracies, I think a more robust social encounter system is in order. I think The One Ring and its 5e doppelganger, Adventures in Middle-Earth, did a nice job developing how a PCs background and social cast can effect how a ruler or lord would respond to a PCs entreaty. I am going to piggyback off this.
  6. The Gods are Silent – So there are no gods in Dark Sun. To me, this is one of the more profound deviations from typical fantasy worlds. There are no gods to worship. By the time 4E Dark Sun came around, the gods had been killed by the primordial elements. It is an idea I like and I ran with in my 5e game. Where I differed was to place the concept in an anthropological context. For the people of Athas, most of whom are slaves in some way, saw the primordials as slaves to the gods. They rose up and tore them down. In terms of game mechanics, this is really about clerics and what to do with them. The sorcerer-kings can grant power to those devoted to them–the Templars. This class would function very similar to the cleric. But, for those who worship the elements and/or nature, nature magic and an entirely new class will need to be generated.
  7. The Rise of Psionics – Back in the 2ed days, psionics wasn’t wildly used and I suspect Dark Sun was a means of bringing psionics to the forefront of any D&D gaming group. I will be doing it here as well. That will require development of an entirely new system, probably borrowing much from the 2ed game. I plan on working off the 5e home-brew supplement that I drafted which divided the metaphysics of psionics into three parts (Mind, Body, and Self). This allowed me to incorporate monks into a 5e Dark Sun game (theirs was a study of “Body”). I am going to use this to create a class that is versatile and captures the metaphysics of psionics.
  8. Fierce Monsters Roam the Land – The monsters of Athas were no joke. Small villages huddled around a puddle of mud they called an oasis could be devastated by a monster looking for food and/or water. Your PCs could be killed by a 25 hit dice wandering monster at 1st level. (A more memorable gaming moment as a player in Dark Sun comes from one such occasion…my brand new 1st level character didn’t make it!) Staying in the cities made a lot of sense. Dark Sun had its own monster manual, but I think I want to take a stab at creating my own. Given the backstory of ecological disaster, wild magic, and defilement, the PCs can encounter just about anything out there in the wilds.
  9. Familiar Races and Classes Aren’t What You Expect – Finally, after all of the above, we come to class and race. Because of the devastation and brutality, dwarves and elves aren’t the dwarves and elves of Tolkien. Halflings are wild and feral…although, they still have a fondness for cooking. Its just that what they cook tend to be humans. There are new races, such as the Mul (or half-dwarf) who is purposefully bred for slave labor. There are new character classes, like the gladiator or merchant. All of this is a direct result of the above world considerations. All of the choices a player makes during character creation must take the above into consideration. Everything is different. That is why I do not think it makes much sense to start here.

I like the idea of using the class system of the old D&D basic set where race and class are one. However, like Five Torches Deep, I may give each class an option or path to choose from so as to provide some player choice. I will probably add to the character generation process something to do with backgrounds for more choice. I think the 2ed skills system was a joke and cumbersome. I do like how Lamentations of the Flame Princess handles most common adventuring skills. I will probably incorporate something like that system, but with some tweaks.

Anyway…so there it is. The beginning outline of my next home-brew project. I can’t wait to really dig into this. I hope you stay tuned for updates on this. When it is completed, I am going to put together a hex crawl campaign for Athas. Maybe I will do live plays…? I don’t know. I do not want to get ahead of myself. But regardless, I hope you enjoy following along with me on this project, dear readers.

And always remember, whether you are making your way across a burning salt flat or a sea of endless dunes in Athas, no matter how thirsty you are, never trust an elf…