On Unearthed Arcana: Variant Rules

After I spent all that time gushing about the variant alignment systems for Pathfinder, it’s only fair to point out when Wizards does something similar. The latest Unearthed Arcana (not to be confused with Unearthed Arcana or Unearthed Arcana) dropped, and it includes an alignment system that’s different but still really neat.

There are other rules in the preview, but we’re going to ignore the “players roll all the dice” options that’s exactly the same as every other system for the same thing but with more confusing language. We’re also going to leave alone the variant hit point system that drastically increases on-the-fly math during play, adds more bookkeeping to every character and monster, creates more precarious combats, and exacerbates the problem it purports to solve. Not that there’s nothing to say there, but I feel I’ve already beaten that horse.

Instead we’re looking at “custom alignments”. What’s interesting about this is that it’s exactly the same alignment system D&D already has. We’re not throwing out the three-by-three (-by-three, if you’re in my campaigns) alignment grid. We’re just changing the labels. Instead of good/evil and law/chaos, this system create new dichotomies specific to the campaign and world.

For example, imagine a campaign setting where an ecological crisis engineered by a cabal of necromancers threatens to transform the world into a dead wasteland. Forming one alignment path are the opposing forces of life and death. Like the choice of good or evil, this conflict defines the setting, and you would expect most player characters to be aligned to life or at least neutral with respect to their support for the necromancers’ plans.

Dear person at Wizards who creates these rules documents: you put tabs between every word. Last time you put newlines between every word. This is not how text happens. Is this because you are using Microsoft Word’s function for converting a file to PDF? Do you need help with text formatting? Please call me.

Now, this alignment system does specifically say “create one axis where all players are on one side and all enemies are on another, and another axis with some freedom.” The story of 5E is that there are bad guys and there are good guys, and all good guys are good and all bad guys are bad and there is no room for bad guys who are sometimes good or vice versa. If we ignore that and jump straight to the “gritty” variant, we can make two alignment axes where players can fall anywhere within them.

What we’re doing is changing one of D&Ds fundamental metrics (and no matter how much the designers say alignment is a “handy label” or “quick summary”, as long as the rules leverage it we have to treat it like any other stat) to something specific to us. The world isn’t about good versus evil, it’s about Montague versus Capulet, or Britain versus France, or orcs versus elves, and neither side is objectively the heroes. It could be that good and evil aren’t tangible character traits, or that they’re too mutable and subjective to work as they do in normal D&D, or that we simply don’t care whether somebody is good or evil because that’s not as important as the side they’re taking in the central conflict.

But this gets really neat when we do acknowledge that D&D has rules for alignment. We don’t have detect evil any more, we have detect Capulet. We don’t have angels (or if we do they’re on both sides), we have monsters or characters with the orc subtype. If a paladin fails to act in the manner dictated by her oath to France, she loses all the magical powers she had as an emissary of the country. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds awesome.

This also brings us out of the Saturday morning cartoon alignment trap. We have two opposing sides. Both regard the other as a moral enemy, both see the world in terms of their fight, both are convinced their side is noble and righteous and destined to win because the other side is evil, and both are probably very wrong. With this we can tell a deeper story, as the players double down on their cause and fight on, see the errors in their own side and either resolve them from within or join the enemy, or acknowledge both sides have faults and seek a middle ground. It’s exactly the sort of story the current alignment system avoids.

Again, this is what I want out of Unearthed Arcana (the web series). I want rules, options, variants, and features that add to the game. The “rename good and evil, but otherwise leave everything alone” variant doesn’t mean anything because it’s just a reskin. Calling a scimitar a khopesh is well and good, but we don’t need a book for that. We can do it on our own. But seeing Wizards acknowledge the possibility that there are players, campaigns, and characters left out of the current rules and working to correct it isn’t just encouraging, it’s the point of publishing new material at all.

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Campaign Report – Zelda Maps

It occurs to me that I have a blog about DMing and only rarely talk about what’s happening in the campaigns I run. Mostly this is because I think the day-to-day minutia of somebody else’s campaign is somewhat boring; there’s only so much I can say about “the players explored the second third of the dungeon and got the Hookshot*”. But there are some interesting bits in this campaign, especially the pseudo-video-game nature of it, and I’m no stranger to self-aggrandizement.

The biggest thing in terms of time and effort is the dungeon mapping. My current campaign is based on the Legend of Zelda and I’m trying very hard to make it feel like a video game (running it in 4E helps this a lot). In Zelda games, dungeons have a map, which shows most if not all of the rooms of the dungeon, and a compass, which flags important things like treasure chests and the boss. The map and compass represent important landmarks in exploring the dungeon because they give the player agency to go from “just wander about” to “solving the necessary tasks”. I couldn’t very well skip them, and taking five to ten minutes to sketch the dungeon map on our game board (and doing it again every subsequent week) would break the game flow.

Instead I went with my favorite tactic, giving the players feelies. For each dungeon I made a map on a piece of paper. Then I put the map inside a transparent sleeve and drew icons with a Sharpie. When the players find the map they get the paper, and when they find the compass they get the sleeve.

Here’s the first six dungeons:

Astute readers will notice a few things:

  • Yes, I have gotten better over time, thank you for saying so. But the dungeons have also gotten more elaborate, and longer.
  • A skull marked the boss room in the first dungeon and nowhere afterward. By the time I did the second map I’d forgotten I’d labelled the boss room like that. I wish I’d kept it up. It would have made things much more interesting when the sixth dungeon had no such label.
  • The fourth dungeon was, in fact, a town. Not a ruined town overrun by monsters, but an active, thriving town (…overrun by monsters). One of the specific requests from the players was unusual dungeons, so the progression so far has been cave -> open-air forest -> maze of rotating rooms, all alike -> town -> giant pool of poison -> jail. The seventh dungeon was tame by comparison. Dungeons eight, nine, and ten are not.

Unusually for me, I haven’t slipped any foreshadowing for a campaign-wide mystery into the maps so the players look back at the end and say “it was there all along!”. Something like that doesn’t feel very Zelda. But I do let myself have a little fun, like using a different font for every map or making sure the background color on the map label is the same color I use in LiveGameScreen for the dungeon boss.

We’re maybe halfway through the campaign now, so I expect it to wrap up in a year, attendance permitted. At that point I’ll post the remaining maps.

* — Technically there’s nothing in-character telling the player what an item is called. The player may pick up an item and say “this is a bow” but not “this is the Fairy Bow” unless there’s a text box that explains it. It stands to reason that a player may give an item a totally different name without this guidance from the developers. So in this campaign, while the item description for the Hookshot clearly calls it the Hookshot, the players generally call it the Graspyshoot.

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An SRD with Charisma

D&D Stats in Simple Langauge has more legs than I thought. It’s come to my attention that it’s now a part of the Pathfinder d20 SRD. It lists most of the descriptions as “d20pfsrd.com Custom Content”, or unofficial content the editors thinks readers might want to see. My descriptions for Strength are technically part of the table with official information; I expect this is an oversight but I like the idea that the SRD thinks Paizo adopted them.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled. I have content on the SRD! That’s usually something reserved for actual game material, like official rules or at least published third-party monsters. There’s something special about having something I’ve written right next to Paizo’s work, especially in the sort of article new players are likely to read early.

On the other hand I’m upset because it’s uncredited. There’s only one other “custom content” tag on the entire site, and that’s the flowcharts for grappling, which have been helping me for years. It includes a contact link for the creator. But the custom content for ability scores just says “descriptions are determined by d20pfsrd.com editors”. That’s not true. I wrote this list during the 3.5E era, before Pathfinder and thus the website existed. I’m none too pleased that the site’s editors found what I wrote and retroactively took credit for it.

So I’m miffed, but not enough to write an angry letter to the people behind the website. It’s still neat that one of my posts is part of the SRD, and that it’s one of the helpful posts instead of the ones where I rant about how the designers are all jerks.

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On Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures, Part 3: a Game of Choice

I’ve spent two posts going over Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures, which gave me a lot of time to shout about what I like and don’t like about it. But I also had time to think about why I feel the way I do about each feature and why those features exist, and I came to a conclusion that a bit disappointing but not surprising,

Let me put it in graph form, because I am a huge nerd and I like pretty colors:

Building a character is about doing just that, building a character. The player is the architect and general contractor for the character they want, the game designers are the subcontractors, the individual features and rules are the workers, and I guess in this analogy the DM is the zoning board or something. The point is that the player is supposed to decide whether his or her minotaur is an arrogant pirate or a lascivious bard or a nebbish cook, not the designers. If I want a game where the designers built my character for me so I can shove him through an adventure, I’ll play Betrayal at House of the Hill.

It’s about having the freedom to create the character you want. It’s why I don’t like racial prerequisites, or hard-coded alignment, or in this case an option that lends itself to one and only one character archetype. We already have a certain level of restriction playing D&D, particularly 5E, at all. We accept that we’ll be using the classes the designers made, in a western European medieval fantasy, with low-to-medium magic, with Saturday morning cartoon alignment, etc. We don’t need any more boundaries, especially on content ostensibly intended to give us further options.

I ranted on this some time ago, specifically on the distinction between naming a specific archetype “defender” versus “knight”. I came to the conclusion that I liked “defender” better because it gave me more freedom to do what I want with it, but “knight” was easier for new players and I was confident in my ability to strip the name away and tweak the mechanics.

That can’t happen here, not to the degree I want. I can’t just use the mechanics for Heart of the Storm because it’s already just mechanics. The only change I can make is extrapolating it to other energy types, in which case it’s still only for sorcerers who want to deal a specific type of elemental damage. I can take the Krynn out of the minotaur, but its mechanics still only work for a strong character with natural weapons who charges and is good with boats and navigation. I can’t even think of a good character in One Piece for whom I could use the minotaur, and that is a series about strong characters, boats, and navigation. These features hurt players by telling them what their characters should do.

On the other hand, the swashbuckler rogues works for nimble rogues, dual-wielding rogues, charming rogues, tanking rogues, and any combination of the above. It does really want high Charisma, but having a bad Charisma isn’t devastating. Storm Guide can work in any class, which I can say about very few abilities. The Mariner fighting style applies to three classes and breathes new life into them by giving them far more build options and at-the-table, round-by-round options than they had before. All of these help players by giving them ways to play a variety of characters.

Really, all classes should be in the green section on the right of the above chart. All races should be at least yellow, green when the culture is stripped away and only the mechanics remain. Feats should be yellow at worst. Skills should be greenish-yellow. Archetypes, as intentionally narrow subclasses, are best green but can be as far as yellow as long as we have wiggle room to allow different kinds of characters. All the core bits of the system should give the players options, not take them away.

What should be red? Prestige classes. Maybe non-PC monsters and races. These sorts of things tell a story. A gray guard doesn’t need to be a general-use class once the serial numbers are filed off, because the serial numbers are the point of the class. The gray guard means something cultural, so when the players hear “the gray guard is looking for you” they know how to react. It’s not the same as “a goblin is looking for you”, or “a cleric is looking for you”, or even “a goblin cleric of Anubis is looking for you”, because that cleric could have any intentions. A gray guard has one intention, and that’s fine because it fits a specific role in the narrative you and the players want to tell.

When I was shorter, I liked playing with Legos because I could take them apart and put them together in new and interesting ways. I had a book with steps for taking blocks from other pieces and making something new and specific out of them, and I liked looking at those steps but I rarely made the pieces they described, in the same way I rarely made the “look what else you can do with these bricks” pieces on the back of the box. Rather, I took ideas from them and used them in my own pieces. I didn’t want somebody to tell me what my Legos should look like and what they should do. I wanted a toy that let me decide that for myself.

The point of a gaming system is not to tell us our story. It should give us the framework to tell our own, whether that’s about overcoming emotional baggage or changing the world or killing all the large things. The more a system facilitates player imagination and choice, the more fun it is and the longer it lasts. The more it restricts what we can do, the easier it is to leave it.

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On Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures, Part 2: a Class of Ribbons

I think I could really get into reading articles like Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures regularly. The article itself is short, the linked content is interesting, and it gives me some insight into the minds of the developers. If articles in the series weren’t so frustratingly difficult to find, especially with articles about an unrelated Unearthed Arcana filling the search results, I’d be all over it.

One of the reasons for that is the possibility of finding an absolute gem, the sort of new feature that single-handedly makes me want to play whatever race or class or background grants it. Last time I talked about the Krynnotaur, where almost everything it offers not only convinces me not to play the class but also suggests it has no place in any campaign I run. The class features in the second half of the preview are the exact opposite.

The first is a new fighting style for fighters, paladins, and rangers, which I do not feel bad reproducing wholesale because it is a free preview and formatting it for posting was annoying enough that I deserve some reward:

As long as you are not wearing heavy armor or using a shield, you have a swimming speed and a climbing speed equal to your normal speed, and you gain a +1 bonus to AC.

The designer sidebar is very clear that this is for characters on boats who need to climb rigging and occasionally get thrown into the water. But this style opens a slew of new character options. It’s the first mobility enhancement I’ve seen for the fighter or paladin at all, and it makes a fighter or paladin in light armor more viable by giving them a unique way to interact with the world. This isn’t just for a cutlass-and-dagger pirate, this is also for a defender of nature, a feral youth, a hearty explorer, or any number of builds.

The swashbuckler is rogue-only so its application is less broad, but it’s still interesting. Its key ability is supposed to be Fancy Footwork, where the rogue doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks from creatures she attacks in melee. The sidebar attests that this is intended for dual-wielding characters who attack two enemies and run away. I didn’t even consider that application, perhaps because I’m loathe to split damage when I could be killing one enemy extra hard. I wanted this for its combination with the next ability:

As an action, you can make a Charisma (Persuasion) check contested by a creature’s Wisdom (Insight) check…If you succeed on the check and the creature is hostile, it must target you with any attacks it makes and cannot willingly move farther away from you. This effect lasts for 1 minute or until you move more than 60 feet away from the target.

This is a tanking rogue. The point of this combination of features is to mock an enemy and skedaddle, forcing the enemy to focus on the rogue while he or she takes potshots and continues running. It’s a kiting build, for those versed in MMO terminology. Rogues have a reputation for being moderately squishy damage dispensers who need a tank to absorb hits for them. This turns that on its head, and suddenly the idea of a shield rogue evasion-tanking doesn’t seem too farfetched. And again, this is not a feature that must be used on a boat.

The storm sorcerer helps solves the main problem I have with sorcerers, that they’re all either crazy or dragons. Such is the problem with only being able to fit two archetypes for the class into the Core book (while wizards got eight, because of course everybody wants to be an abjurer, but I digress). The thing about the storm sorcerer that got me excited was the 6th-level ability, Storm Guide:

If it is raining, you can use an action to cause the rain to stop falling in a 20‐foot radius centered on you. You can end this effect as a bonus action. If it is windy, you can use a bonus action each round to choose the direction that the wind blows in a 100‐foot radius around you. The wind blows in that direction until the end of your next turn. You have no ability to alter the speed of the wind.

I want this ability so much. I could use it for a character who’s too prissy to let the rain mar their perfect hair, or a character who always wants the wind going in a certain direction so their cape blows dramatically, or a character who plays pranks on enemies by blowing papers out of their hands, and so on. It’s even useful in battle in limited applications; as I DM I can definitely see this sorcerer in a battle on a windy cliff, turning the wind in different directions to give allies advantage and enemies disadvantage on rolls to avoid falling over.

But what got to me about this was the sidebar:

On the R&D team, any ability meant to convey flavor rather than a mechanical advantage is referred to as a ribbon—a thing that’s mostly for show. Thieves’ Cant is a great example of a ribbon ability, and Storm Guide also falls into this category.

We don’t weigh ribbons when balancing one class or option against another. For example, Heart of the Storm carries the power load at 6th level for the storm sorcerer, while Storm Guide is here only to show how these sorcerers can excel as sailors. It isn’t meant to help in combat, but it’s potentially very useful in maneuvering a ship.

Heart of the Storm is an ability that says “when you cast a non-cantrip lightning or thunder spell, deal half your class level in lightning or thunder damage to enemies within ten feet.” Or, as I read it, “whenever you’re using one of your limited-use powers, deal an almost-ignorable amount of damage to enemies close enough to attack you in retaliation. Oh, and it restricts you to certain damage types, and thus to certain spells, so if you want to use this feature you accept lower spell utility. Oh, and it makes stealth difficult if not impossible.” The feature also grants resistant to lighting and thunder, but beyond that I’m not even interested.

What I want is more ribbons. The “power load” feature just increases damage. If your primary focus as a character is damage, great job. If not, Heart of the Storm is forgettable and restrictive. But the fluff ability, Storm Guide, gives me character ideas, lends itself to set-piece battles, and doesn’t even contribute to the class’ power balance. I want a class of ribbons, please (so I guess I want a dancer from Final Fantasy Tactics…which, actually, I’d be thrilled to play at the table).

There’s a theme running across which features I do and do not like. If you’ve figured it out, have a cookie. If not, I’ll go into more detail next post.

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