Wednesday, 24 December 2014

D&D 5 Monster Manual review

The first of my D&D5 manuals' reviews.
Since I got the D&D5 trilogy it was all too clear to me they all deserved that.
I am a sworn AD&D2 fan, I started my adventure with it and thought I'd finish with it.
But just out of sheer curiosity I decided to take a look at the new PHB. And I was captivated.

What's so good about it?

I will not go to great lengths to describe the publication's quality. It is wonderful to look at, wonderful to hold in your hand. It's simply top-notch.
But the meat is the contents. You get dozens of classic and not-so-classic monsters. But, we've seen all that before right?
All wonderfully illustrated in a cut-the-bullshit fantasy style that's serious enough to inspire and not to remind you of manga or anime series for kids. It's climatic, dark yet brilliantly heroic-fantasy-like. Just check out the cover.
But there's more to it than just pretty illustrations (there better be).
Stat blocks go without saying. The true gem is written information you get. The flavour texts.
Finally instead of some dry ecology information which is all fun for a world-building DM perhaps you get... context.
Wait, what?
Yeah, I remember leafing through MMs and subsequent creatures just wondering - whoah, that one looks weird, how can I use it in my game to make any sense? Of course, it worked sometimes, it did not at others.
But now each monster is supplied with a few text blocks that are just loaded with inspiring information for your campaigns or one-shot adventures.
Finally all those atrocities make sense, even the most weird ones.
And I also failed to mention that it's an impressive selection of creatures. There is probably none that would make you think 'how did that come to be here'? 'What sorry mind came up with this wretched creature?'
The new Monster Manual is beautiful, precise, useful and inspiring. What else would you need?

Do you need to have it?

I toyed with an idea of not purchasing this book. Sure you can invent your own creatures. Sure you can create your own stat blocks (I often modify those anyway to suit the game's needs).
You don't desperately need another bestiary full of wodnerful illustrations on your bookshelf.
But if you're willing to take this manual for what it is then you will not be disappointed.
And above all that, this is the best bestiary I have ever held in my hands.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Alignment - universal D&D axiology

I always use alignment rules in my D&D campaigns. How could I not? They're one of the fundaments of the multiverse, regardless of the setting. Leaving it out would deprive me of numerous plot and game options. What about Paladin's skills? Aligned magic items? Alignment based spells?

I carefully read the more interesting anti-alignment rants yet to me this is a very simple matter.
In terms of axiology we can either have absolute or relative values. Such values as 'Good' or 'Evil' can either be universal, imposed by a superior axiological system (through a omnipotent being perhaps) or relative if we assume that this axiological system is only one of many (the omnipotent being has peers with different ideas). So there is either an absolute 'Good', a fixed reference point on the universe, or a 'Good' that is good for me but may not be good for you (Kill all of them! God will know his flock.)

D&D ostensibly recognized absolute values and connects them with godly powers that roam the known Multiverse. There is 'Good' as a general respect and protection of life, there is 'Evil' as its direct opposition. We've got Law as an expression of the general notion of order, and we've got Chaos. All these values are represented by supernatural beings called gods. These gods take a rather active part in people's lives.

Now, some games do not make such assumptions. Some games actually completely ignore the whole subject. Other games introduce gods and their manipulations but choose to ignore the people's role in the axiological system. D&D embraces the subject openly and puts it in its core mechanics.
And that's it.

I just wish to address one point of criticism that is often repeated in reference to Alignment mechanics. That it pigeon-holes the individuals, players and NPC's alike. It supposedly introduces severe limitations to one's actions and moral choices.
The truth is - it does. If you're dumb as a doornail.

I admit the alignment rules explanations were ambiguous and incoherent at best, especially given the multitude of D&D editions.
But it doesn't require much of a thinker to see the sense.
Unless you're a Calvinist (God help you if you are) you should understand the basic idea of 'free will'.
A player or an NPC is free to act in any way it wills as it has the right to shape its destiny. But at any given point in time this person can be judged against the universal reference point which is the D&D axiology. At this 'judgement day' the verdict takes the form of an alignment. Thus, alignment mechanics in D&D serves two purposes. One: mechanical e.g. to determine whether a Paladin maintains its status or a the wizard's spell affects the creature. Two: as a general guideline how a particular NPC or monster could behave within reason (of course!).
No one of a sound mind should (or would) get the idea that an orc cannot be reasoned with in proper circumstances. That a villain can't cooperate with the heroes if he's got a good enough reason to do it. That a player cannot act against alignment if need be. Hey, we're not playing Munchkin D&D, there is no Lawfull Stupid or Stupid Evil alignment in the rulebook.

That said, I also have the need to point out that same rules need not apply to players and NPCs alike. While in players' case alignment is the current 'verdict' in case of DM's controlled creatures it is a compass, a quick guideline that gives him the idea of what the general character of a creature is.
But please do acknoledge that this is just a guideline, not a strict rule.
Drow are generally evil, but nothing in the world should stop you from creating a good and honorable one. Apart from thre fact that Drow have good reasons to behave the way they do. They've been cheated by Lolth for thousands of years.
Orcs are generally chaotic and evil, but they also have their reasons. They are an intelligent race yet unable to fit into the civilized world of humans, elves and dwarves. Thus, they're a common ennemy. But need not be, all depends on the circumstances.
I could go on like that forever but you should have gotten the gist by now.

Getting back to the players, my final advice for the DM is to keep alignments secret from them. They should have their idea of playing the character. You are their judge however. You decide whether the Paladin falls from grace unexpectedly. It's the game's requirement that alignments are defined at proper times. But make this a background mechanics, unseen for the players. Let them shape their destiny the way they want. Let them feel this moral anxiety. You just deliver the verdict and play out the consequences accordingly. Both sides will have fun at that this I promise.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

D&D 5 conversion tool

I started my current campaign on AD&D2e rules with some customizations. You can find them on this blog rather easily.
After getting my hands on the new edition of D&D I finally decided to make this huge step (for me) and upgrade. The reasons for this will be explained in my upcoming D&D5 review.
For now it should just suffice to say that I will continue to run the game as planned which is working on classic AD&D modules modified to taste.
This leaves a bit of a problem however as apart from the characters playing in my game I will have to convert all modules to the new system.
Since I do not like working too much I crosschecked some solutions on the web as well as compared stats and mechanics of both editions (2 and 5) and came up with a general THACO &AC conversion guideline which should help me work on the fly without spending hours recalculating every single NPC and monster.

I place it here hoping that it might be useful for anyone out there (for YOU particularly).
I intend to run Against the Slave Lords series, War of the Spider Queen and some other old-school modules using this conversion sheet.



The conversion sheet contains data from AD&D1 and AD&D2 and rules how to convert them to D&D5.
There are two separate tables for monsters and intelligent (playable) races since I figures out they did not translate well with just one algorithm. Intelligent races have classes which alter their basic BAB. Monsters are just what they are so the conversion is direct.

In most cases intelligent opponents will be fighters so an additional +2 should be added to their basic BAB. This requires a bit of knowledge of D&D5 to understand how classes impact BAB but should not be quite natural after getting familiar with the new system.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The search for meaning

or musings on the suspension of disbelief.

"Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?"

- You should know who said (sang) that

Ok, let's get the obvious out of the picture first. This is not directly about the entertainment the game gives you. Nor it is about the satisfaction as one of my favourite bloggers out there (Tao) puts it. It is about what makes the game MEANINGFUL. On my terms.

Roleplaying games are proclaimed by their worshippers as games that base on your imagination. But they are different than your personal fantasies. Consider this: you lay down on your couch and imagine yourself a legendary hero that saves lands and kingdoms from great peril. You are worshipped by the folk, praised by the kings. Dames and wenches faint at the sheer mention of your name. Do you see it? Of course you do, it's the immediate product of your imagination. Does it feel real? Well, that depends on the power of your imagination. Yet there is one problem that I see. This fantasy exists solely for you.

Let's consider the concept of reality. What is the experience of reality? To put it simply (for the purpose of this brief post) it can be perceived as objective truth or subjective collective experience. 
For the purpose of roleplaying games I want to deconstruct the latter. Reality is something we can all agree upon, something we all consider true regardless of its objective genuiness. We've seen artistic expressions of this - take 'Matrix' for instance. What we perceive as real is something that we and our companions can agree upon. Now we're nearly ready to transplant this idea to the roleplaying field.

Things seem more real if more people perceive them as real. Or in other words they perceive them as true. This works for all kinds of conspiracy theories, history falsifications, media manipulation, religion etc. The level of reality grows with each additional 'believer'. If you can convince all the people there is one true god or that the Smolensk plane crash was an assasination then it will become real, at least for all the parties involved (sorry objectivists).

And so, if your fantasy about being a legendary hero can be attested and confirmed by other people than yourself this gives the idea a bit more believability. It becomes a bit more real. More alive.
And isn't his A point we're all playing roleplaying games?
We want to take part in fantastic stories, we want to live a different life for a change. A life full of adventure, intrigue, romance, glory and mystery. Whichever is currently lacking in our experience of everyday reality. And we want to feel it as real as possible.
If we can live through it alongside other people it gains more meaning than our individual fantasizing on a couch (or wherever you do it).

To me there is yet another factor that makes the experience more real. What differentiates the game from our personal fantasies is the presence of objective rules. You can imagine that you win at chess everytime, but what makes it real is actually winning chess playing to the official rules. The fact that the two of you just sit over a chessboard and agree that one of you wins does not appoint an actual winner of chess. (I fully appreciate this analogy can go way further but it's irrelevant for the topic at hand.)

Now, in the preceding post I enumerated the hats a DM wears at the gaming table. In this post's context there is one prominent role that has particular significance - the referee. The reason I recently started stressing that role is due to its reality-creating powers. When I am DM'ing a game there is no real value created if I'm totally in control of what is going on. I can agree on anything with my players after all. But manipulating reality is a lie. And I don't like living a lie.
The only way I can ensure a new value and meaning is born is when objective conditions in terms of rules are around. The rules that I, as a DM, enforce with reasonable diligence.
Under those conditions you gain right to claim having defeated the dragon, saved the kingdom, rescued the princess. Any other scenario will be just you fantasizing about doing something instead of doing it. This might work for you. It does not work for me.

That is the reason I am often astonished by people who 'cheat' at roleplaying games trying to convince the DM to rule always on their favour. Manipulating die rolls. Trying to intimidate the DM. They lie to themsleves. They create an even more fictional reality than a roleplaying game would create.

I love this game. I truly want to touch the fantasy. And I am constantly searching for any means to get closer to this goal.

Why did I write this? I hope you can stop at some point and ask yourself what makes your game valuable. Meaningful. You might come to fresh, interesting conclusions. And well, a bit of philosophy has never done any harm, now has it?


Thursday, 20 November 2014

Who am I? - You are a Dungeon Master.

A quick guide for all lost & puzzled Dungeon Masters and Game Masters alike.

On RPG forums and discussion boards I often come across DM 'newbies' asking what is it to be one. Often comes the question of what is the DMs role. This is fair as all new gamers need to learn the intricacies of the hobby and the DMs job is the most complex one. Too bad however when I see some already 'experienced' players showing lack of fundamental understanding of the DMs role. And this negatively impacts no only their game and entertainment but the general hobby as well.

This short guide is not to teach you HOW to DM. The technical aspects of it can be found and learned elsewhere and particularly HERE (my humble recommendation).

The goal of this guide is to help you understand the fundamentals - what is the DMs role and where did it come from. This should point all you lost & puzzled DMs into the right direction.

A Game Engine

Yes, that's what you are. A game engine. You manage the scene, you manage the decorations, you manage the friends and foes of the heroes. You run the world, but the world is a scene for your players to shine. You give them obstacles and opportunities to triumph over them. Deliberately planned or randomly selected - no matter. You are the engine that allows the players to play the game. The better you do your job, the happier the players are. The more satisfied the players are the more often they come to your table. And buy you free drinks while you're busy preparing another session.
Analogically to a video game, if you like the gameplay of a game you're more likely to play the game. I deliberately left the story out this time. Gameplay is the very fundament of each game. And you as the game engine create the gameplay. It's not the game system, not the set of rules this time. It's how you're able to use those rules to create the living, breathing game. It's how you help the players to interact with the game environment.
The rules are just protocols and procedures but it's this human factor that creates those dark & gritty D&D campaigns or pompous & epic Warhammer adventures (do you see what I did there?).
You make the world come to life. But it's merely a scene that needs actors. The actors, the heroes are your players. Don't forget that.

A Referee

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away... or at least across the Atlantic Ocean from my POV, the game used to be played differently. And they called it sandboxing. And they knew it was good.
You can read about sandboxing on many sites (like HERE) but there is one critical element of sandboxing that every fresh DM and player alike should know. You see, in sandboxing it was the players who created and initiated adventures. 
Now this stands in direct opposition to the 80's approach, further developed in the 90's where the players just gathered round the DM who in turn would draw them into his devilishly intricate story. Back in the 70's the early players where wondering the dungeons and wilderness areas IN SEARCH of an adventure which the REFEREE delivered quite often in a form of a randomly generated adventure area. 
Now, this doesn't mean the referees where just human counting machines playing by their charts and tables. They were called referees because it was clear back then that their role was to ensure the game was played by the rules. Nearly all the rest was up to the players. With their initiative and proactive approach they shaped the campaign and its overall storyline. They became warlords, archmages & thieves' guild masters by their own plan and doing. They did not wait for the adventure to come to them, they searched for it and grabbed it by its' throat. A subtle difference.
The times they are a'changin' and so does the game. Still, it's a fact that that the DM figure developed from a Referee who's main role was to ensure the game is played by the rules
This is a neutral position towards the players but implies further conclusions. Take football.
If the referee draws to much attention to himself on the pitch - he's considered a bad referee. It's the players that are the key figures on the pitch. The referee does not own the game. The only power he has over the players is the power of enforcing fair play.
And this should also be engraved in all DM's heads. As a DM, you're not god. You do not own the game. You are neither the players' servant. You serve the game. You are the Guardian of the Rules.

A Storyteller  

Finally, we cannot forget what those decades of rpg history gave us, can we now?
Many a DM start because they want to tell stories, because they're unaccomplished (or accomplished) writers. They have an idea for a fascinating story that will surely engage the players.
And without this quality we would all be running pregenerated or random, boring dungeons with no point at all. Another princess saved - check. Another dungeon looted - check. Another terrible threat defeated - check.
We are supposed to use our creative drive to draw a complex and engaging environment for the players to shine. What good would having Ian McKellen or Christoph Waltz do in a movie with flat, dumb and obvious plot? Surely they could make it a one man show, but the whole picture would be lacking.
So we draw the decorations, we prepare the twisted plot, we write deep and complex NPCs. We let our imagination roam. This is where we play our role. This is our bit of the role-playing in RPG. 
But again, this story can go anywhere, should be able to go anywhere because it's the players who drive it forwards. If Takhisis plans to destroy Krynn, the players are meant to stop her. But they could also go fishing and see the world burn around them. Or join her forces and see the world burn in triples. This is their choice and their fun. You take your fun from seeing how they run it, attempt, fail and succeed. You're the master of the game after all. You win regardless of the story ending. You only loose if they leave your table unsatisfied.


You should have your own by now. But I just want to address this one final and quite common question. Does a DM serve the players or does they serve him?
In the 90's I still remember this tendency of a DM to be 'the one almighty' who bullied the players and ruled them with an iron hand. In the recent years I hear ever more often that the DM actually serves the players and should make them happy because without them he's nothing.
Well, the answer isn't as simple as many would like it to be as the whole rpg phenomenon is more complex than that.
In simple terms the DM is both the servant and the master of the players. He runs the game while providing entertainment to the players. He is the servant of the game itself. Like a croupier in a casino. He can symphasize with his players, but one of his ultimate goals is to ensure the game is played fair. He serves the story, but the story serves the players as entertainment in return. 
So they key to being a good DM is proper balance between the judge and the entertainer.
Like a good lawyer, stick to the rules but make sure you bend them where possible for the greater good of the story and the players. 
Write the story WITH your players, not against them. They are your characters, your children. Make sure they all have key roles in your game and that they can shape their destiny. Predestination was one of the reasons the Calvinists quickly fell out of fashion.

This last special ingredient is the social aspect. You need to like your players. 
DM's role is an important social one. You need to be open to people, not necessarily strangers but your friends. This is one hobby you should play with a bunch of friends not foes.
And if you're boorish, rude and dry then no good will ever come from your DM'ing.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

Encounter Tables pt.3

After over a year of playtesting I finally had some practical conclusions regarding the encounter tables I shared previously.

The idea was to simulate random combat encounters in a form currently popular in the video games genre. Such random combat encounters add additional challenge, action and pure entertainment to the gameplay. The thing is that pen and paper RPG's don't work this way. Mainly due to the fact they have much broader spectrum of experiences to offer than arcade or tactical combat.
Thus, using too much random combat encounters destroys the game rather than constructs it.
With this conclusion I must say I was not particularly happy, especially after all the work I have done and the hopes that I had for an enhanced gaming experience.

Then I had en enlightening discussion with my grognard and OSR friend about sandboxing and random encounters.
I myself being the gamer of the 90's have been taught to control the plot from A to Z. Random combat encounter were already a huge step for me towards unpredictability.
But if you accept the concept of random non-combat encounter, including plot-building ones, a new array of possibilities emerges.

Please note that it is not a tale of the 90's kid being seduced by the dark side  old school gaming but a story of a plot building DM who searches for ways of bringing the gaming world to life and bringing to the game more than just one mind can control and comprehend. For the benefit of both the players and the DM.

So I sat down and crafted an encounter table to rule other encounter tables. It does introduce more interesting events than ordinary combat. It provokes DM's mind and provides a variety of adventures and opportunity to role-play to the players. Combat is only part of the menu now.
Please use it if you find it inspiring. I deliberately kept it rather general and high-level. Browsing the web I found some interesting selections of non-combat encounters, mostly very detailed. But the point here is to provide a universal tool which would not require re-writing every few gaming sessions once the options have been exhausted.

You can download it from the Bibliotheca or from the link below.
ADnD Encounter Tables - General

Good gaming!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

'Gentlemen of Pitchfork' now on Amazon Kindle Store!

Dear Guests and Fellow Travellers,

The novel 'Gentlemen of Pitchfork' is finally available for purchase at Amazon Kindle Store.
Follow this link to take a glimpse of this fresh new adventure novel!

'Gentlemen of Pitchfork' now on Amazon Kindle Store

I sincerely recommend it to everyone looking for historical depth, realistic swordplay and simply fun and engaging story.