Droll Initiative

First off, apologies for the silence. I’ve been weathering quarantine with only minimal gaming. Partly because my job has been very busy, and also partly because I’ve not done a lot of gaming, outside a couple of sessions of 5E over Roll20.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how TTRPGs are a blend of shared storytelling and mechanical systems in place to (hopefully) force interesting decisions. I’m of the mind that rules should be, if not bespoke, extremely carefully considered for appropriate fit. Why? Because play gravitates to the rules.

It’s like this: players (at least the players I’ve played with and run for all these years) find interaction with systems useful as springboards for further storytelling. Everyone, players and facilitators alike, can let the systems carry the load for giving the shared story some structure, and possibly some surprise.

Which brings me to this idea, which I believe I first heard discussed on The Iconic Podcast. It’s the idea that there are three narrators in a majority of games: the facilitator, the player, and the randomizer. The facilitator describes the world and adjudicates. The player reacts to the world and drives the story forward. The randomizer, then, tells the story of the capriciousness of fate. Nobody knows for sure how a D&D combat will go until dice are rolled. Nobody can say what the outcome of a PbtA move will be until, once again, the dice are rolled.

I think it’s important to embrace this randomness. One of the things I’ve had to unlearn is just this – the story told at the table is never any one person’s story, and in its way, the dice or cards or whatever make sure of that. The randomness becomes its own story element too – 25+ years on, and I still remember the time when a player one-shotted a dragon with a Vorpal Blade just because of sheer luck.

Spoiler Alert: I say “concision”

Over the past... I don’t know, week or so, I’ve been really diving back into Macchiato Monsters and Whitehack (and Troika! to a lesser extent – it’s super good, so expect a writeup eventually). I don’t know what taxonomy they belong to, but I’m going to call them “neo-OSR” because, while they definitely hew to the agendas and principles of old-school gaming, they don’t care about compatibility quite like, say, Labyrinth Lord does.

This is a good thing!

A big part of what charmed me about these games is their almost ruthless brevity and concision. Macchiato Monsters packs an whole-ass game into under 60 5.5”x9” pages – even a hex map generator tool and a whole bunch of tables to help a GM come up with something on the fly. Whitehack does something similar – full game with a solid bestiary, setting, starting adventures, and paper dice – all in just a small, slim book.

Now, to get to this aggressively lean end-state, the games ended up being a good deal different than stock D&D. You’re not going to find a spells-per-level table anywhere, and stats feel different – closer to percentage dice than old-school D&D’s (or Labyrinth Lord’s) more intricate tables of what, precisely, an 8 CHA means in play.

Again, these are good things!

Because the rules are so spare, they invite dialogue. Instead of pointing definitively at the Cleric’s Turn Undead table, GM and player hash out what, exactly, their faith gives them, and what’s asked of them in return. Games like these are, in my experience, more approachable too. Tables full of numbers and modifiers are often daunting for new players – these games don’t use them.

Coming from a game like 5E (which looks streamlined but hides its significant complexity), these games are a breath of fresh air. While I have a soft spot for more elaborate OSR games – I absolutely love Godbound – they’re still quite heavy. It’s in the slim, mean rules like Whitehack and Macchiato monsters that the line between orthodox OSR and indie, fiction-focused games blurs. It’s a good spot to explore.

Outré Realms is a lean, rules-light, OSRish game. It’s a whopping twelve pages, so when I say lean, I mean it!

What I Like

  • It’s classless, which is something I appreciate in an OSRish game. Instead, you’ve got Fighter, Intercessor, Sorcerer, and Thief abilities. Mix and match however you want!
  • The system is dead simple: roll xd6, count 5s and 6s. It’s sorta like Shadowrun in that regard, which I dig. It’s also unlike Shadowrun in that it’s actually simple. Also: if anyone has made a Shadowrun hack for this, please let me know. Because I want it.
  • Armor is ablative, which is awesome. I prefer armor as damage mitigation over armor as to-hit modifier.
  • There’s social combat with actual mechanical heft! I like this a lot.
  • Have I mentioned it’s only twelve pages long? Wow.

What I’m Not So Hot About

  • The monsters have stats that work similarly to PC stats, but are named differently. I get that the developer was going for a specific vibe, but having to keep the names of two distinct-but-functionally-identical stats in my head is a little convoluted.
  • Similarly, the monster writeups themselves feel a little underdeveloped. In particular, I’m having a hard time with the Misanthropic stat. I’m assuming it’s used as counter to the PC Intercessor stat for social combat, and maybe for divine acts, but the rules don’t mention it.
  • There’s some errata in the book, but it’s situated at the end, not integrated into the text. I wish it were the latter, although that might cause layout issues.

The Bottom Line

Outré Realms is a neat little package. It’s got that classic old-school feel, despite not being a d20-six-stat game. It’s got a few minor issues, but on the whole, it’s worth checking out.

Also: it’s twelve pages. Just incredible.

Disclaimer: the author comped me a copy.

I recently found out about Emberwind and it looks like it would be extremely right up my alley. * It has a very strong vibe of what I like to call “post-4E” (meaning it has a lot of the mechanical and aesthetic pieces from D&D 4E, but riffed on and made into its own thing). It’s got grid combat, synergistic power combos, and monsters that practically run themselves. But they’re all handled in clever ways. And the default setting is some extremely high fantasy in the mold of Final Fantasy or Guild Wars 2 – which I dig so much. * The rules are extremely modular – you can play with or without a GM, you can build your character the familiar dice-roll way or by choosing modifier packages tied to a list of adjectives, and dice themselves are even optional (you can play with cards instead if that’s your thing). * The monster design is extremely cool. Each creature write-up has its own set of default behaviors, a potential override or two, and a set of basic attacks and other, specialized abilities. Here’s where it gets interesting: each monster write-up also has a “random turn” table, where you roll to see which of these attacks and special abilities fire. A seasoned GM can choose to ignore the routines or supplement the table with even more options, but the default is still plenty interesting and, because you’re leaving the decision-making to chance, can be run without a GM. * Unlike D&D’s very black-and-white combat system, Emberwind has a middle tier of combat success. Armor in Emberwind is damage reduction, so a success roll can succeed or fail as normal, hit and bypass armor, or hit and bypass armor and maximize damage. It’s a bit to wrap one’s head around, but it’s really cool.

I can’t wait to try out the system. I’ve got some concerns, but I will leave them for until I play it. I’ll follow up this post if/when that happens.

I picked up Macchiato Monsters the other day and, while I’m still poring through it, a lot has leapt out at me. So here goes!

  • I love the tone of the book. It’s humorous when it needs to be, and always sets expectations about what sort of game it is. It’s unapologetically old-school, where straight-up combat is a bad idea, stats are random, and life is cheap.
  • I also love that a lot of the art has monsters drinking coffee.
  • You know what, classless OSR may be my jam. I couldn’t stand the dissonance of a game that touted a “Fighting Man” class and yet said that fighting was, as mentioned, a bad idea.
  • The game uses the Risk Die for everything and I am down with that. It’s such a clever mechanic. It reminds me of Blades in the Dark’s Clock mechanic in a way, sometimes blended with random-event tables. Yeehaw.
  • Combat looks fun. It kinda reminds me of Dungeon World through a more traditional lens. Having to compare HD seems a little fiddly though.
  • Hell yeah, Chaos Magic!
  • Holy shit, the GM tools are top-notch. Random tables for plot and faction generation? Yes please! A way to mechanize hex map generation? OMG YES.

I’ve got more to digest, but this game looks cool as hell.

I have a confession: I don’t like XP in D&D. Modern XP (mostly based on monster-killing and defined quests) feels like it should be better handled inside of a video game, and has a tendency to emphasize combat. On the other hand, gold-as-XP means I have to worry about encumbrance... so no.

But what about Milestone leveling?

It’s a little better, but it’s still not great. It relies a lot on GM fiat, which in and of itself isn’t bad, but it puts the onus of pacing a level squarely on the GM. The GM also has to actually remember where they are in the lifecycle of the level, and if you’re me, you’re too distracted by running combat or misremembering how saving throws work to remember that. Leveling becomes an uneven mess that relies upon your GM being mentally organized enough to follow through in a timely manner. This too presents a problem – when is the right time to level the party?

Fortunately, I’ve hacked together a way for the GM to disclaim management and tracking of level progress. If you’ve read my blog, you probably know where this is going.

Yep, that’s right... I’m going to rip off Blades in the Dark again.

Countdown to Awesome

Here’s how it works. At the start of the party’s new level, start a clock. Jot that down on a sheet of paper or an index card. Every session, roll an amount of d6 to determine how much progress to reward and take the highest result. * 1-3: 1 tick * 4-5: 2 ticks * 6: 3 ticks * More than one 6 rolled: 5 ticks

When the clock is filled, the party gains a level and the clock is reset.

But how many dice should you roll? What should your clock look like?

Dice

As a rule of thumb, use the guidelines that Blades uses for Fortune Rolls: default to 1d6, and adjust from there. I’m a fan of players playing their characters to the table, not just the GM, so I would reward a die if someone at the table could point to a particularly amazing character scene. I’d also reward a die (or two) for completing a quest, story arc, or other significant milestone. On the other hand, if the party suffered a significant setback of some sort, take a die away. Personally, I would use the 13th Age guidance for what’s considered a Campaign Loss as a guideline, but use your discretion, GM.

Clock Size

This is where you have the most responsibility, GM, and also the most creative latitude. I’ve been playing a lot of D&D 5E, so here’s how I think I would run it:

  • Level 1: I wouldn’t use it – just level them up after one session
  • Level 2: 4-segment clock
  • Level 3-4: 6-segment clock
  • Level 5+: 8-segment clock

My thought is that the first couple of levels should be zipped through fairly quickly, so start small (or don’t use at all). Level 3 is a nice breakpoint – most classes will get their subclass, and characters start feeling a bit more durable, but they really don’t get a chance to shine until they’re about 5th level (when spells like Fireball come into play), so shorten the journey somewhat. After level 5, though, they should ease into a normal cadence.

Permutations

  • If the die count dips below 1, you have a couple of options. First is to just say “no dice, no advancement”. That’s a tough stance to take, and personally I wouldn’t recommend it. The approach I think works better is to use Blades’ own idiom – treat “rolling 0d6” as rolling 2d6 and taking the lowest, and not allowing Crits. There’s still advancement, just likely much slower than the players want!
  • For grittier/slower-paced games, you could step down the advancement rates to 0/1/2/3 (from 1/2/3/5 as above).
  • You can always make clocks bigger than 8 ticks.

Yeah, But Why?

This allows chance to decide how quickly a level will go, but it’s still constrained. The most likely outcome will be that 4-5 roll, so a 4-segment clock will need two sessions of play to complete (and a 6-segment clock will need three sessions, and so on). Bonus dice are not flat bonuses like extra XP – just improved odds. When you clearly set expectations for what rewards extra dice, you set incentives for what sort of play you want at your table.

Also, by putting it down on something physical like an index card, it becomes another artifact of play. It’s something that commands attention, just as your maps and minis do. Everyone’s on the same page.

Of all of the Fantasy d20 games out there, I love 13th Age the most. However, I have struggled with the Icon Relationship Roll system. I’ve submitted some ideas about how to change the rules in the past, but looking back, they seem a little too fiddly and, frankly, my thoughts on their place in the gameplay loop have changed dramatically.

So here is a new mechanic that came to me like a bolt from the blue, inspired in part by... Blades in the Dark.

Wait, what?

What Am I Trying To Solve?

RAW, the 13th Age Core Rules have some issues as far as Icon Relationship Rolls go.

  • The GM has to track them throughout the session (and the GM already has enough on their plate!).
  • They are inconsistent (players only benefit 1/3 of the time per die, so there’s no telling how much benefit a player will have per session).
  • Complications (the 5 result) are pre-announced at the start of the session (and risk-averse players may find the thought of a guaranteed complication not worth cashing in).

So here are the design considerations I designed under:

  • The players should manage their Roll pools. Players generally enjoy some degree of resource management. At least at my table, anyway.
  • There shouldn’t be “dud” rolls. Any time a player picks up dice to roll, there should be an actionable outcome that they can use.
  • Complications should have a way to be mitigated through strength of relationship – the more investment the relationship has, I feel that the less the relationship should cause issues. On the other hand, divided loyalties, which thematically invite complications, should have their own reward.

So Here’s How It Works

  1. Assign Dice as normal (if you use the “heroic vs. villainous” limits in the book at your table, still honor them). The maximum you can have per Relationship is 3 dice, and if you want to have divided loyalties of any sort, you don’t have to assign them to just one Icon – split them up if you want. (You still tag them as “Positive”, “Negative”, or “Complicated” as descriptive tags for the relationship.) As you level, you’ll gain more Dice, but the maximum remains 3 dice. (I’d probably keep that maximum in place for abilities that grant Relationship Dice.)
  2. When it comes time to leverage a Relationship, grab the amount of d6es equivalent to assigned to that Relationship value and roll all of them, taking the highest result.
  3. I interpret this result as follows:
    • 1-3: You get the benefit you wanted and the GM works with you (and the rest of the table, if that’s the style of game you like to play) to come up with a fun wrinkle to complicate the benefit. (If I were the GM, I’d avoid making the complication punitive, but still a little chaotic because I like unplanned and messy hitches in the story.) The dice that I rolled are then expended for the rest of the session.
    • 4-5: You get the benefit that you wanted, and the dice that you rolled are then expended for the rest of the session.
    • 6: You get the benefit that you wanted and you get to keep the dice to roll again sometime later.
  4. Dice are refreshed at the start of each session.

Example: my character, Ched-Dar the Sharp, has a 2-Positive Relationship with the Dwarf King and a 1-Complicated Relationship with the Prince of Shadows, and I want to leverage that my allegiance to the Dwarven Kingdom would come in handy. So I spout off the benefit I want to have happen, then grab 2 dice and roll them, taking the highest. I get a 2 and a 4... so a 4! There’s no complication, but that’s all I can leverage that Relationship this session. I still have the 1-Complicated Relationship I can try to leverage though.

Why Do This?

You can see that, no matter how many Dice are rolled, some sort of benefit is guaranteed. What rolling does is determine if complications show up and if the Icon Relationship “recharges” or if it’s a once-per-session expenditure. Even at one Die, it’s a 50/50 chance that it’ll be an unalloyed good.

Splitting Relationships is also an interesting tradeoff. By declaring multiple relationships, you guarantee more than one Roll per session, but make them a little more “fragile” (you’re less likely to roll a 6, and more likely to roll a 1-3).

And why do I max this out at 3 Dice per Relationship? It’s a good cap on the percentages. According to AnyDice, you’ll get at least a 4 about 88% of the time, and a 6 about 42% of the time. These are pretty good odds, and any more dice puts the chance of a 6 above 50%, which I think is a bit too much.

Anyway, let me know what you think. I’m excited to try this house rule out at my tables!

For the past... oh, gosh, I don’t know how long, I’ve been running Blades in the Dark for a local group of friends. It’s really pulled me out of my comfort zone in terms of how to run games, and frankly has spoiled me for how rule sets should be structured. It’s really something.

But you probably already knew that. It has become an indie darling, after all. What I love about it the most, though, is how easy – and rewarding! – it is to no-prep it.

I don’t like prep under normal circumstances, but the past couple of weeks have been really stressful at work, and bad scheduling and luck have prevented my weekends from being as relaxing as I needed them to be. So I didn’t prep the last session, outside of remembering what happened on the previous few sessions and thinking “what if a faction was eliminated?”.

It was a success. All I did was come up with a starting situation, and the players did the rest.

My regular gaming group is starting up a D&D 5E campaign, and I’m doing my usual routine of figuring out what the heck I want to play. Let me unpack that, though. There’s the system side of things, and then there’s the narrative side. D&D has always placed a ton of page-count on the former, what with (depending on edition) spells-per-level tables, lists of powers and feats, and damage breakdowns of bastard sword versus longsword. But the latter... well, not as much.

This isn’t to say D&D – even the systems-heavy edtions – don’t support strong character concepts and sweeping narrative arcs. Anecotally, in my time playing 4E, I played some of the most interesting characters I’ve ever played! I’ll always remember Galen, my doomed Fighter who was on the run from a demonic bargain he made to save his life (and the regicide that his patron demanded of him). I’ll remember Xola’at, my psionic Athasian elven noble, desperate to reunite with his kingdom after it got devoured. I’ll remember my friend’s death-cultist Rogue, a holy assassin claiming souls for the Raven Queen. These were all compelling stories, built because we had the skill to build a narrative hook into our characters. The system gave us little to no guidance.

But now... 5E. There’s actually a decent chunk of pagecount devoted to helping players hit the ground running with cool stories, and nowhere is this better expressed than in the Background system. Backgrounds are phenomenal. I liked them even when I wasn’t so keen on 5E overall, and now that I’ve come to like 5E, I think I like them even more.

I probably don’t have to tell you what Backgrounds are, but for the sake of everyone, here’s a quick rundown. In addition to choosing a Class, you also choose a Background. While the Class is mostly focused on what your character does in combat, Backgrounds handle a lot of exploration and interaction. They give your character some minor equipment, a couple of skills, and some sort of narrative ability, like being able to secure lodging from people who admire your legend, or the benefits concommitant with a military rank. It’s all very loosey-goosey and lightweight, but most importantly, it’s independent of your class. So, going back to my friend’s 4E Rogue, he could make a Rogue, take the Assassin subclass once he gets to 3rd level, and select the Acolyte Background. Galen would probably be a Fighter/Warlock, if the DM allowed multiclassing, but in any event he would take the Criminal Background. That’s it, no bending over backwards to make a class fit the mechanics, no choosing a different Class that fit your model of the story better. It’s brilliant.

What’s more, it’s a dead-simple way to differentiate your character from others. A Bard who’s an Entertainer is iconic, but what if the Bard is a Spy? A Charlatan? A Pirate? These aren’t heavy-duty mechanical blocks – as mentioned above, they’re simply a few skills, a little bit of mostly-inconsequential gear, and a non-combat ability – but they frame the character in entirely different ways. And since they’re so lightweight and transparently-designed, it’s a snap to make your own.

I’m late to the party, I know, but Backgrounds are one of the cleverest ways to focus D&D into a game about telling stories through rich characterization. The game has previously relied on a very light-touch approach, but I feel like it benefits significantly from building a system around it.

I love 13th Age. It’s my favorite fantasy d20 game to run, and though I haven’t played it yet, I think it would be a hoot to play (I’m looking yearningly at you, Occultist and Chaos Mage). One thing, however, has vexed me as a GM, and that’s a core concept of the game: Icon Rolls.

For those unfamiliar with 13th Age, Icons are the NPC movers and shakers that war for power and control behind the scenes – you know, your Elminsters and whatnot. The game gives them a way to influence the game through the Icon Roll – roll a number of d6es equal to the number that the player has allocated to that particular relationship, and count fives as benefit with complication and sixes as benefit. I’ve tried a few approaches but neither worked for me or my table particularly well over a campaign:

  • GM control of the results produces a more “traditional” game, where the GM uses these ideas to guide the narrative. I don’t like this approach because it increases my GM workload, and I try to keep as low-prep as I can. I also feel the need to use every triggering roll, and that is overload for me.
  • Player control of the results produces a more narrative game, which some of my players liked and others didn’t so much, as they were not so keen on treating their relationship with their character as a detached author. I think a lot of it is how the rolls were handled – I got them to roll at the start of the session, so they knew how many “story points” they had going into the session, but more importantly, what type of story points they were.

So here are some options I’m mulling over:

  • The players roll them when they want the chance to have the roll change their fortunes. Pro: this gives more surprise at the table. Con: there’s no guarantee that the player will roll a hit.
  • This is more complicated, but interesting nonetheless: the players roll at session start, but fives and sixes both count as potential story points to cash in at the appropriate time. Upon point expenditure, the GM rolls a single die – odds add a complication of the GM’s choosing. Pro: this encourages the players to use their “story points” more confidently, since the possibility of complication is not already declared. Cons: this still keeps it more in the “narrative game” camp, which has mixed results at my table. It also introduces a tiny bit more stuff the GM has to do.