Wednesday, August 26, 2015

4e "Themes" For 5e, Part One: Rambling

I enjoy 5e. I think part of why I enjoy it is that they actually succeeded in realizing their design goals. The game fits different playstyles. I have played a very basic, theater-of-the-mind, no feat game that approximated classic editions, albeit with far more character options. I have played a gridded-combat, option-heavy game with min-maxer types that felt a lot like later editions. While you see many gamers proclaim that 5e is a return to old-school gaming, even going so far as to call it an OSR game, it is remarkable how much 4e there is in it.

I am not sure why this isn't noted more often, but I can speculate. Certainly, a lot of people barely tried 4e, or avoided it altogether, so many are likely just unaware of how much made it into the game. WOTC also mastered the Orwellian art of language manipulation; by using the term "hit dice" for the healing surgish mechanic, it went down a lot smoother. In a similar way, avoiding the terms "daily" and "encounter" and substituting "long" and "short rest", the GNS theory debates largely subsided. The influence of 4e is also felt in what DIDN'T make it in, a point I touch on in this old blog post.

Anyway, I have had the idea bouncing around in my head since the game came out of introducing some 4e mechanics into 5e whole cloth; that is, without really editing them, partly to show it can be done, and partly just for the hell of it. I settled on themes. Themes, originally conceived by Rich Baker, came about late in 4e's run and were immensely popular. Somehow a game that felt bloated to many, with nowhere else to go, was able to handle another minor layer of complexity based on the sheer genius design of them. I didn't want to port them over exactly as they were in 4e however. Part of this is because themes often gave bonuses to skills, something that really would break skills in 5e. With static DCs, an extra +2 here or there almost defeats the purpose of rolling. I always enjoyed swingier skills anyway.

I did like the idea of keeping themes in the lower tier. These are still the most heavily played levels, despite the newer adventure paths. I didn't want to tie them to occupations and the like anymore though, as 5e's backgrounds (a term itself recycled from 4e) covered that design space. I decided to use 4e's utility powers more or less as-is as the theme features, as I was always a big fan of them. My first inclination was to make a theme for each class, thus a sorcerer theme, a ranger theme, and so on, but that didn't work out, partly because I found that the more you dig, the more 4e you find in 5e.

So while reviewing utility powers for 4e classes I ran into several issues that made me change the theme-as-class idea:

1. I wanted to avoid 4e mechanics that had no 5e analog. This included things like shifting, healing surges (as they operate a little differently in 5e), and the like. I still was stuck using dailies, at-wills, and encounters, but these fit fine with 5e: just make encounters recharge after a short rest and dailies recharge after a long rest.

2. I didn't want to give any bonuses to skills for the aforementioned reasons.

3. Many of the 4e utility powers appear in 5e. They might be slightly reworded, but they are there as class features, feats, and spells. I didn't want the themes to be useless to someone who had taken a certain feat, or for them to overlap onto class features.

With this in mind, despite the large number of utility powers, I quickly found there simply weren't enough to fit the criteria and still have them be unique for each class. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave me another idea: themes as ROLES. Yes, 4e roles converted to themes. So we have the striker, controller, defender, and leader theme, all able to be taken by any class (although some may suit one or another better), not unlike the choice of race.

This made it far easier, as I only needed three utility powers per role. And so, I started poring over all of the utility lists to find options that fit the ideas. This still proved tricky, as utilities often defy role. Some 4e fighter utilities are very striker flavored, for example. But finally, I think I came up with some good options.

As far as presentation, while I would like to just copy the things word for word, in order to keep within the legal framework of the licensing I have removed the names from the powers and reworded the mechanics. I still encourage people to buy 4e along with all of the other editions. This isn't meant to substitute that, and the powers are not sourced to specific books or laid out in WOTC fonts or anything like that. This is just a little exercise I am providing for free, more to promote their game line rather than take anything away or profit.

That will have to wait for next post for the free little PDF. This was just to ramble about the idea and hopefully whet an appetite or two. Look for the PDF in part two sometime this weekend.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Prep Is For Ninnies: Froth's Sandbox Toolkit

I don't always run OD&D sandboxes, but when I do, I use my sandbox toolkit. Today I invite you to peer behind the DM screen.

The Massive Binder contains:

Compiled Judges Guild Wilderlands tables.

Cities by Chaosium, my go-to resource for town/city creation and random urban encounters.

OD&D reformatted; much easier than breaking out my LBBs; still the best system ever conceived for improvised play. Iron Falcon may soon graduate to this spot.

Plenty of hex and graph paper.

And extra no-frills, lo-fi character sheets.

I also keep the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets (so buttery) and the 1e DMG at my table regardless of edition.

I have plenty of other options in my bag of tricks, but these are the "core". With these tools, even spending five minutes on game prep seems....uncivilized.

Go ahead PCs, make my day.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

RPG-A-DAY In One Day

So there is this RPG-A-DAY thing going around, and while I would love to keep up with something like this for a month, it just isn't going to happen, so I thought I would post all of my answers in a single blog post.

1. Game you are most looking forward to? Jez Gordon's Dead West.

2. Kickstarted game you are most please you backed? Castles and Crusades core book reprints.

3. Fave new game of the last 12 months? Gonnerman's Iron Falcon

4. Most surprising game? I was surprised by Numenera, pretty breathtaking.

5. Most recent RPG purchase? I just backed The Oracle zine reprint on KS about an hour ago.

6. Most recent RPG played? Ran Call of Cthulhu last weekend.

7. Fave free RPG? many. I will say Iron Falcon again bc its recent, but there are too many to list.

8. Fave appearance of RPG's in media? Community

9. Fave media you wish was an RPG? Something Philip K Dick based, weird space colonies with drugs, that sort of thing.

10. Fave RPG publisher? There are many but I will give a shout out to Frog God, love their stuff.

11. Fave RPG writer? Too many but Kenneth Hite is blowing my mind lately.

12. Fave RPG illustration? The 1e Monster Manual Thought Eater, of course.

13. Fave RPG podcast? I don't really follow podcasts but Unspeakable! is good. The Tome Show also.

14. Fave RPG accessory? Hmmm...lately it has been this bootleg hex crawl compilation some anonymous person put together compiling most of the Judges Guild Wilderlands tables.

15. Longest campaign played? Like three years or so.

16. Longest game session? We played D&D all night one time back in the 80s.

17. Fave fantasy RPG? D&D, all flavors, spin-offs, clones, re-imaginings...I love it all.

18. Fave SF RPG? Metamorphosis Alpha or Traveller

19. Fave supers RPG? TSR's Marvel Super Heroes

20. Fave horror RPG? Call of Cthulhu (pre 7th edition)

21. Fave RPG setting? Pre-wars Greyhawk

22. Perfect gaming environment? My basement.

23. Perfect game for you? D&D all the way, baby

24. Fave house rule? Making Read Magic an at-will MU ability in classic D&D editions.

25. Fave revolutionary game mechanic? I like the 12 degree system in Colonial Gothic.

26. Fave inspiration for your games? The 1e DMG still inspires me every time I open it. Kenneth Hite's Suppressed Transmissions are currently being devoured.

27. Fave idea for merging two games into one? Probably Kult/Call of Cthulhu mashup; more mashups HERE.

28. Fave game you no longer play? Marvel Super Heroes or Judge Dredd.

29. Fave RPG website? Google + is where I go for all things RPG related, but OSR Today is nice.

30. Fave RPG playing celebrity? Colbert.

31. Fave non-RPG thing to come out of RPGs? Friendships!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Help Jim Ward!!!

The history of RPGs is pretty short. One of the cool things about that is that a lot of the legends of gaming-our elders that shaped and designed the first wave of games-are still alive. You can meet them at conventions, even participate in games run by them, correspond through social media and forums, and continue to support their work in various ways. The gaming community is nothing if not generous in times of need. Now is one of those times. Jim Ward, designer of Metamorphosis Alpha (MA), Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes, Gamma World, and more needs help. The good news is that a lot of people have helped already, but the truth is he still needs a lot of support to get through this tough time.

There are several ways you can help. You can go directly to his GoFundMe page. Taylor Frank, an OSR designer and creator of the excellent Dungeon Lord zine has organized several raffle opportunities; more on them HERE, HERE, and HERE. I think the drawings are on Monday, so check those out as soon as you can. Lots of killer stuff to win. Other OSR luminaries Tim Shorts, James Spahn, Tenkar, and Johua De Santo have also come up with creative ways to support Jim. There is an artwork auction HERE. Another awesome way to help would be to back Jim's new Kickstarter (KS) for Epsilon City, a new MA product that frankly looks completely amazing. I think anyone that backed the previous MA KS was very happy with the high quality products they received. This should be no different. 

If you are dead broke and just cannot swing donating, a great way to help is to simply share this post or the above links with others. If you haven't already seen "Help Jim Ward" three or four times...we aren't saying it loud enough. So please share. You could also reach out to Jim on Facebook; I am sure that getting a message or a comment means a lot. It would to me.

All this MA talk got me thinking. The MA game is usually ran with mutated PCs that are native to the Warden, with the true history of the place and the functions of the various technology having been forgotten over a long period of time. Here are three alternative setups for your MA game that allow for different levels of technological knowledge:

-You are crew members of the Warden that were placed in cryo-sleep chambers, You wake up in the far future in the bowels of the Warden somewhere. In this scenario you are aware of the layout, technology, etc of the Warden but must deal with the mutations and changes that have taken place.

-You and your party are of an entirely different culture with highly developed technology, and you spot the Warden on your ship's radar. You decide to investigate. You can use this method to mashup with Traveller, Stars Without Number, or any number of sci-fi games

-The Warden crash-lands on your planet and you decide to explore it. This scenario is cool because you can use any system or time period. Maybe a Colonial Gothic mashup? The Warden crashes on Indian land or in Boston harbor? Or perhaps late 19th century London, using Call of Cthulhu? Or just go the Barrier Peaks route and play it with your fave edition of D&D. 

A society can rightly be judged based on how it treats its elders. Let's do whatever we can to support a man who has given us so many awesome memories. Please share this information with other gamers. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Running Call of Cthulhu for New Players

I am a horror junkie and a voracious reader, and for my dollar no RPG horror game does it quite as well as CoC. Some of the scenarios are so well written that I can read them as literature. The scholarship and creativity that goes into many of them is incredible. I also find it to be a great game for new RPGers. The roll-under d100 mechanics are pretty simple to grasp, and the real-world setting (at least in the core game) is easy for new players to relate to and operate in. I have introduced a lot of new players to roleplaying through this game, and I thought I would share my tips on how to do so in a fun and effective way. I am not a fan of 7th edition, so this post really deals with prior editions. I also just play classic era (20's and 30's) so keep that in mind as well.

Let me preface this by saying these tips are really more for face to face or online games. In a convention setting I would use pregens for time's sake. But I think for new players it is much more satisfying to play their own character. That is the feedback I get. I actually think more experienced RPGers do better with pregens, but I digress.

New players want to do just that: play. The more you explain the rules, the more their eyes glaze over. I suggest just telling them to let the game come to them, and focus on picking an occupation that sounds fun to rp. You may have some optimizer types that have played other games and have a preconceived notion of how much individual stats affect their characters. In Cthulhu, the difference between a 12 and 14 in a stat in negligible. I don't even really bother to go into detail explaining stats, I just lead them through rolling.

Keep it simple: occupations afford you a certain set of skills. You add points in skills, the higher the better. I recommend hand-waiving starting wealth. Use what feels realistic or is common sense. A doctor will likely make more than a private investigator. Most importantly, do not get bogged down buying equipment. CoC has some of the most extensive equipment lists of any game I have ever played. You can buy toothpicks if you like. The way I handle starting equipment is this: you have whatever makes sense for you to have. Thus, a biologist has access to a microscope if he needs it. A doctor has some medical equipment, at least a first aid kit. And only occupations that make SENSE to start with weapons do so. A police detective will have a revolver, but to start an antiquarian with a small arsenal makes no sense. After all, they are new characters. They are just starting out exploring these mysteries (more on that later). I typically wait until occupations have been chosen to explain this to players, and I have never had a complaint yet. If later in a scenario they realize that they need to go buy something idiosyncratic or atypical, let them. Handling equipment this way saves a ton of time and lets you get right into the game much faster.

The best tips you can give new players have nothing to do with mechanics. Investigators investigate. The game would be over if investigators just decided to go home and not follow clues. The only real information a player needs starting out is to do what their character would do. You have skills that you are good at, but that doesn't limit you from trying anything else that makes sense. Focus on your character and let the Keeper call for rolls when needed.

I have written before about CoC combat and my houserules for it (some of which have been amended as follows). I recommend these even for experienced tables. I find it overly complicated and fiddly to have three mini-rounds possible within one combat round. Again, I stress keeping it simple. You can move and take an action of some sort on your turn. If you don't move, you can fire your weapon at its full rate of fire. If you move, you only get one shot (an exception being something like trying a long range shot with a rifle, in which case movement would be impossible). If you are able, you can parry once per round. You can also dodge once per round but this takes away your movement for the following round. A new round for a player starts over on their turn. That is as far as you need to go; anything further can come out during play. I don't get too detailed with firearms to begin with; I usually just give detectives and PIs a .38 revolver. Soldiers might own rifles but do not typically carry them up and down Broad Street.

Treat luck, know, and idea rolls as passive skills. Write down your players' stats and roll for them yourself if they get stuck or really get into trouble.

Finally, pick a scenario that makes sense for new investigators. I like starting without them knowing each other. Sure, if you have two Miskatonic professors at your table they may have heard of each other, but they don't have to be buddies. The scenario also shouldn't give away any Cthulhu Mythos information in its setup. Characters go into the first scenario blissfully unaware that they are "investigators" (this reinforces their relative lack of preparedness/weapons). Start with something innocuous. A dinner party, an event at a public place, etc. One of the best introductory scenarios in my opinion is The Sanatorium, the players all being invited by the doctor for a visit. Mister Corbitt starts with a dinner party, something that can conceivably be tweaked to include people that do not know each other. If you think you will be playing long-term, Masks of Nyarlathotep has a wonderful beginning, just have Jackson Elias telegraph them all. Similarly, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth can begin with the characters individually being invited to join the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight. Female characters can be members of the auxiliary group that have become curious and go in disguise, or if you do not care too much about historical accuracy, allow them to be invited along with the male PCs.

Using these tips puts you right into the action as quickly as possible. It is wonderful to behold players getting into it for the first time. The simpler you keep it, the less you will see them looking at their sheets, and the more time you will hear them in character having a blast.

Have you introduced the game to new players? What tips would you pass on to keepers?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Froth's 5e Healing Houserules

I thought I would share my houserules for healing in 5e. Healing in the core game is just way too much for my tastes. While the DMG does provide some other options, they aren't exactly what I am looking for. I don't want an ultra-gritty game, nor do I want 4e's absurd amounts of healing. Anyhoo, here are my ideas:

-Eliminate healer feat
-Overnight healing only heals 1 hp (I'm a sucker for tradition, sue me)
-You can spend HD during short or long rest. You regain half of your current HD rounded down (minimum 1) overnight. So if you are a 6th level fighter but take a long rest with only 3 HD left, you only regain 1 HD the following day. If you take a long rest with no remaining HD, you start the next day with 1.
-Healer's kits work as written, they're just no longer able to be buffed by the healer feat
-Healing potions are not typically found for sale

This gives me the balance I am looking for. You still have ability to recuperate at a reasonable rate, but resource management comes more into play and the traditional healing roles are reinforced.

Do you houserule 5e healing? What is your system?

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Last Word on Edition Warring

Man, if there is one thing I can't stand it is edition warring. I get if you don't like a game, but to go on and on and try to belittle and insult someone else for liking something you don't is just lame. The other day I saw legendary Frank Mentzer step into an edition war and just shut the whole thing down. I thought I would reprint what he said, bc I consider it to be the last word on edition warring. A definite mic drop moment.

"In the 1970s, wargamers bashed the new 'roleplayers'.

In the 1980s, my D&D RedBox sold more than 40 million copies in 20+ languages. 1e and 2e rose to ascendance in English languages countries, and RedBox ruled everywhere else. Estimates put the total players at more than 100 million.

In the 1990s, roleplayers bashed the new CCG players. RPG use was dropping like a rock (possibly as low as 1% of the peak number), and TSR died. The new owners of D&D tried to find out what the remaining players wanted, and heard only noise & chaos. Each group -- 0e, 1e, 2e, Moldvay, BECM -- seemed to be fixated on their own edition, and bashed the others.

Since the gaming public was full of opposing factions, the new owner (Wizards) wrote v3 based on their own ideas. It proved so full of holes that the errata came out en masse. (The heavily amended result is what we call v3.5, which took 3 years of error-checking and corrections.)

In the 2000s, the 'edition wars' focused more on newschool (rules-heavy style) vs oldschool (rules-light), and were still rampant.

In 2008, again following their own ideas by necessity (faced with a disorganized and warring hobby), WotC produced 4e. It was wonderfully written, well-organized, played much faster than 3.5... and missed the hobby market almost entirely, being aimed at young folks who grew up on computer games. Almost simultaneously another wiser company created their own version of 3.5 (Paizo's Pathfinder), which continues to dominate the market.

But in the 2000s, many realized that the Edition Wars were self-defeating. The hobby had become disjointed, no longer able to express a concrete preference. Some of us started working HARD to wipe out Edition Wars, self-censoring our negative personal opinions and promoting the entire hobby, not just our preferences. We actively tried -- and are still trying -- to minimize the useless conflict that has so severely damaged both the game and the industry.

In part due to this change in the hobby (less conflict), WotC reached out for input on what "D&D Next" (v5) should be. They got better input than they expected, and changed the design many times to reflect the preferences of the potential customers.

I'm proud of the role so many played in redirecting the energy put into Edition Wars into more productive ideas and avenues for gaming. The list of industry celebs pushing for harmony is very long and distinguished.

But we in the hobby industry still regularly deal with those who cannot or will not see the big picture. Some claim "free speech" as a means to tear down the hobby and/or its parts. Some claim "honest difference of opinion" (often while hurling hateful epithets and accusations). Whatever the claims, the results are clear: the more conflict you promote, the more the hobby fractures, and no one who create new games will be able to hear what you want.

We in the hobby who are trying to make better games see and hear your refusal to cooperate, refusal to contribute, refusal to be positive. All you do is destroy. We do not listen to you. You have no voice.

I have 35 years of experience in the hobby gaming industry, and I wrote the best-selling version of any RPG ever made. But ignore all claims of Authority and make up your own minds, based on the Facts. Break free of your prejudices and broaden your view; see the direct effect that negativity and conflict has on the hobby. And then try to be more positive, accepting that all versions of all RPGs can co-exist peacefully, and make your voices heard in positively advocating the types of games you want. People will listen; your voice can make a difference.

But If you remain hateful and negative about games, that message will also be heard, and you'll only get what others think they can sell you -- regardless of what you want."-Frank Mentzer