Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A review on Neoclassical Geek Revival

This is (kind of) a review of Zzarchov Kowolski’s Neoclassical Geek Revival (or NGR).  Zzarchov is the author behind excellent OSR modules like The Gnomes of Levnec, Thulian Echoes and ScenicDunnsmouth.

What astonished me about NGR is [First] that it is a game released back in 2011 that I have never heard about and [Second] that it is a wonderful package of ideas and gaming principles, all of which are amazingly easy to steal for your home games/systems.

This little post is based on NGR’s No Art Version (a 112 pages PDF available from DriveThruRPG - link above).

NGR is clearly inspired by the OSR but it is not (technically) a retroclone. Although I hate the term, you could say it’s a fantasy heartbreaker. It’s definitely Zzarchov’s ideas and esthetics for a generic fantasy game system, but you can clearly see some of its gaming roots.

The book start with rules for “rolling dice” (that definitely are in the spirit of OSR and the first games). My favorite ones are those for limiting bonus, the “?d#” roll (where you roll a dice until getting its maximum result, with a ?d6 meaning you roll a 1d6 until you hit 6) and the inverted die. NGR also uses a chain of dice progression, almost like DCCRPG. There’s also the awesome ‘The Known Rule’, which gives bonus to the players every time the GM has to stop the game session to check for rules in the book (I understood that the same rules forbids players from checking if they can’t remember how a rule works… just roll with it and keep gaming!).

Character creation is simple. Each character has 6 attributes: Strength, Agility, Health, Perception, Intelligence, Charisma and Will (all self-explanatory). Each attribute has a score, a modifier and a die, all used for different stuff (and NGR does uses the score itself, which is good since I believe D&D 3rd/Pathfinder could follow M&M and stop using them). Attributes scores usually vary between 1-20, with 10 being the baseline.

The next step is Species (i.e. Races). We get the usual suspects here: Mankind, Dwarves, Elves, Wee Folk (Halflings, Gnomes etc.) and Wodewose (half-giants, ogres etc.). At first, there’s nothing new here, but Zzarchov’s approach to Species is excellent and illuminating. NGR does not lose its time giving bonus and modifiers for Species. The author believes that a Specie should be foremost about flavor, so he gives them a lot of unique and interesting benefits or drawbacks (all mechanically minor; again, you don’t see bonus/penalties here, which I found excellent). For example, NGR’s Dwarves are color-blind (except for gold, silver and gemstones) and they only age when their skin is exposed to sunlight (and “getting old” for a dwarf means get slowly petrified) – this oozes flavor and I’m tempted to steal it for all my Dwarves henceforth.

Next we’re introduced to a concept that I’ve been trying to implement in my OSR/Pathfinder games since reading games like FATE or I AM ZOMBIE – the Schrodinger’s Character. Basically, you build your character during the first game session, by playing it. It’s an amazing concept, very useful for grognards like me (or just adult gamers in general) which have precious little time for their beloved hobbies due to jobs, daily responsibilities, family etc.

After that we get to the Pie System, which is basically NGR’s approach to a class system. Each character gets a number of “pie pieces” to choose from six options: Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, Bard, Bard, Priest and Fool. The number of pie pieces you place on each “class” dictates how many abilities you gain and your progression.

Each class come with a selection of 6 powers to choose from, besides a Locked Power (which you only get if you pick 4 pie pieces from that class) and rules for the class’s Personal Item (from a Warrior’s trademark item to a Priest’s relic). I won’t lose time with the class details here, except for two: the Bard and the Fool.

NGR’s Bard is my kind of Bard. Forget spellcasting minstrels or cumbersome jack-of-all-trades, NGR’s Bard is a social master. All his abilities are potent social traits and his ‘Personal Item’ are henchmen (Perfect!).

Finally, we get the Fool. This isn’t a class, but a pie piece that dictates how Luck Points progress for a character, besides also giving bonuses to awesome rolls (more on that later). Luck Points are NGR’s answer to hit points – they’re definitely abstract, they can be spent to keep the character safe from a lot of harmful effects (not only physical damage) and they’re recovered in true Sword & Sorcery fashion (Parties, Celebrations, Ho-Downs, Shindigs & Box Socials!). In other words: they’re hit points that make sense. In case you’re wondering: if you get 0 Luck Points, physical damage goes straight to your Health (i.e. Constitution in d20 games), but we’ll get to that.

Awesome rolls, mentioned above, remind a little of experience rolls in BRP, but here they’re used at end of the game session to gain Fate Points (which are NGR ‘action point’/FATE point system).

The character’s pie pieces in each class also determine their progression bonus in the following universal modifiers: Combat, Presence, Stealth, Occult and Faith (each linked to a class and an attribute). For example, Combat equals a character’s Warrior bonus plus their Agility modifier).

The next steps are ‘Character Traits’ and ‘Skills and Knowledges’. Traits are selected only at character creating (2 at most) and give a character advantages and disadvantages. For example, if you’re Arrogant it’s hard to hit you in social conflict, but when you fumble in such conflict, you lose a lot more Influence. Skills and Knowledges are divided in three basic types: Languages, Knowledges and Weapons.

Before picking up equipment each character chooses 2 Relationships, one linked to the player seated to the left, the other to the player seated to the right. Relationships help to bring the group together and are simple things like ‘Life Debt’ or ‘Family’ (they also have a small mechanic effect). NGR uses a simple and practical encumbrance system, which remind me of Lamentations of the Flame Princess and other OSR approaches to equipment/load.

Thank the gods, NGR provides starting equipment packages (I can’t say why but these days buying equipment is the dumbest and more boring part of character creation for me, which is why I absolutely love the dK System’s Preparation skill).

Finally, you choose your Morality (i.e. Alignment), Lucky Number (a famous OSR blog rule) and fill the last numbers of the sheet – Mana for Wizards, Piety for Clerics, Destiny (which is 0 for beginners, unless it’s your birthday) and XP.

The system basic check uses a d20, but you must the check the ‘Keeping Your Cool’ rule. This basic rule is the core of the system and states that when a character is CALM he can roll a d20 or just pick d10. He can also choose to go ON EDGE and roll 3d6 instead of 20. Or he can just go RECKLESS and roll d20. Once you go from CALM to any other stance, you can‘t go back until you get a restful night of sleep in a safe area. Checks in NGR are either opposed or against a target number; you roll your die (following the ‘Keeping Your Cool’ rule) and add the relevant score.

NGR has a very interesting take on saving throw, one that reminds me of Chainmail. In NGR a saving throw is a check that a player can request when nothing else applies and his character is in danger. Only characters with a milestone can request a saving throw (a milestone is a very interesting parallel advancement system of NGR, linked to story deeds and accomplished quests). Now, the cool bit of the saving throw is that the exact effect of failure or success are based on the player character response to the threat. Is his idea to avoid the threat standard? (“I duck the lightning bolt”) Then a failure means normal damage and success means half damage. Is the PC’s idea crazy enough to work? (“I used my metal staff to discharge the lightning bolt around me, nullifying it!”) Then is double or nothing. As I said, it’s a very cool rule.

NGR has a considerably narrative and modern approach to damage. You can have any number of different damage types, each linked to a different (or the same) attribute. The game provides a (extensive) list of “common” types of damage ([Physical] Damage, Stun, Stress, Suspicion, Influence…) and “uncommon” types (Toxicants, Fear, Mutation…). Some kinds of damage stack. For example, stun and [physical] damage both affect Health. Also, NGR uses a brutal death spiral rule for most types of damage. For example, [physical] damage to Heath inflicts a -1 penalty per point of damage to base checks (the d20/3d6/take 10 check mentioned above or “dX” as it’s called). That’s why Luck Points are such important (and awesome) resource, they allow to ignore ANY type of damage.

NGR damage system is possibly the game’s most interesting and hard to grasp rule (for me at least). For example: NGR has a Suspicion damage track, based on Perception, which means that sneaking is now a conflict. That’s a great rule because it ads tension to scenes where the group is trying to ambush an orc scout party or get past a dragon guarding the dungeon’s only exit. However, I feel that NGR would benefit A LOT by giving examples for each kind of damage (maybe describing an actual play encounter for each type of conflict or damage). Other damage types could benefit also from a few tips – like the Mutation Damage, where I missed at least a table of possible effects or other more concrete suggestions. Social Damage like Influence and Infamy also gave me headache, especially in conflicts dealing with multiple characters and different intents (for example, one PC is trying to befriend the NPC while another is trying to seduce him… does both attempts stack? Do I keep track of “different” Influence damages?).

NGR does provide a compressive set of rules for hazards, conflict types, mass combat, trials, investigations, enemies of different sizes etc. I won’t get in details here, because I’m focusing on the game’s parts that attracted me most.

NGR provide further support for Warriors (Combat Tricks), together with the now class stuff for Wizards (Spells) and Clerics (Miracles). Combat Tricks are martial maneuvers that Warriors can learn. Wizardly Spells are basic templates (like Powers in Savage Worlds), that must be enriched with flavor – it’s not just a Bolt spell, but Marvin’s Magnificent Lightning Bolt! The magic system uses Mana Points and is a bit bland for me, but these days I consider myself extremely spoiled by games like Warhammer 2nd and DCCRPG. The author, however, does pull very flavorful mechanics – especially the Price and Magic Components rules. There’s also the excellent and weird (in a good way) rule that states that a spell’s power is inversely related to the numbers of casters that know it (which is THE BEST explanation about why wizards are such greedy and jealous bastards when it comes to their spells). Priestly Miracles are based on a caster’s divine patron and how many Piety Points he has. The Piety rules are the best part of the chapter and give divine spellcasters a flavorful style, totally different from Wizards.

NGR’s next chapter deal with Fate Points (that you gain at the end of each session through the ‘Rolling for Awesomeness’ check) and Destiny Points (which are very hard to gain but allow you to totally own a situation). This chapter also has an advancement track, Milestones rules, how to gain XP etc. The last bit is the Rolling “The 2d6” – which is a rule pertaining to each character’s Personal Item (or henchmen for Bards). NGR’s final chapter deal with ending a campaign (the game’s top level is 10).

After all this material the only thing that I missed were information and stats on monsters and NPCs, which seem to be available through a separate PDF product.

Zzarchov Kowolski’s Neoclassical Geek Revival is a unique and imaginative fantasy system, that will enrich any gamer’s library. For me this is the ideal game book – one that even if I never use in my table (and I intend to use it) makes me read other books with new eyes and gives me tons of ideas about how adapt campaigns and other games to me needs (yeah, that’s a 5-star review).

Friday, June 10, 2016

THE DOOM CLOCK! (A One Page Rule)

This is a One Page Rule that should work for any (OSR or not) game.

Hi! I'm still here, still reading stuff and even playing a little. I moved again, which made things hard for playing. Work and family made me stop running games for the last few months (and cost me a considerable amount of sanity). But... hey!... I run not one but two DCCRPG games in the last weeks (a record for me in the last 4 years) and then the ideas start floating up again. I also discovered Zzarchov Kowolski's instigating Neoclassical Geek Revival, which I'm reading slowly (and hope to post my thoughts here).

So... after running another DCCRPG’s Funnel (i.e. an adventure for starting 0-level  PCs, with tons of characters per player and a lot of gore and death) I started once more to think on options about how to can avoid the classical "meat grinders" of traditional D&D/d20. That is, if you want to avoid them. They work perfectly fine for me in OD&D and DCCRPG.

But – maybe – you want to run a dramatic/scenic fantasy campaign, where the young heroes are supposed to survive a few encounters, at least until the first big villain show up (heck, maybe you just want to run a Dragonlance with D&D that follows the narrative logic of its novels). And yes, you want to run it with D&D (in all its myriad incarnations, variants and retroclones… although nothing the “rule” proposed in the post can be used with any game).

Also, lets presume that you don't want to bother yourself with lots of variant rules or stuff that increase hit points at 1st level (like adding your Constitution and/or Charisma Score, or maximizing your 1st HD, or using Hackmaster’s Kicker etc). You want to run the more RAW game as possible, but you want a simple mechanic that enables survival and – perhaps – even increase the drama of the game at the same time.

Here's the DOOM CLOCK! (a probably not original idea but who cares…)

The DOOM CLOCK is suited to campaign/adventures that follow a classic hero novel/movie (think Star Wars IV, Krull, the first Pirates of the Caribean etc.). It isn't suited for traditional hex crawl/Old School games, where the dice are supreme and you character is just another insane fellow trying to get rich plundering the Weird and the Underworld.

How does the DOOM CLOCK works?

1)     First, decide how many scenes/encounters your adventure or session will have. Let’s suppose you planned 6 encounters for the first adventure of your 1st level PCs. So, at the first scene, you give to each player a (preferably big and bright) D6, with the '6' showing on top (or you can give 6 big casino chips/coins to each player). The thing is, the marker must be something obvious. If you use a die, you can call the DOOM DIE!!! (with the 3 exclamation marks).
2)     During the adventure, each time a PC dies (or otherwise drops unconscious), his player can spend one "point" of his DOOM DIE!!! and bring back his character at full force (all his resources are restored). After declaring his intent, the players adjust his DOOM DIE!!! (which would go from ‘6’ to ‘5’, if this was its first activation). The player can use his DOOM DIE!!! for as long as he has “points” left. Yeah, this mean that you’re practically giving each player 6 “extra” lives.

The idea is to allow each player to risk more and to act more dramatically (i.e. do more crazy stuff!) during the adventure.

This rule also gives a considerable boost to the characters, which is also finem if you’re planning a heroic/Dumas-like game.

3)     After each scene – even if no DOOM DIE!!! was spent – lower each character’s DOOM CLOCK by 1 point. For example, if a character - during the first encounter of the adventure – spent a point to scape doom, at the end of the scene his D6 would be showing '4', not ‘5’.
If the DOOM CLOCK keeps lowering 1 point by encounter, at the sixth (and final) scene of the adventure (probably the one against the main villain!) all player character will have no "extra lives”. The ensuring battle will most surely feel more dramatic, edgy and – I hope – fun!

Rules like the DOOM CLOCK also allow the DM/Judge to 'cheat' a little, by creating more lethal or unusual encounters. After all, the PCs are supposed do 'die' once or twice during the game session, if you’re using the DOOM CLOCK. A good example is the infamous 1st level encounter with an adult blue dragon at the start of the 5E adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen. By using the Doom Clock, it's completely fine to toss a dragon against 1st level PCs... they'll live (and if they're really smart they may even keep the DOOM CLOCK from ticking faster than usual).

A Variant DOOM CLOCK: The above rules literally “recharges” a PC when a point is spent. Because some characters – like spellcasters – gain a bigger boost from the rule, the DM/Judge may allow a player to spend a DOOM DIE!!! even when is character is still above 0 hit points. Or – if you believe this rule is too much – you can restrict the DOOM DIE!!! spent to hit point recovery only. That means that spellcasters and other classes with limited resources must still pay attention on how they spend spells and daily abilities.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Priest (Cleric Archetype for Pathfinder)

This is an old idea of mine – a “pagan priest” archetype. Most D&D/Pathfinder religions are shaped like medieval churches (or at least fiction-based medieval churches), with the usual “pagan” trappings. I wanted something different – not a divine caster devoted to an order, a deity or a church but a holy man, an intermediary between the divine and the mundane worlds.

The Priest can make sacrifices to various deities and receive blessings from different patrons, following the proper ethos and performing the rituals based on the needs of the local communities. Good priests will try to placate and offer sacrifice to Good deities, but won’t shrink of making pacts with Dark Powers (like those of diseases, death and destruction) if that’s necessary to better settle a crisis (like a plague). You can see the Priest as a more civilized Oracle or Shaman, on its way to becoming the “modern” Clerics. Priests don’t organize themselves in churches or holy orders, but in guilds and collegiums – usually segregated by cultures and social class. If I used an Ancient- or Classical-based setting, I’d encourage my players to use Priests instead of Clerics.

Priests refer to the deities or pantheons that they currently honor as their Divine Patrons.

The Priest (Cleric Archetype)

Class Skills

The Priest's class skills are Appraise (Int), Bluff (Cha), Craft (Int), Diplomacy (Cha), Heal (Wis), Intimidate (Cha), Knowledge (all) (Int), Linguistics (Int), Profession (Wis), Sense Motive (Wis), and Spellcraft (Int).

Skill Points per Level (4 + Int modifier)

Class Features
All of the following are class features of the Priest.
Weapon and Armor Proficiency: Priests are proficient with the following weapons: club, heavy mace, light mace, quarterstaff, and sling. They are not proficient with armors or shields.
Patron Aura: A Priest who summons a Patron of Chaotic, Evil, Good, or Lawful alignments gains the corresponding aura.
If somehow a Priest manages to firm pacts with entities of opposite alignments, he would follow a specific rule: the Priest “reads” as both contradictory auras (for example Good and Evil), always suffering the most detrimental effect (for example, a Priest with both a Good and an Evil Patron, targeted by unholy blight, would suffer damage as a Good target).
This class feature changes slightly at 20th level.
Touched by the Divine: Priests dedicate their lives to contemplate and study the divine mysteries – including deities, gods, spirits and the soul. Unlike Clerics, a Priest can’t lose his spell class feature by violating the code of conduct of his patron, only his domains (see below).
Patron Domains: While preparing spells, a Priest can commune with the presence of a Divine Patron. This patron is usually a deity, spirit or a unique/powerful outsider. The Priest usually offers small sacrifices, prayers and propritiations, forging a pact with such Patron.
In game terms, the Priest can choose daily any domains from his Patron’s portfolio, changing his domains each time he prepares spells.
To change a Patron, a Priest must perform a lengthier ritual, in a proper place, taking usually 4 hours to do so.
At 1st level, a Priest can commune with one Patron, gaining access to any three domains of such divine entity.
At 5th level the Priest can commune with two Patrons at once, choosing freely from their domains.
At 10th level, the Priest can keep three Patrons at the same time.
While in such pacts a Priest must act accordingly to the corresponding ethos, regardless of the caster’s original alignment. Otherwise, the Priest loses access to his domains. The Priest must be careful when communing with multiple Patrons to avoid contradictory ethos, otherwise he can end not only without domains, but also cursed.
Priests gain all domain powers and spells normally, as a Cleric.
Miracle Worker: The Priest doesn’t need to prepare his domain spells in advance. He can use his domain slot to cast spontaneously from any one of his current domains (using his current domain spells as known spells).
Rebuke the Otherworld: At 2nd level, the Priest gains channel energy as a Cleric of the same level, except that this power can only be used to damage outsiders. The Priest can select which outsiders to affect each time the ability is used.
Divine Servant: At 4th level a Priest is constantly under the protection of the divine, in the form of a guardian outsider. This ability works like lesser planar ally, except that the outsider must have 2HD or less, and that it’s tasked solely with protecting the Priest.
If destroyed, the Priest can request a new servant in 7 days, without paying any of the spell’s usual requirements.  Until destroyed, the servant will stay be the Priest’s side at all times (with can be troublesome sometimes).
Summoning a divine servant is done while the Priest is preparing his daily spells. Once summoned, the servant can only be dismissed the next time the Priest prepares his spells.
At the GM’s approval, a Priest can try to negotiate further tasks with his divine servant. This usually requires payment, by the lesser planar ally normal rules.
At 8th level, the Priest’s divine servant can have 6HD or less (like lesser planar ally).
At 12th level, the Priest’s divine servant can have 12HD or less (like planar ally).
Tongues of the Gods: At 10th level, the Priest can communicate with any outsider.
Abjure the Otherworld: At 6th level, when the Priest uses his Rebuke the Otherworld ability, he can choose one targeted outsider to suffer the effects of a dismissal or dispel magic.
At 14th level, when the Priest uses his Rebuke the Otherworld ability, he can choose the targeted outsiders to suffer the effects of a banishment (limited by the spell’s rule, for example, the limit of 2HD per caster level).
Ruler of the Mundane World: At 16th level, the Priest can spend a use of his Rebuke the Otherworld ability to target one creature (not only outsiders) at range with a greater dispel magic. The Priest can even target supernatural abilities.
At 18th level, the Priest can cast dispel magic (counterspell) as an immediate action when he’s the target of an effect. Instead, when touched or attacked in melee by an outsider, the Priest can choose, also as an immediate action, to cast banish on it.
Avatar: At 20th level, the Priest becomes in flesh the earthly representative of the divine. He doesn’t need to follow any particular ethos to keep his pacts and domain spells. When targeted by any effect, the Priest can choose to be treated as an outsider or as a creature of any alignment.
The Priest is constantly under the effect of a protection from chaos/evil/good/law that can’t be dispelled (but the Priest can dismiss it when it suits him) and that is treated as an extraordinary ability.
Finally, when an outsider is susceptible to a banishment from the Priest, he can only return to the Material Plane through a wish, miracle, divine intervention or the Priest’s express permission.

Priests don’t gain the Channel Energy and Spontaneous Casting class features from the Cleric.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Alignments (should) have nothing to do with behavior/morals

Actually by the RAW they have everything to do with morals and behavior, but that’s lame.

So, after reading Pathfinder Unchained and its alignments options I didn’t find anything that I truly wanted for my games (though Shifts and Affirmations were something I’ve been looking for and the Cosmic Alignment option was – at least in name – one of the main ideas for this post).

While I enjoy intelligent uses of the current Alignment System – especially in adventures where the Evil guy is the victim – I also understand that they’re mostly exceptions. Although you could build settings that present interesting complications to Alignment (like the awesome Scarred Lands, the cool relativism of Eberron or even the Blighted Eyes proposal for 3.5), when you’re going deep for an intrigue-rich or more social game, where drama is the main drive, it really becomes hard to work with the RAW Alignments. Besides, detect evil is a brutal spoiler for most stories dealing with mysteries, intrigues and hard choices*.

*Let me point out, however, that I would like to try one day to extrapolate a setting where detect evil is taken to its utmost consequences (socially, religiously and even economically).

However, it must be stressed – and let me digress about this a little – that Pathfinder does really interesting things with detect evil (from a mechanical point of view).

First, non-outsiders of Evil alignment doesn’t register in a detect spell if they have 5 or less HD.

Second, detect evil in Pathfinder does register “evil intentions” (I guess that means “hostile intentions”) against the caster, which is simply a perfect way to catch players unexpectedly.

Finally, there’s the small rule that gave me the idea for this entire post: clerics, paladins and other divine spellcasters (or characters) with the aura class feature register the alignment of their aura, not their own (which usually means that a cleric will register as his deity’s alignment).

So, I thought, what would happen if you extended the aura class feature from a rules’ exception the one of game’s basic standards?

I’ll get into that, but back to our “philosophical” discussion about Alignments.

Another problem with the Good-Evil axis starts when you begin to think really hard about the Evil Alignment. No one in their right mind would think of themselves as Evil. Usually only the truly deranged (psychopathic) or insane would think that – and they’re obviously the exception. That’s because the Evil Alignment doesn’t make sense if think about as anything other than an (moral?) excuse for players to kill tons of NPCs without feeling bad about it (after all, they’re the “heroes”**)

**Which is a perfect topic for another day.

Ok, going on. This is – after all – just a game, so why bother with all these complications, do you ask? Well, because there’re actually some pretty cool implications if you do ask these questions. And they might be useful to your games if want to run a different D&D/Pathfinder, especially considering the various effects that deal with alignment (those damn spells like unholy blight…).

What can be done with the Evil Alignment (and the Good)? I got basically two options. The first is just me trying to rationalize Evil (but I didn’t go far) and the second option is probably how I’m gonna run my next Pathfinder campaign.

The RAW Approach: Ok, this one is just me using the Alignment System as it is for a setting that suits it. Because, otherwise, the Evil Alignment only is there only as (metagame) rule to forbid player characters from acting as jerks (i.e. in anti-game ways), and to clearly mark who the players can kill without losing their class stuff. Really, I can’t fathom any other use for this thing. Even if you read and try to rationalize it for your setting, no one in their right minds would trust or help even a Lawful Evil guy. Although you could create viable settings where alliances with Evil are necessary, there’s no good use for Evil PCs (no pun intended). And yes, I hope Paizo prove me wrong with their next Adventure Path about Evil PCs.

So, given those premises, I give you the one setting where I believe Alignments as written works – worlds with a “Big Unified Evil”.

Seriously, think about it. Settings with a personified entity/god/character representing all Evil actually do work very well with the Alignment system. Examples (that I know) are Middle-Earth’s Sauron, Midnight’s Izrador (OK, that’s just a not-Sauron), Wheel of Time’s Dark One and The Land’s Lord Foul.

The quintessential setting for Alignments as written is of course Earth’s Mythical Medieval Age, where the Devil walks among Men and claims the sinful ones’ souls to depths of Hell (though you could use the same idea for other religions like Manicheism).

In all the above settings, being of the Evil Alignment is acting in accordance with the Primordial Evil and thus serving Him on a cosmological level – even if you’re against Him personally.

This has some considerably brutal and dramatic consequences – maybe no one is born Evil in those settings, but become one through his actions (or maybe Fate is a cruel mistress and you can be born Evil). The cool bit is that players don’t want to be Evil because theoretically they’ll serve the Guy that is trying to kill them in the first place. There’re some excellent plots in these settings to create drama (i.e. hard choices) for your PCs.

In settings with multiple Evil and Good forces the above conflict loses some of its “dramatic” weight. You also loses the idea of a Primordial Evil, especially in a moral sense, also dropping a brilliant way to explain (mythologically) why there’s Evil in the world (and thus the Evil Alignment goes back to be a tag for “you can kill it”). In fact, you lose the absolute moral explanation about why Evil is “wrong”. And in fact the entire reason why Evil Alignments are so hard in to use in more “gray” or mature games is because they clearly mark who is “right” or “wrong” in a given conflict.

However, one interesting interpretation that you can use in the RAW Alignments System is that no one normally chooses to be Evil. The Universe (Multiverse) chooses for you. Through your misdeeds you acquire an otherworldly taint to will ultimately condemns you to one of Pathfinder/D&D’s myriad hellish afterlives. How you deal with that should be the focus of the drama in most games.

Maybe a character considers his fate unjust and thus ironically reinforces his dark path. A really cool concept here is that of the Evil PC that seeks Ultimate Power© to kill a greater force of Evil (like a demon lord) in order to “buy his way out of Hell”.

Traditionally most evil characters (peasants, merchants and normal people) aren’t aware that they’re Evil. Perhaps (and that’s where I believe lies most problems with D&D/Pathfinder treatment of Evil) evil religions are either ways to escape the worse punishments of Hell or just religions based on lies and deception.

The problem, henceforth, is that if you have entire countries dedicated to Lolth, Cyric, Bane and other evil gods, those nation’s divine patron should offer some kind of reward/relief for their Evil followers instead of the usual “you’ll become the playthings of devils/demons when you die”.

While some official material indeed mentions that high-level NPCs can go to their hellish afterlives to be reborn as powerful outsiders, this usually is a major exception and thus the rest of the “poor” Evil mortals are just cannon fodder.

OK, there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you want a game where PCs are divine character sent to (literally) enlighten the masses of evil nations. And there’s nothing wrong with that for most “normal” human/demihuman Evil nations. The evil High Priest that uses lies and deceit to corrupt souls is a classical archetype, after all.

However, when you go to intelligent and powerful races like dark elves the entire idea starts to lose verisimilitude very quickly. How can a race so powerful, resourceful and smart follow a goddess that will most surely f*** them up in the afterlife?! (unless you concoct that the dark elves’ original Curse is a lot more dire and that’s why they’re all are born Evil and suffer an yet more horribly after dying… which for me just implies that Corellon Larethian is a real bastard and Lolth just a miserable loser in an old divine war).

So, these are my ruminations about Alignments System as written. What am I going to do in my next games? I’m glad you asked (and that you’re still reading this). And no, I’m not going to say this time “remove Alignment” or to use some Taint- or type-based mechanic instead of the Evil designator. There’re already variants to that greatly (besides the 4E and 5E Editions of D&D). What I want here to keep all the Alignment-based rules and just offer a better explanation, more useful to games fueled by drama in D&D/Pathfinder.

I believe you can solve most of the problems with the RAW Alignments System, and yet keep its entire mechanics, just be removing the behavior/moral part. Basically: Alignments have nothing to do with behavior or morals. They’re cosmic allegiances.

OK, that’s easy with the Law/Chaos axis and games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess have been preaching that for a long time. But what about the goddamnit Good/Evil axis?

Here’s where you get to start to work. I’ll give a few suggestions.

Alignments here are actually the Cosmological Forces that power the Multiverse of Pathfinder/D&D. They are literally inhuman and independent Living Concepts that shaped the cosmos and the PC’s campaign setting. They have nothing to do with behavior or human morals in the traditional sense. In other words, you can be a saint or a demon, but that has nothing to with your Alignment (besides, one can argue that “saints” like Noeh and Moses did horribly stuff and were, for Alignment purposes, all “Lawful Good”).

In our proposed setting, the Law/Order and Chaos/Change duo arouse first from the Void and in fact may be responsible for starting the Multiverse itself and for its current shape (i.e. the Planes).

Law and Order are about stability, separation, defined borders, organization and the natural order of things. You can steal from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and other OSR games to define that Law has everything to do with magic (particularly divine magic) and powers that help you keep things as they are (spells that dispel magic, stop planar conjunctions, restore form, banish curses, heal or otherwise keep the world “looking normal”).

Chaos and Change are about the overly supernatural – arcana magic, warlocks, planar manifestations, planar travels, the removing of barriers, changing shapes and forms, evocation, illusions, fey, destruction, mutations etc.

Note that small bits of Chaos can be a beneficial effect (represented in most settings by the elven civilizations), while the extremes of Law can result in sterile and unchangeable desert worlds inhabited either by constructs or maybe only by undeads/dead (if you don’t consider in your cosmology that undeads are synonymous with Chaos).

OK, let’s go to the hardest bit: the Good/Evil axis.

In our “Alignments have nothing to do with behavior/morals”, the original shapers of the Multiverse where Law and Chaos (and perhaps Neutrality/Balance).

Later in the War for the Multiverse came a new order of Powers, which I suggest we call Light and Darkness here.

These newcomers – whose origins are a mystery – came relatively late in the War and many sages suggest that their coming had something to do with the rise of the mortal races. The reason is simple: while Law and Chaos fight for the Multiverse itself, Light and Darkness fight for its souls and are a lot more bound to the conflicts in the Material Planes.

The catch here is to reshape Good and Evil Alignments in a more friendly form to fuel games with “gray areas” and drama-heavy conflicts. In this new scheme of things Light and Darkness are Powers interested mainly in the gathering of mortal souls to strength their numbers. What are their ineffable goals? No one knows exactly. The more you come to understand Light and Darkness the closer you come to becoming one of its exalted (and inhuman) servants – like the Deva (Light) and the Baatezu (Darkness).

As far as mortals understands Light is about Beauty, Harmony, Civilization, Collectivity, Serenity, Perfection, Hierarchy and Purification (note that things like Good, Justice, Mercy and Benevolence are not necessary to Light, but are just more common there).

Darkness is about Individualism, Personal Power, Improvement at all Costs, Anarchy, Freedom, the Removal of Restrains, Passion, Might makes Right etc.

Good references for Light in my opinion are the Heaven faction from the Nobilis RPG. The Sith Code is the perfect reference for Darkness. Another good pair of references could be the gods Morrow (Light) and Thamar (Darkness), from the Iron Kingdoms (although Thamar is usually associated with Evil, she can be a more complex deity, especially if take in account the legends that hint that thanks to Thamar the Gift of Sorcery was given to humans, thus allowing them to beat their evil overlords).

What about Neutrality?

Neutrality/Balance in this cosmology can mean the literal balance between Law and Chaos and/or Light and Darkness; or it can be used to represent a “third way”, for example: a world devoid of outsider interference (Law, Chaos, Light and Darkness are to be banished) and maybe of lower mana/magic setting (like Earth in many AD&D books); or a world where Neutrality equals the natural (i.e. inhuman) order, devoid of humanoind-like civilizations and intelligences (the path of druids); Neutrality can represent maybe the Spirit World (from nature spirits and totems, to undeads and the dead) where shamans rule; or maybe even Lovercraftian monsters (DCCRPG does that). Or maybe, Neutrality is just the absence of a cosmic allegiance (the natural instance of most mortals).

Now we can try to create a setting where there no easy answers to be settled by a detect evil spells (now renamed Detect Darkness or Detect the Dark). Darkness is now a planar allegiance, not a moral stance. A follower of Darkness can be honorable and reliable, while a fanatic of Light can be dangerous and murderous. You can now have complex Light and Darkness-aligned NPCs that aren’t instantly identified as friends or foes. In fact, a simple way to give goals to these NPCs in the new cosmology is to remember that Law and Chaos are interested in increasing/decreasing their magical forces in the campaign world and in changing the Multiverse to their own “perfect” vision; while Light and Darkness are interesting in converting and collecting souls for their own war (a cool side effect of this last goal is that Light and Darkness Powers are probably unwilling to allows a free use of resurrection magic). And you can – of course – mix those Powers, to create things like a world-conquering god bent on eradicating planar interferences and creating a place where only the strong are fitted to rule (that would be a Law and Darkness Deity and the closest thing to the old Lawful Evil deity if that’s is what you want). The Harmonium faction from Planescape is probably the quintessencial Law and Light foe for a campaign.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Fatso, the Fat and the sheer genius of DCC RPG! (an the Alice Class)

Howdy folks! I “restarted” my online campaign of DCC RPG just a week ago and it has been everything that I wanted in a tabletop RPG these days… small to zero preparation, light (but amazingly entertaining) rules, a lot of space for players to wreak havoc and great modules. We started the ‘People of the Pit’ module with the “lawful” side of the original party that (almost one year ago) survived the ‘Sailors on the Starless Sea’ adventure (the “chaotic/villainous” part of the group went in another direction during the last year to face the ‘Doom of the Savage Kings’ adventure and it was a blast!).

So, after our first session of ‘People of the Pit’, the party retreated to the nearest towns to equip themselves, hire new cannon-fodder and to upgrade those 0-level PCs that survived the Funnel (we got 2 new players for this part of the game). One of these 0-level poor souls was an almost unplayable PC – a human Cutpurse with four negative Ability Score modifiers and his best stat is a 12. His players decide to call him Fatso, the Fat – a  Samwell Tarly-like character. To our great surprise, Fatso was an amazing character during the session (and to boost the best rolled 0-level PC of that players was summarily killed). In other words, DCC RPG Funnel turned what would be an unplayable PC in the game session most memorable character!

After the game, we started upgrading the 0-level survivors to 1st level and it was suggested that Fatso would made an excellent candidate for the Alice/Fool character class (from the awesome ‘A Red and Pleasant Land’, by Zak). So, I upgraded him use the guidelines from Joshua Kubli’s Invulnerablog and added a few more things:

Discombobulation: This open-ended ability allows the Fool to (1 per round) gains a free (non-attack) action using a d14 action dice (d16 at 6th level, d20 at 7th level and d24 at 8th level). This ability is triggered when the Alice/Fool miss an attack roll.

Luck: Fools can spend Luck to reduce any damage they suffer.

I’m still not sure if those abilities make the Fool too powerful in DCC RPG. Let’s see.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Midnight 2nd + character-driven game + a threat that isn't character death

(Yes, this blog is still alive... sort of.) My local group of players had a really bad experience with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – a mix of wrong expectations and irrational preferences in my opinion. They find Warhammer Fantasy too absurd in its “Grim-Dark-Humour” style of fantasy. They also can’t accept how the setting is presented in the boardgames and videogames versus its presentation in the tabletop RPGs. Another day, after hearing they complaining of Warhammer Fantasy and it’s “Mohawk dwarves” for about an hour I said that the problem was that they’re playing the wrong game: they wanted a game of dark fantasy, of higher level and using classical themes (no British humor or Heavy Metal influence I guess… but yes do please add more Tolkien). If such game was rooted in their favorite RPG (d20 system) so much the better. In other words, they wanted to play Midnight.

But that affirmation brought up an entire different issue. You see, my players love to death games like Pathfinder, D&D, Star Wars Saga etc., but they complain every time I try to bring a dungeon-based or more “Old School” proposal to the table. They say they want drama-laden and character-driven campaigns, where they can develop their characters with agency and (cliché) grand backgrounds (where most PCs are almost always candidates to lone wolves and you start to wander why in the Nine Hells they are playing a tabletop cooperative game). In other words, they’re hypocrites. But that’s normal… most of my groups pretend to play only Storyteller or Drama System games, but relish combat and tactic encounter-based games (mostly d20 System). It’s a conundrum I guess.

What I’m trying to say is that they really wanted to play Midnight, but when a told them that the setting is as much (or more) lethal than Dark Sun, they started complaining again (yes, they’re a basically bunch of 25 year old teens).

So, I discovered that I had to run a dark fantasy game where Evil is everywhere and characters are deep and complex, facing dire challenges but not dying easily (like a TV series). At first I just thought of adding Hero Point rules to Midnight (either from Arcana Unearthed or Pathfinder) to avoid random deaths. I was already using D&D 3.5 because Midnight 2nd is such a lovely game that I really didn’t wanted to have to convert everything to other system. But I also thought that just adding Hero Points was lazy, so I needed a more robust mechanic.

The theme of our Midnight campaign is ‘Hope & Shadow’ (because some eldritch rule dictates that you must add ‘Shadow’ to anything related to Midnight J) and it deals with corruption and the will to bring hope to place where it’s forsaken (you can see it as a variant of Tolkien’s Long Defeat theme).

The game is about the last survivors of a hidden village (the PCs) hunting down the orcs that killed or slaved their loved ones. The motivation of the PCs is their emotional link to those NPCs. Thus I created a mechanic around two metagame pools – Hope Points and Shadow Points.

Hope Points are used basically the “recharge” a PC. They reset a character – maximum hit points; restored daily abilities; remove ability damage, drain and curses; recover spell points etc. (to balance the fact that spellcasters get a greater boost, I made Hope Points grant a Warrior/Rogue pool that can be used as temporary bonus to certain actions). PCs only gain Hope Points from interacting with special NPCs called Hearts.

Shadow Points are basically your “Dark Side Points” and pack quite a punch. You can use 1 Shadow Point to obtain “maximum effect” for 1 entire round – i.e. you’re considered to roll the best number in all dices and to succeed in every action (if deemed possible). Like an overpowered “Take 20”. Or you can use Shadow Points to change the way the rules work (like the Arcana Unearthed’s Hero Points). Shadow Points were made to be tempting and awesome. PCs gain Shadow Points by destroying their relationship with their Hearts and by succumbing to the Shadow (i.e. Izrador, the Dark God of Midnight). There’s a limit to how much Shadow Points you can gain before being corrupted to Shadow (the limit is a bit random, so players can’t guess it and abuse it… I’m testing 1d4+4 Shadow Points rolled secretly).

There’re other uses to both Hope and Shadow Points but I won’t get in the minutiae.

The campaign must still run like a d20 traditional game, so I needed lots of encounters dealing with survival, combat, exploration and such (besides classical Midnight stuff like evading orc patrols, facing Legates, finding nexus etc.). But I also needed to have character-driven and background-heavy scenes. So I structured the game around a flashback/present frame.

Each session a random player gets a flashback. In this flashback the PC interacts with one of his 2 Hearts – a Heart is a NPCs chosen from that PC’s past (defined during character creation). Each flashback is a short scene dealing with a difficult moral choice or emotional conflict. If the PC manages to uplift and give hope to their respective Heart, they come out of the scene with 1 Hope Point. These flashback scenes are pure roleplaying experiences 90% of the time (in Drama System you’d call them ‘dramatic scenes’). If the PC manages to purposely hurt their relationship with their Heart, they can gain 1 Shadow Point.

The tactical element of that frame lies in the fact that a flashback can be invoked anytime during the game session. So a PC can choose in the middle of a combat to summon a flashback in order to gain 1 Hope/Shadow point and thus win (or doom) the day.

Besides the rolled flashback for a random player (which each player can only get once, then the cycle starts over again), each PC can also invoke 1 flashback per character level.

The final limitation on flashback scenes is that only 2 such scenes can happen per game session (otherwise the session becomes practically a solo game and the pacing is ruined).

Besides their 2 NPC Hearts, each PC must choose another PC to be their third Heart. This last Heart works a bit differently. Each player decides a type of relation between his PC and the other (love, brotherhood, apprenticeship or even envy or more complex things like “the desire to push the PC to his limits and show his potential”***). Basically, you have a responsibility to keep your 3rd Heart going on, you have to instigate hope in him. If you can keep him for 1-2 game sessions without suffering harmful conditions (like Dying, Confused, Panicked etc.) or suffering curses, insanities (and other effects) you grant him 1 Hope Point. However, if you can’t do it for 2-3 sessions, then YOU gain 1 Shadow Point.

The idea is to keep pressuring the party. You either gives Hope or fall to Shadow. Fighting Izrador is hard for the spirit and I tried to reflect that (and the possibility of falling like the Night Kings did) mechanically… We’re still in an our 4th session the campaign has been an enriching experience for me in regard to game designing.

***The party’s channeler PC created this option for his 3rd Heart.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Sage (a new class for DCCRPG)

My online campaign of DCCRPG is still going. We’re at the beginning of the Doom of the Savage Kings and the entire party is having a blast playing a bunch of chaotic mercenary and cultists (they always make the villains look good).

Anyway, our new player just survived his Funnel and is starting to pick classes for his 0-level PCs. He created a Warrior and a Thief so far, but when his scribe became 1st level I noticed he wanted something different… not quite a Thief, and definitely not a Wizard. After a bit of chat, I came up with the suggestion of “updating” my OD&D Mastermind class to DCCRPG. Here’s the result: the Sage.

The main inspirations for this class were my Mastermind and – obviously – few pieces of the Sage, from OD&D, AD&D 1st and Dragons at Dawn. The mechanical role of this class is to be a supporter (the player told me however that he didn’t wanted a bard). 

This is my first (but I hope not last) homemade class for DCCRPG, and I wrote it in approximately 30 minutes, so it’s either grossly unbalanced or just simply unplayable. We still didn’t have time for a proper playtesting session. As usual, any feedback is really welcome.

The Sage

Alignment: Any

Weapon training: A sage is trained in these weapons: crossbow, dagger, short sword, sling, and staff. Sages rarely use armor, as it affects the use of their abilities.

Attack: as a Wizard.

Action Dice: see below. A sage can use his second and third Action Die only for the Sagely Advice ability.










Crit Die/Table: as a Wizard.

Saves: as a Wizard.

Hit points: as a Thief.

Scholar (only Lawful Sages): If a lawful sage fails a lore (see Loremaster) or social check, he always knows exactly where is (or who has) the information that he’s searching. Scholars are respected by Lawful authorities (i.e. civilization) and can always add their level to skill checks while introducing themselves to rulers, requesting rooms at inns and other similar situations.

Erudite (only Neutral Sages): If the neutral sage doesn’t carry a visible weapon or act in a threatening way, he shouldn’t be the target of any monster on the first rounds of combat (unless there a lot of creatures facing the party, as usual the Judge should adjudicate this). If a neutral sage threatens a death curse, he won’t be killed by most intelligent creatures (and if he’s killed he’ll indeed inflict a death curse on his executioner).

Mountebank (only Chaotic Sages): The first time the chaotic sage meets an intelligent creature he can try to quickly trick or lie to him in one round of quick conversation. If the deceit is nothing absurd, the victim must succeed at a Will save (DC 10 + d20 + sages’ Personality and Luck modifiers). A creature, once cheated this way, can’t again be so easily deceived by the character. If a mountebank acquires taint from his patrons (see Supernatural Patron) he can nullify this taint, once per day, during one short encounter (this ability is instantly negated if the sage uses any supernatural power or ability).

Polyglot: A sage always knows how to read and write. He also gains one bonus language per level. He can either choose these languages during the game or spend a few days with a native speaker to learn the new tongue (at the Judge’s discretion).

Loremaster: Sages know a lot of things. They are always treated as trained (i.e. roll a d20) for any skill check dealing with academic or ‘sagely’ lores (religions, folklore, occultism etc.). If the Judge believes that a particular skill check is also related to the sage’s previous professions (for example: a scribe checking for a lost manuscript), the character should roll a d24. All sages also know the following skills (like a Thief of the same alignment): Forge document, Read languages, Handle poison, Cast spell from scroll, wand or rod (yes, this last skill is expanded to include wands and rods).

Curse Die: Progression as a Thief’s Luck Die. First of all, sages recover Luck as thieves. Sages can use Luck to boost their own checks as any other characters. However, sages are experts on curses (especially Neutral sages) and can inflict minor hexes on their foes. A sage can expend his Luck to inflict penalties on adversaries on sight. Each point spent inflicts a Curse Dice on the target (now save). The sage must be able to speak to do so and he can use this knack even during other characters’ or enemies’ actions.

Sagely Advice: A sage can only use his second and third Action Die on other characters, instructing them about what they should do during a combat encounter or skill check. During combat, the sage must be able to speak to the chosen ally, who gains a new action which must use the sage’s Action Dice roll result. A character can only receive one Sagely Advice per round. Out of combat, a sage can also instruct a character about how he should do something. The Judge is the final arbiter about what type of actions can benefit from this ability and the sage must have around one minute of time to instruct his ally.

Supernatural Patrons: Like wizards, sages can invoke supernatural patrons. A sage automatically receives the spells patron bond and invoke patron at 1st level. He can only learn these spells and others granted directly by their patrons. Unlike other spellcasters, a sage can accumulate 1 patron for every three levels (maximum 3 at 9th level). Each patron after the first automatically inflicts taint on the sage and increases his chance to suffer further corruption by one (i.e. a sage with 2 patrons rolls for corruption with a natural 1 or 2). To cast any patron-related spell a sage is treated as wizard of the same caster level.

The Right Tool for The Job: If a sage has enough gold with him, he can declare that he has spent that money before leaving town to buy any reasonably common item that could be carried by either him or a hireling. The sage must explain how the item is with him if he was searched before by enemies.

Planning Ahead: Sages add their level to their Initiative rolls. All characters that go after him must declare their intentions.