Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A (mini) Setting Hack inspired by The Witcher

No, I'm not talking about the videogame, although I got to know Witcher because of them. However, what really hooked me up was the literature (original) version of the character and setting. More precisely:

- Witcher is a series of novels by polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the first one released in 1992!

- They're heavily influenced by slavic and eastern european myths, which is a plus for me;

- Witcher also plays with a lot of fairy tales’ clichés, often in new and insightful ways (when the novels draws from the Beauty and the Beast it is hilarious; and the part about Snow White is one of the greatest and saddest moments of the first book).

- The novels also go deep in D&D legendarium! A few examples: the 1st book mentions Daos as "earth genies", and you have to remember that Daos aren't mythologic at all (the “original” genies, as far as I know, are djinn, efreeti, jann and marid). Daos were created for D&D, to fill the “earth” niche in the monster entry. The Witcher's description of gold dragons also is based on D&D. There're a lot of others excellent examples (dwarves, elves, clerics, mages etc);

- Not only does Witcher is influenced by D&D and its tropes, but it manages to use monsters in a clever, original and very entertaining way. You have to see how doppelgangers are used… it’s funny (and scary if you think about the consequences);

- Finally, the entire Wichter series is amazingly well written. The books are engaging, the characters are deliciously profane and endearing. The political and intrigue aspects are top-notch (in 1992, way before “fantasy + intrigue” became a gold standard). The series also addresses mature content, like racism, in a very thoughtful way.

So, why am I talking about the Witcher? Because reading those books gave me an idea for a simple "Witcher Hack" that can be added to any D&D campaign setting. 

Basically, if you want a "Witcher Hacked" setting, just choose your favorite D&D world and remove all its humanoid races - except the ones from the Core Books.

Yup. Just that. Nothing radical, I know, but when the play starts... gone are the kobolds, goblins and other generic cannon fodder. They're replaced by bandits, barbarians, foreigners, invaders etc. The first dungeons are probably dwarven mines, elven holdouts, human enclaves etc. When the party start killing and looting enemies, they'll be looting fellow humans (and demihumans) and dealing with the consequences.

It's really something that has already been proposed in a number of places (the old critique against D&D's numerous humanoids races and their use), but the Witcher series implement the idea in a vibrant and refreshing way. The entire series can give great ideas for your campaigns.

Of course, this isn’t for everyone’s tastes. I don’t see anything wrong when you just want to seat down, forget the world and do some good old fashioned dungeon-crawl and ass-kicking. However, if you also like hard choices and dramatic challenges, playing in a Forgotten Realms only with human and demihuman adversaries can be a good change of pace (some D&D settings already go in that direction, by removing the “cannon fodder” label of humanoid races, like – if I remember right – Eberron or Birthright).

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Stealing from the 13th Age - The Escalation Die

Howdy folks! We’re back (sort of). Lately I’ve been considerably consumed by work, work, family, a little more of work, and the fact that both my children inherited my Innate Racial Traits of Asthma (Ex) and Allergies (Ex). So, with little time and the imperative need to sustain my (remaining) sanity, I’ve left this Tower for a while and focused on my biweekly tabletop group.

After awesome 13 sessions of DCC RPG, we ended our “First Season” (at 2nd level yet!) witnessing and surviving (somehow) a titanic deathmatch between Bobugbubilz, Amun Thor, Y'golonac and Daoloth – the latest being the one responsible for our (considerable apocalyptic and Cthulhian-flavored) version of The One Who Watches From Below module. It was a blast and we all had great fun. That was back at February.

Since then I pitched to my table that we should try something different, before returning to DCC-style glorious crawling. At first, we were going to play the new 7th Sea 2nd Edition (the Quickstart), but the hype ended before we could start it, so I was determined to run the RPG that have been my bedside book for a while – 13th Age.

13th Age is a wonderful mix of d20 goodness with a little bit of narrative mechanics (just enough to get a very cool faction-based and improv-heavy game going). 13th Age is written with an experience DM/player in mind and the entire line is probably one of the most enjoyable readings of my life regarding RPGs – light, funny, insightful. You just want to run the game after reading it.

13th Age uses a high octane, high fantasy campaign setting called the Dragon Empire as its base standard world. The 13th Age sourcebooks, organized play and adventures encourage a lot of player input and improvisation. Those features, mixed with game minimalist mechanics (monster have just 4 stats, besides HPs and attacks), create a unique experience at the table. People have said the 13th Age takes the best of both 3rd and 4th edition (like, for example, the fact that it has a 4th edition-like power structure, but is gridless), and sometimes I guess that the game is indeed a spiritual heir do those other games (at my table, 13th Age is called “What D&D 4E Should Have Been”).

Another good thing about 13th Age is that its mechanics are very modular and can be used easily in other (d20 mostly) games. For example: the Escalation Die.

The Escalation Die is a special d6 that measures the rising tension of combat. It starts at 0, at the 1st round of combat, rising by 1 every round (until 6 at the 7th round). The 13th Age player characters are not your usual DCC/Warhammer Fantasy scum. They’re big f*cking heroes! So, they add the Escalation Die to their attack rolls. Now, the cool thing about that is that the game is cleverly designed to reflect that. Most monsters have AC a bit higher than usual (your base goblin has AC 16!), so its normal that at the first rounds of combat, most PC have a harder time hitting… but as you reach Escalation Die 3+ thing start to change. Combat gets fast and exciting, and the Escalation Die really reinforce 13th Age high-action, high-fantasy vibe. In fact, some the PCs’ powers and racial/class stuff only work (or work better) at a higher Escalation Die. This reflects perfectly those media where the hero only use his stronger attack/move in middle/end of battle (from memory I can think only of one other RPG that also use this trick – the Weapons of Gods/Legend of the Wulin). Another cool bit is that certain powers (like the cleric’s Domain of War) and some (scary, scary) monsters also play with Escalation Die (rakshasas, for example, can “steal” the Escalation Die, robbing the PCs of an important bonus).

But don’t let all this 13th Age talk dissuade you of my first and true love – DCC RPG. And because this is a weird Pathfinder/Old School blog, let’s find some uses for the Escalation Die!


Using an Escalation Die in DCC RPG is a no-brainer. DCC already have a smaller modifier scale than Pathfinder/D&D 3rd, so it’s easy just to add the Escalation Die as in 13th Age (i.e. start combat at ED 0, and increase by 1 per round). You add the ED to all attack rolls.

The Escalation Die (or ED) is a good rule to increase the party’s power and get a stronger Sword & Sorcery feel to your “standard” DCC RPG, marking the PCs as heroes (at least as S&S heroes, not as do-gooders) instead of scum for the Funnel.

Of course, we can create new stuff too. How about this one: once per round, one player character can substitute any of his rolls for the ED. How useful is that? Not much at ED 1, but a ED 2 is already a “free jailbreak” against a Fumble. And how about a Warrior using a ED 3+ to automatically do a Mighty Deed of Arms? As you can see, the ED gives a considerable boost to the party, which can fit nicely with a more cinematographic/heroic take on DCC RPG.

And don’t forget to create nasty stuff for your NPCs – some of them could also can use the ED! You could create, for example, a demon with a kharmic strike-ability. Every time a PC uses a ED to substitute one of his rolls, your demon’s next hit gains a bonus damage of ED x d4 (so, if your Warrior wants an automatically Mighty Deed of Arms at ED 3, our kharmic demon’s next strike will inflict +3d4 of damage!).


Let’s start with the basics: PCs add the ED to attack rolls as by the 13th Age rules (you check their SRD here – the Archmage Engine).

What more? Unlikely DCC RPG, Pathfinder (and D&D 3rd) has a higher modifier range, so I don’t think substituting a result for the ED would be useful. If your idea is to increase drama, you could instead rule that the ED is added to all the PC’s threats during attacks rolls. This means that at ED 1, the PCs can score a threat (and thus roll for a critical hit) at natural 19 or 20 result (or just increase a weapon’s threat range by +1). This will result in a LOT of critical hits and can boost a lot your party, but maybe you want a high-powered (and gorier) game, so go for it.

Another option is that the ED generates a pool of communal d6s to be spent during battle. So, at ED 1, the entire party gains 1d6 that can be rolled and added to any one dice roll by the PCs (for example the Fighter uses the d6 and add it to a damage roll, or the Wizard adds it to a Concentration check). To guarantee maximum chaos, I’d make those d6 rolls open-ended (Savage Worlds call them ‘explosive’ I guess) – so, if you roll a ‘6’ at the ED, roll it again and add it. Yup, this increases the PCs’ power considerably, but we’re trying here to simulate 13th Age high-octane heroics. Besides, with more power you don’t gain more responsibility… but your DM have the perfect excuse to add lots of tougher monsters and challenged, which I really love. If you use this option, maybe can use ED as a variant Hero Points rule.

Note that I didn’t say anything about the ED progression. Instead of automatically going by 1 every round (starting at 0), you could rule that to go up the ED needs a special trigger – maybe something simple like hitting an enemy and dealing damage. You could create specific triggers for each adventure. Just remember that the ED was created to avoid long and boring combats, so even if you come up with a “negative ED” (i.e. if the party doesn’t deal damage the ED go down) that benefit monsters, use it rarely for the most unique or climatic encounters.


I haven’t still refereed D&D 5E since the Open Playtests, in part because games like DCC RPG and 13th Age are a lot funnier for me (and more attuned to my designs tastes). I guess that D&D 5E is indeed my eternal “second best option” for d20 fantasy gaming. Anyway, there’re a few adventures for 5E that I either really want to run (Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle) or try (possible Out of the Abyss or Storm King’s Thunder).

Using the ED in D&D 5E seems easy, but I maybe be missing something, as I’m not that familiar with the system. For starts, I’d use it as in 13th Age – PCs get to add the ED to their attack rolls. Because 5E has a limited range of modifiers, the ED really boost a party’s power and makes a great difference.

I could stop there, but then we got Inspirations which (together with Hit Dice) are some of the most missed opportunities of 5E in my opinion (I also love the variant rule where your Proficiency Bonus is replaced by dice).

In this take, once per round, one of the PCs can use the ED (starting at 1) to gain an Inspiration. Simple. If you do this, maybe you should consider removing the automatic bonus to attack rolls.

Another option: instead of using Inspiration, you could rule that – again, 1 PC, once per round –could add a bonus die to any one roll. This bonus dice would start at ED 1 at d4, then go up (ED 2 = d6, ED 3 = d8) until a bonus d20 at ED 6. Again, this is just a suggestion as I didn’t think this through. If you go for this option, remove the automatic bonus to attack rolls.

A weird third option: use the Advantage rule. Here the goal is to increase tension. Basically, the ED grants a number of “free” Advantages (ED 1 = 1 Advantage, ED 3 = 3 Advantages). What’s the catch? The other side also gains a free Advantage each time a PC uses one. For example, at ED 4 the party would have 4 Advantages (to use only on that round, they don’t carry over), but each time a PC used one of those Advantages, their enemies would gain a free use (Personally, I would let enemies accumulate Advantages during combat).

And that’s wall. I believe I could go on (and the people who have been playing 13th probably have tons of house rules for ED already). I’m of a mind to mix ED with Momentum (from the awesome 2d20 system), or maybe granting tactical benefits through the ED (in Pathfinder, for example, you would get a pool of tactic points equal to the ED and use these points on a roundly basis to do things like negate attacks of opportunity or maybe even importing the great Reaction rules from Trailblazer).

See ya!