Rulings Require Rules

I hate disagreeing with Matt Colville.

One, because he is an unprecedentedly wonderful resource for GMs, by all accounts a top-rate employer, and an exemplary creative professional. Two, because he so often gets things perfectly right and I don’t want to be misconstrued as saying Matt Colville is fundamentally wrong-headed and not worth listening to. Three, because he takes criticism kind of poorly and his community, which I consider myself a part of, is very defensive of him. In his “Language, Not Rules” video posted yesterday, he says “Take [this video] in the spirit it is meant . . . you are encouraged to disagree loudly.”

So here I go.

I Actually Agree a Lot

I disagree with that video’s conclusion, but I agree with a lot of the specific points he raises and I think he and I would ultimately come pretty close to agreement if we had a dialogue about it. He is right that 3E’s “a rule for everything under the sun” approach bogged down the game in minutiae and litigation, that rules are a language we use to communicate our role play, and that mastery of language means knowing how to break the rules to invent new expressions. He’s right that minutiae like the comma in “Let’s eat, grandma” can be omitted without anyone thinking you are suggesting cannibalism. He’s right that there is no reward for playing 100% by the rules, and that getting them right is not required to have fun.

Perhaps most of all, he’s right that you should not “waste time looking [rules] up, just guess, and if you’re familiar with the rules, your guess might not be ‘correct’ but it will be ‘good’: your players will think ‘that’s fair,’ and you can move on.” That’s what a good ruling is, and he argues, ultimately, that good rulings are what make RPGs work, not getting the rule for every possible scenario “right.” In fact, he argues that whatever rules are there are just the spelling and grammar of an emergent spoken language that can’t be perfectly described by the rules text, only indicated or approximated: the rules don’t matter themselves, they only suggest and prompt the emergent gameplay at the table. Thus “rulings, not rules.”

The Dark Side of “Rulings, not Rules”

I wholeheartedly agree that 3E’s maximalist approach went well past the point where additional detail’s marginal benefit in terms of robustness and predictability sunk below its marginal cost in terms of rules look-ups/memorization and disputes. I don’t want to return to that. However, I would suggest that “rulings, not rules” simply replaces one extreme for another.

Take the classic example of a DM imposing “realistic” limitations on feats of martial prowess while allowing magical power to increase freely since that’s what the rules indicate and the magic doesn’t run up against real-world baggage in the DM’s mind. Perhaps a more even-handed DM imposes a risk of madness when a mage uses powerful magic. But even then, PC abilities are now like Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously available and not available until observed, contingent on getting the DM’s buy-in. Players have traded disputes over hard-wired rules for negotiations over quantum rulings.

What is lost in that mode is not just the players’ entitlement to the shiny buttons on their character sheet, i.e. their most direct ability to self-express, but also the players’ ability to solve problems creatively. If there are no rules for digging holes in the ground, PCs may never realize they can bypass a dungeon level by doing so, and even if they do they will have to play Mother May I to see if it might succeed. If there are no rules for what acid does to objects, it will be much harder to rely on it in concocting a way to escape the prison of the usurper king because if you pitch it to the DM who had a big thing planned in the dungeon, they might say it doesn’t work that way simply to keep you aimed at what they have prepped. Creative applications of known quantities – not undefined suggestions – are the building blocks of the kind of schemes that are at the heart of so many excellent, dramatic D&D stories.

I think Colville might agree with that in theory, but say that it’s still an improvement over death-by-rulesphyxiation, and that training DMs to be more consistent and more sensitive to and encouraging of players’ fun can prevent the bad scenarios. Lots of tables did it right back in the day, after all. It’s a personality problem, a table problem, not a design problem or a systemic problem. The language metaphor would come up: mastery of language is not obeying every rule but using novel variations of the basic rules to better express oneself. The DM and the players have to have the negotiation to truly explore and express the drama of the story they tell. But I think the problem is systemic, that the old days were full of bad tables as well, and applying individual fixes to systemic problems is a recipe for frustration and failure. I don’t think that means we need to pre-solve every rules problem with a right answer, though.

Laying Down the Law

I have a degree in the Chinese language, so I understand the language metaphor. I also have a degree in law, and I think law is the better comparison, and not just for the obvious reason that they’re both systems of rules. The law is made of rules, yes, but society uses the law’s rules to organize activities with many participants. And not just for the sake of a fair competition, but for people who want to cooperate to achieve a goal together. When two savvy businesses enter into a contract, neither of them is controlling or policing or gatekeeping the other, they are clarifying their agreement very precisely and making their cooperation as predictable as possible. Predictability enables and encourages action in a group.

But complexity undermines predictability. Law, like 3E, wants to create the perfect answer for every scenario ahead of time, so while any question has a theoretical answer, the process of making an agreement is so complex that it’s difficult to predict what will end up happening anyway. It requires immense knowledge of a complicated ruleset to execute the kind of interactions both sides want. That, frankly, doesn’t benefit the law that much, and it is certainly unacceptable for TTRPGs, where the game moving forward is more important than the answer to any one question.

That’s where rulings come in. But first, let’s talk about language as self-expression.

Fickledorfs and Padawaggers

The audience of a play or a novel or a YouTube video is passive, and the context of the invented expression will passively inform its contours. The precise meaning is unimportant because the author will simply avoid scenarios where “blue flavor” could be ambiguous, like referring to a sad flavor as well as referring to blue raspberry. But RPGs are not passive experiences, they are participatory. They don’t just tell stories, nor are their rules just there to generate improv prompts. They also create expectations and inform choices, inform role-playing.

If you’re called up on stage at a game show and told to use the fickledorf to shmurt the padawagger, you will be lost until you see more context, like a hammer lying next to a nail. But if there is a hammer, a saw, and a pair of scissors on one table and a nail, a log, and a piece of paper on the other, suddenly the invented language isn’t clear anymore because it’s no longer confined to a context that makes it clear; any one of the former could be the fickledorf, and any of the latter the padawagger you must shmurt. The language is no longer actionable, and the game can no longer be played, because neither the text nor the context give foreseeable meaning to any choice.

Rulings Require Context

We communicate a lot, if not predominantly, through context. That’s why “let’s eat grandma” is not confusing, even without the comma. It’s not that commas are actually meaningless, it’s that context does the heavy lifting despite the text. And so it is in RPGs: rulings rely on mechanical and fictional context. Good rulings flow from good rules. Colville even says good rulings come from familiarity with the rules, and the players’ response to a good ruling is “that’s fair.” And that is telling; in Colville’s own description, the DM is pitching a novel mechanical resolution and the players are assenting to it based on what, exactly? Based on the context of the rest of the game’s rules and the fiction. The DM is resolving this action in this way because that is how similar actions are resolved in the rules. That’s why it’s “fair;” it is precedented, it is foreseeable; it is consistent with other, similar resolutions.

Good rulings flow from good rules.

Rulings are a useful tool in a DM’s toolbox: use the rules you know to resolve an action whose resolution is unclear, either because you don’t know the rule or because there is no rule or because the actual rule is terrible and doesn’t fit the fiction, or whatever other reason. Good rulings fill in the creases and gaps in a necessarily limited rule-set in a foreseeable way that is substantially consistent with that rule-set and the fiction of the game.

In general, though, rulings supplement rules, they don’t displace them. The rules establish the baseline expectations for both players and DM, the foundation on which players make role-playing choices and DMs make rulings.

What Even Are Good Rules?

3E’s problem wasn’t that it wanted to give DMs the tools to adjudicate any scenario, it’s that its tools were too specific, they couldn’t be generalized. You had to learn each of them, and they tended to be complicated in their operation to ensure every angle was covered. The 4+ step process to grapple is the most famous example, but building monsters was also frighteningly complicated with the number of feats and other rules you had to track and apply properly. The rule-set was robust, sure, but its tools and processes were just so needlessly difficult to learn and difficult to use.

The ideal is a rule-set that resolves similar things similarly and simply, that naturally creates the model for further rulings. Fifth Edition made a wonderfully flexible, easy-to-use mechanic in Advantage/Disadvantage, but then also adds a bunch of other ways to improve rolls, like Bardic Inspiration (+d6-d12, depending on level), the bless spell (+d4), and the Archery Fighting Style (+2), among many others. It’s inconsistent on when rider effects on monsters’ attacks , e.g. vampires and vampire spawn have multiattack and can choose to grab a target they hit in lieu of dealing damage, whereas the mind flayer’s tentacles attack deals damage and grapples and has a chance to stun the target. How stealth works is infamously open to interpretation. And let’s not get started on “melee weapon attacks” vs. “attacks with a melee weapon.” While it’s got a fraction of 3E’s complexity, it still has a lot of fiddly, inconsistent rules that offer little guidance for rulings in a game that explicitly endorses rulings over rules.

Shadow of the Demon Lord has a more consistent approach. Bonuses and penalties are condensed into a system of boons and banes, e.g. d6s that are rolled with the d20. You take the largest d6 result and add it to or subtract it from your d20 roll, depending on if you rolled boons or banes. Spells like bless, advantageous positioning, the aid of a comrade, those all give you a boon or two, consistent across the board. 5e would benefit from adopting that consistent approach, both in terms of setting expectations for players to be creative around, and in terms of making ad hoc rulings easier to be consistent about.


I think on some level Colville would agree that neither absolute rules fidelity nor absolute rules freeform is ideal for most groups. Whether you lean on rules or rulings, what you want is a consistent, predictable mechanical context in which to explore dramatic situations without bogging down the free flow of the narrative aspects with either extensive litigation or negotiation.

To my mind, that means a well-defined ruleset that uses similar building blocks as widely as possible to create clear expectations and predictability on both sides of the screen. The drama and shock and surprise should come from the choices of characters and the dice, not the ad hoc resolution mechanics.

Rulings are integral to any TTRPG, but they are ultimately tools that serve their greatest purpose in the context of consistent, clear rules. Jettisoning the latter and filling in everything with rulings can work, just as the opposite can work with the right group, too, but common, shared, comprehensible rules that set expectations for actions and for rulings will facilitate action, and thus, in the semiotics of TTRPGs, communication, more than rulings or rules alone.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive D&D

The book Art & Arcana is probably the first of its kind: a history of the art of Dungeons & Dragons. Interlaced in the text is the history of D&D itself: its creation, rise to popularity, controversy, business changes, edition changes, fall in popularity, and apparent renaissance. The first generation to grow up in an age where D&D was popular have become the first elders of a tribe, transmitting for the first time the culture of playing D&D to a generation of players that is larger than any that came before it.

But what is D&D? Defining D&D has proven difficult for a long time, because the game is played slightly differently at every table, creating a broad spectrum of experiences that each claim, with basically equal authority, to be D&D.

Some are theatrical, with improvised acting, accents, or even props/costumes, where a disagreement between the dice and the drama should be resolved in the latter’s favor. Others are tactical challenges that dare the players to plan and execute character builds and combat tactics that will keep them alive in a meat-grinder of a dungeon with little grand design behind the function of presenting the challenge. Still other games are downright goofy, where characters are named after pop culture icons and the NPCs are there to be punchlines. Most games have a mixture of these. Some are even more esoteric.

This is still the most accurate statement of “What is D&D?”

On the other side of that experience, the books those groups are using might be different editions: there have been 5 official editions, but there were certainly more forms before 1st edition, 2nd edition had optional rulebooks that vastly changed the game, there was both a 3.0 and a 3.5 edition, a 4e and a 4e Essentials, etc. Depending on the mix of books at the table, the game worked very differently. Even if two tables used the same books, house rules can change the experience extensively.

Beyond that, there are a number of games built using the same building blocks as D&D: the six attributes, armor class, hit points, d20, etc., but which have never been called Dungeons & Dragons. Some of these used the material released under the Open Game License from 3rd edition days (and renewed to some extent in 5e), like the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, while others took the mechanical inspiration of later editions but reached back to the simpler, grittier gameplay of editions that predate the OGL, like Castles & Crusades, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and other OSR games.

One thorny issue in defining D&D is deciding what is not D&D. Is the use of the D&D logo the dividing line? The use of the OGL?

I want to explore the proposition that, at least for some purposes, all of them are D&D, from TSR, WotC, Paizo, or Troll Lord Games.

Continue reading

D&D Combat Strikes Back

Michael Shea just wrapped up a series of articles over on D&D Beyond about running D&D in the Theater of the Mind (meaning without miniatures or a grid), why to do so, how to do so, and how games like 13th Age have developed guidelines to steer it, and how to borrow mechanics from less tactical games like the FATE RPG. TotM combat is a great tool with a little elbow grease, but it necessarily rounds off some of the corners of the base rules, like the many races and classes that have differing movement speeds, weapon/spell ranges, and differences between areas of effect.

But what if we want to swing the other way? Make D&D combat more tactical, not less. Could it be more engaging throughout the round instead of just on your turn? In a game of 5 players and 1 DM, each player goes on their turn, and then sits out the rest of the round unless they need to roll the occasional save. So in an hour-long combat, each player is only active about 10 minutes. Could you change all of that while not slowing down combat and maybe even speeding it up? Where could we find inspiration for that kind of thing?

But before we get there, there’s another, more theoretical reason I want to talk about these specific rule ideas (scroll down to “Obi-Wan Has Taught You Well” if you’re impatient).

You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

In 2012, I wrote an article describing an epiphany I had about D&D combat: dealing damage isn’t interesting. Especially if you are a martial character (e.g. Fighter, Barbarian, Rogue), you spend your turn attacking an enemy, but whether you succeed or fail, the tactical landscape is entirely unchanged. Sure, rolling really high damage for a crit or a sneak attack is fun, but damage itself? It’s hard to engage with.

So I slapped together a damage/HP-less idea for combat, where you either killed the target outright (crit success), had a chance to kill them (success), did nothing (tie or marginal failure), or they had a chance to kill you (significant failure), or you were killed outright (crit fail), based on your margin of success or failure. So you could kill the other guy on the first hit or be killed yourself on your own turn, if your attack was that bad against their defense. And then a bunch of other things would ride on your attack, as well.

It was riddled with problems from a conceptual level, which several comments pointed out. Underlying those criticisms was an important counterpoint to my article: just because damage/HP isn’t interesting in itself does not mean that it is unnecessary. Damage and HP still play a critical role: pacing.

The primary utility of damage/HP is pacing: you will have ~X rounds to fight monsters until they kill you, and vice versa. Things like damage resistance or immunity, healing, temporary HP, and regeneration add in puzzle elements or other complications in that X gets shorter or longer if you have the right tool for the job, but the sine qua non of damage/HP itself is a pacing mechanic: the tension starts low and ratchets up as your HP goes down.

HP is dressed up like “toughness,” but it’s not really about toughness: armor doesn’t interact with your HP, though that is a common variant rule because it seems like it should if HP is toughness. The Player’s Handbook defines HP as “a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” In other words, they’re basically plot armor so that you can handle an appropriate amount of enemy without much urgency, and some more with a lot of urgency before you’re really in danger of death. Put another way: a pacing mechanic. QED.

This is why systems that put the cart of “toughness” (e.g. using HP inflation as a major part of power growth) before the horse of the pacing function often end up with one of two problems in higher levels: either a fight is a huge slog because damage doesn’t keep up with HP bloat (the padded sumo effect), or, if there are effective-enough save-or-dies available, it’s over too fast because players learn to just use those until one hits (rocket launcher tag). In the latter case, it has effectively turned into a damage/HP-less game, with no real pacing mechanic built in, like the one I whipped out for the old article.

So leaping from “damage isn’t interesting” to “let’s get rid of damage” was ill advised. But the basic premise, that just dealing damage is boring, still holds true. Every turn should do more than just move the pacing mechanic along: the tactical calculus should be different after you hit than before, even if just slightly.

Cham outlined the seed of the right idea in another article: his point was that to get the dynamic movement we’re used to seeing in action media, where the opponents range over the environment as they clash, remaining stationary had to be lethal, a result you took only if you were cornered or surrounded, and the default action then should be to move away from your attacker.

Obi-Wan Has Taught You Well

Enter, wargames. Specifically, the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game by Games Workshop, which uses what I assume was once a version of Warhammer rules. Let’s look at how combat works in MESBG, and then adapt some of that to a D&D context.

In MESBG, each player commands a squad of creatures and instead of turns, each round is separated into 5 phases: Priority, Move, Shoot, Fight, and End.

In Priority Phase, both sides roll off to see which has priority for the round. This becomes important.

In the Move Phase, the side that has priority moves their creatures up to their movement allotment in inches. If you move within 1 inch of an unengaged enemy creature, though, you must charge into melee with that enemy and can no longer move. Once an enemy creature is engaged by an ally, it no longer threatens that area, so other creatures can move within 1 inch of it. Creatures with reach weapons can engage enemies from immediately behind allies already engaged with them (i.e. they can attack from the second rank, and some even from the third). All engaged combatants will resolve their attacks in the Fight Phase. If a creature has Magical Powers, they can typically be used only during the Move Phase. If a creature moves more than half its movement, it cannot make a ranged attack in the Shoot Phase. After the side that has priority finishes moving their creatures, the other side can move their unengaged creatures, if any.

In the Shoot Phase, the side that has priority makes any ranged attacks from its unengaged creatures that moved half their movement or less. There are rules about how difficult it is to shoot a target based on distance, how much of the miniature is visible from the perspective of the attacking miniature (as in yes, you bend down so that the miniature is at eye level and look at how much of the target is covered by the model terrain on the board), and whether the miniature is engaged in combat or not. The other side then makes any attacks from its unengaged creatures that moved half their movement or less.

In the Fight Phase, the engaged creatures are grouped into their distinct melees, breaking into as many distinct melees as possible with the side that has priority settling any ambiguities about who is fighting whom. The side that has priority then decides in what order to resolve the melees. Fights have three steps: Duel, Loser Backs Away, and Winner Makes Strikes. Both sides roll a contested Fight check to determine who wins the Duel. The loser(s) must back away 1 inch from the winners: if the loser cannot do so because they are surrounded by enemies or cornered by geography, they are considered Trapped. Then the winner(s) roll to land a Strike on their retreating opponent: if the opponent is Trapped, they roll twice the dice, meaning they can inflict more than one Wound. Most creatures in the game are defeated after taking 1 Wound.

Finally, in the End Phase you resolve certain effects, clear away casualties, and get ready for the next round. Then it goes back to a new Priority Phase where both sides roll for priority again, so the side that controls movement and melee resolution often switches.

You’ll Find I’m Full of Surprises

You can import a few of these concepts or a lot, with varying degrees of elbow grease to make it work in the context of D&D:

At the low end of the spectrum, there are ideas you can adapt without changing much. For instance, take the Priority Phase and team initiative ideas:

At the beginning of each new round, every creature rolls initiative to seize the initiative. The team of whichever creature rolls the highest goes first. Creatures on the same team can move and take their actions in any order, then initiative passes to the next team, until all teams have taken their turns.

Optional rule: A creature can use Inspiration to act out of order at any time.

This does not require any other change to the game to work and has several benefits:

  1. You get into combat quicker because you only care about the highest initiative score on each side: it actually removes the several-minute process of rolling and recording 5-15 initiative scores.
  2. Higher initiative bonuses are noticed more often because they get to help more since it is rolled more than once per fight.
  3. Combat is much more dynamic when the turn order varies from round to round, including times where one team will go twice back-to-back (e.g. losing initiative in the first round while winning it in the second).
  4. It encourages more active cooperation and strategizing, because turn order on a team is fluid, so you can make a plan and then immediately execute it. (Of course, so can the enemy).

Now, if you’re willing to take things one step further, implement the movement/engaging rules and the backing away/Trapped ideas into melee combat:

Opportunity Attacks are removed.

You can Engage an enemy within reach of your melee attacks as part of an Attack Action or as a Reaction. You and your target are both Engaged. An Engaged creature cannot leave the other’s reach, cannot Engage another creature (though other creatures can Engage them), and cannot attack any creature other than a creature with whom it is Engaged. A successful melee attack or taking the Disengage Action ends the Engaged condition.

When a creature is hit by a melee attack, it can move 5 ft. away from the attacker, which does not count against its movement for the round and does not trigger an Engage Reaction. If the creature still has movement for the round from its speed, it can move beyond the free 5-foot step away. If the creature does not or cannot move away from its attacker(s) (because terrain or other creatures block any path away), then any successful attack is considered a critical hit, regardless of the die roll.

If a creature can make multiple attacks, it can roll them simultaneously or separately. If simultaneously, the target only moves back once. A creature can Engage an enemy, attack, push the enemy back, then move and Engage/attack/push all over again as many times as it has attacks and movement.

If more than one creature on one team is Engaged with the same enemy creature, all the Engaged allies should resolve their attacks together before the enemy moves away (if possible).

These rules make tactical positioning much more important, and also creates a dynamic battlefield where players will be keeping an eye on exit routes at all times, trying to set up flanking or cornering an enemy before they are flanked/cornered themselves.

Unlike Theater of the Mind, which diminishes differences in reach or movement speed, these rules emphasize them. A level 5 Monk has five attacks to make (Attack action = 2, Flurry of Blows = 2, Martial Arts Bonus action = 1) and 35-45 feet of movement (depending on Race) to make them across: that means she can potentially maneuver an enemy across a battlefield in a single turn, or clear away multiple enemies, allowing an allied Rogue to punch through the enemy line to the spellcasters in the back.

The added stickiness of Engage relative to Opportunity Attacks means that front-line types are more effective (albeit by cannibalizing some of the benefits of the Sentinel feat). At the same time, the added movement means that people move more, and the right tactical movement can quickly change the tide of a fight.

But why stop there? You can fundamentally change the structure of combat with just a little more tweaking in a way that still adds value.

Each combat round is divided into 5 phases: Initiative, Move, Shoot, Fight, and End.

During Initiative phase, every creature rolls initiative to seize the initiative. The team of whoever rolls highest holds the initiative for this round.

During Move phase, the team that holds initiative first moves into their chosen positions, and the other team(s) follow.

During Shoot phase, the team that holds initiative first makes any ranged attacks or casts any spells (but not melee spell attacks) it wants from creatures not Engaged in melee, followed by the other team(s).

During Fight phase, the team that holds initiative determines in what order to resolve the melees that have formed. Attacks from all creatures in each melee are rolled simultaneously, and whichever team rolled the highest attack value is the winner: the losers’ attacks deal no damage, and all losing creatures must move back or suffer an automatic critical if the winner’s attack value(s) hits their Armor Class. The winner can choose which loser or losers its attacks hit.

During End Phase, all ongoing effects are resolved, including Death Saves.

A character can use Inspiration to move and take actions at any time, outside the usual order.

This changes things. A lot. It would require at least a tweak if not a rewrite of many abilities and possibly rebalancing HP and damage since melee attacks that otherwise would hit and deal damage simply won’t when the other side rolls higher and wins the Fight, though criticals might happen more often with flanking/cornering.

But it solves one of D&D combat’s most entrenched problems: the fact that you rarely have to pay attention to anything outside your turn. It breaks down what was once a “turn” into its pieces and allows near-simultaneous resolution of similar actions, so the flow of combat is more energized and streamlined: it draws you into the tactics as a team, not just as an individual character on your turn.

And Fight Phase is way cooler than D&D melee. Instead of two chunks of HP slapping each other at arm’s length until one falls down, the two combatants actively seek out a good position or create one for themselves, and when your raging Barbarian is surrounded by 4 Goblins but wins the Fight anyway, pushing them all back, it is 10x as exciting as each Goblin missing you on their turn and then you hitting one or two on yours. That dynamic drama in melee is sorely missing in vanilla D&D combat.

You can take this all one step further and replace the 1-inch square grid with a tape measure or ruler: now you’ve gone truly old school.

I Am Your Father

Role-playing games split off from their parent hobby wargames back in the 70s. One avenue of development for them in the decades since has been to get more abstract and “rules-light,” relying on conversation and the Theater of the Mind to reduce the complexity of combat. Even then, folks find it useful to write down zones on cards to off-load the mental task of tracking the space their characters are in.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are rulebooks that have many layers of derived statistics for each character and a modifier for every circumstance. But what “rules-heavy” systems usually lack are rules that make use of the grid-and-minis that D&D assumes when it measures distance in 5-ft. increments, gives varying movement speeds as class/race features, includes reach weapons, and features a wide variety of spell shapes. These wargame-inspired rules do not make the character sheet or dice rolls any more complicated, they just make movement more possible and more important, while using a new structure for combat that minimizes “zone-out” time and makes melee far more interesting.

It’s fascinating that looking to wargames has revealed what might be a shot-in-the-arm for D&D combat. Instead of teaching an old dog new tricks, the old dog is teaching new dogs its tricks. I intend to write up a tweaked Combat chapter to work with these rules, a sample of play, and then to go through and write tweaks to races, classes, and spells for them, too. That will be an ongoing project, but this is the groundwork. Maybe this will all change as I bump into problems. Gutting the action economy and making something new in its place is going to have weird consequences that I won’t understand until I just try and run it through all the permutations of D&D 5e’s options. Hopefully I’ll figure out some rules of thumb for how to convert categories of things in vanilla 5e combat into this more tactical setup, so that I can prepare a total package document. We’ll see how it goes!

Comments and feedback always welcome.

Moving Around

A common complaint about D&D combat is that you don’t really move around much during it. Two characters will get into melee range with one another and then takes turns punching each other until one of them falls down. Then the winner will go find another melee friend to trade blows with. Whereas in source material, fights are fluid. They move, people swing on chandeliers and jump on tables and such.

Continue reading

Dark Lord: Troll King

So, it’s been two weeks since this site had content, mostly because I’ve been running around putting out fires for a while after everything went belly up over in my actual real life. So let’s put up some more Dark Lord stuff while I procrastinate editing more Chrono Cross episodes. After my friend got me a Google Chart that crunched all the probabilities for me, I was able to discern that the stat pre-requisites needed to be tweaked slightly, which is why these ones are a bit different from the Lich King prereqs.

Continue reading

Dark Lord: The Lich King

So I spent some time tinkering with the idea about combining Ars Magica wizard plus grogs with Paranoia competitive party members. Though originally planned for a vampire sire and his childer, I’ve decided to port the idea over to medieval fantasy, because that genre unfailingly gets more traction. Seriously, just look at the difference in popularity between Dungeon World and Apocalypse World. Dungeon World is not a better game than Apocalypse World, but Dungeon World is in Roll20’s top ten most popular games and Apocalypse World is like twenty spots below.

Anyways, the Lich King is one of six dark lords that a player can play as in Dark Lord, with the other five being the Troll King, the Fey Queen, the Demon Lord, the Black Prince, and an arctic themed one that will either be the Frost Giant Jarl or the Ice Queen. Either way, we’re focused on the Lich King right now, and his domain in the crypts. When the Lich King is in focus, the other players roll 3d6 in order six times to generate their grog’s stat line. They’ll be sticking with that grog until they perish, at which point they’ll roll up a new one. After rolling, they compare their stats to the following to see what kind of class they can play:

-Lich King (dark lord). Has debuffs and can raise mindless undead minions controlled directly by himself. Good against hero-type enemies (single, powerful enemy with high AC and low or no DR who can be buried under crit-seeking goons).

-Death Knight (lieutenant). Requires 16 CON, 14 STR, 12 CHA (0.3%). Undead knight, hits hard, moves fast, good defenses, bad at swarms (compare Black Prince).

-Necromancer Acolyte (elite). Requires 16 INT (4.6%). Weaker version of Lich King.

-Vampire Duelist (elite). Requires 14 DEX, 12 CHA (6.1%). Glass cannon, moves fast, hits hard, folds quickly under enemy damage, can ignore enemy AoOs. Good for bringing down a squishy but dangerous backline enemy, can hopefully survive the retaliation long enough to get away.

-Vampire Blood Mage (elite). Requires 14 INT, 12 CHA (6.1%). Control and leech healing magic, squishy but has no reason to leave the backline.

-Ghoul Bruiser (elite). Requires 14 CON, 12 STR (6.1%). Slow but powerful, works well with a Blood Mage to keep evasive enemies close enough to nom on, can also serve as bodyguard keeping squishy vampires close enough that anyone who wants to attack them will face retaliation from the bruiser.

-Ghoul Assassin (elite). Requires something like 14 DEX, 12 CON (6.1%). Waits patiently, analyzing a foe with bonus, move, or even full round actions before striking for massive damage. Moves slow, can take a beating.

-Skeleton Infantry (troop). Requires something like 11 STR, 11 CON (25%). Congratulations on not being fodder. Mainly you are tough and are basically a bishop in chess, in that your main purpose is to make the battlefield harder for enemies to traverse by threatening lots of squares. You probably have a reach weapon and then a long sword or something as a backup.

-Skeleton Archer (troop). Requisites are 11 DEX, 11 CON (25%). Reasonably accurate and hits harder than infantry or fodder, but not as hard as a bruiser, assassin, or duelist.

-Skeleton Fodder (fodder). No stat requirements. You’re probably screwed, but you get some kind of prize for reaching higher levels with one of these nobodies. Or you can charge headlong into the first trap-filled corridor or powerful enemy party you find and hope your fragile bone body crumbles to dust so you can reroll.

So how common are any of these classes to actually show up in a basic Lich King party with no upgrades? This common:

00.3% are Death Knights
04.6% are Necromancer Acolytes
05.6% are Vampire Duelists
05.6% are Vampire Blood Mages
01.0% can be Vampire Duelists or Blood Mages
05.6% are Ghoul Bruisers
05.6% are Ghoul Assassins
01.0% can be Ghoul Bruisers or Ghoul Assassins
29.0% can be elites of any kind
05.6% are Skeleton Infantry
04.9% are Skeleton Archers
10.5% can be Skeleton Infantry or Skeleton Archers
21.0% can’t be elites but can be troops
49.7% must be Skeleton Fodder

25.0% can be Skeleton Infantry. Of those, 1.5% each can be a Necromancer Acolyte, 0.3% qualify as Death Knights, 6.1% can be Ghoul Bruisers (i.e. everyone who qualifies as a Ghoul Bruiser qualifies as Skeleton Infantry), 3.0% can be Ghoul Assassins, 1.5% each can be Vampire Duelists or Vampire Blood Mages. 5.6% can be Skeleton Archers as well, and the remaining 5.6% must be Skeleton Infantry.

25.0% can be Skeleton Archers. Of those, 1.5% can be a Necromancer Acolyte, 0.1% can be a Death Knight, 6.1% can be Ghoul Assassins (all Ghoul Assassins could be Skeleton Archers), 3.0% can be Ghoul Bruisers or Vampire Duelists, 1.5% can be Vampire Blood Mages, 4.9% can be Skeleton Infantry as well, and the remaining 4.9% must be Skeleton Archers.

That summary there looks like it took ten minutes on the back of a napkin, but it was seriously like two hours of effort. A friend says she’s working on something that will automate this, which is good, because there’s already a major flaw that will require some revision: Even without any upgrades at all, elites are more common (30% of all spawns) than troops (20% of all spawns). My current plan is to add one more requisite stat at 10 to each elite, which should shift the probabilities down towards 20% elites, and hopefully the troops will absorb the 10% the elites vacated. If fodder end up eating too much of that 10%, some new troop types might be needed that key off of stats besides CON, STR, and DEX. Currently thinking Necromancer Cultist (12 INT, 10 WIS) and/or Vampire Thrall (10 CHA, 10 DEX, 10 INT), both of which have probabilities in the same neighborhood as the 11/11 sets that the skeleton troops have. I’m not looking forward to spending another two hours crunching numbers to see whether or not the two new troop types are necessary or not, and I am especially not looking forward to spending two hours crunching numbers at least once per dark lord type (this assumes that my first guess is correct every time).

Alternative Party Structures

The overwhelming majority of tabletop RPGs rely on the same basic party paradigm that’s been with us since the hobby was some house rules for Chainmail: Three to seven dudes with varying skills work together to accomplish some shared goal. Even if the goal is something mercenary, like amassing wealth, it’s a conceit of the game that the party will work together rather than double-crossing each other for a bigger share, and the game goes very poorly if that conceit is ignored[1]. Even if one person is very noble and idealistic and another is very mercenary and cynical, it’s assumed that this is going to be a buddy cop story where the two overcome their differences and learn to work together (and also there’s a third guy, but he doesn’t roleplay so much, mostly just swings his sword at the orcs).

There’s a reason that’s the norm and it’s a good one, it’s hard to mess that up. Everyone is on the same team, no one has any reason to get in anyone else’s way. There’s alternative party structures, though, ones so rare that they can be referred to by the name of the game that created them, because they have never been reused. You might think that this is because they are evolutionary dead ends, but I don’t think that’s accurate. These alternative party structures are interesting and refreshing and while I doubt that they’ll eclipse the original D&D structure for me, there are many games that seem eminently better suited to some other kind of party structure, but which use the classic D&D instead, just on pure momentum, I guess.

The first party structure is what I’m going to call the Paranoia Party, although in this case there is another game that tried the same basic concept, which is good, because it helps shed Paranoia’s party structure from all of its other quirks (Paranoia has a lot of innovative ideas going on, and a lot of it doesn’t really work well for anything else but a dark comedy about dystopias run by paranoid AI that may or may not be a commentary on megalomaniac GMs). That game is Great Ork Gods, and while I think the rules on that game are tragically too sparse to be interesting for longer than one session, I love its more pure and undistracted development of the Paranoia Party.

In a Paranoia Party, the party as a whole has a single goal, but players are competing with one another to accomplish that goal. In Paranoia, the goal is to accomplish whatever mission the party has been given, but you compete with other players to take credit for all successes and deflect blame for all failures. The easiest way to do this is to be the only survivor of the mission, so no one will be around to contradict your story at the debriefing. What makes this tricky is that everyone has six clones, so you either have to kill everyone else juuust before the debriefing, so that their replacements arrive after it’s over and just in time to be executed for treason, or else you just have to kill all of your party members six times. In Great Ork Gods, the goal is to come out the end of an adventure with the most glory (called Oog in the game, for some reason) by killing powerful foes, accomplishing specific objectives of your troll overlord (or whoever’s in charge), and there is a pool of glory for surviving to the end of the session that’s split between any player who didn’t ever have their ork killed and replaced. If you die, you generate a whole new orc with his glory set to the minimum standard of 1 (or 2 if you pick a name that offends the gods – this isn’t always wise).

Both Paranoia and Great Ork Gods have a sort of Fate point, but which can only be used to hinder another player’s rolls, not improve your own. In Paranoia XP, these are called Perversity Points[2], and in Great Ork Gods it’s called Spite. We’re going with Spite because it’s easier and communicates the idea. Spite is the main tool that can be used to prevent a clear leader, someone who has more glory or who’s lost fewer clones than everyone else, from staying in the lead indefinitely. Like being the most powerful person on the board in Risk, it’s actually the most dangerous place to be because you’re the most likely target of an alliance.

Great Ork Gods refines this concept with an innovation Paranoia doesn’t have. In Great Ork Gods, the GM decides which of seven skills is appropriate to roll in any given situation like normal, but he doesn’t set the difficulty. Instead, the player who’s been assigned to the relevant ork god assigns a difficulty of easy, medium, or hard. If they’re using a skill governed by their own god, the difficulty is easy automatically (though it can be modified if other players spend Spite). Why would anyone set the difficulty to anything but Hard for a rival ork, though? Because if an ork succeeds at a skill check governed by a god assigned to another player, that other player gains Spite. This leads to Mario Kart balancing. Players in a weak position are given easy difficulties because it lets other players build up Spite without empowering a more threatening rival, and then they turn around and spend that Spite to jack up the difficulty of the lead player’s skill checks, even when it’s for one of the lead player’s own gods. Someone who’s just had his ork killed and lost all his glory will get a bunch of Bullet Bill and Starman power ups, and someone who’s about to soak up the entire survivor glory pool because he’s the only one who hasn’t died at least once is going to get sniped by a blue shell.

You don’t have to chew up the GM’s role in the game to do this (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). You could have every player have a pool of, say, five Fate points, three curses and two blessings. Every time you spend a curse to harm another player, you flip it over to get a blessing. Every time you bless another player’s roll, you flip it over to get a curse. You can only bless people’s rolls in certain situations, with different players having different portfolios just like the ork gods, but you can curse whenever you want. This encourages players to bless every single roll made in their portfolio by a weak player, in order to build up a reserve of curses so that they won’t run out at a critical moment and possibly be forced to bless more powerful rivals to replenish their supply.

A game that this isn’t used for but would benefit from it is Vampire: the Masquerade. Although direct PvP murder should not be such a prominent feature as it is in Great Ork Gods or especially Paranoia, the idea of competing for the favor of your sire or the prince or whoever (and you could set up a campaign structure that starts with neonates answering to their sire and has them outgrow him only to find themselves caught in a near-identical relationship with a primogen, and then a prince, and then a justiciar) is extremely evocative of the backstabbing intrigue that vampires get up to. If you don’t succeed in your task, the best you can do is try and deflect blame onto your allies, but at the same time you must sabotage your vampiric siblings to stop them from stealing all the glory, and you may have secret missions given you by other factions within the city’s kindred population, missions which may contradict your siblings’ own secret missions or even your primary objective, and then you might have some scheme of your own brewing on top of all that.

The second alternate party structure I want to talk about is the Ars Magica Party. In Ars Magica, everyone plays a wizard. You do not, however, spend very much time in a party together. Instead, each wizard has his own wizard monastery and his own set of non-magical grunts who are not nearly as cool as him. The wizards might work together to some ultimate goal, like defeating a common enemy or completing some kind of megaproject, but they don’t spend a whole lot of time actually in the same room as one another and wizards will probably spend a lot of time pursuing their personal projects, perhaps even to the total exclusion of whatever the common goal is supposed to be. Wizards don’t compete against one another, but they don’t have to be team players, either.

The way this works is that players take turns playing their wizard, and while one person is playing their wizard, everyone else plays a grog in that wizard’s retinue. A grog is a muggle, and their muggle skills pale in comparison to the power commanded by the wizard. Grogs are expendable, if one dies, an NPC from the monastery is promoted to replace them. Your real character is your wizard, and all the grogs you play are just giving you something to do while you wait for your turn.

The obvious downside to this is that you have to be willing to be patient. In a group of four players, you have to be willing to play three hours of a four hour session as underpowered cannon fodder, although on the flip side you also get to spend one hour having other players be your underpowered cannon fodder. The less often you play, the worse this deal is going to be. If you play three times a week, it’s not as big an imposition to spend less time as your wizard than if you play once a month.

It has a lot of advantages, though. Firstly, it’s the only way to properly represent a party whose schtick is that each member wields significant authority. Having tokens on the battlemap who are your minions is not significantly different from having tokens on the battlemap who are the minions of a king, to whom you are also a minion. Spending five minutes on some guild management mini-game isn’t that different from just allocating XP. They’re perfectly acceptable compromises for a classic party, but the advantage of the Ars Magica party is that when the GM says “Rakthar the Vermillion, it’s the beginning of autumn and you’re in your monastery, what do you do,” your response can be “organize an expedition to the Elemental Plane of Fire to retrieve fire mana with which to forge a flametongue” and then you have an actual adventure where you go and do that with your minions, the other players. For however long your turn lasts, you are actually in charge, and when your turn is over, your party isn’t handed over for someone else to completely change course, you go play as a minion in someone else’s party. Your party will be exactly where you left it when you get back to it, and you can keep doing whatever you want with it.

The main thing that Ars Magica lacks is some means of advancing your wizard’s agenda while playing a grog without having every grog you play be a sleeper agent for your wizard. This could be solved by allowing players to accumulate some kind of abstract resource as grogs, like Fate, which they can then spend as their wizard as a free bonus or rerolls on skill checks or for more of some kind of “concentration” resource spent on magical experiments and item creation and the like in their monastery. I’m undecided whether it would be better to have the wizard assign Fate to his grogs from some kind of limited pool or to have the GM do it. If the former, probably for the best to have the amount of Fate available for each wizard to hand out be almost, but not quite, equal to the number of grogs, so that it can’t just be distributed evenly (otherwise there will be lots of social pressure to do just that, which defeats the point), and also it should definitely not be the same pool of Fate that they have to spend from their own grog work.

This is another party structure that Vampire: the Masquerade would benefit from. Playing now as older and more powerful vampires, you switch off between playing as a powerful sire with childer of your own and playing as the childe of another player (perhaps playing in the Paranoia paradigm, where you receive Fate only if you win more favor from your sire than any other (surviving) childe).

Holy Hercules that sounds amazing. One second, I’m gonna go tinker with this.

[1]Usually. Sometimes it works out and it’s awesome, but that’s dangerous and should only be left to trained professionals. Don’t try this at home, kids.

[2]I don’t know much about other versions of the game, except that Paranoia 5th edition doesn’t exist.

Quiet Time in TTRPGs

So that December reboot thing hasn’t really been going according to plan, has it? I’m sure my audience of regulars is horribly disappointed.

Here’s a question that’s been bugging me: Is there room for quiet time in TTRPGs? What I’m referring to is moments in video games right after an explosive set-piece battle when the player is given nothing to do except explore the level for a while, maybe find any spare collectibles they missed, and they can move on whenever they feel like they’re ready for more gunfighting. An important note is that quiet time is not when gameplay is drastically reduced or taken away entirely. Quiet time is not a lobby, especially not a lobby that doesn’t even have chat. It’s not a cut scene (even if it’s a quiet one) and it’s not following your NPC buddy as he walks from one door to another. Quiet time is exploring and taking in a level at your own pace, free of enemy interference. It serves a critical pacing purpose by deflating the tension so that tension can be built back up again, instead of turning into a Michael Bay style constant, fatiguing malaise of maximum energy that becomes dull. I was going to link a YouTube video by game design pundit and recovering hipster Chris Franklin on the subject, but I can’t find the damn thing, so my text explanation will have to do.

How could you translate this to TTRPGs? Direct conversion is clearly impossible. Collectibles just don’t make sense in a TTRPG, not in the way they serve as a vehicle for quiet time, anyway. You could have collectibles attached to random loot tables, like having some awesome magic item like a Ring of Three Wishes be split into components (say, seven golden balls each marked with between one and seven stars) and let players quest for them and that would essentially be a collectible quest, but you wouldn’t find those things by tediously dragging your token across each and every room of a cleared dungeon and rolling a new Perception check each time, and at the end wondering if you should run through every single room again just in case you missed one of those Perception checks. TTRPGs don’t have any sense of movement, which means there’s no sense of exploring the environment. You can have a sense of discovery still, of finding out what’s over the next ridge, but you can’t have a mini-game where you try to find a small and easy to miss thing in a large and complex level.

Unless, I guess, you have complex custom maps which are visually clear enough to communicate necessary information in fights but also visually complex enough that a keen-eyed player can spot a hidden magic item like it’s a hidden objects game. That would be cool and it would be quiet time, but is well outside the ability of most GMs to create, so it doesn’t really solve the problem.

What about roleplay? A bit of relaxed conversation can serve as quiet time, but this can end up feeling more like a loading screen or a cut scene than quiet time. You’re stuck listening to this NPC while the GM deflates the tension so he can build it back up – except the GM is also deflating the momentum, which is different and bad, because you don’t actually care to shoot the shit with these particular NPCs. If the climax that was just reached happens to be of emotional importance to one or more NPCs, or even if it’s only of importance to PCs and the NPC is just there to prompt a discussion about it, this can work great. PCs discuss how they’ve been affected by what just happened or what they just learned. It gives people a chance to establish their character, brings all the PCs’ motivations to the forefront (which helps remind players why they as individuals as well as their teammates care about the quest outside of the metagame reason that they showed up to play D&D and don’t want to leave early), and it releases some tension to give the GM something to build up to again.

You can’t always do this either, though. What if the PCs have little to talk about? What if the events weren’t much of an emotional blow for anyone? What if you’re playing through a published adventure, and it turns out that your motivation of “save the world from Tiamat” is going to keep through pretty much the entire thing, without much need for discussion? What if all your players but one have a barely sketched out motivation to play at all? Having NPCs along for the ride who all have emotional reactions to what’s going on threatens to turn the game into that NPC’s story instead of the party’s, and there’s no guarantee that any of your players will be able to out-soliloquy your NPCs and thus retain the spotlight.

Is there a way to add quiet time into a TTRPG that can be done with the average GM’s resources and skills without relying on the players to have sufficiently well-developed characters to carry a scene with just a little prompting? Bear in mind that the solution (if one exists) doesn’t necessarily have to involve roleplay at all, although I suspect that’s a fruitful avenue of investigation.

Dinosaur Riding Barbarians: Classes

I’ve made a few posts about the setting for the game I’ve been working on, working name Dinosaur Riding Barbarians, and the “working for [whoever]” sections gave some idea of what you can actually do in this game. In the interests of providing a closer look at the game as a game, here’s a quick rundown of the ten classes that will probably be in the game. Not all of these classes have actually been designed yet, so some of them may prove unworkable once I get into the nuts and bolts, but I feel pretty confident about them.

Continue reading

Sphere of Influence: Sword Coast

I made a book. It’s an examination of the Sword Coast from the perspective of conquering it in the style of my earlier blog post on spheres of influence. I’m atrocious at marketing, I can’t write decent summaries and I have no idea how to make a good book cover, but it’s pay what you want so drop a penny on it and give it a look. If the stats on the raw downloads look good enough, I may come back to write another on the heartlands region (including the Moonsea, Cormanthor, etc.) and we’ll see how it goes from there.

Dinosaur Riding Barbarians: Stego-Hittites

The king of the Stego-Hittites is not considered a god, a speaker for a god, or even a descendant of a god. The king of the Stego-Hittites is first among equals, the man who is in charge because someone has to be and he seems to be doing a good job of it. This has two important consequences. First, Stego-Hittite society is relatively egalitarian, with most social mores being enforced by mob justice and most disagreements being deferred to judges, who are appointed informally and ad hoc, and whose only legal power is that they are respected enough to command the loyalty of the able-bodied men of the village. Generally speaking a judge will select and groom his successor (often one of his children) and the community will accept the succession upon the judge’s death, but a judge can be cast out at-will. Disputes between villages are settled jointly by their judges, and if they cannot agree, they appeal to the king. Sometimes the king will appoint a regional governor to act in his stead over a certain area.

Continue reading

Economies of Pangaea

Pangaea does not have a modern economy. When Pangaeans trade gold coins for a cow, it is not because the gold coin has an arbitrary value which the government recognizes when collecting taxes (which is what makes paper or digital money inherently valuable – you can pay your taxes with it, which means everyone needs it for something). In a pre-modern economy, a gold coin is valuable because it is made out of gold. The coin itself is a valuable commodity. You can melt it down and make fine jewelry out of it. Gold is used as currency because the ratio between its market value and its weight and volume is more favorable than almost any other commodity (precious gems have it beat, however, and those can also be used as currency). A gold coin might have its value stamped on it for easy reference, but it derives that value from the fact that it is made of gold, not from a government’s mandate. It is completely legal for a private individual digs some gold out of the ground and uses it to mint their very own coins with their very own face on them, so long as those coins are made out of real and pure gold (merchants checking for counterfeiters test for purity, not accuracy – they do not care who minted the coin or how well they followed the standard pattern).

Continue reading

Dinosaur Riding Barbarians: Dino-Egypt

There is no part of the Laurasian desert where life is easy, but in Dino-Egypt it is at least safe, stable, and prosperous. From a powerful capital covered in shrines and temples that magnify the magical might of the Pharaoh and his sorcerous priests, the rulers of the kingdom command distant cities by virtue of their mighty navy and the mutual reliance of all cities on the royal engineering corps to maintain the vital canals and the royal priest caste to maintain the weather. The Pharaoh’s greatest duty is to keep pleased the god of the river, and thus keep famine at bay.

Continue reading

Dinosaur Riding Barbarians: Brachiosumeria

Brachiosumeria is a collection of city states each led by its own priest king, each of which venerates a specific patron deity. Temples within the city still offer charms and prayers for other deities (though a specific deity’s services may be suspended if they’re patron of a city the temple’s city is at war with), but one god in particular is considered higher than the rest. Thus, a citizen of the fire god’s city can still get blessings from the god of night, or the god of war, or the god of the sun, but they’ll do it by going to a temple run by fire priests where the fire god is venerated above all others, and will probably be required to make sacrifices to the fire god in equal amount to whatever god they actually want to solve their specific problem.

Continue reading

Dinosaur Riding Barbarians: Tyrannassyria

I have discovered what is possibly the worst reason conceivable not to update a blog about geekery, with a particular emphasis on tabletop RPGs. One of the reasons why updates have been spotty lately is that I haven’t been able to get together with my brother and play Hoard of the Dragon Queen lately, which robs me of my easiest source of filler and makes posting M/W/F updates difficult. That’s not the worst reason, though. The worst reason to stop updating a geeky blog is because all your free time is occupied by designing the setting for a tabletop game. Which you then don’t blog about. I don’t even know why it didn’t occur to me that the things I am writing right now could be copy/pasted into my blog with very little effort and it would be a perfectly good update.

So here’s the fluff I wrote for Tyrannassyria (working title), one of the kingdoms I’m writing up for a game called Dinosaur Riding Barbarians (also working title), which is basically about a vaguely Conan-esque aesthetic but also there are dinosaurs freakin’ everywhere.

Continue reading

Announcing Vow of Honor KS!

A few episodes back, I mentioned that I had done a little bit of writing work for an upcoming KS project. The project is called Vow of Honor, a new role-playing game by Sigil Stone Publishing, and the kickstarter is now live! Vow of Honor puts you in a world spiraling into chaos and tasks you and your companions with saving it: Continue reading

Dungeons & Definitions, Part I

John Wick penned a controversial article, “Chess is not an RPG,” purporting to define role-playing games, which is only slightly easier than rhyming with “orange,” if the blogosphere’s reaction is any indication. He says that having a working definition helps Game Masters focus on the right elements of play. Here I agree, though I think it’s really more important for game designers than GMs. Either way, to help GMs, Mr. Wick defines role-playing games as games “in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.” From this he concludes that the focus many games and players have on elements of balance is misplaced, since weapon tables, for instance, have little to do with character motivations or story and don’t advance those elements of the experience. On both counts, I respectfully disagree. Continue reading

Announcing the Critical Insignificance Podcast!

Podcasts seem to complete blogs. Sometimes, there are interactions that you can’t really capture in an essay or article. Sometimes people don’t have the time to sit down and focus on words, and would much rather listen to a discussion while they do something else. As of today, Chamomile and I are proud to announce that Matters of Critical Insignificance will now cater to both sides of the information-consumer coin. It is my privilege to unveil the Critical Insignificance Podcast, a biweekly (that’s once every two weeks) romp between Chamomile and myself discussing, creating, and critiquing movies, games, and any other critically insignificant topic.

Our first episode, below, probably sounds like a first episode. Bear with us, we are fast learners and it will get better. That said, our first episode explores the line between evocation and conjuration and “telling” in both computer and table-top role-playing games. We take the film and fiction adage “show, don’t tell” one step further for interactive media: “evoke, don’t tell.” Whether that’s in creating a character in a video game or in creating an adventure for a Dungeon Master to run, designers/writers need to stop writing where the interactive player can pick it up on their own and run. Or do they? There’s also a side order of Cham channeling his inner Poe in more-than-a-decade-old The Sims. Yeah, we’re that kind of premium.

Without further, ado, then, and for your listening pleasure, I give you: the Critical Insignificance Podcast!

…Or Download Here

Creative Commons License
Critical Insignificance Podcast by Matters of Critical Insignificance is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

The Noise Before Defeat

Sun Tzu once said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” I assume, then, that strategy with tactics is the quick, noisy way to victory, but I guess that wasn’t poetic enough for Sun Tzu to say directly.

Sun Tzu + Internet Meme = Bad Pun

Sun, I am disappoint.

I’m not going to try and improve on the Art of War, but you know what does need improving? The tactical positioning system used in D&D-style RPGs. Currently, D&D’s positioning system is plagued with legacy issues only a 2,500-year-old general could love. No disrespect to Mr. Sun, but this town deserves a better class of elf game, and it starts with updating one of the core fundamentals of the combat engine: the battle grid. Continue reading

Quests and Travel: Campaign Structure

It is my pleasure to introduce the first non-me contributor to Matters of Critical Insignificance, my esteemed colleague and partner-in-crime (movie forthcoming), Chamomile.  He will be contributing expert articles into the foreseeable future.  Matters of Critical Insignificance, as you know from the About page, was originally the creative mantra of two guys slinging ideas back and forth.  With Chamomile, this blog finally realizes that original potential.  Enjoy, and subscribe to never miss a critically insignificant thing!  -Stubbazubba

As pointed out by the Alexandrian, dungeon crawls serve a useful purpose in that they give a default response to your next decision on an adventure-level (go down another corridor) while also allowing for crazy Scooby Doo plans that makes RPGs more flexible and fun than a computer game (use the Barbarian’s earth-shattering blows to drill down through the floor). Likewise combat has a default response (attack an opponent) but also allows for unusual responses (swing on a chandelier, knock over a bookshelf). These sorts of things are useful because if someone isn’t sure what to do next, then instead of hemming and hawing for half an hour trying to come up with a plan, they can just default to the standard action and things will keep moving (this isn’t to say that someone won’t hem and haw for half an hour in the middle of combat if the rest of the group lets them, but it certainly happens far less often than if you don’t have a default action).

That’s the purpose of the Quest System. This is a system-agnostic sub-system for adding in rules generally oriented towards a sandbox game about either winning a war (or a warring states period) or taming a monster-infested wilderness. Or both. The system works by tying the completion of a quest to a measurable decrease in the hostility of the region in which that quest is located, thus when you clear out the Troll Fens in the Kingdom of Generica, it will actually get safer to travel through them. Further, some threats, like, say, a scheming necromancer or a conquering warlord, actively spawn more quests at regular intervals, making their region more dangerous and eventually expanding their influence into other regions nearby (thus, if the party doesn’t do anything they will eventually conquer the world).


Getting into details, here is how you, as a GM, set up a campaign to run on the Quest System:

1) Divide up your campaign world into regions. Each region should be of roughly the same size, and should be big enough so as to potentially contain anywhere between one and four separate quests, depending on how plagued by nasties the region is. If you’re playing a campaign in a single city, each region could be a single neighborhood. If you’re playing a campaign that spans a continent, each region could be an entire nation, or even a cluster of multiple small ones.

Another important consideration is how long you want your campaign to last. Each region is probably going to end up being home to about 2-3 quests on average, and each quest will probably take an average of 1-2 sessions to complete. Multiplying 2.5 quests by 1.5 adventures, you’re probably going to spend about four sessions (technically 3.75) in each region (though not necessarily in a row). So for a year-long weekly campaign, making allowances for not being able to play every week due to real life interference, you’ll probably want about 10 or 11 regions. If you’ve got a stable group that can play the same campaign for years, you can go crazy with 20+ regions. If you only play once every month because you’re all very busy, you’ll probably want only 3 or 4 regions. However many sessions you want the campaign to last, divide by four and that’ll be a loosely accurate answer. Note that online everything takes at least one and a half times as long, so it’ll probably be better to divide by six instead (and you might also want to make allowances for a group that is more distracted than normal, or more efficient; if you’re playing with a regular group, plug however many sessions the average adventure takes in place of the 1.5 given above and recalculate).

That’s a lot of math. Can’t I just wing it?

Sure. A lot of people don’t especially care that their campaigns are rarely seen through to completion because they don’t pay much attention to how long things will realistically take to play. This isn’t true of me, personally. I like my stories to build up to an ending and then actually end rather than going on forever, and I’m left disappointed whenever a campaign fizzles before completion. But some people prefer serial adventuring or have no preference one way or another, and certainly it is much easier to just make the campaign world really friggin’ big and know that you’ll never ever run out of content. If that describes you, you can ignore the math part of this almost completely. This is especially true if you’re playing with a system where character advancement is limited or where levels or skill points are given out at arbitrary points. You don’t have to worry about delicately balancing the math such that the level 2 quest will run out at the same time as the party hits level 3 if you’re handing out levels whenever you want. Just arbitrarily declare that the party has hit level 3 after they complete the last level 2 quest (or after they finish one or two level 3 quests, if they’ve decided to push ahead). You’ll still want to follow each of the steps, you just don’t have to worry about getting the math right anymore: Choose a number that seems cool to you and roll with it.


If you don’t have the chops to play Pokemon the way real men do, you might appreciate a less math-heavy campaign generation process.

Let’s go ahead and make a small example here. To keep things simple, let’s assume we want the campaign to last just four months (about a semester, ish, depending on where you go to school), played weekly. That’s about sixteen sessions, and we’ll assume that everyone is a scheduling wizard who will magically make it to each one. The group will play at the typical pace of 1.5 sessions to the completion of one adventure, and the GM (who we will call Elimomahc) is going with the standard 2.5 quests per region, so that’ll come down to 16/(1.5*2.5)=4.26, which we’ll round down to 4 (which is also what we get if we simplify 1.5*2.5 to 4), so that’s a campaign map with four regions. Elim decides that trying to represent anything epic in scope with just four kingdoms would feel like the cliffnotes version, so he goes with a single medium-sized kingdom plagued by internal troubles since the death of the old king, a wise and just ruler: His bastard son was passed up for the throne and has sworn revenge on the kingdom, crowning himself the Black Prince, while at the same time a vampire necromancer who has slumbered for a hundred years has risen from his crypt and begun raising the dead again!

2) Figure out how many spawner quests you want to have. A spawner quest, as the name implies, spawns other quests, and should be used to represent a threat that actively expands its influence rather than simply plaguing travelers foolhardy enough to wander near their den: Necromancer lords, orc hordes, conquering warlords, and that sort of thing. A spawner quest spawns a new quest at the end of each strategic turn, which lasts as long as it takes for the party to go from one region to another on foot (having horses allows you to move twice as fast, and other mounts might allow you to go even faster). Thus, it could be a few hours if your campaign takes place in a single massive city or a month if it takes place across an entire world. For example purposes we’ll assume that the strategic turn lasts about a week.

Thus, each week a spawner quest rolls whatever die is associated with it. If it rolls a 0 or lower, a new quest is spawned. Each week that a quest is not spawned, add a stacking -1 modifier to the next roll. Each week that a quest is spawned, reset the modifier to 0. Thus it is impossible to spawn two quests in a row and a smaller die is going to spawn quests faster by about 1 week per die step (i.e. a d4 spawns a quest approximately once every 3 weeks, a d6 once every 4, on up to a d12 spawning a quest every 7 weeks).

Each spawner should spawn one of several specific quests attached to it (i.e. the necromancer should spawn undead related quests, not just anything pulled from the Monster Manual, and there should be more than one in case he ends up spawning several before the party finds the time to take care of him). Since in practice a party can usually complete two quests per week and you have about 1.5 sessions per quest, you’ll probably take an average of 3 sessions realtime to complete one week gametime, which means that the total gametime length of your campaign can be loosely calculated based on the total number of sessions you plan on having (which should also be reflected in the total number of regions you have as in step 1). If your campaign is going to last about 30 sessions, that means it’ll last about 10 in-game weeks and that a d8 spawner quest taken out at the midpoint, 5 weeks in, will probably spawn just one quest. If you space your spawners out evenly, it means that any given spawner will on average last until the halfway point of the game (the longevity of your most distant spawners being cancelled out by the mayfly lifespan of the spawners right next to the starting point).

Thus you can loosely calculate how many quests will be spawned by taking half of the total number of in-game weeks you want your campaign to last and determining how many quests will be spawned within that timeframe (express fractions as a decimal, round to the nearest tenth, it makes for easier addition and this is already a pretty loose approximation so don’t worry too much about rounding errors).

ImageElim only has 10 quests to work with in the first place, so he decides the Black Prince and the Necromancer will be his only spawners. 16 sessions divided by three sessions per in-game week means that the whole campaign will likely last about five weeks in-game, maybe six, so if those spawners are going to get anything done they’ll need to move fast. Each will spawn on a d4, and thus each will spawn one quest every 2.5 weeks or so. This means that each one will most likely spawn only a single quest on average, but in practice it will probably be the case that one of them will be defeated before spawning anything while the other spawns two quests. To be safe, Elim writes up three quests for each of them, but to save on effort he makes them mostly identical, with the same supporting NPCs and basic plot, only changing a few details to reflect the different villains (the Black Prince uses a sinister army of orcs and goblins while the Necromancer uses zombies and skeletons, basically), and makes a mental note to make sure that only one quest from each pair of clones makes it into the game.

3) Place static quests. Static quests don’t grow or expand, they just sit around menacing the same area forever. Since you already know that each region should have about 2.5 quests in it on average, you can then add the number of spawned quests to the number of spawner quests, subtract the result from the number of regions multiplied by 2.5, round the difference down to the nearest whole number and that is the number of static quests you need. Typically static quests should be side-quests mostly unrelated to the main plot, in case players grow bored with it and decide they want to go and try something else, or to give them a breather when they mop up remaining quests in a certain area. Either way it serves to keep the main plot fresh and exciting for groups that play frequently. Groups that are only playing once a month to begin with probably don’t have to worry about this.

Do I need to have exactly 2.5 quests per region?

No. Statisticians have probably already thought of a half-dozen ways in which my model reflects assumptions that will most likely not be accurate in play (here’s one for free: If spawners near the starting area spawn slower on average than spawners far away and players do not go out of their way to destroy rapid-spawners early, there will be more spawned quests than the calculations in step 2 and 3 indicate). The idea here is not to get an actually 100% accurate idea of how long everything will take in- and out-of-game, but to make sure that the length of the campaign loosely correlates to how long you’ll be playing. If your group has a strictly limited number of game sessions together because, say, once the semester is over the group is guaranteed to disintegrate as half of you graduate and the other half rob a bank before fleeing to Mexico to enjoy their ill-gotten gains, then you’ll just have to live with the fact that any kind of sandbox game runs a high risk of being cut off in the middle of the endgame. Sandbox means unpredictable. If your group’s a bit more flexible, though, it’s nice to be able to sit down and plan a yearlong campaign that you can reasonably be certain will actually take 9-15 months or so to complete.

Continuing our example, Elim notes that he has two spawner quests which will each spawn one quest on average, and room for about ten quests total. He makes six static quests and seeds them as various threats unrelated to the two main villains: Bandits, an ogre warlord from the badlands trying to expand his territory across the border, an alchemist who’s lost control of his animated suits of armor, which are now mindlessly slaughtering the peasants. When it rains, it pours.

4) Determine region threat. This step is easy. For each active quest currently in a region, the threat of that region moves up one step on the ladder (an active quest is any quest whose antagonist is actively menacing the locals, regardless of whether the party has decided to do anything about it or even heard about it). A region with no active quests is Peaceful, a region with one active quest is Restless, a region with two is Border (whether that’s the border of the frontier or the border with enemy territory), a region with three is Dangerous, and a region with four is Hostile. If a region has four quests already, any new quests spawned into it will shift a quest out into a neighboring region.

5) Create random encounter tables. Everytime you travel within a single region or into in adjacent region, you get exactly one random encounter. If you’re crossing multiple regions, you will get one for each region you enter (note: This should not be common, do not put the only hook for a quest in a different region from where that quest takes place, as this sort of campaign is specifically not intended for Lord of the Rings style campaigns where the main plot is about a dangerous journey).


As explained by the experts.

Each table should be built around at least a d6, preferably a d8 (go for a full d20 if you like, but keep in mind that most of these encounters will not be seen). However, every random encounter in a region’s base table is going to assume the region is Peaceful and therefore the random encounters are generally helpful things, and the best encounters should be at the bottom (i.e. a roll of a 1 or 2). If there’s an active quest in the area, it’ll replace the bottom two results with hostile encounters based on the quest, thus locking the player out of the best results until the quest is cleared.

But that means low rolls are better than good ones, which is the opposite of how it usually works!

Unless you have even a single active quest left in the region, in which case low rolls mean monsters attack instead of a friendly merchant or whatever. That said, as an alternative you could have the hostile encounters replace the high end ones instead, but this means high rolls are bad unless the area is Peaceful, and keep in mind that once an area is Peaceful the party probably won’t spend any time there anymore, since there’s nothing left to do. An alternative if you don’t mind a bit of extra bookkeeping, however: Put the best helpful encounters at the top and the mediocre ones at the bottom, then add quest encounters on the bottom of the table (i.e. the first batch would be results 0 and -1) and add a stacking -2 modifier to the encounter roll for each quest active in the region.

What kind of encounter could really be helpful?

Most GMs aren’t used to thinking of useful random encounters, so here’s a few ideas: A friendly Cleric (or whatever your system’s buffbots are called) has just returned from curing sicknesses and offers a minor buff out of one of his remaining spell slots, free of charge (and if the party has completed quests in the region, he might be doing it to thank them for doing so; ego stroking is probably the reward your players seek above all others). A merchant passes by and offers the party discounted wares or a rare magic item not available for purchase in town. The party finds a wandering noble is on a religious pilgrimage to fulfill a vow to give gold to every worthy traveler he meets on the road until he has spent all that he has, whereupon he will join a religious convent; the party are the latest lucky winners. The party come across someone in need of help, but in a perfectly mundane and not life-threatening way, like a merchant whose wagon has snapped an axle and could use some help repairing it (this could either be one of the mediocre results, or the party could be awarded a small XP bonus for succeeding in helping him out, essentially a risk-free XP prize for two minutes realtime and only an hour or so gametime, both negligible costs).


Certain parties might have less altruistic means of acquiring their bennies, but the same principle applies.

Elim names the regions of the kingdom Everdale, Wessen, Morgrimm, and Necris. If he had a lot of regions to go through he might share the standard encounter tables across several of them, but since he’s only got four he decides to go ahead and make a separate encounter table for each one, filling them in with various helpful travelers or benign flavor text. Wessen has friendly merchants, mercenaries who will offer their services to the party, wagons with broken wheels, a particularly breathtaking sunset, and other things of the sort. Elim then writes up a two-entry table for each of his quests, each entry containing a pack of hostile creatures relevant to the quest: for example, the Black Prince’s stronghold plagues nearby lands with ogre shocktroops (a pack of 1d6+2 ogres who roam the land demanding tribute from all they encounter and pulping anyone who refuses to pay) and ettin enforcers, terrifying giants who wander the land until summoned to “problem villages,” which they then proceed to level, often single-handedly. And these nasties are in addition to the monsters who come wandering in from the quests the Black Prince spawns!

6) Determine system and scale-appropriate ways of determining how quests are located and the toll travel takes. The first is easy: Upon arriving in a new location (or exhausting the quests they currently know of in an existing location) the party can roll whatever is loosely equivalent to Gather Information in your system. A basic success (equivalent to DC 10 in 3.5e) should tell them of one quest, either randomly selected or whichever the GM thinks is most appropriate. Further success will reveal more quests (continuing the 3.5e example, each 5 points you beat the DC by might reveal one more quest, so a 15 reveals two, a 20 reveals three, etc. etc.), and if there’s no quests left in the current region they’ll learn of those in adjacent regions instead. The party can only attempt this check once per week.

The toll taken by travel is usually more difficult (and also something you may wish to ignore entirely if you don’t especially want to reflect how difficult it is to travel through dangerous areas). D&D 3.5e might, for example, use a Fortitude save whose DC is dependent upon how dangerous the region is or how difficult the terrain is, and you take some sort of persistent debuff that lasts until you rest in town if you fail. If you’re in a system where daily healing is not freely available (as it is in 3.5e with Clerics), then some amount of damage might also be appropriate (alternatively, if your scale is small enough that travel from one region to another takes an hour or two rather than days, damage might work even if you have daily healing, however in this case it makes less sense to have travel be so arduous in the first place).

Aren’t the random encounters enough to reflect the danger of a region? This save against difficult terrain seems unnecessary.

For some groups it might be, so feel free to ignore it (but if you ignore the other rules in this system we’ll send assassins to murder you), especially if it doesn’t make sense with your scale. That said, it can be a helpful way to differentiate between places overrun with dangerous monsters and those that are just hard to walk through. It can also be used as a substitute for random encounters entirely if you want to place less of an emphasis on a region’s danger without ignoring it entirely (and if your system has a single combat skill, you might roll that in place of a Fortitude save, to represent the party hacking through some trash mobs on the way to their destination).

Since Elim is working with a vague and unspecified system that is very much like D&D 3.5e except when it is different from it, he decides that the harsh rigeurs of travel can cause some minor damage if the party fails a Fortitude save, and that Gather Information can be used to locate new quests.

7) And on the seventh step, the GM rested. You now have a complete campaign framework. It has a default response (investigate for rumors to nearby quests and go take care of the problem), a limited resource to manage (specifically, time, as the spawner quests mean that the enemy is always on the march), and allows for unusual responses within its framework (convince the necromancer and the Black Prince to fight one another so that they’ll be destroying one another’s armies instead of expanding into your territory). Here’s a few other quest types so you don’t have to wing it every time a threat doesn’t fall perfectly into the “static” or “spawner” categories:

Bunker Quests fortify another quest, so that the fortified quest is more difficult so long as the bunker quest is still around. Typically, all spawned quests should be bunker quests that fortify their spawner. This encourages players to destroy the mooks before taking on the big bad instead of racing straight to the big bad’s stronghold to take out the Black Prince and then mop up his armies afterwards. Not only does this fit your typical heroic fantasy narrative better, it also prevents the party from jumping from one spawner quest to the next without bothering with any of the quests that get spawned by them.

Jumper Quests “jump” into another quest instead of going away when they’re completed. For example, you might have a spawner quest called Orc Warlord who spawns various quests: Orc Horde, Ogre Shocktroops, Demonic Allies, whatever. But maybe the idea behind this isn’t so much that a single warlord is the big bad, but a vast amorphous army of nasties is rampaging about, expanding their territory and drawing more monsters in. You don’t want the spawner to spawn more spawners because that means the party might find themselves suddenly steamrolled by an exponentially growing threat they didn’t even know about two weeks ago, so instead you make the Orc Warlord a jumper quest. Whenever the quest is completed, it “jumps” into one of its spawned quests, replacing it. As soon as you kill one Orc Warlord, another one rises up from one of the remaining Orc Horde or Ogre Shocktroop quests, so the threat won’t be pacified until you destroy all of the enemy armies.


So a WAAAAGH, basically.

Sleeper Quests are quests which don’t count as active quests even though the party can still go and solve the problem. Maybe they wake up once something happens or enough time passes, or maybe they’re just some kind of perilous quest the party can undertake for loot or glory which doesn’t involve removing any kind of actual threat.

Lazy Spawners only spawn quests when there’s room in their current region. Once their region has four quests already, they stop spawning. These quests are great for local baddies who you don’t want to spiral out of control and conquer the world, but you do want them to do a lot of local damage if they’re left unchecked. You can also have a lazy spawner with a small spawn die which spawns regular spawners with much larger spawn dice in order to have a baddie who acts very quickly to restore his control over his home region, but expands much slower once his backyard is secured, or a bad guy who spawns faster than any one spawner can and can replace his spawners when they go down, but doesn’t cause an exponential explosion in spawned quests.