Some thoughts on the new 5e DMG

Yup. Authentic DM.

I got the new Dungeon Master’s Guide from Santa, and now I’ve spent some time browsing through it.

And I must say I definitely like it.

I like that the book actually strives to give DM’s tools to construct and create stuff rather than just interpret or guide them.

I also like that the book offers a multitude of options for the same thing, and that it caters to different genres of fantasy gaming by offering tips on how to customise stuff to facilitate various gaming flavours.

To compare, I leafed through the other two DMGs I own: the AD&D 1e Dungeon Masters Guide and the AD&D 2e Dungeon Master Guide (Yes, they are actually named a bit differently).

The 1e DMG is the original and what all other DMGs come from. It’s an awesome book, although I must confess that Gary Gygax’s choice of language always put me off a bit, as did the lack of organisation. Back in the day it was also my least used book, as I most often looked for things in my well-thumbed Moldway-Cook b/x books instead. Looking at the book now, I must say it’s a most useful and solid thing.

As I left AD&D about when 2e came out, I have no play relation to it, but I got the core books cheap a few years back and I quite like them. The 2e DMG offers better language and organisation and also differ in content. I especially like the discussing nature and the offering of various optional methods for doing things. Sadly, there is also a notable absence of random tables and good advice on how to construct your own worlds and adventures.

I have never read the 3e or 4e DMGs so I can’t comment on them, but I’ve read the Pathfinder Core book and it bored the hell out of me with all little snippets of rules-es and balance-es. Bought it, read it, sold it.

Other books with very solid DM sections are Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, where topics you have never seen before are discussed – like religion and the nature of the immortal soul. FH&W is actually not that different from 5e, but retain backwards compatibility with the old editions of the game.

I also like the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. It has a lot of advice for DMs and on how to construct and run a game. And it is actually the first D&D book where I’ve seen a discussion on analysis/balancing of encounters (see pages 100-101 of the RC). The system is way too complicated, but as can be seen it’s not a new concept at all as the RC is from 1991.

Things I’m less fond of in the 5e book are XP budgets and the (in my mind) overtly complicated rules on balancing encounters, how many “rests” a bunch of murder hobos should have in an “adventuring day” and other meta-gamey stuff. I’m also disappointed with the hit point bloat for monsters. Come on, 100-200 hit points? Why? It can be that the designers wanted a way out of the “characters level up, so monsters must be bigger and badder”-thing, but I’m not sure this is the right way. I guess that that will be evident when we are approaching high level play…

Also, this book with all it’s options might suit an old DM dog well, but I imagine it would be quite daunting for a newbie DM at first.

To conclude – the 5e DMG is what pushed me over the “hesitation threshold” over GMing a 5e game. Good stuff, and usable for DMs of any edition of D&D or any OSR game really. I’m not 100% convinced that 5e is my game yet, but it’s a darn good mix of cool things from all editions and above all a fun read.

Well done, Mr Mearls and co-workers 🙂

Now we just wait for the PDFs, right?

The Year of the Horse in gaming retrospect

Undead horde

2014 has been both a lousy and a great RPG year.

Lousy, because our at the table sessions have been quite few and also laden with real intra-group conflicts between some of the players. This has finally resulted in a player quitting the group altogether. Sad when such things happen, but maybe the remaining group will function better without the tension. We’ll see…

Good, because I finally tried online gaming, and hit precisely right in a new 5E game with some awesome people!

Anyway, the games we have played this year has been:

Pathfinder – The first half of 2014 was spent playing Parts I and II of the Falcon’s Hollow adventures with the main group (with me as a player).

Swords & Wizardry Complete – The original version of No Country For Weak Men, followed by Dyson Logos’ Ruins of the Gorgon (from Dysons Delves I) and  J. Raggi’s Tower of the Stargazer for my son and nephew (with me as GM).

OpenQuest 2/Renaissance – I also started an unholy mix of d100 mechanics and the Ravenloft setting. The campaign have been a slow starter, but finally we took off and now we’re in the middle of the Night of the Walking Dead module. Awesome! (I’m the GM in this game and if you are interested you can read more about it here and here’s some actual game recaps).

D&D 5th edition – Finally, I answered an ad for players on Google Plus, and ended up playing some really awesome home brew adventures with a group of cool people from all over the world. We play once a week and started out with two players, then three and now we are five. All are 5e noobs, and it has been a very good way to try and to learn the new rules in a stepwise fashion. When we started we used the free basic PDFs, but now we’re using the full rules.

So, what about next year?

Since my PhD now is conquered and my new work assignments more in place, I imagine that there will be more time for gaming in the coming year. This is my 2015 RPG playing wishlist:

Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play – I’ve collected most of the books for WFRP 2e, and I really want to run it for my group. It’s a little daunting, as my experience with the game is limited to a few sessions as a player in a WFRP 1e game a long time ago. One of the players have played 1e some more, but it’s basically new ground for us. I’ve been thinking of running the Enemy Within, but I think I will go for some shorter adventures first.

Blood & Treasure – The game that gets the most tick marks on my OSR game feature wish list, as it manages to include most of the cool stuff from all old editions of the game (maybe OSR+?). In other words, it’s the OSR game that I need to house rule the least. I plan to move over the above S&W Complete game to B&T to try it out, and if it works out fine, I’ll use it for my upcoming dark fantasy Nexus Mundi game (which is my hack of Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque) as well as one-shots and old TSR modules.

Fantastic Heroes & Witchery – My other favourite OSR+ game, that I want to use for the really dark Nexus Mundi adventures. I think that FH&W is a very good fit for dark fantasy games, and I’m very curious of how it will run.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess – I just love the quality of the books. And the adventures. Yes, the engine is very b/x-like. But the feel and scope is very different. Almost like an OSR version of Kult in the 1500’s. I’d like to run it for my Wife-group – that’s me and the other GM in our group and our respective wives. I ran some very nice Call of Cthulhu sessions last year, and I think that the theme of the LotFP adventures in combination with the lighter rules will be a good fit. We usually meet, have something nice to eat and play and drink wine. Easygoing and not too serious. And my wife is huge horror fan, so that stuff will definitely hit home.

D&D 5th edition – I was quite sceptical to Next/5e in the beginning, but have decided to try to GM a game further up the road. The Pathfinder GM has also bought the books and we have been discussing to co-DM a traditional D&D game in the Forgotten Realms. Might be fun! He has also bought the new dragon modules, so I expect to be a player in those in the foreseeable future. I have read the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual and I know that the Dungeon Master’s Guide is under the Christmas Tree this year…:)

More games on the wishlist that I will put on hold for a while:

OpenQuest 2 – The very cool adventures from d101 games. Or my home-brew adventures based in Sanctuary (the old Thieves’ World box).

Renaissance/Clockwork & Chivalry – The awesome adventures from Cakebread & Walton.

Call of Cthulhu – Masks of Nyarlahotep, Delta Green, Achtung Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark Ages, Cthulhu Invictus…

So many games. So little time.

Skills in Old School Games

Skill use…

Skills.

Mention them in relation to Old School games, and some grognards start to cringe. However, this is not one of those blog posts discussing skills or no skills. This post is about how to handle in game situations in old school games.

Also, I mention just a few systems here. There are many more, using 2d6, 3d6 and so on (just google “OSR skill system”), and they’re more or less complicated. Here, I will talk about the ones that I have used at some point in time and some ideas I’ve been thinking of.

I’m not sure that Old School games is in need of a skill system per se. However, I’m positive that Old School games is in need  of a solid task resolution system. These days, “Bend Bars”, “Open Doors” and “Find Secret Doors” just feels wonky. Not to mention that you can’t do certain things if you belong to the wrong class. Or at least if feels that way. That’s just silly. (Note: I won’t discuss B&T or FH&W in this post, as they already have excellent task resolution systems built into the core system). So, let’s take a look at some of the options here:

Old School Galore I – the d6 system

This is the bona fide old school way. When something is to be resolved, you have a x in 6 chance to succeed. Most of the time, it’s just a 1 in 6 chance, but some classes and races get bonuses to specific tasks. Sadly, the old books failed to give you a broader set of situations so the tasks described are very specific, like  “Find Secret Doors” or “Detect Sloping Passages”. Also, the 1 in 6 chance corresponds to a 16.7% probability of success, which isn’t that hot, especially when you get to keep that lousy probability even when you are level 12. Also, back then, we always got the feeling that “my PC can’t do that” since he’s not a thief/wizard/etc.

Another gripe I have with this is that I think that a 3 in 6 chance should be the default average difficulty (instead of 1 in 6), modified by difficulty and maybe abilities. As the d6 has so few possible outcomes, the raw ability modifiers can’t be used as is.

I would therefore use the following die roll modifiers based on ability scores: Ability Score: 3 to 8= -1; 9 to 12= 0; 13 to 18= +1

Pros: Super easy.

Cons: Static target number. Does not scale with increased experience (or level). Low resolution of results.

Variant: LotFP’s skill system (more and better defined skills and a possibility to get better in those skills).

Old School Galore II – the Ability Check system

When a situation isn’t covered by the rules, old school systems often suggest an ability check. Basically, you try to beat (i.e. roll under) an appropriate ability on a d20. This is improvised on the spot by the GM. Relative difficulty can be achieved by the GM granting positive or negative modifiers to the roll.

Pros: Super easy.

Cons: Static target number. Does not scale with increased experience (or level).

Variant: BtW has a loose skill system, where the player gets to choose 2 skills (from a vaguely defined and open list) that they’re good at. All checks in that field are then +2 or +4 to the roll (or ability).

Akrasia’s Save system 

For S&W players, there’s a fan made simple system out there (Akrasia’s house rules), which is also used in Crypts & Things. The idea is to use the Saving throw number also as a target number for various tasks. The list of tasks is deliberately kept vague, to empower flexibility, but all PCs can do anything. And if you have a specific skill (for example thieves), you get to add +2 to +4 to the roll). Also, the GM can vary the difficulty by using modifiers to the die roll.

Pros: Dynamic target number (depending on PC level). Easy and flexible.

Cons: Vaguely defined skill/task set.

5e’s skill system

I think that the new D&D really have nailed the task resolution system. Everyone can do anything, but some are better than their peers at doing said things. Also, as a GM, I appreciate to have a defined task (or skill) list to choose from when deciding what the player should roll in a given situation. I think that many skill-based games have much too prolific and specific skill lists, which really doesn’t add to the game flow, or conversely that the skill/task list is kept deliberately vague in order to keep flexibility. I think both of those concepts are bad for gaming.

5e has a list of 18 tasks, usable by anyone. Sweet. The GM decides a Difficulty Class (DC) for the roll, which is the target number to beat. The player rolls a d20, adding his ability bonus for the specific task (for example Stealth uses Dex). If you are proficient with a task (defined by class and race) you get to add a special proficiency bonus that scales with level. Easy and fast. I like it a lot. And it’s easily left out if you want to use an older task resolution system instead. Which also means that it’s easily added to any OSR game.

Pros: Quite easy. Dynamic target number. Level and proficiency taken into account.

Cons: The system adds a bit of complexity to the game.

Bolting a task resolution system to your OSR game

Another problem if the system you like haven’t got a built in task resolution system is how to define what skills/tasks your characters are extra good at. Of course you could write down a list of “fighters are good at this” and “dwarves are good at that” and pre-define such things. Another way is to grant the players a couple of things (maybe 2) they are good at. For example, your fighter might be good at “Sneaking” and “Obtaining information”. When such things are happening in the game, our fighter would get some bonuses to his rolls. Also, this makes for some character personalization – why shouldn’t a fighter be able to be sneaky? Or, you define a list of tasks/skills and let the players choose 2 each at start, and maybe they can get more as they level up. Being proficient in a task/skill also means that you get to add your current level as a bonus to your roll (this idea I nicked from FH&W).

My motivation for this blog post is that I want a simple task system to use in adventures and other stuff I post online. It has also got to be flexible enough to be used in several systems and easily translatable to whatever system you guys use.

Dawnrazor’s Old School Universal Task Resolution System mk I

Here’s what I’ve decided to use for my adventures (unless they’re for a system like B&T or FH&W).

1. Task format (in adventure text): Task at hand (DIFFICULTY: ABILITY). Example: Spot the hobgoblin (HARD: WIS) 

This format excludes the actual skill, but since I suspect that not everyone will use skills, or if they use systems with different skill sets and names, it will get confusing. If you are using skills, use the task description (Spot the hobgoblin) to determine which skill would be appropriate in your system, and add those modifiers if applicable.

2. Below, there’s a table you can use as a guide to define task difficulties and modifiers for various task systems. I am well aware that the probabilities aren’t the same, but for me it is good enough at the gaming table. Also, using difficulty to define a target number or conversely, to define a modifier to use against a static target number is very different. And the d6 behave in a whole different way than the d20, probability-wise.

Task/skill difficulty conversion
Difficulty DC Target number d6 chance Roll modifier for static target number
Very easy 5 5 in 6 +4 (or +5)
Easy 10 4 in 6 +2
Average 15 3 in 6 0
Hard 20 2 in 6 -2
Very hard 25 1 in 6 -4 (or -5)

3. I will use the 5e task/skill list as I think it covers a lot in a small and logical package. I don’t know if I’m allowed to write them down here, since there’s no SRD, so feel free to check the free PDF here.

In short:

STRENGTH: All tasks having to do with raw muscle power (like bashing down doors) as well as athletic stuff like swimming, jumping etc.

DEXTERITY: Acrobatic stuff like keeping your balance, climbing etc. Also sneaky stuff like moving stealthily and doing tricksy stuff like picking pocketses.

CONSTITUTION: More used is a passive way, like doing a CON check to see if you can hold your breath or resist the freezing cold in the Silent Valley.

INTELLIGENCE: Basically all knowledge tasks are here, whether it’s about natural things, religious matters or old magical runes. Also used for detective work and investigative tasks.

WISDOM: Tasks about tracking and surviving in a certain environment, medical matters, spotting that hobgoblin or secret door and the ability to determine if someone’s intentions are sincere or if they are setting you up.

CHARISMA:  Covers social interaction like intimidating or persuading someone as well as trying to lure them. Other social and arty skills like dancing, singing and writing a sonnet are also covered here.

4. Classes (and maybe races at times) that can be assumed to be good at something (for example a Ranger at tracking or a Wizard at arcane knowledge) add their current level as a bonus to the task roll. Also, if you use the “good at” system above, or a more defined set of skills, the level bonus could apply. So the 3rd level Ranger above would add +3 to his tracking roll because he’s proficient in that field.

Well, that’s some ideas for thought…