Category Archives: game design

B/X spells don’t disrupt adventuring?

One often lamented thing about D&D is that many potential adventure situations can’t really be done because there’s a simple single spell that can solve the whole problem. And with 3rd Edition this is definitely the case. Continual Flame? Detect lies? Zone of truth? Teleport without error? What the hell were they thinking?! Any time you have an idea for a spell because “wouldn’t it be neat if you could do that?”, you really have to stop and think how this would affect the obstacle it deals with in the long term. Teleport without errormeans the party will never have to prepare for the return trip out of the dungeon or back to civilization. Any time they face real difficulties they can instantly go to a city or castle of their choice with a single spell. Are you looking for a traitor? Get all the suspects together and have them say “I am not a traitor” after the cleric rested and prepared detect lies. This is such a problem that seemingly every second high level dungeon has magical interference that blocks teleportation and every villain wears an amulet of mind shielding. It’s a ridiculous situation and probably contributed a good deal to 3rd Edition and Pathfinder adventures being overwhelmingly linear combat. And to make matters worse, these games let you very easily make scrolls of all spells you know and even wands with 50 charages. One knock spell isn’t a disaster. A wand that holds 50 knock spells is an entirely different story, though.

So this week I went through the spells in the Basic and Expert sets again to see at which character levels certain kinds of obstacles become easily negated with spells. And to my surprise, B/X is actually doing really well in this regard. There are a few spells that are really extremely useful but they are few in number and even those are not making obstacles completely redundant.

Read Languages

With this spell a 1st level wizard can read any unknown script and language. While it says “any code”, I assume this to mean that it can decode any cipher but still will give you only a literal decryption but not tell you the meaning of secret code words and phrases. While you can read any written texts it doesn’t give you the ability to write in languages unknow to you so you can’t use it to communicate across language barriers. Two wizards who both have the spell prepared could do it if they can make their intention to do so clear, but even then it lasts only for 20 minutes.

Detect Evil

This spell lets a 1st level cleric sense “evil intentions, or evilly enchanted objects”. Since there is no evil alignment in Basic it can not detect that. The spell only provides a feeling of evil but no specific thoughts and it’s explicitly stated that GM has to interprete what evil intentions means in the specific campaign. This spell is not “find the guilty one”.

Continual Light

This spell allows you to make a torch that lasts until dispelled. Or lost or stolen. I’m not really happy with parties not really having to bother with lamps or torches (or only keeping some as emergency backups) from 3rd level on if a wizard gets this spell but it’s not a real disruption of actual major obstacles.

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You’re a Hero, Willy!

Or “I hate rat quests”.

As I mentioned previously, my attempt at building a sandbox for LotFP had hit a wall and I went all the way back to square one to go on a spirit journey and find out why my campaign never turn out as I imagine them. And it really comes down to me accidentally locking all the good content that is meant to be the main feature of the setting away until the PCs have become powerful enough heroes to be able to face them. Looking back it was incredibly stupid, but… Well, there is no real but. It was stupid. It happens, and I believe it’s a pretty common mistake people make. I’ve seen it often enough and warned other people about it. Why I still did it I have no clue.

In my previous post I talked about finding what it really is that the Ancient Lands are about and what needs to be part of every adventure and dungeon in the campaign. But even with that knowledge I was still struggling with coming up with ideas for dungeons that characters at 1st to 4th level could explore without running into unbeatable and highly lethal opponents. And I think I found the solution for that as well.

I took the first step towards oldschool gaming and laid the groundwork for my current worldbuilding when I first looked into the E6 variant for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, which basically comes down to PCs and NPCs being capped at 6th level but monsters keep all their abilities. It allows you to play low powered campaigns without all the 4th to 9th level spells while still being able to play with the rules system you’re already familiar with. It got decently popular and saw great praise, but the one big question the original creator left open, somewhat on purpose, was what it means to be 6th level? Is a 6th level character a legendary one in a million hero, or is he still just as impressive as a low mid-level character in a 20 level D&D campaign and there are hundreds like him all over the place?

When I switched to B/X based rules and leaving the terrible d20 system behind, the question still remained. B/X has 14 levels instead of 6, but like OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed. it has this idea of adventuring being 1st to 9th level and the game then turning into something else. Nine levels plus a handful of legendary figures of world fame beyond that seems like a good yardstick to find the appropriate class level for NPCs based on their powers and accomplishments. But I still was thinking in the categories of low-level, mid-level, and high-level characters. And that was the source of all the problems. A low-level character is a guy with inferior equipment who goes on rat quests in noob dungeons. Whether a character reaches mid-level by 8th, 5th, or 3rd level doesn’t matter. You’re still forcing the players to begin by spending a good time doing things that are “safe” and for “ordinary people”. The whole concept of D&D is extraordinary people doing extremely lethal things, and in LotFP even more so!

Again, like so often, I blame 3rd edition for putting this stupid idea into my head and it did it with the idea of NPC classes. NPC classes are similar to ordinary character classes but are weaker and have fewer abilities, but they still let NPCs go from 1st to 20th level. And that’s just stupid. It’s not just the 20th level commoner that is stupid. Even the 5th level expert or the 7th level adept are stupid. Why do you need a carpenter that has more hit points and fights as well as a 4th level fighter? Why is that powerful orc spellcaster not a sorcerer or a cleric? Even just the harmless looking 2nd level warrior town guard or 3rd level expert blacksmith fly in the face of the idea that PCs are extraordinary people. 6th level PCs are noteworth people and 1st level PCs are noobs who barely can keep up with the plot relevant civilians.

That’s bullshit and I established quite some time ago the paradigm that in the Ancient Lands any NPC without a proper name is automatically a level 0 character. NPCs who are not noteworth warriors or spellcasters are also 0 level and have 1d6 hp and +0 to attack. But even with that I still had that meme in my brain that proper adventures start only once the players have fought their way up to mid-levels. (Basically the content of the first scene in Inception.)

Understanding how I went all wrong very quickly solved my problem with not having any content that can appropriately scaled to 1st level parties. I am just taking a lot of content that I had planned to be suitable for 4th or 6th level parties and adjust the monsters so 1st level parties won’t be instant-splatted. And when you’re playing in a B/X context that’s actually not that hard. Most pretty big monsters are not that well protected and often meant to be encountered in groups of sometimes considerable size. I am still very much in love with the idea of the Nameless Dungeon and to adapt it to the Ancient Lands it will be inhabited by shie, a custom fey creature with 4 Hit Dice. My logi went: 4 HD is meant for 4th dungeon level, whicb is meant for 4th level parties, so if the dungeon is full with them the party should be at least 5th level before getting anywhere near it. But that’s actually not needed. A dungeon build around the shie does not have to have lots of rooms with groups of shie in them. It can still be about them if the players only rarely run into one or two individuals. Or take for example the famous Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: To have an adventure about hill giants you don’t need a party that is able to fight 20 hill giants at once. The most famous giant story is Odysseus and his men in the cave of th cyclops. Only one giant that had the heroes outmatched all by himself. Foreshadowing that the master of the cave is a giant can make exploring a cave full of goblins and giant rats still a giant adventure.

No more “Mr. Kimble I don’t like this Noob Dungeon…” There is no Noob-Dungeon!

XP for magic items?

While I am usually rather against mechanics that are obviously made for gameplay reasons and not for getting reasonably realistic results, encumbrance is one element where I make a big exception. I am a huge fan of inventory slots in pen and paper games. Not because they are in any way realistic but simply because any attempts to measure items by weight or volume end up as such bothersome bookkeeping that people usually end up ignoring encumbrance entirely.

Which in a game of exploration expeditions and treasure hunting is a real shame. You lose so much of the experience of dungeon crawling and wilderness travel when you don’t have to worry about being slowed down by carrying too many supplies. And even worse, when the PCs can carry as much supplies (which are dirt cheap) as they want, then it also becomes redundant to track how many more torches and rations they currently have with them. And really: What’s left then? A Pathfinder adventure! I mean combat! Bookkeeping is not fun, but having to worry about running out of light or throwing away all your food to be able to outrun a monster while still hanging on to all your gold is something I never would want to miss again. And in AD&D 1st Edition and the Basic/Expert gold is not primarily money. Most importantly gold is experience. Your XP take up inventory space and can slow you down on your way to safety.

It always amazes me how deeply interconnected the various elements. Encumbrance, XP for treasure, and random encounters only look like completely different things but they are all a single unit of resource management that really is at the heart of the oldschool experience. If you drop one, the other two no longer work either and there’s nothing to keep the party from having 15 minutes adventuring days and rest after every fight, which is the huge glaring flaw of 3rd Edition and Pathfinder.

As such,I am really a big fan of the Encumbrance system in Lamentations of the Flame Princess which gives each character a number of inventory slots and every item takes up one slot. It doesn’t adjust the item limits based on character Strength but otherwise it’s clearly the right approach. The typical character sheet has a section for items with one line available for each item. Just mark after how many lines the encumbrance limits are reached and you never need to even count how many items your character carries. As long as you leave no lines empty you just have to check whether your item list passes the marked lines. That’s an encumbrance system you can actually use at the table without annoyance.

But now finally to XP: In my Ancient Lands campaigns there is very little use for money. It’s really only needed for big bribes, tributes, ransoms, or for buying really big things. And most people rarely use coins in daily life. So I don’t even bother with individual coins anymore. Instead I simply go with treasure items. In LotFP,a bag with 100 coins takes up one inventory slot. Like LotFP, I think silver is a much more sensible standard coin for normal business and it makes finding gold much more exciting when it’s not something people see every day. So the standard treasure item is worth 100 XP, with a bag of silver coins being the benchmark for how valuable such items commonly are on average. In addition to that I am also using great treasure items that are worth 1000 XP, or as much as a bag of gold coins. This reduces bookkeeping again by a lot. (I really hate bookkeeping.)

XP for treasure is a great system because it rewards players for behavior that you want to see as the GM. It rewards them not for slaying a monster but for getting the treasure guarded by the monster. It seems a bit silly that characters would get better at fighting by collecting coins, but then it’s no more realistic to learn more spells by shoting people with a crossbow. XP for gold encourages players to explore and sneak. XP for combat encourages combat. It actually discourages sneaking and negotiating except as means to get an advantage for a coming fight. I like XP for treasure much better, but the concept behind the Ancient Lands is not just one of treasure hunters but a game of knowledge seekers. Gold and jewels are not meant to be actually that thrilling for the PCs who are striving for a higher goal. Something else is needed to which the players are encouraged by the lure of XP.

By default characters get no XP for magic items. Magic items are useful to the party and give them advantages while in an oldschool game money usually doesn’t. Unless you eventually get into building castles,there’s not really much to do with all the massive piles of gold characters gain on their progression to higher levels. But in my campaigns the search for and fighting over rare magic items takes center stage and so I want to reward it with XP as well. Since magic items are meant to be rare, the players won’t getting their hands on a lot of them. At the same time gold and silver are meant to be less lustrous so I can simply hand out less of mundane treasure to even out the total gain of XP. The main difference is that magic items are worth much more XP but still take up only one inventory slot. But again,this can be countered by giving more silver treasues (100 XP) and fewer gold treasures (1000 XP).

Now assigning specific values to magic items is difficult as they don’t have a value that could be measured in coins. But in the end the XP are awarded for the challenge of getting them and so I consider it a good solution to simply set the XP for retrieving a magic item to 1000 times the dungeon level on which it was found. By which I don’t mean the actual physical story of the dungeon but the difficulty of the Wandering Monsters table that is used for the dungeon level. Often that will be just three or five times the value of a regular gold treasure,but then the players can also actually use the item’s power to their advantage, making it worth more to them than just the XP. I think it’s also a nice rule of thumb for special treasure items like huge gems.

Quick and Dirty Slow Casting Magic System for LotFP

A simple and completely untested variant system for casting spells in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It should also work with other OSR games, but LotFP allows mages to wear armor and use weapons, which makes a severe toning down of spellcasting much less disruptive for players.

Spells work pretty much the same way under this system except that you don’t need to prepare spells in advance and all casting times are at least 1 minute (10 rounds) long. You still need to have spell slots available which are used up for the day when a spell is cast. The effect is that spellcasters become much more flexible in picking their spells when the situation comes up but at the same time lose the ability to quickly intervene with spells in the middle of a fight. All magic requires at least a bit of time to prepare during which the spellcaster can easily be interrupted by any hostile creatures or violent environment conditions.

Many spells need to be cast from hiding, either in cover or in plain sight, to be of any use. I think that I would rule that it’s sufficient for a spellcaster to stand or sit and do nothing and quietly recite the magical incantations at low volume. It would be easy to spot by people who are standing close enough to the caster to hear the magic words or who are keeping an eye on him. Loud background noise or some kind of distraction would be necessary to cast a spell unnoticed while in a crowd. The changes also make a good number of spells effectively useless. The following spells I’d remove from the game. (Fireball and lightning bolt are already not part of the LotFP rules.)

Cleric Spells

  • Command
  • Heat Metal
  • Protection from Evil
  • Protection from Evil, 10′ Radius
  • Remove Fear
  • Sanctuary
  • Silence

Magic-User Spells

  • Army of One
  • Chaos
  • Confusion
  • Death Spell
  • Faithful Hound (if the duration is indeed correct)
  • Feather Fall
  • Globe of Invulnerability (Greater and Lesser)
  • Grasping Hand
  • Haste
  • Hold Person/Monster
  • Interposing Hand
  • Lucubration
  • Magic Missile
  • Magic Sword
  • Maze
  • Mirror Image
  • Mnemonic Enhancer
  • Power Word Kill
  • Power Word Stun
  • Prismatic Spray
  • Ray of Enfeeblement
  • Spell Turning
  • Witchlamp Aura

Modified Spells

  • Charm Person/Monster: The target makes a saving throw at the start of the casting of the spell. If it fails it will simply listen to the casters words and not take any action unless the casting is interrupted by an outside source. The caster of the spell does not look like he is casting a spell on the target but has to keep talking for the entire casting time and observers might notice something strange going on with the target.
  • Enthrall: The crowd starts listening to the caster immediately but can only be persuaded to do something after at least a minute of talking to them has passed.
  • Polymorph Others: The target of the spell slowly begins to change during the casting time but reverts to its original form if the spell is interrupted in any way.
  • Sacrifice: The caster has to be in contact for the entire casting time of the spell, usually making it necessary to restrain the target.
  • Suggestion: The target makes a saving throw at the start of the casting of the spell. If it fails it will simply listen to the casters words and not take any action unless the casting is interrupted by an outside source. The caster of the spell does not look like he is casting a spell on the target but has to keep talking for the entire casting time and observers might notice something strange going on with the target.

A hazy idea for a new OSR magic system

Work hours have been a bit chaotic this month, with frequent evening hours and weekend workdays, so I have not really spend much of the long hours of tinkering with ideas that usually lead to me writing things. But all the overtime hours will get me a lot of shorter workdays after Christmas and there’s not really much to do in a gardening store in January anyway. There’s a lot of ideas floating in my mind that I want to pursue further on lazy afternoons and loudly proclaim my conclusions.

Right now I am occupying my free periods during the day with thinking about adapting my new idea for a magic system to an OSR rules system. Which actually turned out a bit more tricky than I thought.

The main concept is that all characters have an amount of spellpower that is calculated by adding the modifier from Wisdom to the number of levels in the mage class. A 4th level mage with a Wisdom of 16 would have a spellpower of 6 (4+2). Any time a spell is cast or a ritual performed, there is a chance for a missfire based on the character’s current spellpower score. At the end of the casting the spellpower score is reduced by a certain number. Dabblers in magic have a high chance of misfires when performing rituals (which does not require any specific character class) but so do even experienced mages who have already cast several spells that day. I like the concept but don’t have any good idea for how to calculate the chance of failure and how to make a die roll to check for a missfire.

I also think about having three categories of magic. Spells, which take one round to cas; incantations, which take 1 minute to cast; and rituals, which take 1 hour to cast. Only characters of the mage class can learn spells and incantations of limited numbers, but rituals are open to anyone who gets his hands on the instructions. However, I found that I have really very few ideas for traditional spells that would fit with my image of how magic performs in action.

One interesting oddity I noticed a few days ago is that all the effects I wanted my old magic system to do no longer fit with the new system. And a good number of things I deliberately chose to exclude seem highly appropriate for the new system. (Except teleportation, which is still out.) My old approach was highly inspired by Star Wars and Avatar, which spells being extensions of the body and mind. Now I feel much stronger drawn to witchcraft and sorcery that focus on dealing with external supernatural beings. Having just read Hellboy again (a review is one of the things I want to write) probably had a huge impact on that change of mind.

5th Edition Spell Lists for the Ancient Lands

This is a continuation from my last post on houserules on D&D 5th Edition for the Ancient Lands setting. It’s something of a draft as I am still not completely happy with it, particularly the witch spell list being much longer than the shaman spell list. But I think overall this is pretty much what I’ll be going with to give the game a try in my setting.

Ranger Spells

The ranger spells are largely based on the standard ranger spell list but I removed a number of spells that seemed to flashy to me.

1st level

Alarm
Animal Friendship
Cure Wounds
Detect Magic
Detect Poison and Disease
Fog Cloud
Hunter’s Mark
Jump
Longstrider
Speak with Animals

2nd level

Animal Messenger
Barkskin
Beast Sense
Darkvision
Lesser Restoration
Pass without Trace
Protection from Poison
Spike Growth

3rd level

Conjure Animals
Plant Growth
Protection from Energy
Speak with Plants
Water Breathing
Water Walk
Wind Wall

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War Cry of the Flame Princess: Hit Points and permanent injuries

Like many people, I am not a big fan of having PCs be perfectly fine with 1 hp remaining and instantly dead when they are at 0 hp.

My approach to hit points is to not regard them as wound points but as stamina points. A succesful hit means that the target suffers minor scratches and bruises that interfere with its ability to succesfully deflect or dodge attacks and avoid serious injury. When a character runs out of hit points the extortion becomes too high and he slips, suffering a serious wound. It’s an abstraction like any way you can think of hit points, but I think it’s the best approach to have the fiction of the adventure match the rules of the game.

But the bigger challenge is how to handle the situation of a PC being reduced to 0 hp. I have a big dislike of the complex dice rolling and multiple modifiers of third edition and AD&D and I certainly don’t want to go through anything like the trouble of multiple successive rolls to stabilize and recover while having negative hit points. A much simpler approach is this:

When an attack deals more damage to a character than he has hit points left, the remaining points of damage are compared to his Constitution score. If the points of damage in excess of the current hit points is greater than the Constitution score, the character is dead. If not, the character is only unconscious for 10 minutes and permanently loses 2 points of Constitution. This loss of Constitution represents a lasting injury that neither surgery nor magic will ever fully reverse. While unconscious at 0 hp, any further damage will automatically kill the character. A character who regains consciousness is unable to fight or do other tiring activities until brought to 1 hp or more through resting or magic.

There are no saving throws or Constitution checks. Death and permanent injury are always automatic. In my past campaigns characters running out of hit points was always very rare already. Adding a significant chance to negate the effects only makes it even more unlikely that something bad will happen to a character. (Though running Sword & Sorcery dungeon crawls will probably increase casualties in my next campaign a lot.) I had considered to randomly determine whether the ability loss affects Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, or Intelligence, but with hit points already representing the ability to continue fighting I don’t think it’s necessary.

I like this solution since it’s both somewhat realistic in regard to actual battle injuries, and it also matches the habit of many Sword & Sorcery heroes to be left for dead with grievous wounds. As in Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, being almost dead is nothing that a week of rest can’t heal, even if it leaves a lasting mark. With a Constitution score of 2d6+6, this gives a character about three to seven opportunities to cheat death before being too crippled to continue, though it might be worth considering retirement much earlier than that. It’s a lot more forgiving than the standard rules for death, but it’s still something that players really will want to avoid.

War Cry of the Flame Princess: The Witch (spell point class)

My post from earlier this week about using Lamentations of the Flame Princess for a Sword & Sorcery campaign received some interest, so why not expanding it into a series? Probably the biggest change I’ve made to the rules is a complete overhaul of the magic-user class. I am not a fan of the spell slot and preparation system of D&D. Of the three big flaws I see in the game, it’s the one I don’t like the most. (Negative AC is easily fixed and Alignment can simply be ignorred.) Spell slots just don’t mesh with any kind of fantasy fiction except for the Dying Earth novels. It just doesn’t feel right to me. 3rd Editions sorcerer class was a decent first attempt to adress this, but oddly enough the best magic system I’ve ever seen in D&D is the revised 3rd edition psionics system. The edition with the biggest design flaws and the previously most clunky sub-system. The Witch class is the magic-user class from LotFP converted to spell points and with a revised spell list. In my Ancient Lands campaign it’s the only spellcasting class that covers both witches and shamans, as well as sorcerers who have access to a few unique spells.

The Witch

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Everything else is just as the magic-user class. This table assumes that 5th level is the highest level of spells that characters can possibly learn or cast. For campaigns in which higher level spells are available it can easily be expanded. This spell point conversion uses the exact same spells as usual without any modification to them. The only thing that changes is the way in which spells are learned and limited to uses per day.

Level Spells Known Spell Points Max. Level
1st 3 2 1st
2nd +2 6 1st
3rd +2 11 2nd
4th +2 17 2nd
5th +2 24 3rd
6th +2 32 3rd
7th +2 41 4th
8th +2 51 4th
9th +2 62 5th
10th+ +2/level +12/level 5th

Learning Spells

A first level witch begins the game knowing three spells of first level. Which each additional level the character learns two new spells that can be of any level that is available, as per the column “Max. Level”. At third level, a witch can learn two new spells that can either be of first or second level. At fifth level the new spells may be of first, second, or third level, and so on.

Casting Spells

Spells are not prepared. A witch can cast any spell that has been learned at any time, but has to spend spell points when doing so. How many spell points a witch has is indicated by the colum “Spell Points”. The character’s Intelligence modifier is added to this number at first level (but not at each additional level the character gains later.) The number of spell points that are used is equal to the character level at which the spell becomes available.

Spell Level Spell Point Cost
1st 1
2nd 3
3rd 5
4th 7
5th 9

Witches are highly flexible in chosing their spells and could either cast a smaller number of higher level spells or a large number of lower level spells. Learning a wide variety of lower level spells can be advantageous over always learning spells of the highest possible level as they consume a much lower number of spell points. In return for this increased flexibility in casting spells, witches don’t have the ability to switch out the spells they know between adventures. Witches can only learn new spells when gaining a new level and these spells can not be changed later.

The only way to get access to additional spells is through relics.

Relics

Relics are magic items that allow a witch to gain access to additional spells beyond those the character has learned. Relics are body parts of supernatural creatures or legendary witches and sorcerers who retain some of their former owners magical power. Each relic contains usually one spell and a witch holding or wearing the item can cast this spell just as if it were one of the spells the witch has learned. The witch has to spend spell points to cast the spell, just as with all regular spells, but gains a bonus of +1 to +3 to the spellcaster level to determine its effects, depending on the relic. Even if the witch already knowns the spell granted by the relic, the increased spellcaster level still applies.

Spriggan’s Claw

Spell: Plant Growth
Spellcaster Level: +1

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War Cry of the Flame Princess: Ability Scores and Character Levels

1474423181OSR games, particularly in the Weird OSR scene that Joseph Manola lined out so well here, predominantly focus on low power, low magic adventures in whichopponents are either normal guys or extremely deadly eldritch horrors. While it’s a style that I find very appealing, my greatest love is still Sword & Sorcery. Particularly Conan and Kane, but also Hyperborea, The Witcher, and of course Star Wars. The uselessness of Stormtroopers aside, at least when they are deliberately letting the heroes escape or fight against ewoks, they are all works in which the protagonists are at the very top of what humans can be, but not outright superhuman. And while they have to be cautious, they are always on the offense.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is my favorite RPG system by a good margin, but it does retain the inherent squishiness of the D&D Basic rules. Which is by design, but I think not fitting so well for Sword & Sorcery. Starting at higher levels is an option, but I always find that unsatisfying and it also means that new wizard players start the game with a considerably wider range of spells from the outset. (Which might sound appealing to some, but my spellpoint conversion already increased the number of spells.)

An in my opinion neater solution is to roll 2d6+6 for ability scores and also let the players assign the six numbers as they see fit for their chosen character class. 2d6+6 considerably shifts the average up and makes 8 the lowest score possible. But since modifiers in B/X are relatively small and don’t increase linearly, the result is that characters will on average have a combined total of +4. A +2 here and two +1s there isn’t hugely imbalancing, but with the ability to assign the scores to abilities freely (and getting maximum hit points at first level) this allows players to make considerably sturdier characters than rolling 3d6 in order. A fist level fighter with 10 hp or a +4 to hit is entirely doable.

The other method I am using is to firmly stick to the paradigm that any NPC who isn’t an outstanding combatant is a level 0 character, and to use a bestiary of entirely custom made creatures. The high end for regular monsters tapers off around 10 HD and I am using relatively smal numbers of special abilities each. In the fiction of the world this makes even 4th level characters already members of the top tier of people who roam the world and who are able to confront gods, demons, giants, and dragons. Maybe not one of those 13 HD behemoths, but certainly one of the smaller 7 HD ones.

If you want to get into self-publishing you’d better know what you’re doing

Getting close to having the design and stats for almost 100 Ancient Lands complete and turning towards writing the individul descriptions, I started looking into options to raise money for commissioning illustrations. I didn’t even get to look up common rates for artists yet but it’s already gotten complicated just looking at the legal issues regarding financing. I am in Germany. So very complicated.o

Fortunately for me, three semesters of German business law in one of my past failed academic endeavors turned out to come in very handy once more. I do speak some legalese. If you don’t it’s probably all much worse.

It did all start out quite simple. Kickstarter is now doing business in Germany and that seems where most backers for RPG materials are already having accounts. This could potentially have been a major obstacle. (I don’t think many people would bother to make a new account on some tiny site they never heard of to make a single 2€ pledge.) 5% fee for Kickstarter also doesn’t seem so bad. Quite reasonable actually.

But then I was wondering about taxes on the money raised. And oh boy… Wellcome to Germany! ^^

First thing, the whole sum that people have pledged is income. And subject to income tax. Not sure about the exact rates but this can easily gobble up some 20% of the money. If you fail to report what you spend it for. Money used to buy art for a book are business expenses. You don’t pay taxes on it. Buying layouting software is a business expanse even when you run it own your own computer. No tax on the money you spend on it. And the 5% fee you pay to kickstarter is also business expenses. If you spend all the money raised on producing your product you don’t have to pay any income tax on it. Income tax is only on the leftover money that you pocket at the end. But only if you correctly list the business expenses in your tax report.

When someone gives you money and you promise something in return, it’s a purchase. Kickstarter pledges clearly qualify for that. And everything that is a purchase is subject to 19% VAT. However, VAT is meant to apply only to sells to end consumers. As a business you can get the VAT that you payed to your suppliers and contracters refunded by the German revenue service. If your contractor is based in Germany. Which to my knowledge very few good fantasy artist are. It’s not to bad if I’d want money from the French or Dutch revenue service but if I’d hire an American artist it would get much worse. Hiring a tax lawyer to do it for you would probably cost more money than you’d get back.

But contrary to common belief, German administration clerks are not total monsters. If your annual revenue is under 17,500€, small business owners have the option to opt out of paying VAT for sales and getting VAT payed to suppliers refunded. Small business owners mostly don’t know how to do proper accounting anyway and the amount of money gained by the revenue service wouldn’t justify the costs of having their accountants spend time on figuring out the exact numbers. I was genuinly concerned about the possible situation of raising more than 17,500€ (which I very much doubt) and suddenly having to pay 19% VAT, possibly ending up with less money in the end. But no, the excemption applies for the whole year, you simply lose it for the next year. No such risk of falling into accidental debt because you made too much money. If you don’t expect to get any significant VAT refunds this is wonderful. Saves you a lot of accounting and you get to keep the whole 95% of pledges from a Kickstarter campaign.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is. Because you are now a business owner. Welcome to the Chamber of Commerce, young initiate. In Germany there are two types of self employment. Businesses and free professions. Business owners automatically become members of the chamber of commerce while most free professionals do not. If you’re an author you are a free professional. If you are selling goods, you’re a business owner. Writing your own books and selling them? That’s a confusing question that leads to hundreds of online search results from the last 12 years and nobody really seems to know anything. As a painter or sculptor your status as a free professional appears to be secure because selling each painting or sculpture is part of the job. This seems not to be the case with books. German law makers and judges seem to assume that only writing books for commission is part of the writers art. Publishing is a trade business and as such not a free profession. And think about it: As a self publishing writer how much money do you make with writing? None. All your income and profit is from selling large amounts of books. The different state revenue services and regional chambers of commerce still seem to be very uncertain about the whole situation and you might be able to weasel out of becoming a business owner. But I don’t think it’s worth the trouble of potentially getting accused of tax evasion.

And here is why: In case of releasing a monster book with commissioned art, could I be regarded as acting as a publisher for the artists? I think I very well might and then there’d be no doubt about my status. The revenue service might never know since they won’t be looking inside my book? Well, any money raised through Kickstarter is income subject to income tax. If I want to avoid that I have to show that I spend it on tax deductible business expenses, so I have to hand in the recipes from the artists. Also, if I’d ever end up collaborating with someone else on a book and split the profit, or use my resources to sell a book for someone else, I’d no longer be just selling my own art. It’s just so much easier to register as a business owner right from the start.

I’ve seen people worry about being subject to business tax and membership fees for the Chamber of Commerce if they are business owners instead of free professionals and that this might eat up all your profit leaving you with a net loss. But if you sell some books at the side as a minor second job this will be negligible in Germany. Business tax is only paid on profits after income tax has been subtracted. And as a business owner with no employees you only pay business tax on profits above 25,000€ per year. Good luck ever getting that much out of self-publishing your books. And on that money you only pay 10% business tax. If you make a profit of 30,000€, that is cash in your pocket, you still pay only 500€ business tax. That’d be under 2%. I consider this very reasonable for what I would regard as a big fish.

Membership fees for the chamber of commerce aren’t also that bad. If your profit is under 5,000€ per year you can apply for having all fees waived. If your profit is up to 15,000€ per year you have to pay a yearly fee of about 30€. Above that you also have to pay a small part of your profits. Which in my city is currently the low rate of 0,15%. So if you’re annual profit is 30,000€ you have to pay 500€ business tax and 52.50€ to the chamber of commerce. The later of which are also tax deductable. It won’t ruin you. The vast majority of taxes will be income tax, which you will have to pay anyway regardless of how your enterprise is registered.

This is just an example for Germany and I might very well have gotten very important things totally wrong. Getting here took me about 12 hours of research and I already had preexisting knowledge about the basics of business law. And all of it just to raise some money to sell a small book with negligible expected profit. The lesson here is this: Consider very well if you want to deal with alll this trouble.

In the end I found out that the amount of taxes and fees I’ll have to factor into the cost of the project are basically nothing. If I file all the right registration forms and correctly list my tax deductable business expenses. It’s not magic, but it’s rocket science.