While it’s really well made, I’ve always been thinking that making a Conan RPG based on the d20 system was a really odd and unfitting choice. The extremely steep power gradient between 1st and 20th level just doesn’t seem right. But running the Conan game in an E6 variant? Now that seems like a really interesting thought.

Good plus Good doesn’t always equal Great

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve gone back and picked up an old plan to try my hand at writing fiction. And as some might guess based on my activity here in the last two months, it has not really been going well so far. Progress is there, but it’s very slow. Yet still, every couple of weeks I do make a realization of what doesn’t work and how I have to approach it differently.

The discovery I made this weekend is that not all plans and choices that are great ideas in themselves will actually work together when combined. I have been working on a protagonist who combines all the elements that I find admirable and avoids all the traits that I often see being used in annoying ways. But this leads to a very big problem. While I made what I consider a basically perfect character, it turns out that this character actually makes a terrible protagonist.

I don’t like it when protagonists are forced to be heros because otherwise the world as they know it will be destroyed. I also don’t get thrilled when protagonists do heroic things because they selfishly hunger for riches and glory. And I am also not a fan when protagonists keep running around looking for opportunities to risk their lives for random strangers. Which is all nice and well, but when you have protagonists who don’t fight to save the world, save strangers, or get rich, then why are they fighting at all? Turns out when I am envisoning the ideal character, that character is not someone who is going on adventures. Which for a protagonist in adventure stories just doesn’t work.

Not all good ideas work together as a good concept. When that is the case you simply have to make a choice which ones are more important to you or which ones you think will be more fun to write about. I also like the ideas of having lots of magic and magical creatures throughout the world, as well as everything magical being really strange and unfamiliar to characters. Both are cool in stories, but you simply can’t have both in the same story. A decision needs to be made which one is more important and what can be dropped to get a working concept. In this particular case, I am obviously going with lots of magic and monsters. It’s my thing!

Originality of Experience

I’ve recently been thinking about the question of originality. When discussing the creation of stories, particularly of beginning writers, frequently the question comes up whether the work feels original or rather derivative. Originality is widely treated as perhaps the most important thing for a new writer. Yet at the same time there are famous lines like “all great stories have already been told”, “all art is derivative”, and “there is nothing new under the sun”. How is one supposed to write a good original story like that?

I think it is important to make a clear distinction between originality of content and originality of meaning. Content is all the many pieces from which a story is assembled. The characters, the setting, the props, and also plots and situations. To come up with a character or plot, or even just a monster or magic spell that is completely original is extremely difficult to the point of perhaps being impossible. When it comes to these elements that make up a story, I believe that all art is indeed derivative.

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that all our storytelling evolved from the telling of accounts of actual events that were embelished for dramatic effect. And it doesn’t take any big leaps to tell stories in which nothing has actually happened in reality. But such stories are not simply made up from nothing. They are constructed from elements that already exist. Any country, state, or nation you can imagine is based on already existing examples in the actual world, and all monsters are evolving embelishments of regular animals. To try to be truly original in these things is not only futile, but also completely unnecessary.

However, a story is not just characters, situations, and environments. What is really interesting about stories is how the characters in them react to and interact with the situations and other characters they encounter. How it affects them, what they want to do about it, and what their opinions on them are. This is where writers have the opportunity to put their own unique stamp on a work and create something fresh and original. You are unique and special. Just like everyone else. While this doesn’t make anyone better, it makes everyone different. And this difference is what allows writers to be original with their stories. When you write your own stories, you can have characters do in a given situation what you think they should do. Feel what you think they should feel. And actions have the consequences you think they should have. Instead of what conventions and traditions say usually happens in such situations. I discussed this in the Fantasy Faction forum and one person called this the Originality of Experience. You have characters that are familiar, in situations that are familiar, surrounded by things that are familiar. There is pretty little that can be done about that. But the reason we’re reading or watching a story is because we want to see how it will all play out this time and hoping that it will provide us with a new experience. That’s really what originality is all about.

Deutschland is happy and gay

We did it!

After the German chancelor and leader of the ruling conservative party declared on monday that their members of parliament would be free to vote on matter of marriage equality according to their personal views instead of folliwing the official party line a vote was called in parliament on very short notice within the same week.

The vote passed with support of one third of the conservative party MPs and virtually everyone else, finally putting an end to this violation of basic human right. The new law is expected to come into effect some time this year.

We’re gonna need a bigger mule

In a discussion about henchmen and retainers I mentioned that oldschool D&D characters at higher levels would need to bring pack animals with them to get all their treasure back to civilization and gain XP from it, which means also people to care for and guard them while the PCs are going into dungeons. Not having played higher level games with XP for treasure myself yet, I got curious how many animals you’d actually should plan for.

In B/X, a mule can carry up to 4,000 coins of weight. Assuming that’s mostly gold and the rest is 1 platinum coin for every 10 silver coins, this is worth 4,000 XP. Which isn’t bad, but given the amounts of XP needed to advance at higher levels it’s actually not that much. People always say that that characters at higher levels advance really slowly, which I would take as perhaps something like 10 extended expeditions to a distant dungeon far out in the wilderness. To me, 30 sessions to level up would qualify as a snail’s pace. On average, characters from 8th level onward need 120,000 XP to reach the next level. Divided by 10 that’d be 12,000 XP per adventure or 3 mules. For every PC in the party!

Send mules!

What about bags of holding? While certainly useful inside a dungeon and to carry home treasure at lower levels, these no longer make any real difference at higher levels. 10,000 coins for the weight of 600 sounds really nice, but at these levels you’d need a dozen or so of them to stash all your loot from a single adventure. For every bag of holding you can reduce the needed number of mules by two, but whether you travel with 10 or 20 of them hardly makes any difference for the logistics involved.

I also calculated the average dragon hoard and came up with enough coins to load 15 mules. But potentially (and statistically almost impossible) it could be as much as 60 mule loads.

Then there’s also the interesting matter of food. Mentzer Expert gives us a weight of 70 coins for 1 week of rations. Which is virtually nothing compared to mail armor having a weight of 200 coins. One of the PCs can carry all the food needed by a 10 head party for a one week return trip all by himself and barely experience any encumbrance at all. Though you have to consider that this is the weight of 100 daggers. Perhaps it’s not the weights that are too low but the carrying capacity of characters that’s too high. But that’s another topic.

Let’s do the same calculations for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which uses a much simpler encumbrance system that I find highly preferable. It makes the common mistake of assuming that mounts walk twice as fast as people, while really they just can carry a lot more stuff at the same speed, but I’ll let this slide for now and go with severely encumbred mules traveling 12 miles per day: Under these conditions the animal can have an encumbrance rating of up to 25, which is 125 items. When packed by a professional animal handler this increases to 150 items. (As nice as the system is, the distinction between encumbrance rating and items carried is an unnecessary nuisance.) 100 coins are one item, which gives us a total of 15,000 coins or 15,000 XP. That is a lot more than in B/X, almost four times as much. But with 10 adventures to reach the next level, that’s still one mule for each party member.

It looks very different when you look at food. To feed 10 people for 7 days you’d need to carry 70 items and the maximum number for an armored character is 20 items. You’d really want to bring a pack animal for that and not haul it around yourself. Letting a mount carry 8 times as much stuff as a person at the same walking speed seems a bit much to me. I don’t think a group of heavily loaded soldiers will be moving much faster if they all put their backpacks on a single mule.  I think for my own campaign I rather go with the average common pack goat carrying twice as much as a Strength 10 character, a riding deer three times as much, and a small hadrosaur ten times as much. Yes, you wouldn’t need a lot of these giant lizards to haul your loot, but on the other hand you can ride into town on a dinosaur.

But as you see, adventuring without retainers at higher levels is not just impractical but close to impossible. To gain meaningful amounts of XP from adventures, you have to approach them as large scale expeditions. In addition to animal handlers you’re also going to need guards and loyal henchmen who keep watch over them while the PCs are away from the camp. And once you have that whole gang together, there’s no need to not travel in sstyle. Get a bunch of servants and cooks as well.

Is OSR still about D&D?

Regarding rules: Duh, of course it is. But beyond the use of the mechanical framework of OD&D, B/X, and AD&D, does the common reference frame of the D&D fantasy family still play any meaningful role within the OSR sphere? When was the last time you’ve seen someone talk about beholders, mind flayers, or displacer beast? It still happens, but when I see it, it tends to be regarding campaigns specifically set in Grayhawk or Forgotten Realms. What I don’t see is people describing their own creations which feel recognizably as D&D. Oldschool D&D seems to have very much become a style of playing, but has mostly disappeared as a style of fantasy.

So I was looking at Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

And it actually doesn’t look bad at all. I played 3rd edition and Pathfinder for 12 years or so until I started looking at other fantasy RPGs and quickly got fed up with the excessive complexity, option creep, and power curve of d20 games. I’ve been toying and playing around with various AD&D and B/X clones since then and quickly lost interest in 5th edition after about the second playtest version. I’ve not even been looking at it with my butt since then.

dungeons-and-dragons-players-handbook-5th-edition-cover_largeBut recently I notices that several people writing about RPGs, who describe a play style very similar to my own, seem to be running 5th Edition as their system of choice and I got a bit curious when seeing forum threads about how people are feeling about the game after two years of playing. And the things that were praised by people who like it sounded quite intriguing, so I finally gave the finished game a first actual look.

My first impression was that the character classes once again have way too many class features, but when I actually read through the descriptions it turned out to actually be not nearly as bad as in Pathfinder for example. Most classes get something at each level, but mostly it seems to be pretty minor things that don’t look like they’d introduce a lot of option creep. There are some things about the races that I used to find aesthetically unpleasing, like giving characters lots of ability scrore bonuses with no penalties to counter them, but since then I’ve moved away from the idea of 1st level characters being perfectly average people. Now I think even first level characters should already be heroic individuals in a completely different league than the common rabble.

A similar thing is going on with hit points. 5th Edition characters get a lot of hit points. Hit points per level have been bumped up again, but more importantly the ability to heal damage during short rests by rolling your amount of hit dice pretty much doubles the amount of damage characters can take every day. And if I got this right, all damage is healed during a long rest. Perhaps, calling it damage isn’t really that accurate anymore. Getting hit certainly doesn’t represent a significant injury if the points can return completely within an hour without any magic.

Overall, my impression is that low-level characters in 5th Edition are much more like what used to be mid-level characters in previous editions. No more zero to hero. You start as heroes right from the beginning.

What quite impressed me is the combat rules and skill system. Having played 3rd Edition for over a decade almost certainly helped a lot, but I think I got a pretty good grasp on the complete 5th Edition combat, exploration, and interaction rules within just half an hour of reading.

I am still not a fan of the spell slot system, but it’s much less annoying than it used to, with spells not disappearing after they are cast. Have not looked at all the classes yet, but they all seem to work much more like the sorcerer from 3rd Edition. And the DMG also has an option to convert them all to spell points, which looks quite decent. There also is only a single cure wounds spell whose power depends on what spell slot you use for it, similar to how most psionic powers worked in the Expanded Psionic Handbook. This is something I really like as it reduces the amount of pretty much duplicate spells and makes magic more flexible.

Also very nice are the new monster stat blocks. The main stats are almost as short as in the old TSR editions but also have all special attacks and abilities written right below them in a way that makes them very easy to look up in the middle of fights. 3.5e and Pathfinder already put all special abilities into the stat blocks, but with the game being so complex you often had huge paragraphs that can take some considerable time to read and fully grasp. 5th Edition monster stats are much neater and tidier.

The main oddity that I noticed is the distribution of monsters in the Monster Manual. So far the only Monster Manual. Not sure if the Challenge Rating system is any better or worse than it was in 3rd Edition, but a very large portion of monsters seem to have been rated down by 2 points and now the vast majority of monsters is of CR 4 or lower. There’s a few CR 5 and 6, but beyond that point there’s really pretty much only dragons, demons, giant, and golems. Which is not necessarily bad. One big annoyance of 3rd Edition is that many cool monsters are so powerful that it takes a very long time until the party is strong enough to be able to fight them, and in pretty much all the games I ran and played, the group never reached a level where fighting giants, beholders, or larger dragons could be considered. Reducing the spread is certainly welcome. However, at the same time it raises the question why it would be worthwhile to have a 20 level game at all? I would have to see the game in action for a long time, but the first very basic impression I get is that there’s not really a whole lot new to come after passing 10th level. Though this isn’t exactly new or unique to 5th Edition. The very first Dungeon & Dragons game was conceptualized as basically a 10 level game, with characters who passed 9th level no longer really improving much in power and being expected to settle down as rulers and generals. The story how 6th level and higher spells ended up in the game is somewhat murky, but I’ve seen claims that they weren’t really part of the original concept and only thrown in without much thought.

All in all, I am quite intrigued by this game and I’m seriously considering to use it for my next campaign instead of going with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Though maybe I’ll feel different about it in a week or two. But still, I have to say that 5th Edition looks much more interesting and better than I assumed. It’s indeed pretty lightweight compared to 3rd Edition but also avoids the high fragility of low level characters in OSR games.

We need to use more links!

The number of RPG related websites and the frequency of post has gone down a lot over the last few years (though there’s a good case to be made that the overall quality went up as well). I would really love to read much more than I do now, but the way things work I only ever find new sites when they are linked to on pages I am already reading. There are a good number of relatively new sites around that are very much worth reading, but they are always so difficult to find. It’s almost impossible to find anything on the internet if you don’t know it exists, especially when it’s a site with few links that search engines don’t pay attention to.

Most sites have a list of links to others, but when I look at them I mostly see the same names who have been around for 5 years or longer. As more and more of these are discontinued new ones are springing up, but it’s almost impossible to get noticed if you’re not already known. My site had been up for two years before I got linked by anyone and just a few weeks back I discovered two new sites I really enjoy reading now and which have also been around for a year.

What we all need is more links. Not just when it’s necessary but any time you have some kind of reasonable excuse. When you read something that makes you think about writing a new post, include a link to it even if the connection might seem flimsy. It inspired you to write,so it might also interest people who are reading your post. If you have a list of links, as almost everybody does, don’t just include sites of which you are a huge fan. Also include those you somewhat regularly check because you occasionally find something interesting there. Also, write comments. I think everyone loves to see comments on posts, even if it’s a trivial “I liked that”, and it also puts another link to your own site on the internet. When you comment, other people will also be more likely to comment on your posts.

Links aren’t just the currency of the internet,they are also it’s fuel. I think there are a lot more people writing about RPGs now than it seems to anyone individually because everything is so fractured. When old contributors fall away new ones need to replace them. And there are plenty of people who are up for it, but they can only succeed at this if we keep supporting them by sending them our own visitors through links.