That’s a lot heavier than I thought…

A comment on yesterday’s post about my rules modifications ideas for 5th edition had me think about possible expenses for PCs other than the Upkeep cost for ongoing expenses. And as I have shown some years ago, in the B/X rules, the amount of gold that you need to transport from the wilderness back to town results in a huge logistical undertaking.

Now in 5th edition, the amount of XP that are required to reach higher level are much smaller. As an overall generalization, you only need about a tenth of the XP required in B/X, and accordingly the amount of treasure that you’ll have to transport. I was wondering if that might make that aspect of the XP for treasure system negligible, and as such negate the need for pack animals, servants to tend to the animals, and mercenaries to guard them. But a quick glance at the math proved that assumption wrong.

Let’s assume that a treasure worth 100 XP consists of 80 gold pieces and 200 silver pieces. That is close to 1 part gold and 2 parts silver for treasure in the form of coins, ingots, goblets, figures, and other precious metal objects. I think that strikes a good balance between gold being rare, special, and  exciting and actual economies running mostly on the much more practical silver, and not inflating the weight that needs to be hauled too much.

To get from 1st level to 2nd  every PC needs to make 300 XP. As I stated yesterday, I want to get things dialed in so that about 20% will come from hostile encounters, which leaves a rest of 240 XP to be made from treasure hauls. Applying the above split into gold and silver, that would be 192 gold pieces and 480 silver pieces, or 672 coins in total. Using the encumbrance value of 100 coins  counting as 1 item, that is 7 items worth of inventory space. Adventurers being above average, let’s assume an average Strength score of 12, which allows carrying 24 items encumbered and 36 items heavily encumbered. That seems quite doable, especially after the characters have gone through half of their supplies they brought on the adventure.

But to get from 2nd level to 3rd, you need double the amount, which means 1344 coins, or 14 items of inventory space. This starts to be a problem if you want to do it in a single haul. To get from 3rd to 4th level, you need double that again. 2688 coins, or 27 items of inventory space. You’re not going to move that in one go without a full bagage train.

And as I mentioned before, it’s not just the pack animals you need, but also animal handlers, plus guards to defend them while the PCs go inside dungeon. And they will want all of their supplies for two or more weeks to be carried by the animals as well, which increases capacity demands even further. As you get to higher levels, you can have the players find more jewels and other stuff with much higher value per weight than gold, to keep things from going too out of hand. But if you continue the above treasure composition, getting from 9th to 10th level would take 360 items of inventory space. Ten maximum loads for a Strength 12 character. High level treasure hunting will become a major opperation quite different from four dudes tracking through the forest. With considerable costs involved.

This should be fun. And since it will be an issue that gradually grows on the PCs as they go through 2nd and into 3rd level, I think this is something that the player’s don’t need a special reminder of at the start of the campaign. :P

Shattered Empire D&D 5th edition modifications (untested)

Taking my lessons from the Inixon campaign a year ago, I’ve put together a list of all the changes that I want to make to the default D&D 5th edition rules. I thought this was a pretty extensive rebuild of the system, but apparently having less than a page in total is really rather modest.

Character Rules
  • Ability scores are 4d6, keep best three, arrange in any order.
  • Character races are limited to human, high elf, half-elf, goliath, and tabaxi.
  • Character classes are limited to barbarian, bard, druid, fighter, monk, rogue, and warlock.
  • Only PHB class specializations, excluding moon druid, eldritch knight, shadow monk, four elements monk, and arcane trickster.
    • Druids’ circle of the land is defined by their homeland; one type of terrain for each of the Six Lands.
    • Rogues have access to the scout specialization.
  • Hard level cap for PCs and NPCs is 10th level. Spells of 6th level or higher do not exist in the setting.
  • Short rest is one night. Long rest is “a few days” in a town, castle, or other secured and hospitable place.
  • Exhaustion is reduced by 1 level every short rest instead of every long rest.
  • Cantrips use level-0 spell slots equal to the number of known cantrips, which are fully recovered on a short rest.
  • Warlocks can use either Intelligence or Charisma as their spellcasting attribute. (Intelligence default for the setting, but players’ choice.)
  • Encumbrance is tracked by items instead of weight:
    • Unencumbered: Items up to the character’s Strength score.
    • Encumbered: Items up to two times the character’s Strength score.
    • Heavily Encumbered: Items up to three times the character’s Strength score.
    • Goliath characters add their Strength bonus to their Strength score for encumbrance levels instead of having double the normal carrying capacity.
    • Items below 1 pound are not counted towards encumbrance. Items above 10 pounds count as multiple items. (Weight divided by 10, round up.)
    • Coins count as 1 item for every 100 coins (round up).
  • Food and water will be tracked.
  • Ammunition and light sources will be tracked.
  • Upkeep costs are used to cover common expenses.
  • Reduced weapons and armor lists to reflect the technology of the setting.
Adventure Rules
  • Encounter XP are reduced to 10% their default value.
  • Milestone XP are awarded for returning from the wilderness with treasure. The XP amount is equal to the gp value of the treasure. (Expect 1/5 of total XP to be from encounters, and 4/5 from treasure.)
  • Wandering Monster checks are made in the wilderness four times per day. Three during the day and one during the night. By default, the chance is 1 in 6. (That means on average 2 encounters for every 3 days.) Players make the roll to eliminate GM bias.
  • Wandering Monster encounters make a 2d6 reaction roll, unless the context of the encounter makes the reaction obvious:
    • 2: attack at first opportunity
    • 3-5: threaten the party to leave their turf
    • 6-8: observe the party, repeat roll with advantage or disadvantage depending on the party’s behavior
    • 9-11: retreat from confrontation, but might talk if able to speak
    • 12: friendly, offering aid and cooperation
  • All PCs and enemy factions act as groups on the same initiative count. Turns get resolved in order of players being ready to take their actions. Other players can continue to consider their turn at the same time as other characters resolve their actions, significantly speeding up encounters.
  • Morale Wisdom save are always made for opponents and hired mercenaries when applicable.
  • All effects with a duration of 1 minute or 10 minutes become “1 turn”, a time tracking unit of roughly 10 minutes on average, and equating “one scene” or “one area” in practice.
  • Searching a room takes 1 turn. Searching as a group counts as working together, and the character with the highest Intelligence (Investigation) modifier makes the check with advantage. Only one check can be made per area and it can only produce one discovery. The roll is best made after the players exhausted their ideas for what they want to look at specifically, wich doesn’t require any checks.
  • Lockpicking and disarming traps takes is 1 turn by default. Thieves’ Fast Hands ability allows doing it as a main action with disadvantage.
  • Wilderness travel is tracked in 6 mile hexes. Travel speed per day depends on both encumbrance and terrain:
    • Unencumbered: 6 hexes (normal) / 3 hexes (difficult)
    • Encumbered: 4 hexes (normal) / 2 hexes (difficult)
    • Heavily Encumbered: 2 hexes (normal) / 1 hex (difficult)
    • Cautious Pace: -1 hex per day, Stealthy movement.
    • Hurried  Pace: +1 hex per day, -5 to passive Perception

This is the current state of affairs. I might be updating it in the future as I run into more things that I feel need adjusting.

Fool me once…

As it turns out, I’ll be returning to work from hibernation this year in February and not in March, as I had expected. And I’ll not be moving into a new place until early March at the earliest, quite possibly in April. So the next two months aren’t going to be quite as chill as expected and I’ll won’t be settled in until we’ll be full deep into the planting season. This means my original plan to get a new campaign started and established after Christmas will have to be pushed back to probably somewhere in May, as I don’t want to start a  campaign for four weeks and then potentially disappear from the face of the Earth for a couple of months. (Once the plants arrive in the stores, our work for the year is mostly done, so off-season starts for us in May.)

This also means that I can spend the whole of this month on further elaborate campaign prep, and expand on it in whatever idle time I’ll be finding in spring. And one thing that has been on my mind recently is that despite my previous experiences in the campaign from one year ago, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition might not be all that bad.

At the end of the Inixon campaign, I talked with the players, who mostly were GMs themselves with much more experience with the system than me, and while they mostly agreed with the issues I had spotted in the rules, their opinion was that these things are fixable without too much trouble by picking a few of the variant rules and changing the approach to handling certain things. I had similar conversations again twice last months about where I had been dissatisfied with how the game handled, and again the responses I got was generally that my observations are correct, but that the game doesn’t have to be run that way and play quite differently if you don’t.

The main issue I had with the system was that PCs have a lot of fancy toys to play with quite early on. Many of these cool powers are related to combat, and seeing how excited the players were about getting them, I wanted to give them opportunities to actually get some use out of them. Unfortunately, these fights made them advance to new levels and get new shinier toys before they really got much chance to play with their old ones in interesting and creative ways. I really didn’t want the players to sit on the cool new powers they were clearly excited about and not being able to use them, and as a result things somewhat escalated into a series of battles with little inbetween. Eventually I decided that there was a good point in the story to wrap up the campaign around the time the PCs would have reached 6th level, instead of continuing into a fully open-world exploration of the Isle of Dread.

The obvious answer to this issue is of course to just give the players fewer XP. But I think in hindsight the issue wasn’t so much the specific XP awards, but that throughout my now 20 years of running D&D, a pace of having characters gain a new level about every 4 game sessions or so had always worked very well in 3rd edition, Pathfinder, and oldschool games. And that’s just the pace that I had kept with the Inixon campaign. Not sure if that’s really the case or a change in my perception as I change my style as GM, but to me it really feels like characters in 5th edition get a lot more new powers with each new level than I was used to. And certainly as compared to B/X, of course. It also was the first time I really wanted to use the approach to not have the players wait until higher levels to get cool magic items with interesting powers, and be more generous with magic treasure that has minor and situational powers. It doesn’t increase the power level of the party that much, but it absolutely adds to the amount of cool toys that the players have at their disposal and are eager to try out. With all that in mind, aiming to let PCs level up about every 4 game sessions really seems to fast. Better seems to aim for 6, or maybe even 8 game sessions on average. I think that should be a good start to address my main dissatisfaction I had with the game.

Somewhat related to that was another issue I had with dungeons. The campaign had started with Against the Cult of the Reptile God, which really does provide a solid reference for why this dungeon exists and what the inhabitants want with it. That went really well. This was followed by a fantastic unstructured stay in a pirate town, in which the one part I wasn’t happy with was the dungeon from Escape from Meenlock Prison. It was okay, but I felt it turned into kind of a slog. Eventually we got to Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and I really had no clue what to do with it but to put some ruined mansions down and fill them with hostile monsters. The game kind of implies it wants me to do dungeons with cool encounters, but it also isn’t letting me know how to actually do that, and I just got frustrated with it and decided not to go into The Isle of Dread after that. I felt that I just don’t get the whole point about dungeons other than being series of monster fights. However, in the past year after that, I learned a huge deal about classic dungeon crawling and what that is all about. The Basic/Expert exploration system is a fantastic campaign structure with an actual solid 30-minute-gameplay-loop, that 5th edition (and really all D&D starting with 2nd edition) seriously lacks.

And there’s a couple of things about 5th edition that I really like. I’m a big warlock fanboy, especially after having two of them in the Inixon campaign, and I am seeing so much worldbuilding potential with this class as the supernatural and weird is concerned, and for all the adventures that can come out of it. I also think that the druid circles of the land are quite a nice element that I’d love to play with. I had pondered the idea of a setting in which warlock magic is the only way mortals can access supernatural powers, which seems really fun, though probably doesn’t get too much cheer from players. But considering my previous ideas for the Shattered Empire, a campaign with only warlocks, druids, and bards as spellcasters sounds like something that could be really cool for a very-early Medieval campaign drawing on central-eastern Europe as reference.

So I am willing to give the system another try, with the following adjustments:

  • Characters gain XP by milestones, with the default type of milestone being the return of a treasure back to civilization. The amount of XP depending on the value of the treasure, and the obstacles standing in the way being appropriately difficult. My aim is to provide treasures that let characters gain a level every 6 to 8 game sessions or so.
  • A short rest takes a full night of rest, and a long rest requires taking a week off in a town, castle, or similarly secured and hospitable place. In practice this means going without a long rest for each whole adventure. This means druid spells that provide food, water, and similar ways to make wilderness travel easier for each day won’t be able to cover the whole trip. Similarly healing spells have to be rationed for the whole adventure. Having friendly sanctuaries in the wilderness will be a huge benefit, which is one of the really cool concepts I’ve encountered in The One Ring.
  • Encumbrance is done by inventory slots and not by weight, which makes it trivial to track instead of a big nuisance.
  • The Encounter syste, from B/X gets imported just as it is, with wandering monster checks, reaction rolls, morale, and all of that.
  • Initiative is done by sides instead of initiative counts, which is always a huge reduction in my personal mental workload and speeds up play considerably as it cuts down greatly on players taking time to consider their next move at the start of their turn.

I am still somewhat cautious about the idea, but I think it can only turn out better then the Inixon campaign. And that one was by far the best one I’ve ever run.

The Six Lands of the Shattered Empire

A simple map I’ve quickly thrown together because it’s just so much easier to talk about environments and the relationships between regions when you can just point to a picture.

As it turns out, the general layout idea in my head is pretty plain and basic. Which I guess is quite fitting for the central design paradigm I’ve set myself. A world that is designed to support classic dungeon crawl adventures and puts the needs of the gameplay over fanciful explorations of an entire and unique world. This is a layout that does the job. A subarctic valley in the very North, a large expanse of temperate-cool woodlands, a rocky coastal region, large river plains prairie, rugged foothills of a great mountain range, and subtropical woodlands in the very South. The whole area is about 1,200 miles long and 400 miles wide, which is climatically plausible, given that we don’t see what the land is like beyond the edges of the map and what possible wind patterns and ocean currents might exist. The total area is not that big, a bit smaller than all of Northern Europe, and about the size of my favorite reference frame for this kind of geographic layout, the American West Coast between the Pacific and the Rocky Mountains. Though the flat ground between the sea and the mountains is much wider, but I really don’t want to go into the geology of plate tectonics. For a dungeon crawl campaign setting, this is plausible enough.

As it happens, the overall map reminds me quite a bit of the map from The Witcher. Which is probably one of the best examples of really nice worldbuiling with a unique character that only uses the most basic generic components and doesn’t really bother to go into any detail about things outside the scope of the story. Really not the worst thing to have similarities with.

In what god’s name?!

I’ve been running and playing fantasy RPGs for over 20 years, and I am pretty certain that not once have I seen any specific god being relevant at any point. I’ve had some clerics that had slightly customized their spell selection and armaments to reflect a certain theme, but faith and beliefs have never appeared in any game in any form.

There’s a couple of deities from various fantasy settings that I find really quite neat and want to blatantly rip off in the Shattered Empire, but how do you make them relevant? Here I once again find my original mission statement extremely useful: “Create content that dirrectly supports classic dungeon crawling adventures.” The question here should not be how I can make the gods so that they will be interesting to the players and make them want to make them part of their characters. The question should be what function gods can serve in the exploration of a dungeon? I want to step away from making stuff that is just interesting, and instead create content that is functional. Now one of tbe aspects I had already determined earlier is that I want to keep the goods ambiguous and distant, so that people in the world can wonder how much difference worshiping the gods and performing the rituals actually makes, if any. That doesn’t have to be set in stone and can still be changed if something better comes along, but I want to see where I can go with that.

Gods in the Dungeon

The main mode of play in classic dungeon crawling is being in the dungeon, or on the path to the dungeon, and exploring the environment ahead. Can we include the gods in this? And as it turns out, yes we can. The gods worshipped by the people now are largely the same as the ones worshiped in the Shattered Empire. The empire was ruled by sorcerers, and sorcerers are regarded as something contradicting with worshiping gods, but the empire didn’t last that long and the people had been worshiping their gods long before that. When they build all their great strongholds and secret vaults and crypts during the wars of the successors, the people would have included the gods in the decorations and protections of the new constructions. The walls and doors of dungeons can be covered in religious iconography and symbols, and these dpictions can actually contribute greatly to provide insights into the places the players are exploring. With perhaps a dozen or so common gods, players can essily learn and remember their names, symbols, andprimary aspects, if they become relevant during play with sufficient frequency. Identifying the symbols of a specific god can help understanding the original purpose of an area and the potential dangers that could be encountered inside. Possibly even provide hints on how to deal with any obstacles that might be discovered. It’s not necessary to give the players homework to learn and recite all the gods of a new setting. Simply allowing the players to ask a priest or sage the next time they are in town, and getting some useful hints in return will already be contributing to make the gods feel like an actual part of the world.

Gods outside the Dungeon

But even once we’re outside of dungeons, we still can look for ways in which gods can become relevant for the players in play. Between adventures, parties will regularly return to towns to restock on supplies, get their hands on new tools they discovered they need, and to try fixing permanent problems that resulted from events in the dungeons. Typically, the main place to see for the later is a local temple where a friendly priest can treat all the forms of long-lasting damage that characters can suffer. Typically, you’re adventure town has one temple that can deal with all issues up to a certain spell level based on the level of the temple’s cleric. But what generally makes no difference is the god of the temple. All clerics can cast the same basic spells, so temples of forging, agriculture, and smithing can all provide the same services  as long as their clerics are of the same level.

But what if not? As I mentioned earlier, my plan is to not have clerics as a character class and not have the priests in temples be actual spellcasters. But the world does have sacred shrines where certain supernatural events happen that are attributed to the direct interventions of the gods. For example, it’s not the priest tending to a healing spring that can cure wounds, but the spring itself. The Companion Set introduced relics for elves, dwarves, and halflings, to give these peoples without cleric access to some cleric spells in their towns. That’s a brilliant idea and would even work just as well to remove clerics completely from the setting. But the relics as presented all produce the same  asic effects. Cure serious woundscure blindness, cure disease, identify magic items, and turn undead. What if instead we reduce the powers of each sanctuary to only two or three spells, which are all specific to one deity? This means tnat you can’t just go to the next temple and get what you need, regardless of whose god temple it is. Instead, for specific services, players first need to identify which god’s help they require, and then go searching for a site sacred to that god where miracles are made to happen. This can easily turn into small side adventures to have certain curses lifted, or to acquire special weapons to deal with a specific threat. This should give the gods a much bigger role in the minds of players, compared to grabbing a few health potion from the temple between restocking their rations at the market and selling 10 rusts daggers at the blacksmiths’s.

How well will this work in practice? I don’t know. But I am sure featuring divine symbols as useful clues in dungeons and making the services in temples specific to the gods will make them much more meaningful than in a typical D&D campaign.

6th Century Armor

I realized one of the first mistakes I made with the Shattered Empire setting was to call it “The Shattered Empire”. The empire is supposed to be only a background thing to excuse the existence of all the dungeons and why they are full of treasures. It’s not what the setting is supposed to be about. I can always change that later, but for now it will do.

My original inspiration for the Shattered Empire was the Hellenistic Kingdoms that formed from the remnants of the Achaeminid Empire in the 3rd century BCE, but the better example really is the remains of the Western Roman Empire in the late Migration Period in the 6th to 8th century CE, between the fall of Rome and the Carolingian Empire, and long before the Vikings. It’s more reminiscent of the kind of landscape I want to go with, and it’s also a period you don’t really see at all made use of for fantasy.

The main way in which using a historic period as visual reference is typically in the armor and the architecture. I might eventually get around to look into the later (probably not, as these things tend to go), but I did get a decent amount of reference images for armor from the period, which I think make for a good starting point to give the setting some specific character.

B/X and OSE have only three types of armor, which are called leather, chainmail, an plate mail, but effectively they are just light, medium, and heavy armor.

I think that Light Armor can be very well represented by central Asian leather scale lamellar armor. I didn’t see it at all in any of the images for the period I’ve come across, but it is well known from later centuries and the construction is basically the same as iron lamellar, which appears everywhere. I think it’s very likely that this kind of leather armor would have existed at the time, but being leather there’s simply no surviving examples that were ever discovered. And at the end of the day it’s fantasy, so I can do whatever I want, but I think it would fit with the other types of armor very well. And I think still much more realistic than typical fantasy leather armor.

For Medium Armor, we can just stick with the maille shirt and hauberk. This armor was popular back in antiquity and remained so late into the Middle Ages, and it does appear in images showing armor of this period everywhere.

With Heavy Armor, we see lamellar cuirasses over clothing, over maille, and even in almost full body versions. This really seems to be what everyone was using at that time to make cuirasses. It’s an armor type I never really see in fantasy illustrations, and I think that makes it a wonderful choice for a setting that feels like it could be a real place but doesn’t look like a typical fantasy world you’ve seen a dozen times before.