Thursday, 29 June 2017

Thoughts on 5th Edition, or: Yes, I Know This Thing Came Out in 2014

Just some scattered musings this time around.

I've more or less decided to use 5e in running my new game, because I've been curious about how it plays - especially in relation to the more "old-school" style of campaign that its designers supposedly had at least partly in mind. Starting up with a brand new set of players, at least a few of which are new to the game, seems as good an opportunity to try it out as any. I haven't even really looked at it up to this point, so some quick preliminary thoughts in relation to the kind of game I want to run (which is heavily influenced by my experiences with running a firmly old-school style game with Labyrinth Lord):

  • I hate character creation/the approach to characters in general. I honestly almost gave up before I got through the section. 5th edition characters are basically just 3rd edition characters with all their fiddly powers and random bonuses, and then a bunch of extra layers of stuff thrown on for good measure, and by "good measure" I mean "no good reason." I mean, okay, things like backgrounds are probably okay, especially for newer players, but I hate hate HATE that every class has to choose one of two "paths" (or "bardic colleges" or "druid circles" or whatever). That mechanic bakes so much setting stuff into your game by default: what if I want my world to be one without bardic colleges, or where druids are lone weirdos like Radagast who don't organize into circles? I have similar, though not quite as vehement, reservations about formally accounting for different "sub-races": again, what if I don't want a world where there's a division between high elves and wood elves, and even if I do, do they really need to be formally and mechanically accounted for?  ALSO I hate dragonborn, and I don't like the idea of tieflings as a player character race outside of the Planescape setting (which, as a friend pointed out, is technically every D&D setting, but you know what I mean). Now, I know most of this is a matter of just dropping those aspects out, but I don't like the presumption on the part of the system; D&D has never quite been a "generic fantasy game," but it always seemed to strike a vague middle ground which it edges annoyingly away from here.
  • All that said, I want to see how the game plays out of the box, so I'm not going to be dropping any of that stuff. Maybe I'll change my mind when I see how it works in practice, or players will really like it, or whatever. A consequence of that, though, is that I can't really set my game in the specifically Tolkienesque Norse milieu that I was planning on: there's no room for dragonborn, Bardic colleges, etc. etc. in that sort of setting. So I've opted to take the megadungeon idea I had and move it into Judges Guild Wilderlands, the approach of which (in its original form, anyway) is both vague and kitchen sink enough that all the assumed setting stuff of 5th edition fits right in (but more about how I'm approaching the Wilderlands in another post).
  • Wilderlands is a hex crawl setting, and as such it gives a decent built-in framework for wilderness exploration. And I might need it too, because I'm not convinced 5e is going to be able to do dungeons very well - certainly not megadungeons (some of the issues with this are explored here), but maybe not even just regular dungeons. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it's not going to be able to do an old-school approach to dungeons very well, which as I understand it is where dungeons are something you go into because they're there and you want the XP and treasure contained within: "story" develops out of your adventures and exploration, it's not the reason you go into a dungeon. This approach doesn't really seem to work in 5e because there's no real mechanical incentive to go into a dungeon, specifically, to do this: all your XP comes from encounters, and you also level quite quickly, so it makes more sense to just wander around the wilderness triggering random encounters. You don't really need either the treasure of a dungeon or the relative "encounter density" that made dungeon-crawling attractive from a purely mechanical standpoint in earlier editions. Now, I recognize that there hasn't been a really explicitly mechanical incentive to dungeon-crawl since the game stopped giving XP for treasure, but I feel like 5th ed more or less formally adopts the approach that dungeons should be story-based, i.e. that there needs to be some reasons that the characters, not just the players, want to go into the dungeon. I don't know, maybe this isn't as much of a problem as I think it is.
  • 5th edition is, pretty explicitly, a game of epic heroic fantasy. The quick advancement rate and the pretty much superhuman healing rate work to make this a game of cinematic high fantasy; I read somewhere that if earlier D&D had roots in Tolkien, then 5th edition represents the Peter Jackson version, and that seems like a pretty good description. This isn't a complaint I have about the rules, per se; D&D hasn't exactly been a game of gritty sword and sorcery since 2nd Edition (and arguably since 1st), but it does require me to shift the headspace I've been in when designing adventures and running the game using Labyrinth Lord.
  • I love the main resolution and combat mechanics. Love them. We'll see how things work in play, but on paper at least this seems to me to be the best version of the game as far as this aspect of things goes.

That's all for now. Join me next time when I'll probably have changed my mind about what I'm running again.

Monday, 26 June 2017


I've been doing a lot of thinking about Silfurfall, the city setting I sketched out in my last post. I'm possibly going to have another game going within the next couple weeks (in person this time), and this is probably what I'll run for them. At this point I'm still not totally satisfied with it - it's a bit too "generic D&D setting" for my tastes. But I think uniqueness might have to come out in the details; I sort of like that the general setting vibe is relatively accessible and explicable in terms of stuff most people would be familiar with, since I think at least a few of the new group are relatively new to D&D or even roleplaying games in general.

Speaking of "generic D&D," I've decided there's a megadungeon beneath the city. As much of a cliche as its become at this point (the classic example being Undermountain and Waterdeep), I really like the idea of big dungeons being directly underneath currently inhabited cities, as opposed to some ruins somewhere. There's something about having a vast underground world full of monsters, magic and treasure directly just a few miles (or whatever, I'm terrible with relative distances) below where your players' characters hang their hats, something that really emphasizes the weirdness of the dungeon as a concept. We're all comfortable with the idea of cities having a certain amount of their existence underground - just not that much; it makes the familiar strange, if I can put it in those overused terms. And the city itself becomes richer and deeper, because you have to account for why the fucking thing is there in the first place.


In my case, I'm pretty much just writing an Undermoutain fanfic and adding some Norse and Cthulhu Mythos flavour. Call me unoriginal, but there's something about Forgotten Realms and the Underdark that really speaks to my soul, so I want to strongly ape that vibe, with a sprinkling of some of my other influences. Think of it as some intermediate step between concocting a wholly original world and just straight-up running a Forgotten Realms campaign. You could argue that there's no real benefit to not just doing one or the other, and maybe you'd be right, but this is what's in my heart.

So: Silfurfall was built on top of the underground ruins of Dregypth, an ancient dwarf city. Once the capital of the Dwarven Empire, it was almost entirely destroyed during the thousand-year civil war which eventually split the Empire into the Five Kingdoms. The leaders of these new states opted to move their seats of power elsewhere and abandon the ruined Imperial capital, both out of the practical consideration that it just wasn't worth the effort to rebuild, and out of concern to leave a symbolic reminder of the high cost of war.

That was several thousand years ago. The Five Kingdoms have since semi-reunited to form a kind-of Empire again (they're still technically separate kingdoms, but are governed jointly by a council made up of all five kings), and the ruins of their ancient capital have gone through various changes as well. Shortly after it was abandoned, the lower sections were taken over and rebuilt by a kingdom of enigmatic Dark Dwarves, who ruled over it and warred with their "good" cousins for a few centuries before themselves abandoning the place, for unknown reasons. Before this, they managed to construct several levels' worth of dungeon complex beneath their repurposed home, which they used as a prison and a place to exile political enemies; it still contains ancestors of these (or in some cases the originals). Over the centuries, these levels were expanded and added to by various groups: dark elves, sinister cults, mad wizards, and some even stranger beings and races. Each of these areas or levels bears the mark of its original inhabitants, some of whom live there still.

The dungeon isn't a secret or anything; everyone knows about it, though many probably don't suspect just how deep and extensive it is. It's just another thing that makes Silfurfall a thriving commercial centre: between the giant dungeon underneath and being the gateway to uncharted lands past the mountains, Silfurfall would probably have one of the biggest concentration of adventurers of anywhere in the world, if not the biggest. It's what this guy calls an "open dungeon": it's known, it's well-trafficked by adventurers, and as such contributes significantly to the local economy. The first few levels, then, will be significantly emptier of monsters and treasure than the lower ones, with the most interesting stuff around the fringes, away from the main entrance. Of course, these more trafficked areas will have their own interest: it would make sense for adventurers to have set up one or more semi-permanent camps, perhaps even officially sanctioned and protected by the city authorities and/or the dwarves.

One advantage of placing the dungeon right underneath a city is that it opens up a bunch of logical ways to have multiple entrances: there's the "official entrance," but then the city sewers connect up at some point as well, as do Castle Ormor's dungeons and the cellars of a secret temple of Tsathoggua. Other ways in include the dwarven mines, and probably several caves or dens out in the wilderness somewhere, to help explain how random monsters like orcs, goblins and dragons have managed to get in there. Some or most of these will hook up to levels other than the first; as they're discovered, it will be easier to skip lower-level explored areas and get right to the good stuff, as received wisdom suggests is essential for a good megadungeon.

Each level will be vaguely themed, with the first few being built right into the premise: 1st level is the ruined dwarf city, 2nd level is the abandoned dark dwarf city, and the next few are the dungeons the dark dwarves built. After that, we can have areas or even whole levels that are dark elf kingdoms, or mad wizard's laboratories: all that essential shit. The deeper levels will be weirder and more overtly Lovecraftian; I have a vague idea that one of the lower levels hooks up to Cthulhu's island-prison of R'lyeh somehow, though don't ask me how that works.

The other day I was reading about how Gary Gygax apparently designed a level of the Greyhawk dungeon every week, for a total of thirteen levels. I've been thinking of doing something similar: a week to map and key a 70-100 room dungeon level seems fairly reasonable, if I stick to relatively minimal keying (which seems to be what Gary and all those other old-school guys did, keeping most of the dungeon in their head and/or developing it during play). Eight or nine proper dungeon levels, plus sub-levels to get me up to Gary's thirteen (I may or may not count the alternate means of egress as sub-levels: the palace dungeons, the cult cellars, etc., which means I might end up shooting higher than thirteen, but we'll see).

So there you have it. I promise I'll go back to talking about slimes again soon. Oh, and as long as I have you here, check out my friend Jastrick's new blog, which is miniatures/wargaming focused but which he tells me will include thoughts about tabletop games in general. It's looking good so far! Jastrick is one of the players in my Roll20 game, which started out being about exploring the Crater of Termination but has turned into me running Tegel Manor... but that's a story for another post.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Another setting idea, this one inspired by reading Vornheim. It's basically a skeleton on which to hang meat through play using Zak's city-adventuring rules and random tables, which I imagine is how most people use the book (although I quite like the city of Vornheim itself, and will be trying to ape the general weird vibe). The setting/milieu is basically a pseudo-Tolkienesque version of "Norse" + Cthulhu Mythos,because that gives me a firm set of cliches that I can keep in my head to develop and elaborate through brainstorming and actual play.

More specifically, the Tolkien/Norse thing is because: A) vikings are cool, and B) I want to have elves and dwarves and halflings and I'm at a point where I can't justify their inclusion in a fantasy setting unless it's either overtly Tolkienesque or overtly based on the folklore Tolkien ripped off (in this case I'll be trying, probably unsuccessfully, to navigate some vague line between both).*

The city of Silfurfall is nestled at the base of the Silfur Mountains, named for the Dwarvish word for the precious metal which lies under the mountains in abundance. Despite its location and namesake, Silfurfall is not, nor was it ever, a mining town: everything beneath the mountains is the sovereign territory of the Five Kingdoms of the Dwarves, and for a non-dwarf to so much as bring a pick into a cavern is considered an act of war.

The city is, rather, a trading centre, and was from its inception (around one hundred years ago), having initially been founded by the Wormfang Clan of Northmen as a means of facilitating easy exchange of plundered goods for Dwarvish silver. The Wormfangs are still masters of the city, having repeatedly bested attempts by other clans (not to mention orcs, goblins, and the enigmatic fugus-creatures which occupy the furthest peaks of the mountains) to take it by force. Such attempts have tapered off in the last few decades, ever since Jarl Steppen Thigh-crusher opened up the city to "all honourable peoples" (which includes all Northmen clans and most other men, as well as elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and the serpent-men of the Scorching Wastes, but excludes orcs, goblins, fungus-creatures, and most other monstrous-races). Conquering the city seems like a waste of time when it's main value is in the trade opportunities it affords, for which the doors are already open to most.

As such, Silfurfall has become a rather cosmopolitan place. Most of the permanent residents are still Wormfang Northmen, but more than half of the population at any time is comprised of folks from elsewhere, including a significant number of non-humans (more than in any other human-controlled city). Many of these are merchants and craftsmen whose main aim is business with the Five Kingdoms, but given the constant influx of goods from all over the known world and beyond, there is always a steady stream of those looking primarily to buy, rather than sell. Moreover, the lands beyond the Silfur Mountains are reportedly littered with ancient ruins, so the city is a popular stopping point for adventurers on their way to search for lost treasures (travel over the mountains is certain death due to difficult conditions and the aforementioned fungus-creatures, but the Five Kingdoms allow passage through their mines - for a price, and only under heavy escort).

Silfurfall has also become a rather dangerous place: large numbers of wealth and goods moving through makes it an attractive haven for thieves, as does the relatively lax rule of law that's settled over the city ever since Jarl Steppen came into power. He's a warrior, not an administrator - he'd rather be off fighting orcs while a handful of his lieutenants oversee the day to day operations of the city. Unfortunately, Steppen has chosen for this task those lieutenants whom he doesn't particularly trust in battle - and for good reason, because they're generally corrupt and willing to overlook all kinds of law-breaking as long as they get their kickback. It's unclear whether Jarl Steppen is ignorant of these happenings, or whether he's aware and just doesn't care.

The city is divided into a number of rough neighbourhoods or districts. Each has an "official" name, but locals and regular visitors more commonly refer to them by a second set of names, which derive from the way people tend to die in that part of the city.

Beheading District (Old City). As its "official" title suggests, the buildings and streets of this central neighbourhood are some of the oldest in Silfurfall, around which the rest of the city grew over the decades. The central square is where public executions of criminals and prisoners take place. It's also where the city guard barracks are located, which makes this one of the safer districts - and as such, its inns are always full, and there are numerous shops and residences.

Poisoning District (Castle District). Right next to the Beheading District, this neighbourhood houses Castle Ormor, where the Jarl resides when he's in town, and where (both in and around) the city overseers and other nobles and elites of the Wormfang Clan make their homes as well. It is, unsurprisingly, also a very safe district, but everything here tends to cater to richer tastes.

Slit Throat District (Market District). There are numerous markets all throughout the city, but the biggest and most varied of them is located here. Correspondingly, it's a hotbed of crime, and the thieves' guild** has its headquarters here. It's also where serpent-men tend to stay when they're in town, as inns and taverns elsewhere are somewhat less tolerant of these most inhuman visitors.

Drowning District (Shipping District). The mighty river Drullavat (which falls from the Silfur Mountains and provides easy access to the ocean) runs through this neighbourhood, and as such it's mostly docks, shipyards, and warehouses, as well as the sort of inns and drinking establishments that cater to sailors and other low-lives.

Stabbing District (Wormfang District). The "official" name refers to the fact that this is where most of the city's permanent residents lie, most of whom are Wormfang Northmen. The unofficial title refers to the fact that these residents are famously prone to bouts of murderous rage at real or perceived slights.

Sacrifice District (Temple District). One of the few rules of which Jarl Steppen insists on strict enforcement is a ban on ritual sacrifice, even of orcs and goblins. As such, this neighbourhood isn't really appropriately titled anymore, but it was such a popular practice for so long that the name has stuck around. The reality is that such sacrifices still happen in many of the district's temples, they're just quieter now. It should also be noted that this isn't the only place to find temples in Silfurfall; they're just the most numerous here, with at least one devoted to each of the gods, and several devoted to the most popular (Thor, Odin, Loki). More than one is actually a front for the worship of what some call "the Oldest Gods," who are known by various names (like Cthulhu, Yog-sothoth, Nyarlathotep... you get the idea).

There should probably be a few more neighbourhoods (I want to do the thing from Vornheim where you write out the numbers of neighbourhoods haphazardly next to each other to get an abstract city map), but I can't think of any more types of city districts or types of death, so that's it for now.

*I've got Elves and Dwarves in Xish, my dying-earth setting, but there I've justified it by making dwarves and halflings Vancian vat-bred slave-races and elves your typical fey bullshit. I'm not super satisfied with this either, and I think subsequent iterations of the setting are just not going to have them at all.

**I'm actually not sure how I feel about that old fantasy roleplaying game standby, the Thieves' Guild, and I reserve the right to replace it with something fresher or just get rid of it altogether.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Some Random Encounter Tables I Made by Looking at the 1st Edition DMG Encounter Tables and Free-Associating New Monster Names Based on the Ones There


01 Anchorfox (1d4)
02-16 Leg lizard (2d6)
17-27 Masked player (see Player Subtable)
28-29 Leaning dervish (1d4)
30-31 Living wall (1)
32-38 Crab-man (2d8)
39-46 Whistling man (1d4)
47-58 Pus dog (2d12)
59-60 Tiny screamer (1d4)
61-72 Meltflower (1d3)
73-77 Mournful sand (1d12)
78-87 Gill-swallower (1d4)
88-00 Whispersnake (2d4)


01-10 Sleepfrog (1d3)
11-20 Bee-beard (2d4)
21-30 Masked player (see Player Subtable)
31-32 Living food (see Living Food Subtable)
33-34 Violence fig (1d3)
35-40 Helmet musk (1)
41-50 Man made of cats (1d4)
46-50 Robe-wolf (1d3)
51-54 Quasi-man, deepfur (1d4)
55-60 Slitherwasp (1d4)
61-72 Carcass cottage (1)
73-74 Whistling man (1d6)
75 Tiny screamer (1d4)
76-77 Meltflower (1d4)
78-84 Varicose vein man, huge (1d3)
85-93 Varicose vein man, large (1d4)
94-95 Trapped hug (1d3)
96-00 Noose beetle (1d6)


01-08 Glass myrmidon (1d3)
09-14 Weeping eye (1d4)
15-22 Masked player (see Player Subtable)
23-24 Living food (see Living Food Subtable)
25-30 Victorian (1)
31-36 Laughter bat (1d20)
37-40 Sweat spectre (1)
41-44 Half-maiden (1)
45-47 Astral water (1)
48 Astral water, flaming (1)
49-62 Quasi-man, fleshtooth (1d3)
63-75 Murmuring vine (1d4)
76-78 Cave scraper (1d3)
79 Haunted dust (1)
80-82 Inverse man (1d3)
83-90 Floating spine (1)
91-94 Gravel-fiend (1d3)
95-96 Pikejaw (1)
97-00 Stephen (1; unique)
Player Subtable

01-25 Star mask
26-50 Sun mask
51-60 Moon mask
61-85 Celestial troupe (1 each Star, Sun, Moon)
86-95 Crying mask
96-00 Bleeding mask

Living Food Subtable

01-28 Aged cheddar
29-62 Steak tartar
63-00 Ham sandwich