Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Adding ladies to D&D; or: Lady up your game!

I recently developed a plan to ensure my D&D games weren't just a bunch of male PCs and NPCs. Its pretty simple. I have a little list each game of the NPCs I might need to introduce. You might have this too. Don't have a list of all your NPCs? Make it. Then if you want to make sure your D&D game isn't a sausage party, follow these little tips:

1) Check if half or more of your NPCs are dudes.
2) If they are, make a coupe of them ladies.

Its literally that easy. If you're not as comfortable portraying a lady, you can lady your game up a bit by at least adding some ladies off camera or in the background. Maybe the previous party to explore an area was lead by a lady, or they find a log book written by a lady, or they're otherwise following the trail of a lady. An off-camera villain can also be a lady. In fact, just about any NPC could be a lady. You could even roll randomly to determine if the character is a lady: odd = dude, even = lady.

Once you have a couple ladies in the background, you can move onto having a major NPC or two be ladies. Try it out first with a shopkeeper: unless the adventurers are in a lady shop doing lady shopping, a lady shopkeeper probably has exactly the same motivations as a dude shopkeeper (and, honestly, a lady shopkeeper in a lady shop probably has the same motivations as a dude shopkeeper in a lady shop). Lady hirelings, lady henchmen, lady sages, lady specialists, and queens probably have almost exactly the same motivations as dude hirelings, dude henchmen, dude sages, dude specialists, and kings.

Once in a while, you might find that the sex of an NPC actually matters in the plot. That's the point where you can spend a minute deciding how the plots might be different depending on the sex of an NPC and let the most interesting plot dictate the gender of the NPC. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

5e Spells: W(h)ither Creativity?

So the disappointing thing about 5e is that it seems sanitised for balance, but in a somewhat half-assed way. That's not right, its pretty well done, but maybe its too much compromise. What getting me at the moment is the utility spells.

So, I'm playing a gnome trickster cleric. I get some nice spells like polymorph and charm person and pass without trace. Things to help with sneaking and all that. Some nice options. But, unlike other spells, these don't scale with higher slots. And some of the higher level cleric spells are just less... interesting.

The DM tried to tell me that spells like blade barrier and banishment were great, and I agree. But not great for a trickster. I want some more utilities. And utilities that last longer. And these just aren't happening. Its sad too, because some spells like Bestow Curse show us the way.

For example, why can't a detect magic spell be cast with higher level slots (think 5th/6th level) that doesn't need concentration? Maybe its just 10 minutes or even one minute without concentration, but that's still great! A 6th level slot might be worth the 10 minutes or an hour. And a 9th level slot lasting all day... is that really unbalanced? The same applies to things like unseen servant, tenser's floating disk, and all sorts of other options. Even a higher level polymorph might let you keep your mental abilities or at least be able to concentrate on it for more than one hour. And this isn't just a problem with some utility spells, but a lot of them. No attempt to make them scale.

Then there's the saving throw issue. You can get advantage on magical attacks to deal damage, but it is almost impossible to give your foes disadvantage on saving throws. That makes my idea of playing a callous, cavalier, or downright evil enchanter rather unappealing (besides that they don't seem to get their one useful feature till level 14). So basically, you have an easy go of it if you're just planning on blasting your foes, but using some non-combat spells creatively never gets much easier. Guess some of that's the limit of bounded accuracy and a game focused on killing your foes rather than avoiding them.

I don't have my DMG yet, but theres a table I hope is in there but kinda doubt is: using spells creatively. Because I think they did some good jobs with spells like Create/Destroy Water and Control Water giving us some likely options, but they could have spelled out some of the combat uses better. Like the light cantrip: in AD&D, you could cast it at your foes eyes to blind them. It seems like a rather iconic thing to do and not all that hard to give rules: target gets a save or is blinded for one round (or dazed or whatever an appropriate condition is). Not always the best use of an action but it could have its uses and makes light a useful cantrip. Same thing with ray of frost: give it a secondary use for attempting to knock creatures prone (maybe they get a save/defense bonus of +1 for each leg they have beyond two? or simply advantage if they have more than 2 legs). These uses could easily be hard-coded into a lot of the non-combat spells: even using unseen servant you could sactifice it for a "help" action in a combat. Maybe not the best, but it gives people a clear use of these utility spells in combat.

But the table though. I want a table that gives good advice for using some spells creatively and how much damage they should do. If I use create water against a fire elemental, how much damage should it do? It barely has to be a table. I'm thinking something like:

  • Single Target, just damage: 2d8+1d8 per spell level above 1st.
  • Multi target, or single target + condition: 2d4+1d4 per spell level above 1st.
  • Area of effect type spells ought to do half-damage on a failed save.
  • Apply advantage on an attack roll or disadvantage on a save if it's thematically appropriate (i.e. create water against a fire elemental).

But since they're hard-coding some uses into spells, it seems obvious that create or destroy water ought to be able to do damage to fire or water creatures.  Why is this missing? Stone shape against an earth creature? These utility spells have been sanitised their combat uses. On the surface they have an old school feel because they give you some nice non-combat options, but those non-combat options don't scale well and any combat applications of utility spells are left entirely to the DM to decide. I'd think given the interest in balance in organized play that they'd make some fair and balanced rulings about this sort of thing so they can be evenly applied by different DMs.

I guess maybe this bothers me more because it seems like my current DM has just given up on learning the system: he calls for lots of pointless skill checks (ok, a style issue) and doesn't seem to understand which proficiencies do what (he never uses investigation, seems to misunderstand thieves' tools, and occasionally calls for things like "agility saves" which are usually--but not always--interpretable). So in this world, I'd rather have some clear guidelines on how some of my creative spell use ought to work, and, frankly, we know in D&D that when someone comes up with one creative use for a spell it gets repeated ad nauseum. 5e would be better off giving some of these utility spells a bit more utility, and it could have been better off coding it in the rules.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Virtual Tabletop

I ran a 13th Age game online yesterday. It was pretty slick.

First off, playin' with the guys from long ago was nice. Only two of them, but I think the small group was just fine. There's something about the small group that makes it a bit more personal than a 5+ player group, and I don't think its just the speed at which you get to take each turn.

It is more exhausting as a GM though. You're almost always on, though not quite as bad as the 1-on-1 type game, as the players can chat a bit about things, but it wasn't enough time to let folk chat while you sneak away for a drink or bathroom break.

The virtual tabletop was a slight adventure in and of itself. I think it worked relatively well, though we did need to refresh the browser a few times to keep our audio connected, and that was after ditching the video feeds. I'm thinking I should try connecting with a cable next time to see if that helps a bit or not. But the software worked pretty well for a first try. I can see how if you keep playing it could be decent, though their 13th Age sheet is a little lacking, and it looks like you'd need to pay to adapt it. With only two characters, we might be able to calculate some things by hand (charisma modifiers) and write appropriate macros, or just type /r d20+3 instead of #melee...

Prep wise, doing a 13th Age module requires a bit more flexibility than I was ready for, which basically means I needed to write down a bit more of the info from the book into an easily accessible format. Of course, I didn't know which NPCs I'd want to use or Icons that would be involved until the game started, so when we finish this up next week that'll be much easier. For the tabletop, I need to pick out a few more maps and tokens beforehand to speed things up. I think 15-30 minutes putzing with tokens would have gotten me hitpoint bars and the like set up right away, plus possibly finding come decorations for the map layer, like the corpses. I'm not yet sure how much the actual map pictures helped versus just having tokens and the white background: we've done wonders with that wet-erase battle mat.

Rules-wise, I think it went pretty well. Despite my love of rules and love of enforcing them, I'm of the opinion that you use what you have at the table, make a ruling, and can go back and look up the specifics later unless they seem pretty important. So I think I made that work, though I still want to re-read the icons and combat sections. I even didn't really need to loosen the definition of Sneak Attack as I thought initially, as the rogue gets some powers that let them break their own rules for when they can apply sneak attack. But, eff it. I don't play a game where common sense won't let someone do something, I'd rather err on someone doing something nonsensical (garrote or prone an ooze) than not be able to use the powers their character is built around.

Character creation took longer than expected, if we had only spend 1 hour on it we'da probably finished the module. But I think a good chunk of our character creation was also spent on chit-chat and the players reading their 10 pages of character info. I didn't want to insist on everyone coming with a character already made as I've talked a lot about group dynamics and making a party while you create a character, so it meant the players had each skimmed about 4 classes and then choose from them then and there. The nice thing about 13th Age is most classes are contained within about 10 pages (that's levels 1-10) and for any future game I'd definitely print those 10 pages from the PDF (or SRD if I don't have my fantabulous free color printing) for each player to keep along with their character sheet. I should make a similar rules summary to this 5e one. I also really loved when Z asked if it was ok to take Swashbuckling for his rogue, and I had to respond that I'd be disappointed if he didn't. Some of those class talents just add a lot of flavorful awesomness that is missing in the new sanitized D&D.

All in all, a few things that we could have done differently. There was only one point where we probably had to refresh for a second or third time where I was feeling like the virtual tabletop wasn't going to work out, but now I'd definitely like to try it again and finish the adventure next week. And, foolishly, I've been tricked into figuring out why the various icons in play thus far (and one or two that aren't) are all making the moves they have, such that I could easily run this from level 1 to 10 if schedules and interests aligned. Because I'm a fool, a foolish fool.

At least this time I was tricked by hicks into cleaning out a barn.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

5th Edition: I am the goddamn healer...

So, in this 5th edition D&D game I showed up to a couple months ago, I was told that the party could use a healer. Being a good team player, I whipped up a cleric. But the type of cleric I might be more into: gnome trickster domain cleric. I had just read War for the Oaks and felt like I might have a good handle on playing a trickster cleric. Though we didn't discuss everything and a few players picked pre-gens when they showed up, so we weren't building a cohesive party. Otherwise I should have gone with a Knowledge Cleric or Sage Bard because we could have used the encyclopædia role (no actual wizard in the party originally). I'll judge these people as Pathfinder players and they mostly want to do cool things and deal tons of damage.

But last week, it happened: I was going to cast Pass Without Trace for the party so everyone would be able to sneak and we'd do well at it with little risk.

"How many heals with that cost us?"

Eff you.

Because we have a warlock and no one else is really benefiting from short rests except via hit dice, the DM has been kinda stingy at letting us take short rests and the party hasn't thought they're as valuable perhaps. And why should they: the gnome (Candide Voltaire, yep, reusing that name) can heal them.

I'm a little sad at this because in 4e the healer was doing other things while healing, and the encounter-based healing meant that the healer also didn't really have to use as many daily resources. Now, I could exchange Cure Wounds for Healing Word and still be making some attacks, I suppose. And I think I just might start doing that now. Though I was also tempted to multiclass wizard soon to grab some illusions or rogue to solidify some sneaky skills with sneak attack. I could have picked a life cleric and maximized my healing potential, or a bard or druid or something else. But if we've returned to "Don't waste your spells if it isn't healing me..."


I was just a little taken back by the comment. Next time I'm just going to cast the damn spell anyway. A good few good sneaks and surprise rounds is totally worth one second level slot for a heal-up. And I just might consider a dipping into Wizard or Rogue to grab some other sneaky trickster powers besides my cleric spells.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Renaming the Alignments in D&D

I've been thinking about revising the alignment system of D&D. Not really revising, but just renaming. Because when I think about it, the system isn't unclear per se, just a bit... stale. This comes out of playing that Temple of Elemental Evil video game where you had to choose a party alignment. I think its a good system, but terms like good and evil are somewhat nebulous, to say nothing of 'lawful' and 'chaotic'. They don't quite describe what's going on in the game as well as maybe they could. So I wondered if they could be renamed to be a bit more... well... evocative.

The thing is, we often think of D&D as a heroic game, at least since 2nd Edition focused on that. The opposite of heroic is villainous, and has been pretty well established. Asking the players if they want to be a heroic or villainous group is pretty descriptive of what will happen in the game, and maybe a bit easier to grasp than good or evil.

There's other options though. I think mercenary pretty well captures the neutral alignment. A mercenary party might not be heroic, but they'd certainly be adventurers. Its also clear that a mercenary party might be selfish, but not really evil.

This gives us a pretty good notion of what sorts of characters might be at the table if you know if your party is heroic, mercenary, or villainous. But D&D has two or three more alignments. The big ones are law and chaos.

Chaos can be described as anarchic. With some of those political implications, an anarchic party doesn't believe in authority figures. You can imagine that Orcs and Goblins are anarchic because they have shifting power structures. While might might make right for them, another anarchic group might be elves who lack a high king or queen but have groups of respected elders: who have earned their places and don't govern from some divine authority (like a Dwarf king might). This has that Robin Hood, libertarian, or wild west sort of feel.

I'm having a harder time with a term for Law. Lawful isn't half bad, nor is Law-Abiding. The idea is a lawful party is possibly authoritarian, or possibly deputized into the governing hierarchy. At any rate lawful groups or characters believe that laws, regulations, and rules are necessary for society to function. Lawful groups will have a chain of command, a clear leader (or group of leaders), and possibly some organizations in place to ensure that the laws or rules are followed. Laws need not be codified and written, but sometimes can just be the tradition of the community. Disciplined or orderly are also reasonable terms here, but I haven't quite picked one that I think really applies both to describe groups and individuals well.

The last alignment is the other neutral, balance. I have kind of a hard time with this alignment when applied to good and evil: because in a way its admitting that there's an unseen order to the universe and being in harmony with it is the way to be. So that begins to sound pretty lawful to me, even if its not law as defined by mortal governments. This druid-alignment is often used as a way of opposing both the law and chaos of civilization in favor of the neutrality, harmony, or balance of nature. It would be a pretty specific type of party, so I'm not quite sure its needed. I also think someone who legitimately thinks the world needs evil in it is kind of a dick. I mean, yeah, there can be philosophical arguments about it, but its sometimes hard to fathom. Which is odd, because I've labeled that as mercenary (i.e. don't care). But the balance between law and chaos is just some sort of pragmatism perhaps, if it doesn't have cosmological implications. I'm not sure that axis needs some hard-to-grasp label when no label works just as well. If you want to do the druid pro-nature story, labelling a party as druidic might be just as evocative as long as players are experienced. I'm not sure if there's a better term but I'm not inclined to mull it over much finding a great term I'd never intend to use.

So, five terms to (mostly) replace the old alignments. The group might choose to be Heroic, Mercenary, or Villainous. They might also be Lawful or Anarchic. I could see a group just choosing one of those, however, and allowing "evil" characters in a Lawful group: the bad cop who uses the rules for personal gain.

Now, do these new terms really do enough to replace the old ones? And how do we get "neutral good" out of the mix? I think players will have a better idea of the type of game they're playing if they know its a Heroic or Mercenary game rather than good or neutral. And the neutrality between chaos and law can be dispensed with if a group need not pick two descriptors: Heroic is good enough and could include Lawful or Anarchic characters.

I think certainly labelling a party as heroic, mercenary, or villainous will give the right impression of a game to players. I can tailor my character idea easily given those labels. Lawful and anarchic might also be doable, but you kinda wonder what an anarchic party's goals are, so those two lose a little. But I think its worth giving players something like this to think about while myopically building their characters or giving the players the agency to decide what sort of game they're interested in playing by choosing the label themselves.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Psychological Stats

As I've been looking through a couple games lately and playing some 5e, I've noticed that the psychological stats are a bit lackluster or hard to use. I think the GUMSHOE system gets stuff pretty close to right, however.

What are these "psychological stats"? In traditional D&D, you have alignment. In the World of Darkness games, you select a nature and demeanor (mostly). 5th Edition D&D has Ideals, Flaws, Bonds, and Personality traits. DungeonWorld has bonds and alignment. Fading Suns actually has opposed traits (ego/faith, passion/calm, etc.) which kinda do some of this. But these are all basically little descriptions of how your character is supposed to act. The problem I see, is they don't always accomplish much.

Older edition D&D alignment basically let the DM punish characters who acted out of character. World of Darkness games let you regain willpower by acting in accordance with your nature, which is a bit nice, though demeanor generally did nothing. 5th Edition D&D has the inspiration system which gives you a tiny bonus if the DM agrees you're acting in accordance with your psych stats, but my current GM hasn't overtly used it since the first or second game. 13th Age doesn't even really have a psych stat at all.

What I really like, however, are the drives of GUMSHOE (e.g. Trail of Cthulhu) and passions of ORE (e.g. Reign). With ORE, you have three passions but you only have one thing that drives you to investigate in GUMSHOE. You could easily adapt this to your drive to adventure in a more traditional fantasy game. With ORE, when you act in accordance with one (or more) of your three passions, you can claim a 1 die bonus per passion, or the GM can levy a similar penalty if you're acting against them. Your drive in GUMSHOE can similarly affect your stability whether you're acting in accordance with it or not. GUMSHOE also suggests drives be used to edge characters into the adventure.

Why do these seem like better systems? For one, its a relatively small bonus and easy to track. I think GUMSHOE does a little better than ORE for simplicity, but they're fairly similar. The great thing is you can keep applying this minor bonus constantly, unlike inspiration in D&D 5th. Advantage is a small bonus when applied sparingly, but its rather huge if it were constantly in effect. So a drive or passion bonus in a d20 type game would need to be something smaller, like just a +1. An issue there is these little bonuses nickel and dime the game towards a big mathfest. I'm curious if a "lesser advantage" system of rolling d20+d12 choose the highest would actually be any advantage or not. Mathing it out looks like its about a +1 since your average result is higher with this than just a d20. However, given that a roll of 10-12 is still going to be a failure, I'm not sure if it'd really be enough of a small, constant bonus. You could do something similar with a d4 in Dungeonworld: instead of 2d6 for your roll, it'd be 2d6+1d4 keep the two highest. You'd be a little less likely to fail, though not much more likely to get that grand high roll. Dunno if that really maths out well, but people like rolling extra dice. Another option with DungeonWorld is changing the system to 2d8 (9+ is ok, 13+ is exceptional) then a reliable +1 isn't quite as big as it is in the normal system. 

Advantage in D&D 5th basically puts you at the mercy of your DM as to your good roleplaying. Passions or drives, on the other hand, are easier to sum up and you can remind your GM that you might merit the bonus: that seems crass in D&D 5th and possibly in some other systems. So the size of the bonus matters (gotta be small so it can be more common) but also the method of bringing your psych stat into play.

An alternate bonus would be awarding XP. That doesn't work in modern D&D when characters just end up leveling at the whim of the DM. In 13th Age you could at least hand out an incremental advance, I suppose. In a game like WoD or Fading Suns where XP works differently, you can easily give XP for adhering to your nature or suffering from your flaws. TSR era D&D could certainly get a small XP bonus (+5%?) for adhering to your alignment each session which might be enough for motivation and to inspire some roleplaying. 

I'm not sure that psych stats would necessarily fix everything, but if they were better implemented in some systems they just might help a bit. Adding a Drive to DungeonWorld or D&D (old or new) wouldn't be too difficult if it had almost no mechanical effects, but it seems that the real benefit of these psych stats is to help people play their character and give them a benefit for doing so.

There's an ancillary issue here too, which is constraining choices to fit a group. I honestly liked the constraint from the Temple of Elemental Evil vidya game, which was you picked a party alignment and then created characters. Back when alignment at least constrained some classes, it meant Paladins could only be in a LG, NG, or LN party. Barbarians couldn't be in a Lawful party, while Monks couldn't be in a chaotic party. Binning drives into similar themes might not be necessary, but its worth thinking about building the party as well as the characters.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sometimes, the rules make all the difference.

Now that the Vampire Dark Ages kickstarter is over, I'm getting back to thinking of my own not-yet-implemented vampire game and vampire stuff in general. I'm struck by the differences in the different editions. I must really be a rules lawyer, because sometimes the differences in the system make me not want to play a certain character concept.

First off, I've always been intrigued by some of the minor bloodlines, particularly the Baali and Salubri. Call me a special snowflake, but I see nothing wrong with being something uncommon in my fantasy games. How the rules implement these guys, however, makes a huge difference.

I'm going to pick on the new larp rules for vampire as an example here, but that shouldn't be to say that they're bad or have the same goals as tabletop rules. But let's say I wanted to play a Baali or Salubri in a local vampire larp and the ST allowed it. I would be quickly discovered and killed, because the medicine skill allows you to determine a vampire's clan. What tyrannical prince wouldn't test the veracity of someone's claims to clan given the ability? I was super impressed that the Auspex telepathy power didn't let you just rip this info from someone's mind, or that even the Tremere blood magic didn't quite just give this info away, but then I found it in the medicine skill?!? Ugh.

Yeah, you can house-rule that, but it basically says that impersonating a vampire of another clan is unfeasible given the larp rules, so you just couldn't do those characters in a Camarilla setting (Sabbat would be awkward, Anarch might be fine). But already I'm adjusting the character I want to play to the particular game, or choosing a character mostly based on the rules since its just too easy to be found out. In the same vein, the Baali are explicitly demonic in the rules. Daimoinon explicitly requires a demonic pact. Not only does that go against some of the story the Baali have, but it makes them much harder to play.

Now, the larp rules are obviously trying to keep rare things rare and overpowered things to a minimum since a game with 30-60+ PCs is very different than a game with 3-6 PCs.  But their system of merits is really odd too. Even if I purchase a Salubri character (a 6-pt merit for the healer type in most settings), I can't also purchase the Golconda Seeker merit (a 5-pt merit) because of the merit limit. No exceptions. It seems like a little oversight there, because you can never have more than 7 points of merits.  And merits are what allow everyone to be a special snowflake in the larp rules. I guess Salubri is so special you can't also go the golconda route.

I'm picking on the MET rules, but I think there are similar issues with how a particular discipline or clan weakness is instantiated by the rules. Also, merit/flaws. I always want to play a Malkavian oracle, but the oracle merit and auspex/dementation don't often seem to add up to a real prophet (note: the MET oracle merit is actually good, while the V20  and new Dark Ages stuff is wishy-washy and lame). In a table-top game the ST can really make or break the Oracular Ability merit though you could almost just as easily play an oracle character without buying that merit by making a deal with the ST.

Anyway, in my brainpan, this sort of stuff fits in the broader discussion of what rules are good and what aren't. Ideally what I'd like to see for some of these things is a discussion in the books about how to interpret powers and abilities. If you allow telepathy to rip anything from a character's mind and the power is common (either repeatable regularly by the PCs or a broader slate of NPCs) then keeping secrets will be impossible. If the Medicine ability let you recognize if two individuals were of the same clan (require two samples) instead of just identifying the clan, that's a world of difference. Should caitiff register as 'no clan' or 'caitiff' or 'unknown clan'? Could you choose one clan (or two?) per dot of medicine that you can identify easily and then have to do the comparison for the others? It makes for a different game if you can't tell the difference between Tremere and Salubri than if they're easily distinguishable with a ritual, path of thaumaturgy, or medicine skill use.

Ultimately it makes me yearn a little for the Gumshoe rules, or perhaps gumshoe-inspired rules where magic (along with other special abilities) has some limits. But the problem is broader: one rule impacts another until there's a whole system. I think a few more games should follow ones like 13th Age or Reign -- which explicitly call out some of their assumptions and intentions. Knowing why the designers of the MET rules decided Medicine should let you determine clan would help me decide how to implement or change that rule.

Or, I'll just not play my Salubri or Baali character in a larp. Not that I'll get much of a chance to play one anyway in the near future.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What if I do like Pathfinder..?

I did a bad thing. When I was looking into Temple of Elemental Evil (the 80s module) I was annoyed that it was a video game and it made it difficult to search for fan-made (i.e. better) maps and notes on how people adapted the module. Then I saw the game was $6. Then I started playing.

Is a relatively faithful adaptation of the third edition rules, making the game run something like those old gold-box games from the TSR era. Its also a relatively faithful adaptation of the module, especially given that the module was designed (as they all kinda were) for DMs to customize them. So I stopped reading the module and focused on the playing the game first. Its pretty good.

Maybe its just because I've avoided video games for much of the past decade (If I got into WoW or something, I'd be a complete recluse), but I got to thinking: these 3.5 rules aren't so bad. And then I wondered what if I like Pathfinder?

As I'm playing with this 5th edition group, I've been realizing that some of what I dislike is play style and some of it is rules. Perception and stealth be damned, but you can use those as you like. Its the style of play that has emerged since third edition though that seems reliant on those skills. Now I'm curious to go back in time and see how some of the World of Darkness games I've played went. Are people constantly rolling perception skills there? Are they more concerned with what's on their sheet than the game they're playing?

I guess the point is that we should probably take each game on its merits, but also that groups and play style can be huge. There are some things that just break the system in 3.5 (wand of cure light wounds..?), but it isn't necessarily an awful system. There's a whole lot of overpowered options for 3.5 (and presumably Pathfinder, just like 4e and such), but overpowered options come as more and more options are added.

Now the trick: how do I get players used to the way I'd like to do things, or train a GM to think the way I want the game to be run?  Obviously the DM has the most sway in how things are done at the table. But if I could get players to players but into the notion of only rolling them when its vital to the story, that'll be a game I'm more interested in playing on either side of the screen. I've just been baffled that the guy running this 5th edition game I'm playing keeps having us roll perception checks for just about everything, and sometimes just has us re-roll skills checks when we should have passed them. Its a lot of rolling for what could be easily narrated and then we'd move on to the more fun bits.

I've had this notion that sometimes players operate with sheet blinders: they don't think beyond what's on their sheet. And that probably motivates a lot of "Can I roll Perception?" questions. But playing the video game and comparing it to this new 5th edition group just seems to have reminded me that the rules don't necessarily tell you how best to use them. A lot of games have house-rules sheets, but maybe we need something like game-style sheets as well.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

OSR and TSR Options

Since I've got a bug up my butt about running Temple of Elemental Evil (For better for for worse), I'm looking through some of the OSR material I have as well as the TSR options. I've seen a few things I really like or are at least notable. A lot of this comes from the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS) with a eye on Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea (ASSH). But some of it might be doable in a 5th edition game or 13th Age, not just TSR D&D or an OSR retroclone or whatnot, but some are really tied to those older d20 rolling fantasy games.

1) Warrior damage bonus and cleaving. ACKS just flat-out gives warriors a scaling damage bonus from +1 at first level to +5 at 12th Level. It reminds me of weapon specialization in AD&D. At some point, fighters just need to be doing a little more damage. I'm just not quite sure what the correct amount is, but something simple like +1 at levels 5, 10, 15, and 20 surely can't be overpowered. Weapon Mastery (double specialization) and beyond show up in Combat & Tactics as single-classed fighter only options which is nice, but guarantees that fighters become very kensei-like and overspecialized in a single weapon. I like the option, but I'm unsure what the implementation ought to be. ASSH gives fighters a couple weapons that they get +1 hit/damage with over their careers and the option to double specialize in one. I like the kensei class option in greater specialization, but maybe its not for all warriors.

2) Warrior cleaving. First edition had a somewhat hidden/obscure rule (well, lots really) that allowed a fighter to make a number of attacks equal to his level against creatures less than 1/2 hit die. It gets repeated in a number of OSR books, and adapted a little by Combat and Tactics. But I like the ACKS implementation mostly though it might need a slight tweak. When a warrior kills an enemy, they get to make a bonus attack with the same weapon against an enemy within 5' (though if they have movement they can still move 5' and make the attack). They can do this a number of times equal to their level. Clerics and Thieves can do it up to half their level. That's powerful! Removing the hit die cap (which is what ACKS appears to do) makes it much easier to use. Combat & Tactics specifies you must be outnumbered to use the rule, and it might still have a hit die limit. I like the idea of a scaling Hit die limit still. Though a "kill in one blow" wording might de-facto do an appropriate hit die limit. Combat & Tactics limits the number of bonus attacks, giving double your normal attack rate as the limit, which I kinda like. But some version of this really gives a nice bonus to warriors. Note that, depending on the wording, this warrior cleave or heroic fray might work for missile attacks as well, not just melee.

3) Encumbrance in Stone. Its around the internet in a few places, but ACKS uses is too. Basically, you use a much larger weight unit so encumbrance has a better level of granularity. ACKS defines a stone as 10 pounds, but the 14-pound stone is still used in the UK as a unit of human body weight. However you define it, you're dealing with numbers in the range of 20 or less usually, so that's a bit easier to math out.

4) Rations. DungeonWorld and ACKS use a nicer ration system, though its there in all forms of TSR D&D too. It could just be a little simplified. TSR D&D never gave lots of healing overnight though, which is where rations might be more important for a game like 5th edition or 13th Age where you fully heal (or more fully heal) overnight. I actually did something like this in the 4th edition Dark Sun game I ran, which was letting the PCs cast defiling magic to regain all their healing surges while they were travelling. It made wilderness encounters actually worthwhile since you might actually lose resources on the way to the dungeon. Normal AD&D makes regaining HP difficult enough unless the cleric totally blasts the party with cure light wounds.

5) Dual Wielding. In ACKS, dual wielding just gives you an offensive bonus, not extra attacks. Extra attacks should, I feel, be limited to special situations and certain classes (warriors in general, the monk specifically). I also like the 13th Age take on dual wielding, but extra attacks can get pretty powerful (especially when you have magic bonuses to hit and damage in addition to ability score bonuses) and they can be a pain to deal with consistently. Saying that though, some missile weapons in TSR D&D more readily get multiple attacks, particularly with weapon specialization.

4) XP for gold and Carousing (i.e. gold for XP). I can see how gaining XP based on the loot you get makes the game a bit more Sword-and-Sorcery than high fantasy. So I like it. I also agree that its maybe best if you get the XP for magic items you sell (but don't use): so its really for gold you're bringing back to town. ACKS has a carousing rule which says you can piss away that gold and start an XP bank for your next character. I kinda like that idea too. Again, not sure the best implementation, but I like the idea. However, this doesn't look like it'd work well in a game like 5th edition or 13th Age: something about those distinct XP charts for classes and AD&D multiclassing makes this feel like it works best in those games. When you either don't really pay attention to XP (or gold, for that matter) and just give out level-ups for milestones or whatnot, it doesn't seem to matter.

5) Simplified weapons. ACKS does a 5th edition on weapons a bit, taking the broad number of weapons down from AD&D's massive set. I like the idea, but I also like the notion of weapon properties. A few more properties might play up some more differences between weapons, like flails and chains ignoring shields (wrap around) and entangling enemies (easier to disarm or trip). You could even capture some of the weapon vs armor stuff of AD&D with properties like plate-penetration or whatnot. Certainly they must have considered this in 3rd edition and decided against it for some reason, but I'm not privy to what that reason was so it still seems worthwhile to simplify the weapons slightly but keep some of the crazier properties and oddities of the system. Maybe the properties could be steamlined a bit to generic +2/-2 so its easier to keep track of though.

6) Shield sundering (and more). Though I can't seem to find it in ACKS, the internet claimed there was a shields-will-be-sundered rule. I'm not sure I like the option where you can just let your shield break anytime for half-damage, but I like weapons and shields breaking. Its part of the reason why I'm thinking one benefit of fighters is they should automatically get something like tight-group proficiency with weapons and be able to use more weapons, rather than funnel them into grand-mastery specialization with just one weapon. I wonder if this might be great as an alternative to some critical hit nonsense. Crits and fumbles might where your equipment has a chance to break (or enemies equipment does) rather than always just doing something like max damage. Actually, I really like the idea of crits doing things like breaking equipment in addition to or instead of just heaps of damage. Cause unless you have a max damage on crits rule, just rolling double dice can be a bummer when you roll 1s on the damage die for a crit.

7) Wisdom (and Charisma) for bonus XP. This comes out of Swords and Wizardry, where your prime requisite bonus is only 5%. A wisdom or charisma of 13+ gives you a 5% bonus to XP as well. I'm not so sure I like it for Charisma, but any class with a better wisdom seems like it should get that XP bonus. I might give the Cha bonus for classes who would otherwise be required to have a good wisdom like Clerics or a Necromancer rather than letting wisdom do double duty there. But Wisdom as a prime requisite for all classes might be nice.

8) Spell preparation. ASSH uses the TSR / vancian method of fire-and-forget. But ACKS uses the method that classes like the Spirit Shaman of 3rd edition or now 5th edition use. A wizard's spellbook lets him practice/prepare a set of spells, but the spell slots themselves are also magic points used to cast those spells. In this case, the wizard is a little more versatile. Clerics in ACKS, it seems, have their whole list prepared! I do like the 5th edition system a little, but is is odd if you have 2nd level slots left and need to cast a first level spell. I'm not sure about this, but see scrolls below.

9) Scrolls. ASSH gives mages the ability to scribe scrolls right away at first level. This is a case where I'm not sure I like it. Scribe Scroll seemed quite potent in third edition, so allowing wizards to explicitly scribe scrolls at low levels seems a lot. Mostly because at mid and higher levels, the wizard is only spending a pittance of XP or gold to have a good number of useful low-level scrolls scribed. Now, a game where you still use your own slots or magic points to power a scroll might make it more interesting and balanced: you're scribing the scrolls to expand your repertoire but not your number of spells cast per day. Depends on your rules, perhaps. Though that wouldn't fit with thieves being able to read a scroll on occasion, though maybe you could also rule you lose 1d4hp per level of the spell if you don't use a slot to cast that spell.

There's a whole lot of other options out there, but the Player's Option books and the OSR literature don't always make this stuff easy to find. Also, deciding on what to implement isn't easy. I'm guessing a lot of this stuff wasn't playtested as well as it could be, and what works well in one system or even gaming table might not translate at all to another. More reading to do, I suppose, but this was a first pass at some interesting options.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

13th Age Bestiary: Ettercaps (and more)

I don't know where ettercaps came from in D&D, but the 13th Age Bestiary finally makes me want to use them. Like, so much that they might rival Yuan-Ti and all the undead as one of my go-to enemy/rival groups.

I'm not really one for super gonzo or whimsical things in my D&D, but somehow the 13th Age material just seems to hit me at about the right level. Its imaginative and sometimes fanciful, but not so over-the-top with cyborg-apes riding robot dinosaurs.

Art-wise though, I might have liked the much longer fingers of the 2nd edition ettercap.

Other favorites in the bestiary: Couatl, Hag, Lammasu, Lich, Manticore, Naga, Ogre Mage, Red & White Dragons. But I might find another one or two after another read-through.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Skills, proficiencies, and secondary skills in D&D

I was going to try to run one-on-one D&D this past weekend, but my friend's napping stopped that. So instead I was looking through some old D&D stuff and thinking about the 5th edition game I've been trying to play. One thing I noticed: even with this new group, people are rolling a shit-ton of perception checks. I even heard someone tell one of the new people to take perception because that and stealth are among the most useful skills in the game.

My dislike of skills keeps growing. Or, at least how they've been implemented in D&D. When I ran some 2nd edition this past year, I was happy to skip proficiencies. I'da had the players roll for secondary skills, but it didn't seem relevant at the time. Secondary skills, in second edition, were just backgrounds basically. You were a blacksmith, so you should know blacksmith sorts of things. Simple as that.

But looking at proficiencies again now, I feel like some are misplaced. Blind-fighting is a key example. The only reason it's a non-weapon proficiency is because weapon proficiencies came first. If they were called combat proficiencies, blind-fighting would obviously be one of those. The Players' Option books have lots of different options (not surprising) for things to do with your weapon proficiency slots other than weapons, so a backwards compatible (i.e. OSR) revision of 2nd edition might distinguish between combat and non-combat proficiencies.

There's also a few which provide real good benefits, while others are more back story. Pottery or Agriculture, for example, are occupation-based backgrounds that could really just be a secondary skill. There's almost no reason to roll those. Tracking and healing, however, provide some really great benefits. Yet these are, to an extent, still background related.

Then we see the thief skills in 2nd edition. Acrobatics and read-lips are proficiencies, but the thief-skills aren't. I assume that's backwards compatibility too.

So. I might consider using proficiencies, but in a slightly revised way. Most characters would need an occupation-based proficiency or two. Or maybe just that one-word background that'd cover some of that stuff. Then maybe those other things could become more like thief skills. Reading lips, healing, tracking, setting snares, disguise, forgery... These are useful but... really. Why should a wizard be reading lips? And how could a wizard not have Spellcraft? Some need to be baked into the class a bit more, others less. Maybe I could just use the secondary skills and assume wizards would get the benefit of having spellcraft with just intelligence checks.

But then we come to Healing. Back when I thought I'd be playing, I was totally min-maxing the healing non-weapon proficiency to see how good it could be. There's a Halfling healer kit that is for priests and doesn't modify the proficiency. There's an Anatomist in the necromancer book who ends up getting a +2 to healing checks. There's a medician in the paladin book who gets to heal 1d4hp if they get to the wound within a round or three, rather than 1d3 if they get to the wound immediately. Both the necromancer and paladin books have a proficiency (anatomy and diagnostics respectively) that boosts healing, while herbalism does that too in the main book (but herbalism actually boosts the amount of healing too, not just the check). So it looks like the best you could do is that medician paladin who heals 1d4+1 hp if you tend a wound within a round or three. If you use skills and powers proficiency rules, you could heal 2 pts if you get to the wound within an hour. It only works once a day on any given character, but you can also ensure an extra hp or two for resting. Of course, if you were a paladin, you'd also have magic healing via lay on hands anyway. I thought it'd be cooler on the necromancer. Meh.

I also was a bit baffled about the rate of healing in older editions, but a friend of mine pointed out that it could be a feature, not a bug. If hit points represent some kind of ability to deflect wounds and such, then a fighter is legitimately taking a lot more damage than a wizard, and the wizard who was reduced to 1hp should heal up faster than a fighter in the same situation. Meh. Digression. Healing plus herbalism gives you 1d3+1 hp on a good healing check, once per character per day. Plus maybe an extra hp each day over night of travel/camping (or 3 if they're full-on resting).

This isn't impressive healing, but it is useful at lower levels. Even higher levels a little bit of healing can help, as a by-the-book 10th level fighter might only still have 50-60 hp, and you only get a fixed bonus after a while so a level 20 fighter might not pass 100hp without a hp boosting rule. And what does this digression mean? Some nonweapon proficiencies are actually useful. As in, might have a noticeable impact on the game. Of course, this seems to be a 2nd edition thing, my copy of Oriental Adventures doesn't have a healing proficiency at all. The healing proficiency could be overrated.

But, maybe skills aren't all that bad. 5e seems a little simplified for my taste, and includes that awful perception skill. If I run 5e, my house rule will probably just be that I roll most skill checks for the players. Perception is still overly useful compared to, say, preform, but at least it might stop people from constantly rolling perception checks (to be fair, it is the DM for this new group asking for all the perception checks).

It might be worth giving Lorefinder (gumshoe rules for pathfinder) a closer look, since I picked that up a little bit ago. Seems like an easy transplant, but its also designed for a game with good recurring attendance. I'm thinking I might be running a megadungeon with a slightly rotating cast, if I can get some people into it.

I'm not sure how you can fix more backgroundy skills (carpentry, blacksmithing, pottery) with useful skills (stealth, tracking, survival, healing) but there must be some better system than these games are currently using. I think 13th Age has it good with their backgrounds-as-skills, but it doesn't give you mechanically effectual healing. Though 13th Age is one game where that doesn't seem needed based on all the recoveries (i.e. 4th edition healing surges) PCs get. For an old school game though, a few of these skills might really benefit a group, if only they could be worked in to the system a bit better. Maybe that just means pairing down the proficiency list and putting some skills (back?) where they belong (i.e blind-fighting as a combat proficiency, read lips as a thief skill) and giving fewer proficiencies for PCs to choose? It might work. As long as one of them ain't perception. That still grinds my gears.

[Update: I was looking at Combat & Tactics over lunch. It lets you buy some proficiencies which are normally listed as non-weapon with your weapon slots (awareness). So, backwards compatibility, but they recognized some problems with the weapon/non-weapon distinction.]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Using Crusader, Monk, (Mystic,) and Shaman in 2nd Edition (or earlier)

I've always been a bit of a fan of the Player's Option stuff in 2nd Edition. But come on, I was, what, 15ish, when that stuff came out. Also, I've been a low-key fan of the Shaman as a different take on magic. So when I'm contemplating running an old school (ish) second edition game running Temple of Elemental Evil, I want to give my players at least some relevant options without just outright opening up all of 2nd edition.

So I get to thinking: why not allow the alternate priest classes from Spells and Magic. (Aside: There's also the mystic if you add Faith and Avatars, but I think that one seems dumb because they use candle magic. I might know someone who loves to play witches who would love that class though. Dunno. At any rate, I have a vague rule of: no more than one extra book per player, and you gotta bring the book to the table. I'm not buying Faith and Avatars for that class, but I might not stop someone else from doing it.) So then I start looking around the internet and simply cannot find a halfway decent rundown of how these might work. Granted, I might be looking for shit that is marginally pre-internet (I know, I know, 1996 wasn't really pre-internet, but maybe reviews were posted on AOL or something). But getting actual play info on these classes isn't easy apparently.

First issue: 2nd edition balanced priest classes by access to spells, not by number of spells. So the bard isn't as great a caster as a wizard, but that's not how priests worked. Whether you build with the Priest's handbook or Spells and Magic, number of spheres (i.e. spell access) is the balance, not number of spells you cast per day. So the Crusader, Monk, and Shaman have a limited spell selection compared to the Cleric, and that's a key balancing factor. Access to weapons/armor is another. So if you have better weapon selection, you should lose out on spells. I'm not 100% sure that is the best design, but that's how these classes were designed.

Second issue: the classes seemed designed to make use of the Tome of Magic spheres. That's kinda laudable, since otherwise these Tome of Magic spheres were just there and clerics couldn't use the spells. Some supplements used them, but not all of them. And whereas wizards got elementalists and wild mages, the part where priests didn't get a shaman or monk or crusader or mystic seemed odd. Sure, you can design your own faith (and those rules should have been in the DMG not the Priest's Handbook), but generic clerics and druids didn't benefit from those new spheres like Numbers, Time, Travellers, War or Wards. So, in a sense, Spells and Magic really just filled out the details of what we were missing for years: basic classes to use the Tome of Magic spheres: spheres which were neglected in other products since they were "optional" anyway.

I'm sure I've used the Spells and Magic monk in the past, including briefly for an attempt at 2nd edition planescape last year. The violence was strong with him, but because it was planescape, my spells were bunk when we got out of Sigil. So it was hard to tell, but it seemed like a reasonable class which could somewhat fill in that healing role of the Cleric. The spell selection was definitely limited, and I felt it. But it did the divination stuff well with access to Numbers and Thoughts. The slight beefiness in combat might have been due to combat and tactics martial arts. None of the other players looked at that book.

The crusader is the one that people online seems to just poo poo right away. I think its mostly the part where the crusader is a full-on caster with a warrior THAC0. But, in one discussion I was able to find, there are distinctions between the crusader and paladin. Importantly, the crusader doesn't get the warrior bonus attacks. Likewise, they're rolling d8 for hit dice, don't get exceptional strength or the warrior constitution bonus. And, from what I gather, even if you used the expertise rules from Combat and Tactics, you maybe would only ever get 3 attacks per 2 rounds, not the full-on specialist number because that's based on also getting the warrior bonus attacks. So on the surface and at lower levels, the crusader probably does step on the toes of the paladin or other warriors. By about 7th level you'll start to see that the crusader needs those spells to keep up with the warriors. They also have access to a reduced spell selection compared to the cleric. Overall, it seems boarderline acceptable. If you're really concerned, you could give them one fewer spell at each level (that'd be no spells at 1st level if you don't allow the wisdom bonus spells). Fewer spells would be a noticeable drawback at low levels, but might balance things out. Alternately, the bard's spell progression chart would be even more of a hindrance. Not sure if reduced spell progression is really needed though.

As for the shaman, people seemed slightly concerned that the player could abuse getting access to some spells early with their bonus boons they can get from spirits. But I think the roleplaying factor probably would limit this somewhat, as nature or ancestor spirits might just be too far from their homes to provide all the assistance all the time. Plus they could ask for things in return, presumably. Its the kind of hokey OSR story balance, but I think this works much better than, say, the Elven Bladesinger's massive chruncy benefits compared to a few easier-to-ignore story hinderances. Seems reasonable. At least more flavorful than the Barbarian's Handbook Shaman or the Humanoids shaman. Not sure how it compares with the Shaman shaman though.

If I do ever run the Temple or maybe in another 2nd edition game, I'll totally let the players choose these or at least consider them based on the setting (Al-Qadim could use a crusader, I suppose, but less so the martial arts monk or unenlightened shaman). Crusader is the only one I'd consider dropping, just because I think the cleric does the role of warrior-priest quite well. But that's more story-based than mechanics based. Then again, given the folks who I've gotten to play some 2nd Edition here, I doubt they'd really take the options. Even if I also allowed things like the Berserker (Vikings), Runecaster (Vikings/Giantcraft), or Sha'ir (Al-Qadim), it'd probably be more a party of fighters and thieves and assassins than monks and shamans.

But whatever. I like options. But they need to be good ones that fulfill the basic needs of the game. And I think the Crusader, Monk, or Shaman could probably fill in for a cleric or druid just fine, and two could exist in the same party without stepping on one another's toes too much. This monk might step on the toes of the 1st edition Monk or Shukenja, but in a 1st edition game I might still try to import the shaman.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Party of one: Part 2

A few other discoveries since my last post on solo adventures. [Edit: briefly updated with a couple more finds.]

One of the strange things I've noticed about solo adventures is they aren't geared for level 1. Even the D&D X's challenge ones. It just seems to me that it'd be logical to do solo adventures with a new player  or new character in an OSR type game to give them a little XP and some treasure. Guess that's either not how people write these things or they just wrote one-on-one adventures to have one-on-one adventures, not to fill some need in how these are used or desired. Because it seems to me that having a wider range of levels for any given adventure would make them much more useful.Also, from what I've seen of the X's Challenge modules, its just kinda standard that the lone PC is likely to have a henchman or hireling. I guess that's one way to do it, but it seems a little... unsatisfying. Then again, many OSR games were designed for much bigger parties too: 4-10 is a bit more of the spread than the 4-6 that seems like the norm today. And some of the old school modules really want 5+ or 6+ PC more than just a group of four. Anyway, the new finds:

There's one-on-one adventurer guide for OSR games free on RPGnow from the same folk who did Red Tide (Sine Nomine Publishing) called Black Streams: Solo Heroes (the term solo keeps being used to mean one hero, but also the no-DM choose-your-own-adventure style thing just for added confusion. I keep trying to clarify it by using one-on-one but I can't change the name of someone else's product. Also, the plural seems disturbingly delicious there: solo heroes.). Its free, so you're probably picking it up now. But it's basically a set of simple modifications to OSR games to allow a solo PC to be competitive.

I ran across a review for one Dungeon adventureThe Ulrich Monastery, which doesn't get a very good review.  But if you want some ideas... maybe? Oddly, its for levels 5-6. This lead me to search more of the reviews. White Fang (Dungeon 20), Scepter of the Underworld (Dungeon 12),  and The Djinni's Ring (Dungeon 9) appear to be solo (not one-on-one) adventures. Tenfootpole.org doesn't really do much review for the last three, leading me to suspect they're really choose-your-own-adventures. But, not 100% sure, I'd have to take a closer look.

Sine Nomine also kickstarted an OSR one-on-one game itself: Scarlet Heroes! But I haven't picked up a copy to see if it does more than their Black Streams: Solo Heroes stuff. It looks like it might, but its also tied up with their Red Tide setting. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

D&D legacies that just won't stop

I've been thinking lately as I read 13th Age and DungeonWorld and the new D&D that we still have a number of rather odd legacies in D&D based on the original edition.

Obviously one of the big ones is spell slots. While they made sense in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, they have stopped making sense in 5th edition. I mention this because during/after my first official 5th edition game, I had to argue that a first level cleric can only cast 2 spells. The guys had somehow confused spells prepared with spell slots, which might be a legacy of the playtests, but I couldn't fathom how they did that and why it took an hour afterwards to convince the DM how the rules read. Eventually I did citing the multiclass rules as my evidence (you combine slots, not spells prepared/known). Anyway, there's no real reason not to just say those are magic points and your magic points have levels. Slots are the currency of the game and they really function just like the slots did for 3rd edition sorcerers. Buy why call them slots? Tradition.

The paladin and ranger come to mind as another odd tradition. Both have survived since shortly after the dawn of time, but they've drifted quite a bit from their original incarnations. Rangers were originally more like fighters in 1st edition, gaining giant-slaying powers but weren't tied to bows or two-weapon fighting. Second edition expanded rangers by letting them choose favored enemies and rolling a few thief skills into them. But rangers Rangers lost their magic in 4th edition, only to gain a little back in the essentials classes (when they realized two power sources weren't terrible for a class, also power source was largely meaningless). Paladins likewise changed from the cavalier-like devotion to right and good (alignment-based powers) to serving a deity (4th edition and 5th edition). I think they're reasonable as classes, though the fighter steps on their toes (and vice versa) to an extent. But now we're stuck with warrior druids and warrior clerics which, imho, aren't as distinct as the older versions of the classes.

Elves and gnomes are another case of odd tradition. Third edition brought us the Sorcerer class, but Elves who are said to have innate magic got wizard as their favored class. Even long ago the Druid came to the party late: it's not hard to envision elves as being primarily associated with druidic magic. Gnomes had illusionist in 3.0, but it changed to bard in 3.5 rather than sorcerer, and their innate magic was something that ought to have distinguished them from dwarves and halflings a little more. Sorcerer could have been a better fit here than wizard, especially if sorcerer were given a way to focus on enchantments or illusions.

Bringing us to Sorcerer. Its kinda cool that the third edition sorcerer has this vague story of dragonblood to give magic power, but they ran with it in 4th edition and 5th edition (13th Age does likewise). This means now that sorcerer is a traditional class, its also stuck with draconic and wild magic as its essence. A beguiler or trickster option would really speak to the idea of the elf or gnome with innate fey powers.

Tradition. Rangers and paladins have been popular classes (I think because they not only have some distinct powers that other warriors don't have, but also because they fill a warrior role), so we're stuck with them. Elves originally cast wizardly magic, so they need to be good with that but we can't switch them to sorcery. Or god forbid giving them druidic powers that actually might mesh more with ideas of what Elven culture might be.

We have done away with some aspects of tradition, such as the Paladin's alignment restriction, or now the bard's limited spellcasting. And that's not a bad thing. But 3rd and 4th edition have been really conservative with setting material, so we didn't really get any broad new archetypes entering into the distinct forms of that d20-rolling fantasy roleplaying game or its followers and acolytes. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Gaming Technology of 13th Age

I've played one session of 5th Edition, but when I sat down to create the character, I found all of my options a little lackluster. 5th Edition starts you off with almost no special powers so you can grow into your character. Now, that's great for newer players. But I wouldn't be surprised if many 5th edition games pull an old school Darksun and start off at 3rd level where you've already picked the path your character will follow.

But what it really meant was I've been looking a lot harder at 13th Age. And man, is there some great stuff in there.

First, the three most widely known aspects of 13th Age are probably the Icons and icon relationships, the escalation die, and One Unique Thing. The icons provide a neat way to bring big NPCs or their factions into play, even if they themselves aren't necessarily seen. The escalation die alters combat so you've got some advantages towards the end. This has two effects. First, combats shouldn't last forever (the 4e grind). Second, defense is a reasonable strategy (wait till your attacks are more potent towards the end of combat). Obviously you can use your big guns right away (a dead enemy can deal no damage) but in some most other games playing defensively is mostly just going to make combats last a lot longer. Since its a mechanic, you can then hang other mechanics off it so an attack might be better or worse if you use it early or late in the battle.

But there's a lot more than that. These aren't all unique to 13th Age (which explicitly calls out the origins of some of these features) but really all add up to make the game more than a simple d20 variant. The best thing is, some of them are more philosophical and easy to port into D&D or another game. Others you could do with minor mechanical tweaks. In general, its easier to export these ideas from 13th Age to your own game than remove the rulesy bits from 13th Age. Removing the Icons would have minimal effects on most classes, but removing the escalation die might be quite a bit broader, for example. Removing One Unique Thing just makes 13th Age less custom, while the backgrounds could be replaced with Gumshoe style skills (perhaps based on Lorefinder?).

Middle of or lower of 2-3 stats. In 13th Age, you use the middle or lower of ability scores to determine your defenses (or attacks for multiclass characters, it seems). This means taking one 18 and dumping the other stats isn't such a great plan. A simple and elegant solution which min-maxers can still try to make use of, but not to the extent as most versions of D&D or Pathfinder. 4th Edition did the reverse of this: higher of dex or int for reflex. This meant you could dump one easily. Median of three or lowest of two means you've got a couple scores that still matter. This might mean, however, that having one or two really low scores (if you apply it even more broadly) might make a character significantly less playable.

Fail Forward. This isn't unique to 13th Age, its more of a philosophy. Missed attacks might still deal some damage (hit points are not equal to meat or specific wounds anyway). A failed climbing check might simply result in damage instead of an insurmountable obstacle (though maybe the cliff does prove insurmountable and you have to go the long or dangerous way around). Ever since one game where I played where my character had virtually no chance of making the required check and the DM wouldn't let us advance without it... This has been my philosophy.

Incremental Advance. Levels are big deals. But you can give out a portion of a level early as a bonus for good RP or just regular attendance. This means you might your next feat or class feature early, which are nice and concrete benefits, and playing 4 sessions between levels should still be rewarding.

Weapon Damage and AC by Class. This seems very DungeonWorld to me, but I kinda like it. A barbarian might always do more damage with a longsword than a bard. Ain't nothing wrong with that. Likewise a paladin wearing full plate might have a better AC than the barbarian. Because that's how the class works.

Class complexity ranking. I'm not necessarily of the opinion that each class needs its own set of special powers to make it play different than another, and I certainly think that (by and large) a set of spells does enough for the wizard without needing fiddly once-per-day non-spell powers or whatnot. But in a game where each class does play quite differently and (in general) has its own unique schtick, the ranking of which classes are great for beginners is precious. Barbarians, paladins, and rangers are easier because most of their stuff is basic attacks. Fighters and clerics are more complex because they have more options in play. Sorcerers and rogues are even more complex, because they've got a lot of different options. Wizards can be the most (or closer to sorcerers and rogues) depending on their choices. The additional classes in 13 True Ways (Chaos mage, Commander, Druid, Monk, Necromancer, Occultist) aren't ranked because they're all at least at the Sorcerer/Rogue level of complexity. They call out that the Chaos Mage and Necromancer might be easy enough for beginning players, but its nice to be able to show a list to people too. 13th Age is a little more "do as thou will" though for that.

Backgrounds as Skills. This is one of the the skill systems I actually like. I think I like the Gumshoe system too, but this one I do like. In 13th Age, you use nifty backgrounds as your skills. So if I'm a 'Shaman for a tribe of ancestor worshippers who were wiped out in gnoll attack', I might use that background for tribal etiquette, knowledge of rival tribes, shamanic practices, or gnoll tactics. Min-maxers might be stumped with these and try for a "jack of all trades +5" background, but a crafty GM will just hook them into the plot more. Plus, your class stuff doesn't really interfere or modify backgrounds much, so there's nothing for min-maxers to do but create an intricate background for their character.

Fight in Spirit. This apparently comes from Fate, or so the interwebs claimed. When you're out of a fight, you pull a Final Fantasy where your character might be praying for their allies, or otherwise inspire people and grant a minor bonus. Helps keep people involved even if they've just been irrevocable slain.

Technology of the d20. Critical hits and fumbles have been around for a long time on 20s and 1s, and at least by late second edition we started seeing what resembles today's expanded crit range (On a hit of 18-20...). But 13th Age really brings this all out by having some powers (flexible attacks, lots with the bard, fighter, and sorcerer but also some on the druid and monk iirc plus monsters galore!) activate on a natural even or odd, on a natural high-ish number (16+), on a lower number (two-weapon fighting lets you reroll on a 2), a bad miss (1-5), etc.

Player Pics. An easy to miss section, but it just says let your players (or one of them each session or after a big milestone) pick one element that's been in the game to highlight. A villain, a cult which was sorta forgotten about 2 sessions ago, etc. Then you try to work it in.

Mooks. Obviously we saw these in 4e, but these rules are nice.

Nastier specials. Many monsters have additional optional attacks which can be used to spice things up or if the encounter is significantly weaker than you expected. It also easily lets you make a stronger leader figure for the group of enemies.

Death Attacks and the last gasp save. Death attacks done pretty well. The medusa in the basic rule book is a really nice example of how these save-or-die mechanics can be threatening but not overwhelming (and based one one or two bad rolls).

Conditional spell lists. This is a strange one from 13 True Ways, but the Chaos Mage and the Druids with the terrain magic talent have a set of spells which changed from encounter to encounter. The Chaos Mage (predictably) randomly has a small set of options on any given turn in combat, while the terrain magic talent of the druid gives you different spells depending on what type of terrain you're in (broadly construed). I love this idea so much that the druid can have a nice geomancer feel. (Druids are a super versatile class and can really take a major and minor talent --like terrain magic, an animal companion, healing, or shapeshifting--or go for breadth with three different minor talents for versatility.)

I might have missed one or two, by the way.

Its not really fair to compare this directly to D&D. Obviously 5th edition has some of its own new tech (the double roll for advantage all over the place, one proficiency bonus for lots of things) and other implementations of similar tech (bounded accuracy or a lower range of bonuses over the game). Some of these are also in 13th Age: bounded accuracy because the game only goes up to level 10 (so a +1 per level has a hard cap), some classes like the Barbarian's rage gets the double rolls (and crits if you hit and both dice are 11+), etc. Also, 13th Age had all of previous D&D to draw from, in addition to more indie and opinionated games. I'm not sure how the timeline of 13th Age and DungeonWorld match up, one or both of them could have drawn from the other if they were in progress around summer 2012, but I think its fair to say that 13th Age makes D&D much more like an indie game in the vein of DungeonWorld but quite a bit crunchier in terms of mechanics and rolling.

Now I just gotta herd some nerds into my living room to give this baby the testing it deserves.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mucking with gender in D&D

"I want to know if he's male, female, or elf."

That's one of those phrases that came out in a D&D game this summer. Its stuck with me, because I was realizing I've wanted to do something different with gender in D&D for a while now.

Back around 2007, Z, T, and I started a 3.5 campaign and we did some collaborative world building. Basically, we decided that your character choice let you make world decisions. I'm almost 100% certain that one of my examples was if you play an elf, you get do decide how elves work. They might be come crazy hermaphrodites or smurf-gendered folk, but you're playing the elf so you get to decide. No one really ran with that back then.

While there are stories of great elf queens or princes (I'm thinking Lord of the Rings, Dragonlance, and 13th Age), elves have also often been portrayed as a bit more androgynous. Certainly the joke about Varsuvius from Order of the Stick is one of indeterminate gender. In a different way, the drow are strongly segregated into male and female sexes, but do muck up gender roles by having females dominant over males. So while gendered elves are the norm, they've got a bit of room for some non-binary gender or sex types and are still a bit transgressive in their canonical portrayals.

Likewise, dwarves have a bit of some odd gender and sex to them. Namely, it used to be the case (joke? bad joke?) that dwarven women had beards and were indistinguishable from male dwarves. This leads to a smurf type of situation, since the prototypical dwarf is a bearded male wielding an axe or hammer. Now a days, there are some nice illustrations of plenty of beardless female dwarves. Did we lost anything in downplaying the 'joke' version of dwarves though (I think we did gain quite a bit by doing it at least)?

In first edition, we saw different ability score maximums for male and female characters (generally with females having less strength potential). But we also saw gender play into some races like the Bariaur of 2nd edition Planescape. Males and females had different class options and distinct abilities. While a little odd, I'd like that brought back in a new version of Planescape. Even though the sexes and their gender roles are more "traditional" it's kinda nice to see and explore that in a way that is codified by the rules (a bit indie in style there, eh?). In 4th edition, the Feywild book presented hamadryads (female only) and satyrs (male only). I don't recall it explicitly mentioning how these fey races procreate, but it was also an interesting take on traditional gender roles (and a hold-over from earlier editions). I understand that some people might be upset by having some races enforce traditional sex and gender roles. And these are "hard-coded" in the rules: its your home-brew or variant to allow a male dryad or female satyr. But you can't have transgression if there isn't a norm to rebel against.

Rarely, we get races which are not gendered per se, but become gendered in play. Warforged or Rogue Modrons (or Shardminds?) don't have a gender, but some might adapt a male or female gender for themselves (letting players grasp onto something, I suppose. Or at least draw boobs on constructs). A few races don't show gender dimorphism or don't have strong gender roles, like thri-kreen, making the idea of gender generally irrelevant for those races. Then there's the ubiquitous boobs on dragonborn, which probably just shows the puerile mores of a few years back: how else would you know a lady dragonborn is a lady?

We shouldn't forget the iconic girdle of masculinity/femininity either and other sex-swap curses. Interesting to note that they are curses and reversible.

Also, half-elves (and half-orcs, along with half-ogres, muls, and planetouched) show that interspecies breeding happens. So sex is largely identical across many major races.

One last aside, the Fading Suns game has a vulcan/romulan or elf/drow pair of races, the Obun and Ukari. At least for the Obun, hermaphroditism (the easily graspable, two genitals kind, I believe) was featured in their chapter of their race book. Nice.

Up to now, gender/sex has basically been a joke at best in D&D. Or at least heteronormative sex and gender have been the norm. But it's easy to see why. Obviously, the gender studies crowd has taken of and gotten some of their jargon to take hold among educated college types in general. I think most people who went to college have a passing familiarity with a theory of gender-sex that distinguishes gender or gender-roles from biological sex and sexual orientation. Beyond that, I'm not sure much of the jargon or theory has caught on or is really particularly useful/needed in daily life for most people. But issues of gender in character actually are rather peripheral to slaying monsters and finding treasure. Save the princess (or prince) doesn't come into play quite as much in most D&D games (which aren't Conan d20 with its temptress class).

Things seem different now. The new PH has some more inclusive language, about considering your character of any gender or sex or orientation or whatnot. People may quibble that the wording didn't go far enough, or is flawed in one way or another. Because things are basically presented as male or female. But change is happening. Pathfinder apparently has a transgender character as their new iconic shaman. A few other books might touch on the subject or introduce less traditional views of sex and gender. But there are some other interesting things to explore in any D&D game if you're willing to get creative and make some changes for a particular campaign.

Though the term hermaphrodite is nebulous and dispreferred these days and there's many different ways of classifying intersex people today, the race of both genitals could make for some interesting stories. In the musings here, I'm going to focus on sex types here and leave implications for gender. This obviously ignores all varieties of intersexuality that happen in the real world in favor of standardized non-binary sexes in a fantasy game. A few interesting options might be (wikipedia as our guide):

  • True or Simultaneous Hermaphrodites. This race would have both sets of genitals at the same time. This might be apt for plant-based races (ala treants and treefolk, not so much dryads). But if adapted to elves or gnomes, it could also make for some interesting stories.
  • Sequential Hermaphrodites. These are beings of one sex which can change their sex. They might start out as one or the other, they might change more often. You can easily envision dopplegangers or changelings in this way, but it'd be an interesting take on elves or dragons as well. Why would an elf change sex? Does it add to or take away from any innate magical power? Is one sex more highly regarded than the other? Is the change permanent or reversible? Do all the types of that race (e.g. high, wood, dark elves) believe the same thing or even have the same biology?
  • Pseudohermaphrodites. This is the case of the hyena, where females look dramatically similar to males. You can imagine this being the case with dwarves easily, and races like lizardfolk or dragonborn may be trivially pseudohermaphrodites if there are no obvious differences between the sexes. For pseudohermaphrodites, even the genitals are, superficially at least, similar. Obviously something to consider with Gnolls as well.
These are just some of the obvious ways that you might change gender and sex elements in a fantasy (or sci-fi) setting. Elves, dwarves, dragons, treants, and gnolls aren't the only races you might apply this sort of thing to anyway. The standard humanoids (Kobolds, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Bugbears, Orcs, and Ogres) could easily be some type of hermaphrodite (kobolds, with their ties to dragons, might be key on the list here). They're generally portrayed as all male (when's the last time the random orcs you fought were female, really?). It could make for an interesting setting element, depending on how you play up these races. In fact, as the DM, it may be easier to introduce some non-binary sex and gender types here than in the PC races.

Finally, its worth remembering that the actual player characters are special. I like how 13th Age brings that to the front of the line with the One Unique Thing idea. So if someone wants to play a male dryad, that's really cool. How did it happen? What do the other dryads think? There are so many story possibilities. Just like what if your male drow is a priest of Lolth, or homosexual, or finds (intentionally or accidentally) that girdle of masculinity/femininity? A basic spell like Alter Self might really make some of these categories more fluid, if you want.

This sort of thing isn't for everyone. In fact, it might make some people really uncomfortable. But I'm really considering that dragons and kobolds and gnolls might warrant some of this treatment in my games, if only to help distinguish them from the other types of humanoids and let me play with these categories as a DM.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

5th Edition: W(h)ither Creativity?

While I haven't gotten a chance to play some 5th Edition yet, one aspect of it that bothers me a bit is the the lack of explicit creative thinking instructions that we see in the game. I call this "sheet blinders".

This is something that I've noticed when running 4th edition. Your powers list some very specific things you can do. Much to my shame, when running a one-shot 4e game years ago, a friend of mine was still thinking in older D&D mode (or non-D&D mode?) and asked to push an enemy through a window. My response was something along the lines of: "Use one of the powers on your sheet. Do you have one that pushes?"

I think it's the same thing when I play some games with folk back home and people instinctively reach for the d20 and roll perception before the DM has a chance to describe the situation. The book or your sheet explicitly says its an option, so you better do it. And you don't always think beyond the options listed on your sheet.

While I've ragged on cantrips before, I really feel this in cantrips and some of the cantrip-like powers. Look at druidcraft, prestidigitation, and thaumaturgy. They give you a relatively fixed set of options that you can do, with a bit of leeway in "harmless sensory effects". But the tinker rock gnome has the same problem. They can craft one of three little mechanical devices. Can they instead create small clockwork traps? Can ray of frost freeze things? Can I light a candle with flame bolt? Even 13th Age, which has some options of giving the wizard an array of cantrips that do things based on your spells prepared has them only do harmless effects, but what about useful ones?

Maybe other editions didn't call out as many imaginative possibilities like this either: I'll have to do some comparisons. But I think the designers missed an opportunity when the Dragonborn and Tiefling descriptions (or the uncommon races sidebar) didn't suggest variants: If you don't like the concept of Dragonborn or Tieflings as major races in your game, you could still let players play them as unique characters. Maybe half-dragons or half-fiends could have a place in your story (Inu Yasha style?) as rare or unique individuals when the description of the race as a whole doesn't fit? That's one little side-bar from the 4th edition Dark Sun setting that I think would have been well placed in the new PH.

I hope the new DMG has some of this advice stuck in it, but I suppose I can see listing very specific minor effects as a way of keeping things saner in organized play. I just hate that it might lead someone to say "no, your cantrip can't do that" rather than "yeah, but its not quite powerful enough to do all of that." Which is sad, because last summer with the playtest rules, I loved the creativity of players trying to tip bookcases over on enemies when they went Against the Cult of the Reptile God. All the talk of OSR games and such, that's one of the key elements that I want to get back into D&D. Somehow I didn't feel like that level of creativity was absent in Fading Suns or Vampire or other storytelling/indie games, but maybe the lack of creativity is one of the elements that made 4e feel a bit more like a videogame than a tabletop RPG.

That said, even if the DMG doesn't tackle this, it seems like something that a little foresight and planning can help alleviate: just tell players to think outside the box (and the bullet points in power descriptions).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

5th Edition Wizards: I might learn to stop worrying and love the wizard

So the new 5th edition wizard has been stuck in my craw for a while. Basically since forever. But I finally sat down with the wizard and really took a look: it might not be as bad or nonsensical as I thought. I feel like the 5th Edition wizard has lost his position as king of magic a bit. But maybe its not quite as bad as I thought.

First, in terms of number of spells they can prepare: they seem to get Int Modifier + level. This is on par with Clerics or Druids who get Wis Modifier + level + domain / circle of the land spells. That's 10 more spells prepared for the cleric or druid than the wizard. Wizards don't even get one bonus spell of their specialty or anything. However. In older editions of D&D, clerics did get bonus spells for wisdom while wizards got squat. So this isn't necessarily something unique. Plus wizards do get a ritual casting bonus: they can cast spells in their books as rituals, others can only cast spells they have prepared. So the wizard does potentially have up to 17 rituals in addition to what they have prepared. Not a huge bonus, but its something. And easy to over look.

Second, wizards don't get those nifty bonus spells for their specialty. So an Enchanter can prep 100% necromancy spells. But looking at the School of magic features, most of them actually do refer specifically to the specialty school. Not all of them mind you, so Enchanters get some stupid spell-like power, and evokers get a bad/useless potent cantrip feature that seems to affect all their attack cantrips, and necromancers all gain power from killing their enemies (though they get a little more for using Necromancy spells). But. Many of these powers are thematic (if not useful/awesome) and do key off casting spells of their specialty. So there is some incentive for a wizard to prep a few important spells of their school.

Now, there's still some issues. I think a lot of spells (and other powers) are assertive in their writing, and this might limit people's choices. For example, Prestidigitation, Thaumaturgy, and Druidcraft all have a little set of bullet points which spell out pretty well all the things the spells can do. Maybe that helps with organized play and many DMs might let more creative things happen, but by the book those spells are pretty lame/limited. Ray of Frost focuses on the damage it does and slowing enemies, but I really hope that if a dungeon has a wet floor ray of frost could freeze it. I also really hope that the DMG has guidelines for adjudicating cantrips.

What I'm saying is maybe the sky isn't falling. Though it isn't as easy to adapt old settings or do some more radical homebrew as second edition and earlier.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Al-Qadim 5th Edition Patch: Proficiencies

The proficiency system of 5th edition is one that I only half like. I think I might prefer 13th age better, just because everyone won't see perception on their list and ask to constantly roll it. However, the system isn't bad. Its a little grainy, but it should work for Al-Qadim. We have a nice list of skills. This is pretty listy, so its after the jump:

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Al-Qadim 5th Edition Patch: Barbers, Corsairs, Desert Riders, and the Rest

Continuing my thoughts on updating Al-Qadim to 5th edition (see here, here, and here):  The Hakima and the Sha'ir seem to be the most class-like of the Al-Qadim kits. But what about all the rest? Well, there is a really quick/dirty Al-Qadim conversion for the basic rules out there already.

But I'm not thrilled with it since it just converts each kit to a background basically, including the crazy sha'ir which then seems to indicate you must link that background to the wizard class. In my opinion, not the role of a background. There is an interesting take on the Elemental mage: basically ditch the sorcerer having elemental provinces, then only the one wizard option gets a list of allowed/banned spells. And you don't worry about what bards and the like do. Hmm...

Fortunately, many 2nd edition kits make perfectly good backgrounds (and there's an accent explosion happen for no good reason!):

  • Áskar - Folk Hero
  • Corsair - Sailor/Pirate
  • Pragmatist, Ethoist, Moralist - Acolyte
  • Sa'lúk - Charlatan, Criminal/Spy, Urchin
  • Mystic - Hermit
  • Outland Warrior, Outland Priest, Askar - Outlander
  • Mamlúk - Soldier
  • Beggar-Thief - Urchin
  • Merchant Rogue - Guild Artisan/Merchant (Merchant version, obviously)
  • Rawun - Entertainer

The remaining backgrounds in the book can easily be renamed

  • Noble/Knight - Emír
  • Guild Artisan/Guild Merchant - Artisan (Artisan Version)
  • Sage - Fine, could be renamed Faqíh

That leaves a few kits:

  • Desert Rider
  • Fáris
  • Mercenary Barbarian
  • Elemental Mage
  • Sorcerer
  • Sha'ír
  • Barber
  • Holy-Slayer
  • Matrúd
  • Káhin
  • Hákima

Some of these can just become their own backgrounds: Desert Rider, Faris (Holy Warrior), Mercenary Barbarian (renamed just Mercenary?), and Matrud (Outcast) seem quite amenable to background treatment.

Something like the Káhin can probably just be a new name for the Druid. The Holy-Slayer is pretty much just an Assassin (perhaps replace poison with a favored weapon specialty?).

The Barber might make a nice Rogue archetype on the surface, but Rogues don't specialize till third level, and you'd presumably want that barber focus from the get-go (rogues still can do a thief or assassin things before they specialize, they don't do the barbering stuff so much). So barber is a bit better as a background too.

I've already mused on the Sha'ir and Hakima and think they'll do well as sorcerous origins for the sorcerer class.

That just leaves the Sorcerer, Elemental Mage, and those other wizard kits from the complete Sha'ir's handbook. None of the wizard kits really seem to be much of a background, and more like wizard traditions. So it makes sense to add in a few other backgrounds to support these intelligence-based things a wizard would be doing: Vizier or Qádi (Judge) and the like. Hidden Mage is another background that comes to mind for someone who is or has been keeping their identity as an Elemental Mage secret.

Now, going the other way, there's a few classes that didn't exist in Al-Qadim originally. Barbarians  work fine as outlanders or mercenaries. Unenlightened tribes from the deserts, islands, or ruined kingdoms make prime sources of Barbarians. Monks don't fit as well, but might be Fakírs or other ascetic priest types. Adding an ascetic or Fakír background might be useful, but they might also be Mystics of Nog. Druids, already mentioned above, can be Káhins or Idol priests of the ruined kingdoms (making Idol Priest a nice variant of Acolyte).

So the new backgrounds to add/adapt:
  • Desert Rider
  • Fáris
  • Mercenary
  • Barber
  • Matrúd (Outcast)
  • Vizier
  • Qádi (Judge)
  • Fakír (Ascetic)
  • Idol Priest
  • Hidden Mage
Now. This does seem like a lot of backgrounds. But it's also pretty comprehensive and, while variety might be a little overwhelming for new players, it is also a nice collection of character seeds. I think its worthwhile when playing a setting which might be a little more exotic than what most of us are used to. There are, however, so few skills and tools in 5th Edition and languages are less important in Al-Qadim, so I'm not quite sure if it'll be easy to craft about 20 backgrounds. And is it worthwhile to try to add a new skill or tool that's iconic for the setting?