I only know one way to love things.

I only know one way to love things: throw myself into completely, maybe even obsessively.


When I’m looking for a new pastime

That has an obvious dark side to it: at some point, I often tire of the thing and cast it aside, at least temporarily, once I’ve finished devouring it intellectually. I crave that sense of newness, of exploration. (Earlier in life, I feared that would apply to relationships too, but we recently celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary.) Continue reading

Text-based RPG campaign ideas

I have difficulty finding time to play RPGs lately due to other obligations (family, work, etc.) While I like solo play, that provides a different sort of experience altogether. Roll20 presents an interesting alternative, but most folks want to play with voice chat, and that creates more real-life conflicts because my house is generally noisy except when we’re all asleep.

Because of that, I have started trying to get into play-by-post games. Currently, that only includes a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign using Sine Nomine’s Red Tide setting. This might point the way to a better method for me, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to every type of campaign. “Urban” campaigns, focused on intrigue, diplomacy, and espionage seem to lend themselves more naturally to this format, because they focus more on character interactions and less on crunchy mechanics (at least in my experience).

Dungeon exploration, however, seems less interesting to me in a forum-based campaign, although in a “live text” game via instant-messaging or IRC or similar that would probably go very well. My recently-acquired copy of Castle Gargantua (review pending!) in particular should support that type of campaign. I’d like to run a traditional megadungeon at some point, such as Rappan Athuk or Stonehell, but my life right now doesn’t support that so easily. When it does, I will probably do so via some sort of open table campaign since that also tends to work better for adults.

So right now I am leaning towards one or both of the following types of campaigns:

  1. Urban intrigue via play-by-post, using either Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition or A Song of Ice and Fire. The latter lends itself much more closely to this type of campaign, but I feel like it will be harder to find participants due to the smaller player base. The new season of Game of Thrones might grab some players’ attention, but that seems like a long shot. 5e has enough social mechanics that I could use it for this (and the DMG has some explicit advice in this regard).
  2. Dungeon exploration via text chat, probably with Castle Gargantua the first time around. This might actually be a good candidate for continuing to use Roll20, where I have a Pro membership. The updated LotFP character sheet and support for maps (CG only uses them in a few places) would help here.

That said, I probably won’t start either of these until later in the spring as I have some other (non-RPG) projects that require my attention first.

Play options in 2016

isue5full.jpgI didn’t actually play much D&D during most of 2015 for various reasons. This year, I want to do a lot more of that. So I started thinking about how I can do that in ways that work for my life: father of older children, a relatively demanding job with intermittent travel, social anxiety that sometimes keeps me from wanting to go play at a FLGS, etc etc.

Family home game

Most of my 2015 gaming fell into this category: D&D with kids. This sort of play works best when kept light, like for an occasional “family game night” or when the kids ask to spend a Saturday afternoon rolling dice. However, I would like to make it slightly more regular so that it doesn’t get lost so easily in the shuffle of everything else. We currently use Swords & Wizardry for simplicity and I think we’ll stay with that for a while.

Some family members have asked about joining the game, including those who don’t live nearby. I have started to consider a mixture of in-person players and one or two people participating via video chat, like Google Hangouts from a Chromebook sitting at the table.


This coming Saturday (January 23, 2016, for time travelers reading this from the future), I will be running a one-shot at TheLab.ms in Plano, Texas, for some friends. We had intended to play a couple of weeks before but illness kept me home. While this will start as a one-shot dungeon run, I have hopes it could turn into more. A lot depends on the players, of course. They include experienced players and total newcomers. If all goes well, we could turn it into a semi-open game running more regularly. Since it’s at a makerspace, that presents fun possibilities for props and stuff that I don’t get to do at home or online.


I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Roll20. Over the last year and a half, I have learned some lessons about playing on a VTT. Voice chat is hard for me because of the interruptions at home, otherwise I have to wait until the kids go to bed. I have not yet tried a text-only game on Roll20, but years of experience roleplaying in Star Wars Galaxies and other MMORPGs has prepared me well for it (I hope).

If I can make this work again, then three possibilities come to mind. First, a megadungeon lends itself to the mapping capabilities. I would probably do this via an open table approach since the site has tens of thousands of players. (The clamoring for spots in a 5E game gets out of control sometimes.) Alternately, I could focus on the text chat capabilities and run an urban campaign focused on intrigue, social interaction, diplomacy, espionage… And finally, I have a number of friends who don’t live near me but would like to play. This is the closest to using Roll20 in the stead of a traditional game, but that carries the traditional headaches of scheduling and whatnot. I have to think hard about that one.

Play by post

Text chat also means thinking about play by post. Of course, Roll20 could support this style (private forums for each campaign, character sheets), but other platforms do so in a more integrated fashion. Campaigns that de-emphasize combat and “adventuring” in favor of heavy RP, such as the above-mentioned urban campaign, fit this style much better, I think.

Musing on the implications of the D&D 5e SRD

Little Dorrit, Musing and dreaming, by PhizThe main reason I stopped playing D&D Fifth Edition was that it read too much like a set of software requirements (use cases). 5e writes everything out in expansive detail, rather than in a concise “Strunk & White-esque” manner.

This drove me back to simpler rule sets like Swords & Wizardry and even Microlite20 or Searchers of the Unknown. For some purposes (e.g. playing with my kids), those still make the most sense. I need the ability to riff on what my players do as quickly as they  do it. Otherwise, their interest starts to wane and they want to go watch anime or play Minecraft or something.

But the release of the Systems Reference Document and Open Gaming License for 5e might change things a little. +Stan Shinn already has a project titled Dungeonesque: Red Box RPG that will provide a streamlined version of the 5e rules based on the SRD. I expect a number of similar projects to come out soon as well. While the so-called “O5R” movement may not have gathered much steam, this sort of approach might do enough to make it worthwhile for me. In fact, incorporating the best parts of other games (e.g. the encumbrance rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the domain level play from Adventurer Conqueror King System) just became a lot more viable.

Related to this, I have trouble playing via Roll20 in part because data entry for the monsters takes so much time. (Voice chat has become less workable for me due to my home environment as well.) I expect we’ll see the monsters from the SRD available on Roll20 soon based on comments from the developers there, however.  They can’t afford to miss the opportunity to streamline play for the most popular game on their platform.

I’d like to come back to 5e for something other than dungeon crawling. Perhaps a game of urban intrigue and espionage using text chat on Roll20 would work better, as it involves a lot less crunch and a lot more roleplaying. (The reason for sticking with 5e comes down to the interest level from players.) I also like designing monsters and such using the 5e crunch, ironically enough, so I might stat up a few things from my Roll For Initiative collection and put them out on the Dungeon Master’s Guild for people to use.

Certainly this started me thinking about 5e again in a way I haven’t in quite a while. Good job, WotC.

Do the simplest thing that could possibly work

XKCD "Board Game" comic

my backup plan

So this weekend I’m going to run some D&D at a local makerspace (TheLab.ms has an open house Saturday evening for anybody in the Dallas-Plano area). I’m probably going to use “Searchers of the Unknown” by +Nicolas Dessaux or some variant thereof, because you can’t get much simpler and call it D&D. Microlite20 would work just about as well and for the same reasons.  Several of the folks who have expressed interest in playing also noted they’ve never done this before, and the open house will  almost certainly provide a fairly raucous environment.

I remain unsure about what dungeon to use, though. Here again, I’m partial to the simplest possible approach: here is a dungeon, go get the treasure and try not to die. Normally I’d go with “Goblin Gully” by +Dyson Logos for this, but my kids are likely to play and they’ve been through that one before (albeit not all the way to the end). So I think I will quickly stock an existing map or try to pick something simple from the One-Page Dungeon contest entrants in the past. Of course, any suggestions on this would be welcome, because I have a lot of level 1 modules in my archives and such but need to do this in a way that satisfies two conditions: (a) family friendly-ish (i.e. no Death Frost Doom even if I love it), and (b) approaching the platonic ideal of “old school D&D”. If it goes well enough, it could end up being an open-table setup where every few weeks I show up with another dungeon level or two, but one step at a time.

Rooted in make-believe


When I was a kid, seeing a movie meant more than just a couple of hours of entertainment. It meant hours or maybe days of material for playing “make-believe” or “pretend”. After The Goonies or Return of the Jedi or anything else I liked, the ideas and characters and settings and themes would inform my playtime for a while afterwards. (In the case of Star Wars, I guess that was true for years…)

Now that I’m a dad, of course, I’ve realized how normal this is. Kids watch an adventure movie, and then they go replay the movie in their own ways, either with their own dolls & “action figures” (i.e. dolls), or maybe they run around in the living room yelling and laughing and pretending they are the characters.

The more things change…

…the more they stay the same. After all, what are role-playing games but semi-structured make-believe? When I’m playing some computer game or reading a book for a while, I end up wanting to emulate that in my RPGs. Earlier this year, I played lots of Diablo 3. That led to making new lists of monsters, researching cathedral floor plans, working on archetypes and character classes for demon hunter-esque characters, and so forth. It didn’t lead to an actual campaign, though. Maybe the game prep was enough to satisfy that thirst for a while.

Now lately I’ve been listening to the audiobooks in the series A Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) and I’ve reached about the midpoint, halfway through the third book of five. I love the intrigues and scheming far more than the battles and bad sex (don’t judge me). Any scene with Tyrion and Varys grabs my attention far more than another account of outlaws in the forest. So my solo Scarlet Heroes campaign has been all urban adventures. I’m trying to establish this character as something akin to a Master of Whisperers, I suppose – an information broker, eventually, but one who occasionally pulls out the short sword to get things done. (It’s a good method for world building, too, but that’s another post for another day.)

The bleedover goes in all directions, of course. Game of Thrones has led me to spend more evenings playing Civilization V again, going for diplomatic and culture victores. Actually, it’s circular, because playing D&D again drove me to fantasy fiction again like GoT and the Kingkiller Chronicles (Name of the Wind, Wise Man’s Fear, etc by Patrick Rothfuss).


Dungeon crawling is fun and still probably where D&D games shine the most, especially those based on older editions. My occasional game with my kids mostly consists of random encounters and some underground exploration so I can just keep pace with their insatiable curiosity and creativity.

It could be that this is actually where I’d like 5e more than B/X or Swords and Wizardry. Perhaps a play-by-post or text-based Roll20 game would provide the right medium for a game of urban intrigue and mysteries.

What I know for sure is that I’m having tons of fun even just with game prep I never use and solo RP and gaming with the kids. The 8-year-old in my heart is giggling once more.

On the 5e core book set

Dialogus creaturarumSo now we’ve had the D&D Fifth Edition core books for a bit. Many bloggers have written many words about their impressions and evaluations, sometimes in great detail. But as I look at the shelf to my right, one of the three stands out more than the others.

The Player’s Handbook covers the core mechanics of the game and does a lot of things well. But, by its nature, the vast majority of the book only applies to this one game. Appendix B, “Gods of the Multiverse”, has some cool material for campaign development. Appendix E, “Inspirational Reading”, does a great job of carrying on the legacy of the original Appendix N. (And if “E” alludes to “E. Gary Gygax”, that’s a nice touch.) I use this book the least, though.

I love the Monster Manual as a general fantasy bestiary and art book in addition to its utility for 5e. The stat blocks tend to run a little long for my taste and could probably have used a slightly more minimalist approach. As a DM, I love some of the actions and special abilities of some of the monsters. “The goblin attacks with its Scimitar” gets old very quickly, but “That zombie keeps going [due to Undead Fortitude]” does not. When I want to enjoy a glass of bourbon in my hand, pore over some fantastic monsters, and read a few words about their mythical backgrounds, this book provides plenty of material.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide has both fantastic art and great non-edition specific advice. Mike Schley and the other artists have provided evocative maps and illustrations. Many of the magic items appear in lots of different editions and even games, so having the illustrations and histories makes up for the fact that they take up about a third of the book. (Those same features probably explain that page count issue, too.) Again we have appendices that we will use many times in the future for creating dungeons. Appendix D, “Dungeon Master Inspiration”, completes the PHB Appendix E.

The Monster Manual is my favorite of the three 5e core books. I will use both it and the DMG even when running other games, but only the MM truly satisfies that non-game reading itch. Open it to a random page and spend 10 or 15 minutes appreciating that one monster. I’d love to find more bestiaries like it and A Practical Guide to Monsters that accomplish that so well.

Heavy metal inspired quests

Ronnie_James_Dio_TombA few weeks ago, I set up a Pandora station called “OSR Radio“. It plays music my buddies and I listened to while playing RPGs in the wayback. Think Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc. Lots of the songs sound like they could inspire some fun D&D adventures. I have tried to avoid the most iconic works because many of us already have very strong associations with some very popular songs. Nothing feels more D&D to me than remembering the first time I heard Black Sabbath and “Iron Man” in my best friend’s bedroom about 1am, reading D&D books that our parents didn’t allow us to have. And Metallica’s powerful “Wherever I May Roam” describes a party of chaotic “murder hoboes” better than anything else I can imagine.

Whether all the groups  cited below qualify as “heavy metal” or belong to a particular period is beside the point in this particular case. The themes matter more than the specific musical genres. But in all honesty, you could just point at a random song in the discography for either of those bands, or Iron Maiden, or Judas Priest, or Megadeth, or Dio, or some other metal band I don’t even know about but you totally love. And from that random finger wiggle, you’ll generate d4 adventures just like that. You probably have ideas right now from thinking about your favorite song and have stopped reading. I could be writing “titty sprinkles” here and nobody would notice because you’ve already got your notebook open and have started scribbling ideas furiously.

So here I’ve listed a few ideas resulting from a fusion of Pandora selections and perusing the D&D 5e Monster Manual. Hopefully one or two of these can provide some inspiration for you. If nothing else, go listen to some tunes.

Continue reading

Hiring and followers in Fifth Edition

Gishi Shozo Sanshi (Annotated Portraits of Loyal Retainers)In my last play session, we noted that the players probably need to hire torchbearers or similar companions. I took a look at the rules in 5e and some other games before deciding what to do, and ended up merging them into a simple system that I hope will work for us.

D&D Fifth Edition

The hiring rules[0] in 5e left me feeling really underwhelmed. And after I compared them with the rules in a number of other games, I felt even more underwhelmed. “Skilled” cost 2 gold pieces per day, and “unskilled” cost 2 silver pieces per day. I’d increase that significantly for NPCs asked to go into harm’s way, like torchbearers in a dungeon. Note that this only means hired workers, not “retainers” or “low-level followers”. In those cases, they get a share of treasure and experience points. They make good replacement characters when a regular player character dies, too.

Page 93 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a nice loyalty system tied to the Charisma score of the party. The NPC’s Loyalty score starts at half of the highest Charisma in the party, with that Charisma being the maximum. When you help them achieve a bond or do something really nice for them, the loyalty increases by 1d4. A corresponding decrease of 1d4 occurs when the party members do something that runs against the NPC’s alignment or bond, or 2d4 if they’re mistreated for selfish reasons. When the loyalty score reaches 0, the disloyal NPC either leaves or undermines the party. If it reaches 10, they will risk their lives for the party members.

Other games

Basic Fantasy RPG lists three types of companions. It provides “retainers”, who go into dungeons, participate, and get a share of the rewards. “Specialists” don’t go on adventures but perform other sorts of services (like a sage doing research or a sailors on a character-owned ship). Finally, “mercenaries” typically get hired as units and might provide security at a stronghold or similar. Labyrinth Lord has almost the same setup.

Swords & Wizardry does not have the concept of “retainers”. It has one page for hiring followers of various types, including “Man-at-Arms (Soldiers)” and “Man-at-Arms (Adventuring)”. The latter category probably comes closest to retainers. Another category covers “Torchbearer (or Other Adventuring Non-combatant)”. In this regard, it looks a lot like 5e.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess handles this with its characteristic balance between simplicity in exposition and detail in requirement. In fact, it seems to envision that adventuring parties become “expeditions” with all sorts of followers. For example, once characters acquire strongholds, accountants and similar become really important. For my purposes, the most relevant types include “Guides” who help the party avoid becoming lost, “Henchmen” (retainers), and “Laborers” & “Linkboys” (treasure carriers and torchbearers). All followers also earn a death benefit payable to family or a magistrate if they die during the course of the adventure.

My system

We will have three classes of NPCs for adventuring. Note that I don’t have any campaigns with players ready to run a stronghold or similar, so I don’t have to think about that yet.

  1. Followers. These correspond to “retainers” in most systems: classed, lower-level characters that get a share of the rewards. Players can create and run them during an adventure if they desire to use them as potential replacement characters if their main characters die. A character needs to reach fifth level before finding a follower, though.
  2. Mercenaries. These don’t get a share of rewards but only fill specific roles (e.g. they can apply healing kits or other special expertise). The DM runs them but they should never take the spotlight for fear of becoming “DMPCs“. If the PCs want the mercenaries to accompany them into a dungeon or into some other type of battle, they earn 10 gp/day. Otherwise they cost 2 gp/day as for skilled workers in the PHB.
  3. Attendants. Torchbearers, animal handlers, and so forth earn 2 sp/day just to accompany the party. But if they have to go into a dungeon, they earn a full gold piece per day.

Mercenaries and attendants earn a death benefit payable to their families or the guild. This comes to 100 days of hazard pay, so 1000 gp for mercenaries and 200 gp for attendants. I want the players to view these NPCs as actual characters, not furniture.

Further, the 5e loyalty system applies, but I want to import the morale system from the Mentzer Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook. When appropriate, the NPC rolls 2d6 against their loyalty score. If the result exceeds their loyalty score, they flee or otherwise stop helping. If the loyalty score reaches 12, then the NPC doesn’t have to roll. But in all cases, if the NPC feels abused, Bad Things may happen.

[0]: I hate the word “hirelings” with a burning passion even more than I hate the term “human resources”.

Play Report: Relic Hunters Guild Session 3

The Relic Hunters returned to Dyson’s Delve Sunday afternoon. As usual, they made a quick pass around the first level to ensure they wouldn’t have any nasty surprises running them. (That’s mostly due to one very vocal player.) When they returned to the second level, they had the idea of finding the goblin they’d taken prisoner on a previous run and making friends with him or recruiting him. So every time they found goblins, the duelist shouted the name he’d given them to see if he’d throw down his scimitar to run and hug them or something. That’s going to provide a really fun hook later.

Tactical goblins

Goya - CaprichosI’ve started playing the goblins a bit more thoughtfully. They watch for the adventurers to make mistakes. For example, the duelist carries a kerosene lantern, but because he has to fight with one hand free, he sets it down on the floor when a fight starts. So of course a hobgoblin reached out to kick it over, spilling the burning fuel everywhere. (I have suggested they hire torch bearers for the next session.) Later, when almost all of the goblins in an encounter fell to the bard’s sleep spell, the remaining hobgoblin focused on waking up its comrades rather than try to take on the adventurers by itself.

They also use their Nimble Escape feature more frequently, forcing the adventurers to consider how to block them. A monk went around a corner during a fight to get some range and ran into another goblin. They scuffled for a moment, then the goblin fled to another room. That put the inhabitants of that room on alert. Once the adventurers reached that room, they realized they didn’t have a thief to pick the lock. The dwarven bard used his racial knock spell (back up 15 feet, then charge and headbutt the door). At that point, he realized he had a problem, surrounded by two hobgoblins and three goblins. I almost got a TPK out of it, not due to any maliciousness on my part but just because the adventurers didn’t proceed with caution. However, in the end they all survived. Level 3 awaits, and level 4 has even more fun.

Roll20 problems

Last week, I upgraded my Roll20 account from Subscriber to Mentor. On Friday night I implemented power cards and macros, generally getting familiar with new aspects of the system. Unfortunately, on Sunday, most of that didn’t work.

For future reference (largely for myself): I fixed the turn counter problem by deleting all existing turns. And it turns out that they had some sort of system problem which logged an error in a console outside of the game (“Sandbox closed due to error.”) By hitting “save” on my API script, it seems to work again.

That process should probably generate an in-game error to let the user know something is wrong. A slightly more verbose error message would help, too.