Monday, December 29, 2014

5e Options W(h)ither Modularity - Background Proficiency and Skills

A Mercykiller, but he's missing the Planar Mancatcher...


I had the chance to run a D&D 5E Planescape game yesterday, and I did a few things right and/or a few things turned out well.


  • 5th level seemed to provide each character with a good set of options without overwhelming players with too many choices.
  • I pre-made most of the PCs but took some player input on what options they'd like.
  • I gave a pre-game speech so that the players knew that none of their characters would necessarily know each other but that my conceit for the game was that they'd all be tied to a central NPC and learn to work together on the fly. While there was at one point a pivotal encounter where each of the 6 PCs kinda came up with their own conflicting or complimentary plans, we did avoid any real out and out intra-party fighting.
  • Since part of the plot involved figuring out some mysteries, I gave each PC three contacts, each described by a sentence. This worked out really well because the players could glance at the background sheet I provided and quickly figure out who their PC might know who could assist instead of trying to come up with a way to solve the mystery from scratch without much context.
  • I let Thomas talk me into picking up the Arcane spell cards (and he grabbed the Druid spell pack).  They definitely resulted in less of the players flipping through the books for spells, but I can't quite give them top marks because they don't have any notation on the cards to indicate which spells require Concentration, which is a Big Fucken' Deal for 5E spellcasters.
What was most frustrating was discovering that 5E was less Modular than expected. One of the big things that the designers at Wizards of the Coast were promoting about the new edition was its modularity, where you could easily customize the rule set to fit your group's play style. And the playtest (aka D&DNext) was often pretty modular, as they swapped in and out different rules they were trying out. So having run a bunch of the playtest, having run a fair amount of the "final" or published version of 5E since it came out in July and being enamored with the 13th Age Background rules (see this post or the 13th Age SRD) and because the Dungeon Master's Guide includes a take on this background/skill check variant I thought, "Well, I'll just use 13th Age Backgrounds instead of the 5E Skill list and it'll be super easy."

I gave the player's fair warning, explaining how I thought they would work like this:

For the game I'm going to use 13th Age style backgrounds instead of the D&D 5E skill list.  What this means is instead of having proficiency in a bunch of skills, you'll have a background associated with your race, your class, your faction and two more since you're playing a half-elf.  Then when you want to make a skill check, to apply your proficiency modifier to the roll you just need to explain why your background would give you skill for the check.
For example, my 13th Age character is a Rogue with the background of "Former Lieutenant of a group of Forest Bandits" so when I'm tracking a wounded foe through the forest, instead of rolling a perception skill check like in D&D, my GM has me roll a Wisdom check and then I say that I'm adding my background as a Forest Bandit because it would have given me experience tracking in the woods.  But later when we assemble a group of low-level thugs to help with a raid on an enemy camp, I could also use my "Former Lieutenant of a group of Forest Bandits" background to add to a Charisma check to inspire them.

Hopefully that makes sense? So instead of choosing from a list, you tell me what you want your character to do and I tell you what ability score to roll and then you can tell me which of your backgrounds applies and why and I'll probably allow it because it's easier to apply a broad background than a skill and so if you can briefly say why it would make sense it probably does.


Alas, I was wrong. While the DMG has four paragraphs on "Background Proficiency" what they don't include is any advice on how to truly implement the optional rule. They assume that you're using the backgrounds from the Player's Handbook, which I have separate issues with,  so talking with Thomas, we came to the conclusion that maybe I should give each character a set of four or five backgrounds thusly:
  • A background covering Race/Upbringing, such as "Grew up in a Githzerai colony in Limbo as a Leather worker's child" (so it would cover topics like Limbo or the Githzerai or their enemies, as well as leather working and proficiency with leather working tools).
  • A background covering Class, such as "Apprenticed as a wizard with a Hag in the Grey Waste" (not only covering "Arcana" but also Hags, the Grey Waste, its inhabitants, etc)
  • A background covering the PC's Faction, as I wanted Factions to be emphasized, like "Fated namer and clerk in the Hall of Records"
  • A background covering what the backgrounds in the PHB would cover, that is a general 'background' background, like "Appraised and fenced jewelry in the City of Brass"
Then if a race, class or faction would generally provide extra skill proficiencies, I decided to add a second general 'background' background. It worked out alright in the game, but it really would have been nice to have some additional guidance from the DMG for implementing this and dealing with all the places that Skill Proficiencies are baked into the 'default' character creation rules. Elves, Half-Elves and Half-Orcs all have a skill proficiency component in their racial abilities, and all of the classes do as well, but there's no advice for how to make sure that the background covers these proficiencies.  The way the DMG reads it seems to assume you use just the backgrounds from the Personality and Backgrounds chapter of the PHB which leaves it up to the players and DMs to try and decide how then to incorporate any racial/class skill proficiencies.  And unfortunately I'm noticing a bit of that in the DMG, places where they give an option and describe the way the option would work but they don't give any advice for how to fit that option into the game so that it works well with all the other rules as written.  And that makes D&D 5E much less modular, at least in my opinion, than was previously advertised. 


Full Disclosure: The idea for title of this post is totally stolen from a post of Thomas', plus he did most of the heavy lifting writing up the Planescape/5th Edition conversion rules I used.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

From the Depths of the Lair of the Ginger Giant


A long "lost" podcast recently recovered from the depths of the Ginger Giant's lair.  In it we discuss our plans for co-DMing his Type IV D&D campaign.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Undertake a Perilous Journey - More Dungeon World

Draw Maps, Leave Blanks
I ran Dungeon World last Sunday. It was a last moment game for the most part and almost was Numenera, but I decided to run Dungeon World instead since not all the Numenera players could make it.  I decided to go with a plot stolen straight out of Conan having the players escort a high priest across a treacherous desert to an ancient temple to perform a ritual that would hold a demi-god-like evil sorcerer at bay.  Doing so let me try three things out, DW at higher levels, Hirelings and the "Undertake a Perilous Journey" move.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Murder Hobo's Dilemma… "Are we in the Dungeon yet?" - Dungeon World



(Full disclosure, I'm sure this is more an issue for me, with my wanting more realism in characters and plot than realism in rules.

I've know played in three sessions of Dungeon World and I've been enjoying them but last night I realized that there was something that kept me (yes, I managed to let the group decide I was their leader, must to my chagrin) from leading the group full force ahead into adventure. The premise of the game is a modern day Twin Cities metro, but with magic and dungeons, where Adventuring Companies (emphasis on the company) send adventurers into dungeons but otherwise it's straight forward fantasy version of the present. The GM was explicit that the normal humanoid fantasy races, goblin, orc, kobold, weren't inherently evil, and that is leading to some quandaries. I had gone in expecting a fairly lighthearted game, and tenor of play-wise, it's been fairly lighthearted but the plot has been drifting much grittier.

In the first two session, the party, with the conceit that we were the local "neighborhood watch" went into a dungeon near a graveyard and fought a mixture of goblins and an elf (or two, I don't rightly recall if there was more than one) who were in what the GM described as a teenage party pad (wrecked furniture, oil barrel fire, empty keg) and while the elf was a member of a previous adventuring party to disappear into the dungeon, the goblins were definitely high school kids, ya know, wearing letter jackets and such. Now, there was a lower level of that dungeon with a definitely evil undead creature of some kind, so I think we partly rationalized things as "oh yeah, the evil undead thing was controlling them, so we're not total murder hobos for slaughtering those unarmed teenagers".

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Recent Reading...


As I consider restarting my Shattered Lands campaign and starting a new campaign (possibly Planescape, possibly not) as well as determining if I'm running a second Sunday game, I've been thinking more about how best to capture what the players want and if I could ever get a group to agree to a charter.  These two links are all about that, though the second link is part of a longer series on Dungeon Design that is also excellent.
Mostly right now, my hesitance is that many of my players tend to treat surveys and questions as busy work and I'm not sure that many of the casual players would see a charter as necessary and/or agree to some of what I'd like in a charter, namely that phones are put away for the majority of the game.


Since I'm playing a lot more (currently 13th Age Game, AD&D/OSRIC, Dungeon World and Shadowrun) the 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer is a good reminder of things to focus on.  And since having players roleplay more increases my enjoyment, the 11 Things to Help Your Players be Better Roleplayers will be something I keep in mind and strive for as I start running again.

On the non-article side, I recently read Odyssey, The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Management, which gives a good framework for starting and organizing a RPG campaign.  While I'll probably never read it straight through from cover to cover again, I'll probably pull it out and re-read several chapters and use it as reference material as I start building and re-building campaigns.
I've been reading the Drama Systems SRD and I'm really intrigued by the character creation and especially its approach to PC Desires and building relationships fraught with tension. I probably just need to give in and pick up a copy of Hillfolk
For non-RPG stuff, I just finished William Gibson's The Peripheral, which was incredible and I'll definitely need to re-read another time or two as it is wonderfully intricate.  Though first I've got Glen Cook's Instrumentalities of the Night to read.  For comics/graphic novels, Warren Ellis and Jason Howar'ds TREES continues to draw me in, the first volume of Kelly Sue DeConnick's Pretty Deadly hit all the right spots to be a great Weird Western and wishing I'd started reading Fraction's run on Hawkeye earlier as Clint as a "mere" mortal superhero is fantastic and funny ("This looks bad").  And of course, Saga and Sex Criminals both continue to obsess me in their own ways.

And of course, my musical obsessions are meticulously cataloged on my Last.fm page.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

6am Sunday Morning - Time to game! (13th Age thoughts)

I've now played 13th Age twice through the FUTURISTIC MAGIC OF THE INTERWEBS. Though long discussed between John, Thomas and I, we never managed to get an simultaneous online game going (though we did play my troubled VtDA game and may still play a hopefully less troubled Vampire game that Thomas has been threatening to run for half a year now.) but now we have and it's been a blast. Due to wacky time zone differences we play at what is my 6 or 7am in the morning (Thomas is 10 hours ahead of me and John is 5 additional hours ahead of Thomas...) but it's been well worth the early rise, mostly because Thomas and John are two of my favorite people to game with. So here are my thoughts gathered so far based on two early morning sessions of 13th Age played with Roll20 online.

A Billion Years in the Future... Running Numenera

Decanted, a robot with a human head in it's chest.  Pretty sure my players weren't fans.

I ran Numenera last Friday. Originally, I had planned to end my GM break by running an Unknown Armies horror game, but alas events (a surprise evening in the ER) and poor organization (I did not heavily recruit players for the game and so on Monday the even had 1 confirmed player and 2 maybes and it was only on Friday afternoon itself when potential players told me they wanted to play) prevented that from occurring
Instead I ran a Numenera scenario I had been toying with for a while as it was easier to run on the fly and much less emotionally draining than my Black Friday themed horror show. Still plan on running that, so I'll have to just gather up four or five brave souls who wouldn't mind an evening of harrowing, but what follows here are my thoughts on running Numenera for the first time.

A Bang & then a Whimper - The Final Dispatch from Parcher's

When we left our rag-tag band of PCs and their 50-60 hangers on (in addition to Pinky's gang, Man also decided to take the 'hav...