Thursday, May 31, 2012

D&DNext: Playtest PDFs First Impressions

If you had trouble downloading the PDFs from the Wizards site, you're not alone. Let's call that a good thing, because it means lots of people were interested in taking a look.
I have adopted the battle cry of "Cautious Optimism!" for D&DNext (gawd, do I really have to call it that? How about D&DZero or Windows 7?) I want it to succeed. Mike Mearls is an earnest fellow, he really is. I believe he wants to make a great game and I'm going to hear him out.
So, the How to Play chapter. We learn that D&D is all in the mind, y'know, and that miniatures and "gridded surfaces" are just enhancements to the experience. Take that, two previous editions! It's like D&D is breaking up with its old girlfriend with us listening in on the line to prove it's never going back to her. 
Checks, attacks, and saves are presented as the core resolution mechanic, although if you had never played D&D before, you might wonder why they're not called checks, checks, and checks. They all work the same way: roll d20, add the relevant ability modifier plus whatever other bonuses are deemed relevant, and try to reach a DC that is determined by the relevant aspect of whatever you're climbing/hitting/shooting. When the DC is set by an opponent's check, we call that a contest. Did you like the 4e metaphor of saving throws as armor classes? Sucker.
Just when I'm thinking that skills have disappeared, I notice that they're mentioned on the first page as something that can confer a bonus to a check. Why, oh why? You have an elegant mechanic of just using the relative ability modifier and then you throw skills on top. Adventurers don't need skills. If they were good at using rope, they'd be cowboys.
OK, page 2 and no major new mechanics have been thrown at us, it's a good sign, and whaaaa? Advantage/Disadvantage. So in addition to bonuses/penalties to d20 check rolls, you have a parallel system where you roll 1d20 twice and either count the higher or lower of the two rolls depending on whether you have advantage or disadvantage. So instead of a magic item giving you +2 on saves against fire, let's say, it lets you roll your save twice and use the higher roll. This has all the marks of someone not being able to let go of a beloved mechanic they dreamed up, and yes, it's cool, but I'm not sold on why it's needed. I know what a +2 bonus is, but the mathematical advantage of having advantage is not as straightforward and god I hope someone did the math on this.
The next section re-re-re-re-introduces us to ability scores, which have not been changed to Muscle, Mojo, Zip, Chutzpah, Smarts, and Comeliness. The method of generating scores is not described, but I bet 4d6 drop the lowest would work great. We learn that Strength is how strong you are, and so on. I do like the idea that checks/saves are just a matter of picking the most relevant attribute and adding its modifier to the die roll. Nice and clean. 
Next, a workmanlike description of movement and perception. Noticing something is no longer a skill, it's just a Wisdom check. I always wondered what a Notice training class was like. And stealth is a Wis vs. Dex contest. Again, a clean feeling, like the game just got back from the dentist and can't stop rubbing its tongue against its polished teeth. These are the moments when the playtest document puts a stiff breeze in the optimism banner.
The combat chapter seems comfy and familiar, no major changes to the mechanic. I have very little to say about it other than its sleekness could really shorten combats. The only time I had a chance to talk to EGG, he made a remark to the effect that "I wanted a combat system that would make fights as short as possible, which of course is the goal, so you can get on to the interesting things." I'm with him there.
And then you find out that zero hit points doesn't mean you're dead, just mostly dead. This was a feature in 3e, too, and arguing against it is like questioning Nigel Tufnel why his amp has to go to eleven. Well, at least PCs don't get a zillion hit points at first level. What's that? They do?
Continued next time.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sculpy Chainmail Shirt

With penny to scale.
This chainmail shirt will be part of the armor/weapons/gear section of the Dungeonteller player's book. I stamped each ring by hand.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cute Elf Archer

From my sketchbook, 2012.

Dungeonteller Free-loads!

Still available for free download exclusively from this site:
Dungeonteller RPG complete ruleset. A fantasy RPG designed for big gamers to play with their young spawn. 
And 2-sided full color character sheets for dwarf, elf, paladin, rogue, warrior, and wizard!

Dungeonteller includes:
  • Optimized character classes ready to play out of the box, that can be customized as you play!
  • Niche-protected roles that make every class unique and valued.
  • One-roll task resolution mechanic with very simple, count-em-up math. Playable by kids as young as age 5!
  • Hit points AND dice pool tracked as a single resource.
  • Bye-bye, skills, bye-bye attributes, hello ten basic actions that encompass virtually everything you do!
  • Start with a few class powers and customize as you power-up!
  • Huge list of monsters and character powers
  • Unique pay-to-play initiative system
  • Class-customized tutorial adventure included.

Monday, May 21, 2012


I've started sculpting (yes, sculpting) the cover and illustrations for the deluxe version of Dungeonteller. This Sculpey orc just came out of the oven -- get it while it's hot!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

5 minutes to Roll Up, 10 minutes to Die

Over at Zenopus Archives the good wizard has some scans of TSR promotional materials for the D&D Basic set, circa 1978. "ABOUT 15 MINUTES IS ALL THAT'S NEEDED TO HAVE A COMPLETE GAME UNDERWAY, EXCLUSIVE OF RULE READING TIME, OF COURSE," one ad touts. I love a challenge. I grabbed 3d6 and my sad little copy of the blue book and created a thief in about 5 minutes, including ability scores, hp, AC, equipment, and ability modifiers. His stats were painful, but no worries, because the only ability scores that have *any* mechanical effect during combat are Constitution (hit points) and Dexterity (missile weapon accuracy). His low CON score combined with a hit die roll of 3 gave him a rugged 2 hp with which to nurse his way to 2nd level. With only leather armor between his heart and the other guy's blade, he stands a 45% chance of being hit by a 1st-level monster each blow, with a 5/6 chance of being slain on each hit. Luckily he can stab with his dagger twice per round, inflicting 1d6 damage on each hit, while his companion the fighter does a lousy 1d6 every other round with his intimidating but clumsy two-handed sword.
I found myself settling into my OD&D mindset, where character development is as much based on what you do poorly as on what you do well. OK, this guy must be a cowardly little fink who will help out when there are locks to be picked but stays way in the back during combat. He can quickly dispatch an unprepared foe with two stabs of his dagger but can't survive so much as a withering sidelong glance across a bar room, so I figure that he tries to avoid fair fights entirely. This is a guy who stabs first and asks rhetorical questions later. Alignment: true neutral, a pragmatic survivor with maybe a touch of psychopath.
And this is why OD&D is a great game, despite it's mechanical quirks or outright contradictions. I already love this thief and he would only make it to second level if I played him to the hilt and was extremely adept at negotiating his role within the party. Or he might die in the first ten minutes, and I could roll another one who presented a whole different set of challenges to overcome.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Design Philosophy

I was looking through some notes from 2008 and found this. I think I'd still stand by it.

Your character should reach the top before you get bored.
Rolling dice is fun.
Math is hard.
Few buffs.
No system can simulate more than about 10 levels of play without losing the sweet spot or encountering major scaling or granularity issues.
Play the character you want, and have the character’s role drive their stats, not the other way around. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

[Campaign Graveyard] The Gates

Funny story: the dice mechanic for Dungeonteller was adapted from an abortive campaign setting called The Gates I worked on a couple of years ago. Think of "The Third Man" meets "Three Kings" meets old-school D&D. Here's some flavor text, with no context provided.
Zeke was the last to enter the old firebase. The demons were close behind, dozens of little misshapen horrors, like a Bosch nightmare. The sandbag walls and razor wire wouldn’t keep them out for long. As the others cast wide-eyed glances around the place, Zeke methodically assessed its defenses. There were harrows everywhere, frozen in their final moments, their flesh crystallized into something resembling polished granite. “Kimi, what’s that freakin’ lizard that turns your ass to stone?” Zeke asked.
“Basilisk,” she said. The harrows’ clothing and gear was apparently exempt from whatever had petrified them – jackets and shirts hung in tatters, tactical vests hung heavily from their torsos. A cigar dangled improbably from the ossified mouth of one of the officers. Zeke’s eyes lit on the thing he was looking for – the company firepower. It was an M60, belt fed, on a bipod mount. Too bad one of those poor stoned mooks still had his hand wrapped around the stock. He checked the ammo in the belt – it was holy, each jacket stamped with a cross and a quote from scripture. Most soldiers of God carried blessed slugs. Two sharp smacks from a small boulder shattered the harrow’s fingers. Kimi and Julien dragged the statue-like corpse away, and Zeke pulled back the bolt on the machine gun and said a prayer, hoping it would work. He sighted down the barrel, pulled the trigger, and walked the hail of slugs into the advancing mob, sowing lead across the surface of their freakish bodies. Black smoke, then flame, spouted from their wounds, as the holy slugs seared their infernal flesh.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"The Forest Oracle": The Best ENWorld Thread Ever

Sit back, pour yourself a glass, and try to read this without laughing out loud. Full disclosure: I was one of the perpetrators. Some guy named Monte butts in half-way through and he's such a wet blanket about it. The mayhem precipitated this thread, which also has its moments, including this encounter I wrote:

Encounter 19

Concession Stand

After defeating the dorm giants in Encounter 16 and passing through the door that provides egress from the cavernous chamber, the PCs will find a 10' passageway impregnated with the smell of some kind of tasty food. On a roll of 1-2 on a d6, sizzling noises and a faint orange glow shall be noticed by the PCs.

Thirty feet along the passageway, on the left as you face north, is a window cut into the stone that reveals a small area expressly designed for the preparation and serving of food. Behind the window are 4d100+1 kobolds (double this number for adventuring parties above 1st level). The small goblinoids are cooking and selling hamburgers for 10 gp each. Although tempting, these small round patties of meat placed between two half-oblate spheroids of ground wheat flour are actually a trap.

An enterprising troll has quaffed a protection from fire potion and hurled itself into a meat grinder after hiring the kobolds to cook its flesh and sell it to passing adventurers. 1d2 half-hours after ingesting a hamburger, a PC will begin to feel abdominal pain as the troll regenerates inside his stomach and bursts out through his chest 2d6 rounds later, inflicting 1d6 damage. The troll then steals a random magic item and 200 gp from the PC and returns to the meat grinder by the shortest route.

Big Thoughts on Next Steps

I created this graphic to share with you where I'm going with Dungeonteller. I want to keep the nuts-and-bolts stuff free, to encourage play and tinkering at the hobbyist level. Above the pay line, I'm approaching each title as I would approach a children's book: close integration of text and pictures, physically very attractive. The modules will be as engaging to leaf through as they will to play.
It's been great getting the plain vanilla rules and the deluxe character sheets online for you all to look at. Too much fun to be allowed.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dungeonteller RPG Here, Free, Now!

I've just posted a free PDF of the Dungeonteller complete ruleset, plain-vanilla, printer-friendly. 62 pages of powers, monsters, treasure, a tutorial adventure, and more. It's here.
And since your players deserve gorgeous full-color character sheets, download the whole lot of them here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Preview: Dungeonteller Tutorial Map

The newest version of the ruleset includes a tutorial walk-through for each character. Think of it as a mini-adventure that shows new players what their characters can do. Here's the accompanying map.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Here's a shot of the gold coins and gems I just received as samples for my deluxe boxed set project. The gems feel heavy, almost like glass, and the gold coins have a decent "clink" when you run your hands through them. My players will love them!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Your Ideal Fantasy RPG Boxed Starter Set Contains...

So I'm toying around with the idea of making one-off boxed sets of Dungeonteller. Which of the following components would you be excited about:
  • A set of full-color, satin finish 6" x 6" two-sided cardstock dungeon tiles in 1-inch/25 mm scale
  • A set of 100 business-card-sized cardstock minis with a monster or character illustration on one side, basic stats on the other, and 30 plastic stand-up bases you can swap out as needed
  • A wooden or metal box, laser-engraved, or otherwise elaborately surfaced
  • A drawstring bag of 10 dice with no numbers, just a different colored circle on each face, to make easy counts, even for young players, like I use in my own games
  • Drawstring bags of "gold" coins and plastic jewels to keep track of treasure
  • A deck of standard gear cards, for weapons, armor, etc. 
Some things it would certainly contain:
  • A coil-bound rulebook
  • Tons of full-color handouts, including a mini-guide for each character class
I'm thinking big with this one, not saying no to any one idea yet. This would be the ultimate drool-over boxed beginner's set of all time, with some elements hand-sculpted or painted by yours truly. I'm working on a prototype for my own satisfaction and will post updates as I make progress.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

8 Tips for Playing RPGs with Kids

So, your kid is maybe 6 or 7 and ready for his or her first dungeon adventure. Here are some things I've learned.
1. Expect short game sessions of 1-2 hours.  If kids want to play longer, keep their energy up with a movement break in the backyard or at the park.
2. Mixed groups of parents, older sibs, and kids work best. Make it a family activity. Parents can mentor their kids, sure, but more importantly, it's awesome when kids get to "rescue" their mom or dad or turn their brother into a toad!
3. Kids love using manipulatives to keep track of their characters' stuff. Pennies, poker chips, a 3 x 5 card for each piece of gear. I just ordered a plastic "pirate gem assortment" and a few hundred plastic gold coins to allow my players to keep any loot they find in a little drawstring moneybag. And don't be an idiot about leaving small plastic parts around for toddlers to choke on.
4. Make drawing a meaningful part of play -- have players draw pictures of their characters, the monsters, the dungeons, and reward them with loot or experience points. It's something to do while you're waiting for your turn. We have a table rule that if you illustrate a piece of gear like a cool sword or wand on a 3 x 5 card, you get a bonus whenever you use it. (This rule is actually codified in Dungeonteller).
5. Try having kids build their characters with Playmobil figures or Lego. At 2 to 3 dollars US each, a poseable Playmobil figure is cheaper and more durable than a metal miniature. You can swap out heads, arms, cloaks, weapons. I've only recently realized the possibilities. (See the accompanying photo).
6. Don't sweat continuity breaks. You don't need to keep things absolutely consistent between game sessions. We have characters pop in and out, with the classic explanation that heroes are occasionally kidnapped by fairies and then returned.
7. Kids love it when their character finds a pet. Pets don't have to have much of a mechanical effect on the game -- they add a cuteness factor and make the game cozier and more accessible.
8. Character death doesn't have to be the end result of a botched encounter. Characters can be captured, forced to pay a ransom, or simply run away. Use your own parental radar to adjust how grim you want the game to be.

Would love to hear your experiences!