Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Tabletop is Theatre, Videogames are Film

Theatre and film are intimately linked mediums of artistic expression. They use many of the same core ingredients (visual, sound and dialogue, time, performance) and even employ most of the same optional conventions (experienced in a single sitting lasting a couple hours, uses non-diegetic music, usually presents the action in its own space and told in roughly real-time for most or all scenes, etc.). Obviously there are exceptions where one medium is used to do something quite different, such as documentary for film or an interactive murder mystery dinner theatre for the stage. But they are closely related media, with film arguably descended directly from theatre. Early film even copied most of theatre's conventions, such as all the action taking place on a "stage" viewed from a single, fixed camera angle straight-on, as though the screen at the movies was meant to be used as an illusion to replicate the "stage" that the audience was used to sitting in front of.
This clip is from King John, filmed in 1899. When movies were new, one of the first things they did with it is adapt Shakespeare, naturally. But as with all art, eventually film went on to discover its own strengths, doing things that you can't do with theatre.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Hidden Grove of the Deep Druids: an adventure I drew for

Longtime reader Harald Maassen just released a really tight dungeon adventure called "Hidden Grove of the Deep Druids," which I contributed artwork for!

It's available as a Pay What You Want download on the Dungeon Master's Guild. Worry not though. It's a decently system-flexible adventure good for all medieval-ish fantasy dungeoncrawlers. If you are a 5E player, it provides some lite mechanical support to run the adventure in a more old-school way.

The premise? "Evil druid cult." An ever-elusive archetype but one that I think Harald has nailed here. If you've never used druids as villains, you should really give it a whirl.

It's a medium-sized dungeon that's non-linear, has lots and lots of dangers (especially weird fungi), and has clean and helpful formatting. It'll make a fine addition to anyone's collection of solid, vanilla-yet-tasty dungeons to slot into their game.

Monday, April 25, 2022


Artist Credit: Kieran Yanner
My blog output has been slow this year. Partially this is because I've started several very long posts that are each taking a while to finish, but mostly it's because I spend most of my time working now and have very little time left each day to do anything. I wanted to come up with something a bit smaller that could work as a good blog post to get out before the end of the month that isn't one of those huge posts, but I struggled. Everything I came up with was too small. So why not just offer all of them at once?

In this post you'll find seven really small RPG-related things I'd like to share which are all completely unrelated to one another. I hope the comments are chaos. They include:

  1. An idea I had for a particular take on the "Grit vs Flesh" mechanic
  2. A weird experimental PC I recently tried
  3. Possibly the most famous example of the power of tactical infinity in RPGs
  4. A world map I've slowly been working on
  5. An idea I have for a new monster type to fit into the traditional D&D schema
  6. How I would run a sandbox in a superhero game
  7. Doppelgängers

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

How to Make Combat Spicy

I have bigger, better articles in the works but I noticed my output has slowed down, so back into the vaults I go. I've dug up this list from many years ago and adapted it. This was inspired by a recent claim I made that there's such a thing as "system-agnostic combat encounter design" that you can and should learn, which many people were resistant to. Here was the original pitch I wrote for this:

I've talked to many people who think that combat in 5E isn’t really fun. There are many arguments for this, some of which are perfectly valid and some of which just come down to subjectivity, but by far the most common argument is this: they say that because it removed so many mechanical elements from the process (e.g. flanking mechanics, using miniatures and grids by default, having to take feats and shit to move in conjunction with an attack, having to spend actions on drawing weapons and reloading crossbows and shit, no full-round attacks, etc.) that there aren’t enough options in combat to keep it interesting. And they say that, because of this, every combat is just, “I make a basic attack. ...I hit. …alright I attack again. ...I hit. ...alright I attack again. ...I missed" for like 10 rounds.

But I can’t say that I agree. My own group doesn’t have this problem and it’s not like we're working that hard to avoid it, either. No, it doesn't have a bunch of "cool power buttons" to press like 3.5E and 4E. But you still can do all sorts of creative things as long as you think of something useful and cool other than “basic attack,” and the DM thinks they can run with it.

The goal of 4E D&D was to have the rules do all the heavy-lifting for you. It has intrinsic tactical depth, but the effort they put into that came at the expense of pretty much everything else. 5E asks you to put in some extra work if you want to have an action-oriented adventure, but it does so because it's also granting you the freedom of tactical infinity.

To put it shortly, are you really all that surprised that your combat hasn't been fun when you keep throwing your players against 5 regular goblins in a blank, flat room with no secondary goals or complications to the situation? Doesn't it feel a little silly to blame the rules when that ends up being a boring experience?

Of course, I know you believe me. You know what I'm talking about. There've been many other writers who've developed some theory as to what makes this work. Chris McDowall has "Information, Choice, Impact." Patrick Stuart has "Game vs Threat" (found in his book Silent Titans. [EDIT: I've decided to just splice the page in at the bottom of this post since it was bugging me that I couldn't find anything about it on his blog]). The Monsters Know What They're Doing has made a career of their theory. Runehammer has a great series on "Room Design" that covers what I'm talking about. 4th Edition D&D made use of one of my favorite game design concepts innovated by DOOM: "Orthogonal Unit Differentiation" (watch that video, it rocks). I even once claimed that there are literally only two enemies you ever need (which is a lie, but a good lie).

But this was my own effort from years ago that I think holds up pretty well. It's just a list. Not a theory or a formula, just a list of elements to include.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Women Warriors

Credit: Malaysian artist Qistina Khalida, who
you should all go check out immediately

Female Fighters

Lady Lancers

Nonbinary Knights

I have a ton of folders of collected artwork for D&D inspiration. I was just thinking to myself that they could make for a good post. Why not start here? 

I hope you like women in armor, because I have many digital binders full of 'em. This collection skews towards European knight aesthetics because I'm a hack. Feel free to correct that in the comments by contributing more pics. 

I've tried to credit everyone. This isn't exhaustive or anything, these are just the pieces I've come across over the years that I enjoyed enough to save.

This one goes out to all the thirsty lesbians reading this blog. If it's popular then I'll do more of these posts (but with different subject matter).

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Alternative Economics (Part 3: Treasure-Driven Adventure)

Return to part 1

Continuing from part 2, I'm exploring some alternatives to the traditional role that money and economics plays in D&D, inspired by real-life situations found in history, with the occasional creative liberty taken here or there to make things more gameable. It's fantasy after all, we're not going to stress about accuracy here. Last time I just talked about small-to-medium adjustments to the existing economic situations your players engage in. This time I want to think bigger picture. In traditional, OSR, "XP for Gold" schemes, dungeoneering is a path that leads to domains being built up for each individual player. But what other campaign arcs shaped by treasure can we imagine?

An important caveat for this: all specific numbers and variables are intentionally left ambiguous. I wouldn't know the optimal figures or ratios for these ideas to work, especially with the pricing schemes written into your RPG of choice. All of these are simply described in the abstract. What I will say is that most of these schemes work better if you simplify capital into large blocks rather than penny-pinching. When you're a pirate crew raiding a merchant vessel, you'll win enough treasure to buy whatever mundane equipment you want. So the real measure of wealth is in big abstracted chunks that can use to buy ships and fortresses whole.

All of the following ideas would almost certainly need to be implemented and communicated to the players from the very beginning, as they're all meant to shape the entire campaign for everyone. In fact, I would encourage anyone out there to design a whole RPG or adventure scenario after your favorite examples here, since that's what these really are. The caravan-XP system from Ultraviolet Grasslands I described last time is a really good example of the sort of thing I'm here to offer you.