Friday, December 24, 2021

Subterranean Thoughts

So I recently took greater notice that many of my favorite gaming writers will post little snippets of what they've been working on to their blog. Even if it's incomplete, it's still a solid preview, can build hype, and is probably somewhat usable on its own. So why don't I try that?

My home campaign setting is called Underworld, and is all about that sweet, dank Underdark, baby. When I first started working on it, I spent a long time thinking about how to bring more out of the Underdark experience in D&D. How much depth would need to be added in order for that one trope to carry an entire campaign? And I like thinking in terms of rules and mechanics at least as much as lore, when it comes to worldbuilding and reinforcing themes.

The following materials were mostly written around 2016 and 2017 but I was heavily sidetracked by worldbuilding and "higher level" game design. Oh, and getting a bachelor's degree. But I consider all of this to be stuff that I one day will return to and do justice, because it's important (in fact, I made a couple edits as I copy/pasted it here). I anticipate eventually either putting this stuff into a Brave supplement that'll have rules, systems, and tables for Underworld stuff, or I might just compile and publish my setting outright and put this stuff there instead. Contained within the following thoughts are some implied setting assumptions that may not be true for the "default, vanilla" Underdark, but you'll still enjoy it. Plus, I included lots of great pictures you'll want to expand.

And yes, the release of Veins of the Earth did stifle me a bit. But while that book is indeed excellent, I also think you'll agree that much of what follows builds onto it quite nicely and covers things it doesn't address.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

A Thorough Look at Skill Challenges (Part 2: Analysis)

The moment I started seeing this meme everywhere, I knew it was inevitable that there would be a
D&D blogger who'd riff on it. So I decided to be that very blogger.
After my last face-meltingly long post compiling every variation on Skill Challenges (SC) out there, it's time to do a critical analysis of this concept. When I started this project, I was just imagining that I'd be making a simple pros and cons list. But after all that research, I have a lot of things to say.

So, this post will sorta have three main sections. Firstly, we can talk about Skill Challenges just, like, as a concept. Then, we can start reviewing each of the little variations on rules and deciding which ones are good and which ones are bad. Lastly, the results of this thinking, which ideally should be "the best version of how to do Skill Challenges for a D&D 5E game, at least in the style that Dwiz enjoys," but which is also the part where I note some things I feel like stealing for my OSR game Brave.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

A Thorough Look at Skill Challenges (Part 1: the Rules)

Who's ready for another stupidly long post? That's the spirit!

The "Skill Challenge" is an interesting type of generalist gameplay procedure that's not a core experience of many games, but which often comes recommended as a good level design trick for all sorts of reasons. Here's kind of a funny game you can play: try asking a question on any RPG thread or forum or Discord community about "how would you adjudicate so-and-so challenge?" and see how long it takes for someone to recommend using a Skill Challenge (SC).

But even though there are so many people eager to recommend them, I have more... complicated feelings about them. So maybe it's worth taking some time to explore their design in a more dispassionate, neutral fashion.

Another reason I thought this could be of some value to write out is that, to my surprise, we cannot all agree on what precisely a Skill Challenge even is! Yes, individual variations are actually very common, and some of the seemingly-minor changes people make have a huge impact on the end result.

I'm splitting this post into two parts. Here in Part 1, I'm comparing and contrasting different versions of the SC, with occasional observations about them beyond just stating the rules. Once we've covered every major iteration of the SC that I can find, as well as a few similar systems from other sources, in Part 2 I'm gunna do a deeper analysis of the pros and cons of this system and its greater role in game design. Expect that article in a couple days.

I hope you like mechanics, because these two posts are detailed. There are tons and tons of "introduction to Skill Challenges" articles and videos out there if you want something quick. But this here is for the game design nuts. Even with me already splitting it in two, you'll still probably want to split this first part up into a few separate reading sessions.

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Two Worlds of RPGs

Obviously, the in-game experience for game masters and players is very different from one another. But something I think about a lot is how the out-of-game experience of RPGs, like, as a communal phenomenon, is even more different.

The two main examples of this that stick out to me are 1) the materialist experience, and 2) the social experience. Almost everything about the player-side of these two things is so completely alien to me, because they're just so weirdly segregated. And perhaps more than merely being different from each other, they're incredibly unbalanced. GMs get so much more from RPGs than players get, by and large. At least, I think they do.

I wonder if anyone else has considered these things before. Let me delve into some examples.

Monday, November 1, 2021

RPG Art Commissions Open!

I am hungry and don’t know how I’ll pay rent this month or next, so who wants character/monster portraits in black and white ink?

Here's a small portfolio showing a range of stuff I've done in a few different styles (see also my IG here). Following that are the details you'll need to know for working with me.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Tricks & Treats: Harvestland Horror

The final day of Halloween is less than a week away, so have another free Halloween-themed one shot adventure you can run before the end of the month. It took me a bit longer than expected, but this is the promised follow-up to my last Halloween adventure.

This scenario is built for use with a Lasers & Feelings hack called Tricks & Treats, created by Octava Oculta (Reddit username u/shardsofcrystal). It's an ultra-lite system fit for all ages or experience levels, and is great as a nostalgic little novelty adventure. Just follow that link, make a copy of the folder and its contents, and use the materials within to play a fun session of spooky adventure.

Here's the pitch: play as middle schoolers on a field trip to a pumpkin patch on the morning of Halloween, encounter a big horrifying monster that the grown-ups are helpless to stop, use your noggin to save the day. This is especially good if used as a sequel to the last adventure because all the students have aged a year and you can build on previous events and relationships. That said, most of my own players created new characters for this year, so do what you feel like.

Not sure when part 3 will come out, but one of my players suggested we also do some spooky adventures during tax season, the other Halloween. If anyone runs either of these adventures, I'd love to hear about it and how it goes.


Sunday, October 10, 2021

I Don't Think I'm Going to Allow Elves to be Playable Anymore

This is going to be a fraught post and I'm not sure I'll articulate everything I mean to clearly. That's not meant as a shield, it's just the truth. I'll try my best though. I know I have a very patient audience.

I mean, for one thing, we can start optimistically. There's lots of great fantasy fiction that's humans-only! A Song of Ice and Fire, Conan the Barbarian and most other Sword & Sorcery, Arthurian Mythology, most other real-world mythologies, most fairy tales and fairy tale-inspired fiction (e.g. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and whatnot), most gothic fantasy/horror (e.g. Dracula), most pirate-y fiction, and so on. And others are human-centric to the point that things which may be called "dwarves" or "goblins" or whatever else are either clearly not societies or they're so peripheral to the action that "playing as one" wouldn't make much sense at all. Hellboy, Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon, et cetera.

So if anything, it's really the default option, right? Elves and dwarves are the exception. Everyone should be asked to justify why they are including non-human player options, rather than me being asked why I'm not.

But here I am. I need to explain myself and it's going to be messy. If you're getting used to hearing arguments about orcs and dark elves a lot lately, this post is about that. I've been sitting on this post for a while now. This is going to take me a while to explain my line of thinking but please bear with me. There is a reason for each section in this post. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Gritty Realism: Adventuring in Weeks, Not Days

Because apparently this is a 5E blog now, I'm going to talk about the Gritty Realism variant rule suggested in the DMG on page 267. But wait! Don't go! You know me better than that. Of course I'll find a way to make it relevant to you and your rules-lite artpunk post apocalyptic furry heartbreaker as well, since I know you don't play D&D 5E.

So there's a type of adventure scenario I like to call a "Die Hard plot." It's not a good name, but it's what I always think of. In the movie Die Hard, the whole ordeal takes place within a single evening. The movie almost happens in real time! It's a really jam-packed day. See also:
  1. The Warriors
  2. The Avengers (well, like 90% of it)
  3. Night of the Living Dead
  4. Clue
  5. Dredd
  6. The Goonies
  7. Escape From New York
  8. 24 (the TV show)
...and plenty of others. Now of course, lots of movies take place entirely within 1 day. But these ones here are specifically all movies that are a great model for D&D ADVENTURE! Sure, My Dinner With Andre takes place in one day, but that's because it's just a dinner conversation. These movies are set within a single day in spite of how much crazy shit happens within them.

Every movie on that list is great (and 24 is okay I guess), and you should steal from them occasionally. But the main appeal of Gritty Realism is that it affirms a simple truth: you can't run an entire campaign of just Die Hard plots. Or rather, I think you probably shouldn't.

I'd like to talk about this at length and help us all to appreciate this better.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

It's All Levers

Your game is just a bunch of levers. Everything in it, every single thing, is just a lever that your players pull. Your prep work going into a session is a list of levers you know are in your world and what you know will happen if they're pulled. During the session, you'll see your players pull some of those levers and the answers in your prep notes will be useful. You'll also watch them discover levers you didn't know are in your world. If they pull those levers, then the effect may be obvious. But more likely, it's a conveniently delayed effect. Delayed until the next session begins, when you've had some time to think about what happens when that lever is pulled.

You go into every session with a list of known levers and answers. Your Players discover more, you write them down and stall until the session is over, and then go into the next session with answers for those levers and some other new ones.

The game is just levers.


Friday, October 1, 2021

Tricks & Treats: Jack-o'-Lantern Nightmare

Happy first day of Halloween! Have a free Halloween-themed one shot adventure you can run this month, built for use with a Lasers & Feelings hack called Tricks & Treats, created by Octava Oculta (Reddit username u/shardsofcrystal). It's an ultra-lite system fit for all ages or experience levels, and I made a kick-ass adventure for it last year during lockdown. Just follow that link, make a copy of the folder and its contents, and use the materials within to play a fun session of spooky adventure.

Here's the pitch: play as middle schoolers going trick or treating in your typical North American suburban neighborhood, encounter a big horrifying monster that the grown-ups are helpless to stop, use your noggin to save the day. Stranger Things is a really useful touchstone here, because it's the perfect balance of family-friendly adventure and supernatural horror. Basically, I aimed for "more tense and easy to take seriously than The Goonies" but "less violent and mature than Stephen King's It." When the monster is present, it should feel legitimately threatening, but at the same time, you won't see it tear a 9 year old in two pieces and spray blood everywhere.

At least, that's how I run it. It's your table, do whatever you like. Maybe you and your group would prefer a game where the monsters violently massacre the neighborhood, but you also decide that you don't want your players to get called a homophobic slur by a shitty 12 year old. Use your grown up judgment on what's best for your group and what you want out of the game.

A note on audience: hypothetically, you could run this adventure for a group of kids about the same age as the protagonists. Pretty easily, in fact, since it's such a simple rule system and the scenario is easy to grasp. However, I personally feel like the ideal audience is actually a group of adults, since much of the appeal of the adventure is 1) nostalgia, and 2) being able to laugh at the cringiness of middle schoolers.

In a couple weeks I'll be releasing my sequel to this adventure, so if you enjoy this one then stay tuned so you can run another one before the end of the month.


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Model United Nations: the Most Popular FKR Game

We don't actually have the numbers of how popular Model UN (MUN) is but we can reasonably guess there's as many as 180,000 people who participate in it just in the United States alone. It's played all around the world by students ranging from middle school up through university and has been around for many decades. And even if it turns out I'm totally wrong and the number of people playing Matrix Games actually outnumbers the people playing Model UN ten to one, the point is that Model UN has a Parks & Rec episode.

And yet I bet you don't know much about it. I bet you didn't know that it's an FKR game. And yes, it really is. Not in like a "you know, if you really think about it, it kinda fits the definition!" way or something cheeky like that. It's very straightforwardly an FKR game, and if more was known about its history (it's a bit murky tbh) then I strongly suspect we could probably trace its lineage back to the original Prussian kriegspiel games.

I have not written much about my experience with FKR games before. I've mentioned them here or there, and at least once have pissed off some of its fans. But I have actually spent many years using the FKR philosophy of play! Just not in the form I think that most people would imagine.

I've written about Model UN before so if you've read that post, you can skip this. But I decided to write all of this again for 2 reasons: 1) I think it needs another pass and I've written it better this time, and 2) I think it deserves a post of its own, independent of the context in which I wrote about it in that series. And I promise that if, after this article, it is clear that no one in the RPG community gives a shit about this then I'll shut up about it forever.

But if Model United Nations is one of those things you've always been vaguely aware of from pop culture or the club fair at your high school but you never really gave it much thought, then let me tell you all about it and how cool it is.

A rough outline of this post (with each of these containing some sub-sections):
  1. What is Model United Nations?
  2. The "mechanics" of how it works
  3. What to take away from this for TTRPG stuff
  4. Some fun stories where I gush indulgently

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Iterative Design

If you work in any form of engineering then this is probably a familiar idea. I just want to talk about how valuable I find it to be when it comes to RPG design. I've always really liked that the standard in RPGs is to have new "editions", rather than straight-up sequels. And because it is, to greatly generalize, a fairly scrappy and accessible hobby, we get to do lots of communal collaboration. We build on each others' work. We actively encourage the theft of good ideas (within the bounds of intellectual property rights). Most RPGs list their "Rule 0" as being something along the lines of "the GM can and should ignore or change any part of the game they want to if they judge it best for their group." It's like you have a game designer at every table.

The problem is that a lot of folks are pretty amateur as game designers. The single biggest failing, I think, comes from this very gap: not enough would-be designers are engaging with iterative design.

You look at what's come before and you use it as a basis for what you'll create anew. You examine the previous version to understand its design, paying attention to the context which created it and asking yourself whether or not those same factors remain relevant. And at the very least, the common corollary to that rule 0 is this: "a good GM will first make an effort to understand the original rule's purpose before deciding to change it." All-too-often ignored wisdom.

I especially find this to be common in two cases: 1) people complaining about design they don't understand, and 2) people making poorly thought-out houserules. Let's talk about some examples.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The New School, the Old School, and 5th Edition D&D

This was easily the funniest picture I found for "Edition Wars"
People have short memories.

Actually, that's only part of it. People also need tribalism, and tribalism needs enemies. Also, lots of people are new to the hobby, so maybe they genuinely don't know.

I frequent a lot of OSR spaces online, and while it's far from a consensus, one of the most pervasive sentiments among this community is that 5E D&D is the devil. It's representative of all things we old schoolers hate in gaming, and is the ultimate metric to contrast one's own game against if you want to appeal to this crowd. At this point, "5E" has literally become shorthand for "new school" in, seemingly, most old schoolers' vocabularies.

Which is funny, because I was there when 5E came out in 2014, and at the time it was being called "old school." It was a "return to form" for the franchise. "The legacy edition." A victory for the OSR, who had finally conquered the mainstream. It pulled back many of the trends of 3rd and 4th edition D&D and abandoned the way of the new school in favor of trends that had been started by the grognards years before. It openly embraced many of the specific Zen moments from Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. Zak S, who got credited in the book as a consultant, went parading around GenCon with his entourage wearing shirts saying "Zak S saved D&D."

Don't believe me? Behold, some archaeology:

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Only Two Enemies You'll Ever Need

I have two types of enemies that I fall back on if I don't have something interesting or appropriate prepared:

A. Powerful but dumb

B. Weak but cunning

Between those two types, you can create nearly every type of OSR creature challenge you'll ever need. The key is that both types tell you about how the enemy thinks, which is the main thing the PCs must interact with. When you look at a big fancy statblock for some monster from a new school "Combat as Sport" game, you don't have any idea how it thinks. Well, pick one of these two.

Type A Enemy: Powerful But Dumb

I had a party of six different level 1 knaves all on a quest to go hunt down a troll. They were terrified, and the further they got into this quest, the more reasons they discovered to be terrified. The troll has a ton of HP and decent AC, does a lot of damage with a basic attack, but most importantly, is really fucking strong. A player tried chasing it down alone and got a tree thrown at him, shattering his arm. When the party tracked the troll down to its lair, they watched it being awoken by a damn fool NPC knave, whose spine was then compressed like an accordion.

But the players killed the troll with not a single tree thrown at them this time. Why's that? Because they talked to it, and they lied, and they made it angry, and they kept distracting it, and so on. They did everything they could to play on how dumb it was. My rule of thumb for a Type A enemy is this: any type of trickery the players attempt against it will succeed by default.

Type B Enemy: Weak But Cunning

The most frequent candidate I use for this type are NPC knaves, because I like to show the players a dark reflection of themselves. Other common choices are any kind of monstrous humanoid, such as frog folk or hobgoblins. The key is that each individual member is either roughly as powerful as a PC, or less.

In this example, I had three different level 1 knaves enter a dungeon that had been set up as the HQ of a band of brigands. Long story short, they had worked their way into the center of the dungeon and had either killed or scared off each NPC they'd come across, funneling all of them towards one corner of the dungeon where their leader tried to coordinate a counterattack. There ended up being a standoff in two dungeon chambers with a closed door in between them. The players were desperately holding the door shut on their side, as were the NPCs. Neither realized that the other was not trying to barge in. But that gave both sides the chance to prepare a surprise attack.

The players lost. They were simply not as clever as the NPCs. When the door swung open, they saw a brigand training a musket towards the ground, and a gunpowder horn rolled to their feet. The gun shot and hit the horn while the door was simultaneously slammed shut. One of the PCs died in the explosion.

My rule of thumb for a Type B enemy is this: they play like an experienced, skilled player would in their position. Retreat, ambush, strength in numbers, leverage resources, and NEVER FIND THEMSELVES IN A FAIR FIGHT.


Monday, September 6, 2021

Happy Birthday Knight at the Opera: A Blog Retrospective

I started this blog two years ago. At that point, many people were already saying that the OSR / DIY D&D blogosphere was dying out, but they were probably being unnecessarily bleak. Still though, I was throwing my hat into a competitive ring with a small, small audience. Attention is hard to grab, so if you aren't a Grognardia or a Jeff Rients or maybe a Patrick Stuart then your chances of catching people's eye is pretty small.

Considering all that, this blog has done much better than I ever anticipated. It's not huge or anything but waking up to see your post has gotten 1000+ views overnight is pretty damn cool. That's 1000+ people who chose to read my nonsense in their cubicle on a Monday morning over a cup of coffee instead of doing something productive. That feels pretty good.

So for this blog's 2 year anniversary (as well as a celebration of my favorite holiday, Labor Day), I wanted to reflect and share wisdom. This post will have 3 parts: 1) How to Start a Blog, 2) Things I've Learned About Successful Blogging, and 3) a Celebration of This Blog's Greatest Posts and Products.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Associates vs Parties

Art Credit: Dan Scott
Side story: so I was just gunna use some generic art
of "an adventuring party" here but then I thought to
share this piece, which was the first D&D art I ever
remembering firing up my imagination. I stared at
this picture for hours when I was introduced to 4E D&D
back in 6th grade. I especially love that wizard-y dude
in the front.
I have just discovered an unconscious assumption I've been making in my design work. I discovered it while reading Matt Colville's Strongholds & Followers and then his follow-up book, Kingdoms & Warfare. It's a major philosophical difference between those two works than I'm having trouble mentally reconciling, but I also think it's one of the many general differences between the Old School and the New School. And it's a fracture I think I've already unintentionally baked into Brave.

Are the PCs a true party or are they just adventurers who associate?

Obviously that depends on the players, but game structures can have one of those two assumptions built in and won't really work that well if you disagree with the assumption.

The difference I'm imagining is, I think, easiest to describe by painting a picture of two different campaigns.
  1. A true party is united by a purpose. They either all have the same patron or they operate a single enterprise together. A party that's also a thieves' guild or a pirate crew or an order of knights or something would be an example of this version. A victory for one is a victory for all, and they are frequently attacked, aided, and rewarded as a group. They probably share a single headquarters. Some games go so far as to create a "party sheet" that's like a character sheet but for elements that only exist as a feature of your unity, and aren't an element of any one single member alone (e.g. reputation or turf).
  2. Adventurers who merely associate may still go out on adventures every week, delving into dungeons together and saving each other's bacon. But they each have separate goals and will break off from everyone else if they have good cause to. The wizard owns his own tower from which he performs magical research. The rogue owns her own tavern where she smuggles contraband. The cleric has built a temple in order to better serve their personal deity and the fighter has raised an army to conquer a fortress in order to better protect the peasantry. Especially if you're playing an open table game, then you may not even have a consistent party makeup from session to session. There is no "party," there's just instances of adventurers in a shared world choosing to work together temporarily, and the stories we play out are following different combinations of adventurers each time. You'll also almost certainly not all be the same level, and there may even arise competition between you! An old party member may grow powerful and corrupt and become a villain for everyone else!
In the rest of this post, I'll spell out more thoughts arising from this, how I see this affecting my own RPG, and my thoughts on those Matt Colville books as they relate to this concept (for anyone interested in his work since I'm sure I got some 5E players reading my blog).

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Splitting the Party Isn't That Bad

I guess it partially depends on how patient and cool your players are, but I am here to argue my case that it's just not that bad in general.

The party usually operates as one unit. When they come to a major decision point, they get everyone's perspective and maybe take a vote. When they come to a complicated situation, each person contributes what they can to the course of action. And unlike in film or TV, the "camera" is pretty much always pointed at the party the entire time, with no occasional dramatic cuts to the villain's lair to show him talking to his cronies or whatever. That's the idea, anyway.

This does not always work out. Sometimes just because of circumstances outside of anyone's control, but oftentimes it's because of a deliberate decision. The party will eventually find themselves in a situation where they ask, "should we send the rogue to scout up ahead alone?" Even most experienced players will be uncomfortable taking the risk, and still always try to return to the status quo as soon as possible. "Don't split the party" is one of the most oft-repeated mantras in tabletop gaming.

But I have done it a fuck ton and it's been fine.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Official German Translation of Brave

Didn't see that one coming, didja? Me neither.

So recently a fellow by the name of Calvin Brandt reached out to me and said that he's translated my RPG, Brave, into German. And I said, "So this is the coolest thing anyone's ever done for me."

So here's the link to the PDF version, and here's a link to the Word document for anyone who'd like to edit it directly. Just as with the original, the formatting of the doc version is a bit messed up if you don't have the right fonts. So go ahead and make sure you've downloaded the free fonts Garamond, Hamlet Tertia 18, and Black Castle MF.

Although of course, the formatting in general is quite a bit different, just as a consequence of being written in a different language. Mr. Brandt is working on the Enchiridion right now and we'll be keeping the translation updated as the game gets updated.

I'd like to publicly thank him for this as fully and deeply as I can. I cannot, myself, read German (I took a year of it in high school but I was a lot more focused on Spanish and Latin), but I encourage folks to spread this in your German-speaking communities and see that this triumphantly dethrones The Dark Eye once and for all.


Sunday, August 15, 2021

Princess Mononoke and "DM-Prepared Plots" in Old School Games

Alternatively titled, "How to Have Your Cake and Eat it Too."

There is a commonly recognized dichotomy of gamers who like linear, "scene-based" games where the DM is a storyteller and has an epic and enchanting plot prepared in advance they're trying to deliver, versus games where the DM is a referee who impartially simulates an active world and hands the reigns off to the players to do whatever the hell they want. In the latter game, to the extent that there's a "story" or "plot" at all, it's usually one that emerges naturally and unplanned out of the consequences of the PCs' actions and how the world responds to them, but the point is that "player agency" is maintained above all else. In the former game, there's usually a much-needed Session 0 conversation where the DM convinces their players to try to "play ball" as often as possible so as not to "ruin the game," and typically as long as you're playing with reasonable people then you'll have a great time.

It's not actually as though all gamers fall strictly into one of these two types, but boy do these two types fight a lot and get very defensive.

There are essentially three main ways to think of this situation:
  • Broke: DMs are/aren't storytellers and that's the only correct way to play
    • (most sensible people recognize this is a childish take)
  • Woke: There are many different playstyles that are all equally valid, and you should try to just figure out the one you prefer and then go find players who agree
    • (this is what most sensible people settle on)
  • Bespoke: A good DM can achieve a game that both keeps player agency perfectly intact and features a good amount of "emergent story" from the simulated world and has a DM-prepared plot that unfolds and wows the players with their storytelling prowess.

I am here to explain how. 


Saturday, August 7, 2021

I Want to Talk About The Green Knight

I don't do this very often but this post isn't about RPGs or gaming. It's just some thoughts on fantasy fiction in general, although it does occasionally reference RPGs because that's who I am and I know my audience.

I'll warn you when I'm about to get into spoilers. First I need to set the scene.

This post is a series of short essays. First, what I love about medieval European culture. Second, what I love about Arthurian mythology. Third, what I love about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lastly, I'll talk about the movie. Warning: about half the sentences in this post begin with, "I like" or "I love," but I hope I'm still able to drive at something deeper than you might expect. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Brave Design Notes 6: Settlements

Brave is a hack of Ben Milton's Knave, an old-school adventure game toolkit without classes and a lot more emphasis on equipment. The earliest changes I made were miscellaneous tweaks and houserules I added as I would run Knave, but at this point I've bolted on several advanced play procedures. While Knave is optimized for a DIY "rulings over rules" style of play, I still felt it was valuable to write down many of those rulings that I've made over the years and codify them. One of the best parts of the original Knave were the designer's notes, but I've taken them out because I needed to make room for new stuff and I assume that anyone playing my game would already be familiar with the original version anyway. Instead, you get my blog.

These notes are written for version 1.9, which you can find on the sidebar of this blog or by clicking hereThese rules also make use of a resource called a "settlement info sheet," which you can find here, along with the player copy template here and the version adapted for villages here.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Brave Design Notes 5: Dungeons

Art credit: Tony DiTerlizzi

Brave is a hack of Ben Milton's Knave, an old-school adventure game toolkit without classes and a lot more emphasis on equipment. The earliest changes I made were miscellaneous tweaks and houserules I added as I would run Knave, but at this point I've bolted on several advanced play procedures. While Knave is optimized for a DIY "rulings over rules" style of play, I still felt it was valuable to write down many of those rulings that I've made over the years and codify them. One of the best parts of the original Knave were the designer's notes, but I've taken them out because I needed to make room for new stuff and I assume that anyone playing my game would already be familiar with the original version anyway. Instead, you get my blog.

These notes are written for version 1.9, which you can find on the sidebar of this blog or by clicking here. These rules also make use of a resource called a "dungeon control panel," which you can find here.

Brave Design Notes 4: Cohorts

Brave is a hack of Ben Milton's Knave, an old-school adventure game toolkit without classes and a lot more emphasis on equipment. The earliest changes I made were miscellaneous tweaks and houserules I added as I would run Knave, but at this point I've bolted on several advanced play procedures. While Knave is optimized for a DIY "rulings over rules" style of play, I still felt it was valuable to write down many of those rulings that I've made over the years and codify them. One of the best parts of the original Knave were the designer's notes, but I've taken them out because I needed to make room for new stuff and I assume that anyone playing my game would already be familiar with the original version anyway. Instead, you get my blog.

These notes are written for version 1.9, which you can find on the sidebar of this blog or by clicking here.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Brave Design Notes 3: Alignment and Combat

Art credit: William O'Connor

Brave is a hack of Ben Milton's Knave, an old-school adventure game toolkit without classes and a lot more emphasis on equipment. The earliest changes I made were miscellaneous tweaks and houserules I added as I would run Knave, but at this point I've bolted on several advanced play procedures. While Knave is optimized for a DIY "rulings over rules" style of play, I still felt it was valuable to write down many of those rulings that I've made over the years and codify them. One of the best parts of the original Knave were the designer's notes, but I've taken them out because I needed to make room for new stuff and I assume that anyone playing my game would already be familiar with the original version anyway. Instead, you get my blog.

These notes are written for version 1.9, which you can find on the sidebar of this blog or by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Brave Design Notes 2: Items and Shopping

Brave is a hack of Ben Milton's Knave, an old-school adventure game toolkit without classes and a lot more emphasis on equipment. The earliest changes I made were miscellaneous tweaks and houserules I added as I would run Knave, but at this point I've bolted on several advanced play procedures. While Knave is optimized for a DIY "rulings over rules" style of play, I still felt it was valuable to write down many of those rulings that I've made over the years and codify them. One of the best parts of the original Knave were the designer's notes, but I've taken them out because I needed to make room for new stuff and I assume that anyone playing my game would already be familiar with the original version anyway. Instead, you get my blog.

These notes are written for version 1.9, which you can find on the sidebar of this blog or by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Brave Design Notes 1: Various Rules

Art credit: Hal Foster

Brave is a hack of Ben Milton's Knave, an old-school adventure game toolkit without classes and a lot more emphasis on equipment. The earliest changes I made were miscellaneous tweaks and houserules I added as I would run Knave, but at this point I've bolted on several advanced play procedures. While Knave is optimized for a DIY "rulings over rules" style of play, I still felt it was valuable to write down many of those rulings that I've made over the years and codify them. One of the best parts of the original Knave were the designer's notes, but I've taken them out because I needed to make room for new stuff and I assume that anyone playing my game would already be familiar with the original version anyway. Instead, you get my blog.

These notes are written for version 1.9, which you can find on the sidebar of this blog or by clicking here. It may also be valuable to see the character sheet, which you can find two copies of here.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Brave 1.9: Tales of Sword and Sorcery

Hey! If you were linked here from elsewhere, this version is outdated. Please see here for the finished version of Brave

Click here to view version 1.9 of my RPG BraveHere is the accompanying character sheet (it actually has 2 sheets on it since they're small), here is the dungeon control panel, here is the settlement sheet, here is the player version, and here is the village sheet. The total document is 19 pages including the cover art, which I recommend you print out (put the intro+table of contents on the inside front cover, facing the page that says "The Basics" as the header). This game uses the free fonts Garamond, Hamlet Tertia 18, and Black Castle MF. The cover illustration was done by me.

If you'd like the Word document to edit directly, you can find that here. You'll want to download those free fonts or else the formatting will be completely annihilated.

I have periodically updated the link on the side of this blog whenever several changes/additions accumulate, but I'm making a whole post about it this time because 1) this is the biggest single update to the game so far, and 2) it is (hopefully) the second-to-last update before the final version of the first core rulebook.

Why am I not waiting to post until the final update? Why isn't the title of this post "Brave 2.0: Electric Boogaloo"? At the end of this post, you'll see what content I haven't finished yet and I think you'll understand why that's going to take me a good amount of time. So no, my game isn't finished yet to my satisfaction, but it's finished enough to be a full game (more full than most old-school RPGs, even) and I just wanted to finally put it out there.

The rules probably speak for themselves just fine, but if you're interested in designer's notes then strap in. This whole week I'll be posting articles of design notes on each topic in the game, each pretty in-depth on my thinking and the intent behind each rule. Here's a list of what those posts will be covering, updated with links as they come out.
  1. Various Rules (mostly stuff you find in the "Rules for Adventure" pages)
  2. Items and Shopping
  3. Alignment + Combat (they're both short)
  4. Cohorts (sort of the "mass combat" rules)
  5. Dungeons
  6. Settlements
The rest of this post will explain the miscellaneous minor tweaks I made to Knave and then a list of the topics that are missing from this draft of the game (but are coming soon!).

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Wizard and the Grimoire

TL;DR: This post is about modifying the magic system in Knave (specifically how you acquire spells and what a "school" might mean under its rules) and it's about creating a Wizard class for my RPG Brave, which will probably not make much sense if you don't know anything about my game. But you should! So read about that here!


In every edition of D&D, you can gain the ability to cast spells of powerful magic. Nowadays, most classes are spellcasters. Back in ye olden times, there was "the Magic-User" class. They have always carried three assumptions:

  1. You acquire the ability to cast spells by enrolling in a spellcasting class.
  2. You acquire more spells (both spells known and spells you can cast per day) automatically from leveling up.
  3. You get access to better and better spells as you level.
Duh, right?

But the system I'm using does not agree with those three basic assumptions. There's about a billion and a half ways to do magic systems in fantasy fiction gaming. One of my favorites in the system found in Ben Milton's Knave, which is one of many reasons it forms the basis of my own game. And out of all stuff I'm changing, this is one of the few things I want kept the same. I'll summarize:

  1. There are no classes. Rather, spells come in the form of books. One spell per book, and each book can be cast once per day. Thus, the spells you "know" are just the spells you own, and the number you can cast per day is the number of books you have on you.
  2. Like all other items and magic artifacts and treasure, you acquire them by adventuring for them. They have to be put into the world itself by the referee and then fought for by the PCs. There is no automated system for gaining spells.
  3. There are no spell levels. They're all of "equal" power. Now, many spells will have built-in numerical variables that are keyed to the level of the person casting them, so that they can scale in power. For example, Sleep targets a number of creatures equal to your level when you cast it. But many other spells don't scale at all. Read Mind lets you hear the surface thoughts of all nearby creatures and that's it.
So I am tasked with answering the following design prompt:

How do you mechanically create options for "improving" at spellcasting or somehow allow for a PC to "invest" in the magic system without breaking the current assumptions in place?

Let's discuss.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Unity vs Division

I've been sitting on this idea for a couple years now but I've only ever had an abstract conception of it. Now I have some concrete systems to apply it to. Sorta. This will build off of my previous post as well as various things I've talked about here and there throughout the blog.

It starts with the idea of "campaign qualities." See, most people have an idea of what handful of qualities they'd like to see characterize their campaign as a whole. "I want to play a game that makes me feel like a Greek demigod." "I want to play a game with serious acting and drama and consequences." "I want to play a low-magic game that's heavy on survival." That sort of thing. Some games are built entirely around achieving one playstyle. Other games are a bit more flexible, and can be played in different ways. Most of the time, people recommend you achieve your intended feel by way of smart Level Design, so that the rules don't need to be changed from what people are used to. "You play the horror genre in an RPG by making scary scenarios!" But sometimes all it takes is a tweak here or there to the rules and systems of Game Design to have major consequences. A very popular houserule for 5E D&D is the "gritty realism" variant described in the DMG (along with some tweaks people have suggested) in order to achieve a more slow-burn, resource-management focused game than the vanilla version. And apparently it works great!

One dichotomy I think has a great deal of potency is a concept I call "Unity or Division." Each of these has a broad definition that can affect a wide range of factors in gameplay, from economics to exploration to politics and more. They can be thought of as a template that you apply to an entire country, modifying the details of many rule systems to give it a distinct identity of gameplay. 

Let's jump in.

Monday, June 14, 2021

People, Power, and Land

"The Procession to Cavalry" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
I've been getting some different ideas about how I might want to procedurally design open-world sandbox campaigns. Most people will just make a big hex map of varying terrains and then make a random encounter table for each terrain type, and that seems all well and good to me. But while I like monsters and wildlife and whatnot, I'm also deeply interested in people. Especially the relationship between people, power, and land. I dunno, I just like politics and political D&D. So to me, the most interesting things you can encounter while traveling between settlements would be stuff like garrison patrols of a paranoid leader, folks making a pilgrimage, wealthy merchants in a jam, that sort of thing.

Back when I used to watch Game of Thrones (when it was still pretty good), a huge chunk of the "non political" parts were plots about characters traveling over land, often through the wilderness. And yet, those plots almost always still involved the characters running into people and factions. Tyrion runs into Catelyn Stark and her retinue, then they run into wildlings or something, then the knights of the Vale, then he leaves and him and Bronn run into some hill folk, etc. Jaime and Brienne traveled in the wilderness and met bands of brigands and mercenaries, employed by lords with agendas. Arya traveled in the wilderness and met the Brotherhood Without Banners, the Hound, Lannister soldiers, some peasantry, a knight errant on a quest (Brienne), etc.

So I would still of course have monster encounters, but I've been thinking more and more about the logic to determine what sorts of people you'd meet and where. Here's what I've got so far:

Monday, June 7, 2021

A Thorough Look at Urban Gameplay in D&D

The Free City of Greyhawk
Artist credit: Valerie Valusek
See, the title is like a Noah Caldwell-Gervais video. Get it? Because I'm about to spend a lot of words being pretentious but hopefully insightful.

I've spent a lot of time in the last year thinking about adventuring in cities. Part of it's because I really miss going outside and having an active life in an urban area. Part of it's because my D&D group spent the better part of 2020 in a campaign arc involving our party trapped in a hostile city, Escape From New York-style. And even when we broke from that for a few one-offs here and there, many of those involved adventure in the city. Or at least, like, in a town or neighborhood. And I've noticed what's worked and what hasn't and I've done so much darn reading and I want to get this right once and for all. I've run games in this setting with different approaches and sometimes it's good and sometimes it's not. And I've tried to give feedback to my own DMs about how they might want to improve those sessions, and sometimes they take that advice and sometimes they don't. But the worst thing of all is that each of the really solid sessions my group has spent playing in an urban setting have largely relied on the strength of completely unrelated elements, like a fun combat encounter, social encounter, puzzle, or whatever. They always just skirted around the problems of answering those vital questions about city adventures, so even if the session was successful it was at least partially just luck.

Here's a brief table of contents for this post:

  1. Bibliography for research I did, and further reading you may enjoy
  2. An analysis of how most people seem to run urban settings
  3. An explanation of my line of thinking that led to my version
  4. My Brave settlement guidelines and examples, with a bit of elaboration on certain parts
  5. Why I care so much about this

If you just want the goodies, you can skip down to the 4th part.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Game Design vs Level Design

This is a mistake I've seen many people make when discussing rules and content and stuff like that. Here it is: game design and level design are two different things. There's a lot of overlap, to be sure. Strong game design can go a long way towards shaping the level. And creative enough level design might involve some intrinsic game design, too. But don't confuse them.

Game design is when you make rules and procedures. It's answering the "how" in how things work. It's the description of how skill checks work, or how combat works.

Level design is when you make content with which to use those rules. It's answering the "what" in what the players are doing. It's the adventure module that tells you which skill checks to roll, and the encounters of monsters and battlefields where combat will be happening.

When Super Mario 64 came out in 1996, it was a smash hit and a breakthrough in gaming. It was the perfect 3D game, seamlessly translating the 2D genre of platforming into a 3D context better than any other attempt to do so. And trust me, the other attempts failed hard. It was an exceptionally tricky and ambitious design goal to tackle, but once they got it right, it blew the doors wide open for the future of 3D gaming. And you know how they did it?

First they designed the mechanics for Mario's movement. That's it. That's the only thing they focused on initially. They created the little minigame of chasing down the rabbit and catching it, so they'd have a way of testing their system. But they worked their asses off to make sure, above all else, that it was fun and easy to control Mario. That merely having to run around and jump on stuff and use your different moves was strong enough on its own. Only after they nailed that down did they begin to design the courses that would be in the final game.

First they nailed game design. Then, when it was so good it could be fun just by itself, then they poured their hearts and souls into making incredible levels. But the point is that these are two separate steps, and two separate goals. So I want to talk about the role that each one plays in tabletop design.

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Points Don't Matter!

That's right, the points are just like True Strike in 5E.

People like being rewarded bonus points. Behold below and see the evidence of my claims! And then see my own method of serving this base, vulgar, hubris-laden need.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Hollow Advice

[This post is inspired by this comment]

Heard joke once: Man goes to RPG forum. Says he's confused. Says rules seem intimidating and contradictory. Says he can justify multiple interpretations of a mechanic in a system that's vague and uncertain. Forum says, "Ruling is simple. Great clown Dungeon Master is in charge. Go and talk to your DM. That should clear it up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But forum... I am Dungeon Master." Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.


Monday, May 10, 2021

Not All Crunch Is the Same

A lot of people put all games on a simple spectrum of "less crunch" to "more crunch," where the amount of crunchiness is measured roughly by "the number of discrete rules you can point to in the game." The more rules a game has, the crunchier it is, and that's that. While it is good to have an idea of whether you're the kind of gamer who generally prefers more crunch or less crunch, I see a lot of shallow and misleading discussions happen where people are turned away from games they may have otherwise quite enjoyed. And that tends to happen because the game was reduced down to "too much crunch" when that's just a dishonest way to represent what it's actually like.

I am definitely guilty of this, in case anyone wants to call me out.

Look, there are lots of ways in which a game can be made complicated. Rules can play many roles. The devil is in the details. It is genuinely worth it to sometimes take a moment to look under the hood and see what kinds of rules are in the game before dismissing it.

Some games have lots of rules but they're fairly intuitive (once you know how spellcasting works in Ars Magica you can start using it quite naturally). Some games have relatively few rules but they are difficult to master (Burning Wheel famously takes at least half a dozen sessions before you even get a grasp on it, they say). Some games have lots of rules but they're all built using the same core ingredients, so once you learn the "Rosetta Stone" mechanic then everything else falls into place (most universal systems rely on this, like Savage Worlds or FATE. I would argue D&D 5E does it pretty well. It's very "rulings over rules" friendly). Some games have a ton of rules that are all disconnected and are each a subsystem that you have to learn separately and it's a pain in the ass (sigh... Fantasy Craft).

However, I want to put the spotlight on very specific types of mechanics that, yes, are all more rules than you would ordinarily need if you were just running something like B/X D&D, but aren't necessarily all equal in how much they truly complicate or restrict the game.

Monday, April 12, 2021

How Do You Handle the "Inside" of a Hex?

I have noticed an unspoken disparity in the way people seem to use hexes in the context of a hexcrawl, and I think it deserves some attention. That is: do you bother with precision in the movement that takes place within a hex OR do you treat the space within them as fairly nebulous and concern yourself only with the movement between hexes? I'll explain the difference, and I'll also talk a bit about "sub-hexes" later. And if anyone has seen discussion of this somewhere already, then please point me in that direction.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Brave Class Hack Beta (again)

Picture is also a link to content
One of my most popular posts was the first Brave Class Hack, where I shared with the world my weird class system as well as the Knave, Warrior, Thief, and Cleric classes. I've made a lot of changes since then, including the addition of 3 more classes, so I figured it would be a fine time to update the world.

For anyone reading this who doesn't know, Brave is my personal hack of Ben Milton's Knave, which you can find the latest draft of linked on the sidebar of this blog as well as right here. If that link ever dies, it's because I forgot to return to this blog post to replace it. But the sidebar one should always be up to date.

Here is a link to the latest copy of the Brave: Enchiridion of Fates and Fortunes with some designer notes included. I also thought I might provide a preview below on each of the classes currently included, if you read below:

Sunday, March 21, 2021

On Dungeon Size

In the most recent Questing Beast Q&A he and his guests gave their thoughts of "ideal dungeon size" and it got me thinking. Here's a link to the part of the video where they discuss it. After some consideration, I want to propose 4 basic size classes of dungeon, divided partially by number of rooms but, more importantly, by the effect they have on the core gameplay loop of your campaign.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

An Incomplete History of Mazes in RPGs

Mazes and labyrinths are a staple of fantasy fiction, so it makes sense that you might want to see one in D&D. In many ways, the Greek Labyrinth was the original dungeon, so it seems like a perfect fit, right? Except that it's notoriously tricky to run a maze in D&D without it sucking, and there's no standardized solution. So in this article, I'm going to review a list of instances I've found in various gaming products where a unique attempt was made and then explain their method. If you've never personally encountered this problem before, it may not be obvious what's so difficult about it. But I bet that once you start seeing some of the following examples, you'll begin to understand.

This will ultimately lead to, at some point in the future, a set of rules I've made based on what I've learned. I'll include those in my RPG Brave when it's released, but whenever I make a first draft I'll probably post it on my blog as a standalone procedure. If you find any other unique takes on mazes in RPGs I'd love to read them, but this isn't meant to be exhaustive.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A Faction System That Doesn't Get in the Way

I'm following up on my last article but I get tired of numbering every blog post that's related to another because not everything is always part of a planned series, you know?

Once again, I need to credit Gundobad Games for sparking this thought process, albeit in a completely different context from last time. It was many months ago when I was trying to do research on domain-level play and I dug up a bunch of reddit posts about it and read people's game recommendations and blablabla and one of the most fruitful things I found were these blog posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. I could say a lot about those posts but right now I'm just gunna focus on Part 3, and I'm gunna re-write everything relevant from it here.

So the writer was putting a spotlight on Chris McDowell's Into the Odd, a nifty minimalist old-school RPG, and in particular, on its faction system. He calls them "enterprises" which is a decent name. Here is the full text of Into the Odd's enterprise rules, reproduced here:

Between expeditions, you can try your hand at business, or muster a military force. DETACHMENTS and ENTERPRISES each cost 10 Gold to establish. Detachments demand a further d6 Gold in upkeep each month, or else they revolt.

Income: New ENTERPRISES generate 1d4 Gold of Income each month. They also face a Threat that will cause 1d4 Gold in Losses unless dealt with. If an Enterprise cannot pay its debts, it collapses. Growth: If an ENTERPRISE ends a month with Profit, its income moves up to the next type of die, to a maximum of d12. However, this larger die also applies to losses from Threats.

By the by, a "detachment" is his name for a group of warriors fighting together, which we won't be discussing here. Maybe another day.

Anyway, today I'm gunna talk about the strengths and weaknesses of this system, the more immediate ways in which I've thought to tweak it, and then how I might go about reconciling it with all those other thoughts I vomited up in my last post.

Friday, February 26, 2021

A Freeform-Based Faction System

This isn't anything concrete, it's just stuff I've been swishing around in my mouth for a bit now.

I've been thinking of posting an article about "freeform mechanics" in RPGs, and I still might. But the basic idea is "resolving stuff in the game using your imagination and judgement rather than actual rules or mechanics," but, like, to the extreme. Like, say, maybe you want to run a war between two armies. On one end of the spectrum, you'd have a military simulation board game that defines each of your assets and unit types and whatever kinds of fictional resources you spend like "action points" or something, and it has a list of moves you can take and blablabla. Nothing freeform about it. On the other end of the spectrum, you'd ask the players to describe what they command their army to do. Just, like, from their creative thinking skills. Intimidating, right? But liberating. Exciting.

[EDIT: I was provided the source for this story so I'm re-writing this chunk to be accurate] 

I've been reading a truly ridiculous amount of literature on the subject and I want to share this anecdote from Gundobad Games:

My favorite example so far: from Tony Bath's old Hyboria campaign - one player was concerned about a potential rival's construction of a naval fleet, but didn't want to openly provoke hostilities. So he asked Bath whether he could arrange an 'accident' - merchant ships sinking [scuttling!] right at the mouth of the rival's harbor, blocking their port for the near future! Bath agreed, came up with a range of likely results, and then rolled the dice...

I love that. I love the freeform potential of RPGs and I keep finding myself drawn to that direction of design. But it's a double-edged sword. Because of the "tyranny of the blank canvas," many players find freeform gaming to be really unintuitive. When you ask them what they want to do, they don't have an answer. They're more comfortable if you give them options to pick from.

So here's something I've found in the middle that I'm working with and I'd like to share. I'm going to give three examples that illustrative something like what I'm approaching. These are all examples of "freeform but with a little bit of structure, just, like, for help."