Friday, August 22, 2014

My Forgotten Realms

Here's the Gazetteer to my Forgotten Realms. It's not Ed Greenwood's FR, and certainly not R.A. Salvatore's. The only parts you really have to read are the Guiding Principles and Rules sections. Pre-History is optional; it's not as long as the Silmarillion or anything. The Present Day should probably be at least skimmed, but the more you put into a game, the more you get out of it.

  • No spotlight-hogging NPCs. All the famous NPCs are either historical figures long dead (Elminster) or real but the stories you've heard of them are highly fictionalized bard's tales (Drizzt - there's a dark skinned elf ranger in the North, but he was never a Drow, and the stories about him are only slightly more real than Chuck Norris Facts).
  • Weird it up. FR is fairly vanilla, whereas "All Bells & Whistles D&D" can have some weird stuff. I use the weird stuff and integrate it into the FR setting.
  • Trust NPCs (or not), never stereotypes. I'm more than bored with the predictably haughty but basically Chaotic Good elves and grumpy but basically Lawful Good or Neutral dwarves. I want all the PC races to be available as villains, adversaries, or competitors, not just humans or monsters all the time. The world and society should reflect that too.
  • Points of Light / Sword & Sorcery / Albion. On the big Fantasy O' Dial, move the needle a good bit away from Tolkien and closer to an Arthurian Barsoom with a dash of Lovecraft.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

Races Available - As per 5E PHB, but no Dragoborn. Yuck. See Variations below.
Classes Available - As per 5E PHB.
Alignments - Law, Neutral, Chaos. That's it. No good/evil axis.
Optional Rules - Feats but no Multiclassing.
House Rules -
  • Wizards and Sorcerers can go Chaotic Insane.
  • Initiative: Group. Roll one d20 + Highest Prof bonus.
  • Encumbrance: 1 medium item per point of Strength. Smaller items weigh 1 Str per bundles of 3 (daggers) to 20 (arrows). Armor weighs 1/2 its AC bonus when worn, full AC when carried.
  • Coins: Starting money & equipment priced in Silver. 1 gp = 50 sp.
  • Small Weapons: Small PCs buy weapons normally, but damage reduced 1 step (d12, d10, d8, d6, 4, d3).
  • Hit Points: Start with Max. Roll full Hit Dice pool each level; take new total if higher.
Race Variations
Dwarves - Typically Lawful but often amoral in the sorts of contracts or bargains struck and no internal sense of "fairness" or "full disclosure". Only the Duergar go for slavery though. Big fans of magic, like German myth. Fond of forging magic rings. Average height is 4 1/2 - 5 feet. Most common class is Fighter (Eldritch).

Elves - Halfway between Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Hellboy II. Typically Chaotic, Immortal, Immune to weather-based extremes of cold and heat. Many see mortal races as mortals look on animals. Love music and dancing, but often use Enchantment magics on non-elf "invitees" to revelry. Many humans have gotten lost in the woods or severe frostbite this way. Same size as humans but leaner. Do not worship gods (the elves were here first) but can be clerics of Ao or Cosmic Forces such as the Light of Creation of the Weave of Reality. No Drow! Drow are an Underdark cult, not a Race. However there are the Norns, a kingdom of elves in the far north, that really hate mortals and wish they'd leave the planet (use Wood elf stats). Elves of the High Forest or the Dales are High Elves. Most common class is Warlock (Fey).

Half-Races (-Orcs, -Elves, Tieflings): Not necessarily of recent Human-X pairings (and Half-Orcs never are). The old blood sometimes pops up after generations, like red hair. More common in some lands than others (also like red hair). Half-Orcs and Tieflings are always born to Humans. Half-elves may be born to elf or human parent, and usually thinks of self as elf or human, not a race. Only Aglarond and Silverymoon have enough half-elves to make their own culture. Appearance of each is very subtle and they often pass for "ugly or odd looking" humans. Tiefling's horns are small enough they can be hidden under a hood or droopy hat.

Halfings: Think of them as "surface goblins". They're sometimes called "Hobs". The sub-races are Skulks and Grunts. Here's a picture of one. Excellent turnip farmers and pig herders. Bathing optional.

Gnomes: I don't have strong convictions here, so let's go with PHB standard. Open to suggestions.


Ao creates the Weave, a field of magical energy that holds back the Darkness Beyond the Stars and allows for a space where Light, order, and life can happen. The few beings from Before The Time of Light which are inside the Weave are rendered comatose and hidden under oceans or in the hearts of moons.

Ao creates the world and the Immortals - Elves, Dragons, Titans, Ghul, Shaar, and Djinn. Most of the dragons fly off into the Far East beyond what is now the Hordelands. The Djinn head south across the Shining Sea. Nothing is really known of what happens to them.

Elves (who are truly immortal and immune to inclement weather) take up residence in the Great Forest that spans unbroken from Sword Coast to the Hordelands, north of and around the coasts of the Sea of Fallen Stars. The Ghul set up their kingdom in Unther but are few in number. The Shaar spread across the Shining South.

The Titans are few, but so powerful they declare independence from Ao and declare Toril belongs to them. Ao kills their leaders Tharzidun, Aber, Lan, and Mer, disintegrating their bodies and shattering their immortal souls into millions of pieces. Tharzidun's soul-shards form the first demons, Aber's soul-shards land throughout the world and bond with natural plants and creatures to make treants, unicorns, sphinxes, and so on. Lan's soul shards bond with rock and metal, forming gnomes, dwarves, giants, and less common beings. Mer's soul-shards remain as free-roaming spirits of places and things (e.g., the spirit of the old tree), but occasionally take more physical forms such as dryads or water elementals. The remaining Titans flee to other planes of existence.

The elves, shaar, and ghul battle for supremacy over the Realms. The elves and shaar are equally strong, but the ghul are few and beset from both sides. In desperation the ghul build Gates and start importing mortal slaves from other worlds (of which goblins and humans are the most numerous) to serve them in their palaces and as soldiers. The ghul learn how to tap into the Weave created by Ao, using Evocation to make weapons, Enchantment to control the mortal minds, and Necromancy to make use of their bodies after death.

Unther expands quickly into elven and shaar territory, and Eastward. Some human slaves escape on horseback into the Hordelands. Humans bring their religions with them from other worlds, and their prayers attract the attention of foreign Gods. Some Gods divert their attention to Toril and empower clerics and paladins.

Human Liches created by the Ghuls encounter something in the high plateau of Thay, and are changed by it. Their minds are made incapable of being Enchanted by the Ghul, and the Liches set up their own kingdom in Thay, determined to enslave as they were enslaved and tear down their former masters.

Despite harassment from Thay, Unther continues to expand. Its mortal armies consist of weak mortal soldiers, but they are legion in number and replenish their numbers faster than the Shaar or Elves can match. The Ghul begin experimenting on their mortal subjects and create many varieties of goblins, plus orcs and trolls from human stock, making their armies even more ferocious and harder to kill.

Desperate for power to resist the Ghul, the Shaar develop ChaosTech powered by the energies from beyond the Weave of Reality. Unfortunately as a side effect of reaching deeply and recklessly beyond the Weave for more power, the Shaar are exposed to the Darkness Beyond the Stars and are driven mad. Their rational plans become less rational and they cease to care about the morale of their troops. Eventually someone did something really stupid and blew up the heart of the Shaar Empire and caused it to collapse into the earth. Rivers filled in the crater, forming the Lake of Steam. Sahuagin live among the broken ruins of the Shaar capital. The living weapons developed by the Shaar (the Illithids and Beholders are most famous) retreat deep into the bowels of the Earth.

Humans and goblinois (including halflings) flee in great numbers into empty Shaar lands and also the elven lands and some join forces with the elves to resist the Ghul. The pacts forged in Myth Drannor and Aglarond set up human kingdoms within elven lands that resist Unther forces. In Calimshan and the Shining South, far beyond Ghul or elf control, the first independent human and goblinoid realms form. Bugbears become a problem in the northern forests.

Auril, one of the first elves to awaken, cannot abide living side by side with mortals. They are beneath the elves and usurpers of a world made for them. She loses elf political infighting and leads her followers onto the Great Glacier and further north into the Frozen Lands. Her followers make her Queen and worship her as a living God. She is the Queen of Storms and Darkness and no mortal has seen her Palace of the North.

Dragons, long absent from the Realms, return in great numbers from the East. They ravage through Unther and into the north, burning forests clean and leaving vast swaths of plains and scorched hills. So many Ghul are killed in one battle that Unther disintegrates. Chessenta, the Vilhon Reach, and Mulhorand declare independence, and the few Ghul who survive retreat into their temples and give up their dreams of ruling the world. The Great Elven Forest is so badly damaged that regrowth isn't possible and the loss of Elven dominance over the North becomes foreseen; large numbers of them leave by ship for the Undying Lands of the West or via Spelljammer Ship to live among the stars.

Thousands of years pass. Human kingdoms rise and fall. Wizards rise to power, create wonders, and disappear.


The Year is 2314 D.R. More than two-thousand years have passed since men and elves formed a pact at Myth Drannor to resist the Ghul and Shaar forces from the South. Some elves living today still remember that. No one has seen a Ghul or Shaar in over a thousand years however, and the elven forests were burned beyond recovery by a rage of dragons, leaving vast open plains and clear dales for humans to build cities and kingdoms. Only the Summer King in the High Forest, the Queen of Storms and Darkness in the Frozen North, and the Fair Court of Myth Drannor remain.

You Are Here:

Uthmere is the City-State of the Grand Duke Fandrell. His excellency claims to be Grand Duke of all of the Great Dale and Ashanath, but his troops rarely patrol past Carwyth Hold halfway through the Dale. That's a bit West of "here" actually - you're in village somewhere along the road to Ashanath. The great woods to the south and north keep you from wandering too far from the road.


Both the Rawlinswood and the Forest of Lethyr are inhospitable and dangerous, but for different reasons. The woods to the north are full of monsters out of Narfell and the further north. The woods to the south are thick with magical beasts and druids that like to keep city-folks out.

Impiltur is the only civilized realm within a month's travel. Its southern cities are ruled somewhat competently by the Circle of Knightly Lords, and they are the premier maritime trading cities of the Sea of Fallen Stars, taking goods to Chessenta, Sembia and Mulhorand.

Thesk to the south has one well-patrolled road kept clear and safe by Impilturian trading houses so goods can flow from the Hordelands and beyond.

Narfell to the north is, as ever, a wasteland of demon-worshiping barbarian tribes, chaotic cults, and twisted ruins. Nearly two-thousand years ago the Banite Emperor of Narfell tried to take on Unther and Thay simultaneously using Shaar weaponry and chaos-tech. The counter-attack, plus the forces unleashed when the weapons broke, have left it a ruin of wild magic - but also attractive to certain kinds of wizards or cults for setting up shop.

Damarra is full of human clans often at war with each other or raiding south into Impiltur, Uthmere and Thesk on their longboats. If you can find a way through them to Vassa, that place is relatively okay by comparison.

What do we do now? 

We crawl hexes, that's what. You're near the town of Phandelvar if you start somewhere.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Most Important Rules

What are "the most important rules" in D&D? This is a question I have asked myself recently because I'm trying to boil the game down to something so simple that my four-year-old son can play with me. Part of that simplification means simply changing the game to a board-game format where he can see the dungeon in front of him (visualizing verbal descriptions really isn't his thing yet), but this process still has lead me to believe that "the most important rules" in D&D are often overlooked, and have been overlooked in recent decades and gone unwritten entirely in the 5E Basic Rules (as far as v0.2) and Starter Set.

(And yes, of course the Basic Rules are a work in progress. But even if every single issue I discuss below is addressed by the full Basic Rules v1.0 released in December or January, it seems very odd to me to release them in such a backwards fashion)

The most important rules are not stats, or race, or class, or alignment, or anything like that. In my first iteration of Ultra-Basic D&D (or Ultra-Basic I) characters only had two stats - Gold and Hit Points. The object of the game was to collect 10 gold pieces before losing your Hit Points. That's it. And that played pretty well. We will introduce more options later.

The most important rules do not include a long and detailed monster list either. Do you need monsters? Sure, but not fifty different kinds. Those are "nice to have" extras, but you can start playing D&D with a very short list.

Is combat important? Well yes, but it doesn't have to be complicated. In Ultra-Basic I combat is resolved with a d6 and everyone has the same flat 1-3 miss, 4-6 hit probability. In my next version (Ultra-Basic II) I will introduce classes with variable to-hit chances on a d20 (Fighters will hit on 8+, Wizards on 13+, etc.), but still ignore enemy AC or all modifiers. Maaaaaybe we will introduce Advantage, but probably not until Ultra-Basic III is released when he's 6 or 7 years old. Enemies are always goblins that die in one hit, and in Ultra-Basic II we will have more than one monster type, some of whom are tougher.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves! Combat is one of the last things we resolve in D&D. Let's see the steps I had to go through to get there.

Step 1: Draw a Dungeon
Graph paper, pencils, some ink and crayon to fill in details. Just a basic dungeon. But isn't it amazing that the 5E Start Set and Basic Rules have no guidance on how to do this? How many rooms are good? Should I avoid linear maps? How often should traps occur? There is nothing on this. The dungeons in Phandelvar are actually pretty decent examples of the form, but how can a game called Dungeons & Dragons have no rules whatsoever on making dungeons?

Hopefully this will be rectified once the DMG is released and the Basic Rules are updated to include basic DM guidance, but I what are kids who just have the Starter Set supposed to do once Phandelvar is fully explored? I'm sure they'll muddle through, as I did as a kid, but still, something would be better than nothing.

Step 2: Explore the Dungeon 
This step includes a lot of sub-steps, but the Basic Rules only touch on some of them. The Basic Rules name exploration as one of the key pillars of the game (good!), and then provide rules for movement (including stealth), finding traps, and vision. Good so far.

But what about encounters? Where are the monsters? What are they doing? Are they friendly or not?

Whom do you meet?
To make Ultra-Basic I I had to come up with a Random Encounter/Dungeon Room Table, and basically cribbed the one from AD&D. A simple d10 roll for each room had odds for Monsters, Trap, Special, Secrets, Treasure and Empty. I then needed sub-rules for what sort of "Special" results you can get (Dungeon Alphabet to the rescue!), how many monsters there were, and treasure. (This is related to drawing a dungeon - filling it in. But in Ultra-Basic the dungeon content is generated as you play, not pre-generated by a DM. Four-year-olds don't appreciate well crafted dungeons that "make sense" and do appreciate very much spinning the "What's in the room?" spinner.)

Are they helpful?
In my mind, what really makes D&D a "roleplaying game in a fantasy world" is that not every encounter has to be a fight. Many monsters can be spoken to or reasoned with. Many "monsters" in the old encounter tables aren't even really monsters. Are halflings monsters? In Ultra-Basic I there's only one type of Monster (Goblins) and they're always unfriendly but in Ultra-Basic II that will change, and this is something even a five-year-old who cannot read or understand "leveling up" can use and play with. And it's lacking entirely from the 5E rules, as far as I can tell. This is amazing to me. Is the DM just supposed to use fiat to decide each encounter? That's the road leads towards railroads, in my opinion, whereas Reaction Tables leads towards a complex world that surprises even the DM.

What do we get?
Finally, we needed rules for figuring out what sort of rewards you get. Ultra-Basic I only has two rewards - Gold and Healing Potions. That will probably stay the same in Ultra-Basic II. Maybe we add silver and gems (for math and variety!) in Ultra-Basic III in a couple years.

Step 3: Define the End Game
What's the point of D&D? When's the game over? How do you know if you're making progress?

This is an interesting this - the 5E rules have no purpose. Just a hamster loop of XP and levels up until you're 20th level. Then ... what? What was it all for?

Games don't need a point. No one really asks why you're trying to checkmate the opponent's king in chess. Maybe for some people reaching 20th level is good enough. But that seems a bit empty to me, considering that you're expected to invest mental energy into the persona of a character. What does that character want out of life?

In the original version of D&D the implied end-game was to become a Lord and build a Keep, and then shephard the next generation of adventurers. Gary himself mentioned there was no reward for reaching 20th level other than recognition from your peers for accomplishing that difficult thing. I think the real reward people were looking for was to see their PC graduate into the constellation of "important NPCs" that moved and shook the game world. "King Azoun and Vandergahast have put out a call". And so on.

In Ultra-Basic I the goal is to collect 10 gold pieces. That's it. Like a board game there's no continuity between one game and the next, and that's fine for now. I think continuity will wait for Ultra-Basic III (there will be no Ultra-Basic IV), where perhaps the goal will be to collect three Dragon Gems (but you can't even try to collect them until you're Level 5).

But anyway, End Games are flexible. Maybe you want a campaign where the end game is to kill a Dragon King, or become one, or decisively defeat a Dragon Army, or just build a Keep and tutor the next generation of adventurers. But you should have one, and 5E doesn't even discuss the need. That seems weird to me.

Conclusion: Here are my "Most Important Rules in D&D"
1. DM Procedures for making dungeons (and later, Wilderness Maps, Kingdoms, Planes, etc.)
2. Procedure for exploration and random encounters
3. Reaction Tables - what sort of encounter is it?
4. Combat (and maybe a few spells) (KISS).
5. A progress metric (Can be Gold Pieces, XP, or User Defined. But have one).

Together these rules are the procedure for Playing D&D. Set-up, Exploration, Conflict Resolution, and Winning Conditions. All the options for character building and monsters to fight comes later, in my opinion, so it seems weird to me that D&D 5th Edition (as released so far) contains so much of the latter and with such obvious gaps in the former.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A revealing habit of speech

This is a post about rhetoric, but you may need a bit of background first. (Or if you know already know all about #5EConsultancyGate, skip the next three paragraphs)

In the fractal nest of D&D sub-cultures I identify with a group of bloggers, gamers, and forum posters who participate in what's generally referred to as The Old School Renaissance, or OSR. OSR gamers (as you might guess from the name) prefer to play older editions of D&D (and new games that hold to the old style) such as were popular in the 1970s and 80s, while eschewing the newer Editions. There's no formal mailing list or membership organization though - it's just a conversational identity.

Now new edition of D&D, 5th Edition, is now being released and one of the things that sets 5th Edition apart from the previous two editions is that Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of D&D) deliberately set out to win back the OSR gamers' business, and towards that end they hired two of the more prominent OSR community bloggers/forum moderators as consultants during the three-year development process. The free basic edition of the rules (Hey, free PDF! Share it with your friends!) credits Zak S. and The RPGPundit (the latter is very private and never shares his real name) as contributors. Good for them, right?

Well immediately after the rules were released both Zak S. and The RPGPundit were libeled by another group of gamers from a different set of forums. (The linked post is merely one example of what was going around) The claims made were obviously untrue to anyone who knows anything about either man, but they gained some traction for a while. It seems to be dying down now, but was ugly for a bit.

But what interested me, and this is where we get back to rhetoric, is that the people who were defending Zak and Pundit referred to D&D, and gaming generally, as "a" hobby, while the people who were lying about them called it "the" hobby. I think that's a relevant distinction and suggestive of the liars' motivations.

The Church. The government. The company. The hobby.

A habit. An interest. A preference. A hobby.

The first list is one of structures with hierarchies. The latter is one of personal matters which are internal to an individual.

You see, there are already formal structures with hierarchies in gaming. Every company that publishes a game has a hierarchy from CEO down to the mailroom. Fan-run groups like the Adventurers League have a hierarchy. But "the hobby" generally - what's that?

What I think is going on is that the liars who attacked Zak and Pundit talk about "the hobby" to imply and try to persuade their readers that "the hobby" is a group, and as such (like any other self-respecting group) it has standards of conduct and rules for admission.
"But what standards? What rules?" 
"Well, I'm glad you asked ..."
This is what's really going on. The liars want to be in charge of something, but they know that they have no hope of ever being put in charge of any of the existing hierarchies like the Wizards of the Coast corporate management, or even the Adventurer's League fanbase. Their personalities are too abrasive and their beliefs too fringe for that to ever happen. But if they can imply the existence of a new hierarchy, and get some gullible fools to believe in that, and then present a system of conduct and rules for admission that seem reasonable to someone who has never received the benefit of common sense or a classical education - then maybe they be in charge of something. They get to point the fingers. They get to say who's popular and who's not. They are the alphagirl at the lunch table, dispensing social rank to whoever accepts their authority.

It's a mind-game, all of it. A sort of sleight of hand where they first create the need for rules and order, and then provide it in the form they prefer. Don't fall for it. Your hobbies are just your hobbies, and yours alone. If you want to join a larger group, I won't stop you, but make sure it's a real one with a fair and transparent hierarchy and a means for leaving easily if they cease to meet your needs. You deserve better than mind-games and tricks.