I’m starting to really see the end of this.

What I’m trying to get done this week:

  1. Backgrounds. Want to get them done, at least to first draft status. (finished 6/15)
  2. Shields. Want to make these decisions, revise the rules, publish them in advance of next month’s games. (conceptually finished 6/15, will ripple changes later Wed)
  3. Character subclasses and multi-class options. Decide what they will be, and start with populating them. (starting Wed night)
How am I doing?

There’s a lot below the break – this is pretty major status report.

Based on the dominating behavior of the shields in last Friday’s game, I knew I needed to revise the rules. As it turned out, I’d confused myself a bit in play, and was running them a tetch wrong. The way I should have been running them made them still good. but much less special than the “U Can’t Touch This” dance that my orc bandit was doing against poor +Tim Shorts. My first revision was fun, and good, but ran into a few problems with application when it seemed that what was good about arrows also applied to true warhammers – what 5e would call a ‘military pick.’ That wasn’t really where I wanted to go.

So naturally I started with special cases, and “this doesn’t apply to X” type exceptions. Well, great. Now you need to break out a freakin’ flowchart or something. And was it really that realistic? This is an SRD5.1 game . . . why is the word “realistic” even in my damn lexicon?

So this morning I just said “forget it. This particular special ability – two of them, actually – makes shields cool enough to be going on with, they’re easy to remember, and everything else just works like the core rules.”

That felt better, the “default” way of playing will then be “it works like everything else,” and you can get on to rolling dice, eating pizza, drinking beer (or the beverage of your choice – for me, it’s Apothic Red), and killing monsters and taking their stuff.

So I think one more editing pass and the shield rules are done.


I’ve got, um . . . 18 of them, which are each wide enough to accommodate tons of things. The Artisan can be a mason, smith, woodworker, or anything like it. The Combatant has a background in organized violence, like a mercenary company, praetorian guard, or grunt soldier. The Ruffian is more personal, less organized. She might have been a gladiator, town guard, bouncer, or thug. Broad enough to allow creativity, defined enough to make it clear that they’re different from each other.

Each of them is pick from the following list of skills . . . with the top choices in bold, but with a few more to round out in case you will already get one of those with your race/class choice.

As noted earlier, I refined my “point allocation” method and inserted that into the text, and have usefully used that to balance, more or less, these backgrounds. That the Acolyte, the one background in the SRD, works out exactly right using this method was not a coincidence.

I have populated Ideals for all of them, as well as the “stat block,” which are the skills, languages, tools, and class feature. Now I have but four more to finish Personality Traits, Bonds, and Flaws. Then I’ll tell my playtest team “Make ’em better” and hopefully get some suggestions of “swap this out with that,” with the notion that once I’ve done the job of actually putting stuff on paper, “change this to X” is a hell of a lot more fair request to make of a playtest team than “invent X for me.”

Subclasses and Multiclasses

The SRD5.1 has the main classes already defined. One of those, though, has been the subject of huge amounts of discussion on the net, and taking that to heart, I found an alternate version that I really like. That meant that an ability usually associated with that class was orphaned, so it migrated over to another class and that defined the second subclass for that one, killing two birds with one stone.

My rogue class picked up a “this is the way people play this anyway” subclass, and since some of the other subclasses feel more like job descriptions to me, I don’t miss their loss. 

I’ll be using what I will call “explicit multclassing” to demonstrate how to get the feel of some of the missing material. I think the half-dozen examples that I’ll put in the book will work out well.

I think this will be a challenging section to write for me. Finding original or at least not-too-badly stolen class abilities, and then balancing them so that they’re appropriately cool for the level, is a new skill for me (“What? I get BASKET WEAVING as my 17th level Druid ability?”)

What’s Next?

Well, if I can get all that done, it’ll be a fantastic week.

What else?


If you’ve been on this blog at all, you know I like to write grappling rules. Given the amount of crap various systems get for them, at worst I’ll be indistinguishably bad, at best they’ll stand out. I’ve already seen in playtest that they work, and since you’ve seen them before if you’ve been paying attention, I know that they should be closer to “stands out” than “lost in the piles of suck.” 

That doesn’t mean people won’t hate them. There hasn’t been a rule published that someone doesn’t hate. But since I try and constantly refer to my rules for grappling rules while revising them, hopefully I won’t go too far astray.

But I did do a fairly substantial pass, based on playtester feedback, on these rules this week, as a parallel effort to the shield and background work. I think I’ve got one or two things left to resolve, mostly in scaling. Two pixies, for example, who are STR 2 and DEX 20, had a hard time resolving their little pixie wrestling match (“In this corner, we have Tinkerbell . . . in that corner, her nemesis Vidia. Let’s get ready to rumble in the sands of Neverland!”) in a way that wasn’t stupid. I think I have a line on fixing this, and that should solidify those rules.

Plus a new Feat that I really should call the Georges St-Pierre, which is actually called Weapon Grappler, that gives people a bit more ability to use their weapons while grappling, as well as enabling certain “sword-taking” moves by making it easier to get in close to an armed foe. That’s such a cinematic classic that I wanted to enable it explicitly. Optionally (because Feats are optional), but explicitly.

Feats, Stunts,  Techniques, Maneuvers . . . 

The question of Feats, and the recent (and excellent) Unearthed Arcana on them, really brought home one thing – make sure that if you’re writing a feat, that it doesn’t carve out something anyone should be able to do and make it only available if you have a certain thing. 

Anyone should be able to Disarm, Trip, perform a takedown, or even choke someone into unconsciousness. Studying it should make you better, but anyone can play.

So I’ll be including a list, likely in the “optional rules” section, that hopefully provides advice on how to structure such things, and a list of examples. I don’t want to call them maneuvers, I like the idea of a nod to GURPS by calling them Techniques, but may wind up calling them stunts. All are accurate.

Spell List Revisions

I’m dreading this. But the changes to the rules – even though I like ’em – make me have to go through a lot of the combat spells and tweak ’em to better fit within the rules structure of the game. This is tedious, repetitive, formulaic work, but needs to be done. 

It’s one of the reasons, actually, that this is a full RPG book and not just a 20-40 page “here’s a rules hack” document or even a blog post. Stopping play to do math because the spell needs to be tweaked to the new concepts? No way. That’s my job to work it out ahead of time for players and GMs, and with the SRD publication, I can do it for my audience’s convenience. 

Setting Details

I have a great history for the setting that gives a lot to hang the games on, and makes “go forth and murderhobo in the wilderness!” not just something you wink at, but an explicit setting feature. A few other things are done that way too – take the conventional RPG tropes and make them setting-supported.

I’ve contracted with a talented cartographer, the first real money I’ve laid out for this, but it’ll be worth it. I already like where it’s headed, and as she says, she hasn’t even started with the real drawing/art yet.

I suspect that I will be pulled between “release the setting as a separate product” and “put it all in the main book” in terms of how I do it. I will likely reach out to industry pros and get their thoughts on this one.

Oh, and I’ll likely have to work out treasure tables and rewards for the setting, since some of the assumptions in that part of the book might not be straight outta the standard guides.

Monsters and Foes

Again, this could be “here’s the setting-specific monster book!” since just the foes in the SRD works out to be 60,000 words long. That’s a lot of stat blocks. 

What I’ll do is likely put in a good cross-section of foes into the main book, so that it’s stand-alone, and then integrate specific regional foes – literally ‘There Might Be Giants here in this part of the wilderness” into the setting book. That way the core book has enough to start, and if you want more detail done for you, you can get it. If you want to go all “it’s my sandbox and I’ll play like I want to,” booyah, I think that’s great.

Magic Items

One of the setting conceits has to do with magic items, and I won’t go into detail. But they’re not sitting on every shelf in every store in the land. So I need to cherry pick.

This, of course, will not be “thou shalt not,” because GMs are going to do what they want – and should – no matter what. But while you can always pull stuff from wherever, having certain things be ‘yeah, this fits’ and certain others be ‘well, that’ll be different-but-cool’ is part of what I think I need to do as a designer.

Optional Rules

There’s been a lot of “wouldn’t it be cool if . . . ” from my playtesters. Some of that I have just said “no.” Some I have included in the primary text. Many more I say “nice, but I don’t want that level of complexity required to play the game, so Optional.”

Then I go and design the primary rule to be the mid-point of where the optional rules will be.

Primary example: shields. The medium shield is the only shield in the SRD. It’s the only shield in D&D5 as well, I believe, though I’m sure somewhere there are rules for other types, because it’s an obvious reality to emulate.

But the primary rules have just the medium shield. The optional ones will include light shields (bucklers, for example) and large shields (tower shields) with rules for those. Great flavor, easy to picture in your head, but “I want a sword, I want mail armor, and I want a shield” is part of the simplicity I’d like to enable in the game, while still giving the nod to more.

It also keeps my focus on easy assimilation of the game, which is a good thing.

Finishing Touches

After that, the primary writing is done, and we’re into pre-production!

  1. I get to work hard(er) with my layout guy to get a preliminary layout with holes for artwork
  2. I have to provide draft art direction for each hole. I’ve been engaging in some conversations with artists, and have generally been pleased. My goal is to put public domain or donated art in the pre-pro draft. I’m not wealthy enough to lay out the estimated $30,000 I’ll need to do the entire book under self-financing a priori. Alas.
  3. Again, post preliminary layout I will also conduct a recruitment drive for phase 2 playtesting, where I ask probably 50 people to play the game as written in the PDF, and come back to me with comments. 
  4. With a prelim layout and more feedback in place, I can engage an editor and an indexer to do professional jobs with this. I can guarantee, though, that my index will be: “Equipment, p. 99; (see also Gear, Crap, and Treasure)” rather than “Equipment: see Gear.” If you can anticipate enough how someone will want to look for something to have an index line for it, you can include a freakin’ page number. 

At some point I will crowdfund with Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. But my goal is to only do this step when I have a PDF that could be sold as is, though perhaps not with the full production values I’d like. Then the crowdfunding effort is “Make it pretty” rather than “finish it, hopefully, one day.” 

I’d hate to incur the Wrath of +Erik Tenkar, after all. 

And I have a title for the game, but have been coy about sharing it. I wonder when the right time is?

A quick note, and perhaps a question.

Last game three PCs charged into combat (well, snuck into combat) and went head to head at 1st level into the face of 4:1 odds. The results were predictable.

One commenter on Twitter noted “they should have run away.”

Now, there are two ways to take this. One is that they never should have entered combat to begin with. +Tim Shorts noted that yes, this was the right call, but he’d never had a combat in the game and so wanted to see what it was like. In short, he provoked a losing battle to see what would happen.

Well, he found out. 

Edit: They found out and got dismantled with grace and graciousness. They rolled poorly, and did not complain when the orc horde came screaming down on them. So this “well, he found out” sounds way, way more pejorative than it is meant. He wanted to find out what combat was like, did find out, and we all learned about tactics and emergent behavior in the process. Even me. Or perhaps especially me.

The other way to take it was that once things started to go poorly, they should have withdrawn. I’m wondering how viable that is. I think that as long as each PC decides to run the heck away while their foes are about two moves (usually about 60′, but not always) away this might have worked. But I see no way, really, for a bunch of fighters to extract themselves from melee in the face of a determined foe, unless they have a speed advantage.

I’m not saying this is wrong. In fact, I believe that the typical battlefield archaeology reports will tell you that yeah, the majority of the casualties were taken when one side turned tail and ran. 

But it seems to me that’s darn hard to actually run away in D&D-style games unless you really plan on it beforehand. Once things are already going badly, you’re basically in it unless the foe lets you out.

Does this match your experience? Who’s been chased, killed, and eaten?

I’m tired. so this will be a quick summary. I was joined by +Erik Tenkar , +Tim Shorts , and +Rob Conley in the first session for “Group 3,” one of the playtest campaigns I’m running for the Heretical RPG.

The characters were two rangers with chain shirts and longbows, both with one or two short swords, plus a dwarven cleric with the life domain. Light crossbow, scale mail, and a warhammer.

We chatted for a long, long time, and then finished up characters.

They started in one of the main cities as a jumping-off point, and investigated. They found two primary leads. The merchant guild reported that one of their caravans went missing; similarly, a cleric visiting from the majority-dwarven settlement up the coast reported the same deal – a missing caravan, no traces.

At the end of the dwarven plot fork was the same ogre as last time, but this time, two of them, with two ogrillions for backup. I was planning on having one ogre and an ogrillion come at the team from the cave mouth, and then if they investigated, the second pair would try and nab them.

That’s not the fork they took, though. And the other one led to a troop of about a dozen orc bandits. Now, my ambush was laid out for a group of 4-6 characters, and the team only showed up with 3, though two rangers and a cleric might be a reasonable force.

Turned out . . . nope.

They did some investigating and found that the orc band had scaled the protective wall that led between two major population centers, laid an ambush, and nabbed a caravan, taking the goods but not the carts back over the wall with them.

The team tracked them back to their lair, and they did some recon, and lo, there were 12 of them, widely dispersed around a campsite. One very sleepy guard.

They decided to attack, after briefly considering the fact that by locating the fate of the caravan, they’d earned their 130gp reward.

They fired at the guard from surprise, but two terrible rolls and one good one left the orc hurt but not impaired, but he made his morale and constitution checks, and was still up.

Technically, I biffed this one; mooks like the orc automatically fail the constitution checks, and so he should have been injured, and thus impaired, rather than feeling frisky.

His shout roused the rest of the camp. 

The second round had our heroes firing again, but this time, the target was able to bring his shield to bear.

Holy crap, if I wanted to improve the value of shields in the Heretical game, it worked. It may have worked too well. Our orc guard was able to basically hide behind the shield, brushing arrows out of the air with near impunity. His friends and neighbors got closer and closer. The horde approached.

Ultimately, the bowmen were too stymied by the shields to do much good, and there were too many orcs. At least one of our heroes was reduced to no defensive ability, and had to take on a level of exhaustion to top up. Armor is working nicely and making potentially fight-ending blows into threats, but not game-enders. So that’s still good.

We called it with one player surrounded (or nearly so) by orcs, two nearby but withdrawing, and one orc KO’d, and that’s about it.

Lessons learned.

  • +Peter V. Dell’Orto was right. Many weak foes is way, way nastier than one tough foe. 
  • Shields are ridiculously good. +Rob Conley has re-enactor experience, and he was not in disbelief that that was, in fact, exactly right. We did talk about tweaking the stats, though. The benefits given to shields are large, and very much nullify ranged weapon attacks from the front arc.
  • Prior playtesting showed that pelting foes with no shields with ranged weapons was dreadfully and totally effective, though.
  • The shield was good, but not great, in melee. It would probably turn a few blows from a decent fighter, and then shatter. Arrows? Not enough damage to cause that effect. Again, not unrealistic, but was a surprise.
  • We decided to add an “Aim” action option, which will give advantage when attacking. 

Ultimately, I think what happened here was “there are 12 of them, and three of us. Let’s attack!” and that worked out about as well as it should.

In D&D5, the bows would likely have been more telling. Orcs only have AC 13, and my guys were shooting at 1d20+5 or 1d20+6, so would hit about 2/3 of the time for 4-12 points per hit. Should have felled one orc per round. There were still a whole lotta orcs, though. 

I dunno. I set up a very lopsided encounter, and the result was what you would expect. They tried main strength, and were losing badly. They got dogpiled, had no escape route, and probably would have all been killed.

We’re going to reset the board next time, and see if their original plan, which was to pick off one or two of them at a time, from stealth, might work. Also, maybe we can add the fourth (or fifth?) player who was supposed to be present. Having a defender for the archers would make a huge difference. Hell, I dangled the option of hiring a pair of fighters in front of the team early on, but they didn’t bite.

Again – unfair encounter went unfairly. I can’t help the feeling that I might have learned more with fewer bandits. Attacking into 4:1 odds with first level characters is probably not a high-percentage plan.

Image from Forgot My Dice, Backgrounds for the Wild

Over at Forgot My Dice, the proprietors published a few new backgrounds.

For various reasons, I’ve been on a background kick recently, and I posted a guide to using points to balance backgrounds. Seeing his backgrounds, the first thing that struck me is that the first one had three skills . . . which is a supposed no-no.

But I like it, and sometimes that makes sense. So, given the guidelines (especially in the after-the-parting-shot version from the bottom of my post, how do his backgrounds work out?

Chieftain (Variant Noble)

Skills: Three of them (12 points)
Languages: One, and no tool proficiencies (2 points)
Class Feature: One (5 points)

That leaves 1 point for equipment, but the only thing you get is a token of authority, and if we say that’s worth 10gp or less, this background meets the 20-point guideline.


Hunter (Variant Soldier)

This one just trades out the class feature, so there’s no way to ascertain balance.

Shaman (Variant Acolyte)

Skills: Two of them (6 points)
Languages: One tool proficiency (2 points)
Class Feature: One (5 points)

That leaves 7 point for equipment, which should get you 60gp worth. Herbalism kit is only 5gp, a dagger is 2gp. Based on the prices of trade goods, you’re probably looking at 1-3 gp worth of herbs, tops. So maybe 10gp of equipment, meaning there’s room for 50gp of stuff and still not crazy-town.

You can’t get a third skill (that’s 6 points, which is the equivalent of 55gp or so), or a second feature (that’s 10 points required). You could get a language (2 points) and still have 50gp, but not two more.

But this one should probably be plussed up by a bit more.

As I have been working on the Heretical RPG project, I’ve been struggling with backgrounds. It’s not that there aren’t a ton of them out there already – there are. But they’re also not clearly something I can just, well, steal.

It’s one thing to go out and get permission both implicit (via the OGL) and explicit (because I wrote the author and asked if I could incorporate his work into my project) to use something.

It’s quite another to just go yoink something, which I won’t do. ’cause skeezy.

Anyway, as I was contemplating backgrounds, I was having a hard time, mostly with making them balanced. I want the backgrounds to have real bite, as they do now. But I also don’t want the backgrounds to overshadow race and class.

I was struggling a bit, and posting some content to the discussion board, when one of the playtesters challenged me to come up with not a set of backgrounds, but rather a metasystem to generate the backgrounds.

I initially said something to the effect of ‘I like it, but that’s not my mission here, because being ready-to-play is a big part of what I’m doing.’

But the more I thought about it – and this tester is good at nudging me about things – the more I thought that a metasystem was not just good for the game, it was good for me right now. It would help me keep the backgrounds, well, in the background while making sure there were no real losers in there. Oh, you want to pay (umm), a blergkrablong? Well, you’ll be pelted with rotten fruit and never find lodging in a town, but hey, you get the Deception skill, so bonus!


As I was contemplating in the shower before I headed off to my 15-year anniversary dinner with my lovely wife, it hit me on how to have my cake and eat it too. We’d bandied about with some very high power versions of things (where I thought it would overshadow class and race), and some lower power stuff, where I was allocating maybe 10 points here and there, but it just wasn’t working how I liked it. 

Then it hit me, and the results as I’ve worked through the backgrounds slated to appear in the game, it was clear to me that the results weren’t crazed.

So, while I could just hide it until the game is released, I’m publishing it here and now, because honestly, why not?

Backgrounds by point allocation

If there’s not a pre-built background that speaks to you as a player, you can always create one. Use the following guidelines.

Allocate 20 points between each of the four categories below:

  • Background Feature: 6 points for the first, an additional 12 points for the second.
  • Skills and/or tool proficiencies: The first two are 3 points each; more are 6 points each. 
  • Languages: 2 points each for the first two, 4 points each for additional languages.
  • Equipment/gold: 10gp per point for the first 5 points, 5gp per point for the next 5 points, and 2gp per point thereafter.

Background Features are the hardest. They should be something vaguely worth getting advantage on a subset of a skill under certain conditions. No roll on a minor thing, that just comes to you, or a fairly easy roll on something important. The feature might enable you to bring in 1gp per day (enough to cover modest living expenses for food and shelter but little else), or be a source of work, information, or solace under certain conditions.

Skills and tool proficiencies are straight-forward because they’re explicit. You can (mathematically) have no more than four, but that means you get four skills, no languages, no equipment or extra starting money, and no class feature. Even then, that starts to get to the point it overshadows the skill-basis of the rogue, and rogues, with a background that contains four skills would be darn scary. I was tempted to price them 3 points for the first skill, 6 for the second, and 9 for the third (max three), but there are backgrounds such as the Acolyte in the SRD with two skills, two languages, a class feature, and 40-50gp worth of equipment, and I wanted my method to be able to reproduce, at least somewhat closely, the only background in the SRD!

Languages were something where I didn’t want to have someone simply starting the game with the ability to speak 20 languages. Three to five seemed OK as an upper end. I decided on a pricing scheme that would have ideally costed languages out at 2.5 points each for the first two, and 5 points each for the rest, which would have given five languages maximum. I didn’t want to deal with half-points, so I rounded down to 2 and decided that if you really wanted six languages and nothing else then more power to you.

Finally, gold. The maximum gold you can roll based on class is 5d4x10 = 200gp. I didn’t want going all-in on gold to overshadow even these “rich” classes, so I decided 20 points in money should be worth about 100gp. But that meant issues with backgrounds such as the Acolyte, and that led to the diminishing returns scheme above. It works out. The gold should mostly be taken in the form of equipment, but there are certainly cases where a background with 50-75gp and little tangible goods to show for it makes sense

The Acolyte

So, how did I do?

The acolyte gets two skills. That’s 6 points.
The acolyte gets two languages. That’s 4 points.
The acolyte gets a feature, Shelter of the Faithful. That’s 6 points.

That leaves 4 points, which equates to 40 gold.

For that, you get A holy symbol (5gp), a prayer book or prayer wheel (books are 25gp), 5 sticks of incense, vestments (maybe 5gp as a “costume”), a set of common clothes (5sp), and a belt pouch containing 15 gp (15.5gp including the pouch). That’s 51gp, and it could be argued that the prayer book isn’t worth a full 25gp, either. So not too far off, and even if the acolyte is 10gp heavy, I can always take it way and say “a pouch with 5gp” to make it all even.

Parting Shot

As I worked my way through the rest of the background in the Heretical RPG, I continued to be pleased that where I thought they might have been overpowered (some were), the system above toned them down. It rewards breadth over depth, but allows up to four skills (and 20gp), six languages, 95gp, or two features (and 20gp). None of that, except maybe the skills, is game-breaking. 
The skills bit can be fixed by simply not allowing more than three, ever. Three skills is 12 points, which leaves room for a feature (6) and 20gp of stuff. That’s not bad at all. Two features is 18 points, so that could be paired with 20gp or one language, and all features require GM agreement anyway, so that shouldn’t be imbalanced.
Overall, I’m happy with the results, and glad to share if it’s useful.

An Alternate Approach

It was pointed out (in the usual charming reddit way) that there’s a better pattern if you want to hew to the norm.

Pick two skills
Pick two languages or tool, kit, game, or musical instrument proficiencies
Pick one class feature

They said “roll for gold,” but no, that’s not right. It does seem that you’re getting about 50gp worth of stuff, mostly. That’s not crazy talk. 

The equivalence of languages and tools means that we can go like this for the base costs:

  • Skills: 3 each for the first two.
  • Language/tools: 2 each for the first two
  • Class feature: 5 for the first
  • Gold: 10gp per point for the first 5 points

If you want more than that in any category, it costs twice as much to get it. Going all-in on gold for 20 points gives you 50+15x5gp = 125gp, which happens to be the average of the higher roll for gold of 5d4x10gp, so that’s not too bad, and is even simpler.

Want three skills? 12 points, leaving 8. No languages or tools gives you a class feature and 30gp.

Even simpler than the original method, and still balances out well.

I’m looking for links and pointers to any of the following things

  • Verified public domain black and white and color with fantasy themes.
  • Images that you own personally but are willing to donate
  • Images that you own personally and are willing to defer payment on until a crowdfunding event at a later date

In the second two cases, I’d be looking for a non-exclusive use licence. Go ahead and sell it to someone else if you want. If I actively commission a work (which again would be post-funding or under the premise of deferred compensation), exclusivity would be negotiable on a case-by-case basis.

Anyway, my general philosophy is that you can’t eat exposure, but you can certainly die of it. So I want to pay my artists. In fact, I insist on it. But reality, for the moment, suggests I rely on public domain and donated art as placeholders, eventually to be replaced as I can afford based on crowdfunding.

And the sooner I can start working with actual images, the better.

Thanks for any help!

Again we play the Heretical DnD, and again it works.

This was the beginning of a real campaign, though, not just a playtest. So we did get to take the rules for a spin, but there was a lot of free-wheeling “make stuff up” as well.

Dramatis Personae

Sunshine ( +Peter V. Dell’Orto ) – 1st level human monk (hatchets and martial arts)
Adaemis the Servitor – 1st level cleric to the god of light (mace, shield, and chain mail)
Jack Redwald – 1st level alternate Ranger (longbow, rapier, and leather armor)
Yuri the Soulscarred – 1st level warlock, pact to an archfey
Graves Battleborne – 1st level fighter, chain, warhammer, light crossbow, and glaive
Tom Rakewell – 1st level rogue, leather, rapier, dagger(s), and shortbow

Game Summary

We started out in one of the northernmost cities in the kingdom (call it Duluth) that the adventures launch from, with six mostly down-on-their-luck adventurers deciding that the seediest of the three inns I provided them with descriptions of (thanks, donjon!) was their kind of place.

Friends in Low Places

After kicking it around and winning some money off some folks, they noted that there were two groups that seemed out of place. A dwarven priestess was circulating, talking to folks. Fair and well dressed, she was definitely not from around here. The other was a pair of ragged-looking folks that claimed to be merchants.

Engaging with both in turn, they found out that the two “merchants” had somehow come across a load of a valuable quarry rock as they were moving from the only city farther north than this one – call it Grand Marais. They quickly assembled a “guard” of a few local woodsmen to get the stuff from Grand Marais to Duluth.

But they never made it. Something attacked them in the night, and at the first sign of trouble, they bolted, leaving their erstwhile guards to their fates. The cart and horse that they left behind was their only real possession, and so they arrived in Duluth destitute, and in trouble with the merchants guild to boot.

The priestess revealed that a different caravan had left Grand Marais – there’s a dwarven settlement there – and had never arrived in Duluth. The priestess was slumming because no one was really that interested in tracking it down.

The players concluded that the same threat had gotten both caravans. They went to the merchant’s guild, and told of the plan to go investigate, since no one else would. The guild was happy to have someone go north to investigate – their resources to do so were tied up, and even if they weren’t, the number of missing caravans was worrisome but not catastrophic.

They offered the party the price of a cart and two horses – about 135gp – with 15gp up front. The party negotiated up to 30 gp up front, and 135 if they brought back evidence of what happened. They’re also given a more detailed map of the area, and they reason out the route that the “merchants” must have taken when they fled.

They gear up and head out.

Tracking and Fight

Keeping it short, they head north along the most likely route, and with some very nice rolls, easily find the path that the merchant’s took on their flight south. With some other rolls, including a roll of 25 on a Nature roll, they also see that in weeks before the merchants came south, a Large (game-mechanical large) humanoid had crossed the area. They guess ogre, troll, minotaur type stuff. But they also find traces of pursuit by more human foes, where six to a dozen man-sized creatures, and maybe a horse or two, came south after the merchants.

What to do?

The cleric casts Detect Evil and uses Insight to determine which of the two groups were more evil. The large humanoid wins, but not necessarily a a lot.

They seek it out, and arrive at a cave entrance which has the refuse and smashed remains of human and dwarven civilization strewn around the clearing at its mouth. The party makes a ton of good Stealth rolls (and the monster rolled a 5 for Perception anyway) . . . but then Graves the Fighter shouts out a ringing challenge.

Ogre McStupidface charges out of his cave, into a withering hail of missile fire. This depletes the ogre’s reserve of skill and luck quickly, and he rapidly starts taking wounds.

Still, he closes with graves and deals him a smashing blow to the torso – it might have killed him except for a heavy armor master feat, which turned the blow.

The rest of the group piles on with more missiles, and finally two crits on three consecutive attacks push the ogre over the edge to death.

Game Analysis

This game is maybe 60% real game and 40% playtest. The rules are robust enough to just play (yay!), but there are subtleties that come up, that are worth noting.

Such as

  • I didn’t decide the native religion or pantheon that is core to the area that the adventurers hail from. Fixed that.
  • Need a really good starter rumor table to provide inspiration for what’s going on in the town.
  • The merchants’ guild featured somewhat heavily in the backstory here (ok, made it up), but fleshing out the importance and role of guilds in the home country is a good background detail
  • Need to determine fair prices of stuff, including things like “find and recover.”
  • There needs to be a tweak to one of the combat rules based on the monster’s size; that’ll be easy to do, but I want to give it the right amount of thought
  • I need to go through the spells again and adjust them for a ranged weapon fix I made. Sigh. That’s a lot of work.
  • I got some math wrong on one of the new rules, so larger, more skilled folks are demoralized more easily. Oops. Again, easy fix, but good to catch it now.
  • Fixed a new rule about trading exhaustion for another game effect, and everyone discussed and agreed that the new fix was suitable.
  • One of the new feats is really, really powerful, and variant humans can get it at first level. Gotta fix that by toning it down.
  • A six-on-one battle where the one has no ranged weapons to speak of will not go well for the one in nearly every case. Still, ogre could have one-shotted Graves but for that too-powerful feat.
I also, mid-game, got a revision to the layout document. It’s pretty.

I think I’ll be looking for a fantasy cartographer or cartographers to help me make the world, continent, nation, and perhaps a few cities.

I’m in the sketching-out phase right now, so there’s tremendous room for influencing the style and even the contents of the world.

 I think that a decent sketch-map, with a more polished version to appear in the actual book, would very much help me and my playtesting team (and everyone that works on the project is invited to join that team as well to contribute to whatever extent they wish) visualize the history and present of the sandbox that we’ll be gaming in.

While publication is some nebulous time in the future, the initial work on the map(s) would start immediately.

Interested parties should comment on the blog with links to prior work, and we can exchange private notes over Google+, leading to email so we can discuss compensation expectations. Or just email me at gamingballisticllc at gmail dot com.

Edit: I’ve also posted a request over at the Cartographer’s Guild. That’s another communications avenue.

As the light at the end of the tunnel becomes clearer, it appears that to make the book I want to make, I’m going to need art.

Lots of art. (“a Picasso or a Garfunkel!”)

I’m far enough along in the writing process that while I can clearly see that I have a lot to do, it’s a very bounded lot to do. I have setting ideas and I need to put them to paper. I have some more character classes and backgrounds to work out. I have a couple rules to finalize, but mostly they’re done. I have to migrate a few things that my first-round playtesters have brought up (like variant shield sizes and more-detailed rules for relative strength of creatures) into the alternate rules appendix in the back of the book.

+Luke Campbell pointed out a neat alternative to Microcope that’s both free and a bit more on-point for what I want to do for the history part of the project too, called Dawn of Worlds (that link is a direct download, not a landing page – fair warning).

So now I need to start thinking about money. Because for a book that will likely be 200-250 pages when done, sourcing full-color artwork (plus some monochrome) is going to be expensive. So while I’m thinking about budgeting, I started thinking about where other Kickstarters can and have gone wrong. I’ve got a good source for that in +Erik Tenkar, of course, who has kept track of enough kickstarters that he can probably give me a good list of “don’t do X” behavior.

One thing I think I know to avoid is the promise of “goodies” like custom dice or T-shirts. I may well eventually do that, but I think that my first crowd-funding option will be simple. Judge interest, establish a funding base for a company and secure the right IP for what I want to do, and give me the right budgetary outlook so I can look at printing the books. Lulu is clearly an option, but I have to imagine that a full-on printing house will do it for less money, which helps everyone. My (hopefully existent) audience, because a lower price offering will be under more people’s casual spending threshold, and me, because I can still ensure that a profit is made from this, even if it’s a low one. But with nigh-on 100 pieces of artwork needed to fit the bill for the kind of game I want to make, that’s looking like a near five-figure art budget.

I do OK in my day job, but not so much that I can just shell that out casually on my own hook. Well, unless my job lays me off and they give me “a package,” but that opens up an obvious other can of worms. As the old joke goes, the best way to make a small fortune in the games publishing industry seems to be to start with a far larger fortune . . . 

The other thing that I will need to look at is things like indexing. While a good index seems to provoke a satisfied nod from the buying/gaming public, a bad one brings out packs of deinonychuses. Hungry ones. And deservedly so, because nothing is more frustrating than having to look up a rule, checking the index, and then spending the next five or ten minutes of game time bouncing from place to place and just not finding what you know is there somewhere.

I’ve got a good partner in layout, and his preliminary efforts have been very good. We’ve got a suitable first-round cover that I think can be improved but probably doesn’t need to be. 

So I’m kicking off a game, run by me and with as many of my first-round playtesters as possible. The rules aren’t “frozen,” but at this point we’ll be playing the existing 130,000-word draft as-is, with notes on rules changes only impacting the play of the game if the entire table says so, because the current draft is 6.5.7, and the players deserve a non-shifting set of expectations to play in.

But it’ll let me see what the team wants to do. Do they want to hang out and adventure in town? Guess I need a town. And residents. Try and make it through the early levels using the town or nearby fort as a base of operations? That seems reasonable, and so I’ll need maps, bad guys, and a few areas of play. What about if they want to either bring on hirelings or, perhaps, become hirelings themselves? I’ll need some of both in the NPC chapter, then. 

I’m even tempted to break that into two games, running every two weeks interleaved, so that I can see what more than one party will do.

Then, as things get fleshed out, eventually I’ll want to let other people take what can only be described as a beta release and play it without my help or direct consultation. That will probably coincide – or even be part of – the Kickstarter process, where either heavy contributors, the first N contributors, or some combination of both become my broader playtest pool. I won’t be able to get 100,000 playtesters like Fifth Edition, I suspect (and if I do . . . gulp), but a few dozen to even as many as 100 would be spectacular. 

But putting my day job skills to use, the process/project will go according to a definite schedule that I expect to hit, with beta copies, art, layout, and final copies and printing and delivery like clockwork, because project management is what I do for a living, as a manager of $5M capital equipment design and build, process transfer and troubleshooting. I’m not afraid to ask for help and advice (and if you get the feeling that this post is doing exactly that in places, you’re not wrong) from a wide variety of people, and I expect to act on that advice. 

So buckle up, because this is going to be a wild ride. 

So things got busy in April, and I have only made piecemeal progress on the Heretical DnD project. 

The draft still stands at roughly 130,000 words, but there has been progress despite no more wordcount increases.

I resolved some longstanding issues with the rules differentiating ranged and melee combat so that they were less differentiated than I had them, which is good. There was starting to be a bit of “a rule for every kind of attack” thing going on, and one of the things I like about D&D5 is that it mostly avoids that sort of trap.

But the new bow rules are at least mathematically sound, though I expect some pointed shots directed my way, and no amount of “the math really does work” will stop that. That’s OK. The tweaks let me unify several other things.

Vague-blogging much? Well, yeah.

This does mean that the monster job I thought I was done with rippling changes through hundreds of damage-dealing spells needs to be done again, though. That’s a job of work, right there. Not that the changes are that extensive – just a word here and a sentence there – but there are a ton of them.

But I can see the light at the end of the tunnel that will mean I have a full draft of the rules that can be productively laid out in a publishable format. At that point, I’ll be ready for the next steps, which will likely include forming a company, Kickstarting to get funding to pay artists, a professional indexer, maybe some custom font work, more art, and to see what my best printing options are. Fortunately, I know a few people that I can turn to for advice.

I’m not going to launch into crowdfunding until I have a playable, complete draft that (theoretically) could go to print. I will use the process to get that draft out into a wider playtest beyond the very capable folks I have looking at it now. Fresh eyes, fresh players, etc.

So, what’s left to do?

The moose in the room: I need a setting history, and a good idea of what’s going on in the kingdom that the limited sandbox that is the field of play and the surroundings. I have some basic seeds, but I need to flesh this out. I will almost certainly use Microscope to execute this, perhaps in several rounds.

I need my team to look over rules changes and tweaks in things like food, water, suffocation, and travel. Those are small but fun.

There are larger but consistent changes to armor and shields, and combat in general, that could use some more fightin’. Some rules and optional rules that have been discussed in the prior year or so on my blog need to be incorporated into the draft (like Everything’s a Ritual if You Have the Time). Some fun tweaks to Reach weapons came up in playtest, too.

There’s a Size Adjustment table that gets a fair bit of use in various rules, such as shoving and grappling, that could use torture testing to ensure that the edge cases really are edge cases.

I want to call out important, universal charts to duplicate in the back of the book, so that all the important stuff can be in one place, and I’m not above duplication here.

I really loved Castles and Chimeras notion of expanded critical threat range, and it sees play in the draft, although not exactly in the way he wrote it up and I tweaked it. But that expansion, plus optional rules for non-standard shields, will probably make it into the appendix.

Because I’m me, I’ve incorporated the grappling rules Peter and I wrote way back when into the main rules. We’ve used them in combat and they’re very, very fun at both 1st level and 6th level, and don’t show signs of strain. Some tweaks for scaling and ensuring a sprite can’t Restrain an ancient black dragon have been finalized, and I like the way they work. I have one more addition I want to make (choke holds!) and that is a very satisfying addition to the 5e rules.

I also have a new, hopefully fun, section on combat fatigue and rest, and combat recovery. I need to add a section on morale and staying power.

The place where I need the most actual new content, other than the setting, is in the characters bit. The SRD is great as a starting point, but it is hard to work with in a few ways:

  • Backgrounds – you get one, Acolyte. I probably need to add, or borrow, perhaps a dozen more. Sorting out that which is OGL from that which is not OGL, as well as which ones I just want to write up myself, is daunting. Plus, backgrounds will be flavored very much by the setting, so that has to happen first.
  • Subraces. Right now, the draft takes the one subrace per main race type and just munges them together. So you get a Dwarf race, but no Hill Dwarf, Mountain Dwarf, Valley Dwarf, Overhang Dwarf, or anything else. I may reverse this once I get a setting done.
  • Sub-classes are tough. You get one per class in the SRD, but the rules reference some of the excised ones. I’ve got some great ideas (so I think) for a few subclasses for my game, but the Wizard will be tough. The schools of magic are given an SRD-compatible treatment, with each type of magic listed, but only one formal school, that of Evocation. A generic treatment for schools is a bit tough, and it may be worthwhile ditching the magic-type based schools and coming up with a small set of my own. Again: setting.
  • Looking at Reddit, it would appear that the Ranger is apparently somewhat problematic in 5e as written, and that discussion is important to carry through. I’m inclined to emphasize rangers as scouts and outdoorsmen. Beast-control stuff might make a better fit as a druid multi-class. We shall see.

I’d also like to include a character sheet, derived from the basic one, that includes the concepts added for the project. I can sketch one out myself, but I’m happy to have suggestions.

It was OGL anyway, but I got permission to incorporate Fifth Edition Feats from Total Party Kill games into my work. They have been very encouraging, and I hope to deal with them some more. I’ve had to tweak out some of them, and replace others . . . but editing is almost always easier than starting from scratch.

But that’s really “it,” and once I’m there – though the setting, spell tweaks, and character background/class content are no small set of tasks – that should give me something ready to start with layout (Rob M has a great basic look, we have a wonderful draft cover concept, and I think it’ll look great once it’s done) and put me in a good place to start the machinery around crowdfunding.

And if it’s not going to be ready, most likely, by GenCon, then perhaps it’ll be MetaCon here in the Twin Cities in September (though that’s only a month later). Gamehole Con in Madison might be a better bet!