So, my SRD-based RPG, Dragon Heresy, is getting closer and closer to reality. At this point, I can almost count on one hand the number of tasks required to get the written part of the manuscript finished.

By looking to create a finished, playable, “if I had to I could just put this in a crappy PDF and play the damn game” format, I hope to avoid one of what looks to be the classic mistakes of bringing a small-company RPG to market – not finishing it.

Just look at the projects that draw the ire of watchdogs like +Erik Tenkar and others. Mostly, someone seems to have an idea, they Kickstart it – and it frequently is a great idea – and the project doesn’t get finished. There can be an infinite number of reasons, many of them good, some of them not-so-good, and at least one has drawn criminal charges.

So I’ll avoid that one. But I’m ready to admit I’m probably going to walk into quite a few more.

I’m going to go stream-of-consciousness for a bit, mostly because I am writing this in fits and starts.

The GURPS Experience

Technically, this isn’t my first rodeo. Sort of. I’ve written for Steve Jackson Games something like thirteen Pyramid articles and one book. 

So I can write, at least theoretically. 

But do you know what that doesn’t prepare you for?

Everything else.


Don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed working with SJG. Sean and Steven and PK are great to work with, and there’s a contingent of co-authors like +Peter V. Dell’Orto and +Christopher R. Rice  that make collaboration a pleasure, not to mention some folks like Hans and +Shawn Fisher who do work in areas I’m very fond of, and I help them out (and they help me) wherever I can.

One thing that’s great about SJG is that they’re professionals. They write good contracts, and they stick by them. They make it very clear what they’re looking for, have a painfully complete style guide, and only take your proposal if they’re sure that (a) you can finish it, and (b) they can sell it. And when they do, they pay, promptly and in full compliance with the contract. If you are straight with them about delays and difficulties, they will work with you to fix them.

As a result, as I’ve tried to set up my own workings for the Dragon Heresy RPG, I have very, very consciously modeled some of what my impressions are of their internal workings, plus some business practices that I have learned over fifteen years as a professional engineer, project manager, and personnel manager.

Some Take-aways


Things I’ve done and am doing?

Contracts

I’m trying to write good contracts. This was a rocky start, because my attempts to be clear and also provide multiple points of contact with my creatives and myself (I like a four-payment model for contracting. A small amount down to prove I’m serious and make the contract binding, some more when agreement is reached on exactly what the work will be – a full rough draft, for example. A third payment when the first publishable draft is done, and then the remainder on final acceptance. The largest payments are the middle ones, with roughly 70% of the payment being in those two.

Why do it that way? Why not do differently? I’ve had good luck with that method, it gives people milestones to work for, and encourages contact with me as project manager. Plus, it’s more cash flow to the artist, which from what I can tell on the internet, can’t hurt.

The other part of that is to always be very, very, very clear as to what is in and out of the scope of work. Writing it down gives both parties recourse to engage in common ground as a discussion of expectations. And much like RPG campaigns themselves, unequal or unclear expectations is where things most often break down.

Get lots of help


Open up your favorite big-publisher RPG. Look at the credits page. See all those names?

Every single one of them had something important enough to do that (a) they were paid for it, and (b) they needed different people with different skill sets to do.

Know what’s still missing from that credits page? Marketing. Sales. Web design. Store-front maintenance. Your Favorite Local Gaming Store. Playtesters and the equivalent of the SJG MIBs to get the word out.

I have engaged +Rob Muadib to do layout for the game, and he’s kicking ass and taking names. He’s great to work with, he takes my suggestions and also knows when to say “no, trust me. Do it this way.”

We seem to work well together.

I am, for the moment, the project manager, writer, art director, editor, marketing executive, and . . . gah. Too much. I’m going to have to plan and execute my own crowd-funding, too.

I will be asking for lots of help from friends – mostly in the form of advice.

Make a budget. Make it real.


One of the big scary things that writing a 200,000 word game entails is that there are a lot of up-front costs. Especially if you want it to look like a pro game.

The biggest cost by far is art. I supect the game will wind up being clsoe to 300 pages. That means that I will need something like a minimum of one piece of artwork per four pages, through I’m planning on one piece per three pages. That’s about 100 pieces of artwork. I’m figuring fifteen full-page mural-style images, more or less, the facing-pages for each chapter. That will leave something like 95 pieces of artwork needed as a rough budget, and I’m figuring about 0.3 pages per art piece (three 1/4 page pieces and one 1/2 page piece per four pieces of required art). 

That means about 40-45 full pages of artwork, and the going rate per page seems to be about $100 for black and white, adn $200-250 for color. I will likely need different B/W art (because the baseline version of the book should be black and white so it comes up easily on eReaders and prints well) and color art. So I will budget $4500 for B/W art and $11,000 for color art.

Editing something like this game seems to clock in at about three cents per word, and a ballpark for indexing is about $10 per 1,000 words. So I might need as much as $6,000 for editing (yeek!) and another $2,000 for professional indexing. Those costs are going to be borne regardless of color and black and white. If you think you don’t need an editor, you’re wrong. And no book (or few books? I’ll go with no book) that is a reference book, which is what an RPG rules book is, a technical reference, can stand without a good index. That’s one area everyone can learn from SJG. Every reference will have a page number, too – no instances of “Frombotzer: see Widget.” It will be “Frombotzer 126, 130-131 (also see Widget).

And don’t forget that crowdfunding takes its cut too, so plus-up your goals to account for that.

Oh, and shipping. At-cost coupons are a good way to deal with that, but some people hate that with the fiery passion of 1,000 suns. I’ve seen others mention a second “escrow” account where each person kicks in their own shipping. Need to find out more about that. Because I’ve heard 1/3-2/5 of sales can be international, and shipment of books overseas can be a nightmare. Be aware, plan for it ahead of time, or at least have a plan to make a plan.

Play it once, play it loud


The other thing I’ve found, again and again, is there’s zero substitute for playing the game. None. I have thus far run four to six stand-alone sessions of the game, and have kicked off two campaigns and expect to run one more. 

I learn something every single time I play. Sometimes it’s positive – the rules work like they think. Even better when it’s a positive surprise – the rules work like they’re supposed to, and also produce a really cool other result. Sometimes, as in the recent orc dogpiling incident, things don’t go as planned, and nothing teaches thoughtful rules writing like a TPK. Had my players been less mature, I might have lost them. Fortunately, they’re all writers, bloggers, game designers, and willing to help out. So no worries there and the rules are better for it.

Listen to folks, but have your own voice


Part and parcel with playtesting is listening to your testers. Don’t just listen. Force them to talk to you. Ask questions. Be thoughtful about the answers.

But it’s not game design by committee. It’s my game. Mine. It has to be fun, but I define what that is, either explicitly or implicitly. And every player will have their own thing. I’ve got one player who loves fiddle and optional rules. The other gets angry when thieves have a d6, let alone d8, hit die (or whatever passes for hit dice in Dragon Heresy). 

That span of opinions is valuable, but it’s up to me where to set the dial. I don’t intend on changing the d8 hit dice of rogues to d4s, but I do intend on harmonizing the sneak attack feature with the new ruleset. I don’t intend on writing the optional rules that have been suggested into the core “play it this way” game. But I am including an Appendix XX or Vault or something with a selection of optional rules that have come up in play, or been suggested along the way, or were nifty ideas that I came up with that I want to try. 

But much like a movie, where very little is on screen that the director didn’t place there deliberately, the same should be true of the game. 

Have a project plan


At some point, and that point is Real Soon Now, I need a Gantt Chart of how this thing needs to come together. Now that I can see the end of the writing process, I can put down good time estimates for finishing the creative work. Then art plans, crowdfunding plans, more art, editing and indexing, layout, and a final round of revisions. 

Plan for success, plan for failure


The purpose of the basic black-and-white document my team is producing, with donated or public domain art, is to ensure that if you back the project you will walk away with a playable, tested product. I hope to make it better, but I hope that I can at least raise the $5,000-$8500 needed to pay for the editing and indexing (or whatever people come in with when I send those two things out for competitive bidding). Readable and usable first. Then pretty. 

But there will be at least two or three levels of “pretty.” First is recouping costs for already paid funds, then improving B/W art, then full-color, and then maybe if it goes gangbusters, an offset print run of high volume. 

But if it all goes into the tank, and doesn’t fund at all? I will still have a B/W PDF that looks good (because it does look good) and plays well (because I’ve run it enough to know it does play well), and can try and go to market with it. If I fund at a minimum level, the backers will at least get that, and any goals beyond it are bonuses for everyone, including me. But never, never, never gamble funds of your own that you can’t afford to never recoup. Ever. If you must overextend, you better darn well incorporate, so that if an angry dwarf mob files a lawsuit, you don’t risk your house as well as your game-design reputation. LLCs are cheap, relatively speaking. I think I can set one up for less than $200 here in Minnesota.

And if it really goes nuts? Raises a half-million bucks? I’ve already got a sequel in mind. So there’s that.

I’m sure I will have other thoughts. And I know I didn’t write down everything I have yet to do, know I have to do, or need to think about. But this is where I am here, and while I’m nervous about the prospects, I’m not drowning. 

At least not yet.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this past week.

The Heretical RPG is up to just over 155,000 words. That doesn’t include monsters (that’s 60,000 words and will be ruthlessly hacked) or my setting (that’s only 2,000 words and needs to get ruthlessly expanded).

What have I done?

I finished the backgrounds. I’ve got 18-20 fairly generic backgrounds where I looked at lots of online backgrounds and then consolidated them into a smaller number of themes. So, for example, gladiator,  thug, brute, bouncer . . . all of those fit under “Ruffian,” which isn’t a great nice word, but applies to anyone that uses violence on a fairly 1-1 basis, while the “Combatant” background is for soldiers and other disciplined bodies of troops, with a focus on camp chores, higher likelihood of knowing Animal Handling (for cavalry) etc.

I also tied up the shield rules. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you recall that one of the two or three things that kicked off the entire Heretical project was +James Spahn griping out how lame shields were, tying those up is a good thing.

I also worked to look at how grappling by animals was handled in the draft, and +Luke Campbell did yeoman’s work (oh, that’s a background too) in looking at animals in 5e, and I more or less decided that the simplification we wanted to make will be both easy and awesome. So booyah there.

I worked out a stat-block for monsters. That doesn’t sound like much, but it shows how you can get everything you need to run combat on a 3×5 card, and also how to take the Roll20 character sheet (and presumably the Fantasy Grounds one as well) and modify it to natively accept some of the new information. That will likely be part of a stretch goal, somewhere.

I also secured two domains for myself. The first is www.gamingballistic.com, which will be the new website for this blog when I get finished setting it up. Migrating a blog is non-trivial, and I’d like to take advantage of some of the WordPress features. I don’t really have anything against blogger, but being able to have all that stuff done in one package (blog, website, potential eCommerce site, maybe a Heretical RPG Forum once it goes on the market) with central management is worth it. I’m looking at modifying the Myth template, as a nice three-column format that looks like what I have now, but I’m open to suggestions for something that’s more attractive than what I have but still hits all the information I want. I also probably want to update my fonts, header image, and maybe update my logo in style if not in content. I like the target-and-dice.

Finally, I wrote the heck out of some character classes. I got a second Barbarian subclass done, a new Bard college, and the big one . . . 7,500 words of Cleric. That’s 10 themed domains that are good with my setting, and that means a lot of worldbuilding got folded up inside that writing.

Druid is already done, Fighter and Monk both need their new subclass, as does Paladin, but the cool thing there is I could probably look at different paladins for different domains and gods pretty easily, and that would be quite fun. Ranger is done thanks to help from +George Sutherland Howard, and Rogue is mostly done with a very fun subclass that I like a lot. The spellcasters need a bit of work.

But once the classes are done, it’s lots of worldbuilding, which is nice because I don’t have to hew so rigorously to a fairly well-defined mechanical system. In short, I won’t be writing rules, and that means a lot more writing in a lot less time.

After that, I’ve got a few more imports to do, and then hopefully we’re really into layout. Oh, which is great, because +Rob Muadib is making fantastic progress there. We’d started with something that was very, very similar to a traditional 5e layout. But as the project grew, it began to be very, very clear that we should do our own thing, and it’s really looking promising.

That’s where I am. Now I need a glass of wine.

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.

Shields
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.

Backgrounds


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?

Grappling


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.

Sweet.

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!

No.

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.