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!

I’ve playtested a lot of books for others. I read through, I do math, I occasionally use the rules (more now than in the past, because now I have a few game groups, and then I had none).

This weekend, and soon in the future, my ever-expanding Heretical D&D project will get playtested. Sure, I’ve playtested it before.

Let me rephrase this: I have playtested it before. Me. As GM, with players. But me.

That means I know what I wrote, how I want it to feel, and can wing it accordingly. 

A prospective GM with a new group? None of that.

This is a good thing. But scary. Scary-good.

Because is all they have is my (incomplete) manuscript. And it’s not small, like Technical Grappling, which was 35,000 words and 50 PDF pages. No, this is 130,000 words and about 200 pages if it were laid out (which it’s not) or 300+ in Word format (which it is).

So there’s a lot of room to get lost. 

Anyway, here’s what I asked for in terms of feedback. 

You’ll play the game. You’ll have things that work, and things that make you wonder, and things that do not work. Then let me know:

1. What was the situation? 

2. How did it (a) delight you, (b) make you scratch your head, or (c) make you say “hell no!”The first is key, because it becomes a selling point. The second is key because it makes me think about how to rewrite for clarity. The third is key because it makes people walk away.

3. How did you resolve it?

My only request is try not to indulge in too much tangency from the rules unless stuff Just Don’t Work – case (c) above. I want to see what works and doesn’t as is.

We’ll see what happens. No matter what, I’m hoping to seriously re-engage with the project again now that I’m back from Malaysia and quite a few things have started to settle out in my personal/work life. 

Question to other game designers/writers who are aiming at publication, not simply writing rules for one’s own group:

What’s the most useful feedback you can ask for or receive that doesn’t fit with my above direction? What do I need to look for?

Eventually I’m going to Kickstart this to take it over the goal line. But not yet – not until I have a manuscript worthy of publication. That way, I can just say “Here’s my project schedule, here are the tasks, here are the people I need to hire do to work I cannot, and here’s the help I need from the Kickstart backers.”

I don’t want to wind up on +Erik Tenkar‘s Wall of Shame, after all.

I used to play in +Ken H‘s Monteporte campaign, and I remember it fondly. Recently, he rebooted it, and posted some session notes here. They struck me with two thoughts.

Tangible is Good

He writes:

Resource and Time Management: We are keeping more careful track of resources, such as food, torches, and arrows. We are also tracking encumbrance. We are working to streamline the process for the former while relying on the simple and elegant system in Bloody Basic for the latter.

 I have long been a fan of tangible items to do this sort of thing. Matchsticks for torches. Poker chips or something like it – beads, whatever – for generic expendables like fatigue or mana. This was a suggestion from +Steven Marsh with respect to The Last Gasp (Pyr #3/44) that turned it from “gee, how will this ever work at the table” to “yes, this is spectacularly cool.”

Short Sweet Sorties

The other thing that struck me as particularly notable was a comment he made on continuity.

Campaign and Continuity: One of the challenges for a dungeon-based campaign is maintaining momentum and continuity. We lost a lot of that in the final dozen sessions of our last Montporte campaign. We changed rule sets, lost players, added players, and the main threads of the campaign were lost in all of it. This time around, we are starting with a couple of goals (explore, establish trade relationships, and find a dwarven city), using a simple rule set, and playing with a smaller group (and only playing when everyone is present).

The key here seems to be “starting with a couple of goals,” and frankly, given the “we all have real lives” nature of things, I’d be very tempted to see if I could arrange for, at any given time, the player to be given, or able to articulate, about three fairly short-term goals that are knowable, known, and able to be “checked off” the list.

Sure, it’s not as pure as a “go explore!” game. But it allows for missed sessions, new characters and players, and a bit more shuffle in the lineup.

In fact, I think I just thought of something that would make a great addition to the background tidbits that provide nice characterization hooks in 5e. In addition to backgrounds, ideals, and flaws, each character should probably have an endpoint.

I touched on this when I wrote Hirelings have a shelf life. Most people, in fantasy and in real life, are working/adventuring towards a goal. Perhaps it’s to have his own kingdom, by his own hand (Conan). Perhaps it’s to buy a castle (Flynn Rider). Or even simply to impress Murron (William Wallace). But, like the soldiers in Mulan, they’re working towards “a girl worth fighting for.” And then they’re done.

The nature of the goals animated two in-character departures by +Tim Shorts in +Rob Conley‘s Majestic Wilderlands game. Those goals are always there, and they very much animate why the charaters stick together. 

Having a stack of short-term and long-term goals is just good sense. Consider it added to the Heretical D&D project.

Thank to Tim H for provoking my brain this morning!

Weekends in Penang. Sigh. Poor me.

I’ve been spending more time this past week getting the Heretical DnD project a bit farther down field.

I went through about three or four different playtest reports and a complete edit of the Adventuring chapter. I have a few things I still need to work out, but by and large, I feel like if I can put this part – which is shorter by far than the rest of the manuscript – D&D5 really is a compact ruleset from an in-play perspective.

The things still to be resolved?

Things that you’ll recognize if you’ve been following either the Heretical posts or some of the other noodlings I’ve done.

I’m undecided on which of a few variants of ranged weapon rules to use. DnD rounds being six seconds gives time to draw, aim, and loose at least one, if not more, arrows per round. The interaction with the existing rules isn’t bad, per se, but it still feels like there’s something missing here.

The grappling rules are getting better and better, and thanks to  good poke about an ancient black dragon fighting Tinkerbell, I think I’ve come up with a pretty elegant way to handle things that deals with the issues of edge cases organically.

I think the new shield rules are good. But they didn’t see any use in the playtests since they were rewritten from the first concept. As noted here in Hit, Miss, Armor, Shield I had originally wanted to have shields giving what would effectively be more hit points – stress points in the concept in the prior post. This worked mechanically very well in playtest! But the narrative unification that I was looking for didn’t. What do you do when you’re down HP after a fight? Re-ready your shield? Does that cost you hit dice? Why not, or why so? Ultimately, having shields be a reserve of hit points worked on a mechanics level but not as a unification of narrative and mechanics. So it had to go. A better brainstorm came up with an alternate concept that I like. It’s elegant and unified, and hopefully it’ll play well – and how it play with the bow rules above is crucial.

Finally, I really want to make use of the expanded critical hit range that I posted about after +Fabio Milito Pagliara inspired me with the concept. Not doing that right away was a miss, but without the rules that I’ve got now, that would just be a spin cycle. With the rules almost settled, adding this in should be friendlier.

There’s still much to do.  I’ve got a lot done on spells – revising them is a huge task, and the amount of editing and formatting that goes into them is not small. I’ve got equipment done, bu there are revisions and concepts that will be added there as well (shields and armor both go there, for example).

I dread adding the monsters. Yeeeargh that’s going to be an ugly edit. So. Much. Reformatting.

And some setting work. I’ve decided what it’s going to be, and now I need to write it. I may wind up soliciting help from the peanut gallery for this. 

The file in MS Word format is 125,000 words long now, over 300 pages. This consolidates down by about 40% when it’s laid out in PDF format with a 2-column layout. I really like the look of what my layout guy has done, too. One day I’ll get him a final draft and then we can start making holes for artwork, and at that point, I have to consider how I take it over the goal-line. Probably Kickstarter, but I’ll have to study how they’ve been used well (and +Erik Tenkar will keep me honest about how they are used badly). 

Until then, this is what is denying me sleep a lot, and when a weekend goes by without a review post or a Friday-Saturday pair of Gaming Ballistic content posts, this is why.

Got in another playtest on the Heretical DnD project.

What did I learn?

  • I need to look a little bit at the grappling rules. There’s a tweak to be made that’s tiny and sensible. It won’t change much, but it’s a good add.
  • There’s a neat use for a reaction on the Protection fighting style that makes tons of sense
  • We didn’t really get to play with the brand-new shield rules, but I like the draft. Need some more hand-to-hand fighting to really try those out. The one time someone got hit with a melee attack, they’d been paralyzed, so it didn’t matter.
  • Need to work out how losing concentration in spells works with the new system.
  • Really needs to be better advice on how to get information about your foes. What can you get with what roll? What skills for what monsters?
  • We resolved how to take care of critters that are resistant to damage with the new rules. It’s not even really a change, but we agreed we liked the not-change.
  • Definitely need to un-tweak the bow aiming rules. They were needed in some of the original drafts, but probably aren’t needed anymore.
  • Spells could be really, really nasty, but when confronted with a Will-o’-Wisp and two mummys in a line, two different spells were “just the ticket” to be a fight-ender. With relatively few spell slots per day, this seemed the right level of “holy crap! lions!” and “can survive.”
  • Armor made the difference between life and death for an NPC hireling; that was cool.
  • The rules for when impairment sets in were tested as a drive-by, and they worked. They gave an excuse to be very parsimonious with healing, and the aforementioned NPC was left wounded but unimpaired. This guy is totally walking around with a bandage on his face.
  • We ruled that the paladin’s ability to locate evil conveyed to others, but at disadvantage. Might revise that, but it helped move things along.
  • A lot of look-ups today, as the draft has grown to 3x the size it was when we last tested (nearly all of that spells, equipment, and feats) and a lot of smallish but critical revisions. A few design decisions I’ve made along the way seem like they’re still the right thing to do.
  • I was reminded a few times of older 5e blog posts I’ve done with nice house rules in them, that I really, really need to go back and mine to see if they belong in the draft.

All in all, I feel like things are going well. There’s lots of work to do, and I really need to be able to sit in front of my machine for eight uninterrupted hours or so…but things are looking good.

I’m also taking the steps that will lead to a viable publishing outcome. This is kind of exciting; never done it before.

Having delved and fought, the party withdrew, replaced a Ranger with a Fighter, and then re-entered the following day. This time, the rogue approached silently and well, and managed to get the drop on the two kobolds who had brought their mastiffs to guard the entrance after the demise of the guardian hobgoblins the previous day. 

The party stacked in the entrance, and then the rogue kicked off the festivities with an arrow shot, while the others rushed the foul creatures having caught them by surprise. The fight was quickly over, as the benefit of advantage that was pressed by having many-on-one scenarios was too high. Plus, the kobolds and mastiffs had but 5 HP each, so they went down quickly no matter what. Seeing both dogs and his friend killed in quick succession, the final kobold fled, having failed a morale check, only to be pursued and slain by the monk Sho Anuf. 

The fountain was the spring that fed the hill fort. And the next room held a trap (detected and avoided) and with some persistent searching, a large treasure chest was found, the rogue picked the lock, and there was much rejoicing.

The party then continued west, and ran smack into two hobgoblin captains. This was a deliberately overmatched fight – two CR 2 hobgoblins against four 1st level characters. The fight went decidedly against the players, with the two greatsword attacks by the captains too-frequently being paired with critical hits (at least twice). With the rules changes in place, this proved fatal to one fighter, and at least incapacitating, if not fatal, to the other. The monk grappled one of the two into the Restrained condition, which allowed a bit of constructive dogpiling and a good sneak attack or two by the rogue. 

The second was hale and robust, with full stress and no wounds, when the rogue and monk decided to withdraw to the trapped room at a dash, to try and lure the beast under the falling-block trap to his doom. As the captain approached, he hurled a javelin (missed) at the rogue, but was impaled first by the rogue’s arrow, and then by a thrown dart by the monk. This seemingly minor wound turned the tide, as it gave the captain disadvantage on attacks. A few misses later, and some good sneak-attack and other strikes by the fighters, and they stood victorious, but down two companions.

We played for about two hours all told, and got through two combats and some trap and treasure searching. Plus a bunch of what if this, what if that rules tweakage discussions.

I walked away with no fewer than 20 notes about things to tweak and look at, but the overall approach was quite solid, and I won’t be tweaking that part of it – the stress and hit threshold levels – any more. The basic fighting foundation for mundane combat is solid enough that it’s more than playable. 

One thing that came up both times, yesterday and today, was grappling. The new rules work great, and add a nuance to this type of fighting that was a great deal of fun to play.

This is a more deadly game than RAW 5e, which was, to some extent, the point. There’s a bit more that I want to do to the injury rules that should make them less bookkeeping intensive (death checks work because they’re all you get to do; that sort of repetitive re-roll doesn’t work in the middle of a fight).

Armor absorbing damage is the bomb. It’s just more satisfying.

I’ve got a lot of work yet to do, and my playtesters will be busy again reading drafts. But I’m ready to start expanding the page count again, and usefully, too!

Used +Roll20 to run my test playtest, and it was my first time to do this as GM.

It took me about 3-4 hours to generate a random dungeon using the donjon generator, edit the monsters so that they were thematically more unified (all from the very useful list of Hill Monsters from the DMG or Monster Manual), and then populate it.

As far as I can tell, the best way to do this is to completely generate a fully populated character sheet for each type of NPC or boss monster. Then, to create faceless minions, you duplicate the templates over and over. If you don’t do that, you wind up having to edit each critter.

I was not able to make Dynamic Lighting and reveals work. That was just time pressure. 

I was able to use the map layer and GM layer effectively to add color to each room, and the library of free tokens in Roll20 is extensive enough to really make dungeons pop. I also bought six new sets of tokens from +Devin Night in addition to his 20 free sets. I mean, if you’re doing tokens, you need his stuff, and it’s worth paying him, because excellence deserves your support.

One thing I was not able to do was to automate the attacks. The player sheet has very easy tabular entry for attacks. The GM sheet has a more generic set of Actions, which are –  I think – macro driven. The available documentation deliberately assumes that if you’re the GM you’re already an expert, and isn’t much help (seriously: do it that way, but just put an example in there).

I think you can just put a line like “Scimitar” for the name, or “Slash with Scimitar,” and then maybe some text for description, and a macro for effect. I think.
+Samuel Penn noted that a simple simple attack macro might be something like: /as “@{selected|token_name}” swings his morning star hitting AC [[d20  @{BAB}+@{str}+@{selected|bar3}+ 1]], doing [[1d6 +@{str}]] damage

That’s cool, and would help. 

I could always use PC sheets for the bad guys, I guess. 

Had the first full-contact playtest of the Heretical D&D project. Had four playtesters in attendance, and a lot of good back and forth. 

Let’s see what I can say without giving the game away.

Notes and observations in play

In no particular order, I found that there were some gaps in how I account for armor that will come up even at first level in some classes. It’s an easy fix, but needs to be there.

The settings for how hard it is to hit foes got a last-minute tweak yesterday and it worked out very well, or at least well enough that it wasn’t broken. 

When you hit, you hit, and you knew you hit. This drew zero comment, which means that the narrative and the mechanical were unified enough to, well, not draw comment. That’s a win.

Tactics were huge. When it only took a few blows – or even one – to injure or kill, how you faced the bad guys really mattered. Flanking was huge, and funneling the foes down into a narrow doorway (stupid kobolds! no biscuit!) turned it into a meat-grinder for the NPCs. We might even reinforce this, and consider facing as a mandatory thing. 

There are a few fiddly rules bits that require consideration, because there are plenty of times when taking a moment to do something other than the equivalent of “do moar hit points!” was important. So this needs to be clarified.

With armor as a reduction in damage, we need to think about putting multiple layers on. Leather underneath chain? Mail under plate? Stacking damage absorption works from a mental model, but doing so needs to be an issue, or have a cost, somehow. Disadvantage? Reduced move? Can’t Dodge?

So that was the in-play commentary. What about after the bodies had stopped twitching?

Post-play feedback

Everyone agreed that armor absorbing damage just worked, and was super important to the feel. Likewise, shields are a big deal, especially at low levels. Strapping on a shield was decided to be a full-turn action, and the setup of robustness vs injury was harsh enough that not taking that time cost an NPC his life. That being said, some NPC-vs-Boss/PC distinction in how that’s handled was suggested, and will be incorporated. It just makes sense.

Pre-game prep has a few more precalculated values, but once they’re there, the entire character’s guts can be written on a 3×5 card. We are not turning D&D into GURPS here.

There was grappling! And it was useful, but not an “I win” button. The rules for how much effect that a bad guy can deal (or a good guy, for that matter) did not cause an issue. I really liked how it played out: Patrick’s character grappled a hobgoblin and did enough control to make him Restrained (advantage on attacking him), which made short work of the hobgoblin. This seemed very monkish. Need to add the grapple and control maximum to the character sheet, though.

A tweak I made for bows in combat worked out well, and counterbalanced a design element which would have been problematic without it. Yeah, yeah, cryptic. I know.

MAD! – In post discussion, there was a strong vote in favor of DEX always adding to hit, and STR always adding to damage (multiple attribute dependency). Need to figure out what Finesse weapons mean in this context, though.

This was not GURPS, with all the skills and all the fiddle. It was also not 4th or straight-5th edition D&D where you whack away at a giant pile of hit points. Kobolds would go KO in one or two blows – usually one. Hobgoblins, in their armor, were a real threat, and they rolled pretty poorly. 

Overall, this did not seem broken to me. Emphasizing tactics through facing and flanking, and lethality through the importance of armor was all good stuff.

Two more playtest sessions schedule for this weekend, and we’ll see how that goes. Only about 1/3 of my tester pool has actually played the game with me yet, so there’s a lot of room for “this blows!” 

But the initial contact with the enemy shows both the strength of the foundation 5e system as well as the fairly compelling nature of the rules alterations. 

So . . . onward!

Two things are taking my blogging time right now.

First is that +Jeffro Johnson is helping me get acquainted with the PERL script we use to get the GURPSDay thing going. His ownership and authorship of the script was always supposed to be temporary, but he’s just so efficient that we never really completed the knowledge transfer. We got 35 of 37 blogs pulling properly, but two outliers will take more wrestling.

The second piece is the D&D project, on which I made ridiculous progress and then last week hardly any. That’s not a slow-down in intent and commitment – I still know mostly what I want to do with it, and in a few more days, if I don’t hear from one guy, I’ll start with the “what do I do on X and Y” final commits. I’m planning on staging some test fights this weekend, too. Once I settle a few “what do I do” questions, it’s a matter of pounding it out.

I’ve been getting great advice, too. And help with still more. I chose better than I knew when I picked my playtesters, too.

You’re going to be hearing less about this, because I’m in full-on writing mode. I’ve got enough to write up a real set of rules, and thanks to the SRD, this can really be made into something cool.

Where am I?

I’ve got an outline. I’ve got a title for the rules that I don’t think has been used before.

I solicited and received an offer for layout help, and it’s going very well. He’s using the project as an excuse to learn InDesign, and I’m digging the process of getting my head into a D&D product for real. This is going to look like a D&D5e cousin – recognizably from the same gene pool, but definitely not the same direct parents. 

I’ve got about 2,600 words down so far, and the writing is, thus far (and dare I say it?) easy. It helps that I’ve written a bunch of it before, and extending my concepts to the SRD is proving fairly easy.

I’ve got a “productization” strategy in the works, too. I think it’ll please people.

I’ve also got a good group of trusted playtesters, game authors all, who have volunteered to play this when I’m ready. I’m not going to take that long to get to a test, either. A bit more transfer of concept to the page, and we’ll probably start a game and see if the rules survive first contact with the enemy. This is a closed group for now – I can rely on them to play the game “as is” for a while, rather than try and overwrite my authorial intent immediately. That won’t prevent them from saying “I don’t like X, it sucks.” They will let me know this. But they will soldier on and play it as written, and then play it again with tweakage. At some point, I’ll ask for people to try it out with their own groups, because not everyone gets to play the game with the system designer at the table.

But for now, I’m quite pleased.