Friday, March 15, 2019

Radioactive Square Pegs in Round Holes--D&D, Inspiration, and Context (Alignment)

One of the most endearing things about Dungeons and Dragons is that it pulls inspiration from every fantasy source you can think of and merges them into one unique entity. One of the worst things about Dungeons and Dragons is that it takes elements from every fantasy source you can think of and slaps them, without context, into a game, right next to a bunch of other out of context items, and sometimes those out of context items form their own context.

It is almost impossible to avoid enjoying some property that has problematic elements. What is always important is paying attention to those problematic elements and not repeating the mistakes of the people that added those elements in the first place.

Root Cause Analysis

Just about every source that D&D draws from has its own problematic elements. What makes these problematic elements even more slippery is that D&D was created by nerdy white men in the 70s, which means that not only were broader perspectives missing in this creative process, but also, a lot of these creators really wanted to prove that their nerdy hobbies had merit, so there wasn’t much of a filter being applied to what was added.

The next thing I’m about to say is going to be probably one of the trickiest things to express in this entire series--when the creators added these problematic elements, they made mistakes. I don’t want to dwell on the degree to which the mistakes can be attributed to a failing on their part. What I mean by this is, I don’t want to dwell on the degree to which someone adding racist elements to a work believes in white supremacy, versus someone that adds racist elements because they are practicing the racism of not trying to see the perspective of anyone from a different background. None of these mistakes are innocent, but I don’t want to dwell on intentionality versus negligence.

Where should we start exploring the mismatched components that go into D&D and how those mismatched components potentially cause more harm than their initial elements might indicate? Hey, let’s start with one of the least contentious and controversial aspects of D&D--alignment!


While we have the Appendix N books, it’s still tricky to specifically pinpoint what comes from where when it comes to items in Dungeons and Dragons, because it’s clear that some influences never made it to Appendix N, and the trend for early D&D (and thus RPGs in general) was not to give the clearest indication of where influences came from, or how and why those influences were utilized.

Both Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock wrote works of fantasy that feature “alignment,” in the form of the cosmic forces of Order and Chaos, and how the balance of those cosmic forces affected the universe.

Moorcock’s work showed that depending on the world and the era, either Order or Chaos could be out of whack, and that was bad for the universe, and either had to be dealt with, or the universe had to collapse or blow up and start over again. Depending on the book, in Anderson’s stories, Chaos was just rough on mortals. The faerie could adapt and change and revel in chaos, but regular, normal mortals got tossed around like a ship in a storm.

So, it wasn’t so much that Order = Good and Chaos = Evil in these stories. It was “this cosmic force is either out of whack or acting directly in this situation, and people have to deal with the consequences.” Essentially Order and Chaos were two things that both needed to exist, and did exist, throughout creation, but were polarizing. Champions of one or the other tended to be people that needed to sort out an active crisis.

Early D&D took this idea and ran with it, and initially, D&D had Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic for alignments. Early descriptions of alignment also spent a lot of time trying to say there isn’t a direct correlation between Lawful and good or Chaotic and evil. Unfortunately, D&D also tended to present a bit of a “civilization versus wilderness” vibe, where civilization was defined as traditional European medieval cities and settlements. PCs tended to be from this defined form of civilization. Civilization tended to be represented in “Lawful” terms.

The wilderness included any form of culture that wasn’t organized in traditional medieval European terms. People that organized into tribes, that used natural formations for shelter, or were nomads weren’t “Lawful.” Now, if those same people weren’t actively working against the “civilized” people to keep civilization from spreading, they were probably Neutral. If they actively opposed “civilization” of “wild” lands, they were probably “Chaotic.”

If you were an adventurer, and you were worried about “society” progressing and being maintained, you were probably Lawful. If you were an adventurer that didn’t care about society or didn’t think about it, you were probably Neutral. But if you were from a traditional medieval European society, even if you were Neutral, you hailed from Team Lawful territory. Saying you were neutral essentially just let you say you didn’t care about why, but you still pretty much wanted Team Lawful to win, because Team Lawful let you spend gold and do fun stuff between adventuring.

In both Anderson and Moorcock’s stories, Order and Chaos was important because there was an impending conflict. Things had gotten out of hand. Before we start reading the stories, things were not out of hand, now, after conflict happens, we care about the cosmic forces butting together like tectonic plates causing an earthquake. Earthquakes aren’t the norm. Having champions of Order and Chaos clash aren’t the norm.

But now, in early D&D, we have Law and Chaos, and it is the norm. Everything is aligned all the time. D&D may be about stopping a great cosmic imbalance, but it may also just be about finding treasure, because D&D is inspired by Anderson and Moorcock, but also by Howard and Leiber. We already have something that was useful for one form of story being introduced into stories where it’s not the best fit.

Additionally, while “Law” and “Chaos” aren’t “Good” and “Evil,” it is used in monster entries to give you a rough idea of if something will attack you, be friends with you, or be willing to negotiate. Unlike Anderson’s stories, the fae aren’t Chaotic, they are neutral, because we redefined Law as being pro-medieval status quo, and elves kind of like to have cities and houses and stuff despite themselves. Orcs, no matter how much they respect a strong leader, or how many traditions their tribe may follow, are Chaotic, because they don’t want society to look like traditional medieval European status quo.

Sure, Chaos isn’t Evil, but you probably don’t need to feel bad about killing them, because they aren’t likely to negotiate and are more likely to be hostile.

We also just witnessed what was originally presented as big cosmic forces, metaphysical, planar versions of tectonic plates, being reduced to “the more something looks like what a white male recognizes as medieval European in structure, the more it represents Law.” While nothing expressly says that your Neutral thief is low-key still on Team Law, the entire setup of the game is that you come from Law land to find treasure in Chaos land.

Now, it’s time to get Advanced

When we get to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, we now add the axis of Good and Evil to Law and Chaos. I’m sure part of this came from the idea that some bad people obey the law in order to perpetrate their evil, so instead of realizing that the alignment paradigm might be flawed, let’s double down and make it more complicated by discussing simple things like the nature of good and evil.

Now, you could have orcs that respect a strong leader and have strong tribal traditions be Lawful, and Evil! You could have elves that are ephemeral and flighty, but still not overtly hostile, be Chaotic, and Good! Also, elves are still chaotic based on not adhering to medieval European norms, and their goodness is still derived from if they are for or against traditional European structures of government, but on the surface, it looks like a more nuanced treatment.

While this existed in the previous alignment system as well, there was some muddiness over Law being Good, so while it’s implied in most cases, it wasn’t an absolute. But Good and Evil are loaded words. Assigning an alignment is now literally saying that a good person, regardless of mistakes, really does want what is COSMICALLY good for everyone, and an evil person really does want to spread what is COSMICALLY evil for everyone.

This means that when you label an orc as Lawful Evil, that orc isn’t just doing something from their point of view that is detrimental to others, that may or may not need to be opposed by force depending on the severity of the action. It means that the orc is using its sapient thought process to determine how to make the world a worse place, and how to cause misery and suffering, actively, whenever it’s engaging any kind of philosophical reasoning.

This of course leads to the idea that, if you are a Lawful Good paladin, and you are fighting a Lawful Evil orc, clearly it’s okay to kill them, because if they are no longer just “likely to be hostile” and “not a fan of traditional medieval European forms of governance and civic planning,” but actively wanting the universe to be an objectively terrible place.

This also introduced the painful concept of Neutral as CONSTANTLY SEEKING ABSOLUTE BALANCE. As worded, it’s super hard for anyone to be Neutral in AD&D. It went from the original concept of “I don’t really want to be on a team,” to “I want both teams to score the exact same number of points within proximity to one another.”

Order and Chaos got skewed from a being a cosmic expression of elements that should exist in all things in balance proportions to being for or against the status quo, because it was made to be more mundane. But once order and chaos became mundane qualifiers about the status quo, alignment go elevated back to cosmic proportions by adding Good and Evil, but still created the same “mundane” team structure of who was likely to fight who, but then reinforced the concept by giving it objective moral weight.

Sure, cosmic beings that see the big picture, sitting in Heaven or Hell or whatever cosmological higher planes you have, may be plotting to make the whole universe better or worse on a massive scale. But that’s not really a thing mortal perspective can even grasp. Humans do things all the time that they don’t think of as good or evil, and whether that thing is good or evil depends on the broader context--for example, adding in elements from your favorite stories that now seem like they are justifying genocide based on world view, and not realizing how that might be harmful in general, but specifically to anyone that has faced real genocide.

What Went Wrong

I think alignment was a tool that was overapplied to address too many things in the game. It’s one thing to come up with a quick entry in a stat block to show a creature’s default disposition, it’s another to expect that default disposition to represent a greater world view for an entire species of people.

It was also a matter of taking a way to frame a cosmic conflict and reduce it to everyday elements. Good and Evil fighting are a traditional theme, but making the conflict Order and Chaos makes the edges fuzzy, and can create a grittier narrative--sure, maybe Chaos is too powerful, but what if you apply the wrong kind of controls to shift the balance towards Order? None of that assumes you will have the right answer, just that you may need to come up with a decision on how to proceed.

But Law and Chaos have nothing to do with sneaking into an abandoned Thieves Guild hideout that is rumored to still have hidden treasure in it. And that’s as likely a theme for D&D as stopping the ancient artifact from destroying society. “This thing is useful in some stories, so let’s put it in every story” is a big problem. It’s also possibly part of the encroaching problem D&D had with simulationism. If it could come up in some fantasy stories, we better have an answer for how it applies in any given story, just in case.

The problem of overly applying alignment and creating moral absolutes with good and evil are even more compounded when you read the amount of effort put into stressing that you don’t change alignment easily. Once you are on Team Lawful Good, it’s not easy to get traded to another team. Sure, you can, but it involves multiple infractions, and there are penalties for changing teams.

No good person just wakes up one morning and does harmful things to other people. Except that happens all the time, every day, in real life.

My Two Cents

Alignment is both a problem and a staple of D&D now. The way I’ve been trying to handle it is to treat alignment as a trait, like other traits in 5th edition D&D. In other words, if you have lawful good as a trait, you generally want to live a life where you are doing good things for people in an orderly manner that benefits them on a personal and societal level.

That has nothing to do with doing those things in real life or having some metaphysical bond that keeps you from violating that alignment, or even causing you penalties if you don’t live up to your philosophy. Every day, plenty of people screw up the tenants of their political, philosophical, and religious beliefs. Sometimes they even notice when they do this. The fact that they fail doesn’t always mean they don’t want to keep doing those things.

I’ve also become a bigger fan of D&D settings where traditional “monsters” either have a place in society, or where the societies that they make are seen as just as valid as those made by humans, elves, or dwarves--settings like Eberron and Kobold Press’ Midgard setting.

And sure, demons, devils, angels and all of that might have “absolute” alignments. They are immortal cosmic beings, operating on the level that alignment was intended to operate. Tina the orc just knows that she’s pissed off that humans keep cutting past their family cave, and she is worried their horses are going to trample her kids, so maybe she needs to smack a few of them around so they get the idea to cut a wider path around where she lives.

The Future

I’m planning on looking at a few more of these haphazard addition to D&D, and how those mismatched elements caused problems, and I’ve done a few similar articles in the past. I don’t know that I have a set schedule where this will happen, but it’s something I’d like to do more of in the future.

While not originally envisioned as part of a series, I’m going to link a few previous posts that I’ve written here, that start to create shape of what I’m thinking here:

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What Do I Know About Reviews? Storm King's Barrows (Dungeon Masters Guild Product)

Despite having some issues with the order of the events and the endgame, Storm King’s Thunder is one of my favorite 5th edition D&D adventures and the one that I’ve managed to run from beginning to end. Because I have a certain fondness for the adventure, Storm King’s Barrows: Tombs and Crypts of the North caught my attention.

This is an anthology collection of short adventures, generally set in the North, that can be dropped into a Storm King’s Thunder campaign, or, more broadly, any campaign where the adventures happen to fit. You can find it on the Dungeon Masters Guild.

Cryptic Layout

The product is 135-page PDF, including a one-page index, a four-page introduction for all of the authors, and several pages of maps detailing the various locations. Stat blocks all are all laid out in a similar format to the official 5e books, and headers for various sections are similar as well.

Breve Heeros Onli!

The first adventure isn’t deeply tied too deeply to the plot of Storm King’s Thunder, it just requires a mountain and some adventurers willing to travel off the beaten path. The adventure takes place inside Mount Black and is essentially a hustle being run by a kobold who is scamming adventurers, guiding them through monster lairs so they can gather treasure, but actually working with a dragon to gather victims.

There is an example lair that Heep can guide the PCs through, and depending on the monsters encountered and the interactions with them, the PCs may get a clue of what’s going on. What I like about this is that the lair serves as an example, but Mount Black is set up as a dungeon ecosystem that might have several such lairs, so it can be reused and a DM could plug in lairs from other products into the tunnels. To some extent, the degree to which this adventure works is going to depend on how much your PCs will trust a kobold pitching a low risk, high reward dungeon, but if it works, it feels like it could be a lot of fun.

Geschmalig’s Tomb

Proper names area always something you can swap out, and anyone’s preference for how much recognizable D&D-isms are important versus individual settings can vary. I say this because, much like a lot of elements in 5e adventures, this adventure throws in elements like the Raven Queen and Vecna into the Forgotten Realms with Uthgardt barbarians, so if you don’t like your streams to cross, it’s a head’s up.

The overall plot is of an undead uprising starting in the North, with the undead beholden to an old Uthgardt hero who has risen again. In a nice twist, that hero isn’t back because of vengeance, but because a friend set in motion a series of events that brought him back. I like the twist, but I think the three main characters involved in the plot may get a little confusing, and there were a few aspects were a bit more fleshed out (like the undead chieftain’s pet, which feels like it should have more to do for the emphasis placed on it).

Grotto of the Death Giants

In this adventure, the PCs run into a cult that has been developing in the North, with its various adherents bearing a mark on their faces. Eventually, the PCs may determine where the cult’s base is located, and they can attempt to end the problem before it spreads.

I’m actually pretty fond of this one, especially as a tie into Storm King’s Thunder, because it involves a giant deity first introduced in the old 2e supplement Monster Mythology, and it revolves around giant kin/lesser giants getting involved in the overall plot of SKT. I’ll be honest, I don’t think enough of SKT had side quests that dealt with the giants and the threat they posed to the North, so having a side quest adventure that does so is definitely a plus for me. I also like the potential red herring that is quickly resolved regarding the trappers (red herrings that take you too far off the course of the adventure are bad, very, very bad).

Saving Barbadoo’s Mine

The backstory to this adventure takes advantage of the breaking of the Ordening to create conflict between a fire giant and a cloud giant over the ownership of a mine. The dungeon crawl elements take PCs into a mine that is worked using some very high fantasy elements, rather than relying expressly on more mundane mining practices.

I liked some of the higher fantasy elements of the mining operations and that this is, again, a side-quest that actually takes some inspiration from the theme of the adventure itself. I’m not sure that I’m sold that there needs to be a new magical metal introduced to make the mine more worthwhile, and DMs will need to think about how they want to move forward if the PCs end up in possession of the mine at the end of the adventure, which is a possibility, but not the only potential outcome.

Stone Giant’s Lost Rock

This adventure puts the PCs in a position where they can stop a growing conflict between stone giants and dwarves, instigated by a xorn working with one of the dwarf clan’s heirs to cause mischief and position the heir as the head of her clan.

As I mentioned above, I’m very happy when there are more side-quests that could potentially bring in more of the giant themes from Storm King’s Thunder. I’m still trying to decide if I like the idea that the duplicitous daughter is undermining her clan’s wellbeing in order to usurp control, as that echoes the broader events of SKT. I’m not sure if it would be clever foreshadowing or just a repeated note that felt a little too obvious in retrospect. Obviously, used outside of SKT, this is less of an issue, and I like the idea of working to bring about peace between two factions.

The Barovian Book of the Dead

The PCs run into a halfling interested in rare books, and eventually, follow him into a ruined chapel to claim a cursed book, and they must decide if they want to recover the book and what to do with it once they have it.

I’m not sure I’m as enthusiastic of this side-quest as I am with some of the others. The main call out to SKT is that giant skeletons show up to guard the book. Even the idea that Strahd wanted to make a book that went out into the multiverse to cause havoc feels . . . less focused than Strahd usually is portrayed. I know it’s a side-quest, but it doesn’t quite feel like it lines up with either Curse of Strahd or Storm King’s Thunder as well as it could.

The Great Worm Caverns

The Great Worm Caverns provides a slight twist on the side-quest formula of the rest of this book. While most of these serve as additional encounters and short adventures that could slot into SKT or other campaigns, this is an expanded version of the Great Worm Caverns that already appear in the adventure. Some of this is based on creating tangible adventure elements from briefly touched on NPC traits in the adventure. The PCs will be cleansing the taint of evil in this Uthgardt sacred site, gaining the gratitude of the couatl tied to the location.

I like this one, not only because it fleshes out details the story of the Great Worm Uthgardt tribe that was touched on in a more disjointed manner in the main adventure, but it also gives the PCs a way to cleanse the mound, get a relic as a reward, and do way less “let’s trash a culture’s holy site” adventuring, which felt unheroic in the main adventure. The only thing I wish is there was more of a suggestion on how to let the PCs know they can do this to gain one of the giant’s relics, so they explicitly know they have an option beyond random despoiling of holy sites.

The Tomb of Mild Discomfort

Acererak shows up in the Realms, gets into a fight with a wizard native to the place, and as a tribute to her fighting spirit, creates a tomb to protect her remains, filled with traps and puzzles, but not ones that are likely to kill PCs, because he’s capricious like that.

Some of the humor of this dungeon is generated from knowing about the Tomb of Horrors, so the degree to which the meta-humor works may vary. Mild discomfort may be underselling some of the dangers in this dungeon--it’s not a gotcha dungeon like the Tomb of Annihilation, but there are certainly a few places where PCs can lose some hit points. My favorite part of the adventure is the book eating cursed skull.

The Vault of the Undying

In this adventure, PCs enter a tomb of an undead spellcaster that has been trapped for a long time, and upon breaking the seal on his tomb, have to deal with a creature that was never meant to walk free among the living, and with his pet doomsday weapon.

My favorite part of this adventure is the keys, both false and real, which lead to some interesting interplay with the dungeon. I always feel a little bad when PCs are saddled with an adventure that has them unwittingly unleashing great evil on the world, because that pretty much means the world would have been fine if your PCs never started adventuring. It always feels less heroic to me to have the PCs fix their own mess than to actually be a net positive in the world.  There is an alternate hook at the beginning that one of the giant relics normally found in the Uthgardt sacred sites might be located in the tomb, and I wish that assumption had been the default, both to alleviate the PCs causing more harm than good, and to give them other options that despoiling the sites. Also, while I hate for PCs to unwittingly unleash a greater evil, I love giving them the option of doing so if they can weigh the risk versus reward of such an action.

Yancazi’s Crypt

The PCs arrive at a place called the Warlock’s Crypt, which is kind of a tourist trap that commemorates the tomb of a warlock that turned on his patron, Demogorgon, to heroically save the world from his patron. The PCs end up traveling into the tomb and finding out the real truth behind the legend.

I like the hook of “the truth behind the legend” in this adventure. It does feel odd that it’s not a regular occurrence for adventurers to explore this location, and that it’s more of tourist trap until the PCs get enticed into it. Also, I know names get reused, but Yancazi’s Crypt should by no means be confused with the more famous Warlock’s Crypt near Baldur’s Gate--your PCs aren’t butting heads with Larloch in this one.

Top of the Ordening

Several of these adventures do a better job of creating side-quests in the North during the SKT storyline than the actual adventure managed to provide. The adventures almost all clear and straightforward, and can be easily inserted into either SKT or any campaign where PCs happen to be in the right place to insert them. I particularly like the utility of Breve Heeros Onli!, the story building aspects of Grotto of the Death Giants and The Great Worm Caverns, and the thematic elements in Saving Barbadoo’s Mine and Stone Giant’s Lost Rock.

Giant-kin’s Plight

While I don’t think every side-quest needs to be about giants or even the overall plot set in motion in Storm King’s Thunder, I think being disconnected and thematically out of synch makes me a little less likely to use some of the adventures in this collection. I will fully admit, some of that just falls to my personal tastes. That said, even though some of those adventures may be usable outside of SKT, I’m not sure I’m excited enough about them to do so.

Qualified Recommendation--A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

If you like collections of short adventures, this is a solid one. It should probably be evident from the title, but it does lean heavily on crypts and burial mounds, so if you are likely to get tired of that theme, you may get less utility from this. Additionally, what I saw as a strength of this product, using it with SKT, may not be what you are looking for, although even those that tie into the overall theme of SKT hold up as separate adventures as well. A few of the adventures could have used a bit more spice, or some stronger internal logic, but as a collection, it’s a solid grouping.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Implied Exploration Procedure in D&D

While it isn’t called out anywhere, some of the rules that show up in the Activity While Traveling section of the Player’s Handbook do have some rules that imply a formalized exploration procedure. I bring this up because I didn't even remember this section of the rules until I read through the Esper Genesis books, and then double checked to see if these came straight from the D&D Player's Handbook.

How Do You Want To Do This?

First, the section calls out that the party should have a default marching order. This is going to determine who gets whacked in the face by traps, who can actually do the tracking and the navigating, and potentially who is allowed to use perception to notice things in more constrained spaces.

Other sections of the rules mention moving at slow, standard, or accelerated paces for overland movement, but it’s called out in this section as well, so it might be worth asking the PCs if they want to do this. In this case, it probably helps if you know how long you think it will take to move through an area, and if time has any consequences to what is going on, as it should take about twice as long for the group to move in this mode.

My Other Favorite Overlooked Rule

I’d also say this is a good time to use group skill checks, which are also another rule that appears in the Player’s Handbook, but doesn’t get used as often. If the party is stealthing through a dungeon, it might be okay of the big clanky fighter isn’t super quiet, as long as the rest of the group makes up for it. Your mileage may vary, but if you want PCs to consider this option, you may want to make sure they know it’s available.

Time And Relative Encounters In a Dungeon

Many adventures assign random encounters every hour in a dungeon setting, which also coincides with PCs trying to take short rests. If the party regularly moves more slowly, you may want to make sure you have an idea of how long it would take to get from place to place, and roll twice as often on your random encounter table when they are moving with stealth. They have a better chance to potentially surprise foe, but they also have more of a chance to run into wandering monsters.

If you aren’t keeping strict track of how big your dungeons are, or aren’t having the PCs move square by square on a tactical map, you can always determine that an “area” takes about five minutes to move through regularly (i.e. from hallway to opening at the end of the hallway, from opening to door at the far end of the hallway), and bump that to 10 minutes if moving cautiously.

PCs can also hustle through a dungeon at double speed, with the main problem being they take a -5 penalty to Wisdom (perception) checks when doing so. This is handy if the PCs want to get out quickly (more on that in a moment), because they may be more likely to avoid random encounters, but unable to sneak up on them, and potentially more likely to be surprised by them.

Exploration Actions

There are a handful of activities that PCs are noted as doing that preclude them from using their passive perception to notice things. Those activities are as follows:

  • Making Wisdom (Survival) checks to navigate
  • Making Wisdom (Survival) checks to track
  • Making Wisdom (Survival) checks to forage
  • Drawing a map (no skill required)

Navigating and foraging may be more “overland travel” activities, although if the PCs have a map to the dungeon and someone following that map to a specific location, you could assume that PC is busy navigating in that sense. Tracking may be more likely to come up if the PCs start to follow some dungeon denizens that they think may be present.

The Magic of Maps

The interesting one of these options is drawing a map. Drawing a map doesn’t help you not get lost when exploring new places, but it can let you back track effectively without getting lost. This isn’t literally having a PC draw a map--this is a job that the Player’s Handbook calls out that one of the PCs can do that just allows you to travel back along the path you have mapped so far. As long as someone says they are doing it, and the forgo their passive perception score, you have a successful mapper.

To me, this would indicate that if you have a mapper doing their job, at any point, the party could stop exploring, safely backtrack through any area they have already been through, and leave the dungeon. Meaning, you don’t, as the DM, force them to map, and you don’t ask them if they go left or right or any of that as they leave the place. You just determine how long it takes them to get out, and they get out (possibly rolling random encounters, if it takes that long for them to backtrack through the dungeon).

This is also a good time for them to determine if they want to move at double speed, risking getting surprised versus not triggering a random encounter. Another thing to keep in mind is that the DMG calls out that a -5 penalty is the equivalent of disadvantage on a check for a passive check. So when your PCs are beating a hasty retreat, they can still use that passive perception score, but it’s going to be at -5.

Why do I call all of this out?

While I have definitely seen players declaring marching order, and I know that I have heard PCs state their travel pace before, I don’t know that I have often heard PCs specifically call out that they are navigating, foraging, or mapping, and because of that, I haven’t often heard PCs excluded from passive perception checks.

Additionally, the “no check needed” mapping to have a route back is, to me, a great time saver in storytelling. I know I have played through dungeons where we have had to backtrack, square by square, through a dungeon. While the mapping role, as written, doesn’t expressly mention backtracking through dungeons, it’s a natural extension that could definitely facilitate moving towards the interesting parts of the story (unless you really like round by round navigation through previously explored parts of the dungeon, in which case, you do you and knock yourself out--I’m not going to tell you that you are wrong).

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that there is a note in the Player’s Handbook that its totally cool for the DM to say that only the front or back rank of the marching order can use their passive perception to notice something, which is another aspect of exploring that I think sometimes gets lost.

What Now?

I have definitely had PCs tell me their marching order, and I've had parties designate their speed (slow/standard/fast) while traveling overland. I have even allowed PCs to backtrack through a dungeon before. But I haven't formally called out the roles detailed in here before. I'm almost certain I've had characters track or forage and not excluded them from passive perception checks. I've never had anyone expressly map a route before.

I think there is some value in having a more formal structure for something, even if that formal structure exists so that you can then "shortcut" parts of the game, i.e. allowing the PCs to backtrack through an area that they have mapped. Because of this, I definitely want to be more formal about all of this the next time it comes up in a game that I'm running.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Call the Inquisition--Theoretical 7th Sea Heresy

I haven't quite pulled together a post on a 7th Sea postmortem after running a campaign in a half in the system, but I am still sorting through some thoughts on the game.

One thing I have been thinking about was the flow of the game. Almost any game that uses a traditional initiative system has some latency every time you enter an action sequence (thanks to Misdirected Mark for the terminology). 7th Sea does not have too much more latency than any other game with traditional initiative systems, but it does have more latency than I would like for the general open ended story elements, and the fact that you generate raises for dramatic as well as action scenes.

Generating Raises

If you haven't played 7th Sea, your stats and your skills are added together to create a dice pool, and then you make "10s" to determine your number of raises. Any leftover dice can be purchased with hero points by the GM to build up their danger pool.

Eventually PCs can get two raises for making 15s if they advance the right way, and the GM can spend danger points to force PCs to make 15s in order to generate a single raise. The highest skill levels allow 10s on the die to add an additional die to be rolled in the pool.

Proposed Alternate Method

I'm sure this was discussed in the Kickstarter, but I was a late adopter. Maybe it was because the designers did not want the game system to look too much like other die pool systems, but I think the resolution of each raise allowing a successful action, unless another character can spend raises to counter, still allows the game to feel unique. So, what if we resolved things like this?

  • Assemble die pool regularly (describe approach, determine what skill and attribute combination that seems like, determine number of dice)
  • For each 6 or higher on the die, the character gets a raise--you can literally just keep your dice to mark your raises
  • Whenever the GM makes it harder to make raises, then the PCs have to roll an 8 or higher on their dice to generate a raise
  • Whenever the PCs can get two raises for their 15s, instead, they get a raise on a 4 or higher
  • Whenever the PCs can reroll one die, well, they can reroll one die
  • Whenever the PCs have exploding 10s, they roll an additional die and it generates a raise on the same numbers they would normally, and the die that rolled a 10 counts as a raise
  • The GM can purchase a danger point from the players when they roll a 1 on the dice, and they give the PC a hero point
I'm only quickly "mathing" this, but even if this doesn't produce the same number of raises, it is the same method of generating raises for both villains and heroes. But the benefits are a quicker resolution of approaches and raises, and being able to track raises with the actual dice pool used to roll.

Unforseen Consequenses

That said, I'm sure there are some rules in the game in places that I'm missing where this potentially messes with the game. This is why I'm asking anyone that can think of them to come up with problems with this alternate means of generating raises.

One particular rules change I would point out is you could have a more satisfying version of Flirting With Disaster, where activating that advantage allows the GM to buy all of your failures, not just the 1s, which makes it way better than it currently is, since the GM can always buy as many unused dice has you normally have, and this actually does escalate the situation.

So, if you have any thoughts on this alternate system, and where it would fall apart without modifying other rules, please let me know, so I can see if it would be worth it to create more mods, or just leave it be. Thanks all!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

So, how about that Critical Role Kickstarter, huh?

I’m seeing a lot of conversation on this, and while a lot of it is elation, there is also a lot of serious discussion about funding of creative endeavors, and finally, some generally not positive things about Critical Role.


Definitely be happy about this. Enjoy the things you enjoy. The only thing I would add is to be mindful of other things going on in the industry. We just had a round of discussions about people of color being underpaid for their contributions, discussions about underpriced RPG products in general, and how much work goes into products and what is reasonable to expect to recoup those efforts.

It’s cool to be super excited, but sometimes, if the only commentary coming out of fans is “look at all the money my favorite thing has now, that validates my fandom!,” it can come across as a little tone-deaf.

Serious Discussion

I don’t have a lot to say about this, other than it makes perfect sense to pump the brakes and ask “how did we get to this point,” and also “why is this working, when other people can’t even make enough to pay for basic necessities?”

The only cogent thing I would add to this aspect of the discussion is that the comparison is valid, but it’s also not a 1:1 comparison. This isn’t a Kickstarter for a game product, or some product that facilitates gaming. The most direct comparisons, in this case, would be for independently produced films or music projects. There is definitely overlap with the tabletop RPG industry, but it's not a perfect correlation for a Kickstarter for an indie game or for a small craft supplier trying to get into making products for the gaming industry.

The Opposite of Positivity

Finally, I’ve seen a little bit of a flare up of “Critical Role ain’t all that,” and I’m not sure that’s the best takeaway from all of this. I think to some degree, this may be fueled by a feeling that all of the money that went to a Critical Role animated project is money that would could have gone to other tabletop RPG projects, but that’s not the well that all of this money is coming from.

Critical Role has fans that have always been RPG gamers, they have fans that have become RPG gamers, and they have fans that will never be RPG gamers. That means that only a part of the money flowing to this project comes from people that may also have been interested in backing some other RPG related project.

I have seen a little bit of a resurgence in resenting Critical Role in general, for making RPGs a passively enjoyed hobby instead of an actively engaged hobby. I would argue that by reaching a broader audience, there may be some enthusiasts that start to enjoy the hobby passively when they once participated at a table, but there are also new gamers, gamers who would have fallen away entirely without a weekly game, and brand new people that may never game, but now understand the hobby much better now that they are fans.

It like assuming that the Marvel movies were a mistake for Marvel, because all of the money that has been spent by consumers on the movies would have spent on comic books if the movies never existed. The movies draw in an audience of people that like the concepts that were originated in comic books, but would never have spent money on comic books. This is a very similar paradigm.

So while there is definitely overlap in the Venn diagram between RPG gamers and Critical Role fans, it is not a 100% overlapping circle.

Critical Role has played indie games on their platform, made RPGs, in general, a better-known thing, brought more gamers into the hobby, raised money for charity, and regularly portrayed LGBTQ+ characters in the campaign. They may not be perfect, but they have definitely done positive things. That doesn’t put them above reproach, but it should put them above contempt.

Changing Times

I would argue that the most devastating time for RPGs regarding the Satanic Panic was not the fervor of the 80s. When Dungeons and Dragons was “the enemy,” and was being actively campaign against, the passion of that movement created an equally passionate response that spread the hobby. The problem came with the next generation of gamers.

There wasn’t really a “winner” in the wars of the Satanic Panic, because the people fighting against Dungeons and Dragons didn’t see Dungeons and Dragons as the problem, they saw anything that wasn’t “normal” as the problem. Anything that wasn’t understood in the very mainstream paradigm was potentially dangerous, because it took effort to understand. In the end, the anti-D&D forces didn’t surrender or get defeated, they moved to other entertainment media, because D&D was only ever one front of a greater war.

What that means is, for a generation after the Satanic Panic, there wasn’t a passionate crusade against tabletop RPGs, there was kind of a dull, pervasive “understanding” that RPGs were a weird and potentially dangerous counter-culture thing that “almost” died out. If you were into them after the height of the Satanic Panic, you weren't a punk revolutionary, you were someone that kind of liked something weird and dying, and it was best to just ignore you while your creepy game died out. That’s way worse than having an active, passionate, and ultimately, engageable opposition working against your hobby.

What we have now is the opportunity for people to “get” what the hobby is about, even if they never fully engage with the hobby. In both comics and Star Wars fandom, we’ve seen a tendency for a part of the hobby to prefer the hobby potentially die out, so long as everyone that is still part of the hobby enjoys it on the exact same terms. Instead of a broad category of people that get 65% of what you love about something, there are aspects of the fandom that would be happy with a dying property that everyone has about a 98% agreement about.

These are random numbers to illustrate a point. I don’t have answers, I just see trends, and worry about outcomes. A lot of movements garner a great deal of energy, only to burn out as members of those movements turn their energy and attention on keeping one another ideologically pure, which ultimately helps very few people in the movement, but makes anyone that would benefit from the movement losing momentum very happy.

Call out bad actors. Tell people when there is an outcome that you wish had been different. Enter a dialog. Don’t build walls and call yourself the real representatives of the group and create new divisions that don’t need to exist, when communication might keep everyone moving in the same direction.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Really Late Look at the Tomb of Annihilation

I recently read a comment on one of my blog posts where the commenter complained that I had to disclaim who I was at the beginning, because why does everything have to be about social justice all the time. So I guess I shouldn’t start this by saying that I’m a white male that has always lived with a certain amount of privilege, which means that I may not see every side of an issue from critical points of view that people in marginalized communities may, and that I hope people in those communities will feel free to point out where I have blind spots. Oops.

It’s been a while, and there have been two more adventures, as well as several official products, since the release of Tomb of Annihilation, but I’ve still got some thoughts on Chult, and how the setting was utilized. There are way better takes on this, so just as an example, you should read these articles:

POC Gamer (Chult Tags)

I’m going to go into a little about my perspective back in the AD&D days, now, and what I really wished we would have seen.

The Olden Days

The Ring of Winter was not a perfect novel, and I’m sure there are way more problems that I’m going to remember with the book. First and foremost, having a northern Faerun hero show up and help plays into the White Savior trope, and having the adventurer’s society in Cormyr look so much like old English explorer’s clubs where rich white men traveled to exotic and uncivilized lands doesn’t help much.

What I liked about the book, however, was that Mezro was a powerful nation with plenty of magic. It was a city enchanted in a way not unlike the elven cities in the setting, with wards to protect it that defied normal magical practice, and had a council of Chosen as it’s protectors.

I didn’t get the feeling that this nation was less advanced than Cormyr or Waterdeep when I read the book. I didn’t get the feeling that they needed the white savior to show up because they were too unsophisticated to understand the dangers they were facing.

I even liked the subtle danger of Ras Nsi taking using necromancy to adopt some of the practices of the northern nations to potentially make Chult more prosperous, at the cost of surrendering the morals instilled in the people.

What I’m saying is, I think there were flaws in the narrative, that mistakes were made, and unfortunate clich├ęs reinforced, but there was also the basis of a much stronger story to be told without making it the story of a point of view outsiders saving this new and “strange” land.

Comfortable Mistakes

People that tried to do the “right” thing in the 80s and 90s often screwed up badly by not fully thinking about the consequences of the story they were telling. Phase one of most white creators trying to “understand” the perspective of people of color is usually realizing that colonization actually is bad!

The problem is, to show that colonization is bad, people of color in a setting are colonized, and in the 80s and 90s, that often meant that “heroes” not from that region had to come in and save these poor people that had no agency in their own survival. Colonization is bad, but then the narrative becomes, “only a white person can defeat a white person.”

I was a stupid high schooler in this time period, and I admit, I had my players fighting off slavers to defend Chult. I was very proud of myself, and didn’t once think, “why do the PCs have to be the heroes here? What is this narrative saying, overall?” Even when I thought Mezro was a cool setting element after having read The Ring of Winter, I didn’t have the PCs interact with NPCs that were their equals (or betters) when it came to advancements and magic.

The setting itself moved in this direction as well. Later 2nd edition AD&D products set Amn up as the primary evil colonizing force. While it’s not a perfect analogy, this was also somewhat akin to saying that all colonization and slavery was distinctly Spanish in character, because while that parallel was driven home, analogies for French or English colonizers never materialized (for example).

This meant that Amn, which was already portrayed as a greedy, overreaching nation, was the only real bad actor in modern-day colonization in the Realms. Sadly, Cormyr’s “benevolent annexations” were a much more nuanced and interesting exploration of colonization that got downplayed, sacrificed on the twin altars of “make the Realms generic D&D land,” and “turn this region of the Realms into an exact replica of a historical culture.”

Oh, Fourth Edition Realms

If you read the articles I linked, you have a much better summary of where the wheels REALLY come off regarding Chult. Third edition largely ignored Chult, despite all the protests about how “every part of the Realms is super detailed and you can’t write anything about it that hasn’t already been done in great detail.” Fourth edition destroyed Mezro, and made Chult into savage jungle explore land.

Blundering the Sundering

I’m still kind of torn on the Sundering, because I think a lot of damage was done to the Realms in trying to make it conform to the “Points of Light” assumptions of 4th edition, but just saying that the conjunction of planets ending just “fixed” everything, up to and including restoring some NPCs that weren’t all that magical and shouldn’t still be alive, was unsatisfying. Heck, there was a ton of stuff implied in the Sundering novels that never went anywhere, because the default explanation was “it’s like 4th edition never happened, but it’s a century later--but we may still throw in some old NPCs too.”

Among nations that were definitely destroyed, but yet, apparently weren’t definitely destroyed, we had nations like Lantan and Halruaa, which just blinked back into being fine and functional in the setting.

The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide doesn’t revive Mezro. It’s still referred to as a ruin in that book. Chris Perkins, on the official D&D podcast, hinted that Mezro may not have been destroyed, and when Tomb of Annihilation came out, I was excited, because I was sure Mezro would figure into this prominently.

Nope. Mezro isn’t destroyed, but it may never, ever, ever come back, and your primary source for learning about it is by talking to the white savior that showed up over a century ago to save the place back then. So the narrative is that Artus Cimber, a white man from northern Faerun, is the gatekeeper of information about the most advanced Chultan civilization, and it’s beyond the scope of the adventure to talk to anyone from Mezro directly about the city.

Ras Nsi, the villain from the old days, who was a powerful necromancer trying to convince Chult that they needed to adopt the ways of outsiders and viciously exploit their own resources in order to make them a world power, lost all his powers and became a Yuan-Ti. Almost as if the point of this character was completely lost, and his name was assigned to a random Yuan-Ti leader as an Easter egg instead of for any meaningful reason.

So, what is the “safe haven” in Chult for PC outsiders coming into the nation? Port Nyanzaru, which was colonized, kicked out the colonizers, and is now prosperous because they adopted the mercantile ways of the colonizers. If Ras Nsi wasn’t a snake person that had lost all of his powers and existed mainly as a proper noun, he would be proud.

Where the Effort Went

It’s pretty clear that the “point” of Tomb of Annihilation was to do a slightly less “gotcha” version of the Tomb of Horrors, build a campaign around it, and add in jungle exploration and lost world elements. Chult has jungles and dinosaurs are really lost world feeling, so Chult “won.”

Ras Nsi can’t be a powerful necromancer, because the adventure is importing Acererak as the main villain. Mezro can’t return, because it might distract from all of the ruins that are seeded into the exploration portion of the adventure, which tie into the actual main ruin location where the climax of the adventure takes place.

Chult was just one more Forgotten Realms element that was the right size and shape to connect to a generic D&D adventure concept. The difference is, I can get upset all day long about losing the nuance of a country regarded as lawful good relying on a secret police force to keep it safe and secure, but at the end of the day, Cormyr isn’t going to be the only shot at representation I have being pissed away by the overriding concerns of a generic adventure being placed in a setting that has a lot more potential.

What Would I Have Wanted (Which Isn’t the Most Pressing Question)

First and foremost, what I wanted out of this adventure is nowhere near as important as what people who have missed out on representation would have wanted. And I would have to say that the thing I would have wanted most was for WOTC to have had any people of color working on this adventure. It did come out after the adventure was released that, no, there were not any people of color working on this, even as freelancers.

This is a huge problem for the company that is publishing the most widely known RPG in the industry. In a time of unparalleled growth and visibility, a product that is set in a region of the setting with people of color, had no people of color working on the product.

The other glaring issue from the start is that the adventure assumes that you aren’t “from” Chult. People are getting tired of the Sword Coast? Hey, let’s have them make people from the Sword Coast that go visit an “exotic” land.

The real problem, in retrospect, is that this adventure was probably always going to disappoint me. The design priorities were “Tomb of Horrors-esque” first, setting way down the line. I really wanted something that was built from the ground up as showcasing Chult.

I would have loved something that played with the old lore in more consistent ways. Maybe Ras Nsi drove out the Amnians, and has done some good by doing a lot of bad behind the scenes. Opposing Ras Nsi then becomes a little bit of a moral quandary, because it might hurt Chult in the short term.

Let the PCs find out that Ras Nsi has been keeping Mezro from materializing on the prime material plane to keep them from interfering with his plans, and also reveal that some other force has been playing to Ras Nsi’s biases, and may be an even greater evil. Give Ras Nsi a chance to redeem himself and rejoin the Barae of Mezro to fight this greater evil, as Mezro is brought back to Chult.

In this case, you could still have your reframed Tomb of Horrors with Acererak as an outsider tricking Ras Nsi as the end point of the campaign, but with fewer mini-dungeons, ruins, and random wandering.

And the most important part of all of this--make it really clear that the default PCs are assumed to be from Chult. This isn’t outsiders coming in and saving the place, this is about local adventurers doing what they need to do.

I’m not even sure you need the Death Curse to hang over all the Realms. Beyond the fact that you have a lich from outside the setting using an artifact and a godling to trump how the entire cosmology and afterlife works in the setting, using the Death Curse as the reason things need to be fixed in Chult sends a different message than the other adventures. If the Sword Coast is in danger, it’s worth doing the work to save it. If Chult is in danger, the rest of the Realms have to also be in danger to make it worth showing up.

Additionally, having native characters changes one element that I saw repeated over and over again at various Adventurers League tables. Because PCs are outsiders, and because the adventures called out the adverse conditions in the jungle, people constantly referred to Chult as this terrible hell hole where no one should live. That is not the narrative you want to reinforce in the only setting that is primarily populated by people of color in the official products you have published so far.

Credit Where Credit is Due

I am not saying that people should not enjoy Tomb of Annihilation. I do hope that people will examine and take care when they present the people of Chult when they run the adventure. I am sure that many people were attracted to the adventure as a full campaign based around the Tomb of Horrors, and others wanted a jungle hexcrawl, and like the designers, they are thinking of those elements primarily.

The adventure, as written, has some great moments. I would list them, but I’m also biased and many of them would include the word dinosaur. The death curse is even an interesting plot element, though it’s applied a little too broadly, quickly, and punishingly to allow some of the elements of the adventure as written to flourish.

I also don’t want to make it appear that I think WOTC has done a terrible job with inclusivity. WOTC has had some missteps and some garbled ways of expressing it from time to time, but I’m not going to claim that hasn’t happened to me either. I’m glad that they are trying, and I hope that they listen when people point out where they could do better.

We aren’t getting the sheer volume of sexist images, and we have a lot more people of color represented in the artwork of the books as well. WOTC as an organization has make several gestures towards marginalized communities that just a few years ago, very few in the RPG industry had done, and not with as much weight as the industry leader brings with it. Tomb of Annihilation presented a same-sex married couple, and Waterdeep, in the most recent products, is depicted as a progressive society in regard to many social issues.

I also want to make it clear that this didn’t seem, to me, to be the tone-deaf series of issues that plagued Goodman Game’s modern rework of the Isle of Dread. Unlike that product, which seemed oblivious that problematic content could even exist in RPG material, Tomb of Annihilation tries in some places, and fails in others, but at least seems aware that it’s not okay to write adventures like it’s still the 1980s and every gamer looks exactly like you. Of course, WOTC still approved that product, so there is plenty of blame to share in that case.

When mistakes are made, and when marginalized voices speak, it is still very important to listen to them, and to do better. And one of the best ways to do better is to actually hire them to work on your product.

I’m Probably Wrong

When I laid out what I would have liked to have seen, I’m sure some of the expectations I laid out are still filtered through the lens of someone that had privilege in the gaming space for decades. I have blind spots. Please feel free to point them out to me. I want to learn.

I haven’t written a standard review of Tomb of Annihilation, because I know that I had a lot of expectations that drowned out a more detached analysis of the content of the book. Having played through sections of it in Adventurers League play, I’ve got opinions, but I also know that a lot of people enjoy it on its face as an adventure, setting concerns aside.

So, let me know what I got wrong, and if you are someone who has always had representation in the RPG industry, maybe spend a few moments thinking about why the depiction of marginalized cultures may not the last thing you think about when evaluating a product.