HeroQuest RPG and Eclipse Phase

A Major Announcement

As I mentioned last week, a very exciting announcement was recently made on the BRP forums. The rules for the HeroQuest RPG will be released under an open license, which means that anyone will be able to legally publish supplements for the game.

In a previous post, I talked about the lack of genre packs and adventures being the biggest challenge to the game’s popularity. This announcement solves that issue. Chaosium will no longer need to dedicate resources to further supporting the game, as third parties will be able to do so legally and without the endless hassles of license approvals.

I think this is a wonderful announcement, and I cannot wait for Chaosium to release the System Reference Document so that we can see the support from third-party publishers that this great system deserves. Further, it means my own ideas about potential HQ2 products have just gained some solidity. The current license was the major obstacle I had against further work on my ideas, but having the rules under an open license changing things dramatically.

Using HQ2 for Eclipse Phase

I’m a big fan of the Eclipse Phase setting. It is a brilliant creation that grabs me and demands that I play around in it.

Having said that, I’m not the biggest fan of the system. Some people have really hated on the system from the beginning, but I don’t think that’s it’s a bad system at all. I think it’s perfectly serviceable for most campaigns that one might want to run in the Eclipse Phase setting.

However, it’s not the easiest system to learn, there are a lot of moving parts, and some elements of the game—such as switching bodies—are not easily implemented in the middle of play.

The designers of the game understood this complaint and released a Fate Core version of the rules some time ago. It streamlines many elements and, for those who love Fate, it works very well.

But while I like Fate, I’ve come to realize that it’s not my preferences when it comes to lighter, more narrative games. Rather, HeroQuest firmly occupies that spot in my mind. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about a HQ2/Eclipse Phase game recently.

The Elements of Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is a deep game with many interconnected elements, reflected in the mechanics of the original rules. Each person’s Eclipse Phase campaign will focus on some elements over others, and many will skip certain elements completely.

For me, here are the core elements of Eclipse Phase that I want to play with in most campaigns I run:

  • Bodies are temporary: People will switch from body-to-body as required by whatever job they need to do. Most people will travel by farcasting to their destination and downloading into a body when they arrive. Different jobs or missions will require different physical capabilities, and characters will change to the most appropriate body that’s available.
  • Death: Related to the transient nature of bodies, permanent death is no longer a major issue. Especially for characters in high-risk jobs (e.g. all of them), death is an expected occurrence and backups of the character’s ego is a regular task.
  • Muses: All characters have a dedicated AI inside their head that handles many day-to-day tasks.
  • The Mesh: The Eclipse Phase version of the internet is a lot more than just a network of computers. The ability to meet and even live in VR is a major element of the setting.
  • Habitats and Planetary Settlements: The variety of places in which humanity dwells is important, providing many reasons for travel and a great opportunity to explore and experience new places.
  • Hypercorps: The various corporations and their (often conflicting) agendas provide great opportunities for adventure.
  • Political Blocs: Same as above, except that these are various political factions that rub up against each other and the hypercorps.
  • Social Networks: People the character knows and social groups with which they interact.
  • Reputation: The character’s social capital and how it is reflected among the various social groups that measure and track reputation (e.g. @-rep, c-rep, e-rep, f-rep, etc.).
  • Gear: In core Eclipse Phase, gear is an important element. It represents weapons, armor, electronics, clothing, tools, etc.
  • Implants: Implants include cybernetic, bionic, genetech, and nanoware enhancements to a character’s morph.
  • Psi Powers: Mental abilities that are acquired due to infection by a strange nanovirus released during the Fall.
  • Firewall and Existential Threats: Belonging to an organization that fights against the strange, alien threats to humanity, and all the various ways those threats manifest.

The Mechanical Bits and Pieces

As I said above, the Eclipse Phase system is decent, but can get overcomplicated when representing all the various bits and pieces of the setting to allow the players to interact with those bits and pieces mechanically.

The most common element in Eclipse Phase where this happens is switching bodies. One common issue that comes up in online discussions of EP campaigns involves players acquiring and upgrading a particular body, and then not wanting to farcast to any other location because they can’t take their body with them.

But this is not just a matter of players spending character resources on their bodies and not wanting to lose that benefit. There is a player time cost for interacting with all the rules for upgrading and customizing a body. And switching bodies can be an interruption to the game while players collect the information they need to play in a different body (though the designers have certainly published a number of tools that make it faster and easier to do than it was when the game was newer).

HQ2 has all the tools needed to represent those setting elements within the core rules. It’s usually just a matter of looking at those tools in a particular way.

So What’s Next?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do a deeper dive into Eclipse Phase and show how HQ2 can be used for EP campaigns. I’ll take a look at the various mechanical elements of EP and demonstrate how to represent them with the HQ2 rules without creating any new subsystems and changing how the rules themselves operate.

I hope you’ll enjoy these articles.

Writing Update – June 2018

There are a few things I want to write about this week regarding my novels and RPG products.

The Traitor and the Thief Novel

Yes, this has taken far longer to publish than any of my previous novels. I’m still hard at work on it, though I ran into a few structural issues that basically meant I stalled out on it completely at one point. I’ve been trying to juggle two separate but related stories and interweave them to make something where the whole is greater than the individual parts, and this has proven more difficult than I originally expected.

Having said that, I realized that I needed to start over from scratch. I took everything that I did before and set it aside, and then focused on the core themes and key characters and spent some time brainstorming ideas about the second and third book in this series. I know where I want to end up, but I even tossed that aside during this process so that I wouldn’t limit myself.

What has come out has been something that I think is stronger, and that I’m more passionate about, than what I was writing previously. Ultimately, this will be a benefit to my readers, though I understand the frustration that delays cause.

All I will say at this point that is that I’m writing again with a drive and a feeling that this is the story that needs to be told. I don’t know how long it will take—it’ll be done when it’s done. But I’m optimistic that things are moving well and I don’t expect any further delays.

Wide Distribution for My Novels

I was enrolled in Amazon’s KDP Select for a while, which meant that some of my novels did not have wide availability on platforms other than Amazon. That is no longer the case. In addition to Amazon, all my novels are now available from DriveThruFiction, Kobo, and are in distribution through Smashwords. That means that they will shortly appear in Apple iBooks and on most other ebook selling platforms.

While my experiment with KDP Select did gain me some reads early on, I found that they did not make up for what I was losing by not having wider distribution. Therefore, I don’t plan—at this time—to enroll further books in KDP Select (though of course I reserve the right to change my mind if things change on the Amazon platform or other platforms that currently sell my novels).

Rooms with a View RPG Product

My RPG product Rooms with a View is nearing completion and I’ll be doing the test prints shortly. I think this new version will look fantastic with all the new maps combined with the original wonderful layout done by my wife, Pam.

At this point, I’m going to be releasing a version for D&D 3.5 (which was the original version), and for D&D 5E. In addition, I’m looking into a license for a version that includes stats for another game system—though I cannot announce anything just yet.

HeroQuest RPG

I’m super-happy about the announcement over on the BRP forums that the HeroQuest RPG will be getting the OGL treatment later this year. HQ2 is one of my favorite systems, and I’ve enjoyed looking at ways to use it for various settings, such as:

Needless to say, I’ll be looking closely at the OGL terms and the license requirements. In fact, I have a sword-and-sorcery adventure that I ran at GenCon a number of years ago, and I think others might enjoy playing it.

Obviously, nothing is going to happen with this for a while—at least until the actual license terms and SRD are released. But you can expect I’m going to do something with this once it’s available.

Origin Novella

I’ve still got the novella that I wrote for my son sitting on my hard drive. I’d love to release it, but I have a specific idea of how it should look, and I’m really attached to having it done properly. Unfortunately, it requires a number of pencil sketches for the chapter headers, and I haven’t had the time to source the right artist or start talking about commissioning those pieces. And then there’s the cover art.

This is something that keeps getting pushed back, and I realize that I’ve put it near the end of this update, which reflects, perhaps, where it sits in my priorities. I think that I need to move it up the list and get it out, because I believe that it’ll be a well-received story.

Conclusion

At this point, my priority is completing The Traitor and the Thief, so that those who read The Soldier and the Slave are able to get the next book in the trilogy. In conjunction with that, I want to get Rooms with a View back out, as most of the work on that is already done. That will take up my time when I’m not able to sit down to do actual writing.

Then, I’ll focus on getting Origin moving before I dive into the last book in the Undying Empire: Rebellion trilogy, The Revenant and the Reaper.

Any further RPG products, using the HeroQuest OGL or otherwise, will come after those priorities have been met.

Next week, I’ll return to looking at using HQ2 for other settings, with a dark horror/sci-fi offering.

 

The Low-Level Monster Problem?

For those gamers who are brand new to Dungeons & Dragons, everything feels new. No one yawns when they first encounter a kobold or a goblin. Orcs and hobgoblins are unknown entities and there’s a level of excitement that comes with encountering the unknown.

For example, in the game that I’m running for my son and his friends, I started them off with the classic adventure B2 Keep on the Borderlands. I took the hobgoblin and goblin caves and separated them out into a standalone dungeon, and then set them loose. The players ended up in the hobgoblin cave first, and then worked their way into the goblin area, had a great encounter with the ogre, and are now ready to head into an area of the dungeon that I added on.

What I noticed was that the players had no expectations about anything. My son knew that goblins weren’t “powerful” monsters, but that was about the extent of his experience. So when they attempted to bluff their way past a goblin sentry post (the fighter and the barbarian are half-orc brothers) and one of them blurted out that they had killed the hobgoblin chief already, the now-inevitable fight was still interesting to them.

But many of us have played D&D before. Some of us have played it many, many times before. Starting a new party at first level can still be interesting, but with years of experience, many of the low-level monsters are now, well, boring. It’s hard to be excited at finding a bunch of goblins—even when your current character is first level—when you as a player have slaughtered dozens or hundreds of them in the past.

So what do you do?

Well, things in D&D 5E aren’t as bad as you might think.

Going by all the available monsters in the official publications (and I’m using the excellent D&D Beyond to quickly grab this complete list), and limiting myself to creatures of Challenge Rating 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2, I find almost 170 entries. Looking at the entries, you can group them into a few types:

  • Animals: There are all the usual suspects, such as black bears, constrictor snakes, stirges, and wolves, plus a bunch of swarms (bats, insects, rats, etc.) and giant versions of various animals (centipedes, frogs, lizards, snakes, rats, wasps, spiders, etc.).
  • Humanoids: Aside from the common kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins and orcs, one can find bullywugs, derro, drow, gnolls, grimlocks, kenku, kuo-toa, lizardfolk, sahuagin, troglodytes, and more. Plus, there is the entire list of NPC types (acolytes, bandits, cultists, guards, nobles, scouts, thugs, warriors, etc.).
  • Monsters: This group contains all the unnatural, monstrous, and miscellaneous creatures that spice up an adventure, such as blights, darkmantles, gray oozes, mephits, piercers, rust monsters, shadows, skeletons, worgs, zombies, and more.

This means that, in your very first adventure, your characters can explore (for example) a ruined guard tower and stumble across a drow outpost. The outpost might have a dozen drow scattered about in a few different encounter areas, but these are all regular drow waiting for the arrival of a priestess who will take over once she arrives (though she won’t appear in this adventure). The PCs have a chance to clear out the ruins and discover hints about the drow plans in this region. Throw in a couple of giant spiders, maybe some derro slaves, and you have a great little “dungeon” that doesn’t have a single kobold or goblin anywhere in sight.

Alternately, set your first adventure in a swamp area and throw in some bullywugs, some crocodiles (or giant crocodiles), and maybe a chance to make an alliance with some local lizardfolk against the bullywugs (and fight those same lizardfolk if the characters botch their attempt at diplomacy).

Or you can avoid the evil humanoid races altogether and set the player characters against a bunch of bandits that are raiding the local area. Maybe they’ve been infiltrated by an evil cult that is slowly taking over the bandit group (though the actual cult leader is somewhere else and hasn’t made an appearance yet). You can use NPC bandits, cultists, scouts, thugs, and warriors, which will give your encounters some variation in opponents. Add in some trained mastiffs and maybe a couple of other animal encounters in the forest where the bandits hide out, and you’re all set.

Maybe an acolyte of an evil god has stumbled upon some magic item that lets her animate the dead, and she’s gathering a horde of skeletons and zombies that she will use to lay waste to local villages. Of course, she’s protected by swarms of bats and rats (or maybe a few giant versions of those animals).

Any of these could be an excellent first adventure for a group of characters, and none of them involve a typical goblin-infested dungeon.

Conclusion

Keep on the Borderlands is a classic, but even classics can get old when they are repeated over and over. If you’re playing with gamers who have been through a few—or many—campaigns, that first adventure might need something a little bit more than the old standby. Luckily, there are many options available without needing to build a whole bunch of new monsters yourself.

So how did you start your current campaign? What were the first monsters your characters fought? How did you keep it interesting for those who are old hands at D&D? Tell us about it in the comments.

D&D Adventure Maps through the Years

Cartography in official D&D products have undergone quite a change through the four decades of its publication. Most modern maps are quite different from those published in the early years. Some of that has to do with printing costs/technology, and some has to do with changing styles.

I see RPG maps as falling into two categories: adventures and campaign settings. Campaign setting maps have a different goal than those in adventures. Campaign setting maps need to convey a high-level overview of the setting, provide additional flavor, and provide just enough information for the DM/GM to run a game in that setting. This means that campaign setting maps should be able to be used for when PCs are engaging in overland travel across large areas, and show where major landmarks are located.

Adventure maps, on the other hand, are vital to providing tactical information for the DM/GM in order to run that particular adventure. The scale of the maps tends to be smaller, and a lot more detail is generally required. While campaign setting maps can be more abstract or “artistic” in presentation, adventure maps needs to have game usability as the first consideration. There generally isn’t much room for abstract or overly creative map design if it doesn’t directly help the DM/GM run the game.

The Early Years

When it comes to adventure modules, 1978 was a big year for TSR. In Search of the Unknown was included in the D&D Basic Set. The classic trilogy of D1: Descent into the Depth of the Earth, D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3: Vault of the Drow were released. Player characters got to fight giants in the trilogy of G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, G2: Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and G3: Hall of the Fire King. And the infamous S1: Tomb of Horrors slaughtered countless characters.

So let’s take a look at some of the maps in those early modules. The classic blue ink on white background maps should be familiar to all D&D players from the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Here is a very detailed map from In Search of the Unknown:

RPG-B1-In-Search-of-the-Unknown

This is the main area map from Shrine of the Kuo-Toa:

RPG-D2-Shrine-of-the-Kuo-Toa

And this is how the underground passages were mapped:

RPG-D2-Shrine-of-the-Kuo-Toa-Underdark

Here is the main complex in Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (included to show how they did irregular cave areas:

RPG-G2-Glacial-Rift-of-Frost-Giant-Jarl

The End of TSR

During the time of A&D 2E, TSR published a large number of campaign settings and many adventure modules. Some of these were great (Gates of Firestorm Peak) and many were absolutely terrible (Gargoyle, Greyhawk Ruins). So we’re jumping ahead by 15-20 years to look at a couple of changes in adventure maps.

One notable change was the switch from the large blue ink on white background maps that were printed on the inside of the (removable) covers. In the 2E era, many maps were in colour (either as separate maps or in a map book), or were greyscale maps inserted among the text of the adventure.

Here’s the separate map from Gates of Firestorm Peak, circa 1996:

RPG-2E-Gates-of-Firestorm-Peak

This is from the map book in Return to the Tomb of Horrors:

1162 Return to the Tomb of Horrors

 

And here’s an example of a map placed among the adventure module text, from Die, Vecna, Die!, the very last module published by TSR:

RPG-2E-Die-Vecna-Die

Wizards of the Coast

Adventured published for the third edition of D&D used both black and white maps and full-color maps, depending on the adventure.

Here’s one of the first 3E maps, from the excellent The Sunless Citadel:

RPG-3E-The-Sunless-Citadel

Here is a full-color map from the also excellent Red Hand of Doom:

Red Hand of Doom

Maps for fourth-edition adventures were almost always in color, and were placed in the relevant section for each combat encounter.

Here’s an example from H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth:

RPG-4E-Thunderspire-Labyrinth

The Newest Maps

While the full-color maps that WotC introduced during the third edition era are quite pretty, and the maps in the fourth edition adventures look even better, WotC has really outdone themselves with the maps in the fifth edition adventures.

Here are a couple of maps from Tomb of Annihilation:

RPG-5E-Tomb-of-Annihilation-1

RPG-5E-Tomb-of-Annihilation-2

RPG-5E-Tomb-of-Annihilation-3

I think these maps are gorgeous. These maps are no longer just pieces of information, they are also pictures that add flavor to the adventure itself.

Furthermore, if you have purchased content on DnD Beyond, you have access to player’s versions of the maps we well. This means that the beautiful maps are seen not just by the DM. The players can also enjoy the great artwork.

What’s Your Preference?

I’ve focused on official D&D adventures in this post, but there are countless third-party publishers who produce adventures with maps. Some OSR publishers pay homage to the early blue-on-white maps by mirroring that look in their own books. Others play with adventure maps in all kinds of ways (certainly more than I have time to get into in this post).

Everyone has their own preference for how they want adventure maps to look. Some people prefer simple black-and-white line drawings, while others want the full-color painted artwork. Neither is “right” or “wrong”—there are pros and cons to each end of the spectrum, and it’s really about what works best for the individual DM.

Where does your preference sit on that spectrum? What published maps are your favorites (from any publisher or any game)? What examples can you give us of maps that are the epitome of “usable” from a gaming standpoint? Tell us about them in the comments.

What’s Wrong with Drizzt, Anyway?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of the Forgotten Realms as a setting for fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons.

I discovered the Realms with the original grey box and a handful of the early 1987 and 1988 sourcebooks, such as Waterdeep and the North, Moonshae, The Savage Frontier, and Dreams of the Red Wizards.

A guy I used to game with had all of this stuff, but he didn’t really enjoy running games. I had been talking about starting a new D&D campaign, and he offered to sell me his FR materials if I promised to set my campaign there.

So I bought those books from him and dove in, and it wasn’t very long before I had fallen in love with the setting. No, it wasn’t perfect, and there were lots of little things that didn’t really make sense, but it had a sense of history and grandeur that I could find in few other published settings.

Plus, the Forgotten Realms was just so gameable. This was a setting that had been used in actual play since Ed Greenwood started his AD&D campaign in 1978, and there was a nearly infinite amount of adventure that could be found there.

I ended up owning about 90% of all published adventures, sourcebooks, and boxed sets for the Forgotten Realms up to the end of AD&D 2nd Edition.

The Realms are also known by many people who have never played an actual tabletop game of D&D. The computer games introduced the setting to a large audience, and the novels—the most notable being R.A. Salvatore’s series about the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden—brought in even more people who were unfamiliar with the actual game.

Oh, the Hate

But the Forgotten Realms can be controversial at times. For every person who loves the Realms, there is another who hates it with a great passion. In participating in online discussions over the years, I’ve come to see a few common reasons people give for hating the Realms:

  1. It’s precedence over Greyhawk: For those who started gaming in the world of Greyhawk—the original D&D setting from TSR—the Realms is seen as a competitive setting. Over the years, TSR shifted resources away from producing more Greyhawk materials and focused more and more on the Realms. The current 5th edition of D&D is the first to make the Forgotten Realms the “default” setting of the game. I can certainly understand why people hold this opinion and I have sympathy for it, even though I don’t actually share it.
  2. That it is “unrealistic”: Yes, the countries/kingdoms, economic models, and so forth might not be realistic. Yes, there are many other elements that, if considered in a purely logical way, do not fully “make sense.” For people who want to play D&D with a gritty and serious tone, FR will not provide the experience they desire. It was designed as a background to stories that Ed Greenwood wrote starting when he was a child, and perfect realism wasn’t something he needed in his setting. I can’t really argue with this complaint, as if the setting doesn’t have the right level of realism for someone, then it’s not the right setting for that person’s game.
  3. There is too much to know: With all the material that has been published for the Realms by first TSR and then Wizards of the Coast, the setting can certainly seem overwhelming to new people. When you add in all the novels that have been published over the years, it seems like every part of the Realms has a special history and important people that the DM is supposed to remember in order to portray it properly. While I understand the sentiment, this one makes less sense to me (as I will explain below).
  4. Too many powerful NPCs: Characters like Elminster or Drizzt represent the most powerful of heroes that walk the Realms. The protagonists of the more than 300 novels that have been published in the setting comprise a group of legendary figures, many of whom have been given D&D stats in the various sourcebooks over the years. And many people don’t see the point in adventuring in a setting already filled with powerful heroes. This is one argument that doesn’t make the slightest sense to me (and I will expand on this one below as well).

Too…much…information

Certainly, the Forgotten Realms can be challenge for a new DM. With such a large setting, it isn’t easy to immediately grasp what you need in order to run a game successfully. There is always a worry that you’re going to accidentally contradict something that is published somewhere, and that will cause a problem for your players.

Certainly, if your players are very familiar with the Realms through the novels and/or videogames, then that is a potential issue. But it speaks to something that I’ve never understood when running games in a setting that I didn’t create myself. And this applies whether it’s a setting developed specifically for a roleplaying game, or if it’s a setting from a movie (like Star Wars, for example).

What I don’t get is the perceived need to slavishly adhere to canon.

This is something that I see quite often in online discussions. That people are unwilling to take the reins and run the game the way they feel is best for their campaign. Certainly, if you make sweeping changes to a setting you run the risk of alienating the players who joined the game specifically to play in that setting they know and love.

But the fact is, it’s impossible to run a game that adheres 100% to an existing setting the moment your players create their characters and you toss them into the world. At that instant, you have changed the setting. And every adventure your players engage in after that point will change the setting even more.

That’s the whole point of playing a roleplaying game instead of reading a book or watching a movie.

If you decide that one of the peaks in the Nether Mountains is actually a dormant volcano, and that it’s beginning to show signs of an impending eruption that will threaten the survival of the city of Silverymoon, it doesn’t matter that such an event has never occurred in the novels, video games, or sourcebooks.

At the moment you start running the game, the setting becomes yours to do with as you will.

If you have players that expect everything in the campaign to reflect everything that happened in published sources, then they should spend their time reading, not playing. The very act of playing the game is a creative process, and the players have to be open to the changes that result.

When I’m running a game in a published setting, I make it a point to tell my players the following:

This game will take place in the setting that is recognizably the Forgotten Realms (or the Star Wars setting, or Middle Earth, or whatever). However, I reserve the right to change whatever elements I need in order to present you with the best opportunity for adventures. I won’t unilaterally change core elements of the setting, but any particular detail may be changed at my discretion. So if I tell you that Mithral Hall has not yet been found, even though the year is 1365 DR, then it means that Bruenor didn’t succeed on his quest and the handful of events related to Mithral Hall that would have taken place between 1356 and 1365 never happened. I have no obligation to incorporate every novel into the history of my campaign.

The NPC Problem

The other major problem often quoted by people who dislike the Forgotten Realms often involves some variation of “there are too many powerful NPCs.” Certainly, if you go by the setting as presented in the novels, there are a great number of powerful heroes who go around fighting the forces of darkness.

However, I feel this is a silly complaint to make about the setting. Most of the sourcebooks present high-level overviews of regions within the Realms. When it comes to the setting materials as presented in the roleplaying products, the statistics of most of the NPCs are irrelevant.

Does the removal of Elminster, for example, have a major impact on the Realms? Well, his removal would have an impact on the plots of a number of novels, of course, but that’s not the same as the setting as used in a D&D campaign. I’ve run D&D games set in the Realms for literally decades, and I’ve used Elminster once in all that time. He was a sage, and the characters came to him for help in translating some ancient writing they had found. And the fact that, in my campaign, he was just a very knowledgeable sage had absolutely no impact on the game setting.

The fact is, most of those NPCs can be used or ignored at will without making any real changes to the Realms, because the characters only need to know about those people who affect the adventures the characters are having. Does it matter that there is a high-level drow ranger wandering around in the northern Sword Coast area? Only if the DM decides the ranger is going to play a part in whatever the player characters are doing does it make a difference.

In many D&D campaigns, the reality is that the adventurers usually find themselves in the right place at the right time (or perhaps that should be wrong place at the wrong time). The adventure is right there and so are the characters. That presents an opportunity that no one else has. If Drizzt is somewhere up near Icewind Dale or at Mithral Hall, or out sailing on the Sea Sprite, then he can’t rush in to save the PCs or get involved in their adventures in the Vilhon Reach, no matter how epic they end up becoming.

Conclusion

Settings for roleplaying games are designed to be a background in which player characters have grand adventures. The dogmatic clutching at canon does the game a disservice and relegates the player characters to observers. The first lesson a DM or GM needs to learn is to let the characters interact with the setting, and in so doing, initiate changes to that setting.

The published books should not be static things, and no game requires that you remember and use every element exactly as it is written. Gaming should be a creative endeavor, and we should embrace the chaos that PCs generate in a setting and make the most of it.

I’m a fan of the Forgotten Realms (among other settings), and I can also accept its flaws and inconsistencies. For any setting, the key is to take what you and your players like best, highlight those elements, and ignore those elements that add nothing to your game.

What is your favorite setting that gets a lot of hate? How do you feel about adhering to canon? Tell us your opinions in the comments.

D&D Beyond – Is it Worth It?

For those who are not aware of it, D&D Beyond is a digital offering from Curse LLC, also known as Twitch Interactive that provides online tools for running and managing a D&D 5E campaign.

Not only does it contain a compendium of every official rule, class, subclass, spell monster, magic item, etc., but it also contains every official D&D 5E book published by Wizards of the Coast, including all maps, and crosslinks the contents of those books with the information in the compendium.

Of course, most of this isn’t free, though all the basic rules—everything that WotC released in their free basic PHB and DMG downloads—is available at no cost. In fact, you can create a free account, and with that you are able to create up to 6 characters and manage up to 3 campaigns, though you are limited to the content in the free basic WotC rules.

The best part of the site—in my opinion—is the digital offerings. Yes, you have to pay for them. And from what I’ve seen online, many people are unhappy that if they bought the print books from WotC, they don’t then get a major discount from Curse for the digital versions. If one thinks about this, though, this shouldn’t be remotely surprising, since WotC and Curse are different companies. Curse has paid for a D&D license in order to create these tools, so if they were to give all content away for free, they wouldn’t be around very long.

Now I generally prefer electronic versions of my RPG books over the hardcopies. When running D&D, I often utilize a bunch of the Dwarven Forge terrain pieces that I’ve purchased through the Kickstarters that they’ve launched over the last few years. Between the terrain and the minis (a collection of both official D&D minis and Pathfinder minis), I have a fair bit to carry. If I could combine that with some graph paper, a mechanical pencil, and my iPad, I would be a happy guy.

Lugging around a huge selection of hardcover books is not my idea of a good time.

So I was pretty excited when I fairly recently looked into D&D Beyond and found that I could purchase every WotC book as a digital offering. I own only the core three in hardcopy—Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual—and so I don’t have an issue “buying it all again,” as I’ve seen some people comment regarding the digital offerings.

The other really cool element of this is that there are multiple purchase options for those who don’t want a whole book. For example, if a player wants to play a particular character class that is not in the free basic rules, he or she could purchase just that class out of the PHB offerings. And if he or she later decides to purchase the rest of the PHB, the price will be adjusted down by the amount that was already spent. This flexibility means that people are not forced to buy content that they will never use—each individual can pick and choose which bits to buy from the entire library of content that WotC has published.

The timing for this was excellent, as the guys I run a game for recently agreed to convert our AD&D 2E game over to 5E. That means I’ve got two D&D 5E campaigns going, and I feel that I’ll definitely get my money’s worth out of D&D Beyond.

Aside from the content of the books, there are two subscription tiers. The Hero tier gives you an unlimited number of characters you can create and lets you use publicly-shared homebrew content. The Master tier has the same as the Hero tier, but you can also share any/all of your unlocked official content with players in one of your campaigns. That’s right, a group of players could pool their money and, as long as continue to game together and remain part of the same campaign in the D&D Beyond tool, they all get access to that purchased content.

Finally, D&D Beyond has an app that is still in its early phases. However, I’ve already gotten good use out of it by downloading the core rulebooks and the adventures I’m running into the app. This means that between the app and a browser window accessing the D&D Beyond compendium content, I can run an entire game right off my iPad. And the fact that all the content in the Compendium is crosslinked is amazing. For example, in the description of the Cloak of Arachnida, it mentions that the wearer can cast the web spell once per day. The name of the spell is cross-linked to the spell description in the spells section of the compendium.

RPG-5E-DnD Beyond Cloak of Arachnida

There’s a thread in the D&D Beyond forums where people explain how they are using the D&D Beyond tools, and there are some great ideas in there. I’ve noted a number of people using Microsoft OneNote to manage their campaigns, cutting and pasting text from the compendium entries, or dropping in links to specific bits of compendium content. Many people say they don’t use the actual books at all to run their games, doing it all off a laptop or tablet.

So is it worth it?

That’s the question, isn’t it? At the moment, I’ve unlocked the full range of compendium content, but I haven’t sprung for either of the subscriptions. It’s possible that, if my players all decide to jump on D&D Beyond to manage their characters, I may consider getting the Master tier subscription in order to share all the class and spell content with them. But right now I don’t have enough demand to justify the monthly cost (though I would definitely use it and I’d be happy to write a more thorough review if Curse wanted to throw me a freebie to test it out, hint, hint).

Personally, I feel that the digital books are definitely worth the price. Getting the entire collection at once gives a big discount, not only on the current books but the discount also applies on any new books that come out. I’ve already gotten a lot of value out of this package, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to any DM’s out there who like digital tools.

As I mentioned, I’m not yet seeing the full value of the subscriptions, so I’m holding off for now. I’m open to being convinced, of course.

Do you use D&D Beyond, even if only the free stuff? What do you think about it? Have you been happy with your purchased content, if you have any? Tell us about it in the comments.

Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 1

I’ve recently talked about using the D&D 5E rules for old school play (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). As I mentioned last week, I’ve been really interested in putting together an old school sandbox (also known as a hexcrawl) campaign.

I’ve been a DM since I bought the original Tom Moldvay red box Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set back in 1981. And a big part of being a DM back in the day was designing your own setting that did what you wanted it to do.

So I’m going to develop my own lands for the PCs to explore (probably for some future campaign), and I figured it might be interesting to others, so I will blog about it here. And, who knows, it might eventually end up as something publishable, or at least downloadable here.

The Foundation

When looking at this project, I think it’s important to outline some of my core objectives in doing this. This will help to keep me on track and ensure that I don’t waste time focusing on things that might temporarily grab my interest, but won’t actually contribute anything useful to the project.

I’ve thought about this a bit, and here are my initial goals for this setting:

  1. Develop a setting for use in actual D&D play.
  2. Focus on multiple regions, each with a distinct feel and look.
  3. Each region should have a reason to explore it, aside from specific “adventure locations” that the characters may find. For example, there might be mining opportunities in certain regions, or characters might be hired to explore certain areas because the empire is considering expansion.
  4. Provide opportunities to place individual adventure locations scattered across the locations. These will be unique geographic features, dungeons, settlements, monster lairs, localized magical effects, and anything else I can come up with that will provide direct character interaction beyond just exploring.
  5. Ensure the regions have a “frontier” feel to them—the empire has never before settled or even explored in this direction in any official capacity.
  6. Keep the home base as a safe location for the characters. Ensure adventure is “out there” rather than inside the actual home settlement.

I expect that, as I go forward, I will likely add another objective or two, but I think this is a good start. It will help me develop the foundation of the setting at the very least and ensure that it is strong and consistent.

The Regions

The core elements of the campaign setting will be the regions to explore. As I mentioned, each region should have a distinct feel and look. It should have a “character” all its own, and the players should be able to tell when their player characters leave one region and enter another.

One of the easiest ways to do this is, of course, with the specific environment. The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a list of environments in which the monsters of the game are mostly commonly encountered. These environments are:

  • Arctic
  • Coastal
  • Desert
  • Forest
  • Grassland
  • Hill
  • Mountain
  • Swamp
  • Underdark
  • Underwater
  • Urban

At this early point in development of the campaign setting, I’m not entirely sure I’m going to include all of those environments. I want my setting to be realistic enough that the players can understand the world, and so it’s difficult to have all of those environments close enough together in a way that makes sense. Further, some environments, like forests, may show up multiple times in different directions.

The Scale

Which brings me to the scale of the setting. I want the players to have the opportunity to travel and explore, and this means that there needs to be a fairly large area in which to place each region. Plus, each region needs to have enough space to house multiple adventure locations without adventurers stumbling upon one location after another during each day of travel.

So the key is to determine how fast the party will be able to travel in a single day while exploring, and then determine how much travel it will take to reach the next region.

According to the 5E Player’s Handbook, the normal travel pace is 24 miles in a day (assuming a movement speed of 30 feet per round). However, different characters are going to have different movement rates (e.g. a wood elf has a speed of 45 feet, but a dwarf is only 25 feet), I plan to incorporate the variant encumbrance rules on page 176 of the PHB, and armor could also modify a character’s speed.

While some class abilities provide even faster movement as they go up in level, like a monk’s increased speed and even the gaining of a fly speed at 20th level, I’m going to use the base speed to determine the size of the regions in this setting. That way, as characters gain levels, they will find it easier to explore farther away from their home base.

So here are the possible movement rates and the per day travel maximums.

Movement Rate
Per Round Per Day
35 feet 27 miles
30 feet 24 miles
25 feet 21 miles
20 feet 18 miles
15 feet 15 miles
10 feet 12 miles
5 feet 9 miles

Unless the characters are hauling a ton of equipment (or treasure!), however, most the time the party—assuming they travel at the speed of the slowest member—will have a daily speed of either 21 miles (if the party has a dwarf or halfling) or 24 miles (if no dwarf or halfling is present).

It’s also important to keep in mind, though, that these travel times “assume relatively simple terrain: roads, open plains, or clear dungeon corridors.” Difficult terrain halves movement speed, and includes “dense forests, deep swamps, rubble-filled ruins, steep mountains, and ice-covered ground.” So a lot of the exploring that the characters will undertake will be done at a much slower pace.

Note: I’m based in Canada, and many of the visitors to my blog also live outside the United States (or Burma or Liberia). So why am I using such an arbitrary and outdated measurement system? In this case, it is purely because these are the distances used in the core rulebooks for D&D. It would be great if they switched over to the International System of Units (i.e. the metric system) like the rest of the world, but as of the current printing of the D&D books, they have not. So, in order to save myself a ton of work converting everything, I’m going to use imperial units in these posts.

Now, for mapping wilderness areas, a common recommendation is to use a 6-mile hex. There’s a great post on The Hydra’s Grotto from back in 2009 about the use the 6-mile hex, and I fully agree with his arguments. This means that a party will likely be able to cross 4 hexes—or 3.5 hexes if they have dwarves or halflings in the party—in a single day.

Obviously, some regions are going to be larger than others, and the size may vary quite a bit. I’m going to start with a rule of thumb that the largest regions will take about a week to cross. The smallest regions should be crossable in about a day. By planning this out by time, rather than distance, it will give me an idea of how large the region should be.

For example, a dense forest that takes a week to cross isn’t actually (24 miles x 7 days = ) 168 miles in width. Since dense forest means half-speed travel, it’s actually only (12 miles x 7 days = ) 84 miles in width. Still a great deal of area to explore, but it won’t need to be so large on the map due to the speed restrictions.

Conclusion

So that’s it for this week. I have the basic idea down for the campaign wilderness, and my objectives are set. Next time (not necessarily next week), I’m going to talk a bit about the various monsters that I might want to include in the setting.