I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, October 06, 2017

Called shots (5e quick fix)

5e quick fixes are exactly what they say on the tin. Small house rules to fix D&D problems you probably don't have. Use them wisely!

D&D has no need of "called shots", but I like them anyway. 5e has no explicit universal mechanics for attacking an arm or leg instead of the torso or head; it is assumed that you're doing your best to wear down your foes with each attack. Some features, feats, spells etc., might have more specific goals, but this will only help certain characters.

If you want concrete and universal mechanics for EVERY character, the solution is quite easy.

Assume everyone can do everything - some PCs just do it better. This is heavily implied in 5e IMO. For example, anyone can trip, shove or disarm; the Battle Master just does it BETTER (same goes for the Sharpshooter and many other feats, as you'll see).

If you get the list of maneuvers from the Battle Master, you have a good guide of things that might be possible to anyone. Just tone them down to keep the Battle Master special. Some things to keep in mind: nothing should be free, and most maneuvers will be sub-optimal unless you're using them in the right circumstances. The idea is not chopping everyone's legs so you can win quickly, but chopping the Wendigo's leg so it cannot run away!

Which means: get rewarded for cleverness and awesomeness, not for system mastery and number-crunching.

If nothing is free, what is the cost? Maybe a bonus action, a reaction, half damage, disadvantage*, or  a combination of those.

* The caveat with disadvantage is that it can be abused; if you're not using multiple advantages, try a -5 penalty instead.

Quick example: attack the arm. Let us say your goal is disarming your enemy and ALSO causing damage. This maneuver should be worse than a Battle Master's Disarming Attack but ALSO no better than the optional disarming rule in the DMG (or else, why you you use that rule?).

One option: attack, and if you hit you deal half damage, AND the target must make a Strength (Athletics) check or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check against your roll* or be disarmed.

*(You might use your "save DC" instead: 8 + proficiency bonus + ability modifier. This ensures the target has a good chance of resisting even if the attacker rolls well, which balances things. Of course, opposed rolls make things easier...  and if you roll a natural 20 it is cool to see your manuever succeed!)

Same thing goes for attacking the legs, or feet. Do some damage and trip your foe.

What about head shots? Well, it depends.

If you just want more damage, use the Sharpshooter feat as a guideline: someone without the feat can take -5 to the attack and +5 to damage. Do not extrapolate from there, because it quickly becomes a math exercise. This should only be used in very specific circumstances; otherwise, just assume you're doing your best to deal the most damage. As a general rule, I would advise against allowing it.

Stunning or knocking out you enemy is better. Let's take the monk's Stunning Strike as an example. No "half damage" here, it wouldn't make much sense when attacking the head. Just roll with disadvantage, and if you hit the target makes a Constitution saving throw against your save DC to avoid getting stunned until the beginning of your next round (not the end, or it would be almost as powerful as a 5th level monk spending ki!). Knockout is an alternative to decapitation (see below).




Optional caveat: the target suffers NO effects if the original damage caused (before halving, etc.) is less than 20% of its HP. This is meant to avoid disarming a Fire Giant with 2 points of damage (you would need 17 damage, which is not that easy for most characters).

Optional addition: if the original damage caused is equal to HP, you get the D! Which means dismember, disembowel or decapitate, with no save (not even death saves!). It only works if all the damage comes in a single turn. This is cool to use against minions, but not useful against big bosses. So you can diminish the damage needed to chop off smaller appendices: maybe 10% HP is all that is needed to cut one of the beholder's eyestalks. A hand might be twice as frail as an arm. The hydra has its own rules, of course.

Anyway, here is the complete system in one single table. You can extrapolate other maneuvers from there.

Penalty
Effect
To avoid effect...
The D!
Arm
Half damage.
Disarmed
Acrobatics/Athletics
Dismemberment
Leg
Half damage.
Prone
Acrobatics/Athletics
Dismemberment
Head
-5 to hit
Stunned (1 round).
Constitution save.
Decapitation
Vitals
-5 to hit
+5 damage
None.
Disembowelment

EDIT: on a second thought, it would be nice to have a middle tier of damage (broken arm, exhaustion, etc.) Anda maybe a 1/4 HP, 1/2HP and 3/4 HP progression. And a formula dividing HP by the number os appendices. And... Oh well, back to the drawing board! 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Social skills: role-playing versus roll-playing

You know how the argument goes:

Person #1: "I am old-school! I do not allow my players to roll diplomacy*! If they want to convince an NPC, let them role-play it!"
Person #2: "But the diplomacy skill allows a shy player to play a persuasive PC!"
Person #1: "This is a role-playing game! If the player does not know how to role-play, he will learn during the game!"
Person #2: "Oh, great, do you make your players swing swords to lean about fighting too?"
Person #1: "No, since we obviously cannot do real combat! But I don't let them roll to find traps! They just describe what they are doing!"
Person #2: "So do you solve combat by describing sword blows? And why do you have a Charisma stat in the first place?"

...etc.

* Or "roll Charisma", "make a reaction roll", etc.

I have little interest in this discussion because I am convinced that the truth lies in the middle. In fact, I am half-convinced that MOST OF US agree the truth lies in the middle. The problem is that we are discussing IN THE ABSTRACT. But discussing how it goes IN PRACTICE is easier and more useful. Let's try.

Scenario: PC wants to buy a new sword. The (female) blacksmith says it costs 100 gp. PC has 70 gp only.



Example 1:
PC: "100 gp? I only have 70 gp. Could she give me a discount?"
GM: "Nope. She says she will go out of business if she does"
PC: "Can I roll diplomacy?"
GM: "No need, she already refused your offer".
PC: "Can I try to convince her?"
GM: "Okay, what are you going to say?"
PC: "Madam, I will pay you when we come back from the dungeon! With 10% interest!"
GM: (after thinking for a second): "Nope, she just met you".

Example 2:
PC: "100 gp? I only have 70 gp. Could she give me a discount?"
GM: "Nope. She says she will go out of business if she does"
PC: "What? We just saved the village!"
GM "Yeah, you're right. I remember what you did, brave adventures. We will forever be grateful! I will give the sword for your gold! I have mouths to feed, but it is the least I can do!"

Example 3:
PC 1: "100 gp? I only have 70 gp."
PC 2: "Wait, I have 15 gp here"
PC 1: "Could she give me 15 gp discount?"
GM: "What are you saying to her?"
PC 1: "Madam, I do not have the gold you need at this moment, but I will come back with the difference after we defeat the goblin horde!"
GM: "Okay, roll diplomacy".

Example 4:
PC 1: "100 gp? I only have 70 gp."
PC 2: "Wait, I have 26 gp here"
PC 1: "Could she give me a 4 gp discount?"
GM: "Sure."
PC 1: " Do you want me to roll diplomacy?"
GM: "No need... it is not like she has lots of business anyway".

Example 5:
PC: "100 gp? I only have 70 gp, and I need 340 gp for rations! Could she give me a discount?"
GM: "Nope. She says she will go out of business if she does"
PC: "What? We just saved the village!"
GM: "Yeah, you're right. I remember what you did, brave adventures. UI want to help, but I cannot sell you the sword at this price! I have mouths to feed!"
PC: "Madam, we will come back after we defeat the goblin horde and pay you in full!"
GM: "But what if you perish? My children will starve!"
PC: "I swear by all the gods we hold dear, I will fulfill my duty, and even if I fall my companions will not let my debts go unpaid!"
GM: Okay, roll diplomacy.

Example 6:
PC: "100 gp? I only have 70 gp, and I need 40 gp for rations! Could she give me a discount?"
GM: "40 gp? Nope. She says she will go out of business if she does"
PC: "What? We just saved the village!"
GM: "Yeah, you're right. I remember what you did, brave adventures. I want to help, but I cannot sell you the sword at this price! I have mouths to feed!"
PC: "Madam, we will come back after we defeat the goblin horde and pay you in full!"
GM: "But what if you perish? My children will starve!"
PC: Is she wearing that Bahamut pendant some smiths use?
GM: (after thinking for a second): Yes.
PC: "I see you are one of the faithful... Madam, I fight for the honor and glory of Bahamut, and he will never let me perish before I fulfill an oath! GM, I will uncover my shield and show her the symbol of Bahamut!
GM: I believe you sir! Take the sword!May it bring glory to Him!

And so on.

In short: when most possibilites of role-playing have been exhausted, and the result of the interaction isn't obvious, then you roll the dice.

I think the same idea can be used to find and disarm traps, solve riddles, and even in combat in some circumstances (PC: "I cut the prisoner's throat! My attack bonus is..."; GM "No need to roll, the prisoner dies"). So there is nothing really unique to "social skills" in this regard. You describe what you want to do and, if the outcome is uncertain, you roll. Had a clever idea? Maybe the outcome is now certain. Maybe you roll with advantage. Etc.

BTW, the original edition of D&D let Charisma define loyalty of your hirelings and "whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into swine or keep him enchanted as a lover", so there was definitely an aspect of character "skill" to interactions - which is why I don't think ignoring social abilities is particularly "old school".

In conclusion, while I may enjoy discussing "role-playing versus roll-playing" and other abstract issues, sometimes I feel it is a waste of time - unless we can use these discussions to make our games more enjoyable, which requires using these ideas in practice.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Murderhobos, Lord Soprano and the Gangs of Constantinople

From Wikipedia:

The ancient Roman and Byzantine empires had well-developed associations, known as demes, which supported the different factions (or teams) under which competitors in certain sporting events took part; this was particularly true of chariot racing. There were initially four major factional teams of chariot racing, differentiated by the colour of the uniform in which they competed; the colours were also worn by their supporters. These were the Blues, the Greens, the Reds, and the Whites, although by the Byzantine era the only teams with any influence were the Blues and Greens. Emperor Justinian I was a supporter of the Blues.
The team associations had become a focus for various social and political issues for which the general Byzantine population lacked other forms of outlet. They combined aspects of street gangs and political parties, taking positions on current issues, notably theological problems or claimants to the throne. They frequently tried to affect the policy of the emperors by shouting political demands between races. The imperial forces and guards in the city could not keep order without the cooperation of the circus factions which were in turn backed by the aristocratic families of the city; these included some families who believed they had a more rightful claim to the throne than Justinian.

Read the whole thing. It has awesome moments such as the empress saying "those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss" and an eunuch with a bag of gold trying to convince hooligans to turn on each other instead of crowning a new emperor.

The first thing I thought after reading this was making a RPG or board game about the gangs of Constantinople. But after a few moments I realized there is nothing really novel about it; most RPGs I've played were already about gangsters.

And I mostly play standard D&D stuff.

When I wrote about what makes a good setting I listed shades of grey, multiple interesting factions and a stable (but malleable) social order, among other things. Add "violence" to the mix since this is one of the "pillars" of most RPGs.

I mentioned Game of Thrones as a good example. Since there are no new books, I will say I still watch the show. I haven't found other good fantasy shows before or since, but there are plenty of other series I enjoyed. The Sopranos. The Wire. Boardwalk Empire. The Shield. Sons of Anarchy. Orange is the new black. Do you see a pattern here?

I also watched Vikings for a while. I eventually got bored, but I watched enough to realize the Vikings are exactly like the Sons of Anarchy (a 1%er biker gang) with better plot armor.

Source.
Think about it: they are both gangs of bigoted (or downright racist), arrogant armed thugs that have to fight other gangs and external threats to survive, get rich, pursue happiness etc. They are often very loyal to one another and respect their own peculiar codes, but despise higher laws and authorities. Most of their problems are solved with violence, deception, bribery, etc. But they also have to ally themselves with other gangs, even "enemy" gangs, because if they fight against everyone else at once they will be massacred (by other gangs or by the higher authority/external threat).

It doesn't matter if they are illiterate, violent or lazy; they are the heroes, because there are worse people out there, and at least they are brave and protect their own.

In short, they are the player characters.

Well, not necessarily. Maybe your PCs are more like Eddard Stark - but Ned still allied with a gangster pimp to try and make things right! And all those Lannisters, Boltons, etc., are obviously mafiosi. Their so-called "honor" in not different that following a code such as the Omertà. Or "don't ever take sides with anyone against the Family".

Which is why stuff like this feels so fitting:

Ricean Vlad - Source.
Cracked has one article (careful, the site is hideous) comparing medieval knights with street  gangs, which seems accurate enough.

Anyway, this is not quite the "eureka!" moment, because it is really obvious. But once you realize why Sons of Anarchy is called "Hamlet on Wheels", and that The Warriors is an adaptation of Xenophon's Anabasis, you have an useful trove of inspirations for your adventures.

The Crystal Shard, for example, didn't add much to my games, but Gangs of New York and The Borgias did. The Wire is a bigger influence for me than The Dragonlance trilogy. Gomorrah (the movie, not the book, about the Neapolitan mafia) might give you a decent insight on how the "big players" of the setting look at novice adventurers.

I know this is not for everyone. You can have great adventures without those things. For example, you might have a dungeon-crawl with puzzles and monsters, even intelligent one, but not factions. You can focus on exploration instead of politics. You can focus on the external threat  instead of a higher authority or the interactions between different game. Maybe your antagonists are just evil, and the PCs ally with the good guys to defeat them - including the king, who is honest and loved by all.

But for me, personally, adventures with violent or scheming factions competing against one another - and, specially, the PCs - are some of the best I've ever had.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Dark Sun - 10 house rules for 5e (part II)

Here is part I.

Last part was easy. Here come the hard choices. But hey, that is what role-playing is about!

No gods! No healing!

The fluff: the burned world of Athas is, quite literally, a godforsaken place. Did the gods abandon the people of Athas, or was it the other way around? Doesn't matter anymore. There is no one to hear your prayers, no one to bind your wounds, and no one save your soul.

The crunch: there are no active deities in Athas, but, traditionally, Dark Sun allows the sorcerer-kings and the elements to be worshiped instead of actual gods, so you still have cleric-like classes. The main difference is that healing magic is uncommon in Athas. The easiest way to do that is to ban healing magic from the spell lists (trade them for something appropriate), and disallow some features that restores hit points ("lay on hands", etc.). Using the "healing surges" option in the DMG (page 266) is a good idea to balance things out. Any optional rule to raise an stabilized characters to 1 HP after combat would also be useful (just make a DC 10 medicine check or use a healing kit, as long as you're not in combat).


No class!

The fluff: as you might have guessed, some classes don't make much sense in Dark Sun. Traditional clerics and paladins do not fit. Sorcerers, warlocks, and druids must also be adapted to the setting. Some races simply do not exist.

The crunch: personally, I don't like banning classes outright. Warlocks make decent templars, and clerics can worship the elements with the appropriate domains. Sorcerers feel a bit redundant to me, and wild magic is certainly too much if you're using random defilement rules (although you can certainly consolidate one single table and create a new "pure defiler" class from there). Monks make some sense thematically (unless you're using the mystic), although there were banned in 2e Dark Sun. Even paladins can be refluffed as templars, ascended champions of the sorcerers kings (I love the idea of a paladin of vengeance gaining dragon wings or causing necrotic damage whit lay on hands!), or even inspired zealots of forgotten gods. Druids must choose appropriate animals; bards might be assassins with an adequate background. There are enough choices an options to fill a whole book on the subject. Fortunately, there are already some good ideas online. Here is one example.



No races!

The fluff: the original version of Dark Sun forbids some of the traditional races and introduces new ones - some of which aren't available in 5e.

The crunch: you can always re-fluff the the races like you did with the classes, but some options will be inadequate, especially the ones that can cast spells by default. You have enough races in 5e to cover most of the races that are characteristic of Athas: Aarakocra are already oficial, you can use goliaths for half-giants, some variations of dwarf (or orcs!) for muls, etc. The Thri-kreen are trickier, but not much: natural armor, claws, reduced sleep, etc. already exist in the official races. As for the extra arms, my favorite option is saying they can do whatever they want with the extra armas, but no extra actions! A two-handed weapon with a shield and a crossbow? Sword and board AND torch AND knife? Sure, why not!


No metal!

The fluff: Dark Sun is the most metal of all D&D settings, but actual metal is scarce in Athas. This means most weapons are made of obsidian, bone and flint. It also means the may break.

The crunch: coming up with an elegant solution that doesn't penalize fighters with multiple attacks is not easy, but there are a few options. My favorite is that some weapons (slashing and piercing) can break if you roll a natural 20 AND deal maximum damage in the first two dice. This makes breakage rare, but creates some tension when you roll a natural 20.
For example, if you're attacking with a 1d8 weapon, a critical hit would let you roll 2d8; if you roll 8 on both dice (16 damage), the weapon breaks from the impact. Greatswords break if you roll 6 in the first two dice (ordinarily, you roll 4d6 when you crit with a greatsword).
Making metal coins 50 to 100 scarcer also creates interesting situations; now the "price" column in the weapons section finally means something, and you have good reason to use a greataxe or maul.
I also did "no armor" in the first post, but if you want armor just make it heavier and more expensive. Encumbrance becomes relevant again - specially when you notice you will die of thirst before reaching the next city.
High level warriors should get their hands on magical or iron weapons, but there should be other ways of fixing weapons (the mending cantrip, artisan’s tools, etc).

Metal!
No psionics! No psionics?!?

The fluff: psionics are extremely common in Dark Sun, across all races and classes.... and even in animals and plants! On the other hand, psionics are extremely uncommon in 5e.

The crunch: this is the toughest one. 5e's psionics system is unfinished; all we have are a few classes in the Unearthed Arcana (i.e., playtest material). Which isn't nearly enough for a setting where everybody can have psionic powers. The simplest solution here is spells. Not the most elegant or creative way out, but it is the one the Monster Manual officially uses. And 5e is full of magic by default. So, psionics is (mechanically) just magic with no components and no possibility of defiling. There are other subtle differences: psionics are probably invisible, for example. The "spell list" for psionics should be significantly shorter, and "full caster" classes should be reserved for actual magic. All characters start with a random (psionic) cantrip. Again, not the fanciest solution - but it will do until WotC releases official material for 5e.


No rules!
I admit - this is rule #11 in a top ten list, and feels out of place in a list of, well... rules. But it might be the most important one. I do not treat anything in Dark Sun as canon, mostly because not all Dark Sun canon is good. Back in the day, I used to think the characters in the books did all the cool stuff, so there was little left for the PCs to do. 4e did a decent reboot, but I am not a fan of eladrin in Athas, among other things.
Another reasons is that I like to add stuff from other sources: Tékumel, Carcosa, Zothique, etc. Talislanta is a cool source that I failed to mention (the thralls, pictured above, are more interesting than the muls in some aspects), but any source that works for you is fair game.
In short, my favorite version of 5e is the one I fix - and my favorite version of Dark Sun is the one I make.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Dark Sun - 10 house rules for 5e (part I)

It's that time of the year again! When I miss Dark Sun and start writing my own version of it! Anyway, here are some house rules you may use in your Dark Sun games if you're playing 5e D&D.


No armor!

The fluff: who would use armor in the scorching heat of the desert? Gladiators, templars and city guards wear armor, but since you cannot really travel, sleep of even fight in armor in the desert without being exhausted, most are able to fight without armor.

The crunch: anyone can trade their medium armor proficiency for the monk's Unarmored Defense or their heavy armor proficiency for the barbarian's Unarmored Defense. Unarmored Defense can also be taken as a feat (and you get +1 to Wisdom or Constitution if take it), but only by certain classes (as a general rule, you can take the first if you're proficient in light armor and the second if you're proficient in medium armor).

I am tempted to make a Charisma version for Chainmail bikinis and loincloths, but nobody wants that, right? Right?


No rest!

The fluff: the wastelands of Athas are no place for idleness. Days are hot and nights are cold (or warm, I dunno). Sure, you are familiar enough with the desert - otherwise you would be dead - but if you need rest, you better look for shelter.

The crunch: if you are in the desert or a similar wasteland (and that includes jungles, etc.), the grittier rules in the DMG for short/long rests apply (a whole day doing nothing may grant you a long rest if you can find a tent, food, etc). Look for a city or oasis if you want better healing (this actually solves a lot of problems). Those ruins are looking quite inviting, aren't they?


No food and no drink!

The fluff: food and water are scarce.

The crunch: we will use starvation and dehydration rules that actually make sense. Also, finding food and water is twice as hard. This applies to everything: spells, class features, backgrounds, etc. Interpretation is up to the GM.


No easy magic!

The fluff: magic is rare in Athas. There is no petty magic. You're either a defiler, a preserver or you're not a true spellcaster. Everything else gets re-fluffed as supernatural or psionic abilities.

The crunch: that thing in 5e where everyone has spells no longer apply. As a rule of thumb, if you actually have spell slots, you can be a defiler or preserver. Otherwise, your powers come from something else. Monks (if you allow those in Dark Sun) and barbarians, for example, create supernatural effects with inner strength, psionics or experience.


No balance!

The fluff: there are two types of spellcasters: defilers and preservers. The difference is that defilers destroy all around them in order to cast spells, while preservers don't. Common people cannot tell the difference and hate them all. Most spellcasters can use magic both ways, but choose one path over another. Also, defiling is plain better. That is the temptation.

The crunch: when you use defiling magic, you cast spells as if they were one level higher. You also need to roll on a random table to see what effects you cause. Here are some ideas. All negative effects can be avoided by a saving throw (damage and HP loss are halved, not avoided).

1 - Desolation - flora and small fauna wither and die around the spellcaster.
2 - Destruction - people around the spellcaster suffer necrotic damage equal to spell level.
3 - Confusion - spell gets out of control and affects another random target.
4 - Exhaustion - spellcaster gains exhaustion. Nobody said it was easy!
5 - Inspiration - the next time the spellcaster casts a spell, he can pick any result from this table (except for this one!).
6 - Mutation - the spellcaster becomes permanently warped (it can be cured... probably).
7 - Exsanguination - the spellcaster  loses 2 HP per spell level.
8 - Transfiguration - the spellcaster becomes something else for a while. It might be just cosmetic. Black eyes, etc. It is very unsettling and will draw ire from the superstitious.
9 - Provocation - sleeping creatures might wake, the half-dead may rise, or hungry monster will hear a calling.
10 - Demolition - objects break and structures fail around the spellcaster.
11 - Extortion - the spellcaster gains 2 HP per spell level. A amount of damage eqaul to the total is randomly distributed to nearby people.
12 - Putrefaction - food and water are ruined.

Coming up: No gods! No healing! No rules!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Empire of the Dead

Part of the Adryon series.

Artavos was once the greatest empire in the world. Nowadays, even after being reduced to a shadow of they former glory, the Artavians still fancy themselves the most civilized people of the world. They are, indeed, part of a cosmopolitan and literate nation, where many people are welcome and innumerable religions practiced. Gods from foreign lands are worshiped side by side with the Artavian pantheon, and barbarian warriors can rise to some of the highest ranks in the legions.

After all, a man's religion or origin doesn't really matter. They will all die.

Source.
It was the barbarians beyond the borders that first called the Artavians the empire of the dead, when they came marching with endless legions dressed in black armor and carrying heavy shields, with wolves, eagles and skulls in their red standards, to spread peace through endless war.

Physically, the Artavians are shorter and darker than their "barbarian" neighbors. Closely trimmed hair is common in both men and women, specially in the legions. Long hair and long beards are for aristocrats, sibarites and the elderly. Some of the legions paint their faces white. It makes them look like ghosts or skeletons. Since this is sometimes seem within the cities, it might be fashion instead of intimidation.

But the Artavians do not worship Death itself. Well, not exactly. They make no statues of the Pale Lady and ask no blessings in Her name, although they acknowledge and respect Her infinite power.

Mostly, the Artavians worship the dead. They keep masks of their deceased ancestors in their walls, and burn incense to their memory. They study ancient philosophies of forgotten civilizations, and search for wisdom only in the words of the ancients. Their churches are full of cold, black and white statues, and littered with bones, while the sands of the arenas are constantly red and wet.

This doesn't make the Artavian savages. They avoid suffering, and frown against torture. Their highly advanced codes of laws commands that even traitors are killed quickly. They have no executioners or hangmen - a man condemned to death can, and will, be killed by any honest citizen.

If death isn't enough, the punishment is to send the soul quickly to Oblivion, where all will eventually go to disappear. The convict has his name removed from the records, their statues defaced, their memoirs burned and their houses destroyed. Even the relatives are forbidden to honor their names.

Sometimes, the punishment of Oblivion is cast upon a living person, turning it to a soulless non-being. Few survive the ordeal to start their lives in some distant nation.

Death is not welcome by the Artavians, but is usually not feared as well. Abortion, infanticide, suicide and euthanasia are widespread solutions to such problems as unwanted or malformed children, dishonor and senility.

The Artavians respect the vessels that carry their souls as respectable objects. They do not embalm or venerate them like the serpent worshipers, nor carve cups out of skulls like the barbarians of the Crimson Lands. Corpses are burned or buried, and seldom desecrated, because Artavians abhor disorder and disease. Ghosts and spirits are not part of everyday life, but accepted as natural. In one Artavian island, it is said that the dead come to dance with the living during carnival nights.

Still, the Artavians enjoy life like most other peoples. They like red wine dark bread. They like music, theater and sport, although only lasting works of sculpture and literature are seem as true art, since they transcend death. They are objective and pragmatic, which makes some of their art seem unsophisticated to other people. Their technology is fairly advanced, their tactics excellent, their logistics unsurpassed.

The Artavians enjoy sex and are not ashamed of worshiping fertility deities in the wild during the festivals. An individual life might not be sacred, but the power that creates life is. Marriage is a tool of politics and economics, not love, so both spouses are usually free to pursue their own goals.

And the Artavians seem to enjoy war. But not really.

There is glory in war, but not much happiness. There is also profit to be had. For all the talk of honor and empire, there are many who believe that Artavian generals are more interested in pillaging other peoples and taking slaves to further their own political status, and little else.

In fact, money, glory, honor and status are all means to one end the Artavians do not usually mention.

There is an old superstition that says that after all is said and done, and all the incense burned, and all the children and their children have forgotten the man that lived behind the cold mask in their halls, so that the spirit will leave all ties to the world... then the Pale Lady herself will stare unto your soul and, if she finds it worthy, will uncover Her eyes so you can stare back - if you have enough courage to avoid looking away - and get a glimpse of the meaning beyond it all, before you march into Oblivion.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: The Gods Have Spoken (5E)

Disclaimer: the publisher has sent me a review copy of the book (in PDF format).

The Gods Have Spoken is a 5th edition supplement with 28 new deities and everything that comes with it: multiple character options (specially for clerics and paladins), holy (and unholy) locations, factions, new monsters, magic items, and a few 13th Age-inspired house rules.


The book

The appearance of this book is puzzling, with a curious mix of good and bad stuff. Most of the art, for example, is very well done (similar to the cover) - but some pieces are repeated two or three (!) time throughout the book, sometimes in adjacent pages (!!). Since the books uses good quality B&W and stock art, I see no reason for this.

The same thing happens with the layout. The overall quality is very good: the PDF is fully bookmarked, with a decent index, table of contents, glossary, and multiple side-notes, but also with lots of empty space. The page borders are not particularly beautiful nor do they have anything to do with the subject of the book , but each chapter is color-coded, which is nice and useful.

In short, it looks like professional work left unfinished. Well, you can judge for yourself:


The setting

First of all, while the book doesn't described a complete setting (since this is not the subject), it does imply a fairly high-fantasy setting with dhampirs, gnomes, and probably some steampunk. It fits 5e assumed setting well.

The book describes 28 deities divided in three different pantheons: the Thirsty Gods (of Egyptian flavor among other things), the Old Gods (Celtic, Norse, Slavic, etc.) and the Bright Gods (who might be based on eastern philosophies, although I cannot say for sure).

The deities are all creative and unusual; you never really feel that a deity is just Thor or Bahamut with a different name. The way the pantheons are described is very organic and flavorful: religions change, influence one another, create superstitions and schisms, guide different sorts of behaviors, etc. All of these aspects are described within the book. This is both useful and inspiring, even if you want to use it to create your own religions.

The holy and unholy places of each pantheon are intirguing, with plenty of ideas about encounters, scenes, and adventure seeds.

Then we get the factions. Again, they are diverse and flavorful: not only sects, but artisan guilds, secret anarchist cults, musician warriors, preservers of the faith, etc. The mechanics involving these factions are an important part of the book and will be discussed in the next topic.

The book also has half a dozen monsters (a dozen if you count variations) and a few NPC allies. Fluff-wise, the monsters are very cool, with mythological roots tied to the exploits of the main deiteis. Mechanically speaking, they have a few twists that I'll discuss in the next section.

Finally we have a few magic items and a whole system to generate holy weapons. This part is short but looks extremely useful, even if you don't plan to use any of the deities in the book.


The system

The character options contained within the book are standard 5e: cleric domains, druid circles, paladin oaths, feats, and three backgrounds, one for each religion (well, actually, the three are variations of the acolyte background - and a bit of needless repetition there). A few warlock pacts would be a nice addition. Everything seems fitting and balanced, with a few exceptions. For example, you get some of this:

"You are proficient in survival if not already. As well, you double your proficiency bonus for all survival checks."

This is obviously more useful to someone who doesn't have the proficient already. Compare this to the feats in the Unearthed Arcana: Feats for Skills from Wizards of the Coast:

"You gain proficiency in the Acrobatics skill. If you are already proficient in the skill, you add double your proficiency bonus to checks you make with it."

I'm not sure this is on purpose, because some feats might be too weak without this "free expertise" (Reknarite Knight, for example).

Flavor-wise, the options are very good and fit well with the philosophies of the respective deities. Overall, they are good additions if you're looking for more religious character options.



The book also has an entire faction system, with suggestions on when and how the factions interact with the individual PCs, how characters get favors, information, potions, enmity, etc. This seems to te heavily inspired by 13th Age (it seems the book has an earlier 13th Age "sibling"), but is much more detailed than the 13th Age SRD in this aspect.

If you want to have formalized rules about factions, these will certainly be useful - I am tempted to use this myself for 5e, even if I was never convinced by 13th Age's "Icons". This is another part of the book that you can use even without the deities.

You can also get "allies" with this system, with various functions: some will heal the party, others will hinder enemies, and so on. The "damage sponge" is a peculiar type of NPC who will draw heat from enemies.; the "redshirts" of the setting. The concept of having someone to die for the PCs doesn't seem particularly heroic (for the PCs) or believable, but I can see how it might be useful. Unfortunately, their stat-blocks are strange; a third-tier damage sponge has +12 to hit (which is probably WAY better than the PCs they follow). So, yeah, they will basically look more competent than the PCs and then die first in battle. I'm not sure the players will appreciate.

Monsters also have a few unique features inspired by 13th Age: they get special attack if they roll a "natural" 16 or more on the dice, or if the result is even, etc. Another feature of 13th age I didn't particularly like for PCs, but makes sense for monsters.

In conclusion

The Gods Have Spoken aims to offer more options for PCs and also flesh out the "Religion" chapter of a full setting, and it does both competently. But the book is much more than that. Specially, the faction system has lots of cool rules that might prove useful to any 5e game (or any RPG at all, if you think about it). It is also a good way to test a few ideas of the 13th Age RPG within a 5e framework.

On the other hand, the  unfinished look of the layout and a few inconsistencies with the mechanics detract from the rest of the work, and the price ($17.45 as I write this) might be a bit exaggerated for the page count with this amount of white space.

Overall, I feel the book deserves a bit of extra work to become really good, as it shows great promise; however, it has plenty of interesting stuff already, specially if you want more options to play with factions, religions and deities in your 5e games.
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